After the laws which concerned subjects fitly followed the laws which concern kings; for those that rule others must themselves remember that they are under command. Here are laws given,
I. To the electors of the empire, what rules they must go by in making their choice, Deut. 17:14, 15. 1. It is here supposed that the people would, in process of time, be desirous of a king, whose royal pomp and power would be thought to make their nation look great among their neighbours. Their having a king is neither promised as a mercy nor commanded as a duty (nothing could be better for them than the divine regimen they were under), but it is permitted them if they desired it. If they would but take care to have the ends of government answered, and God’s laws duly observed and put in execution, they should not be tied to any one form of government, but should be welcome to have a king. Though something irregular is supposed to be the principle of the desire, that they might be like the nations (whereas God in many ways distinguished them from the nations), yet God would indulge them in it, because he intended to serve his own purposes by it, in making the regal government typical of the kingdom of the Messiah. 2. They are directed in their choice. If they will have a king over them, as God foresaw they would (though it does not appear that ever the motion was made till almost 400 years after), then they must, (1.) Ask counsel at God’s mouth, and make him king whom God shall choose; and happy it was for them that they had an oracle to consult in so weighty an affair, and a God to choose for them who knows infallibly what every man is and will be. Kings are God’s vicegerents, and therefore it is fit that he should have the choosing of them: God had himself been in a particular manner Israel’s King, and if they set another over them, under him, it was necessary that he should nominate the person. Accordingly, when the people desired a king, they applied to Samuel a prophet of the Lord; and afterwards David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Jehu, and others, were chosen by the prophets; and the people are reproved for not observing this law, Hos. 8:4: They have set up kings but not by me. In all cases God’s choice, if we can but know it, should direct, determine, and overrule ours. (2.) They must not choose a foreigner under pretence of strengthening their alliances, or of the extraordinary fitness of the person, lest a strange king should introduce strange customs of usages, contrary to those that were established by the divine law; but he must be one from among thy brethren, that he may be a type of Christ, who is bone of our bone, Heb. 2:14.
II. Laws are here given to the prince that should be elected for the due administration of the government.
1. He must carefully avoid every thing that would divert him from God and religion. Riches, honours, and pleasures are the three great hindrances of godliness (the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eye, and the pride of life), especially to those in high stations: against these therefore the king is here warned. (1.) He must not gratify the love of honour by multiplying horses, Deut. 17:16. He that rode upon a horse (a stately creature) in a country where asses and mules were generally used looked very great; and therefore though he might have horses for his own saddle, and chariots, yet he must not set servants on horseback (Eccl. 10:7) nor have many horses for his officers and guards (when God was their King, his judges rode on asses, Jdg. 5:10; 12:14), nor must he multiply horses for war, lest he should trust too much to them, Ps. 20:7; 33:17; Hos. 14:3. The reason here given against his multiplying horses is because it would produce a greater correspondence with Egypt (which furnished Canaan with horses, 1 Kgs. 10:28, 29) than it was fit the Israel of God should have, who were brought thence with such a high hand: You shall return no more that way, for fear of being infected with the idolatries of Egypt (Lev. 18:3), to which they were very prone. Note, We should take heed of that commerce or conversation by which we are in danger of being drawn into sin. If Israel must not return to Egypt, they must not trade with Egypt; Solomon got no good by it. (2.) He must not gratify the love of pleasure by multiplying wives (Deut. 17:17), as Solomon did to his undoing (1 Kgs. 11:1), that his heart, being set upon them, turn not away from business, and every thing that is serious, and especially from the exercise of piety and devotion, to which nothing is a greater enemy than the indulgence of the flesh. (3.) He must not gratify the love of riches by greatly multiplying silver and gold. A competent treasure is allowed him, and he is not forbidden to be good husband of it, but, [1.] He must not greatly multiply money, so as to oppress his people by raising it (as Solomon seems to have done, 1 Kgs. 12:4), nor so as to deceive himself, by trusting to it, and setting his heart upon it, Ps. 62:10. [2.] He must not multiply it to himself. David multiplied silver and gold, but it was for the service of God (1 Chron. 29:4), not for himself; for his people, not for his own family.
2. He must carefully apply himself to the law of God, and make that his rule. This must be to him better than all riches, honours, and pleasures, than many horses or many wives, better than thousands of gold and silver.
(1.) He must write himself a copy of the law out of the original, which was in the custody of the priests that attended the sanctuary, Deut. 17:18. Some think that he was to write only this book of Deuteronomy, which is an abstract of the law, and the precepts of which, being mostly moral and judicial, concerned the king more than the laws in Leviticus and Numbers, which, being ceremonial, concerned chiefly the priests. Others think that he was to transcribe all the five books of Moses, which are called the law, and which were preserved together as the foundation of their religion. Now, [1.] Though the king might be presumed to have very fair copies by him from his ancestors, yet, besides those, he must have one of his own: it might be presumed that theirs were worn with constant use; he must have a fresh one to begin the world with. [2.] Though he had secretaries about him whom he might employ to write this copy, and who perhaps could write a better hand than he, yet he must do it himself, with his own hand, for the honour of the law, and that he might think no act of religion below him, to inure himself to labour and study, and especially that he might thereby be obliged to take particular notice of every part of the law and by writing it might imprint it in his mind. Note, It is of great use for each of us to write down what we observe as most affecting and edifying to us, out of the scriptures and good books, and out of the sermons we hear. A prudent pen may go far towards making up the deficiencies of the memory, and the furnishing of the treasures of the good householder with things new and old. [3.] He must do this even when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, provided that he had not done it before. When he begins to apply himself to business, he must apply himself to this in the first place. He that sits upon the throne of a kingdom cannot but have his hands full. The affairs of his kingdom both at home and abroad call for a large share of his time and thoughts, and yet he must write himself a copy of the law. Let not those who call themselves men of business think that this will excuse them from making religion their business; nor let great men think it any disparagement to them to write for themselves those great things of God’s law which he hath written to them, Heb. 8:12.
(2.) Having a Bible by him of his own writing, he must not think it enough to keep it in his cabinet, but he must read therein all the days of his life, Deut. 17:19. It is not enough to have Bibles, but we must use them, use them daily, as the duty and necessity of everyday require: our souls must have their constant meals of that manna; and, if well digested, it will be true nourishment and strength to them. As the body is receiving benefit by its food continually, and not only when it is eating, so is the soul, by the word of God, if it meditate therein day and night, Ps. 1:2. And we must persevere in the use of the written word of God as long as we live. Christ’s scholars never learn above their Bibles, but will have a constant occasion for them till they come to that world where knowledge and love will both be made perfect.
(3.) His writing and reading were all nothing if he did not reduce to practice what he wrote and read, Deut. 17:19, 20. The word of God is not designed merely to be and entertaining subject of speculation, but to be a commanding rule of conversation. Let him know, [1.] What dominion his religion must have over him, and what influence it must have upon him. First, It must possess him with a very reverent and awful regard to the divine majesty and authority. He must learn (and thus the most learned must by ever learning) to fear the Lord his God; and, as high as he is, he must remember that God is above him, and, whatever fear his subjects owe to him, that, and much more, he owes to God as his King. Secondly, It must engage him to a constant observance of the law of God, and a conscientious obedience to it, as the effect of that fear. He must keep all the words of this law (he is custos utriusque tabulae—the keeper of both tables), not only take care that others do them, but do them himself as a humble servant to the God of heaven and a good example to his inferiors. Thirdly, It must keep him humble. How much soever he is advanced, let him keep his spiri a57 t low, and let the fear of his God prevent the contempt of his brethren; and let not his heart be lifted up above them, so as to carry himself haughtily or disdainfully towards them, and to trample upon them. Let him not conceit himself better than they because he is greater and makes a fairer show; but let him remember that he is the minister of God to them for good (major singulis, but minor universis—greater than any one, but less than the whole). It must prevent his errors, either on he right hand or on the left (for there are errors on both hands), and keep him right, in all instances, to his God and to his duty. [2.] What advantage his religion would be of to him. Those that fear God and keep his commandments will certainly fare the better for it in this world. The greatest monarch in the world may receive more benefit by religion than by all the wealth and power of his monarchy. It will be of advantage, First, To his person: He shall prolong his days in his kingdom. We find in the history of the kings of Judah that, generally, the best reigns were the longest, except when God shortened them for the punishment of the people, as Josiah’s. Secondly, To his family: his children shall also prosper. Entail religion upon posterity, and God will entail a blessing upon it.