Mary’s title as “Queen of Heaven and Earth” is a great scandal to many non-Catholic Christians. After all, the Bible doesn’t mention anything about there being a queen in God’s kingdom. All this royal attention Catholics give to Mary—whether it’s singing “Hail, holy queen enthroned above” or portraying Mary in statues and paintings with a crown on her head—seems to many non-Catholics to detract from the royalty of Christ, who alone is King of Kings. Besides, how could Mary be a queen, since she is not the wife of the Jesus but only his mother?
One biblical theme sheds light on these questions and serves as a key for unlocking the mystery of Mary’s queenship: the Old Testament tradition of the “queen mother” in the Davidic kingdom.
In the monarchy of King David, as well as in other ancient kingdoms of the Near East, the mother of the ruling king held an important office in the royal court and played a key part in the process of dynastic succession. In fact, the king’s mother ruled as queen, not his wife.
The great pre-eminence of the king’s mother may seem odd from our modern Western perspective, in which we think of a queen as being the wife of a king. However, recall that most ancient Near-Eastern kings practiced polygamy. King Solomon had seven hundred wives (1 Kgs. 11:3)—imagine the chaos in the royal court if all seven hundred were awarded the queenship! But since each king had only one mother, one can see the practical wisdom in bestowing the queenship upon her.
A number of Old Testament passages reflect the important role of the queen mother in the Davidic kingdom. For example, almost every time the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings introduces a new monarch in Judah, it mentions the king’s mother as well, showing the mother’s intimate involvement in her royal son’s reign. Similarly, the queen mother is listed among the members of the royal court whom king Jehoiachin surrendered to the king of Babylon in 2 Kings 24:12.
Her royal office is also described by the prophet Jeremiah, who tells how the queen mother possessed a throne and a crown, symbolic of her position of authority in the kingdom: “Say to the king and the queen mother: ‘Take a lowly seat, for your beautiful crown has come down from your head. . . . Lift up your eyes and see those who come from the north. Where is the flock that was given you, your beautiful flock?’” (Jer. 13:18, 20). It is significant that God directed this oracle about the upcoming fall of Judah to both the king and his mother. Addressing both king and queen mother, Jeremiah portrays her as sharing in her son’s rule over the kingdom.
Probably the clearest example of the queen mother’s role is that of Bathsheba, wife of David and mother of Solomon. Scholars have noted the excellence of Bathsheba’s position in the kingdom once she became queen mother during Solomon’s rule. Compare the humble attitude of Bathsheba as spouse of King David (1 Kgs. 1:16–17, 31) with her majestic dignity as mother of the next king, Solomon (1 Kgs. 2:19–20). As spouse of the king, Bathsheba bows with her face to the ground and does obeisance to her husband, David, upon entering his royal chamber. In striking contrast, after her son Solomon assumed the throne and she became queen mother, Bathsheba receives a glorious reception upon meeting with her royal son:
“So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right. Then she said, ‘I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me.’ And the king said to her, ‘Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you’” (1 Kgs. 2:19–20).
This account reveals the sovereign prerogatives of the queen mother. Note how the king rises and bows as she enters. Bathsheba’s seat at the king’s right hand has the greatest significance. In the Bible, the right hand is the place of ultimate honor. This is seen in particular in the messianic Psalm 110 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”). In fact, many New Testament passages refer to the right-hand imagery of Psalm 110 to show Christ’s divinity and his reign with the Father over the whole universe (e.g., Hebrews 1:13). Thus, the queen mother sitting at the king’s right hand symbolizes her sharing in the king’s royal authority and illustrates how she holds the most important position in the kingdom, second only to the king.
This passage regarding Bathsheba also shows how the queen mother served as an advocate for the people, carrying petitions to the king. In 1 Kings 2:17, Adonijah asks Bathsheba to take a petition for him to King Solomon. He says to her: “Pray ask King Solomon—he will not refuse you—to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife” (1 Kgs. 2:17). It is clear that Adonijah recognizes the queen mother’s position of influence over the king, so he confidently turns to Bathsheba as an intercessor for his request.
A few Old Testament prophecies incorporate the queen mother tradition when telling of the future Messiah. One example is Isaiah 7:14, which originated during a time of dynastic crisis in Judah when Syria and Israel were threatening Jerusalem and plotting to overthrow King Ahaz. God offers Ahaz a sign that the kingdom will continue: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isa. 7:13–14).
On one level, this passage points to the next king (Hezekiah) as a pledge that the Davidic dynasty will continue despite the threats of invading armies. At the same time, the royal son who is to be named “Emmanuel” points to the future messianic king (cf., Isa. 9:6–7, 11:1–2). This is why the New Testament says Jesus fulfills this prophecy from Isaiah (Matt. 1:23).
For our purposes we should note how this prophecy links the mother to her royal son. Since the oracle is addressed specifically to the Davidic household and concerns the continuation of the dynasty, the young woman bearing forth the royal son would be understood as a queen mother. This has implications for our understanding of Mary. Since the mother of the king always ruled as queen mother, we should expect to find the mother of the messianic king playing the role of the true queen mother in the everlasting Kingdom of God.
With this Old Testament background, we can now more clearly see how the New Testament portrays Mary in light of the queen mother tradition.
The Gospel of Matthew has often been called the “Gospel of the Kingdom.” Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is “the Son of David,” who is the true King of the Jews establishing the “Kingdom of Heaven.” With all this kingly imagery, it should not be surprising to find queen mother themes as well.
Right away, Matthew shows explicitly how the infant Jesus is the “Emmanuel” child as prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:23). As we saw above, this prophecy links the royal messianic child with his queen mother. Further, Matthew singles out the intimate relationship between the mother and her royal son by using the phrase “the child and his mother” five times in the first two chapters, recalling the close association between queen mother and royal son as described in the Books of Kings. Just as the queen mother was constantly mentioned alongside the Judean kings in 1 and 2 Kings, so Mary is frequently mentioned alongside her royal son, Jesus, in Matthew’s infancy narrative (Matt. 1:18; 2:11, 13, 14, 20, 21).
We find Mary portrayed against the background of Davidic kingdom motifs in Luke’s Gospel as well, especially in his accounts of the Annunciation and Visitation. First, the angel Gabriel is said to appear to a virgin betrothed to a man “of the house of David” (1:27). Then the angel tells Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31–33).
Hear the strong Davidic overtones describing Mary and her royal son: a woman from the house of David giving birth to a son who will be the new king whose reign will never end. With echoes from the queen mother tradition of the Davidic kingdom and the mother-son prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, we can conclude that Mary is being given the vocation of queen mother.
Mary’s royal office is made even more explicit in Luke’s account of the Visitation. Elizabeth greets Mary with the title “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). This title is charged with great queenly significance. In the royal court language of the ancient NearEast, the title “Mother of my Lord” was used to address the queen mother of the reigning king (who himself was addressed as “my Lord”; cf., 2 Sam. 24:21). Thus with this title Elizabeth is recognizing the great dignity of Mary’s role as the royal mother of the king, Jesus.
Finally, Mary’s queenship can be seen in the great vision described in Revelation 12: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (Rev. 12:1–2). Who is this newborn child? He is described as the messianic king exercising his dominion. In verse 5, the author of Revelation chose the messianic Psalm 2 to describe how this child will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5, Ps. 2:9). This royal son is taken up to heaven to sit on a throne (Rev. 12:5), and he ushers in the kingdom of God by defeating the devil: “Now the kingdom of our God has come, for the accuser has been throne down” (12:10). Certainly, this newborn child is the royal Messiah, King Jesus.
In this light it is clear who this woman is who gave birth to the messiah: It is Mary. Some people have interpreted this woman in Revelation 12 as merely a symbol either for the Old Testament people of Israel or for the New Testament Church and therefore have concluded that the woman cannot be an individual (i.e., Mary). However, this “either-or” proposition is foreign to the biblical worldview, in which individuals often symbolically represent collective groups. For instance, Adam represented all humanity (Rom. 5:19), and Jacob stood for all of Israel (Ps. 44:4). Given this biblical notion called “corporate personality,” the woman in Revelation 12 should be understood as both an individual (Mary) and a symbol for the people of God.
But for our purposes, once we see that this woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus, it is important to note how she is portrayed as queen in this passage. Her royal office is hinted at by the imagery of the sun, moon, and twelve stars, which recalls the Old Testament story of Joseph’s dream in which the sun, moon, and stars bow down before him, symbolizing his future authority (Gen. 37:9–11). Her queenship is made even clearer by the crown of twelve stars on her head. Just like the queen mother in Jeremiah 13:18, here Mary is wearing a crown, symbolizing her royal office in the kingdom of heaven. In sum, Revelation 12 portrays Mary as the new queen mother in the Kingdom of God, sharing in her son’s rule over the universe.
We have seen how the Old Testament queen mother tradition serves as an important background for understanding Mary’s royal office. Indeed, the New Testament portrays Mary as the queen mother par excellence. Thus, prayers, hymns, and art giving honor to Mary’s queenship are most fitting biblical responses for Christians. In honoring her as queen mother we do not take anything away from Christ’s glory, but rather we exalt him even more by recognizing the great work he has done in her and through her.
Understanding Mary as queen mother sheds light on her important intercessory role in the Christian life. Just like the queen mother of the Davidic kingdom, Mary serves as advocate for the people in the Kingdom of God today. Thus, we should approach our queen mother with confidence, knowing that she carries our petitions to her royal son and that he responds to her as Solomon did to Bathsheba: “I will never refuse you.”