Formations 07.15.2018: WWJD? HDWK?

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

Maurycy Gottlieb, The Torah Scribe, 1876

The church of my youth subscribed to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement. In discussing the role of Scripture, this brief doctrinal summary states, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” I take that to mean, among other things, that whenever something in Scripture is unclear or open to competing interpretations, it is always best to err on the side of WWJD: “What would Jesus do?” On any tough moral or ethical issue, that’s where Jesus’ followers need to land.

In a sense, that principle clears away a lot of confusion. Should I love and pray for my neighbor or should I plot revenge against her? Should I hoard my possessions or share them with those in need? Should I welcome strangers or kick them to the curb? WWJD settles a lot of these questions rather quickly. Once we look at the situation through the eyes of Jesus, the right thing to do is often easy to understand…though perhaps not so easy to embrace!

That principle also raises a deeper question, however. HDWK: “How do we know what Jesus would do?” And answering that question drives us back to the Bible. We know what Jesus would do (or say, or believe) because we have studied his words and deeds in the pages of the Gospels.

But what if the application of Jesus’ words or deeds isn’t obvious to us living 2,000 years removed from his time? What if Jesus says different things in different passages? What if Jesus is completely silent on some topics? Well, then we have to look even deeper. What is present in the faith of Israel, recorded in the Old Testament, that would have shaped Jesus’ actions? What did New Testament preachers and missionaries say and do that they believed was in harmony with their Lord’s mission and message?

We want to do what Jesus would do. But getting there sometimes means rolling up our sleeves and digging deep in the pages of Scripture.

And that brings us to this week’s text. According to Deuteronomy, Israel’s king was to govern according to God’s laws. Centuries before the Christian era, he couldn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” But he could ask, “What does God command?” And that is what Deuteronomy 17 requires him to do.

Our passage says the king is to commission for himself a copy of God’s Law and read it every day so that he might faithfully put it into practice. If the king does this, the biblical writer assures us, he and his successors will continue to rule in Israel.

Discussion

• What do you do when Scripture passages seem to be in conflict with each other?
• What are the marks of sound biblical interpretation?
• How does Scripture inform your decision-making?

Reference Shelf

Israel’s Constitution

As a legal document, Deuteronomy is essentially a national “constitution,” or what S. D. McBride has called the “Polity of the Covenant People.” Though it contains a series of laws, it is not a law code as such. It is essentially a work intended for religious instruction and education in ancient Israel. As such it is a work of extraordinary literary coherence, poetic beauty, and political sophistication. In short, Deuteronomy represents a very early, and a remarkably comprehensive, attempt to reform religion by means of a program of religious education in which every person was to be included, from the king as the head of the nation to every child in every home (cf. 4:9, 10, 6:7, 20, 11:19 31:13; 32:7, 46).

The book expounds the implications of the historic agreement at Mount Sinai between God and Israel by which the latter became the chosen people. The author’s purpose was to maintain the loyalty towards God that Israel professed when the Sinai covenant was ratified, so that the people would never be in doubt as to the high moral and spiritual standards demanded by God of the people. The book is essentially an exposition of the great command “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). It was from Deuteronomy that Jesus summarized the entire old covenant in a single sentence (Matt 22:37, cf. Deut 6:5); and from the same he quoted God’s revelation in response to each of Satan’s temptations (Matt 4:4, 7, 10, cf Deut 8:3; 6:16, 13).

Duane L. Christensen, “Deuteronomy, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 211.

The Limitation of Royal Power

Given the significance of the institution of the monarchy in the history of ancient Israel and Judah, it is remarkable that only three passages (Deut 17:14-20; 1 Sam 8:11-22; 10:25) deal in any systematic way with the nature and functions of the office. It is equally remarkable that these three passages share a skepticism concerning the monarchy that seems to reflect Israel’s experience: the motive in all three texts is the limitation of royal power, which poses a grave threat if unlimited.

The unit divides roughly into four sections: the conditions for the appointment of a king (vv. 14-15), three circumstances the king must avoid (vv. 16-17), the requirement that (even or, perhaps, especially) the king must adhere to the Torah (vv. 18-19), and a summary warning and promise (v. 20). Obviously, the Deuteronomic Code fears royal authority as too easily abused. The king’s “rights and duties” (mentioned, but not listed, in 1 Sam 10:25) are to be found nowhere in the Hebrew Bible.

The text begins by positing the moment, after the conquest and possession of the land, when Israel will consider establishing a monarchy. The expression “like all the surrounding nations” offers no further explanation of Israel’s motives, although it recalls 1 Sam 8:5 where the implication is that Israel came to regard the system of leadership by charismatically chosen judges too unstable. At any rate, 17:15 permits (“you may surely put a king over you”), but does not prescribe, the establishment of a monarchy. Moreover, two conditions must be met: First, YHWH himself will make the choice on the people’s behalf (v. 15). The Israelite monarchy is not based on political power, but upon God’s decision. Second, Moses instructs the people that the prospective king must be an Israelite chosen “from among your brothers” (v. 15)—a reminder (compare v. 20) of the fact that, although he may sit on the throne, the king of Israel cannot claim inherent superiority (such as the divinity claimed by Egyptian kings)….

The common danger underlying these prohibitions is that the king will come to view himself as being superior to his fellow Israelites. Even worse, he may come to rely on his own power and forget that he is but a servant of YHWH. As a consequence, the law of the king prescribes that, on the day of his ascension to the throne (kesibto ‘al kisse’ mamlaktô, v. 18), he is to commission the preparation, in the presence of the levitical priests, of a copy of “this Torah.” Furthermore, he is to study the Torah daily so that he may “learn to fear YHWH his God” and so that he may observe all its provisions and act in accordance with them (v. 19). Just as even the president of the United States is not above the law, the king of Israel is to be subject to YHWH’s covenant with his people.

Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 287–88, 290.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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