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Concerning Civil Government Pt. 2: OT Examples of the Covenant between King and People

This is the second in a short series of posts examining the biblical conception of the civil magistrate. Last time we examined the origin of the Old Testament monarchy as found in Deuteronomy 17. This entry will focus on several examples of the covenant relationship between the king and his people as recorded in the Old Testament historical record. Future articles will look at numerous examples of civil disobedience in the OT narrative before moving to the New Testament to consider its discussion of these themes in light of our Old Testament study. For a very helpful and thorough, if dense, treatment of these topics, I highly recommend Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, published in 1644. Rutherford’s thought has greatly informed my own on this topic. A concise and very accessible summary is Michael A. Milton’s Foundations of a Moral Government.


Note at the outset that, though we will be looking at narrative passages today, we are not doing so for the purpose of formulating our doctrine. We should always be cautious about formulating doctrine from narrative texts alone. Rather, we examine these historical texts to test the hypothesis we developed in our previous discussion of Deut. 17. From that passage, we argued that the civil government is set up by the will of the people, under God. In other words, there exists an essential covenantal relationship between the governors and the governed. Does biblical history bear this out?

First, let’s define what a covenant is. Very basically, we might say that a covenant is a binding agreement between two parties, with accompanying stipulations or expectations for each party. The stipulations placed upon the people are obvious: submission and obedience to the sovereign according to the terms of the covenant. The question before us is, if such a covenant exists, what stipulations are placed upon the king? What happens if he does not meet those stipulations?

Explicit Examples of Such a Covenant

Second Kings 11:17 tells us about the installation of King Joash. There we read:

“Jehoiada [the priest] made a covenant between the LORD and the king [Joash] and people, that they should be the LORD’s people, and also between the king and the people.”

The covenant is explicitly between “the LORD and the king and people.”

Another clear reference to this type of covenant is found in 1 Chronicles 11:1-3. After King Saul’s death, the elders come to David at Hebron.

"Then all Israel gathered together to David at Hebron and said, 'Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, even when Saul was king, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the LORD your God said to you, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over my people Israel."' So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD. And they anointed David king over Israel, according to the word of the LORD by Samuel."

David makes a covenant with the elders before the God, and they anoint him king over Israel according to God’s word.

In at least these two instances, the covenant relationship between God, king, and people is explicitly stated.

Further Evidence That the Bible Sees a Covenant Relationship between Governor and Governed in the Enthronement Process of Kings

The process of enthroning a king is described several times in the history of Israel. When we look at how a king ascends the throne in the OT, we find there are two distinct components. First is an anointing, often by the prophet or a priest, symbolizing God's approval, or selection, of this person. There is also a second, distinct step: a ceremony or declaration of approval by the people. We see this pattern in several examples.

First Samuel 10 gives us the account of Saul becoming Israel’s first king. Verses 1 describes Samuel anointing Saul and declaring:

“Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel?”

However, Saul clearly continues as a private individual for some time after his anointing. It is not until the people declare "Long live the king!" in v. 24 that Saul actually becomes king.

The anointing of Israel’s next king follows a similar pattern. The Lord has sent Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem to find and anoint “a king among his sons” (1 Sam. 16:1). After Samuel examines and rejects Jesse’s older sons, Jesse:

"...sent and brought [David] in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward" (vv. 12-13).

The Lord directs Samuel to anoint David king. The Spirit of the Lord even rushes on David from that day forward. However, David has not yet fully assumed the throne. Jonathan, Saul’s son, recognizes that David’s reign is still future, even several chapters later in 1 Sam. 23, where he declares to David, "You shall be king" (v. 17).

In David’s saga, another indication that his anointing by Samuel has not completed his ascension to the throne is seen at the Cave of Engedi (1 Sam. 24). In that incident, David, who was anointed king back in chapter 16, won’t harm his lord, the Lord’s anointed (24:6). He even feels guilt for cutting off a piece of Saul’s garment (v. 5). We find another, nearly parallel, episode in 26:1-12 where David once again spares Saul’s life, arguing that it would be impossible to “put out his hand against the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless” (v. 9).

These last episodes raise an important question. If David is already anointed king, why is he afraid to harm Saul, the Lord's anointed? What is the difference between the two men? Haven’t both been anointed king by Samuel? The essential, and often overlooked, difference is that the people have not yet made David king. In David’s case, the enthronement process has not been completed and he cannot yet be king. It is not until 2 Samuel 2:4 that the people of Judah declare David their king:

“And the men of Judah came, and they anointed David king over the house of Judah.”

All the tribes of Israel follow suit a few chapters later in 5:1-6. The author of 2 Samuel dates David’s reign from the time of his coronation (vv. 4-5).

One other incident is worth considering. In 2 Chronicles 10, after the death of King Solomon, Rehoboam is in line for the throne. In that process, the people try to negotiate with Rehoboam for lower taxes before his coronation. Rehoboam flatly refuses. At that, the northern tribes revolt, leaving Rehoboam with only Judah. In the process of negotiating the covenant that will be established between the king and the people, agreement cannot be reached. The result is that the people reject Rehoboam as their king. They would not coronate him, and thus he was not their king.


The history of Israel’s monarchy makes it clear that, even in a society where prophets speak from God, there are two evident components of a man becoming king. First is an anointing by the spiritual leaders, indicating God's particular selection. However, another essential step is the will of the people as expressed by their coronation of the man as king. The implication is that the king rules by covenant with the people, and not by divine right alone. The histories of Saul and David, particularly, repeatedly demonstrate the significant authority wielded by the people.


Brennen Behimer (BA, Moody Bible Institute; MA, Wheaton College) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Stephanie and father of six.


Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.


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