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Several times a year I drive down a long stretch of highway in my home state of Virginia. While traveling westward on this road, I pass a church which hardly ever changes the message on its marquee. It nearly always proclaims that congregation’s motto:
Training for Reigning
Even though that probably doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to the typical content of their preaching and teaching (I’m guessing topics like prosperity, positive confession, and “living like a king’s kid”), it always makes me wonder if they teach anything about God’s minimum requirements for kingship, including one passage which seems to me to be one of the most thought-provoking passages in the Pentateuch.
There came a time in Israel’s history when God’s people sought a sovereign other than Jehovah. In what seems to be a deeply personal comment to Samuel, words spoken from wounded love, God Himself whispered to His prophet,
The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
Reigning, Then Writing and Reading
But the Lord had anticipated this very situation (and the mindset behind it) 350 years before the event described in 1 Samuel.2 Although the people’s demand amounted to a rejection of God’s direct kingship over them, the Lord knew that Israel would wish for a human king. Thus, in His foreknowledge, God spoke through Moses to set down parameters for kingship in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The entirety of the passage would make for an interesting study; however we want to focus just on the last three verses of the chapter and think about the example they carry in them —
18“Now it shall come about when he [the king whom the Lord has chosen from among the people] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.”
In my 50-plus years of following Christ, I don’ t think I’ve ever heard anyone teach or preach on this passage.
The Kingly Copyist
There are some fascinating thoughts to consider here:
- The king over God’s people had to be literate, that is, he had to be able to read and write. Today when most folks in the English-speaking world have at least a K-12 education, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a survey of ancient history highlights too many examples of illiterate rulers.
- In the Deuteronomy passage, the literate king, having had his reign established, was, during the early years on the throne, to set about the personal, devotional task of writing out his own personal copy of the Scriptures as they existed at that time — at least the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy).
- Note that this requirement was to be made of a very busy man. A king’s responsibilities included overseeing the economy, keeping the army trained and supplied, acting as the “supreme court” of the land in difficult legal cases, entertaining guests, supervising the diplomatic corps, superintending building projects, etc. The most important (and probably the busiest) man in the kingdom was being asked to carve time out of his schedule in order to complete his personal, hand-written copy of the Bible.
- This act of personal, manual copying was to be done “in the presence of the Levitical priests” (v. 18). Why? Well, one could approach this from several points:
- Accountability: There were men whose job it was to see to it that the king accomplished this task.
- Accuracy & Quality Control: Anyone who has copied or transcribed a text knows how surprisingly easy it is to omit words or a line, not to mention the frequency with which inadvertent substitutions are introduced.3
- Instruction & Reinforcement: One thinks of the Evangelist Philip’s query to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30 — “Do you understand what you are reading?” While there might be some benefit derived from rote copying, it is minimal. We recall the Ethiopian’s response: “Well, how could I [understand], unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). So the kingly copyist could receive daily instruction about whatever passage he was transcribing — the context, background, commentary, and application – from men of God. Essentially, the king attended and “did his homework” in a “Bible school for one.”
- Another consideration is that God knew something that neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators are just now exploring — the activity of writing longhand is not only an integral part of how the human brain processes and retains information, but it also seems to help trigger creative processing of the information written. These kings weren’t merely to write or even memorize what they were writing; they were meant to think deeply about the things of God and wisely apply them to the challenges they faced each day of their reign.
The Regular, Royal Reader
Once the king had created his own personal copy of the Bible, the monarch was to keep it close at hand and read from it daily — in fact, “all the days of his life” (v. 19). Interacting with his personal, hand-written copy of the Bible each day would provide benefit and protection for the ruler (and his subjects):
- Once again, we will note that this very busy man couldn’t cop the excuse, “But I’m so busy! There’s never enough free time!” He needed his own daily time alone with God and His Book.
- He would learn the fear of the Lord by constant remembrance and careful obedience to God’s laws and statutes (v. 19).
- The king’s continual engagement with the Scriptures would keep his heart from being “lifted up above his countrymen.” Israel’s first king, Saul, must have neglected the copying and the daily reading, because the Lord later reminded him through Samuel that He had made Saul “head over all the tribes of Israel,” when “you were little in your own eyes” (1 Samuel 15:17). Saul slowly transformed from a humble man into a murderous, egotistical tyrant.
It’s good for a sovereign to stay in touch with humble reality, in the same way the famous, miracle-working Apostle Peter did: “Stand up; I too am just a man” (Acts 10:26). Peter had learned — finally learned by heart! — from Jesus what many religious leaders, kings, presidents, dictators, and managers never do: “…One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. …One is your Father, He who is in heaven. …One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (Matthew 23:8-10).
- We all have a responsibility — for which we will give account on Judgment Day — to walk in the path and accomplish the life-mission the Lord has assigned to us. “Turning aside from the commandment, to the right or the left” (v. 20) can have disastrous consequences for our souls and the souls of our family members. Of how much greater consequence for all the souls of a nation, then, is it for a king, the leader of the country, to know God’s commandments and His will and His leading for his people! That influence is meant to extend beyond his reign and lifetime: “so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel” (v. 20).
Now We Read and God Writes
What can we learn from all of this? Well, for starters, I’m certainly not advocating that you should hand-write your own copy of the Scriptures. There are many more pages in our Genesis-to-Revelation Bibles than David had to copy!4
And yet, as I have interacted with people in over fifty years of pastoring, preaching, and and especially Bible-teaching, one of the greatest neglects among Christians (real and so-called) is our disobedience and indiscipline in reading the Scriptures daily, disciplining ourselves to read them through regularly. We need, like the kings of God’s choosing, our own personal copies of the Bible. What makes a Bible copy personal? Constant reading, study, meditation, interaction, and application are what make the Scriptures personal.
Part of that “personalization” is writing. No, not because of anything we write. You see, in the New Covenant it is God who writes the Scriptures. No, He doesn’t write new “books of the Bible”; rather, as we seek His heart through prayer and His mind through reading His Book, He writes inside of us. In fact, it’s very instructive to notice the slight variation the writer to the Hebrews puts on his two quotations of Jeremiah 31:33—
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Hebrews 8:10)
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them…” (Hebrews 10:16).
Did you catch the differences?
- PUT My laws into their MINDS / WRITE them on their HEARTS (8:10);
- PUT My laws upon their HEARTS / WRITE them on their MINDS (10:16).
God seeks to write His truth on both our hearts and our minds. And one means of grace by which He accomplishes this ongoing writing is through our regular, disciplined reading through the Bible. We should desire for the Lord to have every opportunity possible to write in our hearts and mind. As we are making His Book personal to us by daily interaction, He is “personalizing” another of His writings — us! His desire is to make each of us “a letter of Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
In this process, there’s a sense in which we become “scripture.” No, I don’t mean we become “infallible” or have deep Bible knowledge or have memorized lots of verses. I mean that we become something that others can “read,” an open-book life others can examine, another volume about Christ in which anyone who is searching can see the glorious work of God.
Reading, Writing, and Then Reigning
Reading and Writing go together, and serve to personalize the Scriptures. The Scriptures become “ours” because we are making them so, and because the Holy Spirit is being allowed to write God’s truth in our hearts and minds.
As for the Reigning, well, that’s a matter best left to the King Himself. He alone gets to choose those who serve in administration under Him.5 Usurpers who grasp for rulership (like David’s “‘A’ Team,” his sons Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah, who all considered themselves “destined for the throne”) come to a bad end. Rebuke always seems to be the “reward” of those who make claims on Christ to be co-rulers with him (as the Apostles James and John could attest — see Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-456).
There are qualifications for reigning, and only the King Himself knows the hearts that qualify. Consider:
- Suffering and enduring are prerequisites:
- …if [we are God’s] children, [then] heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17), that is, when He makes His glorious appearance to reign over the earth.
- This testimony and expectation of suffering, then reigning, was something about which the First-Century church sang in one of their early hymns:
If we endure,7 we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us.
(2 Timothy 2:12)
- Faithful, loving, long-term obedience is another hallmark of those who may be tapped for the exercise of Kingdom authority, as seen in such passages as Matthew 25:19-23 and Luke 19:15-19. It is only these faithful ones who will hear, “Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, you are to be in authority.”
At the beginning of every new year (and frequently throughout each year as I travel and minister), I exhort fellow believers to read and re-read the Bible cover to cover annually. Every year a few more respond to the appeal, and their lives begin to change and mature. I have observed this over the years as the Holy Spirit opens their understanding, changes their perspective, and deepens them.
As these believers are faithful in this “very little thing” of reading the Scriptures, of owning the Bible and being owned by it, they may not realize that they are re-enacting a royal requirement made incumbent on Israel’s kings. Their reading will help them to be faithful in other Kingdom matters. It will help strengthen them to endure the suffering that comes into the life of every believer. While they are faithful in their reading, the Holy Spirit will be faithful in His “writing” on their hearts and minds. And from among
- those whom the King has found faithful in their Kingdom assignments,
- those who have overcome the trials of suffering and testing, and
- those who have “personalized” their copy of the Bible like Israel’s righteous, obedient rulers,
the King will promote these “good and faithful servants” to their proper positions of reigning in the age to come.
Faithful reading. Heart-writing. And finally reigning. Writing out a personal copy of the Scriptures and reading it daily was meant to be the duty and delight of God’s anointed king under the Old Covenant. Under the New Covenant, how much more should the discipline and delight of reading the Scriptures (and allowing the Holy Spirit to write God’s law on our hearts and minds) be the focus of those who have their sights set on reigning with the Lord? If you aren’t doing so already, shouldn’t this be the year that you start the lifelong, daily process of hiding God’s word in your heart? If so, you know the best day to start — today!
Oh, how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day!
“I have not departed
from the command of His lips;
I have treasured the words of His mouth
more than my necessary food.”
- Copyright Jim Kerwin 2020, 2021 ↩
- This chronology accepts the dating of Solomon’s reign from 970-931 b.c. On the basis of 1 Kings 6:1 (which states that Solomon began Temple construction in the fourth year of his reign (hence 966 b.c.), this coincided with the 480th year after the Exodus. Therefore we conclude:
- The Exodus occurred in 1446 b.c.
- The final warnings God gave through Moses must have happened towards the close of Year 39 of the wilderness wanderings (~1407 b.c.). That would have been the time of God’s warning about a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
- Working backwards from the inauguration of Solomon’s reign (again, 970 b.c.), David’s reign would have begun (in Hebron, at least) in 1010 b.c., and Saul’s in 1050 b.c.
- The time span from Moses’ last year (1407 b.c.) to Saul’s anointing (1050 b.c.) is therefore 357 years.
- I rather envy such a king, who would have had a copy of the Scriptures in which there were no “chapters” and “verses” which often act as stumbling-blocks to comprehension, an atomization of the Sacred Text which almost tempts readers to pull statements and “promises” out of context. ↩
- Speaking of King David and the Scriptures, some reflection on his life may indicate that he, indeed, did carry out this injunction to hand-write his own personal copy of the Bible in his day. What else could account for his familiarity with and love for God’s Written Word? Is there some explanation other than passionate, daily interaction which could account for his many psalms? Several of those psalms have an inspired focus on Scripture — like the 1st and the 19th and the 119th. There’s a wonderful connection there: The Scripture-soaked king, perhaps the first (and only?) sovereign to write out his own personal copy, was the same man through whom the Holy Spirit wrote such inspired praise to God.
That David had his own personal, hand-written copy is something of a surmise, of course; the Scriptures don’t mention such a thing specifically. But it fits with the overall tenor of David’s life, his love for God, and his rhapsodic expressions about the Lord’s written revelation.
Grant me one more surmise, then, at least by way of reflection and meditation: I would hazard a guess that, although David read the Scriptures daily most of the days of his royal life, he left off reading for a time-frame that amounted to weeks, perhaps months, just before his adultery with Bath-Sheba and his murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite. It was during this period that his heart was “lifted up above his countrymen” and that he “turned aside from the commandment” (to use the words of Deuteronomy 17:20). With that shameful outcome in view, how many days do we dare neglect our interaction with the Book and its Author? ↩
- Perhaps even this is not strictly true. The implication of Mark 10:40 seems to be that it is the Father who makes such determinations. ↩
- But James and John weren’t alone in this desire among the Twelve. The topic came up among them frequently: Matthew 18:1-6; 23:10-12; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-30 (during the Last Supper!). ↩
- The older King James reading of this (as well as the Geneva Bible, NKJV, and Darby) render this passage as “If we suffer,” which is how the translators chose to interpret the Greek verb ὑπομένω (hupoménō). If suffer at first seems substantially different from the endure reading of modern translations, consider how hupoménō is used in such passages as Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; and James 1:12. (The nominative (noun) form of the word — ὑπομονή (hupomonḗ) — is also intertwined with suffering in such passages as Luke 21:19; Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 6:4; James 1:3; 5:11; etc.)
Perhaps Weymouth’s New Testament nuances this verse most clearly:
“If we patiently endure pain, we shall also share His Kingship;
If we disown Him, He will also disown us…”