Deuteronomy 17:14-20

Jimmy JoDeuteronomy, O.T. Survey, SermonsLeave a Comment

In a Nutshell…

Read the passage here.

As we continue in our series, remember that Deuteronomy is, essentially, a series of speeches or sermons given by Moses to the Israelites, knowing that he won’t be going with them, as they anticipate entering the promised land of Canaan. We’ve been exploring what some of the laws and instructions mean, specifically in the context of becoming a people.  The Israelites have been freed from Egyptian captivity, have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years – essentially, not a people – and are now at the threshold of nationhood. 

So it makes sense that one of the things that God and Moses are concerned about has to do with governance or civic order.  Now there are other passages that talk about civic order and justice, but the passage that we’re looking at today specifically has to do with kingship. 

In our text, Moses anticipates a time when the Israelites will have settled in the land and will want to have a king, like all the other nations around them.  Now we might say that Israel is wrong to want to be like their Canaanite neighbours.  In 1 Samuel, when Israel demands a king, Samuel the prophet of God, rebukes them for their hubris.  

4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.

1 Samuel 8:4-8

But it seems that in our passage today, God has no issue with Israel having a king.  So what’s going on here? 

First of all, let’s situate this passage into a larger context.  The passage we’re looking at today is situated in the middle of a larger passage about leadership and civic order in Israel.  Before this larger passage, we get instructions regarding various annual feasts that Israel is to observe.  That’s probably neither here nor there, but knowing this helps us to situate the discussion in the context of Israel’s day-to-day (sort of) life.  Then, beginning at chapter 16:18 and taking us through chapter 18, we get an extended discussion about the topic of leadership.  Here’s what it looks like: 

  • 16:18-20  Appoint judges and officers
  • 16:21 – 17:7  Prohibition against idolatry
  • 17:8-13  Legal Decisions by Priests and Judges (between people?)
  • 17:14-20  Kings
  • 18:1-8  Provision for Priests and Levites (No inheritance)
  • 18:9-14  Don’t follow other nations (abominable practices)
  • 18:15-22  A new prophet (like Moses)

This may not be an example of chiasm, per se. Nevertheless, I think we can safely see that the entire passage hangs together as a unit.  And a critical theme that holds the passage together is that Israel is not to be like the nations around them.  They are not to follow the ways of the Canaanites, they are not to turn to idolatry and forsake the Lord their God, because they are a different people – a people belonging to God. 

So having said that, we turn to our immediate passage today – not, again, because it’s the central (or most important) passage – but because it’s useful in helping us understand these instructions (I hope).  I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m going to run through these points fairly quickly. 

The passage opens with the following words: 

14 “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

Deuteronomy 17:14-15

Paying special attention to the restriction, “One from among your brothers you shall set as a king over you.  You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother,” it might be tempting to read into this a kind of exclusivism or even racism.  However, we should put this into the context of the warnings against idolatry and abominable practices that we’ve seen in the larger passage.  The issue has nothing to do with ethnicity or tribalism – rather, it has to do with what God do you serve? 

The next verses or injunctions may be related to one another: 

16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

Deuteronomy 17:16-17

The injunction against acquiring horses, particularly with Egypt, may have to do with the building up of military power. Horses, and in particular chariots, were vastly superior to infantry, and any good military would want to acquire them.  The mention of Egypt may have to do with trade relationships (specifically as it relates to horses) – but it seems to anticipate the danger of a physical manifestation of a spiritual truth.  To put it another way, once Israel starts trading with Egypt, it’s not a difficult step to start accepting Egypt as partners – returning that way in their hearts. 

The injunction against acquiring many wives may have to do with marrying in order to increase political relationships.  This is a common motif in many cultures and civilizations. 

And the acquisition of silver and gold seems to complete this triad of military, alliances, and wealth – all of which are necessary in order to acquire or increase power. 

So in short, I think that these verses are, through very concrete and practical terms, warning against the king’s tendency to see himself as more than he is and a desire to increase in worldly terms – and that, by his own strength.  The king is, presumably, in the highest position in the nation and the temptations are great. 

Now let’s contrast that with the verses that follow.  Verses 18-20 say: 

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20

Moses instructs the people that the king is to “write for himself…a copy of [the] law.”  The king is to read it regularly, to know it by heart, and to know and fear YHWH.  It is in this way that the king “may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment.” 

What we’re seeing in the intended king of Israel is a sharp contrast to what most of us expect in a leader or a ruler.  Typically, we want someone who is going to be effective; someone who is going go make big and important changes; we want someone who has a proven track record of success. 

But the king of Israel is not to be defined by power, but by character – that is, character that is shaped by the word of God, by knowing God. 

And this also tells us something about the kind of people that Israel is supposed to be.  Israel is called to be a different kind of people – not like the people in the lands that they will find themselves; not like their neighbours.  They are called to not pursue the things that other nations pursue and not desire the things other nations desire. They are called to be a people who are defined by their relationship with the living God – that relationship which is defined by being chosen; by being blessed to be a blessing; a relationship that is defined by grace. 

What does this tell us about what kind of people we are called to be?  Well, there’s a sense in which the king of Israel represents the nation of Israel.  What we see in the history books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles) is that, at least as far as the narrative is concerned, the fate of Israel is closely tied with the king.  When the king, like David, is close to God, is a man after God’s own heart, we see that Israel prospers – is blessed.  However, when the king is led astray by idols, foreign gods, and a desire for power, Israel suffers. 

Now I’m not saying that the king, as an individual, is somehow spiritually responsible for the entire nation.  Rather, I’m suggesting that the king is somehow emblematic, representative, of the state of the nation.  While the king certainly leads the people, there is also probably a sense in which the king arises out of the people. 

So all this is to say, without trying to be overly subtle about it, is that if the king is to be defined not by power, but by character, we can say the same thing about Israel, the people of God.  In other words, shouldn’t we say the same thing about us, the church?  One of the things that we’re seeing in Deuteronomy, and one of the things that we see in this passage (both the immediate and extended passage) is that the people of God is called to be a different kind of people.  We are not to fall in with the other nations, bowing down before their idols and chasing after their gods.  Shouldn’t we, too, be recognized not by our accomplishments, our successes and failures, our power, but rather by our character? 

So What Now…?

Now I don’t want to spend too long on this (though it’s worth thinking about in greater detail), but character is a complex thing.  Those who study character (people like the ancient Greeks and Christians like Augustine, and contemporaries like N.T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas) say that character is built through practices which establish habits.  And all of this is guided by values or virtues – in other words, what sort of character are we trying to build or establish? 

Now as we have been talking about “what kind of people are we trying to be,” we’re in some way making a distinction between “what are the things we do?” and “what are we trying to be?”  But these things are largely inter-related.  Because what we do forms and shapes who we are.  And who we are informs what we do. 

So again, we could spend a lot of time just talking about this notion.  However, I want to return us to our passage today.  In verses 18-20 we see: 

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20

What we see is that the task that is assigned to the king, written in the book of the law, is that he writes a copy of the book of the law, read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD. 

This is a practice.  This is a practice that forms a habit that shapes the king’s character.  The king is to be immersed in the word of God.  And it’s not so he can list it as an accomplishment.  It’s not so he can place a certificate of achievement on his wall that others can see and admire.  It’s not so he can build his legacy; but rather, it’s so he can build his character. 

If the king is to lead the people of God, so that they may be a people dedicated to God, different from all the peoples on the earth, he (and they) must be shaped and guided by the word of God. 

Now this is only one practice.  There are many other things that the king will do.  There are many other things that the people will do – many of them outlined in the book of Deuteronomy.  But the overarching concern; the purpose of all of it is, what kind of people will they be? 

So the question is put to us as well.  It’s put to us each day, and every time we gather.  What kind of people are we hoping to be?  By what values and virtues will our character be defined?  And how are we working, how are we allowing God to work in us, how are we attending to scripture and seeking to build our lives on the truth of the word of God? 

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