17 Do not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect or flaw in it, for that would be detestable to him. 2 If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the Lord gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant, 3 and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky, 4 and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.
This section, much like Exodus 21-23, is meant to give instructions to the judges of Israel in how to administrate justice for the nation. It is case law, upon which legal precedents for future cases may be understood.
It was repeatedly commanded that any flaw or defect would make an animal unsuitable for sacrifice. God commanded that no one can bring to Him a sacrifice which has any blemish or defect, for that is an abomination to the LORD. God did not recognize the giving of cast-off, worthless items, as a true sacrifice unto Him. We have a tendency to always want to give God second best, keeping the best for ourselves. But God will not receive such a sacrifice. The symbolism is clear: God is holy (Lev. 21:23), and He demands perfection.
Judges are also commanded to make sure that any who have gone after idolatry are to be investigated, and if found to be guilty, are to be executed. The sin of idolatry’s seriousness is indicated by the consistently prescribed death penalty (13:5). In such instances, the judicial goal was not rehabilitation or restitution, but to purge Israel of the abomination of idolatry (vv. 4&7).
6 On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.
The instruction to the judges here is that there was never to be capital punishment unless there was evidence from at least two independent, unimpeachable sources. God is concerned about the murder of reputation, as well as physical murder, and commands that one should not receive an accusation against someone except from two or three witnesses as in 1 Timothy 5:19 the same standard as for proving murder. Remember 1 Timothy 5:19 does not say “except from two or three gossips”; it says except from two or three witnesses. If a matter is false, it does not become true because many people hear it or many people repeat it. Additionally, the witnesses had to be so certain of what they saw, that they were willing to initiate the actual execution. Condemnation does not take place on the basis of hearsay. Two or three witnesses must agree, and must be sufficiently convinced and sincere enough to take part in the stoning, knowing that the penalty for false witness to a crime was the same as for the crime itself .This made certain that no one would be executed for a crime they did not commit. This puts the words of Jesus regarding the woman taken in adultery in John 8 in perspective: He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first John 8:7. Jesus asked for the official witness to step forward and identify themselves on record as having witnessed this act of adultery, yet was hypocritical enough to bring the woman and not the man. Once the witnesses initiated the execution it became a community event, in the sense that it was supported by the community. The whole village would know the justice of what was being done.
8 If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the Lord your God will choose. 9 Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. 10 You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the Lord will choose. Be careful to do everything they instruct you to do. 11 Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left. 12 Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the Lord your God is to be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again.
We do not know the precise details of the Israelite judicial system (19:15-21). There were graded courts to take care of difficult cases (Ex. 18:21-26), with priests who judged and also other judges. This passage stresses that the judicial office is divinely ordained, and that verdicts were to be accepted on pain of death (v.12). So we see God allowed for courts of appeal of a sort in Israel. These were higher courts where cases were taken beyond the local judges to the Levitical Priests, who were understood to be wiser judges because of their knowledge of God’s Word. The authority of the judges had to be respected, therefore contempt of court was also punishable by death. God thought it essential that the courts and the judges be respected by the people of Israel.
14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite.
The reference to “a king” in v.14 is conditional. There was no king in Moses’ time, but the future possibility of such a ruler was obvious, since every known ancient nation had a king. An Israelite king was even predicted in Gen. 49:10:
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,[a]until he to whom it belongs[b] shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”
That Israel might have a king was never denied, although it was stated most emphatically that God was their King (33:5).
God looked forward, some 400 years forward, into Israel’s future, to the time when they would demand a king. God warned them to “set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses” and that person had to be an Israelite not a foreigner.
“I will set a king over me”: 1 Samuel 8:6-9. The record of Israel’s demand for king, puts the request for a king in a negative light. God wanted them to recognize Him alone as king.
Some have wondered if God really did want Israel to never have an earthly king. It is a debatable issue; but consider that Israel’s history without a king, the time of the book of Judges, was not a period of national glory. It is apparent that God wanted Israel to have a king, but of His choosing, and at His timing. Saul is a perfect example of a king out of God’s will, chosen by the nation and at their timing; David is a perfect example of a king chosen by God and in His timing.
16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
The future king of Israel must not put undue emphasis on physical indulgence and personal status.
The future king of Israel must not put undue emphasis on physical indulgence and personal status.
The future king of Israel must not put undue emphasis on personal wealth.
Each of these issues is a matter of balance. The king had to have some military power, but not too much; one wife and certain comforts, but not too much; some personal wealth, but not too much. Such balances are often the hardest to keep.
Solomon was a notorious breaker of these commands. He had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots (1 Kings 4:26), and Solomon had horses imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28). He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart (1 Kings 11:3). He surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches (1 Kings 10:23). Each of these three areas reflects the places where many modern Christian leaders fall in regard to power, pleasure, or money. God’s commands for leaders have not changed; and neither has the need to be on guard against the self-deception in these things which caused Solomon to fall.
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
We may find it unusual to think of the king of Israel, laboring over parchment with a pen, making a personal copy of the law of Israel. However the thought shows how greatly God wanted His Word to be on the hearts of His rulers; God wanted every king to also be a scribe. The Word of God was to be constant companion of the king of Israel, and something he read every day. The phrase “this law” may refer to the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole, or perhaps to the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7) or to the other parts of the Pentateuch. As a covenant nation, Israel was to be governed according to the covenant laws.
We all need the Word of God; but the greater our responsibilities, the greater our need to depend on the truth of God’s Word. Staying in the Word of God was intended to build a reverence for God and a holy life in the king. Also, staying in the Word of God would keep the king properly humble and help him to not think of himself as above those he ruled. The Scriptures, diligently read and studied, are a powerful means to keep him humble, because they show him that, though a king, he is subject to a higher Sovereign, to whom he must give an account.