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Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 4: Harmony of the Law, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at

Deuteronomy 17

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

14. When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;

14. Quum ingressus fueris terrain quam Jehova Deus tuus dat tibi, et possederis eam, et habitaveris in ea, ac dixeris, Constituam super me regem sicut omnes gentes quae sunt per circuitus meos.

15. Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

15. Constituendo constitues super te regem quem elegerit Jehova Deus tuus: e medio fratrum tuorum constitues super te regem: non poteris constituere super te virum alienigenam, qui non sit frater tuus.

16. But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.

16. Verum non multiplicabit sibi equos, neque reducet populum in Aegyptum ad multiplicandos equos: quum Jehova dixerit vobis, Non adjicietis reverti per hanc viam amplius.

17. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.

17. Neque multiplicabit sibi uxores, neque avertetur cor ejus, neque plurimum argentum et aurum sibi cumulabit.

18. And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shalt write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

18. Verum quum sederit super solium regni sui, tunc describet sibi exemplar legis hujus in volumine; a conspectu sacerdotum et Levitarum.

19. And it shalt be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:

19. Eritque apud eum, et leget in eo cunctis diebus vitae suae: ut scilicet discat timere Jehovam Deum suum: et observare omnia verba legis hujus, atque statuta haec, ut faciat ea.

20. That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.

20. Ne elevetur cor ejus super fratres ipsius, neque declinet a praecepto ad dextram aut ad sinistram, ut proroget dies in regno suo: ipsc et filii ejus in medio Israelis.


14. When thou art come unto the land. In this passage God sets forth the merits of that sacerdotal kingdom, of which mention is made elsewhere; for, since the splendor of the royal name might dazzle their eyes, so that they should forget that God retained the sovereignty over them, they are thus early admonished how unjust it would be if the majesty of God should be diminished by the rule of a mortal man. In sum, the power of kings is here put beneath that of God; and kings themselves are consecrated unto obedience to Him, lest the people should ever turn to ungodliness, whatever change of government might take place. But although under the judges religion was often subverted, yet it was not without a cause that a special law was enacted with respect to kings, because nothing is more likely than that earthly pomps should draw men away from piety. Now we understand the design of God in this matter, let us proceed to examine its several parts. He passes over (as I have said) all the intermediate time until the beginning of the kingdom, because this new state of things brought with it an increase of danger: for as long as the judges were in power, their different form of government separated the Jews from heathen nations. All the surrounding neighbors were subject to kings; and God always retained the preeminence, whilst He raised up judges from amongst the people; but when they began to choose kings for themselves, they were so mixed up with the Gentiles, that it was easy for them to fall into other corruptions. For the very similarity (of their governments) united them more closely; wherefore, it is expressly said, When thou shalt set a king over thee “like as all the nations that are about” thee. For God signifies that the example of the nations would be an evil snare to them, that they should desire to have a king, and thus their condition would in future be identical, though by divine decree it had been distinct. In short, their rebellion is here indirectly condemned, when God foretells that they would wantonly shake off their yoke; as indeed actually took place, when they rejected Samuel, and tumultuously required a king. On which point God elsewhere complains that He was despised. But the question arises, how these two things can be reconciled, that kings should reign over them from the lust or foolish desire of the people, and yet that the kingdom was the chief glory of the people, a special pledge of God’s favor, and consequently of their welfare and full felicity. The prophecy of Jacob is well known,

"The scepter shall not depart from Judah, — until Shiloh come.” (Ge 49:10.)

Whence it appears that a king was promised to the children of Abraham as an inestimable blessing. Why, then, does not God declare Himself its author? I reply that, although it was God’s design from the beginning to set up David as a type of Christ, yet, because their unseemly haste disturbed the order of things, the commencement of the kingdom is ascribed to the people’s fault, when they were impelled by their perverse emulation to wish to be like the Gentiles. God appears then to have designedly censured their wilfulness, as if He had said, “Although by appointing a king, you approach more nearly to the Gentiles, beware lest your perverse desire should altogether turn you away from true religion.

15. Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee. First of all, God maintains His own supremacy in the appointment of a king, and does not consign the matter to the people’s own suffrages; that thus He may chastise their audacity in demanding a king in accordance with a hasty impulse. Secondly, He commands that he should be taken from the people themselves, and excludes foreigners, because, if they had been admitted, a door was opened to apostasy; for each would have tried to force upon them his native gods, and true religion would have been persecuted by the force and threatenings of the royal power. Behold why God would not suffer a king to be sought elsewhere but from the bosom of His Church; in order that he might cherish and maintain that pure worship which he had imbibed from his childhood.

16 But he shall not multiply horses. The royal power is here circumscribed within certain limits, lest it should exalt itself too much in reliance on the glory of its dignity,  70 For we know how insatiable are the desires of kings, inasmuch as they imagine that all things are lawful to them. Therefore, although the royal dignity may be splendid, God would not have it to be the pretext of unrestrained power, but restricts and limits it to legal bounds.  71 רק, rak, is an adversative particle which some construe only; almost with the same meaning, because this exception was added to restrain the passions of their kings. The first prohibition is, that he should not collect for himself a multitude of horses; but, since it is twice repeated, we must consider why it is so. Many thus translate it, “He shall not multiply horses, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to multiply horses;” but this manner of speaking is harsh and obscure. Now, since the particle למען lemagnan, signifies “for the sake of (propter), it may be properly translated to the letter, “for the sake of multiplying horses,” (propter multiplicare, vel propter ad multiplicandum.) I have no doubt, then, but that God condemns an immoderate number of horses from the consequences which might ensue; because it might excite the minds of the kings rashly to undertake expeditions against the Egyptians. This, therefore, I consider to be the genuine meaning, that the king should not provide himself with horses in too great numbers, lest, when he was in possession of many horses, he should lead his army into Egypt. Thus, amongst other evils which might arise from a multitude of horses, Moses mentions this, that the king’s mind will be puffed up with pride, so as to invade Egypt with an army of horse. Now, the question is, why God forbade His people to return by that way? Some explain it, that the horses would be brought contrary to God’s command, who had forbidden them to trade (with that people;)  72 but this does not seem appropriate. Others think that the people were prohibited from passing the desert, lest in their curiosity they should be ungrateful to God; but this, too, is far-farfetched. To me it seems probable, that this journey was prohibited them, in order that, being mindful of their deliverance, they should be content with their own boundaries. They had been rescued from a thousand deaths: if they had voluntarily gone thither to provoke an adversary, their confidence would have been a sign of their despising and forgetting God’s grace. Therefore, in order that the recollection of their redemption should be deeply impressed upon their minds, God would have the honor put upon His miracles, that they should avoid those regions like the abysses of death. Unless perhaps this reason may be preferred, that a handle for those wicked alliances was cut off, which we see were audaciously contracted, because the kings of Israel gloried in the abundance of their cavalry. But the former explanation is most suitable. This law, however, was not obeyed by their best kings; and hence it appears that the wilfulness and pride of their kings could scarcely be repressed by any restraints.

17 Neither shall he multiply wives to himself. Polygamy at that time had generally prevailed, so that the very humblest of the people violated the marriage vow with impunity; and therefore it was necessary that the kings should be bound with closer restrictions, lest by their example they should give greater countenance to incontinency. And thus their ignorance is easily refuted who conclude that what was specially interdicted to the kings was permitted to private individuals, whereas the law of chastity was imposed upon the former, because without this remedy there would be no bounds to their lasciviousness. Besides, the people would have been subjected to great expense on their account, since such is the ambition of women, that they would all have desired to receive royal treatment, and would have even vied with each other in finery, as actually came to pass. David transgressed this law, and in some degree excusably on account of his repudiation by Michal; still it appears that lust had more power over him than the continency prescribed by God. What follows is so connected by some as if it were the reason of the foregoing sentence, in this way, “that kings were not to multiply wives to themselves, lest their heart should turn away from what was right,” as was the case with Solomon; for, from being too devoted to his wives, and being deceived by the snares of women, he fell into idolatry. And assuredly it can scarcely fail to happen, that when many wives beset a man, they must render his mind effeminate, and stifle in him all his manly good sense. Yet I prefer taking the clause separately, that kings must beware lest the splendor of their dignity should affect the soundness of their judgment, for nothing is more difficult than for one in great power to continue disposed to temperance. Therefore God does not in vain enjoin that they should constantly persevere in their duty, and not lose their understanding. Moreover, He forbids kings to heap up treasures, because it cannot be done without rapine and violent exactions; whilst, at the same time, wealth encourages them audaciously to undertake unjust wars, incites them to gross dissipation, and at length hurries them forward to tyrannical excesses. First, therefore, God would have kings beware, lest in their pursuit of riches they should exhaust the blood of the people, and lest they should lavish their ill-gotten money in superfluous expenses, and be extravagant with what belongs to others; and lastly, lest they should be tempted by the pride of wealth to attempt unlawful things.

18. And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne. It would not be enough to correct their errors unless kings were also instructed in the fear of God, and properly taught their duty; now, therefore, a system of discipline is added, whereby it was profitable for them to be grounded in the study of religion and justice, viz., that they should take the Law from the priests and Levites, which was to be the rule of all their actions. Because the demonstrative pronoun is used,  73 some think that only the book of Deuteronomy is referred to, but without good reason. I make no doubt but that the whole sum of doctrine is included, which is delivered both here and in Exodus and Leviticus. But although it was without exception to be common to all, yet in order that kings might be more assiduously attentive in reading it, God would have a copy peculiarly dedicated to their use by the priests and Levites, and given into their hands in a solemn ceremony; that kings might know that they required greater wisdom and counsel for ruling the people than private persons. When, therefore, the priests and Levites presented them with this book, it was as if God deposited this treasure with the king. He then enjoins that they should exercise themselves in the doctrine of the Law through the whole course of their lives, because kings are usually supplied with books only out of ostentation and pomp, and when they have tasted of what is taught in them, straightway grow tired and cease to read them. Finally, the object of their reading is subjoined: first of all, in general, that they may learn to fear God and keep His statutes; and, secondly, lest, being lifted up with pride and vanity, they should despise and oppress their brethren. And the word brethren is used designedly, lest they should imagine that the law of brotherhood was abolished, because they were set over the whole people; but rather that they should study to cherish all as members (of themselves.) Again, it is afterwards repeated, lest they should “turn aside to the right hand or the left;” because, when men have much liberty of action, their lusts can never be sufficiently restrained. But, lest it should be grievous to them to be thus reduced to order, finally God reminds them that this moderation would be useful to them, for that they thus would prolong their reigns; whereas the tyranny of kings is often their destruction; as the Lacedemonian king replied, when his wife was annoyed that the Ephori were appointed to restrain him, “that he should indeed leave less power to his children, but that it would be the more lasting.  74 But, here a long succession is promised by God’s favor, if they were willing to guide themselves aright.



Addition in Fr,Et face du cheval eschappe;” and act like a runaway horse


Le mot que nous avons translate au reste ” In the Latin, verum; A. V., but.


Addition from Fr.


Pource qu’il dit, de ceste loy;” because he says, of this law.Fr. The LXX. translation is, Καὶ γράψει ἑαυτῷ τὸ Δευτερονόμιον τῦτο εἰς βιβλίον παρὰ τῶν ἱερέων τῶν Λευιτῶν C. seems to overlook the command that it should be transcribed by the king himself, of which, notwithstanding the opinion of some ancient commentators, the words appear to leave no doubt.


This anecdote of Theopompus is mentioned by Aristotle, Pol. v. 11; Plutarch, in vita Lycurgi, Section 7; and Valerius Max., lib. 4. cap. 1. Section 8.

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