PMW 2020-005 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is my final installment on the issue of “the kings of the earth” in Revelation. Hopefully, this rather thorough study has been helpful.
In the NT we discover the apostolic church engaging in the pesher method of interpretation of OT passages. So not only does the contemporary Qumran community engage in such, but also the apostolic community of Christianity. I will focus on one particularly important OT passage whose contemporizing interpretation will be relevant to our current study.
Acts 4 Illustration
In Ac 4 we read of the arrest and jailing of Peter and John for preaching Jesus in Jerusalem (4:2–3). The two apostles are taken before the Sanhedrin (4:15) which included “their rulers and elders and scribes . . . and Annas the high priest . . . and Caiaphas and John Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent” (4:5–6). Peter addresses these men collectively as “rulers and elders of the people” (4:8). The Sanhedrin warned Peter and John “to speak no more to any man in this name” (4:17) then “threatened them further” and let them go (4:21).
After their release the Apostles returned to the body of believers and “reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them” (Ac 4:23). Upon hearing these things the church spontaneously erupted in unison praise: “they lifted up their voices to God with one accord” (4:24). In their praise response they instinctively cite Psalm 2:1–2. Witherington cites Gaventa who observes that “this incident marks the beginning of the church’s response to persecution” (Witherington 1998: 200).
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Thus, as formal persecution from the rulers of Israel begins, the followers of Christ turn to Psalm 2 for their comfort and encouragement. Indeed, they provide a pesher treatment of Psalm 2, applying it to themselves (Witherington 1998: 200). As Bock (2007: 205) notes, the church is “thinking theologically” regarding their circumstances. That is, they not only praise God as the Creator of all things (Ac 4:24), but they turn to Spirit-inspired revelation in the Scriptures for an explanation of their situation (4:25). The church’s response is significant in several respects, and helpful to our consideration of John’s use of the “kings of the earth” in Rev. Let me explain.
First, the apostolic church frequently employed Psalm 2, a major messianic psalm not only for apostolic Christianity but many ancient Jews as well (cf. Pss. of Sol. 17:26 and 4QFl). Craigie (1983: 68) notes that “Psalm 2 is one of the psalms most frequently quoted and alluded to in the NT.” That the early church used this Psalm rather frequently is evident from the following observations. (1) They reflexively resort to Psalm 2 when under pressure. (2) They are able to use it corporately and in unison, for “they lifted up their voices to God with one accord and said” (Ac 4:24a). (3) We see this Psalm used even in several NT writings (Ac 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5; Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:5). Thus, this becomes an important Scripture for the early church.
Second, the apostolic church engaged in a pesher-like interpretation of Scripture. That is, they took Scriptures that referred to other issues and applied them to themselves in their own situation. Ps 2 speaks ultimately of the Messiah and earthly opposition to him, as the Jerusalem believers’ explanation of the passage clearly shows: “For [gar] truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Ac 4:27). Nevertheless, they use it to explain their own persecution. Having cited and explained the Psalm they say: “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence” (Ac 4:29).The threats “against the Lord, and against His Christ” become a threat to Christ’s followers, and they humbly call God’s attention to the matter.
Third, the apostolic church employs ironic re-application of Scriptures against the Jews. No Jew reading the original Psalm would understand that the opposition to Christ includes his own ethnic kin. After all, the text expressly asks: “Why did the Gentiles (ethnē) rage?” And in its poetic parallel it speaks of various “peoples” who “devise futile things” (Ps 2:1). It sets up the kings and rulers of the earth as opposing Yahweh and his Anointed (2:2). It speaks of the gift of all “the nations” and the “very ends of the earth” to Messiah (2:8). And finally, it warns earth’s kings and judges (2:10). All of these elements involve Gentile opponents.
Yet the Jerusalem community of believers and the apostles among them are very clear in their use of the passage. After citing the Psalm they interpret it as including Jews among Messiah’s opponents: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Ac 4:27). So they take this passage that speaks of Gentile opposition and re-orient it to include Jewish opposition.
Now I will apply all of this to my analysis of the phrase the “kings of the earth.” Many argue that since John in Rev is using an OT phrase that regularly applies to Gentile rulers, we should so interpret it in Rev. But I have shown that the church quotes Ps 2, which refers to Gentile opposition, and applies it to “the peoples of Israel.” Thus, this shows the NT practice of re-application whereby Gentile-focused passages can be turned against the Jews. John could easily be doing the same with this OT phrase. After all, this book calls Jerusalem “Sodom and Egypt” (11:8) and speaks of synagogues as “a synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9).
Furthermore, the portion of Ps 2 that is quoted expressly mentions our phrase: “kings of the earth.” And these “kings of the earth” are paralleled with “the rulers.” Thus, we read: ‘the kings of the earth took their stand, / And the rulers were gathered together” (Ac 4:26). For what reason were these authorities, these kings/rulers, gathered? They were gathering in opposition “against the Lord, and against His Christ” (Ac 4:26). But when we hear the church’s interpretation of the passage those who “were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” include no only the Gentile “Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles,” but also Herod, the king of the Jews, and “the peoples of Israel” who demand that Christ be crucified. Thus, here the “kings of the earth” apply not only to non-Israel kings, but to a king of the Jews.
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What is more, through the pesher contemporizing interpretation of Ps 2, the Jerusalem Christians apply this to their own situation. After reading the Psalm, they say: “and now, Lord, take note of their threats” (Ac 4:29a). Whose threats? In the Psalm the threats come from the “kings of the earth” / “the rulers,” but in church’s current predicament it applies also to the religious authorities of Israel. Bock (2007: 208) notes of the “and now” statement: “this refers to the threats of the Sanhedrin (4:21).” Kistemaker (1990: 167) agrees and notes further that this quotation “is appropriate to the situation at hand, for the apostles feel the religious hierarchy and the Jewish government closing in on them.”
So then, very clearly their opponents who are gathering against them include: “the priests and the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees” (Ac 4:1); “rulers and elders and scribes . . . and Annas the high priest . . . and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent” (4:5–6); “rulers and elders of the people” (4:8); “the Council” (sunedriou) (4:15); “the chief priests and the elder” (4:23).
Thus, we see that the early church could apply the phrase “kings of the earth” to Jewish religious authorities.
So now, at long, long last:
Following upon the preceding evidence (and much more to come in the commentary), I would argue that “the kings of the earth” is a special character-set in Rev which denotes the religious authorities in the Land of Israel. They are quite significant for John’s forensic drama in that they are the ones who secure Christ’s death by exercising their power and influence over him in the Land. They are also the ones who persecute Christ’s followers, for they constantly attack Christians and seek Rome’s help in persecuting them (Ac 4:27; 16:20; 17:7; 18:12; 21:11; 24:1–9; 25:1–2).
The death of Jesus is a fundamental issue in Rev. In the first place his death is included in Rev’s very theme (1:7). Furthermore, Rev’s central character is the Slain Lamb (5:6, 9, 12; 13:8). For the first-century church, so oppressed by Israel, Rev holds forth his death as the very source of Christian hope and victory (1:5, 18; 5:9,12; 7:14; 12:11). The vindication of the persecuted followers of Christ is the key concern in Rev (1:9; 2:9–10; 3:9–10; 6:9–11; 11:7–8, 11–13, 18; 12:10; 13:10; 14:11–13; 16:5–6; 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:2; 20:4, 6).