“Be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses” (Deut. 17:15).It is a very special calling to serve God as a leader of His people. When we are called by God to be a leader, He will guide our paths.
Definition of Key Terms
The prophet in Israel was God’s spokesperson, a man or woman commissioned to deliver messages from God. The role of prophet was not hereditary. God called and commissioned individuals as He chose, from any of Israel’s tribes. Though prophets foretold events that were to take place in the distant future, the prophet’s primary ministry was to the people of his or her own generation. The prophet provided divine guidance for special situations, at times to individuals, but usually to those who ruled God’s people. Deuteronomy 18 is the key biblical passage dealing with the Old Testament prophet. It gives the criteria to be used by Israel in recognizing a spokesman for God. The true prophet will be an Israelite (v. 18). The true prophet will speak in the name of the Lord, not another god (v. 20). And what the true prophet predicts will take place or come true (v. 22).
A variety of leaders were to serve Israel under God, the nation’s King (16:18–18:22). These included local judges (16:18–20), a supreme court composed of priests (17:8–13), a king (vv. 14–20), and the entire priesthood (18:1–8). When Israel required special guidance, God would provide it through prophets (vv. 14–22).
Understanding the Text
“Appoint judges . . . in every town” Deut. 16:18–20. There was no national police force in ancient Israel. Elders of good reputation in each community were to serve as judges. The judges were to determine the facts in legal cases and then apply Moses’ Law to fix any penalties. This first paragraph about those who serve God and His people rightly focuses on the character of the judges. We see the same thing in New Testament guidelines for selection of Christian leaders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). Character is more important than gift as equipment for spiritual leadership. Character was important because judges must show no partiality and accept no “bribe.” The word translated “bribe” can also be translated “gift.” This injunction reflects the ancient and modern Middle Eastern practice of giving gifts to those from whom a person expects favors.
The gift is not spoken of as a bribe, but the giver feels that he has a special relationship that merits favors from the person who receives it. No “special relationship” was to exist in the covenant community. The judge’s sole commitment is to be to justice. “Purge the evil from among you” Deut. 16:21–17:7. Some wonder why “religious” laws are inserted here, in a section dealing with human leadership. The reason? God is Israel’s Sovereign, the Ruler from whom human leaders derive their authority. If Israel should abandon God, the whole structure of authority would crumble. So Israel was not to set up any symbols of pagan worship, such as an Asherah pole or massebot (sacred stone). Israel was to honor God by bringing only the best to Him in sacrifice. Complete commitment to God is so vital that any Israelite proven to have worshiped pagan gods or goddesses was to be stoned to death. “Cases . . . too difficult for you to judge” Deut. 17:8–13.
Priests at the central sanctuary were expected to have an in-depth understanding of the divine Law. Thus they were to serve as an authoritative supreme court and decide cases local elders could not resolve. The priest’s decision was final, and had to be accepted. However, the decision had to be carefully explained and be rooted in the Law (v. 11). We need to respect our leaders too. But leaders remain obligated to make decisions based on the Word of God, and are responsible to explain the biblical principles on which those decisions are based. “Let us set a king over us” Deut. 17:14–20. It would be several hundred years after entering Canaan before Israel petitioned for a king. Then that request would be wrong, for two reasons. First, God was Himself Israel’s King. The request for a human king reflected a lack of trust in God. Second, Israel was intended to be different from all other nations. The motive, to “be like the nations around us,” implied abandonment of Israel’s calling.
Yet this passage has a special and wonderful message for us. God used even rejection for His glory and mankind’s good. When God’s own Son entered the human race, He was born of Israel’s royal line. Jesus, both God and man, has been exalted as King of kings and Lord of lords. God’s ability to weave Israel’s failures into His plan should encourage us. Each of us will sin at times, as Israel did. When we do, let’s remember God’s grace. Let’s ask Him to forgive us. And remember that God remains able to transform failure into good. “He is to read it all the days of his life” Deut. 17:18–20. Israel’s request for a king would reveal a spiritual flaw in God’s people. God would still rule His people through that human king. But the king must be fully committed to God. Four special rules for rulers are given. The king was to be “from among your own brothers.” Only one of God’s covenant people could rule the covenant community. The king was not to “acquire great numbers of horses.”
God Surely Will Guide (Deut. 18:9–22)
When Karen came to Ron, an elder in our church, she was frustrated. She had an important decision to make. And her friends all gave her conflicting advice. So Karen decided to come to church and ask Ron to tell her what to do. No specific “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” applied. So Ron showed her several Bible passages with principles that might apply. Finally he told her to pray and ask Jesus what she should do. Angrily Karen burst out, “But you’re the elder. You’re supposed to tell me what to do.” All of us have times when we feel a need for special guidance-for someone to tell us what to do. In the ancient world people commonly turned to sorcery or divination, or cast spells, in a search for supernatural guidance. Some moderns do the same thing, turning to palm readers, spiritists, or astrology. In this passage Israel is bluntly informed that such practices are “detestable.” God’s people are not to engage in any of them (vv. 9–14). Then immediately, God made a promise. Yes, situations will arise which are not covered by Scripture. Yes, there will be times when people need special, supernatural guidance. But, God said, then “I will raise up for you a prophet.” God made a commitment. He Himself would provide any special guidance His people might need through prophets. Israel would never need to look to any source but God. Karen was furious when Ron wouldn’t tell her what to do. Ron explained that God has given His Holy Spirit to each believer. Karen needed to pray about her situation and let God Himself guide her. “I’m not God,” Ron explained. “I don’t know God’s best for you, but He does. And if you listen, God will show you what to do.” Karen stayed angry for two days. But finally she decided to do what Ron said. Later she came back, excited. God had guided her, and she had found a solution neither she nor any of her friends had thought of. Ron, as a good servant of Jesus Christ, had helped another person learn that she truly could depend on God.
God has given you His Spirit too. You can look directly to God for guidance today.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”—Proverbs 3:5–6