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 Deuteronomy 17:9-11 [9] And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show you the sentence of judgment: [10] And you shall do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall show you; and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform you: [11] According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do: you shall not decline from the sentence which they shall show you, to the right hand, nor to the left.
American King James Version×
). 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 Deuteronomy 16:18-20 [18] Judges and officers shall you make you in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, throughout your tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. [19] You shall not wrest judgment; you shall not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift does blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. [20] That which is altogether just shall you follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.
American King James Version×
).

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 Numbers 35:30Whoever kills any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.
American King James Version×
). 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 Deuteronomy 19:15One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
American King James Version×
).

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 Exodus 15:18The LORD shall reign for ever and ever.
American King James Version×
; Numbers 23:21 Numbers 23:21He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
American King James Version×
). 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 8:7And the LORD said to Samuel, Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you: for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
American King James Version×
; 1 Samuel 12:19 1 Samuel 12:19And all the people said to Samuel, Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we die not: for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask us a king.
American King James Version×
). Nevertheless, God would give them a human king, as He had earlier prophesied that He would (compare Genesis 17:16 Genesis 17:16And I will bless her, and give you a son also of her: yes, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
American King James Version×
; Genesis 49:10 Genesis 49:10The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and to him shall the gathering of the people be.
American King James Version×
). 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 Deuteronomy 17:18And it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:
American King James Version×
). 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 2 Corinthians 3:6-7 [6] Who also has made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. [7] But if the ministration of death, written and engraved in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
American King James Version×
). 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 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
American King James Version×
, Revelation 29:6 Revelation 29:6
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; Revelation 2:26-28 Revelation 2:26-28 [26] And he that overcomes, and keeps my works to the end, to him will I give power over the nations: [27] And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. [28] And I will give him the morning star.
American King James Version×
). Daniel 7:18 Daniel 7:18But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.
American King James Version×
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.

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