Oliver O’Donovan wonders in the second chapter of The Desire of the Nations about the directionality of the analogy or metaphor of the statement “Yhwh is king”: does kingship here really tell us something about God, or is it merely a metaphor, reflecting human speculation about God but not unveiling anything of political importance about His relation to the cosmos?
In other words, which way does the analogy run?1 Do we call God “king” (1) because he is in some analogous respect(s) like an earthly ruler, thus making such talk convenient or comprehensible but ultimately emptying it of any practical and temporal significance, or (2) do we talk of earthly rulers as kings because they reflect something real about God? This is a “chicken or egg” sort of question.
We might put the question another way. Is a figure of speech in Scripture an empty mask–is it only sound (whether accompanied by fury or not), signifying nothing with respect to the actual order of things: to trope, tromper, no more? Or is it truly a figura, disclosing reality in its utterance?
Because O’Donovan is a good Protestant and understands the crucial importance of the distinction between Creator and creature, and the consequent priority that must be afforded the former, he favors (2).2 (2) must be the case, in fact, because the creature bears the imprint of the Creator, and not vice versa: the Creator does not bear the imprint of the creature. We may not fashion a god after our own image. The Creator is first and absolute; the creation is secondary and contingent, and therefore pictures God (while man himself is yet more forcefully described in Scripture as imaging God), and not the other way around. This order cannot be reversed. In Scripture, the primary function of the creation is to direct our attention to its Maker. This truth about directionality is evident with greater clarity when we look at the creation broadly and not just through the prism of kingship. The creation as such bears witness constantly to God’s attributes in a real correspondence to the way things actually are.
The reason for this witness is that we cannot know God as He is in Himself ( as God said to Moses, “[Y]ou cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen”). We know Him only as we approach Him through the witness of the things that have been made3–that is, we know God only through His voluntary condescension to us. The world is the theatre of God’s glory and is to direct the creature to Him. Man’s need for such witnessing and direction is not in the first instance due to his sin, but is rather due to his finitude. So much is clear from Scripture; from the finitum non capax infiniti, that is, from the principles of theology proper and of theological anthropology; and from the history of theology (e.g., Athanasius, Calvin, and others).
The witness of the created order, then, is a ladder by which we may ascend to the knowledge of God. This truth is everywhere evident in Scripture; Psalm 19 and Romans 1 are perhaps the most prominent examples.
If the foregoing is in fact the case, then analogy and metaphor ought to run downstream, for God is the primary reality, and the created order is the contingent–though still really real–reality. Meaning is generated from God to usward, as people used to say, rather than from us to Godward.
So, to return to the original point: perhaps kingship is not so much a metaphor for God as God is a metaphor for kingship.4 If men are kings, then how much more is God a king? To call God a “king,” then, would not be just a pretty way of saying, “He’s quite powerful, really,” but would have manifold implications for how we view civil order. Yhwh malak, indeed.
- There is an obvious sense in which all language about God is analogical. The question I’m interested in here, however, concerns whence these analogies get their “bite,” as it were.
- O’Donovan is at the same time clear that this affirmation of the truth of the statement “God is king” does not entail the endorsement of any one particular form of civic polity–say, monarchy–to the exclusion of others.
- Ultimately, of course, in the estate of sin and misery we know God redemptively only through encounter with the Incarnate Son, the Truth who has assumed human nature and has manifested God to us with finality. I am concerned here, however, with the context of creation rather than of redemption.
- In this regard, Peter Escalante relates to me the following anecdote: “[W]hen the Tsar was overthrown in 1917, Reb Dovid Horodoker wept bitterly. One of his disciples asked, “Master why do you weep for the fall of a tyrant?” And the teacher said, “I weep because piety has lost a metaphor.” This is of course no endorsement of tyrants or tyranny: it instead indicates what one may call an O’Donovanian (sic) understanding of what is metaphorical of what (or, better, who is metaphorical of Whom).