When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me,” you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king – you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the Lord has said you must never again return that way. Furthermore, he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold. When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out. Then he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens or turn from the commandments to the right or left, and he and his descendants will enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14–20)
If you have spent much time in the Bible, you know that from the time God brings the people of Israel out of Egypt in Exodus 20 until he brings them into the promised land in Joshua 3 it seems like he issues command after command after command for forty years. The last half of the book of Exodus and the books of Leviticus and Numbers are hard reading. You’ve got all these meticulous laws about the sacrificial system and how the people were to live their daily lives. There are laws about murder and theft and adultery and perjury and fornication and how to treat the poor. And you have all the bizarre rules about only wearing clothes made from one type of material at a time or never shaving the beard or not eating pork or lobster. And to top it all off is the bit about circumcision. But with all that, it isn’t until years after God tells the people how to deal with these sins and crimes that the idea that Israel should have a king even floated. The passage I just read is part of the speech that Moses delivered to the Israelites just before he died and they entered the promised land. They went forty years after they left Egypt before any mention was made of a king.
Alone among the nations, Israel did not have a king, one person with hangers-on who was expected to tax everyone else as much as he wanted to and do with the proceeds as he pleased. There was no one who could make laws for other people that he did not have to obey. All people were equal under the law of Moses. Yes, there were the tithes to support the priesthood and the gleaning laws to support the poor, but there was no salaried armed force to enforce those laws or any others. Those laws were to be enforced by the men of the community acting as equals, and that was the way God told Moses it was to be.
It is only in the book of Judges that the Bible finally says openly, “There was no king in Israel,” and by then the words are a lament, not a joyful proclamation. The words “In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right” form bookends around the last five chapters of the book of Judges. In these chapters, we hear of a man who steals silver from his own mother and then starts his own idolatrous cult. We hear about some Israelites who kill off a peace-loving people so they can take over their city, and about an innocent woman who is raped to death, and about a civil war that almost totally kills off one of the tribes of Israel.
Now between our passage in Deuteronomy 17 and this sordid mess, the word king is not associated with anything particularly good. Most obviously, the kings of Canaan were not able to save their people from the Israelites. The Israelites had no king, but they defeated many peoples who did have kings. Also, the kings who were there were cruel people. When King Adonai-Bezeq was about to die, he said, “Seventy kings, with thumbs and big toes cut off, used to lick up food scraps under my table. God has repaid me for what I did to them.” Was he especially evil? I don’t think so. My guess he only succeeded in doing what many others died attempting to do.
Then we have the first king in Israel, Gideon’s son Abimelek (Jdg 9:6). The people of Shechem and Beth Millo crowned him king after he had murdered all of Gideon’s other sons but one. And he too was soon murdered.
So by the end of the book of Judges the Israelites were clearly looking for someone to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Their logical choice was a king. This is simple human nature. When times get tough, people want a superman to bail them out of their troubles, and things finally got so bad that the Israelites asked Samuel, the last judge, to give them a king. Whether they were consciously trying to follow the directive that God gave them in our passage in Deuteronomy 17 I don’t know, but let’s review what kind of king God told them to look for and what they ended up with.
The first characteristic was that he was to be the king that God himself chose. If you look in 1 Samuel 9, you’ll see that God worked all sorts of minor miracles to make it clear that Saul was the man he had chosen to be king: Saul went through days of incredible “coincidences” one after another and won a nationwide lottery, to name just two of them.
The Lord’s king was to be an Israelite, and Saul was an Israelite. He was not to accumulate horses or marry many wives. Saul did neither of those things, so he’s four for four so far.
He runs into trouble when we get to verse 18: “He must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out. Then he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens or turn from the commandments to the right or left.”
We have no record that Saul ever did that, and he and God were at loggerheads from almost the beginning of his reign. He disobeyed God at every turn, he amassed an army that he used to kill innocent people, and he eventually died a fool’s death.
Remember, now, this was the king that God had personally chosen for the Israelites. Why would God have given Israel a king like that?
The quick and dirty answer is in 1 Samuel 8, where the people ask Samuel for a king. They say, “Appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” Well, what kind of kings did the other nations have? They had cruel kings like Adonai-Bezeq. They had kings like those whom David later wrote about in Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth form a united front; the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his anointed king. They say, ‘Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us! Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!’” In fact, it was because they had rebelled against the Lord that the kings of the nation were cruel. As the Lord told Samuel, the Lord was the one the Israelites had rejected as their king (1 Sam 8:5). The Israelites did not want a king like the Lord. They wanted the kind of king they got in Saul and in so many of the kings of Israel and Judah that followed later on.
This month, of course, we celebrate the advent of a king. We celebrate the advent of the king who was king over the Israelites before they asked Samuel for a king. Our king is none other than the Lord, the God of Israel.
The idea of a king and a kingdom is crucial to the New Testament message. The word “gospel” occurs 95 times in the New Testament. The words “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” occur 99 times. We are celebrating the coming of a king—one who brings good news and is himself the good news, but a king nonetheless.
As the angel said to Mary before Jesus was conceived, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32–33).
When God told the pagans that something was up in Israel, he didn’t talk in terms of a religious figure. What did he tell them that piqued their interest? “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’” (Matt 2:1–2).
Here’s where it gets interesting. Worship a king? Who worships a king? Donald Trump is the top dog of the most expensive and powerful government the world has ever seen, but no one would think of worshiping him. Hitler and Stalin and Mao demanded unalloyed loyalty, but they didn’t demand worship. Even Nebuchadnezzar, who commanded people to worship an image that was probably of him, didn’t demand people worship him directly. But here these men came to worship the king of Israel.
He would have to be a pretty special king, wouldn’t he? What was special about him?
You remember I said that Saul went wrong by not keeping God’s law near him and reading it regularly. Well, the king we celebrate this month, Jesus, not only keeps that law near him, he is the embodiment of that law. “In the beginning was the Word,” the Gospel of John tells us, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. … The Word became flesh and took up residence among us.” (John 1:1, 14). It is because he has kept God’s law—and better than that, that he is that law incarnate—that he is able to be that superman that the Israelites were looking for when they asked for a king.
Because he embodies that law, he does not lord it over his people the way the “kings of the earth” do. Instead, he says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). He serves us day after day by providing us with what we need, and he especially looks like a servant when he answers our prayers. He serves us even though at heart we are rebels against him. But he also understands how deep our rebellion against him is, so he works patiently with us, changing our hearts so we come to love his ways and willingly surrender everything to him. And as we go through the process of learning to love what God loves, he goes on serving us.
There are ways in which he is like an earthly king. Like an earthly king he punishes those who will not allow him to rule over them. Membership in the kingdom is voluntary, and those who do not want to be members he will banish from his presence forever. He will also correct those who want to be part of his kingdom but step out of line, and that is an unpleasant process: “All discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it” (Heb 12:11).
Those words peace and righteousness are very important. Our king disciplines us so that we can have righteousness, so that we can stand before God forgiven and knowing he approves of us, and so that we can have the peace that is more than the absence of conflict; biblical peace is an abundance of everything good that will last forever. When he corrects us, it is always so that he can give us something much better than what we try to get by disobeying him.
It’s also true that like any earthly king Jesus considers himself entitled to take from us everything we hold dear—all our most treasured possessions, our families, our freedom, our health, and even our lives. If you go to icommittopray.com, you can read story after story of Christians who have lost their homes and all their possessions, who have been rejected by their families, who have been put in jail, and who have been beaten and maimed and even killed. And every one of them will say that they have given these things up willingly because King Jesus has asked them to.
When Jesus died, Pilate had the notice of accusation posted on the cross above him: Pilate also had a notice written and fastened to the cross, which read: “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Thus many of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem read this notice, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the notice was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The king of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am king of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:19–22)
Pilate knew who he was dealing with.
So we have a choice. We can either follow the kings of the earth—who care nothing for us—in their rebellion against God, or we can follow the king of heaven who loved us so much that he willingly died for our sins, to offer us peace and right standing with God. We can’t do both: Jesus said that no man can serve two masters. Jesus invites us to follow him, but the invitation to his kingdom contains some pretty scary words, so those of us who think we want to accept it need to listen carefully and soberly.
“If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23–26)
May God have mercy on us and grant us grace to become true subjects of King Jesus.