by Doug Ward

The Bible teaches that God, who reigns over all the earth (Psalm 47), is also in a special sense the king of the people of Israel. "He was king over Jeshurun when the leaders of the people assembled, along with the tribes of Israel," we read in Deuteronomy 33:5 (NIV).


Because the ancient Israelites had a divine king, they did not necessarily require a human ruler. God did, however, give them the option of establishing a monarchy. Shortly before the nation entered the Promised Land, Moses gave the following instructions:


"When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, `Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,' be sure to appoint over you a king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite" (Deut 17:14-15).


Israel eventually did exercise this option about 350 years later, and Saul from the tribe of Benjamin became the nation's first human king. Since Israel's request for a king at that point received a stern reprimand (I Sam 8), an interesting question arises: Did God intend for Israel to have kings, or was a monarchy merely allowed as an accommodation to human weakness, as with regulations permitting divorce (Matt 19:3-9)? To answer this question, it will be helpful to consider the entire biblical witness on the subject. We begin by examining the rest of the divine instructions communicated by Moses in Deuteronomy 17:16-20.


What Kind of King?

We have already seen that Israel's kings were not to be foreign nationals. There were also several restrictions on the policies the king should pursue:


"The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, `You are not to go back that way again.' He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold" (Deut 17:16-17).


There is great wisdom in these restrictions. A large harem of foreign princesses would be a temptation to idolatry, as later would happen with King Solomon (I Kings 11:1-8). A king who concentrated on building a large standing army and growing in wealth would be tempted to believe that he was supremely powerful and answerable to no one. Such a king could easily come to see the nation as existing for his sake, rather than the other way around. This kind of king might decide to sell some of his subjects into slavery in order to obtain more horses or gold.


Verses 16-17 list some things that a king of Israel should not do. What the king should do is specified in verses 18-20:


"When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel."


The king described in these verses is much different from most human kings. While many kings proclaim themselves to be gods and a law unto themselves, a Deuteronomy 17 king would be subject to God and to the rule of the law of God. History has shown how much harm can be done by rulers who believe they are not subject to any higher law. Such rulers, like the Pharaoh of Exodus 2 or Adolph Hitler, might try to commit genocide. Like Stalin or Mao, they might cause the deaths of multiple millions of their subjects. In contrast, the king of Deuteronomy 17 is a servant leader, leading Israel in keeping the covenant, which would promote the the nation's longevity and prosperity in the Promised Land.


Kings in Promise and Practice

In investigating the divine will in the matter of an Israelite monarchy, we should remember God's promises to the patriarchs. In Gen 17:6, God promises to Abraham, "I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you." To Abraham's wife Sarah, he says, "I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." This promise of future kings is repeated to Abraham's grandson Jacob in Gen 35:11: "A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants." Then Jacob later predicts, concerning his son Judah,


"The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his" (Gen 49:10).


These promises and predictions suggest that Israel would have a series of human kings, culminating in the coming of the Messiah, and that these kings would constitute a blessing for Abraham's descendants.


We should also consider the lessons of Israel's history. In the premonarchial period, the nation experienced some times of anarchy and moral degeneration, as chronicled in the book of Judges. This book concludes, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit" (Judges 21:25). This verse is certainly referring to the fact that the people had strayed from God, their divine king. But it also seems to imply that the appearance of a Deuteronomy 17 king would fill an obvious leadership vacuum.


Indeed, a number of ancient Israel's best periods as a nation came under the kings that came closest to the Deut 17 ideal. Israel was united under King David, whose obedience to Deut 17:18-20 is evident in the Psalms-e.g., numbers 1, 19, 119. David sought God's will and let God direct the nation's battles (2 Sam 5:17-21).


Another Deut 17 king was Hezekiah, who trusted in God and led Judah in obedience to the Torah (2 Kings 18:5-6). When Judah was attacked by the powerful Assyrian Empire, Hezekiah relied on God for deliverance, and Israel was miraculously rescued (2 Kings 19). A third Deut 17 king was Josiah, who delayed Judah's time of captivity by leading them in repentance and revival (2 Kings 23).


What About I Sam 8?

In light of the foregoing, let us now consider Israel's original request for a king in the days of Samuel. At that time, God states that Israel is rejecting him by asking for a king (I Sam 8:7). A close examination of I Sam 8 suggests that the problem lies in the type of king the Israelites have in mind. They ask for a king "such as all the other nations have" (v. 4) rather than a Deut 17 king. In particular, they want a king who will be a strong military leader (v. 20), an authority in competition with God instead of a servant of God. It is this kind of a king that Samuel warns against in verses 11-18.


The biblical evidence leads to the conclusion that God did intend for Israel to have human kings. The main question was not whether the Israelites should have a king, but what kind of king they should have.1 A Deut 17 king would lead the people closer to God, while a king "such as all the other nations have " would tend to have the opposite effect.


This conclusion is supported by the mainstream of Jewish tradition. For example, Maimonides listed the responsibility to appoint a king as one of the positive commandments in his compilation of the 613 commandments of the Torah. The Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 20b) records a tradition, attributed to Rabbi Judah, that three key responsibilities for Israel to fulfill in the Promised Land were to appoint a king, destroy Amalek, and build the Temple. The implication is that Israel would require a king in order to be able to successfully carry out the other two tasks.2


On the other hand, I am not claiming that a monarchy is the ideal form of human government, or that a highly centralized structure is best for an ecclesiastical government. A number of governmental structures are possible, but what is most important, I think, is that the group and its leaders live in submission to the kingship of God, following his commandments.


1The case for this conclusion is made in more detail in two excellent articles by Dr. David M. Howard: "The Case for Kingship in Deuteronomy and Former Prophets", Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, 1990, pp. 101-115; “The Case for Kingship in the Old Testament Narrative Books and the Psalms,” Trinity Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, 1988, pp. 19-35.


2For more information, see “What is the Torah’s Ideal Political System?”, a commentary on Torah portion Shoftim by Rabbi Elchanan Samet.

Issue 28


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