You may have learned somewhere that God did not want Israel to have a king. Most Christian churches teach this to youngsters early in Sunday school. But it is wrong. God did want Israel to have a king; he just had a certain kind of king in mind. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, long before the time of Saul, God said, “Be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses” (emphasis added). God’s choice for king: that is what Israel ignored.

God’s Qualifications For Israel’s King

In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God gave the qualifications for a king. First, the king was to be an Israelite (17:15). This meant the king would belong to the people who recognized the authority of God.

Second, the king must not acquire many horses (17:16a). The Bible explains that horses came from Egypt, and horse-trading would tempt the Israelites to interact with the pagan people from whom they had been delivered.

Third, the king must not take many wives (17:17a). It was normal in ancient times to seal treaties between kings by intermarriage. Foreign women would influence the Israelites to abandon the unique lifestyle to which God had called them. Later in Israel’s history, Ahab (who married Jezebel) and Jehoram (who married Athaliah) learned the hard consequences of ignoring this proscription.

Fourth, the king must not accumulate large amounts of gold and silver (17:17b). Perhaps God wanted to make sure Israel’s king remained dependent upon him for success; or perhaps he wanted to keep his people from interacting with the pagan nations that would be supplying the gold and silver.

Fifth, the king must keep a copy of God’s Torah with him to be read throughout his life, so he would rule according to God’s principles (17:18-20).

This was God’s king: faithful, separate from the pagans, guiding God’s people to righteous living as a shepherd leads his sheep.

A King Such As Other Nations Have

Facing a Philistine threat at the time of Samuel the prophet, Israel requested a king. Samuel was angry because he knew they were rejecting God’s rule. The key to God’s displeasure was the request itself, to “appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8, emphasis added). The Israelites did not ask for a king that God would choose, but one that the world would choose.

Jewish scholars maintain that the story of David and Saul makes this contrast clear. When the people asked for a ruler such as other nations had, God gave them Saul, “a man who couldn’t keep track of donkeys in his care,” to show them what their kind of king would be: a self-absorbed failure. Throughout his life, Saul did things to satisfy his own desires and not God’s.

By contrast, David, a shepherd like God, was God’s choice for king, a man after his own heart. David lived by the words of the Torah, keeping the Lord always before him. When he sinned with Bathsheba, he was beside himself with sorrow, because he knew he had turned from God.

Who Do You Want As Your King?

Today, we face the same decision the Israelites did. Who (or what) do we want as our king (master)? The fascinating stories of 1 Samuel provide us with some insight and perspective.

Solomon was the wisest king of all. Yet the Bible judges Solomon by God’s standards: “Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horses” (compare 2 Chron. 9:25 with Deut. 17:16a). “The king [Solomon] made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones” (compare 2 Chron. 9:27 with Deut. 17:17b). “The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 talents” (compare 2 Chron. 9:13 with Deut.17:17b). “He [Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines [mistresses]” (compare 1 Kings 11:3 with Deut. 17:17a).

What a shock! The wisest human ruler who ever lived broke almost every command God gave for a king.

We are left wanting something better. Matthew, the Jewish writer, voiced our need: “If this is the best the human race can provide, there must be someone else.” Then he remembered the words of Jesus: “… one greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42).

That is God’s final choice for the ideal king: Jesus the Messiah. He must be our choice as well.


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