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Of Horses and Harems: Deuteronomy 17:14–17 and the Character of a Christian Leader

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series

"Character of a Christian Leader"

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2014.10.13 horse with knight Three weeks ago, I gave an introduction to a series on character of the Christian leader. Today the series finally continues. After a read through today’s text, we’ll see that what was written for Israel’s kings then has principles for Christian leaders today.

Deuteronomy 17:14–20 (ESV)

14 “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Moses knew Israel would eventually desire for a king. He prescribed that Israel’s kings would be an Israelite of God’s choosing (Deut 17:15) whose actions expressed the character of one devoted to the Lord by avoiding certain sins (Deut 17:16–17) and obeying God’s commands about His Word (Deut 17:18–20). Today we’ll examine Deut 17:15–17.

Don’t trust in your own resources.

In the first of three prohibitions, the king was not to “acquire many horses for himself” (Deut 17:16). Such an action would tempt the king to find the best horses in Egypt, which would “cause the people to return to Egypt,” something the Lord forbade: “You shall never return that way again” (Deut 17:16). Ultimately, since God is the One who throws the horse and its rider into the sea (Ex 15:1, 4), it seems the root issue here would be a king’s trust in his own resources and a failure to trust in the Lord for victory over Israel’s enemies.1 Israel’s failure to trust God would lead to trusting in the resources of others, which would only lead to slavery again.

In applying this principle to Christian leaders today, we know that our responsibilities are obviously very different from an Israelite king. Nonetheless, we, too, can be prone to trust in our own resources in carrying out the Lord’s work. Trust in techniques and programs to see the Lord qualitatively and quantitatively grow His people according to the Great Commission can only lead to a man-centered ministry that eventually finds itself in bondage to itself. Nothing can manufacture what only God can do. In matters of ministry, we plant and water to be rewarded for our labor, “but only God . . . gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7; cf. 3:6–9).

Don’t turn away from God through immorality.

The second prohibition was that the king “shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (Deut 17:17). Not only did having a harem of multiple wives stray from God’s ideal for marriage (cf. Gen 2:24), but a king’s marriages to many wives would often be for political purposes and to pagan women who served other gods. The king’s love for these wives would eventually turn his heart towards their idols, and he would thereby fail to wholeheartedly love the one, true God.

Solomon provides us with a sad example of failing to uphold this prohibition. “King Solomon loved many foreign women [700 wives and 300 concubines] . . . And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father” (1 Kgs 11:3–4).

Jesus further tells us that adultery begins in the heart (Matt 5:28), and James adds that, if lust is fostered enough, it will result in sinful action, the end of which is death (James 1:14–15). Christians and Christian leaders in particular should guard their hearts and seek to be pure in mind and action.

Don’t give in to greed.

The third and final prohibition was that the king would not “acquire for himself excessive silver and gold” (Deut 17:17). As Paul said, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10), and the accumulation of gold could result in a king’s “fall into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). Among other vices related to riches, riches could be gathered by violence (Prov 11:16), can turn their owner into a miser (Prov 11:24), can rob their owner of trust in God (Prov 11:28), can make their owner seem wise in his own eyes (Prov 28:11), can move their owner to strife (Prov 28:25), and so on. Greed and amassing wealth for one’s self reveals a desire for all the present life can offer with no thought for the eternal future (cf. Luke 12:16–21).

For Christian leaders today, it is no surprise that the major passages concerning  an elder’s character deny the greedy man leadership over God’s people (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet 5:2). If a Christian leader heartily labors to rule and preach well and is thereby “worthy of double honor” in his “wages” (1 Tim 5:17–18), so be it. For the rest of us, let us remember what Paul said to Timothy: “godliness with contentment is great gain. . . . if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim 6:8).

Next week, we’ll consider the positive commands that follow in Deuteronomy 17:18–20.

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About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

  1. Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 255. []