What Deuteronomy 17:14-20 Tells Us About the Perfect King & Living Differently As God’s People

Who would you consider to be a great leader today? What qualities make up a great leader?

This question has surrounded great historical figures, drives our news media today, and comprises the content of many books and courses aimed at developing leaders.

In the ancient world, a leader was defined by his power, influence, wealth, and image. However, we see from the Bible, God’s perspective, that a true leader does not follow these same standards.

In fact, Jesus turned the turned the world around when it came to leadership. He embodied a new ideal of humility and servanthood in leadership, radically different from prior paradigms. In fact, author John Dickson describes this at length in his book Humilitas. He contrasts Christ’s attitude with those of the Caesars and the like who would place their faces on the currency or build monuments to themselves.

Interestingly, what Christ embodied in his leadership through his incarnation and time on earth actually reflects the mandate for the kings of Israel that God prescribed in the covenant of Deuteronomy.

Let’s look at what God told his people through Moses regarding the kings they would have in Deuteronomy 17:14-20:

14 “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. 18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Notice some of the defining characteristics of king laid out in this passage:

1. Not acquiring of many horses – focus on the might of one’s military, a temptation to rely less on God and on the strength of oneself or potential allies (vs. 16)
2. Not acquiring many wives – one of the biblical passages that speaks against polygamy, warning of the dangers of the practice, turning one’s heart away from the Lord (vs. 17a)
3. Not acquiring excessive wealth – resisting the temptations of greed and exploitation of others to gain status; a wealthy king would mean poor people (vs. 17b)

Instead of a king focusing on these things, God instructs that a king should instead focus on the law and following the Lord, so that his heart will be right. Notice in verse 20 the emphasis placed on “his heart not be lifted up above his brothers.” God’s true desire for a king over his people was someone who would serve the people and use his position for the good of others – not to build himself up.

We know that all the kings of Israel fell short of this standard, even David, the “golden king” of Israel. Christ, the King of kings, accomplished this standard and demonstrated it in his life.

What does this mean for us today as God’s people? Deuteronomy contains many powerful themes, but possibly the most important lesson it can teach us is that God desired for his people to be set apart from the world around them to display his character through them.

A king, like one described in Deut. 17, would accomplish this, especially in contrast to the other kings and leaders of the world. Can you imagine how incredible life would be like with leaders living out the greatest commandments to love God and love others, leading people to do the same? We might describe it as “Heaven on earth,” because we look forward to that one day.

Instead, so many kings and leaders, now and even today, fall to the temptations of selfness and greed. We may hold up Christ as the example of a true leader but few come close to the standard. Even those who do not follow Christ exemplify humility but rarely call for it when it counts.

Any leader today, especially ones that claim to follow Christ, should first and foremost study the call of leadership from God’s perspective: serving others, not serving self.

Many lessons can be learned from Deut. 17:14-20, but not just for leaders. We can all see the call of God to his people to be holy, set apart – different in a desirable way – to display his character to the world.

Are we living this out as God’s people? Are you living this out as a Christ-follower, living in the kingdom of God? We should examine ourselves and our actions when it comes to issues today like taking care of widows and the poor, treating others with respect who live different lifestyles, how people are treated at our borders, and so much more.

Too often standards derived from culture or political parties influence us, not God or His Word. We must ask ourselves in response to all of this, “Who do I really follow?”

Jesus Christ reigns as the Perfect King. The One who became man to serve and save us (Phil. 2:5-11) and who calls us to deny ourselves daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Who are you following?

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