This was written as an excursus for a chapter in the book The Words of the Covenant.
I am well aware of the view held by many respected scholars who believe that “the Kingdom of God” is the main theme of the Bible.1 But it must be admitted that it has not been an overarching theme of Genesis, and therefore of the first several thousand years of history. Though it may be rightly intimated from the image of God of Genesis 1:26-27, and the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28f., that man was to rule over the world for His Maker,2 the idea of a kingdom of God had not yet taken clear shape in the biblical text, especially from the time of the Fall.3
What we see, rather, is the story of fallen humanity moving away from their Creator and His program, and a providential counter-movement through Noah to Abram finalizing at some future point in a coming potentate from Judah. Hence, the kingdom theme emerges very gradually from the Hebrew narrative. Surely a more prominent theme has been the figure of the coming “Deliverer King”4 who is promised at the beginning and the end of the Book (Gen. 3:15; 49:8-10).
I am prepared to accept this thesis about the important status of the kingdom of God, but only if one allows certain objections to have their full weight. The fact is that there are several reasons which militate against this opinion, and it withstands them only on the strength of the totality of the Bible’s broader teaching about the Messiah, seen mainly through the prophetic writings in both Testaments. Let me unpack these objections below.
Firstly, one cannot brush over the fact that the Book of Genesis places little or no direct emphasis on the kingdom of God, and it is only through making the term do several chores at once that an argument from Genesis can be made. By “kingdom of God” are we to mean the universal rule of God over all He has made? If so then I respectfully point out that we are asserting a truism about providence which hardly requires an argument5: God is going to be God! Of course, what can be said about God in this sense cannot be said of man.
Secondly, we might agree with “the recent scholarly consensus [which] largely contends that the kingdom, while present in some sense, nevertheless still awaits a future consummation at the second coming of Jesus Christ, although the kingdom came in provisional fashion at his first advent.”6 That is how many people view it, but it requires us to read Genesis, and in fact the Old Testament, with the New Testament already in hand; something which my method here does not permit me to do.
Thirdly, if we define the kingdom of God as God’s reign over the earth and mankind in fellowship with us as vice-regents, we shall have to admit that such a kingdom is eschatological; that it is the goal of the Bible’s eschatology. Hence, teleology and eschatology move towards the realization of the kingdom of God. It has not been manifested yet in history. As Saucy observed,
God’s kingly rule is brought to the earth through the mediation of the kingdom of the Messiah… This pervasive mediatorial kingdom program, ultimately fulfilled through the reign of Christ, is the theme of Scripture and the unifying principle of all aspects of God’s work in history.7
With this I agree, and here the realization of the kingdom of God and the Creation Project are virtually synonymous. Here one encounters the “mediatorial” idea where God entrusts aspects of the nascent kingdom of God to chosen vessels (e.g. Abraham, David, etc.). I think this view has been successfully championed by men like Peters, McClain, Pentecost, Saucy, and Vlach. But in my opinion the actual kingdom of God, understood as “the earthly kingdom of Messiah” is proleptic; that is, seen in advance of its materialization. It is anticipated more than it is perceived. The Law of Moses and the throne of David provide concrete yet imperfect instances, not so much of Messiah’s kingdom, but rather of intensified illustrations of God’s universal reign in a fallen world. Understood this way it is rightly called “mediatorial.”
We find a theocracy, but not the one ushered in at the end of history by “he who comes to whom it belongs” (Gen. 49:10).8 If we wish to look for such a kingdom where God’s blessings are mediated to the nations, we will have to wait. However one sees it, “the earthly kingdom” will always suffer from contingency until the prophesied Messiah comes to rule.9
This is why I prefer to think of the arrival of the coming King as the telos of the Bible. It is the King who brings about the realization of the Kingdom of God. For example, in the time of Jesus, as we shall see, the kingdom was thought of mainly in terms of the future, not the present. The same is true in the Prophets, as I hope to show. The mediatorial kingdom view prior to the advent is at best a shadow of the actual kingdom of Messiah.10 The consummation of the mediatorial kingdom will be when it is “brought into conformity with God’s Universal Kingdom (see 1 Cor 15:24, 28).”11 It oughtn’t to surprise us that the idea emerges as the person of the Messiah comes more and more into focus in the progress of revelation.
King and Kingdom
The term “kingdom” occurs only twice in Genesis (Gen. 10:10; 20:9), and neither usage concerns the kingdom of God. Genesis 3:15 is at best a pale intimation of this kingdom, with nothing of any substance on the issue being broached to Noah or Abraham.12 What can be asserted is that God’s covenant with Abraham included the grant of a land in perpetuity to Abraham’s heirs (Gen. 15).
It is a similar story with the word “king” (melek). Although it is used many times in Genesis it is not employed to designate the coming Ruler over the future kingdom until Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:7. Added to this, and as was already noted above, Genesis 41:40 is the sole mention of “throne” in Genesis, and that is a reference to Pharaoh’s throne. So, to repeat, we find no real development of the kingdom of God concept in the Genesis period.13
Since a doctrine may be present without its being expressly mentioned, these facts do not force us to say that the kingdom of God is totally absent from Genesis, but the burden of proof lies squarely with those who hold that it is there. Alva McClain taught that the “mediatorial [kingdom] idea began to take concrete form historically in miniature” with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.14 By the term “mediatorial” he and others mean primarily “the rule of God through a divinely chosen representative”15 But his argument is rather slim. It takes shape through his gathering together the mostly messianic passages spread across the pages of the Hebrew Bible, not through finding the concept hidden in Genesis.16
In truth, the strongest testimony to the coming King is found on the lips of the aged Jacob right at the end of Genesis (Gen. 49:9-10 see above). Later, Numbers 24:7 contains the first clear indication of an “exalted” (nasa) future king. However, it is well that we remind ourselves that this important reference comes at least 2,500 years after Adam. The intervening period (which is only exacerbated by extending the chronologies in Genesis) contains no firmly developed doctrine of the kingdom of God. The teaching related to the subject is quite vague. There is barely a stir of progressive revelation regarding the kingdom of God in Genesis. What is strongly hinted at is the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, especially the Abrahamic, seem to require something like it once they are fulfilled.
Genesis ends with the enticing promise of a coming king. With the emergence of this Deliverer (Gen. 49:8-10), who could be the Conqueror Adam heard about (Gen. 3:15), we move forward to a more conspicuous theology of redemption in the Book of Exodus.
Finally, and incidentally, the actual phrase “kingdom of God” is first used in Mark 1:14-15 (cf. Lk. 4:43), where it is a compact way to refer to the future eschatological kingdom.17 This gathers together the various covenantal predictions in the Old Testament in an instantly recognizable term.
1 E.g. George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, Vol. 1, 29-31; J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 11; Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 278; Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 25-26. Among those who believe the kingdom is not the central theme of Scripture, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Promise-Plan of God, 24-25.
2 E.g. J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 34
3 It is noteworthy that even the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch does not contain an entry for “King” or “kingdom” within its many pages.
4 Though Genesis 1 – 3 does not.
5 This is a job better left to Systematic Theology.
6 Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 101. Riddlebarger is correct when he asserts that “the kingdom of God has been interpreted in different ways depending largely on the presuppositions of the interpreter.” (Ibid, 100). Dispensationalists of different stripes tend to coalesce around the teleological principle of a coming earthly kingdom. See e.g., Mark L. Bailey, “Dispensational Definitions of the Kingdom,” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands: Biblical and Leadership Studies in Honor of Donald K. Campbell, ed. Charles H. Dyer and Roy B. Zuck, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 201-221. The influential scholar George Eldon Ladd defines the Kingdom of God as the restoration of God’s reign on earth through the history of redemption. See e.g., George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 83-84.
7 Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 28.
8 Exodus 19:5-6, where the word “kingdom” is first connected to the rule of God, contains a strong prophetic element. Even McClain admits, “This is no ordinary kingdom where men will rule upon earth in their own right, but rather a kingdom “unto me,” that is, unto Jehovah.” – Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 61.
9 Stanley D. Toussaint, “The Contingency of the Kingdom,” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, 227, 234-237.
10 Hence, in the Preface to his study of the subject, after saying that “the concept of the kingdom of God involves, in a real sense, the total message of the Bible,” John Bright goes on to observe that this is so “at least if we may view it through the eyes of the New Testament faith.” – John Bright, The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning For the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953), 7.
11 Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 56. I agree, but where can one find conformity to God’s universal kingdom other than in Heaven?
12 In its context Genesis 22:18 is too ambiguous to be a proof-text for the kingdom of God.
13 The idea of a coming King is developed, especially in the four major poems in the Pentateuch. But once more the onus is upon the culmination of the messianic hope. See John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 36-37.
14 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 50. Emphasis added.
15 Ibid, 41.
16 Ibid, 147-160. Some of his reasoning in regards to “a final world supremacy” via the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis looks deductive rather than inductive (Ibid, 155).
17 This will be picked up in Volume Two.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.