God Save the King

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This blog highlights the impact of the King James Bible on English.  Yet this phrase shows that many times the influence went the other way.  It was the culture that shaped the translation of this verse.

It comes in 1 Samuel after the people had asked for a king (1 Samuel 8:5-9).  There had been centuries of judges, but Israel craved a king “like all the other nations”.  What follows is a familiar pattern in the bible:  The LORD hands the people over to their foolish desires and then redeems the situation.  That’s what happens here.  Samuel anoints Saul…

“And all the people shouted, and said, God save the king.”  (1 Samuel 10:24)

Except that they didn’t really.  They said “Let the king live.”  Or, better, “Long live the king.”  But “God” is not there in the Hebrew.  It’s an example of the translators eschewing a “word for word” literalism.  Here it’s more a case of “meaning for meaning.”  A contemporary phrase is used that would have been used in an equivalent situation in bible times.

The phrase was already used in the Coverdale Bible of 1535,  Cranmer’s Great Bible of 1540,  Matthew’s Bible of 1549, the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 and the Geneva Bible of 1599.  It goes back at least to the reign of Henry the Eighth as a cry of loyalty.  And the navy used it as a watchword, to which the response was “Long to reign over us.”

Of course, from that came the song “God save our lord, the King” (1604), which is now the English national anthem.

And so it’s very understandable that the King James translators would keep the tradition going.

But in the end God would not save but depose this unfaithful king.  Saul would come to represent an Adam-figure.  He is the first king, but he fails.  It would take a second king to come and fight Saul’s battles for him and to succeed where Saul had failed.  As we’ll see tomorrow, this second king was David – picturing for us Jesus Christ.

But this is the way the LORD will redeem the situation.  The kings will find their purpose as throne-warmers and witnesses to Christ.  It’s King Jesus who will fulfil everything that Saul was meant to be.  He will be the long-living King – the eternal King.

But when He finally came in the flesh, there weren’t great cries of “Long live the King!”  There wasn’t much of a groundswell of support.  There weren’t many shouts of acclamation.  In fact, as He died on the cross, it was the very opposite.  The people cried out,

He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.  He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.  (Matthew 27:42-43)

It’s almost an anti-coronation!  The crown is set on Him, but it’s a crown of thorns.  The title is bestowed on Him: “King of the Jews”, but it’s in jest.  And the to everyone present it seems like God is refusing to save the King.  And they don’t mind shouting it out.  These people are witnessing the death of the King, and, shamefully, they seem happy with that.

Yet the whole story of Easter could be given the title, “The King is dead.  Long live the King.”  You see the Father does indeed save His Anointed King – raising Him from the grave to be Lord over all.

And humanity has a choice.   We can join the shouts of the Friday crowd – revelling in the apparent truth that God has not saved His King – living a life without Christ as King.  Or we can join the shouts of the Sunday crowd – rejoicing that God has saved His King and appointed Him as Universal Ruler.

Allow Handel to persuade you of the latter course.  You might even like to sing your own Amen!

Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King
And all the people rejoiced, and said
God save the King
Long Live the King
May the King Live Forever!
Amen!  Amen!  Alleluia!  Amen!

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