The images of king and city are among the most powerful in ancient Israel’s worldview. This unit establishes both King David and Jerusalem/Zion, describing the political and religious developments that usher them into existence. The first step in our bridge-building process will be to consider the significance of these concepts (king and city) in Old Testament thought.

Zion theology. Old Testament theologians have long realized that ancient Israelites believed strongly in what has been called “Zion theology.” Variously expressed in the Old Testament, this theology can be summarized as the conviction that Yahweh is the great king and that he has chosen Jerusalem as his dwelling place. We have seen in 1 Samuel that the early Israelites held dearly to the idea that Yahweh was their king. Long before the controversy regarding whether God’s people should have a human king, the Israelites praised Yahweh as their king: “The Lord will reign for ever and ever” (Ex. 15:18; cf. Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5).

Indeed the lateness of the development of human kingship in Israel may be a result of their rejection of human monarchs in general as part of an oppressive political structure. They had suffered as slaves under Egyptian kingship, and therefore no such human structure would be tolerated in Israel. Fittingly, then, the metaphor of Yahweh as king served as a forceful argument against human kingship.

When 1 Samuel addressed the question of the nature of the Israelite monarchy, it was not in the context of relinquishing Yahweh’s role as king. Instead, the new human king was to serve as his viceroy. Yahweh was the real king, while the human king was his representative or regent, chosen by God to carry out his earthly tasks. As Yahweh’s vicegerent, David’s military victories gave new insight into Yahweh’s status as king. Now it became clear that Yahweh was sovereign over the Philistines as well as the Israelites (and, as we will see in ch. 8, over all Israel’s near neighbors). He is the great king, the sovereign of all the universe, who rules as suzerain over the vassal states of earth (Ps. 2:1–3; 47).

Further, Zion theology holds that Yahweh, the great king, has chosen Jerusalem for his dwelling place. Like other deities of Syria-Palestine, it was believed that Yahweh had his abode upon a high mountain. Comparative studies between Israel and other Syro-Palestinian cultures reveal a common belief in a cosmic mountain, by which is meant a mountain with cosmic potencies and characteristics. Such a mountain has universal scope. It is the center of the universe, the meeting place of heaven and earth, where effective decrees are issued and conflicting natural forces engage in battle.

Yahweh’s original mountain abode appears to have been Mount Sinai, sometimes known as Horeb, the “mountain of God” (Ex. 3:1; 18:5; 24:13; Num. 10:33). He eventually departed Mount Sinai and took up his abode in Canaan (Deut. 33:2; Judg. 5:4; Hab. 3:3). At times Yahweh seemed to settle in the central hills of Syria-Palestine (Ps. 78:54). But once David captured Jebus and moved the ark to the new capital, Mount Zion became Yahweh’s chosen mountain (Ps. 78:68–69). Zion therefore becomes the fulcrum for the universe.

Zion as the place from which the world was created, as the point from which the primal ray of light emanated, and as the only mountain to stand above the deluge, is also the highest point in the highest land, the center of the center, from which all the rest of reality takes its bearings.

Thus, Yahweh is king, and he lives in Zion. Humans who live in the city with God must meet his standards of holiness (Ps. 24:3–4; Isa. 33:13–16), but they can also count on a secure and abundant life in his presence. This “Zion theology,” so ubiquitous in the Old Testament, gets its beginning here. David’s coronation and his transformation of Jerusalem into Israel’s capital city (and the relocation of the ark) become benchmark events for theological reflection. Their narration in the text before us already reflects an understanding of Zion theology; in fact, it lays the foundation for that theology.

The past and the future. Thus, within the Old Testament itself, this text is oriented toward both the past and the future. It looks backward across the pages of the books of Samuel to God’s promise to make David ruler of all Israel. Ever since that fateful day when the venerable old prophet appeared in Jesse’s home and anointed his youngest son as the future king (1 Sam. 16:1–13), David has been living with this conviction—sometimes confidently, sometimes in confusion. Even further back, beyond David’s own personal promises (and beyond the pages of Samuel), this text looks back to God’s promises to Israel’s ancestors. Among the blessings that David fulfilled were the promise that kings would come from Abraham’s line (Gen. 17:6, 16; 35:11) and that royal authority would arise from Judah (49:8–12).

But this text looks beyond its own pages to a future time as well. Once David is anointed king (5:1–5), the text moves inexorably toward the glory of Yahweh’s kingdom and its capital city, Jerusalem. The city is captured and defended, and a royal palace built. And David has sons in Jerusalem, one of whom will succeed him as king. Then the most important symbol of Yahweh’s presence with his people, the ark of the covenant, is brought into the city, only to sit in a makeshift “tent” (which is, of course, only temporary). After the construction of David’s palace and the return of the ark, the next development must necessarily be a “house” for Yahweh (hence ch. 7). By looking forward to the grandeur of the kingdom and a new temple, this text drives us onward in a way that ultimately becomes eschatological.

The next step in the bridge-building process is to trace this trajectory through and beyond other Old Testament passages and into the New Testament. As God’s salvation plan unfolds, the Davidic line and Jerusalem/Zion become prominent symbols of Israel’s belief that God will ultimately rule over all the earth. Their central significance in the prophetic literature can hardly be overstated. As a corporate representative for God’s people, Jerusalem illustrates that the city (i.e., the people of God) will enjoy salvation after a period of punishment for sin. Eventually, after the Exile, Jerusalem/Zion will once again become the religious center of a restored holy land (Ezek. 45:1–6), and Mount Zion will receive the gifts and adoration of many peoples (Isa. 18:7; Zech. 8:22–23). In such passages, God’s word issues forth from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:3), peoples gather to honor him (Jer. 3:17), and the messianic king will appear victoriously (Zech. 9:9–10).

Sometimes the temporal dimensions of these oracles of salvation blur or are not distinguishable, resulting in pronouncements that are reserved for the distant future. In that age to come, Yahweh’s rule will be firmly established in Jerusalem (Isa. 24:23; 65:18–19). The city will finally become a holy city and will never again be conquered by foreign nations (Joel 3:17 [Heb. 4:17]). In these prophetic passages, Jerusalem comes to symbolize the final and ultimate consummation of Yahweh’s plan of salvation.

Much more could and should be said about the trajectory of David and Zion in the Old Testament (esp. regarding Isaiah and selected Psalms such as 68, 76, and 78). But this eschatological movement of the prophets leads us to consider the New Testament appropriation of David and Zion. As we have seen elsewhere in this commentary, the books of Samuel contribute much to the messianism of the intertestamental period and thereby lay an important foundation for New Testament theology. But the same can now be said for the role of Jerusalem/Zion. Jesus identified his ministry with the inauguration of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:14–20, 42–43). In light of the Old Testament and later Jewish messianism, this kingdom could only be realized with Jerusalem as the center of the divine and Davidic kingship. Jesus sheds tears and is sorrowful because he knows Jerusalem is no longer legitimate as the symbol of God’s covenant with his people (Luke 19:41–44). His triumphal entry symbolized the victorious return of the Davidic kingship to Jerusalem (Luke 19:38).

Despite the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, its symbolic role in establishing the kingdom of God continued. The author of the letter to the Hebrews instructs readers that faith means they have not approached a physical mountain like Mount Sinai, with its fearful and awesome presence. Rather, they have “come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22). The result is that on this earth we have no enduring city, “but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14). In this we Christians have Abraham as our example. While he, Isaac, and Jacob were living in tents in Canaan, they were actually seeking the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11:10).

Abraham’s seminomadism was rewarded beyond his comprehension. While he expected to inherit the cities of Canaan, which were difficult to defend and vulnerable to aggressors, he was rewarded with a far greater city—“the heavenly Jerusalem,” the city of the living God, the capital of an unshakable kingdom (Heb. 12:22–23, 28). So Christian eschatological hopes are attached to a new Jerusalem, a city that will transcend the glory of its earthly counterpart.

The trajectory of future hope in David and Zion, begun in the Old Testament, arrives at its pinnacle in the closing chapters of the Bible. Although the book of Revelation is devoted primarily to a description of persecution and death (Rev. 6–20), chapters 21–22 move from time into eternity as they foretell the glorious outcome of God’s redemptive plan. The first paragraph (21:1–8) describes in general terms the new heaven and new earth, relying largely on images from the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). The old creation has passed away, making room for this new creation, including “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). The inhabitants of this new city will enjoy unhindered fellowship with God, thanks to the new Davidic king, Jesus (21:3–4).

The second literary unit describes the new Jerusalem in more detail (Rev. 21:9–21). The holy city will be the new home for God’s people. It is described as perfectly symmetrical and radiant like pure jewels.

Revelation ends with a glimpse of life in the eternal city (Rev. 21:22–22:5). The new Jerusalem will be marked by the absence of things taken for granted as necessary in the former city. It has no temple, for the temple represented the presence of God in the midst of Jerusalem. Instead, God himself will be the temple in the new city (21:22). It has no sun or moon, for it will have the glory of God (21:23), and no night, because the Lord God will be light for its inhabitants (21:25; 22:5). Life in the new city will surpass the experiences of the first couple in the Garden of Eden, for this city has “the river of the water of life” and “the tree of life” (22:1–2).

This magnificent portrait is the culmination of Jerusalem imagery throughout the Bible. “The New Jerusalem represents the time when the reign of God will be fully actualized on earth through the vice-regency of the great Son of David.” Thus the closing chapters of the Bible tie king and city together—David and Jerusalem, bound together in the hope of every Christian.

Such theological significance for king and city makes the message of our text critically important for present-day believers. The obstacles involved in bridging the contexts to our contemporary setting are simple: These are not our images! King and city do not serve well as theological constructs in the postmodern world. This is especially true in more democratic North American contexts, but they are hardly applicable anywhere in the twenty-first century. In America we have no kings. We have many cities, but none with innate theological significance. Building a bridge to the contemporary setting requires a sensitivity to the overarching biblical picture we have attempted to provide here. We must explore the way this text looks back to Israel’s past and forward to the future. Attention to this Janus characteristic of the text will make it come alive for today’s reader.

Contemporary Significance

The significance of this text for today is clear when we consider its place in biblical thought as a benchmark for theological reflection. As we have seen, the text is retrospective in that it fulfills the promises of God to David, and before him, to Israel’s ancestors. Our text is also prospective in that it drives us forward into the salvific significance of David and Jerusalem. The first of these aspects summons from the reader confidence in the faithfulness of God and in the character of his servant, David. The second aspect summons faith itself.

Retrospective: faithfulness. The retrospective aspect emphasizes God’s faithfulness to Abraham, to Israel in general, and to David in particular. The long journey from the ancestral promises of a royal descendant, continuing through Israel’s agonizing request for a king “as all the other nations” (1 Sam. 8:5), finally comes to an end here with David as kingdom builder. In sum, God has been faithful to his Word. Abraham’s descendants have become a nation (on the way to becoming “a great nation,” Gen. 12:2), and David has become their king. This is David’s third anointing as king. His private anointing by Samuel was the divine stamp of approval on his life (1 Sam. 16:13). The public anointing by the elders of Judah was a partial fulfillment of God’s promise (2 Sam. 2:4). But with this text, we have arrived at the full blessing of God.

Beyond the confidence this engenders in God’s faithfulness, this aspect of the text also portrays David as the patient servant waiting on God’s timing and direction. As a fugitive running from the deranged Saul, his life looked bleak indeed. But as a fugitive he learned to depend on God completely (review how often he “inquired of the Lord”). This text contributes to the extended narrative’s concern to portray David as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14).

Prospective: faith. The prospective aspect assumes preknowledge on the part of the reader concerning the importance of David and Zion. When this text portrays David as kingdom builder, the informed reader realizes he is not building simply another earthly nation but Yahweh’s kingdom. The Christian reader recognizes at once that David’s accomplishments are truly cosmic, nothing less than laying the foundation for the Lord’s Zion, the city of all future salvation.

The eschatological dimension of the text calls for faith on the part of the reader. By affirming Christian faith and becoming a member of the community, one joins in the journey to Zion. Like Abraham we march to a celestial city, “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Having the rest of the story gives today’s Christian readers an appreciation for David’s anointing and his building of Jerusalem. We know the consummation of these events in their glorious finality. With Christ before us as the Son of David and his eternal city as our destination, we march onward in faith. These two—king and city—symbolize our “hope of glory” in that we expect to participate in King Jesus’ resurrection glory, a hope kept alive in us by his presence within (Col. 1:27).

Already—not yet. One further note on eschatology will help round out the contemporary significance of this text. The eschatological thrust of the passage is only apparent when we read it holistically with the rest of the canon. But even with this proviso, a warning is appropriate lest we read too much specific “end-times” reasoning into the narrative. The danger creeps into our work when we fail to grasp the Bible’s concept of time. Time in the Bible is not cyclical, in which case eschatology refers to the completion of the cycle. Nor is it strictly linear, in which case eschatology refers to the termination of time. Rather, the Bible conceives of a recurring pattern in which judgment and salvation interact until the pattern “attains its definitive manifestation.”

Thus, eschatology may refer to the culmination of God’s purpose without necessarily referring to the end of the world or of history. As the Davidic dynasty failed, Old Testament eschatology developed a futuristic expectation about the ultimate fulfillment of the promises to David. But these are only partially fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus.

Another way to express this is in the New Testament’s tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Such “realized eschatology” emphasizes an endurance of faith during the overlapping of ages. The kingdom of God is certainly here, for Jesus proclaimed it so. But the kingdom is not here in all its fullness.

This observation ties together both the retrospective and prospective aspects of our text. David had lived faithfully during the interval, between the already and the not yet. He had been anointed king, but he was not yet king. In this way, he becomes an example for us as we consider the prospective, or eschatological, significance of the text. We too have the promise of king and city, but we continue to hold it as a great expectation, even after the King has arrived. David in this text becomes our example of how to live in the interval, even while he also establishes the “not yet” by building Zion. While we move toward that eternal city in hope, we also look back at David in the assurance that the victory is won.

Thus biblical eschatology always has an ethical thrust. Rather than becoming overly fixated on speculative details of interpretation concerning the end times (such as whether we should be pre-, a-, or post-millennialists or whether the temple must be rebuilt physically), today’s Christian readers should emphasize this ethical dimension. With our eyes focused on our Davidic king, we should march to Zion in a way worthy of his example (Heb. 12:1–3).

One noted theologian has compared this tension between the “already” and the “not yet” to events in the European theater of operations during World War II. The successful invasion of Normandy on D-Day by the Allied nations essentially sealed the fate of the Axis nations in the minds of many historians. That invasion began on June 6, 1944. There remained yet almost a year of hard fighting before the Axis nations surrendered on VE-Day, May 8, 1945. The Christian life is like living between D-Day and VE-Day. The victory is secure, but the battle is not won. Thus, David and Zion stand before us, and their victory is certain. The call, then, is for faithfulness along the journey.

Source: Bill T. Arnold, 1 & 2 Samuel, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 461–468.