Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 3, Number 53, December 31 to January 6, 2002



by Rev. Russell B. Smith

It came on Wednesday. The anticipation had been building for the past year. It is an ambitious undertaking — filming one of the most popular works of fiction of the 20th century. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, that masterpiece of contemporary literature, is one that continues to stir readers today. On Wednesday, the first installment of three movies opened to rave reviews. The books have been re-released, and now children (and parents) who cut their teeth on Harry Potter can graduate to something a bit weightier, a bit spiritual. Tolkien was a devout Christian — he was a friend of C.S. Lewis and helped bring him to Christ. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien infuses themes from Christian theology into his fantasy world. In Tolkien's world of Middle Earth, we see the epic struggle of good versus evil. We see the temptations that souls struggle under, we see angels disguised as elves. We see the virtues of heroism and loyalty and self-sacrifice. And grace — believe it or not, we do see grace in the valleys and plains and caves of Middle Earth. I heartily commend the books to you for your pleasure reading and edification. One of the key elements in the book is that the land of Middle Earth is torn with the struggle of a good but declining society against a rising tide of evil and chaos .The good society had been established by a series of great kings — the kings of Numenor, as they are called in the book. But the kings disappeared and the kingdom fragmented, and selfish people rose up in the land seeking their own good rather than the good of the kingdom. And in this state of decay, evil sensed an opportunity to destroy goodness. In the story, we see that chaos rose because there was no king in the land. And when the king returns, he's able to put evil and chaos on the run. The job of the king is to stand against the chaos — the chaos that comes from marauders without and lawbreakers within. For the past three weeks, we've been talking about the mediators that God set up to intercede between him and his chosen people. Remember that Moses was the original mediator, and God gave the law to him — then in chapters 17 and 18 of Deuteronomy, we saw the provision for three types of mediators: prophets, who are the truth-tellers, priests, who are the sin-cleansers, and the kings, who we will see are the heart-keepers.

This week's passage is one of the few passages in the five books of Moses that explicitly deals with a king. Notice that it doesn't detail all the functions of a king. This is not a constitution that we're dealing with. Rather, this passage simply gives some guidelines for being ruler of Israel.

The king must ultimately be loyal to Israel alone. Verses 16 and 17 sound odd until you understand the machinations of Ancient Near Eastern politics. Trading horses for ground troops was a common way to solidify alliances. For instance, if Israel were to forge an alliance with Egypt, the scenario in mind in this passage, then Israel might send ground troops to be stationed in Egypt while Egypt sent cavalry to be stationed in Israel, thus linking the fortunes of the two nations. God does not want Israel to link its fortunes with any of the pagan nations — He will bless and prosper Israel in his own way. Similarly, the giving of wives often-sealed alliances. An Israelite king could take an Egyptian princess as a wife to solidify a military alliance. In this case, God does not want the introduction of the worship practices of pagan lands into his people. Therefore, we can see that the don'ts associated with kingship deal with keeping the king, and thus the nation, in a right relationship with God. So this first section is mainly negative.

But positively, the king is told to keep the Law, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) before him all the days of his life. Why? " that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left." In other words, through daily exposure to the scriptures, he is to learn to love God by obedience and to love his neighbor by humility. Yes, the king led the military and leader and handled justice and diplomacy. All of these administrative details were a part of the job, but the most important part of the job, according to Scripture, was to stay immersed in Scripture so that he never forgot his role as a functionary of God and equal to his fellow man. This is in radical contrast to kingship in the Ancient Near East that almost always set the king up as a deity, lording his divine status over his people. Not so the Israelites. Their king was God's servant and their equal.

Of course, you know the pattern. The kings start off doing their job pretty well, but they are sinful human beings and stray from their roles. Read through the books of I and II Kings and see the stories of the different kings of Israel and Judah. Each king has an evaluation at the end of his story that reads something like this "He reigned for 30 years and did what was right in the eyes of the Lord" or "He reigned for 40 years and did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord." The kings were always judged by how well they obeyed the word of the Lord as found in the 5 books of Moses.

Eventually the kings became so bad that the entire land was corrupt. The prophet Micah gives a picture of the corruption of the kings of Israel in 3:1-4. He says that God pronounces destruction over all Israel because of the corrupt leadership in the land. As the king goes, so goes the land. I love the legend of king Arthur. One of the lesser known elements of the legend is the character of the fisher king, a king that Percival meets in his search for the Holy Grail. This king has received a wound that will not heal, and because of his hurt, his whole land mourns. The medieval writers understood this truth — as the king goes, so goes the land. The king is wounded, the land is wounded, the king is corrupt, the land is corrupt. Because the kings of Israel went bad, the whole land went bad. But God made provision by promising a perfect king. Isaiah promises a coming time of enlightenment and liberation (9:2-5) and he connects that time with the birth of a king (9:6-7). That is the king whose birth we celebrate on Tuesday. That same king is the prophet and priest that we've been longing for these past few weeks. But that king, Jesus, is unlike any other king that ever walked the earth. His power is not in armies and weapons. His power is not in politics and wealth. His power lies in his sacrifice of himself. Isaiah knew, almost 600 years before Christ's birth, Isaiah knew that the coming king would bleed. In chapter 53 of Isaiah's prophecy, we read this about the coming king. Read 53:1- 12 to understand how Isaiah understood this coming divine Ruler.

Isaiah knew the truth: to have the manger, you've got to have the cross. There's no Christmas without a Good Friday and Easter to follow. What a strange king indeed.

And now that Jesus is our king, he doesn't rule with proclamations and armies. He rules in our hearts through the agency of the Holy Spirit. As a prophet, he proclaims truth to us, as priest he makes sacrifice for our breaking the law, but as king, he applies the truth to us through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in response to the Word proclaimed. Let's be honest — have you ever been in the midst of something and been confronted with a powerful feeling of "You ought not do this" or have you ever felt a powerful orientation that "Yes, this is the thing you must do"? Have you ever had a reading from scripture strike you in a powerful way that you'd never felt before? Have you ever had the words of scripture come to your mind out of no-where? Pay attention to those moments: they may be Christ exercising his kingship over your heart. Christ's kingship over us is worked out in our response to His Word. The only way we can know if those nudgings are indeed of the King or of someone more diabolical is if we know the Word. I can't tell you how many people I know who ask what God's will for their life is. Should I go to school, should I marry this person? What job should I take? What should I do in retirement? The answer is this — learn what God's will is as revealed in Scripture. Learn to know his voice. And then you'll learn how to discern all these other things as well.

Christ is our prophet, the truth teller, our priest, the sin-cleanser, and our king, the heart keeper. The story that has captivated the world for two millennia is celebrated during the Advent season. In this season and all others, come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the new-born King!