Priestly Profiles: Kingdom of Priests (1)

Exodus chapters 19-24 record a momentous moment in the history of Israel and of this world: the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant. The chapters which bookend this section act as a prologue and epilogue to the giving of the covenant. Chapter 19 contains the word “descend” seven times, while chapter 24 contains seven occurrences of the word “ascend,” a device that serves “to bind the two chapters together as an anticipation and a realization.”[1] In addition, Exodus 19:1-8 “functions like an index of what follows in 19:9 [to chapter] 24”:

19:1-2   Mountain (19:9-23)

19:3-6   Covenant (20:1–23:33)

19:7-8   People’s Response (24:1-18)[2]

This structure is important to notice, for it establishes the fundamental significance of Exodus 19:1-8 for understanding the Mosaic covenant.

The Mosaic covenant is, of course, a vast and important subject, and it is beyond the scope of this series (to say nothing of this article) to explore it in any detail. However, no consideration of the subject of priesthood could afford to ignore God’s words to Israel in Exodus 19:4-6: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”[3] Israel, in covenant relationship with God, would be defined by this: she would be “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”

The concept of “a holy nation” – a nation set apart by and to God from all the other nations of the earth – is not especially difficult to grasp.[4] It is interesting that the word “nation” used here is more usually employed of the Gentile nations. Unlike the more usual description of Israel as a “holy people,” the expression here tends to emphasise Israel’s identity as a political entity. It is also significant that this was the word God used in His promise to Abram in Genesis 12:2: “I will make of thee a great nation.”

While the meaning of “a holy nation” is relatively straightforward, “a kingdom of priests” is altogether more difficult. To grasp its meaning, there are at least three issues that we need to explore. We need to ask what the phrase means – what is “a kingdom of priests”? Then we need to ask what being “a kingdom of priests” meant for Israel. And finally, we need to consider how this changed – “how Israel, as a kingdom of priests, became in its history a kingdom with priests.”[5] Answering – or attempting to answer – these questions will, of necessity, involve us in a certain amount of technicality, but it is important to consider this expression for it is fundamental to our understanding of the Aaronic priesthood, our own priesthood, and the future, Millennial priesthood of Israel. In this article we will look at the first two of these questions.

What is “a kingdom of priests”?

This phrase presents considerable difficulties to the interpreter, reflecting the fact that the Hebrew used is “highly ambiguous.”[6] It is testament to this ambiguity that, not only is there no consensus on the meaning of this phrase, there is no consensus on how many possible meanings it might have; some suggest three, some four, some five, and some eight.[7] One influential study outlines five possible interpretations of the phrase that call for our consideration:

  • A kingdom composed of priests
  • A kingdom possessing a legitimate priesthood
  • A kingdom ruled by priests
  • A kingdom with a collective priestly responsibility on behalf of all peoples
  • A kingdom set apart and possessing collectively, alone among all peoples, the right to approach God[8]

On consideration, it becomes apparent that these five ways of understanding the expression can be arranged in two groups based on whether it is understood as referring to individuals within the nation (as in 1-3 above) or whether it refers to the nation as a collective whole (as in 4 and 5).[9] This is the key interpretative choice that we face. Is God promising that individual Israelites will be priests (or “a reigning group of priests”[10]) or is He, rather, promising that the nation corporately will be a priestly kingdom?

There are good reasons for believing that the nation corporately is in view. First, the parallelism between “a kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” suggests that the same entity is in view in both expressions and, as we have already seen, the word translated “nation” emphasises Israel as a political entity rather than as an ethnic group. Second, and beyond this direct parallelism, the whole emphasis of the passage is on God’s relationship with Israel as a whole, not with any subdivision of the nation. Third, “in Exodus 24:3-8 … the people undergo a ‘priestly ordination,’ as Moses sprinkles blood on them (v8). The only other place where such an event happens is Leviticus 8-9, where Aaron and his sons are set apart as priests.”[11] Fourth, it is of note that, in Exodus 4:22, God describes Israel as His “firstborn son.” This is suggestive, for as we have noted earlier in this series, there does seem to have been a link between primogeniture and priesthood.[12] Fifth, though tradition cannot on its own be definitive, it is worth noting that “this understanding characterizes most ancient readings … and was the common view within the Jewish and Christian traditions until comparatively recent times.”[13] In the face of this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that “a kingdom of priests” is a priest kingdom, a nation with a corporate priestly responsibility to God.

What did being “a kingdom of priests” mean for Israel?

A “kingdom of priests” is, we have argued, a priestly nation. But what does it mean to be a “priestly nation”? What was to be the nature of Israel’s service, and who were to be the beneficiaries of it? This question has often been answered by reference to 1 Peter 2:9: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” That passage is, of course, speaking about the Church. But its link between a royal priesthood and the proclamation of God’s character seems to establish an important paradigm. In addition, various portions of the OT make it clear that, in the Millennium, the nations will be blessed through Israel, and that that blessing will involve a priestly ministry on the part of Israel: “Ye shall be named the Priests of the Lord: men shall call you the Ministers of our God: ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves” (Isa 61:6).[14] Other commentators have argued that the fact that Israel’s priestly activity in the Millennium will have this missionary orientation does not necessarily mean that that aspect of her service is in view here. Emphasising that nothing is said in the context of Exodus about Israel’s responsibility to the nations, they argue that “the thrust of the passage in Exodus 19 is about the promise of a divine grant, a great privilege which is being bestowed on [Jehovah’s] treasured people, provided that they continue faithful to him. That grant is pre-eminently one of relationship with Him.”[15]

It seems correct to say that the emphasis in this passage lies primarily on what Israel is to God. She is to be a holy nation, set apart for Him. But it seems both unnecessary and undesirable to assume the sort of either/or position that some commentators argue. The very fact of Israel’s separation to God made her a testimony to the nations. This is reflected at a number of points in the narrative of the Exodus – for example, in Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy 9, when Moses’ prayer to God on behalf of Israel is motivated, in part, by his concern for what the Egyptians will learn about God from the experience of the nation. Israel as a priestly nation would go in to God’s presence in worship but she would also go out in testimony.

Or that, at any rate, was what God intended. In the next article in this series we will consider, Lord willing, how Israel failed and what the consequences of that failure were for her status as “a kingdom of priests.”

[1] John A. Davies, A Royal Priesthood: Literary and Intertextual Perspectives on an Image of Israel in Exodus 19:6 (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 116.

[2] David Schrock, “Restoring the Image of God: A Corporate-Filial Approach to the ‘Royal Priesthood’ in Exodus 19:6,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 22:2 (2018), 45.

[3] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[4] See, for a useful discussion, Jo Bailey Wells, God’s Holy People: A Theme in Biblical Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 52-54.

[5] Schrock, “Restoring the Image of God,” 26.

[6] R.B.Y. Scott, “A Kingdom of Priests (Exodus xix. 6),” Old Testament Studies 8 [1950], 215.

[7] Davies, A Royal Priesthood, 69.

[8] Scott, “A Kingdom of Priests,” 216. I have rearranged Scott’s list slightly for reasons of clarity.

[9] Thus reformulated, this resembles the possibilities suggested by Davies, A Royal Priesthood, 68–100. Davies argues that Scott’s suggestions fail to take full account of the range of possible meanings for “kingdom.” He posits three possible interpretations: Passive (similar to 1 and 2, above), active-elite (similar to 3) and active-corporate (similar to 4 and 5). The key distinction remains the same: Is God speaking about individual Israelites or the nation as a whole?

[10] Davis, A Royal Priesthood, 74.

[11] Schrock, “Restoring the Image of God,” 45.

[12] See Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 136–142.

[13] Davies, A Royal Priesthood, 82.

[14] See, for an example of this approach, Michael A. Grisanti, “The Missing Mandate: Missions in the Old Testament” in W. Edward Glenny and William H. Smallman (eds), Missions in a New Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2000), 50–58.

[15] Davies, A Royal Priesthood, 97. Schrock makes a similar argument, which is strongly influenced by his belief (following Beale) that Adam is a priest. As discussed in the second article in this series, there is good reason to question this premise.