IN 21ST-CENTURY Britain, monarchy and stability go hand in hand. With one brief interval, a monarch has ruled over, first, England, and latterly the UK, for the best part of a millennium. Stability is a significant factor in the appeal of monarchy, although no British monarch has reigned as long as our current sovereign. There are relatively few citizens left who remember the time before her reign. This may suggest to us that the link between monarchic sovereignty and political stability is a causal one, even inevitable.
Stability through time brings valuable benefits. If something does not change, we regard it as dependable and, above all, predictable. In Bible days, life was far less predictable than it is now. We can rely on Her Majesty’s Government to act as a safety net in times of plague, or war, or natural disaster. Back then, it was not so.
In ancient Israel, the monarchy was a source of glory, but it was also an icon of spiritual failure. God’s people had the Lord himself as their shepherd. But they wanted to be like everyone else and have a human being to rule over them. So, like a wise father, he gave them what they clamoured for, and let them find out for themselves how it worked out. Saul was not a success. David brought both achievements and failures. After Solomon, the nation fragmented, and parts of it were lost for ever.
It is not a good thing to split a kingdom. The Old Testament bears witness to this. The tragedy of King Lear also explores the danger of splintering a whole into pieces. One nation, it seems, is better off when it has one ruler. That was certainly one factor motivating Constantine to end the system that divided the Roman Empire between four rulers, and to make himself sole ruler of his world (although it would be naïve not to see his desire for absolute power as an equal influence on his actions).
We ask first what these readings reveal about the kingship of Christ. It is natural to ask next about the relationship between heavenly and earthly kingship. This should equip us better to understand God’s kingdom. None of this is going to be uncontroversial in an era when we pay lip-service, at least, to equality rather than hierarchy.
The quality associated with the kingship of Christ which the readings set front and centre is that of lasting through time. Again and again, the texts speak of what is “everlasting”, “never-ending”, “eternal, or “for ever”. Twice, John of Patmos reveals that God the Father is the one who “is and was and is to come” — another aspect of the eternity that is ascribed to Jesus Christ in Hebrews 13.8, which declares that he “is the same yesterday and today and for ever”.
In his excellent commentary on Revelation, John Sweet points out that a closer rendering of 1.4 would be “the coming one”, indicating that God is dynamic, not static. This would link up to v.7, where he is “coming with the clouds”. Incidentally, clouds are the proper way for God to travel, as we know from Exodus 13.21.
The kingship of Christ has not stopped earthly monarchs from doing stupid, selfish, or ruinous things with the kingdoms entrusted to them — not even the ones who were Christians. From Constantine on, the temptation has been there to slide too easily between what is good for the nation and what suits oneself, either financially, or in terms of satisfying vanity or wounded pride. All too often, as G. K. Chesterton put it, “our earthly rulers falter,” with the result that “their people drift and die.”
Daniel was a prophet, but also a visionary. What he sees in the night is the coming of one who was appointed a king for ever (Psalm 110.4). This Ancient One is surrounded by fire — the element that accompanies deity, being a source of both light and purification.
The closest Jesus comes to declaring himself a king is in John 18.36. He cannot have “my kingdom” if he is not a king. But, with breathtaking verbal dexterity, he avoids stating that kingship as a political fact. No doubt this is because he knew that Pilate — a Roman, working for an emperor who was king in all but name — could never understand the powerless power of the Lamb of God.