The scope of the office of the king within the confines of the Law of Moses was restrained in a number of fundamental ways.
Lawful land ownership was on the basis of an inheritance given by God, distributed in the time of Joshua, by tribe and then subdivided on a family basis by lot.
Recipients of the family inheritance upon the decease of an individual were detailed under the law, with additional laws relating to the Jubilee when sold lands would return to the original family inheritors.
The limiting impact of these laws upon the monarchy’s jurisdiction is illustrated in the case of King Ahab and his desire for Naboth’s vineyard. Naboth, acting within his rights under the Law of Moses, refused the sale of the land, and to achieve Ahab’s desire, Jezebel his wife brought false accusations, such that the death penalty should be passed upon Naboth (see 1 Kings 21 for narrative details and 2 Kings 9:26 for the fulfilment of the prophetic message against Ahab).
Historically, appropriation of property and land has been relatively common under a large number of historical monarchical systems of government, where for example court favourites might be awarded fiefdoms, but citizen rights, under the Law of Moses placed restraints upon the king’s jurisdiction over the land.
The Law of Moses, closely defined the role of the Levitical Priesthood in religious worship. The following account of Uzziah provides an example of the limitations this placed on the role of the monarch:-
2 Chronicles 26:16-21 But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense.
And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests of the LORD, that were valiant men: And they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God.
Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, from beside the incense altar.
And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked upon him, and, behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out from thence; yea, himself hasted also to go out, because the LORD had smitten him.
And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD: and Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.
The Law of Moses, defined a divinely imposed, fixed legal framework, covering both religious and civil aspects, enshrining both rights and responsibilities of the citizens. The monarch’s role was thus restricted to the responsibility for application of this law rather than acting as a legislator to create or adapt laws, whilst also personally remaining subject to the law themselves.
This is illustrated in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.
But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.
Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.
And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:
And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:
That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.
David, states; in 2 Samuel 23:3 The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
The Hebrew word ‘tsaddiyq’ translated as ‘just’, implies that the king should act in a right or lawful manner, ruling in the ‘fear’ or as the word implies ‘reverence’ of God.
Thus David’s statement, illustrates how the monarch should be constrained by the rule of law, i.e. the Law of Moses.
This is further illustrated in the following observations in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes:- Proverbs 29:4, 14 The king by judgment establisheth the land: but he that receiveth gifts overthroweth it. … The king that faithfully judgeth the poor, his throne shall be established for ever.
Ecclesiastes 4:13-14 Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished. For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
Many of the monarchs failed to apply these principles and abused their power and privileges, not fully upholding the Law of Moses, as is illustrated in many of the complaints raised in the messages of the prophets. However, this law set a legal structure for their rulership and the scope of the legitimate exercise of their power.