When God chose a people, the Israelites, from among another nation, He created a new nation with one of the smallest people groups. When nations begin, foundations must be laid – laws, covenants, leaders, structure, etc. Moses spent a large amount of time teaching God’s laws, commands, statutes, and ordinances to the Israelites. In the next two chapters, he will declare to them God’s means of ensuring order, righteousness, and fairness. Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22 about the leaders God ordains to keep His order within the nation He created. These leaders are judges and officers, kings, priests, and prophets. Most of them are not new to the Israelites, but in these chapters, God proclaimed them as ordained leadership positions. This week we will study through chapter seventeen reading about judges, officers, and kings.
Moses dedicated almost a whole chapter to the role of judges and officers. The judge was a particular leader who would have profound impact on the social structure of Israel – civil and religious. God’s ordained judges and officers were men who judged righteously (16:18). Since Israel was a nation created by God, the nation’s base was religio-political. God’s laws undergirded every statute, ordinance, and judgment. So though this Bible passage does not state the judges and officers are ordained, because God founded the nation, the officers and judges were to be men of God.
Another aspect of this passage needs clarity. The word “judge” comes from the Hebrew word shaphat. It means judge, governor, and ruler. This person’s duty was to be a lawgiver and decider of controversies – civil, religious, political, and social. Judges enforced the law, too. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, introduced Moses to the leadership style that used judges and elders to manage minor disputes. Moses decided major disputes (Exodus 18:22). Since Moses was the God-ordained leader of the people, he based his decisions and rule on the laws and commandments of God. He was the first example to the Israelites of a religio-political leader – judge, priest, and prophet. Moses solved religious and societal disputes using God’s guidance. Jethro gave the first substructure to law making, decision making about laws, and enforcing of the law in Exodus 18. Deuteronomy 16:18-17:13 gives us God’s system for this, which is very similar to Jethro’s.
The other leader Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy 16:18 was officers. The word “officer” comes from the Hebrew word shoter. It means official or officer. The usage of this word in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy give a better understanding of what this person did. These men held positions where they worked as foremen (Exodus 5:6, 10, 14, 15, and 19); subordinate officers in matters judicial, civil, and military (Deuteronomy 1:15); minor or under-judges (Deuteronomy 1:15 and 10:5, 8, and 9); and overseers (Deuteronomy 16:18). In Deuteronomy 29:10 and 31:28, Moses listed officers in rank order of importance. Officers ranked above captains of tribes and elders, notice not above priests, judges, prophets, and kings. Officers were people who upheld the verdicts of the judges, led companies of people, and judged over smaller matters than judges, like junior judges.
As is noticable in verses eighteen through twenty, Moses spelled out the basis for the position of judge and officer. God gave the Israelites the ability to appoint/employ judges and officers. Moses said the purpose of the judges was to judge/govern the people. The mandate from God for the judges was that they were to do their jobs with righteousness (vs. 18c). He stated explicitly what He meant by saying they were not to pervert justice (case decisions) with partiality or bribe taking (vs. 19). Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 10:17 that God does not show partiality or take a bribe. Since that is the case, they, as God’s judges for His people and nation, must live by the same standard. Exodus 23:2 and Leviticus 19:15 speak about not perverting justice or being partial to one person or group over another. This way of life was not new to the Israelites. Solomon said in Proverbs 23:23, “To show partiality in judgment is not good.” Verse 19d of chapter sixteen says, “A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.” A judge’s righteousness is so important that Moses repeated this requirement a second time and included God’s promise with it. In verse twenty, Moses said, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue that you may live in and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” This shows that justice and righteousness are tied to their covenant with God. It carries the formulation of Old Testament covenants and carries great weight. The men appointed as judges and officers must be righteous to be in covenant with God and receive His blessing of life.
From Deuteronomy 16:21 through 17:13, Moses reminded the Israelites how to handle conflicts and disputes. He taught them when to seek the counsel of a higher judge, rather than using God’s commands and laws by one’s self. In these verses, Moses reminded the Israelites of God’s commands not to set up Asherah poles or sacred pillars because the LORD hates them. Deuteronomy 7 and Leviticus 26 noted this, too. God was to be their only God. He commanded the ox or sheep they offered to Him not have any defect – sickness or disease. God should receive the best of the produce and animals they received from Him that year. (We know from our studies in the New Testament God gave a perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity through His Son, Jesus Christ.) Moses said God finds a blemished sacrifice detestable – abominable and disgusting. So far, Moses reminded the Israelites their worship of God was to be unadulterated and pure. Next, he recalled for them that no evil should live among them for they are a holy people set apart for God. If they found out about a person who is evil – transgressing God’s covenant (Deut. 13:6-11), serving and worshipping other gods, and serving and worshipping the sun, moon, or the heavenly host – that person was to be stoned to death. Moses reminded them of the rules God provided for inquiry and resolution so they maintained order. He told them to inquire thoroughly (Deut. 13:14) into the matter. If true, then the person was to be stoned at the town’s gates on the evidence of two or three people, never based on one testimony (Deut. 17:4b-7a). By doing these things, they would purge evil from among themselves. These are things individual and community elders and priests can judge for themselves.
When the conflict or problem in the community, tribe, or nation involved difficult cases – homicide, decisions of lawsuits, assaults, and cases of dispute – then the people involved were to take the matter to the Levitical priest or judge in office. God differentiated between a lawsuit and cases of dispute. The first involved a dispute over law while the latter dealt with quarrels and strife. Haggai mentioned the latter in Haggai 2:11 and told the people to ask a priest for a ruling. God planned for when Moses would be dead. He provided for a high court to decide and enforce a verdict. Deuteronomy 17:8-13 speaks of these difficult cases and what the Israelites were to do if a person did not abide by the verdict. Moses told them if anything surpassed their understanding of the law or was extraordinary, then the people were to take their claim to the place where the LORD chose – the temple where the men of higher learning and discernment were – to inquire of God what to do. Deuteronomy 12:5 and Psalm 122:5 speak of the thrones that God set up for judgment. Verse 9 alludes to and supposes the verdict given by the Levitical priest or judge would come from consultation with God. The Levitical priests knew more about the laws of God than anyone else in Israel did. They, too, were the ones who mediated between the people and God about sins and forgiveness, health, protection, and provisions. When a problem was too big for humans to decide, the obvious recourse was to seek the mind of God on the matter. As the intermediary between God and humanity, the Levitical priests were the ones to seek.
When a person sought recourse, more than one party was involved. Generally, two or more people and a mediator were part of the process. In Israel, God provided for this and His will superseded and interposed on the proceedings. As such, each party to the dispute and judgment held responsibility to abide by the judgment. Moses couched the command to do according to the terms of the verdict in the command from God that they carefully observe (shamar) what the priest/judge dictated as resolution. This drew attention to the fact that the judgment was not a choice, but a demand. The decision of the priest/judge was paramount as if God spoke it. It carried that much weight. Moses told the Israelites, “You shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or to the left.” If the person chose not to follow the verdict of the priest, judgment fell on him or her. Because the person acted arrogantly and presumptuously by not listening (shama – hearing and obeying) to the priest, who stands over the case to serve the LORD, that person must die and not receive the promise of the LORD, life (vs. 17:12). People were to consider the disobeying person evil. God commanded them to purge the evil person from Israel because he or she chose to go his or her own way instead of the way God told the priest/judge to command the parties of the case. Moses told the Israelites in Numbers 15:30, “The person who does anything defiantly, whether he is a native or alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD and that person shall be cut off from among His people.” Why did God cut off a disobedient person from His people, from life? Moses explain it in verse thirteen when he said, “Then all the people will hear (shama) and be afraid and will not act presumptuously again.”
God required obedience just as a parent does. God is not the author of chaos. His laws established peace and righteousness among humanity if they chose to be obedient and live by them. To make sure the people of Israel understood the validity and weight of the verdicts given by the Levitical priests and judges, God had Moses say that obeying the judgments of the priests and judges was equal to obeying Him. God established Israel and created a system of laws, statutes, and ordinances to keep it peaceful and set apart for Him. To keep it that way, He provided judges for the people to help solve conflicts and enforce the laws of God. The priests and judges are the governors of God’s laws upon the people. They are God-ordained. Their verdict carries the weight of God’s when they decide the cases with righteousness and justice, not perverting justice or accepting a bribe.
God preferred He be the only King of Israel. He knew, though, that the people would want a king of their own like the countries that surrounded Israel. In 1 Samuel 8:7, God told Samuel, His prophet, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” He told Samuel this was like the deeds the Israelites did since He brought them out of Egypt. They chose to follow their own wills and submit to a willful, human king. In Deuteronomy 17:14-15, God provided the choice of a human king to rule Israel. The Hebrew word used for king in this passage and most of the Old Testament is melek.
The king of Israel was supposed to be a visual representation of the heavenly King. God gave two commands about who could be king of Israel. The primary requirement is that the LORD would choose the king of His people vs. 15a. The second is that the king would be an Israelite (vs. 15b). God did not want a foreigner to be king of His people because he would lead the people to stop following Him with all their hearts. They risked following other gods and ways of life if that happened.
Added to this, God gave four things that the king could not do and two He required the king to do. Each of these the king must or must not do to keep Israel safe from being unfaithful to their covenant with God. God said the king must not multiply horses, cause the people of Israel to return to Egypt, have multiple wives, and increase his gold or silver for himself (vs. 16-17). The Egyptians bred horses used to pull chariots. God wanted Israel to have no dealings with Egypt. He went so far as to say they must not cause the people to return to Egypt. The value of these horses was high and nations often traded their people for horses and chariots from Egypt. God fiercely protected His people and mandated the king and Israel have no relations with Egypt. God protected the king from the influence of the beliefs and cultures of other nations by commanding he have just one wife (vs. 17). The way to protect a nation’s foundation is to protect the leaders of the nation so their beliefs are not softened and eroded by ideas from other nations. David’s heart turned from God by his want of multiple wives and their influence upon his life (2 Kings 5:13, 12:11). The final thing God commanded a king not to do involved his treasure. God mandated the king not want to increase his wealth (vs. 17c). His seeking for more gold or silver would remove his focus from God to worldly, created things. God’s command was prevention against the erosion of the king’s trust in God by trusting in himself and his wealth.
God gave two positive commands for a king who presided over His people. In verse eighteen, He said, “He [the king] shall write a copy of the law (Torah) on a scroll in the presence of a Levitical priest.” Why would that be important? God told why in verse nineteen. He said it was because the king must read it every day of his life so he can learn to fear/revere the LORD by doing what God commanded. This is why Christian leaders teach other believers to have a quiet time or devotion time every day with God. When people read God’s Word every day, their hearts become inclined to follow God every day. The word Moses used in verse nineteen to mean obedience is one of the favorite words in Deuteronomy, shamar. It means to hear, listen, and obey. When reading God’s Word, a fear and reverence of the LORD grows in the person so that the person desires to show his or her love for God with obedience. So a king who reads the laws of God every day would revere and obey the LORD and then lead the people of his nation in the LORD’s way. It keeps the king’s heart focused on God and the good of the people instead of himself (vs. 20). That provides the second reason the king must read God’s law every day. The final reason God commanded the king to read His law every day was so the he would not turn away from God’s commandment, the mitzvah. Moses said this in Deuteronomy 5:32 and the royal chronicler said it of David in1 Kings 15:5.
As an encouragement, God gave a promise to the king who followed His commandments closely. He said that the king who did this and his sons would continue in the kingdom of Israel. Moses used the word ‘arak in verse 20c. The English words in this verse, “continuing long,” do not adequately rephrase ‘arak. ‘Arak means to be long, prolonged, and grow long. This word gives the gist of the promise God gave to the Israelites. God’s promise was for the present day and would go into the infinite future. This meaning goes along with the prolonged life in Israel God promised to the Israelites who remained faithful to Him (Deuteronomy 4:40, 5:16, 5:33, 6:2, 11:9, 22:7, 25:15, & 32:47). Prolonged life meant eternal life with God for the Israelites. A king who followed God’s commands would have prolonged life with God and would lead the Israelites to have it, too.
God chose the Israelites, the smallest people group of the time, to be His people. From them He made a new nation. The foundation of this nation was the LORD God. Because of this, the nations’ foundation rested on the standards of God and required faithful commitment to their covenant with Him. The covenant established a just and right social and religious code. These codes of law and life led to a peaceful, just, and ordered nation under God. If the people kept their covenant with God, God promised them life. Life meant sufficient food and drink, protection from enemies, a deep relationship with God, and the provision of all other needs. This defines fulfillment on all levels - physical, spiritual, and emotional. God appointed leaders for the Israelites. These leaders, when they followed the commands of God in chapters sixteen and seventeen, would give a visual, godly role model for the Israelites. This would encourage, lead, and require the people to stay faithful to God.
God calls each person to be in relationship with Him. He allows each person to vote or appoint people as their leaders. When people vote or appoint a person who follows God’s laws, statutes, commands, and ordinances, they are most likely to stay faithful to their commitment to God. God still gives the promise of eternal life with Him to everyone who believes in Him and accept the salvation His Son’s death and resurrection provides.
If you are currenly a believer in Jesus Christ and have accepted Him as your LORD and Savior, it is still important to stay faithful to Him. As Christians, God assures people of eternal life with Him. Their faithfulness to Him in this life determines if they will have abundant life. Abundant life is joy in knowing God protects and provides for them now. It brings the promise of life with Him in heaven into their present reality so they have hope in the midst of their day’s walk – good and bad days. Abundant life is knowing nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God. Romans 8:35 says, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?” The answer comes in verses thirty-seven through thirty-nine. It says,
“But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth not any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If you are not a Christian, God’s promise awaits you. What keeps you from accepting His gift of forgiveness and salvation from your wrongdoings in life? Why do you hold on to your life as if you have ultimate and eternal control over it? God is the Creator and almighty one. There is no one and nothing greater than He is. He is the one who controls life. God gives life now on earth and He offers life for eternity with Him in heaven. What are you allowing to keep you from abundant life now and eternal life with God? You get to make the choice. You decide for yourself; no one can make you decide. It is up to you. What do you choose?