This article offers an exposition of Deuteronomy 17:1-20, providing a discussion of life in a theocracy.

Source: The Outlook, 1992. 3 pages.

Deuteronomy 17 – Living under the Rule of Theocratic Justice

... (the king) shall read (the law) 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.

Deuteronomy 17:19-20

Giving God Only the Best (read 17:1)🔗

The law requiring blemish-free sacrifices relates to both the firstling offering (15:19-23) and to the immediately preceding verses (16:21-22). The princi­ple is the same in both instances: God should be given only the best. Anything less would be tantamount to mocking God and perverting worship (see Malachi 1:6­8). (Question 1)

The High Cost of Treason (read 17:2-7)🔗

In these verses the LORD warns Israel to investi­gate and deal immediately and uncompromisingly with the worship of false gods (sun, moon, stars). The investigation must be thorough, and the conviction of this crime must be based on the testimony of at least two witnesses, who themselves would be the first to begin executing the convicted criminal.

Several points deserve our reflection.

  • First, worshiping false gods is the kind of crime that threatened the very existence of Israel as a theocratic nation. (Demo-cracy is rule by the people; aristo-cracy is rule by the elite; theo-cracy is rule by God.) She was brought into being by the LORD, who was her King; Israel's life in Canaan would be main­tained by Him, and her future prosperity depended upon His favor and blessing. To worship another god was to court the LORD's anger and to earn His punishment. In other words, in theocratic Israel idolatry was equivalent to treason. This religious sin had political significance.
  • Notice, secondly, that the authorities in Israel were to deal immediately with this sin whether they learned of it by direct report or by hearsay (if a man or woman served other gods, '…and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently,' Deuteronomy 17:4). Idolatry was not the kind of sin that could be tolerated or treated lightly; Israel must purge the evil from her midst.
    But the conviction for idolatry must be obtained on the basis of valid testimony - nothing less than the corroborating testimony of at least two eyewitnesses. This responsibility for truth-telling was reinforced with the prospect of the witnesses picking up the first stones to execute the convicted criminal. A lying witness would be guilty also of (attempted) murder, and would be subject to the very punishment his or her (false) testimony would have brought upon the criminal (see Deuteronomy 19:16-21). (Question 2)
    Part of verse 7 emphasizes communal participation in the execution of the offender: '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.' This public, national discipline served both as a deterrent, and as a lesson about the LORD'S holy love. The Father's holy love brooks no rivals, and is quite capable of jealous anger.
  • Finally, observe the high cost of treason: somebody has to die! Either the nation of Israel would perish under the LORD'S wrath, or the criminal would need to die for the sin of idolatry. By means of this strict regulation, the LORD protected His Old Testament people for the sake of the coming Christ. The LORD sought to guarantee by His righteous law that there would be a people from whom the Messiah would one day come!

Submitting to Theocratic Judgment (read 17:8-13)🔗

Before going further to study these verses, go back to Deuteronomy 16:18-20, to recall the local structure and the principles of local administration of justice in Israel.

Here, in 17:8-13, we learn about a central law court whose function was to decide cases too complex for the local courts. These cases involved different kinds of bloodshed, of pleas and of assault. Although the broad principles (the Decalog) were applied in specific ways (case laws), not every possible application was spelled out.

These cases were to be brought to the central tribunal (the place which the LORD your God chooses), where the priests and the judge would hear the cases and render a verdict.

Notice that these rulings were final, and that local officials were to carry out the verdict. Anyone who disregarded these decisions and thereby showed contempt for the priest and judge, was to be executed. The purpose was the same as in verse 12: to remove the evil from Israel. This penalty served to restrain the impulse toward anarchy, and aimed at preserving order among theocratic Israel, again for the sake of the coming Christ. Notice again the gracious character of God's law!

Laws for the Theocratic King (read 17:14-20)🔗

Here we meet a surprising set of laws for Israel, rules cast in the form of permission rather than obligation. The LORD anticipated a time in Israel's history when kingship might be desired and imple­mented as a form of rule.

But another reason these laws should surprise us is that as a theocratic nation, Israel already had a King: the LORD God. Unlike her neighbors, Israel needed no other king!

After arriving in Canaan, however, Israel might nevertheless desire another king; and it is that desire which these laws regulate.

There were two positive requirements for this office:

  1. that the king be of the LORD'S choosing, and
  2. that he be a true Israelite.

Just as Israel herself was the LORD'S choice, even as the worship sanctuary was the LORD'S choice, so too the king must be chosen by Him. This royal office rested not on human popularity or military accomplishment, but on divine election.

These are followed in verses 16-17 by three nega­tive requirements: the king may not accumulate war­horses (of which Egypt was a prominent source), wives (whereby alliances with foreigners could be forged), or wealth (the source of excessive personal power).

As a testimony of his submission to the LORD as King, the coronation ceremony was to include the king's personal copying of the Book of the Covenant (see Exodus 24:7). This book was to be the source of the king's wisdom and strength, whereby he could reverence God and serve His people. Moreover, as king he would be the custodian of Israel's past, responsible for guarding the LORD's people in Canaan.

Two remarkable features of kingship in Israel are worth noting.

  • The first is how little he was called upon to do. He was not expected to be much else than a brother among brothers (see vv. 15, 20). He was not allowed to display the trappings of royalty so common among Israel's neighbors (weapons, women and wealth). His job description says nothing about rendering justice or leading an army. You almost get the idea that Israel didn't really need her king to be a savior, but only a shepherd.
    In fact, that is precisely the gospel-significance of these regulations. Israel had already been saved — by the LORD! Her King and Leader had brought her to the edge of Canaan, whose fruit ('milk and honey') she was ready to enjoy forever. After a few genera­tions in Canaan, when Israel became rich and secure, she would begin wanting to imitate the style of her neighbors. Turning to the Book for a description of the king's duties, Israel would discover that the LORD had limited the office in such a way that the theocratic king would never seduce Israel into putting her trust in princes, or horses, or gold and silver. Israel's king was to be her shepherd, leading her in green pastures, by still waters, through the valley of the shadow of death, enjoying the spoils of theocratic victory (that is: of the LORD'S victory) in Canaan.
  • The second remarkable feature of Israel's kingship is that it was subservient to the priesthood. This is indicated in verse 18: the king gets a copy of the Law, but the original is kept by the priests. The king is dependent upon the priest, which is to say: the work of the king depends upon the work of the priest. The power to rule depends on the service of atonement.

Did you hear that, dear reader? There is gospel in these laws regulating the theocratic king. For here God gives us a picture of the coming Truly Theocratic King, Jesus Christ. His triumphant, royal work as King followed upon, and depends upon, His faithful, sacrifi­cial work as Priest. As Brother among brothers, this King who has led us in triumph to the Father was first our Priest who bled for us on the cross. His power to rule arises out of His service of atonement! All authority in heaven and on earth now belongs to Him! (Questions 3 and 4)

Questions for Reflection and Reply🔗

  1. Read Malachi 1:6-8. Illustrate how this might apply to the worship service. How might this apply to our table prayers? To our decisions about giving?
  2. For several New Testament applications of this principle, read Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; and 1 Timothy 5:19. Explain the identity of the witnesses in each case. How should we apply this principle in our daily conversation and judgments?
  3. When was Jesus Christ enthroned as Theocratic King? How does it comfort you to know and believe that Jesus Christ is King? (For help, see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 19; Westminster Larger Catechism, QA 53 & 54.)
  4. Read Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 12. Ac­cording to QA 32, what is the believer's work as king? What is its connection to the believer's work as priest? Explain why Christians can fight against sin and the devil only when they've become living sacrifices of gratitude. How does that truth relate to the Old Testament king's dependence upon the priest? To Christ's priestly and kingly work?

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.