I have been blown away with Deuteronomy’s discussion of Israel’s king. First it anticipates a king arising out of Israel hundreds of years before it happened. Secondly I’m amazed at the limits imposed on the kings of Israel in contrast to other kings of the surrounding region. And thirdly, I think there are some implication for this today.
Here’s the passage from Deuteronomy 17:14-20:
“When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ 15 you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses, one from among your [l]countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your [m]countryman. 16 Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’ 17 He shall not multiply wives for himself, [n]or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.
18 “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll [o]in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 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, [p]by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his [q]countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.
Now I realize this text is primarily talking about Israel and not say the United States, Canada, etc. But I think there are some implications for today.
- God cares about the heart. Notice how this passage mentions the heart twice, both in verse 17 and verse 20. God cares about the heart, including our motivation and relations to God. Of course that does not mean God doesn’t care about outward actions and behavior as the rest of verse indicates with the discussions prohibiting acquiring certain items and also the positive commands for the king to write and read the Scripture, etc. God cares about the heart that is behind those actions. And the actions and behaviors prohibited and prescribed are also to protect and guide the king’s heart. Its not an either/or but a both/and. And its amazing that God cares about the heart even for those of kings.
- Man is sinful, even those who are in authority. Verse 17 prohibits the king having many wives for the purpose that the king’s heart will not be turned away. Specifically, its referring to the king’s heart turning away from God. Now of course there’s multiple reasons why the king should not have multiple wives (one should be married to one person anyway, in God’s intended created order). But the reason singled out does indicate that our heart, including that of kings, have the inclination to sin.
- Since man is sinful, limitation of kings and those in authority makes sense. Our passage mentions three limitations for the king of Israel. There’s a limitation on many horses (v.16). There’s a limitation on wives (v.17a). There’s a limitation on kings acquiring many precious metals (v.17b). Rulers should not have unlimited power since they can easily be wicked tyrants.
- Since man is sinful, limitation of authorities to certain spheres makes sense. Our passage is situated in a section in Deuteronomy that talks about other offices in Israel. One would notice that the office of kings is conditional on an “if” Israel decides to have a king (God is there ultimate King after all). The other offices include prophets, judges and priests. So the king doesn’t have authority over every sphere. There’s a division of spheres. As the saying go, absolute power corrupt absolutely. This is true for sinners having power, not because of power in of itself. So separation of powers or check and balances makes sense.
- Government and kings is not mentioned as what will be that saves us. Notice the passage never says government will bring about our salvation. God is the one who is the source of salvation. This is not merely an argument of silence; as Redemptive History unfolds in the Scriptures we see salvation explain more fully and the means are not by human civil authorities but God’s work in the person and work of Christ. Christians must not forget that. Non-christians also need to know this since some make the state out to be their god and messiah of their problems.
- Ultimately we need to trust in Jesus as the Great King of Kings and Lord of Lord. This is not in the verses we shared but considering the flow of biblical theology we know that Jesus is the great promised Davidic King who will reign forever. He will be sinless and just. At this time Jesus is merciful and gracious, with his ministry of saving sinners. Trust in Him today!