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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible

Deuteronomy 13

Verses 1-18

Danger and Security

Deuteronomy 13:0

This passage, by the inspiration of God, touches upon all the possible points of danger in a religious course. Suppose, for the moment, we do not admit the inspiration, still there remains the fact that in a book so old as Deuteronomy some master hand has touched the three great points of vital danger in religious progress. We bow to genius: we acknowledge power: we say it is but decent to uncover the head in the presence of superiority; bound by this law, we cannot read this chapter without feeling that, be the writer who he may, he was a man who knew human nature: he saw clearly every point of danger, and with delicate, but resolute, courage pointed out the only course which such dangers involved and required.

What are the points of danger? The first may be described as being somewhat after a philosophical sort. There is nothing rude in the assault, nothing violent, or startling, or shocking, from a merely animal or physical point of view; it is a very delicate encroachment upon religious thought: it is shadowy as a vision: it is impalpable as a dream, and the speaker of his dream assumes, with amazing appearance of innocence, a total want of responsibility in the matter, forasmuch as he is simply relating, with a child's ingenuousness, what he saw in the dark and what he heard in the silence. What creature could be less objectionable? Here is no blatant vulgarity of denunciation, no audacious assault upon conservative piety. Who would not allow a man to relate a dream? Who does not like to have his imagination touched as by fire, and invited to the hospitality of spaces boundless and lights that outshine the sun? What harm can come of a trip to the upper air? What possible injury can come from a survey of clouds which break now and again to let the glory through? Surely this is harmless: it is more than harmless: it is instructive: it may be a lesson in the deeper philosophy; it may be the beginning of a widening revelation. Besides, an approach of this kind is marvellously graded so as to suit human nature: you do no harm to your cause by assuming that the man to whom you are speaking is a fellow-dreamer, a brother-poet, gifted with the same imagination, and by gently insinuating that he may have had still higher experiences of the night-scenes, the star-fields, the glory-lands that burn above. A man likes to be accosted as if he were an intellectual gentleman. To tell him a dream is to beget his confidence; to ask him to listen to the minor tones of the soul is to confer the highest of favours upon his manhood. The mischief is this, that a man who would listen to such a dreamer, or seer of visions, and allow his religion to be affected by the nightmare, would turn the man out of his presence if he attempted to offer him a single idea upon any practical subject under heaven. We are easily beguiled from the religious point. "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?" Surely this is a mystery of a profound and solemn kind, that we are always ready to listen to dreamers and visionaries concerning the faith of Christ, and give them credit for penetration amounting almost to inspiration, and yet upon all other subjects we withdraw the confidence of our judgment and heart from such men. We allow any thief to steal our religion, mayhap, because we want to get rid of it; we lay it where the thief can purloin it without trouble: he knows where to find it. In politics we laugh at him; in business we deny his right to speak, and call it impertinence if he cough in the presence of commercial men; and were he to offer a judgment upon literature, propriety would shudder, intellectual dignity would recoil lest the man should stain its purity; but let him tell a dream or a vision that will imperil the faith of the rising life of the country, and he may be listened to. It would seem as if it were easier to murder the soul than to kill the body. The first point of danger, therefore, is thus clouded in a golden veil; and the man who may be said to be preparing for that danger is dreamy, hazy-minded, speculative, always looking into a mist if, haply, he may find a star: such a gentle, dozing creature, so harmless, and really so very attractive in many qualities of his character.

What is the second point of danger? It is not at all philosophical; it may be ranked among the social forces that are constantly operating upon life: "If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee" ( Deu 13:6 ). All kindred would seem to be written under this designation, and the friend who is akin to the soul, your very other self, he of whom you ask no questions even when you least understand him, because he is golden gold, true as the geometry of the universe, upright, square, thoroughly well-related in all the parts and qualities of his nature, a building of God. Social influences are constantly operating upon our faith. The youngest member of the family has been reading a book, and has invited the head of the house to go and listen to some new speaker of theories, speculations, and dreams: the service is so beautiful: the idea is so novel: a great deal of the rush and tumult common to elementary religious life is totally escaped; the intellectual brother the man supposed to have all the brains of the family has got a new idea, an idea which in no wise associates itself with historical churches and traditional creeds, but a bran-new idea, altogether sparkling and daring, and whosoever professes it will at once take his place in the synagogue of genius; or the darling friend has caught a voice down some by-way, and he will have his other self go with him in the evening to hear this speaker of anti-Christian ideas, a man who has undertaken to reconstruct so much of the universe as will allow him to touch it: a person of exquisite mind, of dainty taste, and of quite latent power. The subtle purpose is to draw men away from the old altar, the old Book, the God of deliverance and beneficence, of mercy and redemption, to another god who will condescend to be measured for a creed, and who is not above sitting for his portrait. So we blame the family for alluring us from old centres: the older members of the family would not have gone, but under pressure from the brother, the son, the daughter, the wife, or the family friend. Why betake yourself to such cowardly language? Why add insult to injury when you leave the old altar, saying you would not have gone but that some other man enticed you? The fact is you have gone: better stand straight up and claim your going to be the expression of a conviction, the outworking of what you believe to be a true inspiration. Do not follow a multitude to do evil. Do not always be at the string end, led about by those who are of more forceful and energetic will than yourselves. Be sure as to what they are taking you to; have a clear understanding before you begin. You would not allow those persons to interfere with anything practical: when the discussion of commercial questions arises, you stand at the front and say, There I can bear testimony, and there I ought to be heard. Why claim such a solemn responsibility in the settlement of nothing, and allow anybody to settle for you the great questions of religious truth and personal destiny? There is no need to violate courtesy, or to suspend friendly relations; but it ought to be needful to every man to know exactly what is proposed to be done with his soul by the prophet who has dreamed a dream, or the member of a family who has been seized with a desire to entice other members of that family from the historical altar.

What is the third point of danger? It is not philosophical; it is not, in the narrow sense of the term, social; it is a point of danger which may be characterised as public sentiment, public opinion, a general turning round, and a wholesale abandonment of old theologies and old forms of worship: "If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the Lord thy God hath given thee to dwell there," that the cities have turned round, as it were, en masse, and have gone after "other gods, which ye have not known" ( Deu 13:12-13 ). Some men may have courage to laugh at the dreamer: others may have virtue enough to resist the blandishments of the nearest friend; but who can resist the current or tendency of public opinion? Say to some men, Public opinion is against you; you are talking a forgotten language; you have not associated yourself with the tendency of the times; all your speech is not without benevolence and the attraction of quaintness: there is an archaic flavour in your speech that is very touching and that might for a moment bring with it a species of rest to the soul, but new thought has arisen, new language has been coined, new music is expressing a new worship: the whole city has turned round obey that public opinion; to be in a minority is to invoke mockery and contempt; and they will instantly yield.

Thus the writer of the chapter has given the three points of danger, philosophical, social, and public. The great advantage of all seducers from the true faith lies in the marvellous mystery that some people like to be in danger. A species of capital is made out of the religious vote. Various candidates for the throne of confidence ask you what you will take for your vote. It places men in an interesting condition to be regarded as intellectual invalids, spiritual convalescents, and in some degree of danger from the fever of heterodoxy; it pleases them to lay their empty heads upon their indolent hands, and to be regarded as persons whose condition excites the solicitude of Christendom. A marvellous human nature this! And the persons who so pose not knowing whether they will vote for Barabbas or Christ, the living God or the god of wood and stone, such persons are utterly wanting in moral robustness, intellectual health, spiritual vigour that begets confidence and assures security.

What is the course to be taken under circumstances of danger? Moses had no difficulty about his reply: let us see what it was, and consider whether we can adopt it. "And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death" ( Deu 13:5 ). The seducer in the family brings upon himself this penalty. "Neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: but thou shalt surely kill him" ( Deu 13:8-9 ) "thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die" ( Deu 13:10 ). And as for the city representative of public opinion, "Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the Lord thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again. And there shall cleave nought of the cursed thing to thine hand" ( Deu 13:15-17 ). That was a drastic course: there is no touch of compromise in that stern provision; there is no line of toleration in that tremendous answer. The same course is to be taken today, as to its spiritual meaning. Physical violence there must be none: the day of physical pains and penalties for spiritual offences has closed; but the great lesson of destruction remains for ever. We have just seen that the truest destruction is moral; we have admitted to ourselves that no conquest is worth achieving that is not based upon the consent of the conquered man or nation; we must destroy by spiritual influence, by moral dignity, by such assuredness of conviction and simplicity of faith on our own part as will be as a burning fire to every suggestion bearing upon apostasy or treason.

Why are such temptations permitted? The answer is given in the third verse: "The Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." Every man's faith must be tried. Every man is tried in business, so that the honest man is known from the dishonest, and the power of temptation upon the integrity of the trader is estimated with appalling accuracy. We are tried by success; we are proved by prosperity; the thief may actually be sent to us that we may know whether every door and window has been fastened. We close the house night by night with simple confidence: the round has become so monotonous a course that we take it for granted that all things are secure. The thief will find out the one point of weakness; and the night after we shall be much more careful than we were the night before. It is a notable feature of human nature that after the property has been stolen it is quite excited with new solicitude. Such is the noblest creature that traverses the little mean space called earth! After he has lost all he had, he puts in every bolt he can lay his hands upon, and turns every lock with expressive violence. O that men were wise! In such an hour as ye think not the thief cometh. If the good man of the house had known at what hour the thief would come, he would have been sitting up waiting for him armed. We live in circumstances of uncertainty, in periods full of excitement; the voice of Christ is "Watch."

But are we not living in the days of toleration? Is there not, in some countries at least, an Act of Toleration? There is: toleration has still its place; but toleration must not be misunderstood. Who are the men who claim the exercise of toleration? Are they consistent men? From point to point in all the line of social intercourse and confidence do they carry out this idea of toleration? Let us test. They are very large in their toleration of aberrations and eccentricities in theology; along that line there is no end to their sublimity. Are they consistent? Let us try them by the standard of life. Here is a man who says, Morality is quite a parochial term: morality is a question of circumstance; as to right and wrong, they vary with latitude and longitude; morality must be considered a variable quantity. Do you tolerate that man? Would you leave him in charge of your business for one calendar month? Would you allow him to have full control over your family circumstances for the same limited period of time? Would you trust such a man with signed cheques, the money lines of which were blank? You are lovers of toleration; you preach toleration; you would die (if you could not help it) for toleration. Are you consistent? Where does your toleration begin? Where does it end? Here is a man who comes with anew creed, untouched by ministerial fingers, unpolluted by pulpit senility and ignorance; he says, Weak people have no rights: strength is right: he who can get has a right to get, and the weak must go to the wall; the weak are an offence to nature: they are out of harmony with the constitution of things; they must be got rid of; strength, health, force, these are the masters of the world. Do you tolerate him? Would you like him to sit up for the nights of one whole week with your little sick child? Would you like him to take out, in its little perambulator, the pale-cheeked one of the family the little creature whose life trembles in the balance? You love toleration; you are fond of toleration; you clap your sweltering hands in applause of infinite nothings mouthed by irresponsible speakers about toleration. Where does the toleration begin? Where does it end? We make people welcome a thousand welcomes to all the theology; but when they touch our money, or our family, or our little ones, we say we must have the very highest references about them. Why refer? Why submit to such pointless routine? Refer! be tolerant, be magnanimous, be trustful. You, who can afford to let a man do what he pleases with theology, ought not to be so scrupulous as to what he may do with your bank-book. Here is a man who lays down the doctrine that property is robbery. His creed is, Share and share alike. He says he is a "democrat"; he says he will have no boundary walls, and no entails and primogenitures and rights and deeds and Chancery injunctions and decrees; he would have all equal. What a splendid man! What an original thinker about all things created! What an administrator! What a Daniel come to judgment! Shall we tolerate him? Shall we be very gentle to him? and shall we begin by handing him over whatever we have about us? We are tolerationists! As for theology, you may turn into that field all the beasts you own, and let the quadrupeds trample the fair gardens under their hoofs; but you will not tolerate the man who says, What is yours is mine, and I have a right to it, and I claim it now. We admire toleration: we think it is an excellent abstract idea: we believe there is a whole heaven of beauty in it, if anybody could discover it; but, in the meantime, we will have no toleration of liars, thieves, evil persons, who seek to disturb the foundations of society and property. We are "fearfully and wonderfully made."

What penalty, then, shall we inflict upon men who seek to destroy our faith? I hesitate not in my reply: Avoid them; pass by them; they would injure your soul. Wherever there is matter of mere opinion there should be the largest measure of toleration not upon one side, but on both sides. It is a marvellous thing that the men who cry out for toleration are often the most reluctant to exercise it. There is much mockery addressed to the Christ of today; there is not a little penalty inflicted upon the Christian thinkers of the time; there are disallowances and disabilities and disqualifications of many kinds attached to deep religious conviction. Do not suppose that toleration is a one-sided quantity; when it is established it will operate from two opposite centres. Meanwhile, what are our religious convictions? If they are large, vital, well-reasoned; if they have borne the burden of the day; if they have sustained the heat of noontide; if they have survived the thick rains of night; if our convictions have been potent in life, comforting in affliction, inspiring in death, he does not violate the genius of conviction who says, Beware of any man who would tamper with those convictions, who would kill your spiritual enthusiasm, who would tempt you from the service of passion into the passivity of indolence or the uncertainty of insincere confession. We are not intolerant. We believe, and therefore speak. Our convictions are our life. If they were mere opinions, we should compare them, compromise with others, make arrangements for the settlement of controversies; but where convictions are positive, either on the one side or the other; where they are real convictions men must abide by them, and beware of the thievish hand. This is our position; we have tested it by manifold experience.

Selected Note

"Thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die" ( Deu 13:10 ). The mode of capital punishment which constitutes a material element in the character of any law, was probably as humane as the circumstances of Moses admitted. It was probably restricted to lapidation or stoning, which, by skilful management, might produce instantaneous death. It was an Egyptian custom ( Exo 8:26 ). The public effusion of blood by decapitation cannot be proved to have been a Mosaic punishment, nor even an Egyptian; for in the instance of Pharaoh's chief baker ( Gen 40:19 ), "Pharaoh shall lift up thine head from off thee," the marginal rendering seems preferable "shall reckon thee and take thine office from thee." He is said to have been "hanged" ( Gen 41:13 ); which may possibly mean posthumous exposure, though no independent evidence appears of this custom in ancient Egypt. The appearance of decapitation, "slaying by the sword," in later times (2 Samuel 4:8 ; 2Sa 20:21-22 ; 2Ki 10:6-8 ) has no more relation to the Mosaic law than the decapitation of John the Baptist by Herod ( Mat 14:8-12 ); or than the hewing to pieces of Agag before the Lord by Samuel, as a punishment in kind ( 1Sa 15:33 ); or than the office of the Cherethites, ‏כרחי ‎ (2 Samuel 8:18 ; 2Sa 15:18 ; 2Sa 20:7-23 ), or headsmen, as Gesenius understands by the word, from ‏כרח ‎ "to chop off" or hew down (executioners belonging to the bodyguard of the king); whereas execution was ordered by Moses, probably adopting an ancient custom, to be begun first by the witnesses, a regulation which constituted a tremendous appeal to their moral feelings, and afterwards to be completed by the people (Deuteronomy 13:10 ; Deuteronomy 17:7 ; Joshua 7:25 ; Joh 8:7 ). It was a later innovation that immediate execution should be done by some personal attendant, by whom the office was probably considered as an honour ( 2Sa 1:15 ; 2Sa 4:12 ). Stoning, therefore, was probably the only capital punishment ordered by Moses. It is observable that neither this nor any other punishment was, according to his law, attended with insult or torture. Nor did his laws admit of those horrible mutilations practised by other nations. For instance, he prescribed stoning for adulterers (comp. Leviticus 20:10 ; Ezekiel 23:25 ; Ezekiel 16:38-40 ; Joh 8:5 ); but the Chaldeans cut off the noses of such offenders. Mutilation of such a nature amounts to a perpetual condemnation to infamy and crime. Moses seems to have understood the true end of punishment, which is not to gratify the antipathy of society against crime, nor moral vengeance, which belongs to God alone, but prevention. "All the people shall hear and fear, and do no more so presumptuously."

Prayer

Almighty God, help us to understand thy law and to do it obediently and lovingly, that we may enjoy the happy issue of such action, and find in experience a light upon many a mystery. If we do the will, we shall know the doctrine. How hard it is to do the will thou knowest. Thou understandest us altogether in the mystery of the mind, in the peculiarity of the whole constitution; thou knowest how sensitive we are to evil suggestion, how profoundly we love the darkness, and how we love to be liberated from the restraints of law. Yet herein is our greatness as well as our infirmity. Thou hast made us in thine own image and likeness; but we have lost our uprightness and sought out many inventions, and now we are following after wind and vanity, and grasping energetically at the nothings of time. So we come before thee to mourn our fall, our personal apostasy, and to utter our personal prayer for pardon, liberty, and hope. We rejoice that there is a door standing wide open, and that within the opened home is our Father waiting to be gracious, his great love tarrying for us, his infinite compassion ready to welcome us. This is the Gospel we have heard; this is the good news which has filled our life from the very first. We have heard that God is love, God is light, God hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked, God says Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die? and he stands at the door of the heart and knocks, and asks to be admitted to the guest-chamber of the soul. Behold, we delight in this Gospel: it is music to our ears a sovereign balm for every wound. We need such speech, for the darkness is often very burdensome, and the wind so cold, and the pit-falls so many, and our readiness to go astray so eager. So we require to hear, now and again, of thy love and tenderness as revealed in the sacrifice of Christ, the oblation of the Son of God, the atonement wrought for sin. We reply to such Gospel by new vows and oaths and utterances of thankfulness; may we live this utterance in all obedient and noble life. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 13". The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/deuteronomy-13.html. 1885-95.