Of kings and their divinity and its meanings

So much has been said about the divine right of kings. People from all walks of life have believed or disbelieve that kings have been appointed by God to rule over nations. To some, this view is not tainted by whether the king is just or unjust. In eSwatini, the royal family has laid claim to the divine mandate of the monarch. In this article today I will investigate whether this is justified.

The widespread idea of the sacral king is traced ultimately to Central Asia, India, China, and Europe. This doctrine of kingship appears not as a local invention but an importation from the steppes of Asia (Hugh Nibley). In the Ancient Near Eastern world, kings of Israel, Babylon, Egypt and other nations claimed their right to rule to originate from God or gods.

In that world, “the authority of both the laws and the judges is generally grounded in religious terms, with legal codes ‘pretending to supernatural origin,’…In many such systems a god or goddess of justice inspires the laws and exacts punishment in the event of violations” (Douglas A. Knight).

Key factors characterized the king in Ancient Near East. The king is just, righteous, fears God and is an advocate and defender of truth, order, and equality in his kingdom. In Israel the laws, as shown in the Hebrew Bible, originate from her God and they presumably embody or promote divine values (Douglas A. Knight). Israel did not always have the office of kingship though.

After the period of patriarchs and during the epoch of judges, the Hebrews wanted a king to judge them and fight their battles against their neighbours (1 Samuel 8:20) as 'in those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was  right in his own eyes' Judges 17:6).

When the institution of the king was introduced, the Hebrew king, as customary with neighboring states, was linked to the dynastic system. But “while every judge had been called by God, there was no need for a corresponding election of every single king, provided that he belonged to the elected dynasty,” (Ze’ev W. Falk).

Deuteronomy 17:20 seems to allude to the possibility of hereditary succession for obedient kings (Casey D. Elledge). Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 contains the limitation of kingship. It says, for example, that the king shall not “multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold,” (v.17) and his duty is to read the law and “learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.” (v.19). Humility must be part of his governing scepter in “that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom …” (v.20).

King Mswati 111 of Eswatini

In Israel, God elected a king through the agency of his prophets. From the inception of the Hebrew monarchy, prophets were intimately involved and were principal mechanism of accountability (Keith Bodner). The king’s installation into office was by divine election, on condition that he remain loyal to God and keep his laws (2 Samuel 23:5; Psalms 132:12).

Should the king violate this covenant and not heed the warning of God’s prophets, a suitable king would then be chosen and the unworthy one be assumed to have been rejected by God [1 Samuel 15; Judges 9:56]. The king defined his obligation to the nation which fulfilled the function of a modern constitution (2 Samuels 3:21; 5:3; 2 Chronicles 23:3). The contours of his duties or responsibilities are set out in Psalms 72 and 101. The underlying theme of the king’s duty is the administration of justice and “the corollary of this was that the fertility and prosperity of the nation was thus ensured (Keith W. Whitelam).”

This suggest that the righteousness of the king and execution of his duties in this manner had an ecological impact on the land and the people. But when the wicked [king] beareth rule, the people mourn and suffer all forms of misfortune (Proverbs 29:2).

The economy goes bad, famine, pestilences and sicknesses of every kind engulf the land. Jehoshaphat epitomizes the ideal king commissioned by God with a divine mandate to administer justice in the land. He organized his judicial officers and sets the standard for judicial responsibility and he charged them, saying 'shall ye do in the fear of the Lord, faithfully, and with a perfect heart' (2Chronicles 19:9).

In this way, a just judicial system was established and maintained. The king represented the people before God and represented God before the people. We learn here that Kingship did not originally confer divine status upon the leader.

Even in Israel, the idea of a divine king was none existent. Israel’s monarch was subject to the rule of law and not above it. In Mesopotamia, the king was a judge, even a supreme judge of the people. If any of his subjects would suffer injustice from the lower court, he had a right to petition the king for a redress (John Welch).

To them, the idea of law or justice is also projected beyond the temporal sphere to the divine. Law was viewed as an embodiment of eternal verities. The king in executing a divinely ordained mandate meant that the wishes of the divine realm were fulfilled on the land. Like the Hebrew kingship, he was not above the law but subject to its disciplines.

Even the study of the Egyptian monarch turn to reveal similar concepts like justice, truth and order. In Hammurabi’s realm, the Babylonian king’s royal commission was “to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak, to rise like the sun over the black-headed (people), and to light up the land”(Keith W. Whitelam).

From the foregoing, it is clear that even in ancient Near East kings were not divine but were executing a mandate of the Divine (God) or gods– establishing justice in the land by respecting the rights of his people and not suppressing them. He was under the rule of law.

His was more of a duty than a right, or better put, he had a right-duty. If his ambition made him to venture away from this divine duty, he was rejected by God (1 Samuel 15). The absurdity of the matter is when a monarch like ours in eSwatini then claims divine right but the duty (to be righteous and execute justice) that comes with the right is neglected.