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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 17

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-20

CRITICAL REMARKS.—Israel not only had tendency to idolatry, but inclination to offer animals with faults and to transgress the laws of worship. Blemishes named in Leviticus 22:0.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7. Idolaters slain. Done wickedness, lit. the wickedness, the special sin denounced. Facts were to be enquired into, the charge substantiated. Two witnessses were needful (Numbers 25:14) to condemn. Thy gates, where judicial proceedings took place (cf. Nehemiah 8:1-3; Job 29:7). “The sentence executed outside the town, as it had been outside the camp in the wilderness (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:36), to indicate the exclusion of the criminal from the congregation, and from fellowship with God”—put away, lit. consume, set fire to, destroy by burning; hence to root out, remove, annihilate.

Deuteronomy 17:8-13. The Higher Judicial Court at the Sanctuary. Too hard. Deuteronomy 17:8. The transition is obvious for enactments of capital crimes to obscure and difficult cases; cases like that brought before Moses (Exodus 18:23-27). “In future judges of the different towns were to bring all cases which they were unable to decide, before the priests, the Levites and the judge that shall be in those days.” Deuteronomy 17:9. “The judge would no doubt be a layman, and thus the court would contain both an ecclesiastical and civil element.” (Speak. Com.) Deuteronomy 17:10. This superior court was not a court of appeal to adjudicate on verdicts given by another court. Its decisions were final and authoritative; founded on law—the suitors must obey them as the voice of Jehovah. Deuteronomy 17:12. Do presumptuously. If a person was refractory and disobedient he would be put to death as a rebel against God.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The choice and duties of a king. The choice of a king is not like that of judges and officers (16), enjoined, but simply permitted. The reason is obvious. Provision for due administration of justice is essential; that justice should be dispensed through monarchial forms is not so; and is accordingly only recognised as an arrangement, which might probably result on the settlement and consolidation of the people in Canaan. (Speak. Com.)

Deuteronomy 17:16-20. Three rules given for the guidance of the king. He was not to keep many horses and thus lead back the people to Egypt, from which God had delivered them. He must trust in God, not in warlike preparations. Deuteronomy 17:17. Nor to have many wives, lest his heart should be turned from God. Lastly, he must not accumulate a vast treasure, by engaging in foreign commerce. Solomon transgressed this rule (2 Chronicles 1:15), and was imitated by Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:2). Deuteronomy 17:18. Instead of minding earthly things he must meditate in the law; copy it himself or have a copy written for him; daily consult it, to keep him from pride and error; to prolong his own life and secure the crown to his posterity.


Sacrifices are of divine origin, and God alone can specify what kind will be acceptable to him. Animals perfect and uninjured were always to be offered (Exodus 12:5; Leviticus 1:3).

I. God requires perfect sacrifices. “No blemish.” There must be no flaw in character, obedience, and life. No hypocrisy in worship and profession. Nothing ill-favoured and unsightly. Our sacrifices must befit the sacred purpose for which they are offered, and be the symbol of the moral integrity of those who offer them. “Whatsoever hath a blemish, that shall ye not offer: for it shall not be acceptable for you.”

II. Men offer imperfect sacrifices. Many things are withheld which God demands, and things which are offered are lame and blind. They are blemished, defective in spirit and measure. We keep back part of our time and the best of our service. They are tainted with worldly influence, half-heartedness, selfishness, and reluctance. “Should I accept this at your hand?”

III. How then can our sacrifices be acceptable to God? Not through our merits, but “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” In ancient time animals were not accepted so much on account of their perfect, physical organisation, or intrinsic excellence, as their typical value. They were selected and offered on behalf of the guilty. When offered in penitence and faith they were received. If we come in rectitude of heart, God will pardon and bless. “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the Eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?”


The duties of magistrates are again enjoined, and special forms legalised to detect and punish idolators.

I. The detection of guilt. Actions speak louder than words. If a man or woman served other gods it would be known and talked about. But crime was discovered.

1. Not by mere report. “It be told thee.” Reports do mischief, and must be sifted before circulated. They were not to act on hearsay, or under prejudice and excitement.

2. Honest enquiry was made. “Inquired diligently.” Flying rumours were judicially examined. Diligent search might substantiate the report. If not, a salutary dread would impress the people.

3. The offence proved by competent witnesses. Not by the testimony of one, but of two or three witnesses was the guilty punished (Deuteronomy 17:6). This was a safeguard against a hasty and unjust verdict. “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Corinthians 13:1).

II. The punishment of the guilty. “He that is worthy of death be put to death” (Deuteronomy 17:6).

1. The witnesses must lead (Deuteronomy 17:7). This would check false witness, and ensure truthfulness and sincerity. It would be a public avowal of their testimony, and a proof that the sin had met its due punishment.

2. The punishment was inflicted openly. “At the gates.” Condemned criminals were executed outside the walls, and thus put to greater shame as a warning to others. This was a type of the rejection of Jesus, who suffered without the camp, and bore our reproach (Hebrews 13:12.)

3. All the people took part. The hands of the witness first, and then the people (Deuteronomy 17:7). All are interested in checking crime, and all must be purified when it is detected. God will have no rival. Idolatary of every degree and description is a capital crime, and death is decreed as its penalty. We must detest it, uproot it in our hearts and customs. “So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.”


I. It is offensive to God. “The wickedness in the sight of the Lord.”

1. A violation of His covenant. “In transgressing His covenant” (Deuteronomy 17:2). Concealed or open, cultured or gross in form, it robbed God of His due. “It was spiritual adultery which breaks the marriage bond,” says Henry. It rendered void the covenant, and therefore forfeited all its blessings.

2. A defeating of His purpose. Israel was chosen to be a holy people and to preserve purity of worship, but idolatry defeated this object.

II. It is injurious to society. “Abomination wrought in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:4). It extinguishes the light and impaires the moral sensibilities of the nation. It breaks the moral bonds and creates debasing habits in society. It is the spring of possest immorality. An act of treason and rebellion against the majesty of Heaven.


Deuteronomy 17:4-5. Precautions in search of the truth. Told thee privately, and in confidence; thou hast heard of it, therefore notorious, a public scandal and likely to be true; enquired diligently, sought to find out the truth, by careful examination of persons and circumstances: behold it is true, not founded on vague rumour or malice; the thing certain, proved by the clearest evidence; then bring forth the man,” etc. (Deuteronomy 17:5). The charge of idolatry was the most solemn and awful that could be brought against an Israelite, because it affected his life; therefore, God required that the charge should be substantiated by most unequivocal facts, and most competent witnesses. Hence all the precautions mentioned must be carefully used, to arrive at so affecting, and so awful a truth.—(Ad. Clarke.)

The Sacredness of Human Life.

1. A man thought innocent until proved guilty.
2. A fair trial to establish the guilt.
3. The method of punishing guilt a wise procedure. (a) Interesting the people in its detection and punishment. (b) Securing moral certainty in truthful verdict. (c) Economy in judicial administration.

Witnesses inflicting punishment.

1. To deter from rash accusation.
2. To check the evil thus punished. “A rule which would naturally lead to the supposition that no man would come forward as a witness without the fullest certainty or the greatest depravity.” (Keil). He assigned this part to the witnesses, chiefly because there are so many whose tongue is so slippery, not to say good for nothing, that they would boldly strangle a man with their words, when they would not dare to touch him with one of their fingers. It was the best remedy, therefore, that could be tried for restraining such levity, to refuse to admit the testimony of any man who was not ready to execute judgment with his own hand.—(Calvin.)


In all evil and criminal cases where doubts and difficulties were involved, local magistrates were to submit them to the supreme council for final decision. From this decision there must be no swerving right or left.

I. Human interests often perplex. “A matter too hard for thee in judgment.” Cases were often complicated and obscure, too hard for inferior judges to decide.

1. They spring up in small circles, “within thy gates” (Deuteronomy 17:8). In towns and villages difficult questions have to be considered—poor laws, sanitary measures, and bitter cries in many forms. Often the smaller the circle the more perplexing the problem.

2. They relate to civil matters. Cases of murder or death, accidentally or wilfully, “between blood and blood” contending parties in law suits, “between plea and plea.” Actions of assault or bodily injury, “between stroke and stroke.” Society is not perfect. Men are selfish, cruel and disobedient. The wisest rules are often unable to solve the controversy within the gates. “That which is crooked cannot be made straight.”

II. The court of appeal to settle these interests. Courts of judgment were in every city (Deuteronomy 16:18), empowered to determine cases of the crown and of the people.

1. Composed of appointed officers. “Thou shalt come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge. Representatives of God in every department of life must be expounders of law and examples of justice.

2. Assembled in one place. “Get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose” (Deuteronomy 17:8). The sittings were held near the sanctuary, that in great emergencies the high priest might consult the Urim (Numbers 27:21). The house of God is the place of righteousness and the seat of learning. We must come not only to meditate and praise, but to “enquire” from His servants and word. “Ask now the priests concerning the law.”

III. The importance of the decision given by this court. This was the highest judicial authority and its decisions were most important.

1. They were legally right. “They shall show thee the sentence of judgment” (Deuteronomy 17:9). In harmony with the will of God and the interests of the suitors. Not the result of worldly wisdom but of divine teaching.

2. They were binding in authority. No appeal from this judgment. It was was the law of God, not the enactment of men. a. Obedience was enforced. “Thou shalt do.” We must receive the truth, not as the word of man, but the word of God. b. Disobedience was punished. The man that would not hearken but acted presumptuously must die. Resistance was rebellion, which was severely rebuked, condemned and punished. It was “striving with the priest” (Hosea 4:4) and contending with God. “What shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God?”

3. They were benevolent in their aim. “That the people might hear and fear and do no more presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 17:13). To check evil, keep humble, and promote order and righteousness. “For the punishment of evil doers and the praise of them that do well.”


Mankind are associated together for something more than to eat, sleep, and secure protection. They co-exist for mutual intercourse, mutual help and the advancement of present and eternal good. This is accomplished—

I. By legal tribunals. Since society is not human in its origin, conventional in its principals, and accidental in its destination, its institutions must harmonise with its character and aim. Government is needful to its existence and welfare. Courts of justice are tribunals to defend right, truth, and liberty. God who lays upon mankind the necessity of appointing rulers, has laid upon rulers the necessity of rewarding good and punishing evil. Resistance tends to weaken government and create disorder. “Let every good soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained (ordered) of God.”

II. By the co-operation of all its functions. We have different classes, different ranks and various interests among men. But in politital, ecclesiastical and civil matters, the good of the whole should be consulted. Priests and ministers of religion may enlighten the public conscience and expound the law. Judges and magistrates may administer that law “for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well.” There should be no invasion of rights and no alienation of ranks; no miscarriage of justice and no schism in the body.” There are many departments with one interest and end; “diversities of operation with the same spirit.”

Heaven forming each on other to depend
A master, or a servant, or a friend,
Bids each on other for assistance call,
Till one man’s weakness grows the strength of all.

III. By upholding the authority of God’s Word. “The law” must be honoured and upheld. This is the only guarantee of order, prosperity and morality. It should be the ruling principle of kings, parliaments, and people. It should regulate the counsels of statesmen and the maxims of lawyers; reign in the country and the colonies, in the cottage and the court. This is the sweet ground on which a nation’s prosperity can rest and rise to the highest pitch. Institutions and enterprises, thrones and empires that disregard the word of God will fall, and great will be their fall. When the law of God is exalted “there will be security of thy times, riches of salvation, of wisdom and knowledge. Fear of Jehovah is then the treasure of Judah” (Isaiah 33:6).


Deuteronomy 17:8-13. There is a misconception of this passage. The argument built upon it by the most able Romish controversialists is, that here plainly the Bible is not enough; that you are to go to a judge, the priest to get his opinion and his decision, and if you will not accept it, that then you are to be anathematized and expelled. But just mark a few distinctions overlooked in such a statement. First, it is not to hear a controversy about doctrine, but a controversy about blood, and plea, and stroke,—civil matters. Secondly, when there is a controversy, it is not the high priest that is to decide it; but it is the priest or the Levite—a layman—or the judge—a layman also. Therefore if they will quote this passage as a precedent for Papal infallibility, deciding doctrinal discussions and expelling them that will not submit to it, they ought to quote fully; and if they quote fully, they will see it is not controversy about doctrine, but about civil matters; and next, that the controversy is to be appealed not to an ecclesiastic only, but to a layman as well.—(Dr. Cumming.)

Deuteronomy 17:9-10.—Duties of priests to expound the law, of judges to administer it, and of the people to ascertain it. “The law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet.”

Deuteronomy 17:12-13. Presumptuous sins.

1. Resistance to priests when dissatisfied with interpretation of law.
2. Resistance to judges when discontented with sentence or decisions given. Such refractory conduct worthy of death. “Presumptuous are they and self-willed.” “Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sin.”

THE CHOICE AND DUTY OF A KING.—Deuteronomy 17:14-20

If Israel should wish for a king when they possessed the land, God gave permission to choose one under His direction. “The appointment of a king is not commanded, like the institution of judges (Deuteronomy 16:18), because Israel could exist under the government of Jehovah without an earthly king; it is simply permitted, in case the need should arise for a regal government.” (Keil.)

I. The choice of a king. Moses foresaw the nation’s wish to have a king, and is taught to legislate for his choice and conduct (cf. 1 Samuel 8:10-12).

1. According to Divine arrangement. “Set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose.” The people might select, but subject somehow to Divine approval. Kings are God’s vice-regents, and He nominates when nations elect them. God’s will should direct and determine our choice. The people are reproved for acting in forgetfulness. “They have set up kings, but not by me” (Hosea 8:4).

2. Not from a strange nation. “Not a stranger over thee which is not thy brother.” Kings must own their kinship to the people and act as brothers, not as Eastern despots nor royal castes. A gentile head for a Jewish nation would be strange, might defeat the end in view in separating that nation from others, and introduce strange customs and foreign alliances.

II. The duties of the king. These are specified.

1. Negatively. (a) He is not to depend upon horses. “Not multiply horses” (Deuteronomy 17:16). His trust must not be in “horses and chariots” and warlike preparations, but in the living God. Egypt furnished Canaan with horses (1 Kings 10:28-29), and they might be endangered by alliance, and tainted by idolatry. “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help, and stay on horses “etc. (Isaiah 31:1). (b) Not to be seduced by many wives. “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself.” No harem must be kept to gratify the love of pleasure. His heart must not be turned away from business and works of piety. “When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:1-4). (c) Not to accumulate riches. “Neither shall he greatly mulitiply to himself silver and gold.” Desire for wealth might lead to oppression and injustice. Riches produce pride, and we are not “to trust in uncertain riches.”

2. Positively. (a) He must copy the law, or some qualified scribe must copy it for him. This would inure himself to labour and study, enlighten and impress his mind. The Word of God must not only be written on parchment, but imprinted on the mind and heart. (b) He must read it when copied. “He shall read therein.” It is not enough to have the Bible in the cabinet, or in the drawer; we must read it. Read it daily, read it all through life as our guide and companion. Alexander valued Homer most highly and Scipio Africanus would scarcely allow Xenophon’s Cyclopedia to be put out of sight. The king of Israel was to study God’s word, and meditate therein day and night.


I. In the method of their election. None chosen without God’s permission, or if chosen, elected without His providence. “The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will” (Daniel 4:32; Daniel 5:21).

II. In the laws by which they govern. Good laws are made by good men, and good men are the gift of God. Bad laws are often overruled for the good of men. “Of law,” says Hooker, “these can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God—her voice the harmony of the world.”

III. In the duration of their reign—God can lengthen or shorten their days. He puts down one and sets up another. “He changeth the times and the seasons: He removeth kings and setteth up kings” (Daniel 2:21).


Deuteronomy 17:14. Anticipated provisions. Regal government not enjoined, almost discountenanced and forbidden, but future provision made and rules of conduct given. So in Christian history and Christian life.

Deuteronomy 17:16. Horses. As horses appear to have been generally furnished by Egypt, God prohibits these.

1. Lest these should be such commerce with Egypt as might lead to idolatry.
2. Lest the people might depend upon a well appointed cavalry as a means of security and so cease trusting in the strength and protection of God. And

3. That they might not be tempted to extend their dominion by means of cavalry and so get scattered among the surrounding idolatrous nations, and thus cease in process of time to be that distinct and separate people which God intended they should be; and without which the prophecies relative to the Messiah, could not be known to have the due and full accomplishment.—A. Clarke.

Deuteronomy 17:18. Write a copy.

1. A standard of reference. Probably an autograph kept in the tabernacle by the priests.
2. A preventative from error. Possibly every copy was revised by priests and compared to the original.
3. A provision for the future. Former copies would bear out, but new ones were to be made. Thus the Word of God has been handed down from age to age.

Deuteronomy 17:18-19. Observe on this passage—

1. That it was the surest way to bring the Israelitish king to an acquaintance with the divine law, to oblige him to write out a fair copy of it with his own hand.
2. He has to read this law diligently and constantly; neither the greatness of his place nor the height and multitude of his business must excuse or hinder him.
3. It is not enough to have Bibles, but we must use them; yea, use them daily. Our souls must have constant meals of that manna, which, if well digested, will afford them true nourishment and strength.—J. Wilson. The king, even the king, was not to employ an amenuensis, but was himself to write out a copy of the law. Evidently the reason was, what you read rapidly you forget rapidly, but if you sit down and write, and that carefully and in the best handwriting that you can, texts from the Bible, you will recollect them much more easily. And no doubt the object of making the king write it out for himself was that it might be impressed upon his mind and heart the more.—Dr. Cumming.

Deuteronomy 17:19-20. Proper reading of Scripture will beget—

1. A right state of mind. “That his heart be not lifted up.” Deep humility becomes all students.
2. Reverence for Divine authority. The fear of God and regard for His statutes.
3. Conscientious obedience to Divine law—“To do them.” or daily reading of the law.
(1) To learn to fear God.
(2) To be kept from pride.
(3) To prevent apostacy, and
(4) to secure the possesion of the throne. Elevation begets pride and pride independence. Charles the Great set the crown upon the Bible. The Bible is the best support of the crown and kingdom.

With him. As his vade mecum, his manual, his running library, the man of his counsel. Luther said he would not live in Paradise without the Bible, as with it he could easily live in hell itself.—Trapp.

That his heart be not lifted up. Observe—

1. It is here intimated that the Scriptures diligently read are a powerful means to keep a person humble, because they show that, though a king, he is subject to a higher monarch, to whom he must give an account of all his administrations, and receive from him his sentence agreeably to their quality, which is sufficient to abate the haughtiest person in the world.
2. That the greatest monarch may receive more benefit by the Scriptures than by all the wealth and power of his monarchy. An attentive, prayerful, believing perusal of the Bible will be of advantage.
(1) To His person. “He shall prolong his days in his kingdom. We find in the history of the kings of Judah, that generally the best reigns were the longest, except when God shortened them for the punishment of the people, as Josiah’s.
(2) To his family; his children shall also prosper. Entail religion upon posterity and God will entail a blessing upon it.”—J. Wilson.


Deuteronomy 17:1. Blemish. Remember that God will not be mocked; that it is the heart of the worshipper which he regards. We are never safe till we love Him with our whole heart whom we pretend to worship.—Bp. Henshawe.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7. There is but one true God, who made heaven and earth, and sea and winds; but the fully and madness of mankind brought in images as representatives of God (Romans 1:22-23). “All the princes of the earth hath not had so many subjects betrayed and made traitors by their enemies as God hath lost souls by the means of idolatry and images.—Bp. Hooker.

Enquire diligently, Deuteronomy 17:4.

“Believe not each accusing tongue,

As most weak persons do;

But still believe that story wrong

Which ought not to be true.”—


Deuteronomy 17:8-13. Too hard. The greatest difficulties lie where we are not looking for them.—(Goethe.) Controversy, Deuteronomy 17:8. Many controversies grow up about religion, as suckers from the root and limbs of a fruit tree, which spend the vital sap that should make it fruitful.—(Flavel.) Sentence of judgment, Deuteronomy 17:9. The main strength and force of a law consists in the penalty annexed to it.—Blackstone.

“Sovereign law, that states collected will
O’er thrones and globes elate,
Sits empress, crowning good, repressing ill.

Sir W. Jones.

Deuteronomy 17:14-15. King over thee. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. (Burke.) Horses. For stateliness and majesty what is comparable to a horse?—Sir T. More.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20. A book. Bishop Hooker, in a dedication to king Edward VI., remarked, “God in heaven, and the king on earth, hath not a greater friend than the Bible.” “The Bible is the foundation of all good government, as it instructs rulers and subjects in their respective duties. A French lady once said to Lord Chesterfield that she thought the Parliament of England consisted of five or six hundred of the best informed and most sensible men in the kingdom. ‘True, madam, they are generally supposed to be so. ‘What then, my lord, can be the reason that they tolerate so great an absurdity as the Christian religion?’ ‘I suppose, madam,’ replied his lordship, ‘it is because they have not been able to substitute anything better in its stead; when they can, I do not doubt but in their wisdom they will readily adopt it.’ ”—Whitecross.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/deuteronomy-17.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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