King of Heaven and Earth
By: Dr. Juergen Buehler, ICEJ President
“The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice!”
This declaration opens Psalm 97—one of the enthronement Psalms. For the people of ancient Israel, there was never any doubt that their God was King of all the earth. More than any other book of the Bible, the Psalms highlight God’s kingly rule.
The psalmists saw two main facets of His rule. First, Psalm 11:4 states: “The LORD’S throne is in heaven” (see also Psalm 103:19; 123:1). This is why in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is also referred to as the kingdom of heaven. In rabbinic understanding, heaven is often a synonym for God Himself. While it indeed is a parallel concept to the “kingdom of God” as used in the other Gospels, it conveys an important aspect of God’s kingdom that was powerfully expressed by Daniel: “Heaven rules!” (4:26).
At the same time, this heavenly kingdom expresses itself on Earth. Most “kingdom” references in the Psalms and elsewhere describe the earthly expanse and impact of God’s kingdom. The Lord is “the King of all the earth,” proclaimed the psalmist, and He “reigns over the nations” (Psalm 47:6–8). He also is the “King of kings,” meaning the supreme ruling power who appoints and dethrones rulers of this world (Daniel 2:21; 1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14). Then He is the “great King above all gods,” defining Him as the supreme power over all religious systems of the world (Psalm 95:3). His rule is a mere consequence of God being the Creator and possessor of heaven and Earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness,” declared King David (Psalm 24:1). God as King is thus the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent ruler of the world.
The Revelation of God’s Kingdom
What puzzles people, however, is the age-old question, “Where is God?” It is a mystery as old as mankind that God’s kingdom so often can’t be clearly seen amid global or personal trauma. If God indeed rules, why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? (Psalm 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1; 1 Peter 3:14).
God’s rule surely shows itself in often subtle and patient ways. As my late grandmother liked to say, “God’s mills are milling slowly.” Jesus Himself declared that His kingdom often can’t be seen: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20–21 ESV).
Yet at the same time, His kingdom often breaks through in powerful ways visible to everyone. Moses saw it manifested when he confronted Pharaoh in Egypt; Daniel saw the rule of heaven at work even in pagan Babylon; and we see it today in the reestablishment of the nation of Israel.
The first revelation about the nature of God’s kingdom can be seen in the story of Abraham encountering Melchizedek. Here we have the appearance of this mysterious king-priest to Abraham, who was known as the King of Salem (later Jerusalem) and Priest of the Most High God. This combination of priest and king, of earthly rule executed under the authority of God, was always a hallmark of the kingdom of God. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He gave this very calling to the Jewish people: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
But how did this rule of heaven manifest itself? Deuteronomy 33:2–5 describes it in a surprising way:
The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints; from His right hand came a fiery law for them. Yes, He loves the people; all His saints are in Your hand; they sit down at Your feet; everyone receives Your words. Moses commanded a law for us, a heritage of the congregation of Jacob. And He was King in Jeshurun, when the leaders of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.
There is a remarkable sequence of events that conclude in the ESV with, “Thus the LORD became king in Jesurun” (v. 5).
When the Lord came down on Mount Sinai in fire, it was like a heavenly visitation. The people sat at the foot of the mountain and listened as God spoke. The Lord spoke to them with an audible voice but also through His servant Moses. They were sitting at His hand and at His feet, received direction from God, and followed the steps of the Lord.
The Kingdom Manifested
God speaking and directing His people is right at the heart of the kingdom of God. His kingdom manifested as Israel heard and followed God’s instruction as a corporate body and as individuals. Jesus explained the importance of this personal intimacy with God to Martha, who was too busy focusing just on serving her master. But Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to His words, and thus she chose the better part. The kingdom of God manifests itself through a listening people of God who are ready to act upon the words received from Him.
God never intended Israel to have an earthly king. In the book of Samuel, we read about the great catastrophe when Israel wanted to be like the nations around them. Israel found it too burdensome to deal with an invisible God as King, who spoke to His people only through prophets and judges. They wanted a king who was one of them, who gave daily leadership to the tasks at hand, not needing to wait and trust in God. But His response was strong:
But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8:6–7)
It is a character trait of humans that we all too often seek security and strength in human leadership. This is not only true on a political level but often in churches. There is a sense of security that comes from strong leaders, which allows man to hand over responsibility to other men. It is easier to hide behind a huge crowd than to take responsibility and be transparent in a smaller church setting. God’s kingdom means everyone sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His voice and acting upon what they hear.
Saul became Israel’s first king. He was busy following his own agenda and struggled in waiting on God. He only half-heartedly followed God’s instruction and was busy building memorials to himself. It was no longer God who ruled but a flawed man.
A Heart Like His
I have often wondered what quality made David “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). The original Hebrew words here (ish kelevavo) suggest that God is looking for a man whose heart is like His heart. The apostle Paul refers to this story in his sermon in Antioch: “[God] raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will’” (Acts 13:22).
David was a man who possessed an attitude that in many ways reflected God’s heart, and most importantly, he would lead Israel ready to do God’s will and not follow his own agenda. His rule reflected the reality of the prayer the Lord gave us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). When David became king, the kingdom of God returned to Israel. God ruled once again over His people through David.
On a recent visit to Fiji, we paid a courtesy stopover to the president of this lovely island nation, Mr. Ratu Wiliame Maivalili Katonivere. While in his office, he made a profound statement: “Every day, I pray that this room is the footstool of God for the good of the people.” I was enormously touched to hear a modern-day national leader following the example of King David, desiring to direct his steps and that of his nation according to the will of God.
In May we celebrated the feast of Pentecost. According to Jewish tradition, this festival commemorates the days when the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, and God came down in fire on the mountain and gave His commandments to Israel. This was the day when “God became King in Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5). Israel was sitting at His hand, and God was directing their ways.
On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, we read that something similar happened. In the Upper Room, God did not come down on a mountain of stone, but tongues of fire settled on each of the 120 believers, and God gave every one of them utterance to speak and praise Him in other tongues. It was God Himself who, through His Spirit, settled upon them and filled each believer. The miracle that began that day was that God was writing His commandments on the hearts of the people of God, transforming them into people “after God’s own heart” whose hearts are like His.
The prophet Jeremiah prophesied about this day in Jeremiah 31. It is the first time God speaks of making a new covenant (b’rit hadasha) with the people of Israel:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (vv. 31–34; see also Ezekiel 36:24ff)
God Himself will write His law on their hearts—that is, He will transform their hearts into hearts that desire to do the will of God so they are a people like King David. And the result, since each individual believer will have their own flame, will be a personal Mount Sinai for everyone to receive the laws in their hearts. There will be no need for imposing leadership, but each one will know God “from the least one to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34).
In many ways, the giving of the Holy Spirit to the people of God—both Jew and gentile who experience this divine transforming power—would be like being born again. It is an exchange of hearts of stone for hearts of flesh, shaped and used by God.
This means that when people are transformed by God’s Spirit and come under the rule of His Spirit, they will bring with them God’s kingdom into any situation. And the rule of heaven can manifest itself here on earth now. It is Christ in us, the hope of glory! This promise was given repeatedly to Israel, and it is indeed “the next great thing” to be expected in Israel. Paul says this will even be a release of God’s resurrection power in the earth.
And, of course, the day will come when the Lord Jesus, the King of kings Himself, will come judging the nations in righteousness: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth’” (Jeremiah 23:5).
Until that day, we are called to live as people of the kingdom of God, bringing His kingdom presence into the world around us. May God help us in this great endeavor.