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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Deuteronomy 20

Verses 1-4

Deuteronomy 20:1-5.20.4

When thou goest out to battle.

Righteous war


I.
Undertaken to accomplish the purpose of God. “In the name of our God we will set up our banners.”


II.
Sanctioned by the will of God.

1. God’s will is ascertained by His presence.

2. God’s will is declared by His servants.


III.
Conducted by the precepts of God. (J. Wolfendale.)

Christian life a warfare


I.
This warfare is against mighty enemies.

1. Great in number.

2. Terrible in equipment.


II.
In this warfare right men are wanted.

1. Good leaders.

2. Good soldiers.

(1) Soldiers conscious of right.

(2) Soldiers willing to serve.

(3) Soldiers full of courage.


III.
In this warfare we should not be disheartened.

1. God’s providence encourages us. “Brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” There is constant reference to this deliverance most striking and instructive. History unfolds Divine providence; abounds with proofs of omnipotence, and pledges of help. Examples are cited to animate to fortitude and virtue.

2. God’s presence is with us. “The Lord thy God is with thee.” Not merely as commander, but “goeth with you” into the greatest danger. Not as a spectator, like Xerxes, who viewed the conflict from on high, but “to fight for you” with the determination to save you. The Lord thy God, He it is, not a common general, “that doth go with thee; He will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” (J. Wolfendale.)

Be not afraid.

Fear forbidden

Israel had seen little of war, only a few brushes in their journey with inferior adversaries. Things would soon become more serious. Hence alarm and need of admonition and encouragement. All Christians are soldiers, and wage a good warfare. It is a necessary and trying warfare--continues through every season and in every condition. The forces of their enemies may be superior in number, vigilance, wisdom, and might. Hence danger of alarm and need of fortitude in the warrior. None have better grounds for courage than we; not in ourselves, for then we must fail.


I.
The Divine presence: “For the Lord thy God is with thee.” Antigonus said to his troops, dismayed at the numbers of the foe,” How many do you reckon me for? But God is all-wise and almighty. “They that be with us are more than they that he with them.” “Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.”


II.
His agency: “Who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” To a Jew, this was not only a proof, but a pledge; not only showed what He could do, but was a voucher of what He would do. He is always the same, and never suffers what He has done to be undone. Strange would it have been, after opening a passage through the sea, to have drowned them in Jordan. What would have been thought of His great name, after placing Himself at their head to lead them to Canaan, if He had suffered them to be overcome by the way? He, who begins the work, is not only able to finish, but begins it for the very purpose. “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (W. Jay.)

Verses 5-9

Deuteronomy 20:5-5.20.9

Let him go and return to his house.

The exemptions in war

Soldiers must be as free from care and cowardice as possible. Wellington declared “that the power of the greatest armies depends upon what the individual soldier is capable of doing and bearing.” Four classes are here exempted:--


I.
Those involved in business. The soldier leaves his private business when he enlists to serve his country. The farmer leaves his plough, the mechanic his shop, and the merchant his store. In Israel those were not called to serve who, from circumstances and prospects, would feel most keenly the hardship.

1. Those engaged in dedicating a house. They must return to their house lest another dedicate it.

2. Those engaged in planting a vineyard must enjoy the fruit of it. Building and planting are good and needful for the community, but encumber the soldier.


II.
Those hindered by social ties. “What man hath betrothed a wife and not taken her” (Deuteronomy 20:7; Deuteronomy 24:5). “It was deemed a great hardship to leave a house unfinished, a new property half-cultivated, and a recently contracted marriage unconsummated, and the exemptions allowed in these cases were founded on the principle that a man’s heart being deeply engrossed with something at a distance, he would not be very enthusiastic in the public service.” In an army there should be one heart, one purpose, and one desire to please the commander. In the corps of Christian soldiers there is entire obedience to the will of the Captain of our Salvation.


III.
Those deficient in personal qualifications. The fearful and faint-hearted were not permitted to war.

1. In moral qualifications. Some think that the fear named arose from an evil conscience, which makes a man afraid of danger and death. Men of loose and profligate lives are often cowards and curses to an army. Hence those conscious of guilt were to be sent away. “A guilty conscience needs no accuser.” “Conscience makes cowards of us all.”

2. In natural qualification. The allusion seems to be natural cowardice. Men reverence bravery, but cowards are objects of scorn. Wellington said of some foreigners who ran away from the field of Waterloo, “Let them go; we are better without them.” There must be no fear in officers or men. No cowards in the ranks lest the army flee before the enemy. (J. Wolfendale.)

Fearful and faint-hearted.--

Faint-heartedness

The army might thus be greatly reduced; we must remember, however, that reduction may mean increase. We do not conquer by number but by quality. One hero is worth ten thousand cowards. Caesar is in himself more than all his legions. Quality counts for everything in the greatest battles and the most strenuous moments of life. Given the right quality, and the issue is certain. Quality never gives in; quality is never beaten; quality flutters a challenge in its dying moments, and seems to say, “I will rise again and continue the fight from the other side.” So the army was reduced, and yet the army was increased in the very process of reduction. Today the great speech is made over again--“What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.” We cannot deny the fact that most Christian professors are faint-hearted; they are not heroic souls. What is the explanation of faint-heartedness? Want of conviction. Given a convinced Church, and a heroic Church is the consequence; given a Church uncertain, unconvinced, and you have a Church that any atmosphere can affect and any charlatan can impose upon. We must, therefore, return to foundations, to central principles, to primary realities; and having made sure of these the rest will arrange itself. Where is conviction There may be a good deal of concession: there may be a strong indisposition to object to, or to deny, or to bring into discredit, theological problems and religious usages, but what is needed is something more--clear, well-reasoned, strongly grounded conviction; and where this rules the mind every faculty is called into service, and the battle of life is conducted with heroic decision and chivalrous self-forgetfulness. It was well understood in Israel that the faint-hearted man does more harm than he supposes he does. It is the same all the world over and all time through. The timid man says, “I will sit behind.” Does his retirement behind mean simply one man has gone from the front? It means infinitely more--it is a loss of influence, a loss of sympathy, a loss of leadership. A Christian professor is not at liberty to say he will abide in the shade; he will allow the claims of others; any place, how obscure soever, will do for him. Have no patience with men who tell such lies! They have no right to be behind; their mission should be to find the best place, and to wake up every energy--to stir up the gift that is in them; and every man should feel that the battle depends upon him. The discouraging influence of faint-heartedness it is impossible to describe in words. Better have a congregation of six souls of light and fire and love, than have a great crowd without conviction, easy-going, flaccid in sentiment and thought--without central realities and foundations that can be relied upon. “What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go”: he is not a loss--his going is the gain of all who are left behind. How marvellously faint-heartedness shows itself! In one ease it is fear of heresy. In another case it is fear of criticism. What will the people next door say? What will the adjoining Church think? What will other men declare their judgment? In another case it is fear of sensation. We must not advertise, because some people might misunderstand it; we must not have too much music, because there are persons unable to follow the mystery of praise; we must not have anything unusual. To have such fainthearted men in the Church is the bitterest trial that Christ has now to undergo. There is another faintness which is rather to the credit of the man who experiences it--a faintness arising from great service, long-continued effort, and noble sacrificial consecration. When a man pours out his life for the cause he may well be faint now and then. A beautiful sentiment in Scripture describes his condition: “faint, yet pursuing”--putting out the arm in the right direction, looking along the right road, and saying in mute eloquence, “Give me breathing time, and I will join you again; let me rest awhile; do not take my sword away - in a day or two at most I will be at the front of the flight.” That is a faintness which may be the beginning of great strength. So God is gracious to us; having no sympathy with timidity and fear and cowardliness, He has infinite compassion upon those who, having worn themselves out in service, need space and time for breathing. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Verses 16-18

Deuteronomy 20:16-5.20.18

Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.

Extermination of Canaanites

Is not this fierce irruption in Canaan with fire and sword precisely similar to the wave of Mahomedan conquest? Is it any way different from the most pitiless of heathen invasions? How can we justify such an acquisition of territory as this, whilst we are, at least in theory, so scrupulous about adding one acre of unjustly acquired land to our dominions, and cannot let one drop of blood be shed, even in a conquered race, without inquiry? The key to this difficulty was given in the very first confirmation of the grant made to Abraham. When the land of Canaan was made over to him and his descendants, he was told that they could not at once enter on possession, “because the iniquity of the Amorites was not full.” The transference of territory was thus from the first viewed and treated as a judicial transaction. God reserves to Himself the right which all sovereigns must and do reserve--the right of removing offenders from the earth, and of confiscating their goods. In other respects this invasion finds a parallel in almost every century of history, and in every part of the world. It is, in point of fact, by conquest that civilisation has spread and is spreading upon earth, and in the career of progress the nations whose iniquities are full--that is to say, which have fallen too low for national redemption--have been swept away by the purer and stronger races. In this, therefore, there is no difference between the conduct of Israel and the conduct of other great nations. The difference consists in this--that while other nations have pushed their conquests for love of gain or glory, or through pride in their leader or mere lust of adventure, Israel entered Canaan as God’s servant, again and again warned that they were merely God’s sword of justice, and that if they forgot this, and began to think it was their own might that had emptied the land for them, they should themselves suffer the like extermination. Between this and many other outwardly similar conquests there was, in short, all the difference which there is between a righteous execution which rejoices the hearts of all good men, and a murder which makes us ashamed of our nature. (Marcus Dods, D. D.)

Unselfish conquest

The difference between the Jews and other people is precisely this:--All the great nations that we read of have effected extensive and, on the whole, salutary conquests. Their triumphs have been the means of spreading law, government, civilisation, where they would otherwise not have reached. They have swept away feeble, corrupt, sensualised people, who had become animal worshippers or devil worshippers, and had lost all sense of their human dignity. But we feel that the nations who have done these works have done them in great part for their own glory, for the increase of their territory, at the instigation and for the gratification of particular leaders. All higher and more blessed results of their success, which it is impossible not to recognise, have been stained and corrupted by the ignoble and selfish tendencies which have mixed with them, and been the motives to them; so that we are continually perplexed with the question, what judgment we shall form of them, or what different causes we can find for such opposite effects. There is one nation which is taught from the very first that it is not to go out to win any prizes for itself, to bring home the silver or gold, the sheep or the oxen, the men servants or the women servants; that it is to be simply the instrument of the righteous Lord against those who were polluting His earth, and making it unfit for human habitation. (F. D. Maurice, M. A.)

The command to extirpate the Canaanites

This command to extirpate the Canaanites is regarded by many as one of the chief difficulties in the Old Testament. The difficulty lies not so much in the thing itself, as in our defective views of God, or of mail’s relation to Him, or of the supernatural character of the revelation made to Moses. The objection, it will be observed, is grounded (or it has no force) upon the supposed inconsistency of this command with the Divine righteousness and equity. Yet there are other acts of God, equally terrible and equally indiscriminate in their effects, which we never presume to call in question. When, for example, the Almighty sends an earthquake or a pestilence, there is no complaint of injustice; and yet earthquake and pestilence spare neither age nor sex nor rank, but involve all in the same ruin. Do fire or famine or cholera discriminate between the sexes, or spare the aged or the young? If the sword of Israel was commissioned to destroy all that breathed of the Canaanites, it certainly was not more indiscriminate than these other judgments of God. If we dare not assert or even insinuate injustice in the case of the one, neither can we rationally do so in the case of the other; nor can we deny to the Almighty the right to choose this or that method of chastising a guilty people, whether earthquake or famine, pestilence or war. We may further remember that the annihilation of a people is so far from being a new or an unexampled occurrence, that similar events in the overruling wisdom of God have been continually taking place ever since the dawn of history. For an example of it we need not travel beyond our own shores. Where are the original inhabitants of England? The Briton was subdued by the Saxon, the Saxon was driven out by the Norman and the Dane, each race leaving, however, some trace of itself in the stock and blood of the country. Yet the original race has been more completely extirpated than ever the Canaanitish races were during the Hebrew occupancy of Palestine. Still more complete has been the disappearance of the North American Indians. The red man has been driven farther and farther towards the setting sun, till the race seems threatened with absolute extermination, and is actually extinct over an area twenty times as great as that of Palestine. It appears to be an unvarying law, that the savage recedes before the civilised man. We cannot justify all the means by which this result is accomplished, or palliate the dark and monstrous crimes which have been perpetrated in the name of civilisation; yet it is an evident fact that the Ruler of nations is pleased to ordain, or to permit, that nations should be driven from their ancestral inheritance, and their places filled by others. Thus we see that what happened to the Canaanites is happening continually in the history of nations. In this view the phenomenon of the destruction of the Canaanite nations does not stand alone. It can be referred to a class. And there is no more ground for disputing the Divine justice in regard to the destruction of those people than in regard to the disappearance of scores and perhaps hundreds of other ancient races from the face of the earth; for it cannot be contended that there is any difference, as it regards justice and equity, whether a nation be extirpated by war, destroyed by famine or pestilence, or left to perish, like the aborigines of Australia, by hopeless and helpless exhaustion. (L. H. Wiseman M. A.)

Verse 19

Deuteronomy 20:19

Thou shalt not destroy the trees.

Cutting down fruit trees

It will be observed that this instruction is given to the Jews in the event of their going to war against any city. No question of mere horticulture arises in connection with this injunction. It is wantonness that is forbidden; it is not art that is decried. Trees that did not bear fruit were of course available for war, but trees that could be used for purposes of sustaining human life were to be regarded as in a sense sacred and inviolable. A prohibition of this kind is charged with lofty moral significance. When men go to war they are in hot blood; everything seems to go down before the determination to repulse the enemy and to establish a great victory. But here men in their keenest excitement are to discriminate between one thing and another, and are not to permit themselves to turn the exigencies of war into an excuse for wantonness or for the destruction of property that bears an intimate relation to human sustenance. Dropping all that is merely incidental in the instruction, the moral appeal to ourselves is perfect in completeness and dignity. Civilisation has turned human life into a daily war. We live in the midst of contentions, rivalries, oppositions, and fierce conflicts of every kind, and God puts down His law in the very midst of our life, and calls upon us to regulate everything by its sacredness. God has not left human life in a state of chaos; His boundaries are round about it; His written and unwritten laws constitute its restraints, its rewards, and its penalties; and even war in its most violent form is not to blind our eyes to the claims of God. Men say that all is fair in love and war, but this proverbial morality has no sanction in Holy Scripture. We are too apt to plead the exigency of circumstances in extenuation of acts that would not have otherwise been committed. It is evident that there are points in life at which circumstances must triumph or law must be maintained. Thus an appeal is made to reason and conscience nearly every day. When the human or the Divine must go down, the Christian ought to have no hesitation as to his choice. Victories maybe bought at too high a price. He who gives fruit-bearing trees in exchange for his triumphs may be said to have paid his soul for the prizes of this world. The young life, boastful of its energy, insists upon having its pleasures, cost what they may, and the old man is left to ruminate that in his youth he won his victories by cutting down his fruit trees. Two views may be taken of the circumstances and objects by which we are surrounded; the one is the highest view of their possible uses, and the other the low view which contents itself with immediate advantages. The wood of the fruit tree might be as useful as any other wood for keeping back an enemy or serving as a defence; but the fruit tree was never meant for that purpose, and to apply it in that direction is to oppose the intention of God. We are to look at the highest uses of all things--a fruit tree for fruit; a flower for beauty; a bird for music; a rock for building. Power and right are not co-equal terms. We have the power to cut down fruit trees, but not the right; we have the power to mislead the blind, but not the right; we have the power to prostitute our talents, but not the right. The right is often the more difficult course as to its process, but the difficulty of the process is forgotten in the heaven of its issue. To have the power of cutting down fruit trees is to have the power of inflicting great mischief upon society. A man may show great power in cutting down a fruit tree, but he may show still greater power in refusing to do so. The first power is merely physical, the second power is of the nature of God’s omnipotence. Forbearance is often the last point of power. To love an enemy is to show greater strength than could possibly be shown by burning up himself and his house, and leaving nothing behind but the smoking ashes. There are times when even fruit trees are to be cut down. Perhaps this is hardly clear on the first putting of it. The meaning is that fruit tree may cease to be a fruit tree. When Jesus came to the fig tree and found on it nothing but leaves, He doomed it to perpetual barrenness, and it withered away. Even the husbandman pleaded that if the fruit tree did not bear fruit after one more trial it should be cut down as a cumberer of the ground. Fruit trees are not to be kept in the ground simply because in years long past they did bear fruit. Trees are only available according to the fruit which they bear today. “Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit.” (J. Parker, D. D.)

Fruit or timber

A fruit tree may be used for timber, or it may be kept for fruit. In the legislation of Moses there is a command which directs the Hebrews to spare the fruit trees of the Promised Land. Moses knew that the land would be occupied by conquest. The Hebrews would have to besiege many of its towns and cities before they could enter them. For the siege they would require timber, and would be apt to destroy the groves of olives and palms and oranges, which have always been the wealth of Palestine. Inasmuch as they were expecting to find their homes in these conquered towns and cities, it was very important that the fruit trees should be preserved.

1. Life’s opportunities and institutions are our fruit trees. They may be used for timber, or they may be preserved for fruit. It is possible to exhaust their power and vitality now, or they may be protected and developed, and made to yield fruit from generation to generation. The law of Moses--and his words here, or elsewhere, are confirmed by other portions of Holy Scripture--commands men to regard the future. Life’s advantages are designed for those who shall come after us, as well as for those who now enjoy them. We are only stewards. Our interest is but a life interest. The future most not be sacrificed to the present.

2. Yet how often this sacrifice is witnessed! When I see a man who is making a fortune by dishonest practices, I feel that he is converting fruit trees into timber; when I see a young Christian, who is absorbed in all the gaieties of social life, eager for the dance and the card party and the race, I feel that he is turning his fruit trees into timber; when I see a schoolboy who refuses the education which his father offers him, I feel that he is raising an axe against the fruit trees; when I hear a man say that his business will be ruined if he becomes a Christian, I look about me to see what he is building with the timber of his fruit trees; when I meet with individuals who are neglecting the salvation of their souls for the sake of worldly pleasure, I tremble for the fruit trees; when I hear distant nations calling in vain for the Gospel, and then realise that the Church has wealth and influence, I wonder if the fruit trees are used for timber.

3. There are many ways of violating this law. The axe is busy all the time. Our fruit trees are constantly sacrificed. For men too often prefer a present gratification to a future good; and they try and gain the whole world, even at the risk of losing their immortal souls. The rich man of the parable did so, and Lazarus did not. And by and by the one was comforted and the other was tormented.

4. In our regard for the Sabbath this principle has place and importance. The Sabbath is a fruit tree. It may be converted into timber. If you have a journey to make, you can use the Sabbath; if yon have any work to accomplish, you can employ the hours of holy time; if you wish to live for pleasure, you can count the days of pleasure in a week seven instead of six. A present and temporary advantage may thus be gained. But how about the future? Is it right or wise to break in upon the sanctity of the Sabbath? Can we prosper, can the nation prosper, without this holy day? Yet if we secularise the day now, there will soon be no Sabbath left; and when the Sabbath disappears, will not freedom disappear also, and will not the comfort of our happy homes be gone? (H. M. Booth.)

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Deuteronomy 20". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/deuteronomy-20.html. 1905-1909. New York.