The Most High Is a Great King (Part I)

An Old Testament Overview

In the Old and New Testaments (OT and NT), the terms for “high” or “height” have a wide semantic range. For example, the verb גָּבַהּ (gabah) describes the heavens as “higher” than the earth (Isaiah 55:9), YHWH (Yahweh) being “exalted” in judgment (Isaiah 5:16), and the daughters of Zion, who are “haughty” (Isaiah 3:16). The idea of “height” is so basic to human existence in a spatial-material world, it is often taken for granted. Nevertheless, the biblical writers draw on it regularly in developing important themes.

Height is connected to God’s holiness (Isaiah 57:15) and to his temple (Zephaniah 3:11). Repeatedly in the Psalms, he is to be “exalted” (Psalm 57:5). The Law, Prophets, and Writings, as well as the Epistles, are full of condemnations of pride, and the exaltation of God. This theme is too broad to be fully explored here. However, one specific arena in which the language of “height” and its opposing sub-categories—God’s majesty, and man’s pride—is put on full display is in the realm of kings. “YHWH Most High is a great king” (Psalm 47:2), and from start to finish the story of the Bible contains human kings who aspire to the same high position. This article (Part I) traces this particular relationship in the OT. Part II (coming next week) will cover the NT.

Torah: The Law[1]

The “high” language is not used much in the opening chapters of Genesis, but themes that will take shape later in the canonical development are present in seed-form. Adam is not explicitly called a “king,” but he is made “in the image of God” in order to “have dominion” over all the rest of creation (Gen 1:26). The word “pride” is not used when Adam and Eve sin and take the fruit, but their temptation is to “be like God” (3:5), a phrase that later prophets will pick up to describe the pride explicitly.

In Genesis 14, there is a showdown between nine kings. When Lot is taken captive, Abram and his servants defeat the opposing kings and bring him back. Melchizedek comes to meet him, a priest of “God Most High” (14:18), and blesses him, declaring that “God Most High” is the one “Who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (14:20). Defeating enemy kings, especially strong and mighty ones, is something that the Most High does for his people.

Central to the Exodus narrative is the showdown between YHWH and Pharaoh, king of Egypt. The Song by the Sea, after Israel has passed through safely, and God defeated Pharaoh and his army, declares the majestic height of YHWH. The repeated refrain is “I will sing to YHWH, for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:1, 21). This phrase, “triumphed gloriously,” is an infinitive absolute of emphasis, גָּאָה גָאֹה (gaōh ga’ah), or “risen risingly,” “exalted exaltingly.” In contrast to YHWH’s high and glorious triumph, Pharaoh has been “cast into the sea” (15:4). He and his army “sank to the bottom like a stone” (15:5). In the greatness of his “excellence” (גְּאוֹנְךָ) YHWH “threw down” those who “rose against” him (15:7). Pharaoh “sank like lead” in the water (15:10), but YHWH is “glorious (נֶאְדָּר; nedar) in holiness” (15:11). YHWH’s defeat of his enemies is a “glorious triumph” a “high exaltedness” as he casts them down and redeems his people.

Deuteronomy recounts some of Israel’s victories on their way to the Promised Land. Among the enemy kings was Og, king of Bashan (Deut 3:1). Og was high in physical stature (a “remnant of the giants”), and the dimensions of his enormous bed are given (3:11). Similarly, his cities were fortified with “high walls, gates and bars” (3:5). Though such a high and lofty enemy king is a formidable foe, YHWH delivered him into their hands (3:3).

Israel’s own future king was to be subject to a special laws — he must not multiply horses, or go back to Egypt, or multiply wives or gold or silver for himself (17:16–17) but rather must write for himself a copy of the Torah, Law (17:18). In doing so, the king must learn to “fear YHWH,” so that “his heart may not be lifted (רוּם; rûm) above his brethren” (17:19–20). YHWH intends for the king of his people to maintain a proper relationship to their ultimate King, himself. By reading and meditating on the Torah, the earthly king would imbibe passages like Leviticus 26:19, which warns against pride, or Deuteronomy 8, which teaches the various steps that lead to it. Israel’s king must not be proud, or YHWH will set himself against them as he did against the Confederation of Four, against Pharaoh, and against Og.

Prophets

Former Prophets[2]

The Former Prophets begin with the song of a lowly woman, who has been lifted up by YHWH. In the middle of her song, Hannah declares that:

YHWH makes poor and makes rich; He brings low (מַשְׁפִּיל) and lifts up (מְרוֹמֵם). He raises the poor from the dust, And lifts the beggar from the ash heap, To set them among princesAnd make them inherit a throne of glory. (1 Samuel 2:7–8)

YHWH sets up kings and puts them down, and he can—and does(!)—lift up kings from the lowest of places. The final stanza contains a messianic hint: “He will give strength to his king, and exalt (וְיָרֵם) the horn of his anointed” (2:10).

The early stages of Israel’s monarchy include significant interplay over the issue of “height.” It is noted of Saul that besides being more handsome, he was “taller” than any of the people, such that “there is no one like him among all the people” (1 Samuel 9:2; 10:23). When YHWH sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the next king, he was drawn to the outward appearance of David’s brothers, but YHWH corrected him: “do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature … man looks on the outward appearance, but YHWH looks on the heart” (16:7). Instead, Samuel was to anoint the youngest and lowliest, brother, who wasn’t even invited to the event.

Israel’s main enemy at this time was the Philistines, who had as their champion — a giant — whose height is given specifically: six cubits and span (1 Samuel 17:4). Israel’s own tall king, Saul, was too afraid to fight against this giant, but the lowly youth, David, had confidence in YHWH: “He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37). 

Indeed, YHWH came through to deliver his people from the giant, not by means of Saul, but David, thus demonstrating his own power and greatness. Later, Saul would turn against David, and the king of Israel became the enemy of YHWH’s true anointed. YHWH would deliver David from Saul (2 Samuel 22:1) and David praises YHWH because he saves “the humble,” but his eyes are on “the haughty (רָמִים)” to bring them down (22:28).

When the kingdom passes to Solomon, he seems to be Israel’s ideal king. It was Solomon who built the temple for YHWH, and brought Israel to the height of its dominion. Nevertheless, Solomon would later turn away from YHWH. While the specific words for “pride” are not used explicitly to describe his downfall, all of the imagery from Deuteronomy 17 is used for him. After describing his magnificence in terms of his gold (1 Kgs 10:14–17), his throne (10:18–20), and his imports (21–25), thus his multiplying of gold and silver, it then describes his multiplying of horses (10:26–27), from Egypt (10:28–29), and his many foreign wives who turned his heart away from YHWH (11:1–8). Every detail from Deuteronomy 17 is listed in Solomon’s life without stating outright that his “heart was lifted up.”  After Solomon, the kingdom of Israel comes under judgment, becoming divided, and no king is ever as glorious as Solomon was.

Latter Prophets[3]

Isaiah 2:10–21 contains the fullest treatment of the interplay between God’s majesty and man’s pride of any chapter in the OT. Because of idolatry (2:8), YHWH will come, and men are commanded to hide “from the terror of YHWH, and the glory of his majesty (גְּאֹנוֹ)” (2:10).

The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and YHWH alone shall be exalted in that day. (2:11)

The “day of YHWH of Hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up—and it shall be brought low” (2:12). This includes tall trees (2:13), high mountains and hills (2:14), every high tower and fortified wall (2:15), even the ships of Tarshish, (whose masts may have been made from such tall trees) (2:16). The refrain of vv. 10–11 is repeated again. Instead of high places, men will flee to the lowest place they can find — caves and holes of the rocks — from “the terror of YHWH, and the glory of his majesty” (2:19). They will cast away their idols, and flee to low places from “the terror of YHWH, and the glory of his majesty” (2:21).

In Isaiah’s famous vision, he sees the Lord, “sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple” (6:1). It is in this exalted state that he is ascribed as “Holy, holy, holy, is YHWH of Hosts” (6:3). This passage combines YHWH’s reign as king, his high and loftiness, and his utter holiness. John says that this vision is of Jesus, Israel’s future king (John 12:41).

The king of Assyria is condemned briefly for his “arrogant heart” and “haughty looks” (10:12), but more extensive treatment is given to the king of Babylon. The “pomp” of the king of Babylon is brought down to Sheol (14:10), because he said in his heart,

I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High. (14:13–14)

YHWH will not tolerate any rivals to his supreme kingship, and so this proud king will be “brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit” (14:15).

The last part of the book of Isaiah speaks of YHWH’s Servant: “Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high” (52:13). This is in spite of the fact that “His visage is marred more than any man” (52:14). Without using the same words, Isaiah 53 elaborates on these two halves of the Servant’s life, his “marring” and his “exaltation” as he has “no form or comeliness” (53:2) and is smitten by God (53:4), and yet ends up having his days prolonged (53:10) and dividing the spoil with the strong (53:12) — something a king does when he has conquered his enemies in battle.

Ezekiel includes prophecies against several kings. In another famous passage, the prince of Tyre is rebuked because his heart was “lifted up,” to say “I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods” (28:2). His heart was lifted up because of his riches (28:5), but he will be thrown down to the Pit (28:8). He is compared to the “covering cherub” who dwelled on the “holy mountain of God” (28:14), whose heart was “lifted up because of your beauty” and who “corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor” (28:17). Therefore, YHWH destroyed him (28:16) and cast him to the ground (28:17). This judgment is so that all “shall know that I am YHWH” (28:22, 23, 24, 26). 

In a prophecy against Pharaoh, “king of Egypt” (31:2), Egypt and Assyria are compared to a cedar tree of “high stature” (31:3) whose “height was exalted above all the trees of the field” (31:5). “No tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. I made it beautiful with a multitude of branches, so that all the trees of Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God” (31:9). But, “its heart was lifted up in its height” (31:10) and so it was “cut down” (31:12). All this, “so that no trees by the waters may ever again exalt themselves for their height” (31:14). He sums up, speaking to Pharaoh: “To which of the trees in Eden will you then be likened in glory and greatness? Yet you shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the depths of the earth” (31:18).

Writings[4]

Many of the Psalms, besides being written by Israel’s model king, David, also speak of her future King, the Son of David, as well as YHWH’s own high and exalted reign. Psalm 93 declares, simply, “YHWH reigns, He is clothed with majesty (גֵּאוּת)” (93:1). Psalm 99 elaborates this a little bit more:

YHWH reigns; let the peoples tremble! He dwells between the cherubim; let the earth be moved! YHWH is great in Zion, and He is high above all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name—He is holy. (99:1–3)

The clash between YHWH and the kings of the earth, and its relationship to the future king is seen in Psalm 2. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against YHWH and against His Anointed” (2:3). Nevertheless, YHWH is high above them; he “sits in the heavens” (2:4). “I have set my King on My holy hill of Zion” (2:6). Indeed, the nations will be given as an inheritance for this “son” (2:7–8), and YHWH’s victory of the kings of the earth will take place through the agency of this anointed one as he “breaks them with a rod of iron” and dashes them to pieces “like a potter’s vessel” (2:9).

Psalm 110 is usually paired with Psalm 2 because of its messianic content. “YHWH said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies a footstool … Rule in the midst of your enemies!’” (110:1–2). This “Lord” has been exalted to the right hand of YHWH, and is high above his enemies, their being his “footstool.” These enemies that will be crushed are “kings” who will be “executed in the day of his wrath” (110:5).

Another Psalm ties exaltation with anointing. “I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found My servant David; With My holy oil I have anointed him” (89:19–20). YHWH declares that “in My name his horn shall be exalted” (89:24) and “I will make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (89:27). A covenant is made with this anointed and exalted one (89:28). “His seed I will make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven” (89:29).

The book of Daniel contains a memorable incident regarding a proud king. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a vision of a tree whose “height reached to the heavens” (4:11), which was then chopped down (4:13), “in order that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (4:17). In spite of Daniel’s warning (4:26), Nebuchadnezzar lives out his vision. Walking in his palace, he said “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (4:31).

Immediately, judgment fell, and he lost his mind and lived like a beast for seven years, until he knew “that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (4:32). Mercifully, he comes to his senses after the seven years, and “blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever for his dominion is an everlasting dominion and his kingdom is from generation to generation” (4:34). He concludes, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride, He is able to put down” (4:36).     

The Hebrew OT canon closes with 1–2 Chronicles, in which the failure of Judah’s kings is displayed, and by implication, their need for a better king. Some of the best of Judah’s kings were infected with this core problem of pride. King Uzziah “did what was right in the sight of YHWH” (26:4), but later in life, “when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction” thinking he could enter the temple and burn incense there (26:16). Therefore, YHWH “struck him” with leprosy (26:20).

Hezekiah, too, “did what was right in the sight of YHWH” (29:2), but later in his reign, his heart was also “lifted up” and judgment was promised upon Judah and Jerusalem (32:25). Nevertheless, he “humbled himself for the pride of his heart” and YHWH did not send judgment during his lifetime (32:26). 

The Writings, as with the rest of the OT, emphatically exalt YHWH as the supreme King over the whole earth, and describes in song and in Chaldean prose, his determined opposition to the pride of human kings. Israel’s kings are not exempt from this, but the hints are getting stronger and more clear: YHWH will raise up his anointed one to be king, and through this king, he will bring his reign to bear on all the nations of the earth.


Editor Note: Next week, see Part II on this great King in the New Testament.





[1] The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament, commonly attributed to Moses as its author and is termed as “the Law.” It includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy.

[2] The Former Prophets of the Hebrew OT include: Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings.

[3] The Latter Prophets of the Hebrew OT include: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve (i.e., Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

[4] The Writings in the Hebrew OT include: Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah-Ezra, and 1–2 Chronicles.