John’s Gospel gives the game away: in 1:49 Nathaniel exclaims to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the king of Israel!” This is parallelism: two statements stating the same idea using different words. (It is a device found often in the Psalms.)

In Israel, the coronation of kings and the consecration of priests involved a small amount of oil poured over their head [1]. This anointing showed that Yahweh had chosen them for a purpose: to mediate His relationship with the nation. They were to teach the people about God from His revealed word; and, as the stories of Abraham and Moses and others showed God’s character through how He related to people, so the kings and priests were to model what a relationship with Him looked like in every season and circumstance.

God decreed that Israel was to be an amphictyony, a group of tribes serving a religious purpose. But it wasn’t long before the Israelites wanted a king, like the nations around them. In the Ancient Near East, the king was also the high priest of the nation’s religion. Israel was the exception to this: the king could not be a priest. 2 Chronicles tells the tale of King Uzziah trying to usurp the priests’ office.

Uzziah was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-two years.

… But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the LORD … confronted him and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense…”

… Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the LORD’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead.

… King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house – leprous, and excluded from the temple of the LORD. (2 Chronicles 26:3, 16-20.)

In his religious role (even if it wasn’t as a priest) the king represented his people to the nation’s god and, vice versa, represented the god to his people. His tasks were to make sure their god was worshipped properly and to care for the people as the god would.

This is the context in which the epithet “son of God” belongs. It is a royal title indicating a relationship between the king and the god: a relationship of function (the king as God’s representative), not being. The king was to be a living parable of what a relationship with God looked like, in both good times and bad, through righteousness and sin and their effects [2].

This was so for the greatest king in Israel’s history: David ben-Jesse [3]. In 2 Samuel 7, God promised David that one of his descendents would be the king of a kingdom that would last forever [4].

The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you … I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son … my love will never be taken away from him … (2 Samuel 7:11-15)

When “Son of God” is used of Jesus, particularly in His relationship to the Father, it is as this royal title: Jesus is God’s chosen king, the son of David. Although God’s promise began its fulfilment with Solomon as king and son of God, it looked forward to an ultimate in Jesus.

However, “Son of God” has other nuances. As used of people who aren’t Jesus, it can often mean those who are followers of God.


[1] Exodus 29:4-9 (priests); 1 Samuel 10:1 (King Saul); 16:1, 12-13 (King David).
[2] A parable is a picture in words.
[3] In Hebrew, ‘son’ is ‘ben’. In Aramaic it’s ‘bar’. I think, in Arabic, it’s ‘ibn’.
[4] 2 Samuel 7:11-16.

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle.