Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 16:18-17:20

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Deuteronomy 16:18-17:20

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And Justice for All

In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses explains how justice is to be administered—and who is to do so. He begins by explaining that judges and officers are to be appointed in every city. If a matter proved too difficult at this level, it was to be taken to the place of God's tabernacle, to "the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days"—who, together, constituted a sort of "supreme court," whose decisions were binding (Deuteronomy 17:9-11). However, it was not, like the U.S. Supreme Court, a court of appeals wherein either side in a dispute could ask that the matter be judged again—for only the judges at the lower level could determine whether the case needed to come before the higher authorities. Later, the chief seat of judgment on the human level will be occupied by a king. None of these judges are to pervert justice by accepting bribes or showing partiality to anyone (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

Moses continues by stating the criminality of idolatry and describing right and just proceedings regarding the execution of its perpetrators—through stoning (verse 21-17:7). To ensure that an allegation of idolatry could be substantiated, the matter had to be diligently looked into, and two or three witnesses had to be found confirming the sin. If only one person saw and reported the transgression, the perpetrator could not be killed. Furthermore, the witnesses who reported the transgression had to be the first to cast the stones (verses 1-7). This procedure for a carnal nation was to ensure that the stoned person was in fact guilty of the alleged crime, and that such evil conduct would not be repeated. Indeed, the same principles had to be applied for any capital offense (compare Numbers 35:30). Moreover, no conviction of any crime, whether worthy of death or not, could be established without the testimony of at least two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15).

After explaining the role of the appointed judges and the people's responsibility to heed them, God moves on to the matter of human kingship. At this time, God was Israel's King (Exodus 15:18; Numbers 23:21). But knowing human nature, He already foresaw and knew that Israel would eventually ask for a human king as in other nations, although this request would constitute a rejection of God's direct rule and therefore be sinful (1 Samuel 8:7; 1 Samuel 12:19). Nevertheless, God would give them a human king, as He had earlier prophesied that He would (compare Genesis 17:16; Genesis 49:10). But Israel's future king was not to be just like other rulers of the day. For, in placing certain restrictions and requirements on Israel's king, God essentially decreed that the nation would be a limited constitutional monarchy under His own supreme theocracy. "These regulations limited the power and splendor of the future king. He would not be dependent on military power and riches. He was exhorted not to entangle the nation in political alliances that would expose Israel to pagan worship. Instead, he was exhorted to guide the nation into obedience to God's laws" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 17:15-17). In requiring the king to read and govern according to God's law, "the true king of Israel would be bound to God's instructions. He would not be a tyrant, but a king who ruled in accordance with God's revealed will" (note on Deuteronomy 17:18). Sadly, few Israelite kings would fulfill their responsibilities in these regards.

But the instructions here can serve as a lesson for us. True Christians, the saints of God serving in His spiritual administration of life, do not administer civil judgment over the governments of this world (see 2 Corinthians 3:6-7). But they are to eventually serve as kings in the coming Kingdom of God, which will soon reign over the entire earth (Revelation 5:10; Revelation 20:4, Revelation 20:6; Revelation 2:26-28). Daniel 7:18 says that "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever." And verse 22 reveals, "Judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom" (KJV). Psalm 149 elaborates: "Let the saints be joyful in glory; let them sing aloud on their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute on them the written judgment—this honor have all His saints" (verses 5-9). So even though Christians are not to judge in the governments of the world today, they will, when glorified as immortal kings, both judge and carry out judgment on the nations according to the "written judgment." Therefore, if the kings of Israel had a responsibility to read and meditate upon the Book of the Law, Christians, as future kings in God's Kingdom, have an even greater responsibility to do so—yet by studying not only the civil law of Israel, but the full exposition of God's judgments as found throughout the entire Bible. Glorified Christians will, of course, rule with great mercy—just as God's great mercy has been shown to them throughout their human lives.