Deuteronomy 17:16-17 says this about Israel’s king:
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.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
This legislation was given by God through Moses as Israel was preparing to enter the land of Canaan. It was a momentous time for the fledgling nation. They had been in the wilderness for forty years. They had watched the previous generation perish there. They helped 2 ½ tribes take possession of their land east of the Jordan (2:24-3:20). But now the time was upon them, and under Joshua’s leadership they would finally set foot in the land that God promised to Abraham hundreds of years before. They must have been experiencing a flood of emotions!
Although it would be a while before Israel would have a king, God laid out for them what His expectations were. Contrary to the kingdoms around them, the king was not to build for himself a kingdom of more (Brueggemann)—more horses, more wealth, or more wives.
More horses have to do with the build-up of their military. At this time, Israel had no army—every man over twenty was available to fight if needed, but they were not professional soldiers. God didn’t want the king to oversee a large military build-up—He wanted the king to trust in Him (Deuteronomy 20:1ff; Psalm 20:7; Isaiah 31:1)!
The silver and gold have to do with accumulating riches—not for functional purposes like building infrastructure or helping people, but for display and status (see Hezekiah’s exhibition in Isaiah 39). Moreover, this kind of wealth usually came from militaristic conquest, tribute, and/or extreme taxation (i.e., Solomon – 2 Kings 12:1-4). This was not what God wanted the earthly leader of His people to be about.
“Many wives” have to do with treaties and alliances with other nations to be sure, but that’s not the stated concern of the text. It is that “his heart will be led astray.” Of course, this is exactly what happened with Solomon (1 Kings 11:1ff). He “held fast to them in love” (v. 2), and they “turned his heart after other gods” (v. 4).
God’s desire for the king was remarkably counter-culture and reflected the truth that He wanted Israel to be a special people (Exodus 19:5-6), who modeled the redemption and relationship that He desired with all the world and would one day bring about in Jesus.
It’s probably not a bad idea when we read this to think about our little kingdoms. We all have self-rule of our lives and Jesus instructs us in the model prayer to abdicate that rule and allow God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done. Otherwise, we seem to inevitably end up building little kingdoms of more—more stuff, more status, more success. The reign of God in our lives means we jettison that approach and live to be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2).
That is the true kingdom of more!