The separation of church (cult) from state in Israel can be seen by a number of differences between the priest and the king. The officials of the king included cherethites and pelethites (2 Sam. 15:18; 20:7), commander of the army, commander of the body guard, recorder, scribe (2 Sam. 8:16-18; 20:23-26; 1 Chron. 27:32-34; 1 Kings 4:1-6), counselors (1 Chron. 18:17; 1 Kings 12:6; 2 Kings 25:19; Jer. 52:25), overseer of public works (1 Kings 5:16), royal treasurer (1 Chron. 27:25-31), official tax collectors (1 Kings 4:7-19), and marshall of the court (1 Kings 4:5). Mettinger lists the major officials in Solomon’s court as: royal secretary, royal herald, friend of the king, house-minister, chief of the district prefects, and superintendent of the forced levy.17 These officers are clearly distinct from the officials of the temple priesthood,18 which were: high priest, suffragan priest, chief treasurer, overseer, gate-keepers, under-treasurers (these preceding being the council of the temple), heads of each course, heads of families of each course, and finally overseers of gates, guards, lots, and so forth.19 Therefore, the officials of the church did not overlap with the officials of the state but differed in each realm.
So also did the duties and regulations differ between the ecclesiastical and executive realms of the Israelite state. The king tended to administration, justice, war, safety, foreign affairs, and commerce, while the priests were busy with consecration, the holy place and courts, ceremonial cleanness, sacrifices, cultic observances, and the like. Nowhere are the priests given rights like those of the king: to take a general levy and appoint officers thereunto (1 Sam. 8:11-17; 14:50; 2 Sam. 8:16; 20:23; 1 Kings 4:4), to take over property or oversee estates (1 Kings 4:6; 21:15; 2 Sam. 8), to lay levies on property owners and to tax agriculture and animal husbandry (2 Kings 15:20; 1 Sam. 8:15, 17; 1 Kings 4:5, 7; 5:2 ff.), to constitute the highest court of legal appeal (2 Sam. 8:16; 14:2 ff.; 15:2 ff.; 20:24; 1 Kings 4:3), to require forced labor or use conscription (2 Sam. 20:24; 1 Kings 4:6; 5:27 ff.; 9:21-22). However, the king was very certainly limited in his activities by the law of God (cf. Deut. 17:14-20). Consequently he could not carry out the functions of a priest. When the king takes it upon himself to ordain priests, they are idolatrous priests that need to be put down (cf. 2 Kings 23:5). When the king presumes to offer sacrifice to God he is condemned. Saul offers sacrifice against the command of God and thus must suffer the termination of his kingdom (1 Sam. 13:9-15). Uzziah trespassed the Lord’s commandment and offered incense upon the altar, and for this he was struck with leprosy (2 Chron. 26:16-21). When Jeroboam offers sacrifice at the new altar he is judged by God and stricken (1 Kings 12:32-13:5). And when Ahaz offers sacrifice upon the altar, it is the new altar made after the pattern of an altar in Damascus—the altar to a pagan god (2 Kings 16:12 ff.). The only places where a king is said to offer sacrifice and the passage does not either have a causative sense (“had sacrifices offered”) or disapprobate the behavior are: David’s sacrifice at the coming of the ark to Jerusalem and Solomon’s sacrifice at the dedication of the temple. Both of these instances are laden with strong typological value, pointing to the work of the Messianic Priest-King, Jesus Christ, who is God come to His people to dwell among them (the symbol of the temple). Thus, these two incidents must be viewed as “positive” law or activity again; they quite clearly do not sanction the priestly activity of the king as a general or standing rule (witness Saul and Uzziah). Indeed, what gives these incidents their noteworthy and special nature is precisely the extraordinary character of the events.Therefore, it is proper to see a normal distinction between the duties and rights of the king and those of the priest, which in turn points to the separation of church and state. While the priest had to satisfy purity requirements, among which entailed no touching of dead bodies or drinking wine, the king was allowed both to engage in war and drink alcoholic beverage. The priest had to be a Levite, the king did not; in the Southern Kingdom he had to be from Judah.
The succession of high priests always passed from father to son (cf. Neh. 12:10-11), but the succession of kingship did not automatically go to the son. Sometimes it went outside the royal line by popular choice (cf. 1 Maccabees 9:30-31; 13:8-9) or by usurpation (Judg. 9) or to a queen (2 Kings 11:1-3; 2 Chron. 22:12). The will of the people or human arrangements were foundational to the selection or election of a king (1 Sam. 11:14-15; 2 Sam. 2:4, 8-9; 5:3; 1 Kings 1:11 ff.; 12:1, 20; 2 Kings 11:12; 21:24; 23:30). David made a mutual obligation covenant between himself and the tribes who chose him as king, based on negotiations with the elders. The elders laid down legal conditions for the king (1 Kings 12:3 ff.), and a new king would be elected when there was dissatisfaction with the present ruler (1 Kings 12:16-20). Thus although Israel’s rulership was always subject to the will of God as spoken by the prophet (cf. 1 Sam. 9:26-10:1; 2 Sam. 7:8-17; 1 Kings 11:29 ff.; 16:1; 2 Kings 9:1 ff.), it was nevertheless true that there was reality in the political movements of the people or elders in establishing what is basically a constitutional monarchy in Israel. While the priesthood was based upon strict family descent, the heads of the tribes (Deut. 1:13), some of the judges (e.g., Judg. 11:4-11), and a significant number of the kings in Israel were elected or representatively selected by the people. As Martin Noth aptly puts it, the Israelites were “king-makers.” However, the people never had the prerogative to be “priest-makers”!
The king’s palace was differentiated from the temple (and priestly residence; cf. 1 Kings 6-7). The draftee servants of the king were separate from the temple servants (cf. 1 Sam. 8:11-17; 1 Kings 5:13; Ex. 28- 29; Num. 3:28, 32; 8:18). The Levites were exempt from the census and draft (Num. 1:48-49). And at the most practical level, the temple tax and tithes were distinct from the tributes paid to the king. While the priests were supported by the voluntary contributions of the people, the magistrate could lay taxes upon the population and enforce them. First Kings 14:26 clearly indicates a distinguishing between state revenues and religious revenues. The Older Testament recognizes an offering on the firstborn (Ex. 12:17 ff.; 13:13; 15:19 ff.; Num. 18:15 ff.; Lev. 28:26), an offering of first-fruits (Ex. 23:19; Num. 18:9, 12 ff.; Deut. 26:2 ff.; 18:4), a tithe (Lev. 27:30-33; Num. 17:21-24; Deut. 12:6 ff.; 14:22-27; 26:13 ff.), atonement money (Ex. 30:11-16), and a temple tax (Ex. 38:25 ff.; 2 Chron. 24:6-11; Neh. 10:33). All of these went to the priests and are distinct from the king’s own taxation tithe (1 Sam. 8:14-17), import tax (1 Kings 10:15), vassel tributes (2 Sam. 8:2, 6; 1 Kings 5:1), gifts (1 Kings 10:2, 10, 24-25; 2 Kings 5:5; 20:12; 1 Sam. 10:27; 16:20; 2 Sam. 8:10), taxes levied on the people (2 Kings 15:19-20; 23:33-35; 2 Chron. 17:5; Amos 5:11; 1 Sam. 8:15, 17), and appropriations (Amos 7:1). Were there no separation of church and state, all collections from the populace would go into one coffer and be allocated by a single administrator, but this is not what we find in the Older Testament. When Israel was under foreign control at the time of Artaxerxes there was still a distinction drawn between church and state, for while tax was paid to the king (Neh. 5:4, 14-15) he recognized Levite-priestly exemptions (Ezra 7:24).Another separation of church from state had to be observed with respect to the penalties imposed for violations of God’s law. While the magistrate had the power of the sword to execute appropriate criminals, the most extreme punishment imposed for the breaking of ecclesiastical law (i.e., ceremonial commandments) was excommunication.20 This did not belong in any sense to the civil arm to inflict.
Was there a separation of church and state in Israel then? It appears that evidence supports an affirmative answer.The true view is that church and state were in equilibrio, and the Lord was the head of both. He was the civil head of the republic, and was also the head of the ecclesiastical system or hierarchy. These both had access to him by prophet and oracle, and found their only unity in him. Under his administration neither state nor church could dominate the other. . . . Two features are obvious. Neither church nor state derived its rights and franchises from the other, nor over the other. Neither could fill official positions in the other, or usurp the functions of the other . . . each had its own revenues.21
There was also a recognized distinction between the personnel who comprised the national state and those in the spiritual church. This is evidenced by the doctrine of the remnant in the Older Testament (cf. Lev. 26:40-44; Isa. 1:9; 6:3; 8:16-20; 10:20 ff.; 14:21-27; 28:5; 37:30-32; 41:8-9; 42:18-43:13; 44:15; Jer. 3:12, 14; Ezek. 11:14 ff.; 33:24; 37:12; 36:26-27; Hos. 1:9-10; 2:23; 5:15-6:3; Amos 3:12; 4:11; Zeph. 3:9-13; Hag. 1:12; Zech. 8:6, 11-15). A person could have civic membership and rights (as well as social responsibilities) in the national state without being accounted as a good covenant-keeping child of God; the mention of the remnant draws a line between those who were in the state and church and those who were in the state only. As Paul explains it, “they are not all Israel which are of Israel,” and only a remnant of those who are numbered as the sand will be saved (Rom. 9:6, 27). So we conclude that there was a distinction drawn between the personnel as well as the officials of the state and church. As to the officials, there was an obvious separation between church and state regarding qualification, function, locale, support, organization, and servants.
All footnotes to Greg Bahnsen’s work cited above are found on pp. 395-400 of Theonomy in Christian Ethics [Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002; first edition 1977]. The footnotes are cited below as found in his book.
17. Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, Solomonic State Officials: A Study of the Civil Government Officials of the Israelite Monarchy, Coniectanea Biblica: Old Testament Series, No. 5 (Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerups Förlag, 1971).
18. The listing of the priests in 1 Kings 4:4 does not indicate that they were princes in the royal family, but simply among the chief officials in relation to the people. Mettinger does not treat them as state officers at all.
19. Merril F. Unger, “Hebrew Priesthood,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 3rd. ed. rev. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1961), p. 884.
20. Shearer, op. cit., pp. 146-147.
21. Ibid., p. 96.