It’s odd that the Bible’s good news is yet another kingdom (Mark 1:14). The track record of kingdoms is awful.
Biblical history had told the story of kingdom after kingdom which had turned out to be disasters. A way to outline biblical history is to tell the story of seven kingdoms, and most of the story is bloody and tragic. Yet, thankfully, the end of the story makes up for the dark chapters. The final kingdom is the good news the rest of the story made us long for.
In order of appearance, here are the seven main kingdoms narrated in biblical history:
Kingdom of Egypt
The first major kingdom we meet in biblical history is Egypt. True, there were times in ancient history when Egypt was friendly to God’s chosen people, the Jews. Yet for centuries in early Jewish history, the relationship was one of cruelty. The Jewish people had migrated to Egypt in order to survive a famine, but when they stayed and grew in number, the Egyptian king feared their potential and made them slaves. To further neutralize the threat, the king instituted gender-based infanticide, where it became official policy to dump baby boys in the Nile River. The image that comes to mind when we think about the ancient kingdom of Egypt?
Babies in the river.
Kingdom of Israel
After centuries of slavery, God miraculously delivered the Jewish people out of Egypt. Now no longer slaves, they were led through the wilderness to the land God had promised their forefathers. This promised land, once called Canaan, was a sliver of land at the intersection of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. When the Jews entered the land, Jewish leaders called “judges” led them at first, followed soon after by Jewish kings.
With the Jews being God’s chosen people, it would seem safe to assume that this kingdom would be the ideal. Yet most of the Jewish kingdom saw one disaster after another. Because of infighting, the kingdom split in two after just three kings. In both North and South, kings often led the people into following other gods. God sent his prophets to both of these now-separate nations, yet most of the time, the kings persecuted these prophets and did not listen. Here’s the unfortunate image that comes to mind when we think about the ancient kingdom of Israel:
Prophets in the dungeon.
Kingdom of Babylon
The divided kingdom of Israel, North and South, both collectively rejected the God of their forefathers and followed other gods. As a result, both were conquered by other kingdoms. First, the kingdom of Assyria took over the North. Then, the kingdom of Babylon took over the South, destroying their temple and burning Jerusalem to the ground.
Thanks to prophets like Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, the Bible gives us a close-up view of the kingdom of Babylon, including events that took place there. The prophet Daniel also narrates visions from God that give us heaven’s view of the kingdom of Babylon. According to one vision, Babylon is the “head of gold” on a grand statue. According to another vision, Babylon is a proud lion with the wings of an eagle.
As with most kingdoms, Babylon was obsessed with its own glory, and on one occasion Babylon punished three Jews for not bowing before a massive statue by throwing the three into a fiery furnace. Though God protected them and they survived, the image that comes to mind when remembering the kingdom of Babylon is this:
God-followers in the furnace.
Kingdom of Persia
Within decades of conquering a crescent from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, the kingdom of Babylon was overtaken by the kingdom of the Medes and Persians. As a whole, this kingdom was friendlier to the Jewish people than the Babylonians had been, for example, allowing them to return home and rebuild the homeland which Babylon had destroyed. According to one vision, the vision of the grand statue, this kingdom was the statue’s chest and arms of silver.
Yet, another vision pictured it as a flesh-eating bear. The most memorable story of the Jews under Persian rule unfolded when a Persian law made it illegal to pray to anyone other than the king for thirty days. When the prophet Daniel didn’t stop praying to God throughout the thirty days, his fellow administrators ratted on him, and he was sentenced to be thrown into a den of lions where he would be torn apart and eaten alive. Although God protected Daniel from death, the image that most comes to mind when we remember this kingdom is this:
God-followers in the lions’ den.
Kingdom of Greece
Amid an ongoing rivalry, the kingdom of Greece eventually beat the kingdom of Persia, and the Macedonian Alexander the Great went on to expand Greek civilization from Egypt to parts of India. In the book of Daniel’s vision of the grand statue, this kingdom was pictured as belly and thighs made of bronze.
Another vision pictured this kingdom as a leopard with four heads and four wings. After Alexander died, his kingdom was divided among his four generals. Two of these generals are worth mentioning because they factor into the history of the Jewish people: Ptolemy over Egypt and Seleucus over West Asia. The Jewish people in Israel were caught between these two divisions of the Greek empire until eventually the Seleucids gained the upper hand and proved to be tyrants.
One Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the “God Manifest”), persecuted the Jews and forced Hellenization (Greek culture) on them so heavily that the Jews rebelled in what is known as the Maccabean Revolt. This war for independence was successful and is celebrated by Jews today in the holiday called Hanukkah.
Yet the horrors of the Seleucid reign was forever branded in Jewish memory, most notably in an act of unthinkable sacrilege: Antiochus IV Epiphanes entered the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the altar. For the ancient Jewish people, this kingdom is most encapsulated in this image:
Pig on the altar.
Kingdom of Rome
After a century or so of independence thanks to the Maccabean Revolt, it was becoming clear that even an independent nation ruled by descendants of the original revolutionaries (the Maccabees) wasn’t a guarantee of peace or civility. Bitter infighting between two Maccabee brothers led both brothers to ask Rome to intervene. The emerging empire of Rome was glad to oblige, and soon the Jewish people were under the kingdom of Rome.
Daniel’s visions had pictured Rome as the most vicious kingdom of all: It was legs of iron built for crushing opponents. It was a terrifying, powerful beast with iron teeth and ten horns. This kingdom would advance by crushing, trampling, and devouring anything in its path.
The kingdom of Rome commonly made use of a form of execution which combined torture and humiliation: crucifixion. Although there are many atrocities associated with this kingdom, for students of biblical history, the image that most comes to mind for Rome is this:
Messiah on the cross.
Kingdom of God
The kingdom of Rome would go on to devastate the Jews even more brutally than Babylon had centuries before. In the early AD centuries, there were two significant Jewish rebellions against Rome. After the first (AD 66-70), Rome destroyed Jerusalem, including its temple, and after the second (AD 132-136), Rome scattered Jews out of their homeland, removed all Jewish influence, and re-established the country in a pagan mold.
Rome would also try to crush a new movement that began out of Judaism, a movement that started with a carpenter-turned-teacher named Jesus of Nazareth. Comparing meek bands of Jesus’ disciples with Rome’s legions, it seems that the odds should have been in Rome’s favor. Yet they weren’t—and it shouldn’t surprise the student of biblical history.
It had long been prophesied that a new kingdom was on its way which would outlast and overpower even Rome.
After describing the vision of the grand statue, Daniel went onto narrate a twist:
While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth. (Dan. 2:34-35)
Daniel’s vision which depicted the four kingdoms as four beasts ends similarly:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
It was this kingdom that Jesus excitedly announced in his first recorded words in the Gospel of Mark:
“The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14)
It might seem like we should be tired by now of kingdoms. But then we learn what this new kingdom is like: A kingdom ruled by love and holiness? A realm where rejects find a home of grace and compassion? A King who sacrifices his life to save former enemies? Sign me up.
By now, we are exhausted and disillusioned by kingdoms which promise peace and yet bring things like this:
- Babies in the river
- Prophets in the dungeon
- God-followers in the furnace
- God-followers in the lions’ den
- Pig on the altar
- Messiah on the cross
What makes the kingdom of God the kingdom we’ve longed for is that, although countless kings have come before and demanded our worship, we’ve finally found a King worthy of it. The vision we get of his kingdom, in contrast to the insatiable treasure-gobbling and self-glorifying of former kingdoms, is bizarre and beautiful:
“A Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne….And they sang a new song, saying, ‘You are worthy…’”
The one we can trust is on the throne. The one who loves us reigns over us. Jesus is King. What a relief! For the image that best fits the kingdom of God is this:
Lamb on the throne.