It took me a long time to understand what’s meant by calling G-d “King.”
I grew up in America. Here, as in many countries, the government is structured to try and keep “absolute” power — or even too much power — out of the hands of any single person (e.g. Pharaoh). To do this, the principle of “a separation of powers” is employed.
Put simply, the Legislative branch of gov’t creates laws; the Executive branch proposes and enforces laws; the Judicial branch decides on conflicts and questions that arise in the practice of those laws.
To me, “king” was no more than an archaic term of respect.
This was particularly true on Rosh Ha-Shanah, when we “proclaim” G-d as “King.” As someone who has led High Holiday services for many years, I also wondered what it meant to the congregants. Historically, Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur were days of almost overwhelming power. While still true, it seems less so now — these days, it would be rare indeed to find someone inspired to write the kind of piyutim they wrote in earlier ages.
How, then, to explain the concept of G-d as “King,” to people who have never had a king and don’t want one?
Pedagogically, I found that I had to teach American history in reverse: A “king” embodies all three branches of government in one person.
A king creates laws — as when Ahashverosh enacts a law allowing Jews to be killed. These laws are so immutable, that even the king himself can’t rescind them, once they’ve been proclaimed.
A king enforces laws — as when Shlomo raises a body of forced laborers to build the First Temple.
A king decides legal cases — as when Shlomo decides between two women, each of whom claims a single baby as their own. Similarly, Mosheh, leading the Israelites, is depicted in Torah as deciding cases. In the Kipling story, “The Man Who Would Be King,” a British soldier becomes “king” of a fictional country — and begins ruling on civil and criminal cases (including deciding “damages”). I might even point to an episode in the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which Lawrence must judge a case — and execute the perpetrator — in order to avoid a blood feud between Arab tribes.
So, as an American, I can understand “G-d is King” to mean that G-d creates laws, enforces them, and judges on cases where they might have been violated.
In fact, it’s in the area of “enforcement” (an “Executive” function), that most people have the deepest questions: If something “bad” happens to me, is it an “accident?” Is it the result of someone else’s “evil?”
Jewish tradition teaches us that G-d is in charge of everything, down to the most minute detail. Our challenge then, is to recognize all that happens, both “good” and “bad,” as done by G-d for an ultimate Good.
When we do, we truly proclaim G-d to be our “King.”