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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 17

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Thou shalt not sacrifice . . .—The law concerning the purity of victims is given in full in Leviticus 22:17-25. It takes its place there among the special laws of holiness. The same principle appears to unite the several topics treated here in Deuteronomy, as the holy days, the administration of justice, the absence of groves and images, with such a precept as this regarding the perfection of sacrifices. The holiness of the God of Israel necessitates them all. Truth, justice, and purity are demanded in all that come nigh Him. The dignity of His Kingdom is also concerned here. (See Introduction.)

Sheep.—The Hebrew word is sêh (on which see Deuteronomy 14:4, note). It may be either a lamb or a kid.

The only time in history when the sacrifice of imperfect creatures is complained of to any great extent is the time of the prophet Malachi (see Malachi 1:7-14). The laxity of the priests in his time called forth the prophecy that “in every place incense should be offered to God’s name and a pure offering.”

Verses 2-7

Deuteronomy 17:2-7. EVERY IDOLATER TO BE STONED.

(2) If there be found . . . man or woman.—This section differs slightly from the third section of Deuteronomy 13:0. The penalty there is directed against the teachers of idolatry, whether prophets, private individuals, or communities in Israel. Here the penalty of death is enacted for every individual, man or woman, found guilty of worshipping any other god but Jehovah. We find traces of this law in the covenant made in the reign of Asa (2 Chronicles 15:13), “that whosoever would not seek the Lord God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.

(3) Either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven.—The oldest and simplest, and apparently most innocent form of idolatry. If this was punishable with death, obviously no grosser form of idolatry could be spared. The Book of Job, which knows no other idolatry, admits this to be a denial “of the God that is above” (Job 31:26-28).

(6) He that is worthy of death.—Literally, he that dieth.

(7) The hands of the witnesses . . . first.—A great safeguard against false testimony.

Put . . . away.—Literally, consume. The primary meaning of the word is “burn.” Taberah, “burning,” is a derivative.

The evil.—The Greek version renders this “the wicked man,” and the sentence is taken up in this form in 1 Corinthians 5:13, “and ye shall put away from among you that wicked person.” The phrase is of frequent occurrence in Deuteronomy, and if we are to understand that in all places where it occurs “the evil” is to be under. stood of an individual, and to be taken in the masculine gender, the fact seems to deserve notice in considering the phrase “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer. There is really no such thing as wickedness in the world apart from some wicked being or person. We are also reminded of the famous argument of St. Augustine, that evil has no existence except as a corruption of good, or a creature’s perverted will.

Verses 8-12


(8) If there arise a matter too hard for thee.—Literally, too wonderful.

Between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke.—The “blood” and the “plea” seem to indicate criminal and civil cases. The word “stroke” is the common word for “plague” in the Pentateuch and elsewhere. It may possibly refer to cases of ceremonial purity or impurity, especially in reference to disease. There is an evident allusion to this law in the history of King Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 19:8-10). There the words are “between blood and blood, between law and commandment, statutes and judgments.” The questions are (1) between two contending parties; (2) between the law as a general rule and its application to particular duties, institutions and requirements. Other passages in the same chapter recall Deuteronomy 16:18-20.

Matters of controversy within thy gatesi.e., in the local courts of their several cities. The “gate” was the place of judgment. In 2 Chronicles 19:10, the phrase is more clearly expressed, thus, “what cause soever shall come unto you of your brethren that dwell in their cities.”

Into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose.—This implies what was afterwards ordered before Moses’ death, that the standard copy of the Law would be kept beside the Ark of the Covenant, in the sacred place (Deuteronomy 31:26).

(9) Thou shalt come unto the priests the Levitesi.e., “the priests that come of the tribe of Levi” (Rashi). Some modern critics say the writer of Deuteronomy knew no distinction between priests and Levites; but see above on Deuteronomy 11:6, and also the notes on Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:25.

The priests, the Levites, and . . . the judge.—The order agrees exactly with the constitution which Moses left behind him at his death. This has been already indicated in Numbers 27:15-21. Joshua was to “stand before Eleazar.” Eleazar was to ask counsel from Jehovah, and at his word Joshua and all the people were to go in and out. The order, when the two are mentioned together in the Book of Joshua, is invariably “Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun,” not vice versâ. The priests are the custodians of the Law; the judge or chief magistrate is the executor of it. (Comp. Malachi 2:7-8.) The principle is not altered by the substitution of a king for the judge, or by the addition of a prophet.

That shall be in those days.—Rashi and the New Testament are curiously agreed in the application of this part of the commandment. Our Lord, in Matthew 23:2-3, says of the Scribes and Pharisees (the judges of His day) that they “sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” Rashi says here, “Although he is not like the rest of the judges that were before him, thou must hearken to him. There is no judge for thee except the judge that is in thy days.”

(9-11) And they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment . . . According to the sentence of the law . . . thou shalt do.—This passage should be carefully noted. The function of the priest and judge was to show, inform, teach, and tell the applicant the sentence of the law, i.e., of the written law. The four English verbs have only three equivalents in Hebrew, viz., tell, teach and say. It is not sufficiently observed that this defines the relation between the Church and the Bible from the time the Law (which was the germ of the Bible) was delivered to the Church, and that the relation between the Church and the Bible is the same to this day. The only authority wherewith the Church (of Israel, or of Christ) can “bind” or “loose,” is the written Law of God. The binding (or forbidding) and loosing (or permitting) of the Rabbis—the authority which our Lord committed to His Church—was only the application of His written word. The Rabbis acknowledge this from one end of the Talmud to the other by the appeal to Scripture which is made in every page, sometimes in almost every line. The application is often strained or fanciful; but that does not alter the principle. The written word is the chain that binds. Nor does the varying relation between the executive and legislative authority alter the principle. Where the law of Jehovah is the law of the land, death may be the penalty of disobedience. Where it is only the law of the Christian community, exclusion may be the extreme penalty that is possible. But still the relation between the written word and the ministers of the Church is the same. The Church is the “witness and keeper of Holy Writ,” and can only shew from thence the sentence of judgment. The sentence is an application of the law, not a mere invention of the authorities themselves; and it would be easy to show from history how every misapplication of the Divine code brought with it surely, sooner or later, its own refutation, and the overthrow of the unfaithful government. The prophets not seldom took the place of tribunes of the people in cases of oppression. No one lifted up a more distinct protest from the law itself against the misapplication of the law than the Prophet like unto Moses, who formally acknowledged the authority of them that sat in Moses’ seat.[3]

[3] Manifestly, when copies of the Law were scarce, and when a good deal of it, like this Book of Deuteronomy, was general, and even prophetic, a board of authorised interpreters, or appliers, of the law to matters of detail was an absolute necessity. (See Introduction to Deuteronomy for more on this head.)

(12) And the man that will do presumptuously . . . shall die.—This word “presumptuously” occurs for the first time in this place. (See also Deuteronomy 18:22.) It is connected with “pride,” and denotes a proud self-assertion against the law. The penalty of death arises necessarily out of the theocracy. If God is the king of the nation, rebellion against His law is treason, and if it be proud and wilful rebellion, the penalty of death is only what we should expect to see inflicted. As soon as the law of Jehovah is in any way separated from the law of the land, this state of things may be altered. It is remarkable that in Ezra’s commission from Artaxerxes we find permission to identify the law of Jehovah with the law of the Persian empire to the full extent of this precept, “Whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily upon him, whether it be unto death, banishment, confiscation of goods, or imprisonment” (Ezra 7:25-26.) But such penalties, except in a theocratic government, are obviously out of place in matters connected with religion.

Verses 14-20

Deuteronomy 17:14-20. THE LAW OF THE KINGDOM.

(14) When thou art come unto the land.—These are not the words of a legislator who is already in the land. Those who say that this law dates from later times must be prepared to assert that this clause is expressly framed to suit the lips of Moses, and is thus far a deliberate forgery.

And shalt possess it, and dwell thereini.e., shalt complete the conquest and settle. It is not contemplated that the king would be desired immediately after the conquest.

I will set a king over me, like as all the nations.—There is an evident allusion to this phrase in 1 Samuel 8:20, “That we also may be like all the nations.” It is noticeable that Moses in this place says nothing in disapproval of the design. In fact his words might easily have been cited by the people in support of their proposal. Moses said we should need a king; why should we not ask for on? Looked at this way, the citation of the words of Deuteronomy in Samuel is perfectly natural. The people confirm their request by presenting it in the very words of Moses. But if we suppose (with some modern writers) that the passage in Deuteronomy was constructed from that in Samuel, there are several difficulties—(1) Why is there no disapproval here of the plan, which Samuel so strongly disapproved? (2) How does the writer in Deuteronomy contrive to be so wholly unconscious either of the royal tribe, or of the royal family? Precisely the same unconsciousness of the locality of the place which Jehovah should choose in Palestine appears in every reference to it in this book. In Moses this is perfectly natural. But that any later writer should be so totally regardless of the claims of Judah, David, and Jerusalem, and say nothing either for or against them, is inconceivable. Samuel could hardly have written about the king without betraying disapproval of Israel’s desire for him. No later writer could have avoided some allusion to the choice of David’s family, and the promises to David’s son.

(15) Whom the Lord thy God shall choose . . . from among thy brethren.—This precept seems almost needless from the standpoint of later history. As years passed by, the Israelites were less and less tempted to accept the supremacy of foreign princes.[4] But Moses can never have forgotten that for two-thirds of his own lifetime the Israelites had been subject to the kings of Egypt; and that even since the exodus they had proposed to make a captain to return thither; whom we know not, but very possibly an Egyptian. The chief thing dreaded by Moses was a return to Egypt, as appears by the next verse.

[4] But see note on Deuteronomy 31:11 for an incident that illustrates the feeling.

(16,17) He shall not multiply horses . . . wives . . . neither shall he greatly multiply . . . silver and gold.—It is not a little remarkable that these are the very things which Solomon did multiply; and that under him the monarchy attained its greatest glory. But the prophecy avenged itself by its literal fulfilment: “When Solomon was old . . . his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:4). Yet it is easier to read the words as prophecy than as later history. What Israelite could have written this sentence after the time of Solomon without some passing allusion to the glories of his reign? Compare the recorded allusion in Nehemiah 13:26 : “Did not Solomon, king of Israel, sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin.”

The question, how Solomon came to transgress these orders, may easily be met by another—How came David to attempt the removal of the ark of God in a cart? The wealth which Solomon had is represented as the special gift of Jehovah. His many marriages may be partly accounted for by the fact that only one son is mentioned, and he was born before his father became king. The question, “Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?” is singularly applicable to this individual. And one of the Psalms, which is by its title ascribed to Solomon, pursues a similar line of thought (Ps. cxxvii).

The caution against multiplying horses marks the profound wisdom of the writer. The Israelitish infantry was Israel’s strength. The conquest of Canaan was entirely effected by infantry. There are not many battle-fields in Canaan suited for chariots and cavalry. An army of infantry can choose its own ground.

Verse 18

(18) He shall write him a copy of this law.—This phrase is the source of the Greek title of the book, Deuteronomion, or in English, Deuteronomy. The word appears also in Joshua 8:32. The English conveys the right sense of the word, which primarily denotes repetition. In Hebrew it is Mishneh, the name afterwards given to the “text” of the Talmud, of which the idea is to repeat the law; though it is a somewhat peculiar repetition, in which minutiœ are chiefly dealt with, and weightier matters left out.

There are traces of this direction (1) in the coronation of Joash (2 Chronicles 23:11, “they gave him the testimony;” (2) in the reign of Jehoshaphat, who had the Book of the Law taught to his people (2 Chronicles 17:9); and (3) in the delivery of the book when discovered in the Temple to Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:18), and in the effect of the perusal of it upon that king. But it is singular that we do not hear of the Book of the Law in connection with David and Solomon. Possibly, as David was a prophet himself, and not only a king, it may be thought unnecessary to make special mention of his study of the law. In many things he acted upon the direct commands of God to himself or to his seers.

We must not forget that the true king of Israel is He whose special mission it was “to fulfil the law and the prophets.” “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.”

Verse 20

(20) To the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children.—Shows that the kingdom in Israel would be hereditary only so far as Jehovah willed it to be so. Again we may say that the striking fact that no dynasty except that of David ever continued for more than five generations, and only two dynasties for more than two generations, while David’s dynasty was perpetual by promise, could hardly have escaped notice, if known to the writer of this book.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/deuteronomy-17.html. 1905.
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