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OT Israel: Constitutional Monarchy?

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I did a brief interview yesterday with Greg Allen of The Right Balance and have a couple more scheduled for next week. It’s kept me thinking about some of the issues surrounding the debate about Christianity, democracy, and Iraq.

In the piece I wrote I pointed to some of the rather guarded opinions of representatives from the Christian tradition, namely John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the possibility of finding the “best” form of government.

But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the biblical data, and it occurs to me that it was during Solomon’s reign that Israel enjoyed its greatest prosperity. We read, for instance, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree.”

This led me to wonder a bit about how we should characterize the rule of the kings in Old Testament Israel. Clearly it’s a monarchy, but what sort?

We see the protection of private property, and a king who is subject to the rule of law and is specifically held accountable to Torah, when necessary by its public expositors the prophets. Calvin noted the intimate relationship between the prophets and Torah. Speaking about understanding the prophetic books, he writes, “the shortest way of treating this subject is to trace the Prophets to the Law, from which they derived their doctrine, like streams from a fountain; for they placed it before them as their rule, so that they may be justly held and declared to be its interpreters, who utter nothing but what is connected with the Law.”

While the prophets lacked the direct relationship with the executive power such that they could enforce Torah adherence, they certainly represented the divine perspective on Torah violation and its consequences (no doubt they were strict constructionists). In that sense they functioned as a sort of judicial check on the monarch’s power, similar to the way our Supreme Court is supposed to function.

If we view Torah as a sort of constitution, then in OT Israel we have an ancient kind of constitutional, and therefore limited, monarchy.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Good points, but remember God specifically warned against having a monarch in the first place, even indicating that the monarch would transgress personal and property rights.

    I think the pre-monarchy period may be a richer area of study for those who would like to see a less restrictive government.

  • I must agree emphatically with August. The Israelites live 400 years under the Judges, and most of that time they were free to do what was right in their own eyes. Only 12 times did they give in to the local paganism enough to provoke a judicial cleansing. The vast majority of that time was free. If anything, the Israelites lacked in trading partners, and that restricted their growth.

    There exists no need for an arbitrary law maker when the law is clearly laid out and a judicial process respectful of precedent exists. In this way law is discovered rather than created.

    Solomon’s blessings must be interpreted as a specific blessing reflective of a specific grace. As the best we can hope for from secular government is common grace, we should look to the common blessing available under judicial rule as exemplified in Judges.

  • Pingback: Aquinas on Kings « Acton Institute PowerBlog()

  • But Didn’t Jesus The Christ, The Judean, institute the final and most perfect rules for monarchy, with His promise of return, no greater proof than this exists, for any High Priest. In Making the Torah a Living, Breathing, Human Being and Dwelt in our presence, with words which were a continuation of Eternal Wisdom, from beginning to end of His Mission. Did he not also say when issuing this edict that no man can be King, Alas Only Myself, in reference to the Almighty. A Declaration explicitly demanded by the Prophet Samuel to the Brethren, before appointing King David to his throne.

  • This ultimately guaranteeing His return as such to every being from lowest to highest on every plane of not only known, but unknown existence also. In response to the comment of Jesus The Christ, as applying to the continued rules for ordination into Kingship.

  • How can one be least among the greatest, and yet greatest among the least? To even think it one must be God Himself.

  • And even if this cannot be recognized, than recognize the chair of St Peter is founded as both Hebrew, and Judean and recognized as Rabbinical. Proof unquestioned.

  • So, both with and against God’s Judgment, The procession of Kings and Priests (teachers, Rabbis) continues. Only through Divine Blood can this be established.