God wants there to be supreme courts and presidents. Really? Well, kind of. In this series, we are studying Deuteronomy 17, seeking God’s heart for good government, and we move from what God instructed Israel to do with local governance to what he wanted for their national governance: supreme courts and presidents!
In Deut. 17:8-20, he describes a unique system in which priests and a judge form a national-level law court with the responsibility of providing rulings on the most difficult cases (bloodshed, law suits, and assaults are the three examples given), cases that the lower courts were unable to decide. It seems this high court, located in the city of God’s choosing, was to be like our supreme court.
What do you think of the fact that this high court was to be comprised mostly of priests? In verse 12 we read about “the priest there ministering to the Lord,” which might be a reference to the high priest of the land. So this high court had heavy hitters. The judge of the land, and maybe the high priest, and then perhaps also an unnamed number of other judges. What that means is that Israel’s high court includes both the civil and religious leaders.
To our American ears, it might sound odd when we read that Israel was to have priests on its high court. Can you imagine if our Supreme Court included religious leaders? But for Israel it makes sense, because the priests were the ones who knew the Law the best. We see this in verse 10 where God says they were to decide these hard cases, and in verse 11, as they were to teach people the law.
Then the people were to absolutely follow the decision of the court. No wavering. Look at the penalty for those who disobeyed! Verses 12-13 say it is the death penalty. In our view this might seem insane. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in our study of Deuteronomy, I’m glad we Christians are under a new covenant. We also need to remember that it wasn’t some random law that Israel was following. Whose law governed their land? God’s law. The priests and judges were not making up new laws and asking the people to follow them. They were simply deciding cases, based on God’s law. Their government was a theocracy, meaning God was at the top, God was ruler. When people disobeyed what this high court decided, they were disobeying God. That’s bold disobedience, and it was to be taken seriously. Again, I am so glad the church is not under this covenant.
So far in this series we have seen God’s desire for Israel to have local courts, and a high court, and now we have one higher level to go: the King, which is described in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
This section envisions a time in the future when Israel is settled in the land and wants a king, “like all the nations around” them. Warning. Warning! Warning. We should be seeing warning signs in this verse. What warning sign? That phrase “like all the nations around us.” What is wrong with that? Israel was NOT to be like the nations around them. We have seen that in previous posts. They were not to worship in the detestable ways of the nations around them.
And here is the kicker. They shouldn’t be asking for a king because they already had a king! Who was their king? YHWH, God was their king. This section is just a few verses long, but it points to something that is going to have significant consequences for the nation. God knows this. Let’s just jump ahead into the future and see what happens.
We’re traveling to a time about a couple hundred years after Deuteronomy 16. The book of Joshua comes right after Deuteronomy and tells the story of the conquest of the Promised Land, led by Joshua who took over for Moses. The people settle down, and after Joshua dies, we read in next book, the book of Judges, that there are a series of judges who become the top leader of the nation. One of those judges was a guy named Gideon who won an amazing battle, and the people wanted to make him king. In Judges 8:23 we read that Gideon was not a fan of that idea and instead responded, “the Lord will rule over you.” That’s right, Gideon! The people had a strong desire to have a king like the nations around them. Gideon might have tamped down that desire for the time being, but it would return.
Then maybe another hundred years or so after Gideon, in the days of the very last judge who would rule over Israel, a guy named Samuel, the people were again asking for a king. I encourage you to read 1 Sam. 8:4-9. Did you hear how God felt about this idea? He felt rejected! Israel doesn’t need a king because they have God, the one true king. The same goes for us, as we Christians worship God alone, and and we do not worship human leaders.
In the next post, we’ll turn back to Deuteronomy 17, and what we’ll see is that God knows the people will ask for a king, so perhaps he can set some laws in place to help this king idea turnout different from the nations around them. What God will say about the king is shocking.