The Three Tenses in the Kingdom of God: God of Israel or of the World

Article excerpt

The passage in Pesukei de-Zimra section of the morning prayer service which begins Yehi Khevod consists of various verses from different books of the Bible. However, one verse is actually a composite of three biblical verses rather than a complete verse in itself: Ha-Shem melekh (Ps. 10:16), Ha-Shem malakh (Ps. 93:1), and Ha-Shem yimlokh le-olam va'ed (Ex. 15:18): "God reigns, God has reigned, God shall reign for all eternity." This passage is one of the most familiar in the entire liturgy, but, surprisingly enough, it is not found as a complete verse in Scripture. Rather, each phrase comes from a different part of the Bible. In combination, the three phrases express the eternity of God's reign. (1)

Two questions arise: When Scripture uses past, present, and future with regard to God, does the choice of tense have any particular theological meaning? Or do we have here representation of different aspects and variant temporal reflections in relation to a concept of similar eschatological connotation embodied in the well-known phrase, the Kingdom of God? It should be noted that this phrase is not found in the Tanakh but is derived from statements in the Writings and Prophets; for example, And the Lord shall be King over all the earth and in that day there shall be one Lord with one name (Zech. 14:9).

There is a great contrast between the prominence of the Kingdom of God in the Prophets and Writings on the one hand, and the paucity, indeed almost total absence, of the concept in the Torah. The Torah had already established God as the eternal ruler when Moses and the children of Israel sang the verse Ha-Shem yimlokh le-olam va'ed--The Lord will reign forever and ever (Ex. 15:18) as the sudden, incidental conclusion at the Song at the Sea. This verse is the single expression in all of the Torah--abbreviated, at that--as to the vision of His eternalness.

Jacob Chinitz was ordained at Yeshiva University and is a member of The Rabbinical Assembly. He has taught at several colleges, and has written a few hundred articles in twenty journals in the United States, Canada, and Israel. He has served as rabbi in Philadelphia and Halifax, and recently at Congregation Shaare Zedek, Montreal. His three books are: In My Opinion, Divrei Torah for Shabbat and Chagim, and Ten Illusions about Judaism.

Though eschatological, it seems to celebrate a single set of His miracles on behalf of a single nation. It follows upon the verse: You [God] will bring them [the people] and plant them upon the mountain of Your inheritance, Your established residence which You have formed, O Lord, a Sanctuary O Lord, that Your hands have set up (Ex. 15:17). Is this the Kingdom of God? Has God decided to narrow Himself, at best, to the national kingdom of Israel, over which He will rule forever from His Sanctuary, His residence, His mountain? Or does the verse prophesy by implication a Kingdom that covers His creation, the entire earth? The word le-olam [forever and ever] in Exodus 15:18, seems to refer not to the entire world, but to eternal time.

In his book on Moses, Martin Buber reinforces the translation that the Lord will reign in Time and Eternity. He goes on to interpret this Kingship, not in terms of the world, but in terms of Israel. "Whoever recognizes the one effective power on every given occasion, must desire that the whole life of the community should be made subject to that power." "The life of the community" obviously refers to Israel, who had just been saved by a God whom Moses wished to be King over the people He had saved. Buber continues on the theme of the Kingdom of God in the context of the Song at the Sea, and in the context of kingship over Israel:

   The melekh [King] proclamation stands with full meaning at the
   close of the hymn which deals with the miracle on the sea. Under
   the echo of this miracle the children of Israel [just now rescued
   after 200 + years from a polytheistic Egypt] learned that they had
   a God Who, alone among all the protective gods of the peoples,
   could really perform miracles. …