Deuteronomy 17:14-20


Some believe and teach that God did not want Israel to have a king. But that is wrong. God did want Israel to have a king. This is already indicated in Genesis 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.” (KJV) God’s plan for rule, i.e., “the scepter, a lawgiver,” indicating dominion or rule over people, would continue and culminate in the universal messianic reign of Christ. God intended for there to be government. How else could the following be understood? “By me kings rule, and rulers decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, all the judges of the earth” (Proverbs 8:15, 16). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; as the rivers of water, He turns it whithersoever He will” (Prov. 21:1)? Think of the Pharoah whose heart the Lord hardened. Think of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar who God made to eat grass like the ox. God not only intended for there to be law and order in a sin-fallen world, He ordained it: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God . . . For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to exercise wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:1,2,4). God instructs us through the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”

So yes, God intended for there to be rule. In fact, God was graciously willing to give Israel a king and even to bless him. But it would not be the kind of king the people envisioned nor would it be for the reasons they wanted a king, as noble as they thought them to be. The prophet Samuel, also considered the first judge, had grown old and tired, and appointed his two sons as judges over Israel (cf. 1 Samuel 8:1). They “did not walk in [their father’s] ways, but turned aside after gain [and] took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3). As a result, we read in 1 Samuel 8:4,5: “Then all the elders of Israel came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” This upset Samuel and he takes it to the Lord in prayer.  The Lord tells him to warn the people and to “show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Sam. 8:9). Samuel tells the people what God said, and how their demand for a king would involve much more than they bargained for: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow the ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and your female servants and the best of your young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, ‘No! But there shall be a king over us that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:11-20).

But God had a certain kind of king in mind. In Deuteronomy 17, long before the time of King Saul, God said: “When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses . . .” (verses 14-15).  The king was to be chosen by God—that is what Israel ignored in the days of Samuel.

In our Scripture (Deut. 17:14-20), God gave the qualifications for a king. First, the king was to be an Israelite: “one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother” (vs. 15). This meant the king would belong to the people who recognized the authority of God—like Christians today who desire godly men to rule over them; like godly men who also recognize the authority of God, and who agree with the Psalmist in 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance,” or with the words of Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

Second, the king must not acquire many horses: “But he shall not multiply horses for himself” (17:16a), for that could result in replacing their trust in God.  The Psalmist warns, “No king is saved by the multitude of an army; a mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain hope for safety; neither shall it deliver any by its great strength.” (Ps. 33:16-18) Our military might, as powerful as it is, must not become a substitute for trust in God and His protection. The verse (17:16) goes on to say: “nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall not return that way again” (17:16). The horses came from Egypt and going back there for more horse-trading would only tempt the Israelites to interact with the pagan people from whom they had been delivered. Alliances can be harmful and dangerous, and are no guarantee for safety. God’s people, then and now, are cautioned to remember their separateness. The prophet Isaiah: “Depart! Depart! Go out from there, touch no unclean thing; Go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord” (Isaiah 52:11). The prophet Ezekiel: “I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out” (Ezekiel 20:34). We are more familiar with 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, which is partially based on these passages: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell with them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.’”

Third, the king must not take many wives: “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (17:17a). It was normal in ancient times to seal treaties between kings by intermarriage. However, foreign women would influence the Israelites to abandon the unique lifestyle to which God has called them. Later in Israel’s history, King Ahab (who married Jezebel) and King Jehoram (who married Athaliah), learned the hard consequences of ignoring this proscription. Both of these women, who were heathens, brought the judgment of God upon their husbands and their reigns—the result of being unequally yoked together.

Fourth, the king must not accumulate large amounts of gold and silver: “nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself” (17:17b). God wanted Israel’s king to remain dependent upon Him for success; and also, again, wanted to keep His people from interacting with the pagan nations that would be supplying the gold and silver. Maybe we ought to ask: Is our national debt enslaving us to other nations?

Fifth, the king must keep a copy of God’s law with him, to be read throughout his life, so he would rule according to God’s principles: “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom he and his children in the midst of Israel” (17:18-20). Would we, as Christians, not desire the same of our leaders as well? May we not, should we not pray for this? In fact, was this not the reason for the Ten Commandments being inscribed on our Supreme Court Building?

This described God’s king—faithful, separate from the pagans, guiding the people to righteous living as a shepherd leads his sheep. Yes, indeed, God wanted Israel to have a king, a king of His choosing.

Many years have passed since God, through Moses, had led the Israelites to the promised land and had given them His qualifications for a king. Now, facing a Philistine threat, they come to Samuel and ask him to appoint king to lead them “such as all the nations have.”  Samuel is angry because he knew they were asking in unbelief and rejecting God’s rule. They were not asking for a king that God would choose, but the kind that the world would choose, the kind that would make them great. Hear what impressed the people: “There was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish . . . And he had a choice and handsome son whose name was Saul. There was not a more handsome person then he among the children of Israel. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:1-2). Later, speaking to Saul, Samuel makes this comment: “And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on you and on all your father’s house? (1 Sam. 9:20). Then, when Samuel anoints Saul king, we read: “And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward” (1 Sam. 10:23).

When the people asked for a ruler as other nations had, God gave them Saul—a man who couldn’t keep track of donkeys in his care (cf. 1 Sam.9), to show them what their kind of king would be: a self-absorbed failure. Throughout his life, Saul did things to satisfy his desires and not God’s. King Saul was meant to be a lesson—that the wrong king was worse than no king at all! Sadly, the lesson was not heeded. Centuries later, God tells us through the prophet Hosea: “They set up kings but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them. From their silver and gold, they made idols for their own destruction” (Hosea 8:4).

By contrast, David—a shepherd by trade—was God’s choice for king, a man after His own heart and a type of the true king.  David lived by the words of the Law, keeping the Lord always before him. When he sinned with Bathsheba, he was beside himself with sorrow, because he knew he had turned from God. We read of his sorrow and repentance in Psalm 51, written by David when Nathan the prophet confronted him after he had become responsible for the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, and after he had committed adultery with her.

Does this contrast between King Saul and King David have any application for us today? Can we, may we apply these qualifications for a king found in Deuteronomy 17 to our day and situation? Or is this meant only for a theocracy of which the nation of Israel has been the only one? Nonetheless, the question persists, for was not Israel an example for us today (cf. 1 Cor. 10:6-12)?  Although a theocracy no longer exists, the Lord continues to have a “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people . . . who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9, 10)  This holy nation is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ,  “redeemed out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9; cf. Ps. 22:27;  Rev. 7:9).  The Church which Jesus redeemed is the very people to whom and for whom the Old Testament Scriptures remain relevant, including God’s qualifications for a king.

Today, we also, like the Israelites, face a similar decision: Who or what do we want as our king or leader? There are some fascinating stories in 1 Samuel that provide us with some insight and perspective.

As we know, Solomon, David’s son, was the wisest king of all. Nonetheless, the Bible judges Solomon by God’s standards. Let’s see: “But he shall not multiply horses for himself” (Dt. 17:16a). However, we read in 2 Chronicles 9:25, “Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.” Deuteronomy 17:17b states, “nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself.” Yet in 2 Chronicles 9:27 we read: “The king [Solomon] made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones,” and in 2 Chronicles 9:13, “The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 talents” (a talent was about 75 lbs.). The next qualification for God’s king is found in Deuteronomy 17:17a, “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away.” 1 Kings 11:3 tells us: “He [Solomon] has seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines [mistresses] and his wives turned away his heart.” What a shock! Solomon, the wisest human ruler who ever lived, and he broke almost every command God gave for a king.

Surely there is something better! I trust you and I desire something better? What kind of king or leader do we want?  What I’m getting at is probably different from what you are thinking, in spite of the fact that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign. Matthew, the Jewish writer of the first gospel, voiced our need and what is best. The people of his day were clamoring for a king, a deliverer, as well. But here, too, they wanted someone who would fulfill all their desires; one who would come with a showy display of power and lead a political or military movement, and make them great once again. Matthew’s thoughts go back to King Solomon and his fame and accomplishments. He tells of the queen of the South (Sheba), who had traveled a great distance, having heard of the wisdom and wealth of Solomon. When she saw and heard for herself, she could only say that the half had not been told her (cf. 1 Kings 10).  Yet, if this is the best the human race can come up with, Matthew points us to someone else. He remembers and reminds us of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Behold, one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42).

That was God’s final choice for the ideal king: David’s greater Son and David’s Lord.  Indeed! For He is King of kings, and Lord of lords. Before Him every knee must and shall bow! Our political nation (the USA) also cries, “Give us a king!” And we will do so through the electoral process. We will make a choice.

“Give us a king!” Yes, it is a legitimate request. God has ordained that there be rulers, presidents, prime ministers, governors, etc. God also gave qualifications for such rulers which, I believe, remain applicable today. But in this process, let us be careful to remember that when Pontius Pilate, out of skepticism and expediency, would have the people acknowledge Jesus as their king, the chief priests cried out, “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn. 19:15). God forbid that we would say the same thing!

Rev. Vernon Pollema

Bakersfield, CA

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