What I Learned from the Life and Death of a Benevolent King

A memorial for the Thai king

It’s hard to imagine Thailand without King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He reigned longer than many Thais have lived.

He ascended to the throne in 1946 when the world was still picking up the pieces after World War II. Over the course of his seventy-year reign, the king helped Thailand rise from a small kingdom with limited economic advantage, to an established, modern nation with a stable economy known for its agriculture, silk exports, and tourism. Thais are grieving the loss of a sovereign imprinted into the memories of generations of Thais.

I’m grieving too. The king is also a part of my story. I moved to Thailand as a ten-year-old, and I’ve lived in the country longer than I have in the United States. The image of the king has always been a part of my daily life. All businesses and most homes display a portrait of the king, and his image is on the currency. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I stood and proudly hummed along to the king’s song that’s played before every movie in theaters across Thailand.

The king shaped my view of what a world leader should be. I grew up believing, because of his example, that leaders can be respected role models. He didn’t inherit veneration because of his family lineage. He earned it. Tireless devotion to his people, servant leadership, and his role as a peacemaker made him a beloved monarch.

From my view, under the leadership of a good king, the Lord has taught me lessons about the character of the King of Kings. I’ve seen imperfect reflections of godly character in King Adulyadej, specifically humble servitude and a predilection for peacemaking.

A Sovereign Servant

King Bhumibol Adulyadej modeled service. He used his position to invest in his country and his people—the young and old, the poor and the wealthy, the urban and the rural. I learned from him that good leaders lead from among their people, not from above. Even though he was the king, he didn’t leave social works programs to others.

“Tireless devotion to his people, servant leadership, and his role as a peacemaker made the king a beloved monarch.”

With a camera around his neck and blueprints and maps in his hand, he traveled to remote areas to meet with farmers, hear their needs, conduct research, and design plans to implement development projects, including crop substitution, cloud seeding, health care, education, irrigation, research centers, and water conservation projects.

The king even served the marginalized, taking interest in bettering the lives of tribal people groups who are often looked down on in Thailand. Watching him serve the Thai people in this way reminded me of the Christian call to serve and love those on the margins, to lift up the disadvantaged, and to fight the evils of discrimination.

The king was also a humble sovereign who noticed ordinary individuals. An iconic image of the king that still gives me chills shows him leaning down with a caring smile on his face as he touched the hands of a kneeling woman.

A friend of mine commented about it, “What I love about this picture is that it is the perfect metaphor for God. As Americans, we view kings as despots to rebel against, but to Thai people and to me, a king is worthy of my respect. . . . Our King of Kings humbled himself enough to touch us and raise our heads.”

Christ as Our Model

Jesus taught his followers, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 20:26 NASB). He was the ultimate example of servant leadership. In fact, many people didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah because they weren’t expecting a servant leader.

Most Jews expected the Messiah to overthrow the Roman Empire. They were waiting for a majestic sovereign who would defeat their enemies, set them free, and establish a kingdom on earth. But Jesus defied their expectations. He told his followers that he didn’t come to be served, but to be a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28).

“There is no one who ever stooped to lift the brokenhearted like Jesus.”

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, listened to the heavy-hearted, healed the sick, and taught about the kingdom of God. He spent time with overlooked people groups—tax collectors, prostitutes, and fishermen. No matter how many times I read Luke 8, I still love the moment when Jesus, the ultimate empathetic Sovereign, stopped in a crowd to notice a bleeding woman who touched his robe. She mattered to him. There is no one who ever stooped to lift the brokenhearted like Jesus. Only Jesus enables us as Christians to be servant leaders.

A Sovereign Peacemaker

Throughout the decades, the Thai king was a stabilizing force in the midst of the changing political tides. On more than one occasion, he bridged the divide between two sharply divided sides to avert a national crisis. When Thai citizens protested in the streets, it was the king who called for calm. He knew that Thailand was stronger when its people were unified.

“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus bridged the divide between God and sinful people on our behalf. His sacrifice averted an eternal crisis. He made peace where none existed. Paul encouraged the Roman church with, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1 HCSB).

Jesus is the bringer of peace. The New Testament authors knew him as such. Their writings are replete with admonition from Christ to his followers to have peace, and then from the writers to their readers to have peace through Christ. In our broken and troubled world, Christ is the only source of peace. Lasting peace is one of the beauties of living under the rule of a benevolent King.

Longing for an Eternal Kingdom

I walked around my neighborhood on the second evening after the announcement of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s passing. The sun made a slow escape, allowing me to glance into open-windowed homes, all with portraits of the king on the wall. Several days later, in a darkened movie theater, I stood in sad silence for the king’s song. I grieve alongside my neighbors and friends in the nation I call home.

A human sovereign of an earthly nation eventually passes away. Our sovereign God will not. I long for a kingdom without end. Until then, I’m walking forward, following the Father, and seeking to be a servant and peacemaker where the Lord has placed me.