A sovereign who has authority to rule over others. Jehovah is the supreme King, possessing unlimited power and authority. The kings of Judah were subordinate kings who represented His sovereignty on earth. Like them, Jesus Christ is a subordinate King, but with far greater power than those earthly kings, because Jehovah has put him in the position of ruling the universe. (Php 2:9-11) Jesus Christ has therefore been made “King of kings and Lord of lords.”—Re 19:16; see JESUS CHRIST; KINGDOM.
Early Kings. Among earthly rulers a king is a male sovereign invested with supreme authority over a city, a tribe, a nation, or an empire, and he usually rules for life. Nimrod, a descendant of Ham, was the first human king of Bible record. He ruled over a kingdom that included several cities in Mesopotamia. He was a rebel against Jehovah’s sovereignty.—Ge 10:6, 8-10.
Canaan and the countries surrounding it had kings in the days of Abraham, long before the Israelites did. (Ge 14:1-9) Kings are also found from the earliest times among the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites, Syrians, Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Many of these kings ruled over limited domains such as a city-state. Adoni-bezek, for example, boasted that he had conquered 70 of such kings.—Jg 1:7.
The first human king noted in the Bible as being righteous was Melchizedek, king-priest of Salem. (Ge 14:18) Aside from Jesus Christ, who is King and High Priest combined, Melchizedek is the only God-approved ruler to have held both offices. The apostle Paul points out that God used Melchizedek as a typical representation of Christ. (Heb 7:1-3; 8:1, 6) No other faithful servant of God, not even Noah, attempted to be a king, and God appointed none of them until Saul was anointed at His direction.
Israelite Kings. Initially Jehovah ruled Israel as an invisible King through various agencies, first through Moses and later through human Judges from Othniel to Samson. (Jg 8:23; 1Sa 12:12) Eventually the Israelites clamored for a king in order to be like the nations around them. (1Sa 8:5-8, 19) Under the legal provision embodied in the Law covenant for a divinely appointed human king, Jehovah appointed Saul of the tribe of Benjamin through the prophet Samuel. (De 17:14-20; 1Sa 9:15, 16; 10:21, 24) Because of disobedience and presumptuousness, Saul lost Jehovah’s favor and the opportunity to provide a dynasty of kings. (1Sa 13:1-14; 15:22-28) Turning then to the tribe of Judah, Jehovah selected David the son of Jesse to be the next king of Israel. (1Sa 16:13; 17:12) For faithfully supporting Jehovah’s worship and laws, David was privileged to establish a dynasty of kings. (2Sa 7:15, 16) The Israelites reached a peak of prosperity under the reign of Solomon, a son of David.—1Ki 4:25; 2Ch 1:15.
During the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the nation was split into two kingdoms. The first king of the northern, ten-tribe kingdom, generally spoken of as Israel, was Jeroboam the son of Nebat of the tribe of Ephraim. (1Ki 11:26; 12:20) Disobediently he turned the worship of his people to golden calves. For this sin he came under Jehovah’s disfavor. (1Ki 14:10, 16) A total of 20 kings ruled in the northern kingdom from 997 to 740 B.C.E., beginning with Jeroboam and ending with Hoshea the son of Elah. In the southern kingdom, Judah, 19 kings reigned from 997 to 607 B.C.E., beginning with Rehoboam and ending with Zedekiah. (Athaliah, a usurper of the throne and not a king, is not counted.)—See BURIAL, BURIAL PLACES; CHRONOLOGY.
Divinely appointed representatives. Jehovah appointed the kings of his people, and they were to act as his royal agents, sitting, not on their own thrones, but on “the throne of the kingship of Jehovah,” that is, as representatives of his theocratic rule. (1Ch 28:5; 29:23) Contrary to the practice of some Oriental peoples in those days, the nation of Israel did not deify their kings. All the kings of Judah were regarded as being the anointed ones of Jehovah, although the record does not specifically state that each individual king was literally anointed with oil when he ascended the throne. Literal anointing oil is recorded as being used when a new dynasty was established, when the throne was disputed in David’s old age as well as in the days of Jehoash, and when an older son was passed over for a younger son at the time Jehoahaz was enthroned. (1Sa 10:1; 16:13; 1Ki 1:39; 2Ki 11:12; 23:30, 31, 34, 36) It seems likely, nevertheless, that such anointing was the regular practice.
The king of Judah was chief administrator of national affairs, as a shepherd of the people. (Ps 78:70-72) He generally took the lead in battle. (1Sa 8:20; 2Sa 21:17; 1Ki 22:29-33) He also acted as the higher court in the judiciary, except that the high priest would consult Jehovah for decisions on some matters of state and on certain matters in which the decision was very difficult or evidence at the mouth of witnesses was insufficient.—1Ki 3:16-28.
Kingly restraints. The restraints placed upon the king in the exercise of his authority were his own fear of God, the law of God, which he was bound to obey, and the persuasive influence of the prophets and the priests as well as the advisory counsel of the older men. He was required to write for himself a copy of the Law and to read in it all the days of his life. (De 17:18, 19) He was, as Jehovah’s special servant and representative, responsible to Jehovah. There were, sad to relate, many Judean kings who broke through these restraints and ruled despotically and wickedly.—1Sa 22:12, 13, 17-19; 1Ki 12:12-16; 2Ch 33:9.
Religious leader. Although the king was prevented by law from being a priest, he was supposed to be the chief nonpriestly supporter of Jehovah’s worship. At times the king blessed the nation in Jehovah’s name and represented the people in prayer. (2Sa 6:18; 1Ki 8:14, 22, 54, 55) Besides being responsible for safeguarding the religious life of the people from idolatrous intrusions, he had the authority to dismiss an unfaithful high priest, as King Solomon did when High Priest Abiathar supported Adonijah’s seditious attempt to take the throne.—1Ki 1:7; 2:27.
Wives and property. The marriage and family customs of the Judean kings included the practice of having a plurality of wives and concubines, although the Law stipulated that the king was not to multiply wives to himself. (De 17:17) The concubines were considered to be crown property and were passed on to the successor to the throne along with the rights and property of the king. To marry or take possession of one of the deceased king’s concubines was tantamount to publishing a claim to the throne. Hence, Absalom’s having relations with the concubines of his father, King David, and Adonijah’s requesting as wife Abishag, David’s nurse and companion in his old age, were equivalent to claims on the throne. (2Sa 16:21, 22; 1Ki 2:15-17, 22) These were treasonable acts.
Aside from the king’s personal estate, spoils of war, and gifts (1Ch 18:10), other sources of revenue were developed. These included special taxation of the produce of the land for the royal table, tribute from subjugated kingdoms, toll on traveling merchants passing through the land, and commercial ventures, such as the trading fleets of Solomon.—1Ki 4:7, 27, 28; 9:26-28; 10:14, 15.
Instability of Northern Kingdom. In the northern kingdom of Israel the principle of hereditary succession was observed except when it was interfered with by assassination or revolt. The practice of false religion kept the northern kingdom in a constant state of unrest that contributed to frequent assassinations of its kings and usurpation of the throne. Only two dynasties lasted more than two generations, those of Omri and Jehu. Not being under the Davidic kingdom covenant, none of the kings of the northern kingdom sat on “the throne of the kingship of Jehovah” as the anointed of Jehovah.—1Ch 28:5.
Gentile Kings and Subordinate Kings. Babylonian kings were officially consecrated as monarchs over all the Babylonian Empire by grasping the hand of the golden image of Marduk. This was done by Cyrus the Great in order to gain control over the Babylonian Empire without having to conquer the entire empire by military action.
Other kings came to their thrones through appointment by a higher king, such as the one who conquered the territory. It was a frequent practice for kings to rule conquered domains through tributary native kings of lesser rank. By this process Herod the Great became a tributary king of Rome over Judea (Mt 2:1), and Aretas the king of the Nabataeans was confirmed by Rome in his tributary kingdom.—2Co 11:32.
Non-Israelite kings were less accessible to their subjects than those who ruled God’s people. The Israelite kings evidently mingled quite freely with their people. The Gentile kings were often very remote. To enter the inner court of the Persian king without express permission automatically made that one liable to death unless the king gave his specific approval by extending his scepter, as was done with Esther. (Es 4:11, 16) The Roman emperor, however, was available for audience on the appeal of a Roman citizen from a decision made by a lower judge, but only after a process of going through many lower officials.—Ac 25:11, 12.