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Deuteronomy 17: Don't Let the King Become Too Powerful!

Before living in Texas, I had never owned my own home. I had lived in three different cities as an adult, seeking to do God’s will and follow His lead in my life. Owning property (and what would have been a hefty mortgage) was never part of the equation. The journey God had me on made buying and putting down roots counter-productive to His purposes. I’ve lived in Houston now for six years and this is the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I was a child. And yes, we’ve finally bought a place!

Having settled in Houston, it made sense that we might eventually buy. As well as the financial advantage, living in an area of Houston I love (the Heights), I’d also spent many an hour walking the dogs, seeing cute bungalows and historic homes, and found myself wanting something similar. Seeing how other people had settled into the community made it inevitable that I might start wanting it for myself. However, with the purchase of a home creeps in another danger: conflict of priorities! The walks through the neighborhood, even though we now have a place that is ours, can result in the desire for a bigger lot, a better porch, nicer windows and so on. Now we have a home, the danger is we start to see it as a reflection of our value or importance. A new challenge arises: is our home serving us as we seek to serve God or are we starting to be preoccupied in making it somehow reflect our status and to “keep up with the Jones?” Is the thing that God has allowed and enabled us to have become something that feeds our ego and actually distracts us from Him?

Read Deuteronomy 17:14-20
The Israelites were on the brink of a life in which they could put down roots. God had freed from slavery and they were now about to enter a land they could call their own. The tribes would settle in different areas and life would change. Life in this land would be organized and laws made according to God’s will–a manifestation of the covenant He had made with them. With the change that was coming, God knew the people would eventually start wanting a king. A settled people now living among settled peoples with kings, it was natural that might happen. So here in Deuteronomy 17, we find laws that provide for God’s permissive will. However, like all political and economic systems, there are risks–not just inherent to the system itself but, as the covenanted people of God, risks to this covenant relationship. The worst risk of all: that the system ceases serving the people as they serve and worship God and instead is used to abuse the people and serve the leaders who set themselves up as gods. Knowing that the establishment of a monarchy could bring about such risks, God gave laws for the proper exercising of that office.

First up are the negatives, the things the king should not to do in office. Like so much sin, it comes down to three things: money, sex and power (for more on this, I highly recommend Richard Foster’s book Money, Sex and Power ). The first that gets a mention is power: acquisition of horses (v. 16) was an indication of military strength, as horses enabled the possibility of chariots and cavalrymen. In seeking to build up his military prowess in this way, the king showed himself to be trusting in the human strength rather than God’s. Moreover, desire for military strength can and does often result in the compromise of the people rather than their protection. In this instance, the risk was that the king sold some of the people back into slavery in Egypt in exchange for more horsepower. The second negative is regarding the politics of sex: the acquisition of many wives is forbidden (v. 17a). This is not because of the inevitable familial stress and headache that would come with polygamy! In the ancient world, the king would acquire wives as part of political treaties with other kings and kingdoms. Yet the result was that the more wives the king had, the more compromised his original treaty and covenant with God would become. It meant compromising his allegiance to Yahweh. And then we come to the third and final negative: money. The king was not to build up wealth for himself (v. 17b). If financial gain became the focus, it would distract from the faithful exercising of the office of king. Why? Because it would no longer be about serving the people and trusting in God. The common element between the three prohibited activities is they all seek to build up power for the king in his office rather than trusting in God’s provision and protection. It broke the terms of the covenant.

Yet faithful kingship was not just about what the king didn’t do–it was also what he did do. Namely, that the king ought not just to be familiar with the law, but to be continually reading and marking it–daily devoted to learning how to observe and faithfully follow God’s instructions (vv. 18-19). A good king does not seek security through military power, political marriages or procurement of wealth, but through studying and following the statutes that God has given, the rule of God’s law. In doing this, the king would both fear the Lord his God and also show regard for his brethren and so not abuse his office (vv. 19-20). The result of all of this proper use of power? A long reign and even the possibility that his descendants might follow him on the throne.

Times were changing for the people and, with that, they would naturally desire a king. God provided for their desires, but warned of the risks and gave clear instructions of how a king should exercise his office. To follow God, whatever your position—from pauper to king—ethics matter. How you exercise the power you have matters. For us as Christians, it reminds us we are called to live and choose those things in this world that reflect God’s ethics, not our own, and so show our citizenship of heaven with a King who is the Image and Reflection of God Himself.

Questions for Reflection
  • What things in your life has God allowed, even blessed, yet pose a risk of distracting you from following Him?
  • Why do we so easily turn to human means to power rather than trusting in God? What are the challenges of the vulnerability that comes with looking to God for protection?
  • Why does God command the future kings to not behave in the ways outlined in vv. 16-17? Why is it not possible to both trust God and pursue those behaviors?
  • Why is military power, especially power that is gained at the expense of the people, such an affront to God (vv. 16 and 20a)?
  • What do we learn from Deuteronomy 17 about the right use of power in God’s eyes? What would that look like today? What wouldn’t it look like?
  • How does God’s commands about the characteristics of the king, a political leader with authority over the people, reflect God’s own character and leadership of us as His people? How do you see it reflected in Jesus’ leadership? (See Philippians 2.)

A Prayer for this Week
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the ways in which You have guided Your people and provided for them as they settled in the Promised Land. Help us to order our lives so that those things You have given do not distract us from the task of following You. Mold our hearts to reflect Your heart and give us the courage to live and act in this world in ways that reflect Your kingdom. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries