Monday, October 01, 2007

Deuteronomy 17:14–20

Deuteronomy 17:14–20: Rules for an Israelite king

Synopsis

As Moses is addressing the Israelite nation, the country is structured in such a way that it doesn’t have any kind of king, or president, or supreme ruler—God is the ruler of the nation. It is a theocracy, where the country is headed by God, instead of by a person. However, God knows that the Israelites are eventually going to want a king, so that they can be like the other nations. (See verse 14.) So, in this passage, Moses hands down rules for how a king is to behave, when the Israelites get one.

Here are the rules:

  • The king is to be an Israelite, not a foreigner
  • The king is not to acquire a great number of horses
    • It specifically says that the king is not to make the people return to Egypt, to get more horses, because the LORD has told the Israelites “You are not to go back that way again” (verse 16)—so I don’t think this is about horses, or possessions, it’s about foreign policy with Egypt.
  • The king is not to have many wives, so that his heart will not turn astray
  • The king is not to accumulate lots of silver or gold

These are the basic rules for a king. Moses also hands down an interesting ceremony, that each king is to go through, whenever he takes the throne:

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel. (verses 18–20)

Actually, I guess it’s a daily ritual as well as a ceremony.

Thoughts

This is an interesting passage, because the LORD is handing down rules for something that should never happen—the Israelites should never ask for a king, so these rules should never be needed. But He knows that they will, and, in this case, instead of punishing their disobedience and refusing them their request, He is going to give them a king. Even when we sin, the LORD can use the situation for His own purposes. (See 1 Samuel 8 for the story of the Israelites requesting a king.)

Probably the two most famous kings of Israel’s Old Testament history were David—a man whose heart was devoted to the LORD—and Solomon—the wisest man who ever lived. So it’s interesting to note that both men broke the rule about having many wives, and both men accumulated lots of silver and gold. (A case could be made, though, that David only accumulated so much silver and gold because he was collecting it for use in building the Temple.) Despite his wives, David’s heart seems to have been committed to God—other than the famous examples of his sins—while Solomon’s heart was definitely led astray by his wives. And Solomon definitely broke the rule about trading horses from Egypt; see 1 Kings 10:14–29 (especially verse 28).

It’s not hard to look through the Old Testament for examples of kings who weren’t godly, but even King David fell short on some of these commands. I also find myself wondering if any king—including David—ever followed the rule about sitting down every single day, to read God’s law.
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