18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
21 “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God that you shall make. 22 And you shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-22 ESV
Reliable leadership is essential for a family, a religious community, a company or a nation. Without proper leadership, you end up with chaos and confusion, which ultimately leads to anarchy. So, as Moses continues to outline God’s holy expectations for the people of Israel, he begins to focus his attention on the vital role and responsibility of leadership within their community. Yes, God was their final authority, but He had established a hierarchy of leadership, delegating certain responsibilities to others, like Moses, whom He would hold accountable for the welfare of His people.
As God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel was expected to reflect His character, both on an individual and corporate basis. Each family within the community was to operate according to God’s commands, with children honoring their parents and father’s and mother’s leading their children in the ways of the Lord. Every member of the community was expected to keep the sabbath holy. They were each obligated to obey the commands of God and live in unity as the people of God. But every organization, no matter how large or small, needs effective leadership to survive and thrive.
So, Moses provided them with God’s plan for overseeing what would quickly become a rapidly expanding populace scattered throughout the land of Canaan.
“Appoint judges and officials for yourselves from each of your tribes in all the towns the Lord your God is giving you…” – Deuteronomy 16:18 NLT
Once the tribes began to conquer and settle the land, the once-unified nation would find itself dispersed into 12 different communities separated by distance and requiring localized leadership. One man would not be able to oversee such an extensive and far-spread domain. Even during the days of the kings of Israel, there would be a need for delegated power dispersed throughout the kingdom in order to assure proper application and enforcement of the king’s wishes.
But in these early days of Israel’s existence, they were to be a theocracy living under the authority of God, their sovereign Lord and King. He was to be their final authority in all things. And He would appoint men to serve as His representatives, leading and judging the people on His behalf and according to His divine will. But the day was going to come when the people of Israel expressed their weariness with God’s way of doing things. They would reject His divinely appointed leaders and demand to have a king just like all the other nations. In other words, they would jettison the governing model of a theocracy for a human monarchy, which would eventually devolve into an oligarchy.
The book of 1 Samuel records the fateful day when the people of Israel issued their demand for a king, and God made clear that they were really rejecting Him as their King.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:4-7 ESV
But at this point in the book of Deuteronomy, the people were still preparing to enter the land. They found themselves in need of God’s help, so they were still willing to allow Him to lead. But God knew that it would only be a matter of time before they required more hands-on leadership. So, He commanded Moses to have the people appoint or elect judges and officials who would provide localized leadership within their various land allotments.
These men would provide a vital role, exercising their divinely-appointed authority to provide wise judgment and ensure righteous justice within the various tribes. But this was not be the first time this form of delegated authority had been seen in Israel. All the way back in the days when they were traveling from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had instituted a similar program, under the wise counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro.
Jethro had witnessed Moses attempting to single-handedly trying to mete out judgment and justice for the people. His son-in-law was spending all day, everyday, listening to the cares and concerns of the people and trying to provide wise counsel and direction. But Jethro saw that this was unsustainable, so he gave Moses a bit of sage advice.
“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. Now listen to me, and let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives. But select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you. Let the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.” – Exodus 18:17-23 NLT
And this is exactly what Moses is directing the people to do. But he provides an important caveat, telling the people that the men they choose as leaders were to “judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18 ESV). Not only that, they were to “never twist justice or show partiality” (Deuteronomy 16:19 NLT).
God was looking for righteous and just men. He wanted individuals who would reflect His character and uphold His divine expectations for justice and mercy. God was not going to put up with any form of corruption, such as the acceptance of bribes. There would be no room for partiality or favoritism. These men were to be impartial and fair, representing each of the people under their care equitably and justly. And Moses made it clear that their adherence to God’s requirements would bring His blessings.
“Let true justice prevail, so you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:20 NLT
God has a strong dislike for lousy leadership. He holds those in positions of authority to a high standard and expects them to take their responsibilities seriously, approaching their roles with a soberness that is influence by a healthy fear of His holiness.
And these men were not just responsible for settling civil disputes. They were to guard against any kind of idolatry among the people of Israel. Unfaithfulness to God was the greatest temptation the people were going to face. Their personal disputes and disagreements would prove miniscule and pointless when compared with their failure to remain faithful to God. So, Moses warns these leaders to watch out for any kind of idolatrous activity among the people. If they saw it, they were to deal with it immediately. God expected these men to deliver righteous judgment among His people and He demanded that they dispense equitable justice. But more importantly, God required His leaders to require holiness and faithfulness from the people. These men would be acting as representatives of God. And, as such, they were expected to love what He loves and hate what He hates. They were to judge according to God’s standards, not their own. They were to mete out God’s brand of justice, not their own. And if they did, God would bless the nation.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.