Deuteronomy 17 – Laws Pertaining to the Rulers of Israel
A. Laws regarding justice and courts.
1. (1-5) Religious offenses.
You shall not sacrifice to the LORD your God a bull or sheep which has any blemish or defect, for that is an abomination to the LORD your God. If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones.
a. You shall not: This section, much like Exodus 21-23, is meant to give instructions to the judges of Israel in how to administrate justice for the nation. It is case law, upon which legal precedents for future cases may be understood.
b. Which has any blemish or defect, for that is an abomination to the LORD your God: God commanded that no one can bring to Him a sacrifice which has any blemish or defect, for that is an abomination to the LORD. God did not recognize the giving of cast-off, worthless items, as a true sacrifice unto Him. We have a tendency to always want to give God second best – if not third or fourth best. But God will not receive such a sacrifice.
i. There are countless jokes illustrating this point. One common one describes a farmer whose cow gave birth to twins, and he swore he would give one of the calves to God. He didn’t decide which one to give to God, until one day one of the calves died. He said to his wife: “Guess what? God’s calf died today!”
ii. Israel did not always live up to this standard: And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 1:8)
iii. David powerfully illustrated the idea behind this commandment when he refused to accept the threshing floor of Araunah as a gift, which David was going to give to the LORD as the place to build the temple. David said, nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing (2 Samuel 24:24). David understood that if it didn’t cost something, it wasn’t a sacrifice.
c. Who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them: Judges are also commanded to make sure that any who have gone after idolatry are to be investigated, and if found to be guilty, are to be executed.
2. (6-7) The standard of evidence in capital crimes.
Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you.
a. Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses: There was never to be capital punishment unless there was evidence from at least two independent, unimpeachable sources.
i. We may comfort ourselves that we would never judge someone guilty of murder so quickly, without proper evidence. Yet many will murder someone’s reputation in their own mind or in the minds of others with no witnesses, much less one.
ii. God is concerned about the murder of reputation, as well as physical murder, and commands that one should not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19) – the same standard as for proving murder.
iii. Remember 1 Timothy 5:19 does not say “except from two or three gossips”; it says except from two or three witnesses. If a matter is false, it does not become true because many people hear it or many people repeat it.
b. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death: Additionally, the witnesses had to be so certain of what they saw, that they were willing to initiate the actual execution. This made certain that no one would be executed for a crime they did not commit.
i. This puts the words of Jesus regarding the woman taken in adultery in John 8 in perspective: He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first (John 8:7). Jesus asked for the official witness to step forward and identify themselves on record as having witnessed this act of adultery, yet was hypocritical enough to bring the woman and not the man.
c. And afterward the hands of all the people: The execution was a community event, in the sense that it was supported by the community. The whole village would know the justice of what was being done.
3. (8-13) Provision made for higher courts.
If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the LORD chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you. Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously.
a. If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge: God allowed for courts of appeal in Israel. These were higher courts where cases were taken beyond the local judges to thepriests, the Levites – who were understood to be wiser judges because of their knowledge of God’s Word
b. Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest… that man shall die: The authority of the judges had to be respected, therefore contempt of court was a capital crime. God thought it essential that the courts and the judges be respected by the people of Israel.
B. Laws pertaining to kings.
1. (14-15) God’s indirect promise of a future king for Israel.
When you come to the land which the LORD your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, “I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,” you shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.
a. I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me: God looked forward – some 400 years forward – into Israel’s future, to the time when they would demand a king. God warned them to set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses, and that person had to be an Israelite and not a foreigner.
b. I will set a king over me: It is interesting to consider whether or not God wanted an earthly king over Israel. 1 Samuel 8:6-9, the record of Israel’s demand for king, puts the request for a king in a negative light. One might ask if God really did want Israel to never have an earthly king, and if He wanted them to recognize Him alone as king.
i. It is a debatable issue; but consider that Israel’s history without a king (the time of the book of Judges) was not a period of national glory. Perhaps we can say that God wanted Israel to have a king, but of His choosing, and at His timing. Saul is a perfect example of a king out of God’s will, chosen by the nation and at their timing; David is a perfect example of a king chosen by God and in His timing.
2. (16-17) Commands for the king.
But he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the LORD has said to you, “You shall not return that way again.” Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself.
a. He shall not multiply horses for himself: The future king of Israel must not put undue trust in military might.
b. Neither shall he multiply wives for himself: The future king of Israel must not put undue emphasis on physical indulgence and personal status.
c. Nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself: The future king of Israel must not put undue emphasis on personal wealth.
d. Lest His heart turn away: Each of these issues is a matter of balance. The king had to have some military power, but not too much; one wife and certain comforts, but not too much; some personal wealth, but not too much. Such balances are often the hardest to keep.
i. Solomon was a notorious breaker of these commands. He had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots (1 Kings 4:26), and Solomon had horses imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28). He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart (1 Kings 11:3). He surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches (1 Kings 10:23).
ii. Yet, all along, we might see Solomon knowing the commands of Deuteronomy 17, yet deceiving himself by asking the self-justifying questions, “How much is ‘multiply’? I can handle this. I haven’t gone too far.” It might seem self-evident that 700 wives and 300 concubines is multiplying wives to yourself, but one should never underestimate the ability of the human heart to deceive itself in such situations.
iii. Each of these three areas reflects the places where many modern Christian leaders fall: In regard to power, pleasure, or money. God’s commands for leaders have not changed; and neither has the need to be on guard against the self-deception in these things which felled Solomon.
3. (18-20) The king and the word of God.
Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And 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 and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel.
a. He shall write for himself: It is striking to think of the king of Israel, laboring over parchment with a pen, making a personal copy of the law of Israel. This shows how greatly God wanted the word of God to be on the hearts of His rulers; God wanted every king to also be a scribe.
i. “Incidentally, the phrase a copy of this law (18) appears incorrectly in the LXX as ‘this second law’, to deuteronomion touto. It was this misunderstanding that gave rise to the English name Deuteronomy.” (Thompson)
b. It shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life: The word of God was to be constant companion of the king of Israel, and something he read every day.
i. All need the word of God; but the greater our responsibilities, the greater our need to depend on the truth of God’s word.
c. That he may learn to fear the LORD his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law: Staying in the word of God was intended to build a reverence for God and a holy life in the king.
i. It is striking to consider that reading a book – the Great Book, the Bible – can keep a person from sin. We may not understand all the spiritual work behind the word of God, but staying in the word will keep one from sin. It has been well written in many Bibles: “This book will keep you from sin. Sin will keep you from this book.”
ii. Luther said he would rather live in hell with the Bible than to live in Paradise without the Bible.
d. That his heart may not be lifted up: Staying in the word of God would keep the king properly humble and help him to not think of himself as above those he ruled over.
i. “The Scriptures, diligently read and studied, are a powerful and probable means to keep him humble, because they show him that, though a king, he is subject to a higher Monarch, to whom he must give an account… sufficient to abate the pride of the haughtiest person in the world, if he duly consider it.” (Poole)
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