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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Deuteronomy 17

Judges and similar officials 16:18-17:13

As in the other sections of Deuteronomy, here too Moses’ emphasized underlying principles more than procedures. Here he stressed the principle of justice.

B. An exposition of selected covenant laws Chs. 12-25

Moses’ continuing homiletical exposition of the Law of Israel that follows explains reasons for the covenant laws that arose from the Ten Commandments. This address concludes with directions for celebrating and confirming the covenant (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The section contains a mixture of laws previously revealed to the Israelites and other laws not previously revealed in the code given at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:19). This is instruction preached rather than codified as comprehensive legislation.

"The specific laws in this section were given to help the people subordinate every area of their lives to the LORD, and to help them eradicate whatever might threaten that pure devotion." [Note: Deere, p. 283.]

"Placement of the instruction about worship at the sanctuary in first position indicates clearly its priority for Deuteronomy, which assumes that the starting point for the proper, full, and exclusive love of the Lord (the primary demand of the first and second commandments and the Shema) is found in the way Israel carries out the activities of worship." [Note: Miller, p. 129.]

There is an obvious general movement from laws dealing with Israel’s religious life (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) to those affecting her civil life (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 22:8) and finally to those touching personal life (Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 26:15).

Two insightful writers suggested the following outlines for these chapters. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 218-331; and Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARAV 1 (1978-79):105-58.]

CommandmentMerrillKaufmanDescription
1Deuteronomy 12:1-31ch. 12Fidelity
2Deuteronomy 12:32 to Deuteronomy 13:18ch. 12Worship
3Deuteronomy 14:1-21Deuteronomy 13:1 to Deuteronomy 14:27Name of God
4Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 16:17Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 16:17Sabbath
5Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Authority
6Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Murder
7Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:18Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:19Adultery
8Deuteronomy 23:19 to Deuteronomy 24:7Deuteronomy 23:20 to Deuteronomy 24:7Theft
9Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4False witness
10Deuteronomy 25:5-19Deuteronomy 25:5-16Coveting

". . . the entire second discourse of Moses (Deuteronomy 5-26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments . . . and commands of God." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 129.]

In contrast with the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), the Deuteronomic Code, as some scholars prefer to call this section (chs. 12-26), is a popular exposition rather than a formal legal code. Its purpose was to explain to the generation entering the land all the laws that needed clarification, emphasis, and application, in view of Israel’s imminent entrance into Canaan. These laws reflect a centralized, monarchical society.

The value of this section of Scripture to the Christian today lies primarily in its revelation of the heart, mind, and will of God. The modern student of these chapters should look for this kind of insight here. This is the revelatory value of the Law.

Verses 1-7

God specified the method of execution as stoning for idolaters as well as other capital offenders. Rocks were, and still are, present everywhere in Canaan. At least two and preferably three witnesses had to be willing to take the lead in stoning the convicted offender (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). These requirements were safeguards against injustice and perjury.

"The evidence must be adequate and credible; and anyone ready to make a serious accusation must be prepared to be executioner as well as witness." [Note: Payne, p. 104.]

Verses 8-13

Deuteronomy 17:2 through 7 explain a specific example of how the judges were to deal with a particular type of case. In these verses we see the legal procedure they were to follow in general.

When the priests would set up the tabernacle in the land, the nation was to establish a supreme court to provide judgment in cases too difficult for the local judges. The location of this legal center may have been at the tabernacle [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 252] , or it may have been at some other place. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 261-62; I. Cairns, Word and Presence: A Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy, pp. 163-64.] Kline believed it was at the tabernacle and that this requirement reminded the people that the God who dwelt at the central sanctuary was Israel’s supreme Judge. [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 179.]

At least two men would decide the case: a judge and a priest. The priest’s function was to clarify how the law of God related to the case. The decision of this court was final, and the people were to regard it as the will of God. People who rejected the decisions of this court were to die because to do so was to rebel against the will of God (Deuteronomy 17:12).

Verses 14-20

Kings 17:14-20

Moses recognized that when Israel settled in Canaan and took on the characteristics of other nations (e.g., a homeland, political organization, etc.) her people would desire a king. As he revealed the mind of God here, a king was permissible, but he had to qualify in certain respects. [Note: See John E. Johnson, "The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):182-200.]

1. He had to be an Israelite (Deuteronomy 17:15). This was essential since Israel’s king would be the vice-regent of Yahweh. The king therefore had to be a member of the covenant community.

2. He must not build up a large military organization by multiplying horses (Deuteronomy 17:16). This would lead to a false sense of security and power. Egypt was a major horse market in the ancient Near East, and horses were military machines. [Note: For a helpful discussion of horses in the ancient Near East, see D. R. Ap-Thomas, "All the King’s Horses," in Proclamation and Presence, pp. 135-51.]

3. He was not to multiply wives (Deuteronomy 17:17) since these women would tend to turn his heart away from devotion to, and concentration on, Yahweh. Furthermore God’s standard for marriage has always been monogamy (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-13).

4. He was not to amass a large personal fortune (Deuteronomy 17:17). This too would lead to a false sense of security and a divided allegiance (cf. Luke 16:13).

"A richly furnished harem, and the accumulation of silver and gold, were inseparably connected with the luxury of Oriental monarchs generally; so that the fear was a very natural one, that the future king of Israel might follow the general customs of the heathen in these respects." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:386.]

5. He was to transcribe a copy of the law of God (the covenant text of Deuteronomy [cf. Deuteronomy 1:5; Deuteronomy 4:44; Deuteronomy 27:3; Deuteronomy 27:8; Deuteronomy 27:26; Deuteronomy 29:21; Deuteronomy 29:29; Deuteronomy 30:10] [Note: Thompson, p. 206; Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 266.] ) personally (Deuteronomy 17:18). This would encourage his thoughtful mental interaction with God’s revealed will for Israel.

6. He was to read this law throughout his lifetime. Note that this and the preceding command assume that the king could read and write. This would normally produce two conditions. First, he would get to know God personally and thus fear Him. Second, he would be able to obey God’s will (Deuteronomy 17:19-20).

"Three conclusions may be drawn from these admonitions. There is, first, a clear limitation on power, to avoid tyranny and the danger of the king’s assuming the Lord’s rule of the people. . . .

"Second, these restrictions and injunctions serve the main purpose of Deuteronomy, to enjoin a full and undivided allegiance to the Lord. . . .

"Finally, the law of the king places upon that figure the obligations incumbent upon every Israelite. In that sense, Deuteronomy’s primary concern was that the king be the model Israelite." [Note: Miller, pp. 148-49.]

"It is a remarkable fact that nowhere in the Old Testament is the king represented as having anything to do with the making of laws." [Note: Whybray, p. 108.]

Yahweh, Israel’s true King, made Israel’s laws and was to make the choice of Israel’s kings. The people were not to select a monarch without God’s approval. He would be Yahweh’s vice-regent. In some of Israel’s neighbor nations, the king was regarded as a god, but in Israel, God was the true King.

"It is noteworthy that in the secular suzerainty treaties, a similar oversight of the vassal’s choice of king is exercised." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 179.]

When Israel entered the land and requested a king, Samuel the prophet became greatly distressed (1 Samuel 8:6). His reaction was evidently not due to the request itself but to the motive behind the request. The people were turning away from their real King to a human king (1 Samuel 8:7-8). God granted the people’s request even though it sprang from the wrong motive, but He disciplined them in the years following through the king they requested, Saul. Similarly, God conceded to the Israelites’ request for meat in the wilderness, but He disciplined them for their choice by allowing them to get sick from it (Numbers 11; Psalms 106:15).

This pericope makes very clear that in civil life God wants justice for all (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) and His people’s wholehearted devotion to Himself (Deuteronomy 16:21 to Deuteronomy 17:7; cf. Philippians 3:20). Submission to civil authority (Deuteronomy 17:8-13; cf. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-15) and leaders who follow Him (Deuteronomy 17:4-20; cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-7) are also important to God. [Note: For an exposition of this pericope with excellent applications for leadership, see Daniel I. Block, "The Burden of Leadership: The Mosaic Paradigm of Kingship (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)," Bibliotheca Sacra 162:647 (July-September 2005):259-78.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-17.html. 2012.