The ancient Near Eastern kings (Psalm 45)

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Illustration: Depiction of Jehu, King of Israel, giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria

Israel’s plea for a king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5) testifies to how common this forn of government was in the ancient Near East. Discharging judicial, military and sacral responsibilities along with political  obligations, the king was the fulcrum of state administration and ideology. Psalm 45, a royal wedding song, alludes to several aspects of kingship. First, the Israelite king modelled ang guaranteed justice and righteousness (45:4, 7). In comparison, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi proclaimed the king’s divinely ordained role as legal authority. Moreover, 45:3-5 describe the king’s role as the military commander-in-chief, a theme amply and ferociously demonstrated by Assyrian rulers who recounted military exploits in artistic reliefs and written annals.

In antiquity religion permeated royal ideology. Rulers were expected to provide offerings, build and maintain temples and participate in ritual feasts. Yet the institution of kingship was not necessarily identical from one nation to another; the nature of the king’s duties differed from nation to nation. According to the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, when king Amenemet I died he became united with the sun god. This notion of deification of the king and the divine nature of his office are reflected in many Egyptian texts. On the other hand, although Mesopotamians occasionally depicted their king as a deity, they tended to construe him as a divine representative. The king played such a critical role in the Mesopotamians’ annual New Year’s festival that, during the Neo-Babylonian period, the feast was not celebrated due to his absence.

Divine rule and human kingship were also intertwined in Israel (45:6). The Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7) and several psalms (e.g. Psalm 2, 89) describe a unique father-son relationship between Yahweh and His anointed. Yahweh, however, placed numerous constraints and moral requirements upon the king, and this is quite different from what we see elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Prophets like Elijah and Nathan openly criticized the king when he engaged in wrong practices; Deuteronomy 17:16 severely limited his military procurements, and even his sacred duties were carefully defined (2 Chronicles 26:16-20).


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