As I have been studying obedience in preparation for my next chapel with my students, I came across the guidelines God gave Israel for a king, before they ever had one. It can be found in Deuteronomy 17. The verses that caught my attention were verses 18-20. They say, “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.” (New Living Translation)
There were several things that grabbed my attention in this passage that I had never really thought about before.
- The king is commanded to copy for himself God’s law. He already had the law, so it wasn’t because he didn’t have it that he needed to copy it. As an educator, this is striking. God is the Teacher of all teachers, and He knows that copying something assists in learning. The king was required to make his own copy in his own writing. After copying the full law, he should be intimately familiar with it! It would have been a crash course – Law 101.
- He is to copy it in the presence of the Levitical priests. No summarizing or rewording. No adding to or taking away from. Presumably the priests would ensure the accuracy of the copy he was to make. Deuteronomy 4:2 says, “Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you.”
- He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. Now this wasn’t the full Bible that we have today, of course. It was simply God’s law – probably just the book of Deuteronomy. But he was to read it every day. I don’t think this was a “verse a day” reading. I think God intended him to read the whole law every day. Regardless, reading it every day would ensure he was intimately familiar with the law. He would know it inside and out.
And why did God require all this?
- That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. He will learn to fear the Lord by obeying, and you cannot obey completely without knowing what needs to be obeyed. Unlike other countries where the king was the law maker, Israel belonged to God and He was the Ruler of all and the law giver. The king was learning his rightful place “under” God.
- This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. Leaders often behave as if they are “above the law”, so maybe the daily reading was intended to keep the king grounded. I think that the more he understood the law, the more his own sinful heart would be exposed and it would humble him.
- It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. Throughout Deuteronomy, it is clear that God expects complete obedience to every detail of the law. Just like a dieter who stops counting and weighing and logging their food intake, it’s easy to let things slide a little. The accountability of daily reading would ensure complete and consistent obedience.
- And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel. God repeatedly promises blessings for those who faithfully obey his laws, not only for that king, but for generations to come as long as they continue to obey.
I wonder if any of the kings actually followed these directions, from making their own copy, to reading it daily until the day they died. If you read through the books of Kings and Chronicles, I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who did. We know that Saul, the first king over Israel, did not. In fact, he lost the throne because he did not obey completely. You can read about that in 1 Samuel 15. While David was a “man after God’s own heart” I think the sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband might not have happened if he had been reading the law daily. Many kings did what was “detestable” in God’s sight, so we can be sure they did not. Maybe it was Josiah that did. The “Book of the Law” was found during a renovation of the temple in the 18th year of his reign. He immediately read it and humbled himself before God. 2 Kings 23:25 says, “Never before had there been a king like Josiah, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and soul and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses. And there has never been a king like him since.”
There have been many disappointing and heartbreaking stories in the news recently of Christian leaders who have fallen for one reason or another. I think God’s instructions for a king are really appropriate instructions for all of us, particularly those of us in leadership. Meditating on this passage today has really challenged me to be more intentional and diligent, reading God’s word daily, so that I can be more firmly grounded in the truth and more completely, wholeheartedly obedient.