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How Should a Country’s Leader Act? (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

The Old Testament scriptures pose certain challenges for contemporary readers due to the temporal, cultural, and linguistic gaps that exist. Bridging these gaps can be a daunting task. This difficulty is particularly pronounced when it comes to understanding the role of the law in the New Testament Church and its interpretation. In the book of Deuteronomy (17:14-20), for instance, there are laws given by Yahweh to Israel in anticipation of the day they would have a king. It is evident that the life of a king in ancient times differed greatly from that of a modern ruler, whether they are referred to as a President, Prime Minister, Queen, or hold another title. However, there is still hope for understanding these laws through careful analysis. By examining the original context of the passage, the type and nature of the law, its purpose, and its relevance to modern culture, one can gain reasonable clarity on the subject. It is worth noting that the perspective presented here is primarily from an American standpoint, reflecting my own nationality. For more information consider checking out, "Deuteronomy: A Theologcal Commentary on the Bible" by Deanna A. Thompson as this will not only hopefully help with this particular section but the whole book.

Laws for Kings in the Original Context

The book of Deuteronomy, being the final book in the Pentateuch, sets the stage for what is to come in the narrative as it continues into the book of Joshua. In Joshua, the people of God finally receive the land that was promised to them. According to Dr. Barker (2011), the sermons preached by Moses in Deuteronomy hold great significance, especially considering that the Israelites had previously failed to take the land. As the leader of the people, Moses is obligated to emphasize the importance of trusting in the Lord. He not only reflects on the past failures but also looks to the future, when Israel will have a king chosen by the Lord. Within a few verses in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, there is valuable advice on various topics such as the selection of a king, the use of horses, the temptation to return to Egypt, the acquisition of wives, the pursuit of riches, and the approach to Yahweh's law. In the ancient Near East context, horses were often used for military power and technology, particularly in pulling chariots (Dutcher-Walls, 2002). Egypt, on the other hand, was a powerful nation whose strength should not be a source of hope, and their resources should not tempt the Israelites into a false sense of security. Marriage, in this context, was not based on romantic considerations but rather on the potential economic, social, and political benefits that could be gained from having multiple wives. The number of wives one collected could contribute to one's status and influence. Limiting the king's ability to have multiple wives would hinder his use of an important political tool. The restriction on gold and silver is perhaps the most obvious limitation, as it prevents the king from succumbing to greed and exploiting his nation. This restriction also takes into consideration the well-being of the poor, as it prevents the king from imposing excessive taxes, engaging in unfair trade practices, or plundering the nation for personal gain. Other forms of acquiring wealth, such as through taxes, trade, and various fees, are also restricted. By examining the context of the law within the given passage, we can gain further insight into its meaning and significance.

Identifying the Kind of Law for the King

According to Vogt (2009), apodictic law is a type of law that does not necessarily provide a specific instance, but rather outlines what the people, or in this case the king, should not do when governing God's people. However, there is room for counterarguments as there are specific commands such as not returning to Egypt, not acquiring many horses or wives, and so on. Considering this perspective, it is worth reflecting on Vogt's (2009) statement that apodictic law " said to derive from the character or will of the lawgiver, in this case, Yahweh" (p.182). If this is indeed the case with the laws mentioned in these selected verses, then it appears that these types of laws serve a greater purpose. Yahweh is not simply instructing the people to refrain from certain actions without reason, especially when considering the cultural context of the ancient Near Eastern audience. For instance, the author discusses the practice of self-harm for mourning among Israel's neighbors, as mentioned in Leviticus 19:28. While one could interpret this command to reinforce the nature of Yahweh as seen in the law, similar to the commands for the king in Deuteronomy, it primarily exists to distinguish Israel as a unique nation. By examining the type of law, readers can gain insight into who Yahweh is and what is expected of the king, while also considering the nature of the law itself.

Determining the Nature of the Legal Requirement

Throughout the Pentateuch, it becomes evident that humanity is inherently flawed and sinful. This includes kings, who are chosen from among the sinful people and are more susceptible to abusing their power due to their elevated status and potential authority. According to Goswell (2007), the Deuteronomic model of the law, specifically in chapter 17 (14-20), emphasizes the importance of a king who genuinely loves the Lord and the Torah, and strives to embody its principles in both their personal life and their reign. However, despite the expectation for a righteous king, ancient Israel witnessed a series of rulers who failed to uphold these commands. Consequently, they longed for a messianic king who would rule the nation with great power and righteousness. Surprisingly, the strength of this anticipated king did not lie in military might, as that was never the ultimate goal. Instead, it lay in their ability to humbly submit to the Lord's command and depend on Him. The criteria outlined in the few verses of the law for the king sharply contrasted with the expectations of kingship in other nations. The king's privilege was not solely based on wealth, a strong military, or political alliances, but rather on their commitment to the Lord and His unique set of rules for governing His land. These rules challenged the conventional way of living and aimed to establish a new and divine purpose. Yahweh sought to build a kingdom founded on trust, love, and servitude, where strength was not measured by military might or influence, but by the ability to prioritize the Lord and treat others with honor and respect. However, the true purpose and intended outcome of these laws may not be fully realized unless the reader comprehends the underlying intention behind them.

The Purpose of the Law for Israel

According to Branch (2004), one of the primary criteria for a king is to address and limit greed, which encompasses not only monetary greed but also greed for military power and wives. It is important to note that these things are not completely prohibited, but rather restricted. This limitation ensures that the king has the potential to accumulate wealth or manipulate circumstances to inherit wealth. Additionally, Branch emphasizes that while there are prohibitions for a king, there is also a positive affirmation of the king's role in studying and writing the Lord's law throughout his life. The continuous reading of the law leads to memorization, internalization, obedience, and eventually teaching others to fear God and serve Him. Surprisingly, the goal of being a king is not self-exaltation, but rather humility (Branch, 2004, p. 6). Similarly, Hamilton (2010) highlights the theme present in Deuteronomy 17, which aligns with the theme in chapter 6. God's intention was to establish and nurture a people whose hearts were centered on His law. Hamilton compares Israel's role to Adam's role in the garden, as they are meant to spread Yahweh's glory, justice, mercy, goodness, truth, and righteousness throughout their known world, which is spiritually dry. Essentially, God desires a people who love Him and are led by a king who loves Him, just as Moses was used by God to deliver them from slavery. While it is right for the king to obey these guidelines, it is important to recognize that they are merely basic principles and not exhaustive instructions. The comprehensive instructions are found in the Lord's law, which should be studied. If obedience is the sole outcome without reverence or love, then it would be in vain (Hosea 6:6) (Branch, 2004; Hamilton, 2010). This can be true for the modern audience as well as the Lord has an intended purpose for all leaders, but it is imperative the laws for the king are analyzed through a contemporary lens.

Applicability of the Purpose of the Law in Contemporary Context

Analyzing these laws in isolation can pose challenges, as Hays (2001) asserts that the law, in its entirety, cannot be viewed independently and should not be disconnected from the biblical narrative. Approaching the law in this manner can create difficulties for modern Christians. When we decide to apply the law to the contemporary audience, selectively dissecting and choosing what is applicable may not only confuse the audience but also detach the true meaning of the law, which is found in Christ's fulfillment of it (Matthew 5:17-19), rather than only fulfilling certain parts. Hays (2001) further argues that when applying the law to the New Testament Church, it is crucial to understand its original meaning for the ancient audience, discern the differences between the ancient and modern contexts, uncover the universal teachings embedded within the commandments, align these teachings with the overall message of the New Testament, and apply the modified teachings to present-day life. Keeping this in mind, it is helpful to reflect on the aforementioned point that the purpose of the commands was to guide individuals to focus on Yahweh and lead others to do the same. Throughout these verses, as previously mentioned, the emphasis lies in trusting the Lord rather than relying on military might, financial or political security, and ensuring that the Law of the Lord remains in our hearts continuously. The substitution of horses and chariots with tanks and jets, the replacement of gold and silver with the dollar, and the transformation of political alliances with NATO or other alliances reflect the modern lens through which we view the world. However, in our pursuit of security and self-reliance, we often neglect the purpose of our dependence on God. We fail to trust in His sovereignty and provision, despite the measures we put in place to ensure our own safety. It is important to note that this does not imply a discouragement of military use or the wise utilization of the blessings we have received.

Unfortunately, determining the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate use becomes increasingly challenging as we approach the line. It is my belief that this line has been crossed in significant ways. Moreover, the verses under discussion also call upon the people to allow the Lord to choose their leader, a principle that has been largely rejected. In the United States, we face pressure to vote for a leader every four years, placing our hope in one political party or the other for genuine change. However, both parties often fail to acknowledge the Lord, and any mention of Him leads to the candidate being labeled as extreme or bigoted. If any New Testament author could write to the church in America, I would imagine it would sound something like, "Do not follow rulers and politicians of this world as if they are rulers beyond it. Do not be tossed to-and-fro by political persuasion. Do not put your hope in the riches of the world as if our true riches lie anywhere but the heavenly realm. Rather, submit your life in all things under the King of Heaven, our all-knowing and wise God, a leader who we did not elect, but who instead elected us as His Church through Christ Jesus."


Barker, P. (2011). Deuteronomy in Collins, C. J. (Ed.), The ESV Student Study Bible, ESV Bible. Crossway

Dutcher-Walls, P. (2002). The circumscription of the king: Deuteronomy 17:16-17 in its ancient social context. Journal of Biblical Literature, 121(4), 601–616.

Goswell, G. (Gregory R. (2017). The Shape of Kingship in Deut 17: A Messianic Pentateuch? Trinity Journal, 38(2), 169–181.

Hamilton, J. M., Jr. (2010). That the coming generation might praise the Lord. The Journal of Family Ministry, 1(1), 10–17.

Hays, J. D. (2001). Applying the Old Testament law today. Bibliotheca Sacra, 158(629), 21–35.

Robin Branch. (2004). �The Messianic Dimensions of Kingship in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 as fulfilled by Jesus in Matthew�. Verbum et Ecclesia, 25(2), 378–401.

Vogt, P. T. (2009). Interpreting the Pentateuch: An exegetical handbook. Kregel Publications. ISBN-13: 9780825427626

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