MOSES ENVISAGES A TIME when the Israelite nation will choose a king (Deut. 17:14-20). He could not know that centuries later, when the Israelites would first ask for a king, they would do so for all the wrong motives — primarily so that they could be like the pagan nations around them. The result was Saul. But that is another story.
If the people are to have a king, what sort of king should he be? (1) He must be the Lord’s own choice (Deut. 17:15). (2) He must be an Israelite, drawn “from among your own brothers” (Deut. 17:15), not some foreigner. (3) He must not acquire for himself great numbers of horses, i.e., amass great personal wealth and military might, and especially not if it means some sort of alliance with a power such as Egypt (Deut. 17:16). (4) He must not take many wives (Deut. 17:17). The issue was not simply polygamy. In the ancient Near East, the more powerful the king the more wives he had. This prohibition is therefore simultaneously a limit on the king’s power, and a warning that many wives will likely lead his heart astray (Deut. 17:17). This is not because wives are intrinsically evil; rather, a king on the hunt for many wives is likely to marry princesses and nobility from surrounding countries, and they will bring their paganism with them. Within that framework, the king’s heart will be led astray. That is exactly what happened to Solomon. (5) Upon accession to the throne, the first thing the king must do is write out for himself, in Hebrew, a copy of “this law” — whether the book of Deuteronomy or the entire Pentateuch. Then he is to read it every day for the rest of his life (Deut. 17:18-20). The multiple purposes of this task are explicit: that he may revere the Lord his God, carefully follow all his words, and in consequence not consider himself better than his fellow citizens, and not turn aside from the law. The result will be a long-lasting dynasty.
It is not difficult to imagine how the entire history of Israel would have been radically different if these five criteria had been adopted by each king who came to the throne of David. It would be almost a millennium and a half before there would arise in Israel a king who would be the Lord’s chosen servant, someone “made like his brothers in every way” (Heb. 2:17), a mere craftsman without wealth or power, a man not seduced by beauty or power or paganism (despite the devil’s most virulent assaults), a man steeped in the Scriptures from his youth and who carefully followed all the words of God. How we need that king!