When Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness, God gave them instructions about how they should appoint leaders upon entering the promised land:
When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14–20)
Fast forward several centuries, and we see the devastation inflicted by the Kings of Israel. Even the best of them, King David, didn’t live up to these standards. He was an Israelite, God’s chosen king who trusted in the Lord instead of seeking help from other nations. Looking only at the first half of the passage, it seems like David was qualified. But he turned away from God’s commandments when he slept with Bathsheba and had her husband killed.
Later kings were worse. Solomon’s downfall came from gathering many foreign wives, who turned his heart away from God (1 Kings 11:1–4). He made a marriage alliance with Egypt by marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 3:1), as well as accumulating horses from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28).
A constant refrain in the books of 1 & 2 Kings is that the kings “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (for example, 1 Kings 11:6, 15:26, 16:25). Few of them feared God—instead, they worshipped other gods, blatantly did evil, and rejected the prophets God had sent to warn them.
What is the point of this passage in Deuteronomy? Did God give us these instructions just to show how badly we would fail?
Well, not only that. Israel should have recalled the law and realised they were on the wrong track; they should have repented and followed in God’s way. We’re not off the hook either. The king was supposed to exemplify the righteousness that God requires from all his people, so reading these standards should make us reflect on the poor state of our own hearts.
But there’s more to it. The Kings of Israel were meant to be God’s representatives on earth—and a better representative was coming.
This passage shows us the failure of humanity to live up to God’s commands, as well as inviting us to come and behold the true king. The Israelites were sent into exile because their earthly kings failed and fell. Yet God comforted them:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
Jesus Christ fulfilled this prophecy when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as the crowds cried “Hosanna!” (John 12:12–15). He alone is “Lord of lord and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14). How does Jesus fulfill all the kingly requirements God gave in Deuteronomy 17?
- He is an Israelite, a descendant of David who inherited God’s promises (v. 15)
- Instead of leading God’s people into slavery, he came to set us eternally free (v. 16)
- Far from acquiring wives, money or possessions, Jesus lived self-sacrificially all the way to the Cross (v. 17)
- Jesus does not need a scroll with the law written on it, for he himself is the very Word of God (v. 18)
- Everything he did was in obedience to God (v. 19)
Because Jesus is the perfect King, he will reign forever. This passage shows us the deep stain of sin—so much clearer when set against the bright light of Jesus’ kingship. The good news is that Jesus redeemed us for himself, so that we can live with him for eternity. We can have hope when the world seems to be in chaos, and when our leaders are not honouring God.
So as you read it, let your heart be drawn up to gaze upon the perfection of Jesus. He is the true king. The king above all kings has come, and he is coming back soon.