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The Biblical Covenants, Part 5a: The Davidic Covenant's Context

Because of the links between God’s covenant with David and his ultimate seed Jesus as the Messiah (Matt. 1:1, 20; Lk. 1:32; 3:31), there has been much study of the Davidic Covenant (hereafter referred to as DC). A major aspect of the DC is to link Israel’s Messiah with the office of king. In addition to this link, we must also understand what was expected of Israel’s king and also (a) demonstrate how the DC is connected with the covenants already given and (b) set the stage for the final covenant to come. As we might expect at this stage, the DC does not appear in a vacuum but is found within a specific context. Once that context is understood, we may move on to examine the covenant itself and then pursue the expectation of its fulfillment.


While the DC is presented and cut in 2 Sam. 12, the expectation for this kingly covenant finds its roots very early in Scripture. Setting the historical context for this covenant is certainly necessary, but only after we consider the biblical and theological precedent for the covenant.


Biblical Precedent

Perhaps we take too much for granted when speaking of Messiah as a king. Regardless of the numerous errant views of Jesus’ kingdom, nearly all Christians agree that Jesus has a kingdom and that He rules as head over that kingdom as a king. But how does the Bible set us up for this expectation? The following survey demonstrates a tight connection between (1) the expectation of a global king, (2) the coming seed of the woman, and (3) the nation of Israel.


The Need for a Seed King (Gen. 1-3)

There is no need to re-examine the first gospel (Gen. 3:15) and its surrounding texts in this survey, yet we will benefit from rehearsing some of those points previously made. First, that Adam was created to be Yhwh’s vassal king upon the earth whereby he was commanded to rule (רָדה) and subdue (כבשׁ) the earth as Yhwh’s representative and image bearer (Gen. 1:26-28). Adam was created to serve as king of the world, ruling Yhwh’s kingdom. Adam’s subsequent rebellion not only disqualified him from such an office, but also brought the entire creation under the dominion/rule of the serpent. Yhwh’s terrestrial kingdom is in rebellion and must be taken back by force. Thus, the promise made to the serpent himself of a seed to come who will gain victory of him through a contest of arms (Gen. 3:15). The anticipation of the seed of the woman is an anticipation of this coming warrior king. Yet, there is a hint that this coming king will not gain this victory unscathed. Satan’s head will certainly be stove in, yet not before causing the seed’s heal to be bruised. The fact that Yhwh reiterated the Adamic command to populate the earth to Noah yet withheld the command to rule and subdue the earth (Gen. 9:1) indicates that the kingly role does not belong with fallen man, but with the one who will come from the woman. Only a king can undo and reverse the failures of Adam, the first king.


The Promise of a Seed King (Gen. 17, 49; Num. 24)

The development of the covenants brings with it explicit kingly language. When Yhwh confirmed the AC and provided the covenant’s sign of circumcision (Gen. 17), He confirmed what was already implicitly stated; namely, that Abraham and Sarah would be the head of a dynastic line. They would provide kings (vv. 6, 16) of nations. This kingly language is greatly specified when Jacob/Israel, Abraham’s grandson, blesses his twelve sons who will make up the twelve tribes of Israel. When blessing his son Judah, Israel states that Judah will provide the kingly line: “The scepter will never depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; until the one to whom it belongs comes[1] and the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10). Not only does this statement specifically state that Israel’s kings will come from the tribe of Judah, but also that (1) a specific king is in mind and (2) that this king will rule over peoples outside of Israel.[2]

The language of Israel’s king line from Judah in Gen. 49 is combined with the ancient promise of Yhwh’s serpent crushing seed in Balaam’s prophecy recorded in Num. 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, and shall crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth.” Here the language of “scepter” and “crushing” heads combines the promise of Israel’s kingly line with the ultimate expected seed of the woman. The dominion/rule of this coming one, who will come at a future date, will be executed over the whole world. The sons of Sheth/Seth indicate all of humanity because the line of Seth produced Noah from whom all present humanity springs.[3] Thus, the future seed king who will crush Satan will be an Israelite from Judah’s tribe and will rule over a global kingdom.


The Expectations of Israel’s Kings (Deut. 17)

Because Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests under the MC (Ex. 19:6) so that Yhwh might be their God (Gen. 17:7, 8) and they thus be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3), Israel’s kingship is important. If the nation is to display what it looks like to be Yhwh’s people then their king displays what to expect from the future seed king. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 contain the prerequisites, prohibitions, and exhortations for and concerning Israel’s kings.

The initial prerequisites for Israel’s king first deal with the timing. The kingdom awaits the future conquest and habitation of the land (v. 14). There can be no king without a physical kingdom. Second, the king must be God’s choice rather than the people’s choice (v. 15a). The king will be divinely appointed rather than democratically elected. Third, the king must be an Israelite (v. 15b). It is forbidden for any man who is a foreigner to reign as king over Israel.

Once God has appointed His king, three prohibitions are laid down to guard this king and Israel. First, the king is prohibited from multiplying horses directly or from importing horses from Egypt (v. 16). Yhwh is not anti-equine, but rather is prohibiting Israel’s king from (1) placing his faith in military might[4] and (2) from trusting in Egypt’s military might as a potential ally. The reasons for this prohibition are two-fold. (a) Yhwh personally fights Israel’s battles (Ex. 14:14; 15:1-4) and thus they need not trust in the might of their army. (b) The link between Egypt and Israel was severed by the exodus and must never be reforged. They must never return to Egypt physically, emotionally, or spiritually. The second prohibition for the king regards his personal life; i.e., his wives (v. 17a). The practice of multiple marriages among royalty was and is quite common as a means of forging alliances. Israel has no need of foreign alliances because Yhwh is their strength. By multiplying wives, the king runs the risk of having a divided heart, becoming unsure where his allegiance lies. The final prohibition prevents the king from using the throne for personal wealth (v. 17b). The throne is not a tool for personal advancement or personal glory but is a seat of service unto God and for the people.

Once chosen and enthroned, the king is given a specific exhortation: to make a personal copy of this law upon a scroll (אֶת־מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל־סֵפֶר) in the presence of the Levitical priests (v. 18). The reference to “this law” certainly refers to this specific text regarding the king and his conduct but is better understood as referring to the entire book that we call “Deuteronomy”.[5] This copy was thus the “official” manuscript of the law or “instruction” (תּוֹרָה) to guide the king during his reign. The reigning king is thus to be the most ardent reader of Torah[6] and thereby the most knowledgeable and wise person in Israel. The king is designed to be the ideal Israelite. By each subsequent king making his own personal copy upon his coronation, the kings reaffirm their vassal status and responsibilities under their Suzerain lord, Yhwh.[7] Thus, while the roots of Israel’s king extend from the first gospel and through the AC, the picture of Israel’s king is found in the MC.[8] The purpose of this exercise is to maintain the heart of Israel’s king, to ensure that he wanders neither to the right nor the left or exalt himself above his fellow Israelites (vv. 19-20). After all, it is the heart of man that has yet to be dealt with.


The unfolding of divine revelation (1) presents a theological precedent of a king, (2) links that king with the anticipated victorious seed of the woman, (3) traces this king as an Israelite from Judah’s tribe, (4) foretells that this king will reign over Israel and the world, and (5) presents this king as a model Israelite whose heart is directed by Yhwh’s perfect picture of His relationship with Israel.


Historical Precedent (1 Sam. 8-16)

The four-hundred odd years between Moses’ death and David’s reign were turbulent, frustrating, cyclical, and none too surprising. Under Joshua, Moses’ successor, God brought Israel into the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Yet, due to rebellion and faithlessness, Israel did not conquer the entire land, nor did they put its inhabitants to the sword as they were commanded. Thus, a four-hundred-year long cycle of disobedience, judgment via foreign oppression, repentance, and rest via divine deliverance consumes the gap between the conquest and the monarchy. It is in just such a time of distress from foreign enemies that Israel demands a king to rule over them.


Israel’s Desire for a King (1 Sam. 8)

At the time of 1 Samuel chapter 8, Samuel, a prophet and Levitical priest presided as judge over Israel. When the elders of Israel come to Samuel at his home in Ramah (v. 4 ff.), they not only ask for a king, but for a king to replace both Samuel and Yhwh. Their desire to replace/retire Samuel is quite explicit in the text: “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (v. 5 NASB). Their desire to replace/reject Yhwh is not missed by Yhwh Himself, since He can read and know the hearts of men: “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (v. 7 NASB). Yet even the people’s own words betray that they understand what they’re asking for: “Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, ‘No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles’” (vv. 19-20 NASB). It has always been Yhwh who went before Israel and fought their battles. Yet, Israel no longer desires Yhwh as their king, rejects Yhwh’s priests, and demands a king that is not like Yhwh.

It is essential that we understand what is going on. The people are not asking for a king in accordance with Deut. 17. Yhwh’s design for a king works in tandem with the priesthood who judge (Deut. 17:2-13) and under Yhwh as a holy example for the people and a singular point of contact for Yhwh. Rather, what is being suggested is a king who will (1) usurp the judgement role of the priesthood and (2) replace Yhwh’s active role as Israel’s warrior king. This is a deviation from the MC which affectively amounts to a declaration of independence. The phrase “like the nations” permeates this request, signaling the people’s desire to be part of rather than apart from the pagan nations. Therefore, Yhwh grants Israel a king according to their own heart.


Saul, Israel’s Choice of King (1 Sam. 9-15)

Because Israel desired a king like the other nations and unlike Yhwh, God obliged them by ordering Samuel to anoint Saul, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, as Israel’s first king. Regarding his qualifications, Saul had only one: his physical appearance (9:2). While his father Kish is called a mighty man of valor (v. 1), no such description is attached to Saul. Yet, he was a good-looking tall young man and that must count for something. At least he looked the part. From the outside, the careful reader of Scripture should know that Saul is not going to work out. He is a Benjamite, not from Judah. Therefore, we know that Saul will have no connection to the seed king to come. If that is so, one might wonder why bother? To this we might add his general incompetence and indecision (14:24, 36-46), his irreverence and disobedience (13:8-14; 15:1-23), as well as his guiding character trait of cowardice (10:20-22; 13:7; 17:11). In seeking a king like the other nations, Israel (1) ended up with something worse (a king worse than most other nations) and (2) provided a portrait of themselves. Saul, while a worthless king, was an accurate representative of the nation as they were. If the seed to come was going to be an Israelite king, then the kings must be an accurate representative of the seed. Saul’s replacement cannot come too quickly.


David, Yhwh’s Choice of King (1 Sam. 16-17)

With Yhwh’s rejection of Saul and his line (15:23), Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse, a son of Judah to seek out the next king of Israel (16:1-23). Jesse’s firstborn son, Eliab had all the attributes of Saul. He was tall, handsome, and utterly devoid of a godly heart (v. 7). Yhwh had already selected His king, whose chief characteristic was a heart that loved Him. Thus, the boy David is called in from the pasture and anointed king. Here is Yhwh’s anointed or Messiah (מָשִׁיחָ). The young David will prove a worthy choice when he, not the sitting king nor any of Israel’s mighty men, slays the blaspheming pagan from the sea[9] by crushing his head with a stone (17:20-49). This is a man, like Phinehas, who was zealous with God’s zeal and acted in faith of the coming and crushing seed of the woman. He acted so that the earth may know that Yhwh was God and that He alone is Israel’s deliverer, her warrior king (vv. 46-47). Not only does David come from the line designated for the kings, but he is also a man after Yhwh ’s own heart. With this man, Yhwh will cut a covenant.


To be continued in the next post…



[1] Regarding this translation vs. “until Shiloh comes” see Kaiser, p. 51.

[2] Vlach, p. 90.

[3] Kaiser, p. 56.

[4] The horse and chariot were the ancient equivalent to the main battle tank as a mobile and speedy fighting platform. Much of Egypt’s military success was due to their use of the chariot and their specifically trained horses. When they weren’t deploying these horses, they exported them for profit.

[5] Michael Grisanti, Deuteronomy, Revised Edition, vol. 2, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p. 647-8.

[6] J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy, vol. 5, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2002), p. 295.

[7] E. H. Merril, Deuteronomy, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1994), p. 266.

[8] It is also noteworthy that Israel’s king and Israel’s priests are intertwined in this coronation ceremony. Because Israel is to be a kingdom of priests and because the king must be crowned via his personal copy of the law in the presence of the priests, Israel’s future as God’s people is co-dependent upon both the priesthood and the throne. Thus, God’s covenant with Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13) is linked with Israel’s royal house.

[9] The Philistines were a seafaring people, likely from Crete, who began raiding the coastlands of Israel during the time of the judges before colonizing the coastline.

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