Sermon #250 St. Martin’s #8 (Riverway #2) 11/14/21
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You must never return that way again.’ And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.
Note: I preached this last week as one of our final sermons in our Deuteronomy series, but today is Christ the King Sunday. Proclaiming that Jesus is King is not only a good way to end the liturgical year but sets the tone for the season of Advent (which begins next week). So let's jump into Deuteronomy 17.
There are three very specific don’ts if you want to be king of Israel. Moses says:
· Don’t acquire a great number of horses.
· Don’t take many wives.
· And don’t accumulate a lot of silver and gold.
On the surface, these may seem a little random, but it doesn’t take much digging to realize the purpose of these commandments.
For starters, horses were the tanks and fighter jets of ancient civilizations. You could move with speed and force, and quickly defeat any adversary. Oh, and by the way, Moses tells them that they can’t go to the premier dealer of war horses because that was Egypt, and we already know that Egypt was the place of slavery. Above all else, don’t go back to Egypt for anything!
And so, Israelite kings were not to build a big army, because then they would be tempted to trust in the power of their military instead of trusting in the power of God. If Israel was to win any battles it would be because of God; not because of the might of a horse.
Moses then stipulates that kings should not have many wives, but I’ve personally found that one wife is plenty. But there is a point to this command. Ancient kings would have political marriages to build relationships with neighboring kingdoms. From that one marriage could come trade partnerships and military alliances. So, when we read about ancient kings who had a number of wives, that clues us in that his kingdom was politically connected throughout the region.
Lastly, Moses warns them that their king should not have an excessive amount of wealth. Again, like having many horses, wealth could make a king comfortable, and not rely on God.
This passage is all about power and curtailing it in significant ways. This is some radical stuff, these limitations were unheard of in the ancient Near East. Other kings had absolute freedom and did what they pleased. These kings didn’t just make the law, they were the law. And like in Egypt, they were not only the mediator between the gods and their people, but they were god.
The subtle assumption here in Deuteronomy, that we may not have even realized, is that having a king is optional! Moses tells them, you’re gonna get in the land and get comfortable, and then you’re gonna look around at your neighbors like the Hittites and Ammonites (all those -ites and –tites), and you’re gonna want a king too. Moses says, “It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, being like all the other nations will actually lead us away from God.”
And that is exactly what happened.
The Israelites would enter the land with Joshua as their leader, and after his death regional judges arose during times of crisis to settle matters and serve as military leaders, and then we read in 1st Samuel that Moses, who is now long dead, was right.
The people want a king to rule over them, and the Prophet Samuel morns their cry for a king. He knows that God was always and forever supposed to be their king. He warns the people that if they have a human king, he will tax them, and take the best of their land, and force their sons to fight in his wars. But even knowing all this the people still want a king.
Saul becomes king, in part because he is so tall and looks so powerful, and after a while, he loses his kingship because of his need to control. Rather than trusting God, he takes matters into his own hands, and by the end of his life, he is consumed with paranoia. He not only lost his power, but he lost himself in the process.
And then there’s David, a man after God’s own heart, but even he is corrupted by the power he wields. After his adultery with Bathsheba he becomes a shell of the man he once was—no longer reigning with the same passion and determination.
And then there is Solomon. By the time he ascends to the throne, Israel’s power and influence have never been greater. They have more land than ever before, he’s built a Temple in Jerusalem, and the fame of his wisdom is known around the world.
But even though everything from a worldly standard is going well, something has gone terribly wrong. We learn that in making the beautiful Temple in the Holy City Solomon used forced laborers (otherwise known as slaves). He then sends those slaves to build military outposts around the countryside. That should be the first red flag going up.
It then says that he has also accumulated 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses, and he put them throughout the military bases. We then learn that he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. There weren’t even enough nations to have each of those wives represent a political marriage!
It also says that Solomon received 666 talents yearly, which comes out to 25,000 tons of gold. It is no accident that the biblical writer uses 666, it was to signal to us, the readers, that Solomon’s excessive wealth was downright sinful.
We have not only checked off all of Moses' warnings in Deuteronomy 17, but we have blown through them. Solomon started off strong but was eventually ruled by his desire for lust and greed.
I wonder how many times the ancient Israelites looked back at Deuteronomy 17 during these moments of extreme corruption and were reminded that it didn’t have to be this way. That, in fact, God was always and forever supposed to be their king above all others.
But let’s be clear, this is not a sermon on anarchy or not participating in our civic life together, but rather to see our reading this morning as a warning and a rebuke of people (rulers and civilians) who are left to their own devices.
Power, even at its smallest and seemingly most insignificant levels, can make us believe we are kings and queens of our own realm, and we tend to forget where all true power and authority reside. The corrosive nature of power can be seen on the playground among preschoolers, in school clubs and sports, in social groups, business meetings, and (of course) politics.
But it also happens in the church. Solomon reminds us that even if you follow God and have all the wisdom in the world, the thirst for power may be a person’s greatest folly.
But thankfully, we are not left to our own devices.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, people marvel at how he speaks with such authority and does many deeds of power. Instead of riding into Jerusalem on a warhorse, he arrives humbly on the back of a donkey. He doesn’t have any wealth to his name, but rather, a group of women funds much of his ministry.
Jesus is in many ways the antithesis of Solomon and all the kings of Judah and Israel. They were merely holding the title of "king" until the true king arrived.
And this King Jesus, before he ascended, gathered his disciples one more time and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Power and authority are rightly with the true king, and quite shockingly he then hands some of that power and authority back to us. Even though we have been poor stewards of power in the past, Jesus still gives it to us so that we may go out and share the good news of the kingdom with the world.
My friends, I pray that this day you know that you have power and authority, not because of anything you’ve done: not because of your race or gender or creed, but because you are baptized in the mighty name of Jesus.
May you go from this place empowered to proclaim through word and deed all that this Resurrected King has done for you.
You are banner bearers and acolytes of this kingdom, the mouthpieces, the sacred vessels who have the blessed message of hope and new life right within you.
May you be courageous as you share the good news of the one true king…because after all, we are not merely his royal servants, but by his grace, we are also his children. Daughters or sons of this most gracious King.
Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Rob Bell’s Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Jack Lundbom’s Deut Commentary.