Fear, Humility, Obedience (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)

Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20

Moses has come to the part where he tells Israel that they are going to reject God ruling over them and will want a human king instead. It doesn’t take long for the people to want a king, but God does not choose a king for Israel until the tenure of the prophet Samuel.

The requirements for becoming king were set out in previous sections and boil down to “God will choose your king.” This is not a divine right to rule given to kings, but rather a divine exception to how Israel was meant to be ruled. Israel, like all human kind, was meant to be ruled by God. But, because they would want a king and would not relent until they had one, God sets down the criteria ahead of time.

I find it curious that this process is not mentioned in any of the coronations that I’ve read in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The books of history do not, to my recollection, recount even a single king making a copy of The Law. I think it likely that David did so, being a man after God’s heart. But I have my doubts about the rest of the kings.

God even goes so far as to explain Himself (something He is by no means required to do) with regard to why the king should make his own personal copy of The Law. The reasons are (1) that the king learns to rightly fear the Lord; (2) that the king does not become proud or lifted up above the people; (3) that the king would be obedient to God’s Law.

We all need to rightly fear the Lord. Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Other passages say that the fear of the Lord is pure and clean and altogether good. There is not one thing wrong with being rightly afraid of God. When I was a child, I was afraid of my parents. Not when I was being an obedient son, but when I was flirting with wrong-doing (or outright doing wrong). So it is with God. We are only really afraid of Him when we are doing something that is wrong or doing something for the wrong reasons. When we are doing the right thing for the right reasons then there is no terror in God. He is, in that moment, our greatest ally and supporter. We have placed ourselves on His side and so we have no fear. But fear of Him as a Father Who must discipline disobedient children is the right kind of fear for a believer to have. God is our Father and He will discipline those who are His.

Pride is a danger to everyone, not just kings. There was a man who was described as a humble little man with much to be humble about. If we’re honest, that (minus the “man” part … some believers are women, after all) describes all of us. But those in authority — kings, for example — are especially susceptible to the siren song of pride. To avert this looming catastrophe, God tells the king to copy down the entire Law and read it daily. James would later say that looking into The Law is like looking in a mirror and that those who walk away knowing that they need fixing and looking to God to do that fixing are those who have used The Law for its intended purpose. A mirror does not make me presentable. Going to the barber makes me presentable. I’ve tried cutting my own hair, it is almost always a tragedy. This is a perfect parallel to our own efforts. At best, they’re a mockery. At worst, they’re a tragedy. We need The One Who knows how to fix the tangled mess of crazy that is us and that is shown to us by The Law. The king was required to make his own personal copy and read it daily. A daily look in the mirror to remind the king that he was still not presentable to a holy God and that he was still no better, ultimately, than his subjects.

The king, as all believers, needs to be obedient. It has been said that those who want to exercise authority must first learn to submit to it. The king is no different. Every person is under the authority of another. The CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation may have authority over hundreds, even thousands of workers, but she is under the authority of the shareholders and regulators. No matter how powerful a person becomes, there is always someone more powerful. We need to learn to be under authority before we can be trusted with authority. God knows this and so commands the king to make a copy of The Law so that the king learns obedience.

The result? If the king rightly fears God, studies The Law intently, and learns obedience to God then his kingdom may continue a long time.

All that is well and good, but how does it apply to me as a believer today? All of the things that the king needed to be, I need to be. I need to rightly fear God and let that fear guide me. As a child, my fear of my parents kept me from some pretty serious problems. My fear of the Lord will do likewise. I need to remain humble. I am no better than the worst sinner anyone would care to name. The quantity of sin is not the issue, it is the quality of the sin. Whether I pour out a bag of fertilizer or ski down Bandini Mountain (Google it, young ‘uns), I am still dealing with manure. Sin is sin, regardless of how much and it is just as offensive to God in small doses as in large. I need to let The Bible act as my spiritual mirror and send me to my spiritual barber (Jesus) to be cleansed and made presentable to a Holy God. And I need to be obedient. My flesh will rail against it; my sinful nature will rage within me; the world will try to persuade me otherwise. Only when I have become obedient can I speak with authority and be taken seriously.

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