The Persian Origin of the Title "King of Kings"

Today is the feat of Christ the King, and it’s right to consider the title “King of Kings”:

From his mouth comes a sharp sword, with which ‘to smite the nations; and he will rule them with an iron rod.’ He ‘treads the grapes in the press’ of the maddening wine of the Wrath of Almighty God; and on his robe and on his thigh he has this name written– ‘KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.’ (Revelation 19:15-16 TCNT)

The title “King of Kings” might seem redundant to some, since, in the absolutist world some of us live in, there is only one king.  But the title has a meaningful origin, and dates back to the time of the Medes and the Persians.  As Michael Axworthy explains in his book A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind:

The provinces were rules by satraps, governors who returned a tribute to the centre but ruled as viceroys (two other officials looked after military matters and fiscal administration in each province, to avoid too much power being concentrated in any one pair of hands).  The satraps, who often inherited their offices from predecessors within the same family, ruled their provinces according to pre-existing laws, customs and traditions.  They were, in effect, provincial kings, while Darius was king of kings (Shahanshah in modern Persian). (p. 21)

Artaxerxes was also referred to in this way: “From: Artaxerxes, king of kings To: Ezra the priest, a scribe for the Teachings of the God of Heaven: I wish you peace and prosperity!” (Ezra 7:12 GW)  How this played out could be seen vividly in Nehemiah’s conflict with Sanballat (Nehemiah 4).

In its early years at least, the Persian Empire’s power distribution was surprisingly loose.  This puts the lie to the idea that strict top-down authoritarianism is the Biblical model, especially at a point in Biblical history so auspicious to the Jews.  The application of the title to Our Lord and Saviour also puts some interesting twists on the idea of his authority and how he plans to exercise it after his return.

So next time you hear the title, just thank a smart Iranian for coming up with the title and the concept.  And remind him or her at what point in history it came in…

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