Home > Christ's kingdom, Dispensationalism, Ezekiel, The Gospel > E. W. Hengstenberg and the perpetual throne of David

E. W. Hengstenberg and the perpetual throne of David

December 1, 2012

The claims of dispensationalists, who say that prophecy should be viewed as literal, are discredited by the history of the throne of David. Although the promise to David through Nathan the prophet said, “And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever,” [2 Sam. 7:16] after a few centuries, the line of kings of the dynasty of David ceased, and his throne disappeared.

The prophet Ezekiel said of Zedekiah, “And thou, profane wicked prince of Israel, whose day is come, when iniquity shall have an end, Thus saith the Lord God; Remove the diadem, and take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high. I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him.” [Ezek. 21:25-27]

The sons of king Zedekiah were killed and he was taken to Babylon in chains.  “And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.” [2 Kings 25:7]

King Nebuchadnezzar learned that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.” [Dan. 4:25] Ezekiel’s prophecy, “take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high” probably refers to the house of David being suppressed, while Gentile rulers became dominant in Israel’s history.

What did Ezekiel’s prophecy mean, that God will “overturn, overturn, overturn” David’s throne? Perhaps it refers to the Gentile successors of Zedekiah. Gentiles reigned over Israel from the end of the Jewish kingdom to the coming of Christ.

All authority and power is from God. Zedekiah was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, the throne of Babylon was overturned by the Persians; that throne was overturned by the Greeks; the Greek kingdom was overturned by the Romans. In the days of the Roman Empire, Christ came to establish his kingdom, as depicted in Daniel 2:35, 44-45.

Scholars have struggled to reconcile the historical facts related to David’s throne with the promise given to David. Obviously the woodenly literal approach of dispensationalism is flawed; God’s promises to David have a higher spiritual meaning.

The following is E. W. Hengstenberg’s discussion of the Messianic promise concerning the perpetual throne David, that Jesus inherited. [Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament: And a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions, Volume 1. T. & T. Clark, 1868. pp. 147-152]

To whom does this promise refer, which David received through Nathan? Some Rabbins, and Grotius, would fain restrict it to Solomon and his more immediate posterity. This opinion, however, is refuted by the single circumstance, that they are compelled to assume merely a long duration of time, instead of the eternity which is here promised to the house of David. And that such cannot be the meaning of the words “for ever,” is abundantly confirmed by a comparison with Ps. lxxxix. 30, “And I place his seed for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.” In these words of the Psalm there is a reference to Deut. xi. 21, where the people of the Lord are promised a duration “as the days of heaven and of earth.” An absolute perpetuity is everywhere ascribed to the people of God. If, then, the house of David is placed on the same level as they, its perpetuity must likewise be absolute. Further,—with such a view, it is impossible to comprehend what David here says in his prayer, regarding the greatness of the promise, and also what he says in Ps. cxxxviii. 2: “For Thou hast magnified Thy word above all Thy name.” The giving of the promise is there placed on a loftier elevation than all the former deeds of the Lord.

Others—as Calovius—would refer the promise to Christ alone. But vers. 14, 15 are decisive against this view; for, according to them, God will not, by a total rejection, punish the posterity of David, if they commit sin,—from which the reference is evident to a posterity merely human, and hence sinful. According to ver. 13, David’s posterity is to build a temple to the Lord,—a declaration which, with reference to David’s plan of building a temple to the Lord, can, in the first instance, be understood in no other way than as relating to the earthly temple to be built by Solomon. To this consideration it may be added, that, in 1 Chron. xxii. 9 seqq., David himself refers this announcement primarily to Solomon, and that Solomon, in 1 Kings v. 5 seqq., and in 2 Chron. vi. 7 seqq., refers it to himself.

Nor is there entire soundness in the view of those who, following Augustine (de Civitate Dei xvii. 8, 9), assume the existence of a double reference,—to Solomon and his earthly successors on the one hand, and to Christ on the other. Thus Brentius “Solomon is not altogether excluded, but Christ is chiefly intended.” It is true that these interpreters are substantially right in their view; but they err as to the manner in which they give expression to it. The promise has not a reference to two subjects simultaneously. [1] It views David’s house as an ideal unity.

The promise is given to the house of David, vers. 11,16,19, 25, 26, 27, 29; to his seed, ver. 12. It is to the house of David that the absolute perpetuity of existence, the unchangeable possession of the grace of God—a relation to God similar to that of a son to his father—and the inseparable connection of their dominion with the kingdom of God in Israel, are guaranteed.

There is no direct mention of the person of the Messiah; and yet the words, when considered in their full import, point, indirectly, to Him. The absolute perpetuity of the race can be conceived of, only when at last it centres in some superhuman person. But still more decisive is the connection in which this promise stands to Gen. xlix. The dominion which is there promised to Judah is here transferred to David. It is then to David’s race that the exalted individual must belong, in whom, according to Gen. xlix. 10, Judah’s dominion is to centre at some future period. That David really connected the promise which he received with Gen. xlix. 10, is shown by 1 Chron. xxviii. 4 (compare p. 91), and also by the name, Solomon, which he gave to his son; compare ibid. That Solomon also founded his hopes regarding the future upon a combination of Gen. xlix. and 2 Sam. vii., is shown by Ps. lxxii., which was composed by him; compare pp. 91, 92.

But, as respects this combination, David was not left to himself. He received further light from the source from which the promise had come to him. Although his mission was not properly a prophetic one,—although, in the main, it belonged to him to describe poetically what had come to him through prophetic inspiration, yet prophetic inspiration and sacred lyric are frequently commingled in him. The man who is “the sweet psalmist of Israel” claims a נְאֻ֧ם in 2 Sam. xxiii. 1, and, in ver. 2, says that the Spirit of God spake by him, and His word was upon his tongue. In Acts ii. 30, 31, Peter declares that, by the divine promise, David received, first the impulse, and afterwards further illumination, by the prophetic spirit dwelling in him. The latter declaration, moreover, rests on the testimony of the Lord Himself, in Matt. xxii. 43, where He says that in Ps. cx., David had ἐν πνεύματι, i.e., seized with the Holy Spirit.

It is true that, in a series of Psalms, David is not any more explicit and definite than the fundamental prophecy, but speaks only of the grace which the Lord had conferred upon the Davidic race by the promise of a dominion which should outlast all earthly things. Thus it is in Ps. xviii., where, in the presence of the congregation, he offers those thanks which previously he had, as it were, privately expressed, for the glorious promise made to him;—in Ps. xi., where, in the name of the people, he expresses thankful joy for this same promise;—in Ps. lxi. and in the cycle of Psalms from Ps. cxxxviii. to cxlv.— the prophetic legacy of David—in which, at the beginning, in Ps. cxxxviii., he praises the Lord for His promise of eternal mercy given to him, and then, with the torch of promise, lightens up the darkness of the sufferings that are to fall upon this house,—Psalms with which Ps. lxxxix. and cxxxix., which were composed at a later period, and by other writers, are closely connected.

But there are other Psalms (ii. and cx.) in which David, with a distinctness which can be accounted for only by divine revelation, beholds the Messiah in whose coming the promise in 2 Sam. vii. should find its final and complete fulfilment. Whilst David, in these Psalms, represents the Messiah as his antitype, as the mighty conqueror, who will not rest until He shall have subjected the whole earth to His sway, Solomon, in Ps. lxxii., represents Him as the true Prince of Peace, and His dominion as a just and peaceful rule. The circumstances of the time of Solomon form, in a similar way, the foundation for the description of the Messiah in Ps. xlv., which was written by the sons of Korah.

A personal Messianic element is contained in some of those Davidic Psalms also which refer to the ideal person of the righteous one, whose image we at last find fully portrayed in the Book of Wisdom. In these the sufferings of the righteous one in a world of sin are described, as well as the glorious issue to which he attains by the help of the Lord. After his own experience, David could not have doubted that, notwithstanding the glorious promise of the Lord, severe sufferings were impending over his family, and over Him in whom that family was, at some future time, to centre. But his own experience likewise promised a glorious issue to these sufferings. The Psalms in which, besides the reference to the righteous one, and to the people, the allusion to the afflictions of the Davidic race, and to the suffering Messiah, most plainly appear, are the xxii., the cii., and the cix.

There cannot be any doubt that the Messianic promise made considerable progress in the time of David. It is, in itself, a circumstance of great importance that the eyes of the people were henceforth directed to a definite family; for, thereby, their hopes acquired greater consistency. Further,—The former prophecies were, all of them, much shorter, and more in the shape of hints; but, now, their hopes could become detailed descriptions, because a substratum was given to them in the present. The Messiah had been foretold to David as a successor to his throne,—as a King. Hence it was, that, in the view of David himself and of the other psalmists, the earthly head of the Congregation of the Lord formed the substratum for the future Saviour. The naked thought now clothed itself with flesh and blood. The hope gained thereby in clearness and distinctness, as well as in practical significance.

The slight hint of a higher nature of the Messiah, given in Gen. xlix. 8, forms the main ground for the advancing and more definite knowledge, which we find in the days of David and Solomon. Grand and lofty expectations could, henceforth, not fail to be connected with the promise in 2 Sam. vii. 14, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me,” and with the prophecy of the absolute perpetuity of dominion, in the same passage. In Ps. ii. 12, the Messiah appears as the Son of God κατ ‘εξοχήν,—as He, in whom to trust is to be saved, and whose anger brings destruction. In Ps. ex. 1, He appears as the Lord of the Congregation and of David himself,—as sitting at the right hand of omnipotence, and as invested with a full participation in the divine power over heaven and earth. In Ps. lxxi. eternity of dominion is ascribed to Him. In Ps. xlv. 7, 8, He is called God, Elohim.

Among the offices of Christ, it is especially the Regal office on which a clear light has been shed. The Messiah appears prominently as He “who has dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth,” Ps. lxxii. 8. In Ps. cx., however, the office of the Messiah as the eternal High Priest is first revealed to the congregation. He appears as the person who atones for whatever sins cleave to His people, as their Intercessor and Advocate with God, and as the Mediator of the closest communion with God. We have here the outlines, for the filling up of which Isaiah was, at a later period, called. The Prophetic office of the Saviour does not distinctly appear in the Psalms. It was reserved for Isaiah to bring out into a clearer light the allusion given, on this subject, by Moses, after it had been taken up again, for the first time since Moses’ day, by the prophet Joel.

It was quite natural that David, who himself was exercised and proved by the cross, should be the first to introduce to the knowledge of the Church a suffering Messiah. But the doctrine has with him still the character of a germ; he still mixes up the references to the Messiah with the allusions to His types. It was from these that David rose to Him; it was from their destiny that David, by the Holy Spirit, inferred what would befall Him. Nowhere, however, has David directly and exclusively to do with a suffering Messiah, as had, afterwards, the prophet Isaiah.

In all that respects the Psalms, we must content ourselves with merely a passing glance, lest we encroach too much upon the territory which belongs to the Commentary on the Psalms. But “the last words of David,” preserved to us in the Books of Samuel, we shall make the subject of a more minute consideration, inasmuch as they form a connecting link between the two classes of Psalms which rest on the promise in 2 Sam. vii., viz., those referring to David’s house and family, and those relating to the personal Messiah. The “ruler among men” whom we meet in these “last words,” is, in the first instance, an ideal person,—viz., the Davidic race conceived of as a person; but the ideal points to the real person, in whom all that had been foretold of the Davidic family should, at some future period, find its full realization. It is with a view to this person, that the personification has been employed.


[1] This mistake was corrected by Seb. Schmid. He says: “The promises here given to David have, of course, a reference to Solomon; but not such as if they were to be fulfilled only in the person of Solomon, and not also in his posterity, and, most of all, in the Messiah to be descended from David and Solomon.”

  1. December 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    The concept of interpreting scripture, has but is ignored, the concept of rules of interpretation. Dispensationalist allow and work with 3 types of language in the Bible. Literal, figurative and symbolic. Dispensationalists are critized for “wooden literalism”, ignoring all the time that they are “wooden allegoricaistsl” If it is prophecy, it must have a “spiritual or figurative or symbolic fulfillment. The claim that dispensationalists are rigid literalists is far from correct. As mch as covenant theologians wish it was true, because it gives them an easy straw man to knock down and makes them look like they really know what they are talking about;. What dispensationalists disagree with any;and all those who “spiritualize” the scriptures is that just because it is prophecy that the fullfillment must and seem like is always fullfilled or taken symbolically.Why? Who Knows that’s just the way we do it right!!!

    Here is an absolute in scripture: prophecy my and many times is given in figerative terms but is always fullfilled literally.

    Your extreemly long article to try to prove the the Nation and stock of Israel has been set aside or eliminated from the program of God is as far as you went appears to be correct. so as far as you are concerned from then on any time Israel or Jews or saint or elect is mentioned it must be spiritualized or allegericalized.

    You might consider (I wish I had my Bible in front of me, but I don’t,but in Jeremiah he prophesies concerning the Nation of Israel that If you can break my covenant with day and night the will Israel cease from being a Nation Before me. You all missed this verse. which totally eleminates you contention that the Nation of Israel is no longer part of God’s prophetical program.

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