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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Deuteronomy 17



Idolaters are to be put to death; difficult causes are to be referred to the priests, the Levites, and the judges; the election and duty of a king.

Before Christ 1451.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Hath wrought wickedness By wickedness, is here meant idolatry, which was eminently transgressing the covenant; a principal part of which, and that whereupon the whole depended, was, that they should have no other gods but Jehovah, Exodus 20:22-23. See notes on chap. 13:

Verse 7

Ver. 7. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him As this was an important matter in which life and death were concerned, the clearest and fullest evidence possible is required; at least two or three credible witnesses: and, that these witnesses might have the greater awe upon them, it is commanded, that their hands should be first upon the person whom they accused; thus to confirm the truth of their testimony, by being the first executioners of the sentence, and that the blood of the condemned person, if innocent, might lie at their door. See Goodwin's Antiq. p. 201. Under a theocratic government, where the laws of religion were the laws of the state, every idolatrous Israelite was guilty of high-treason, and consequently deserved to die. A citizen of a republic, who recognised for his king him whom he adored as his God, could not offend capitally that God, so as to apostatize to idolatry, without offending his royal majesty, and at the same time rendering himself worthy of the punishment which rebels and traitors merit. It would be a gross abuse to pretend, that in virtue of the command to put to death those Israelites who were guilty of idolatry, and to extirpate idolaters from the land of Canaan, we may now maltreat heretics, and persecute to death such of them as disgrace the Christian religion by their idolatry. The case of idolaters, in respect of the Jewish commonwealth, falls under a double consideration. The first, Of those who, being initiated in the Mosaical rites, afterwards apostatized from the worship of the God of Israel. These were proceeded against as traitors and rebels, guilty of no less than high-treason: for the republic of the Jews, different from all others, was an absolute theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that commonwealth and the church. The laws established in that nation respecting the worship of one true God, almighty and invisible, were the civil law of that people, and a part of their political government, in which God himself was their legislator. Now, if any one can shew where there is a commonwealth at this time constituted upon that foundation, I will acknowledge that the ecclesiastical laws do there unavoidably become a part of the civil; and that the subjects of that government both may and ought to be kept in strict conformity with that church by the civil power. But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel, as a Christian commonwealth: the many cities and kingdoms which have embraced Christianity have only retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. Content to point out to men the way to eternal life, he prescribed to his followers no form of government; nor put he the sword into any magistrate's hand, whereby to force men to quit their former religion and receive his. Secondly, Foreigners, who were not members of the commonwealth of Israel, were not compelled to observe the rites of the Mosaical law. On the contrary, in the very same place in Exodus, ch. Deu 22:20-21 where it is ordered, that an Israelite, who was an idolater, should be put to death, it is forbidden to vex or oppress strangers. 'Tis true, the seven nations who possessed the land were utterly to be cut off; but this was not singly because they were idolaters; for, if that had been the reason, why were the Moabites and other idolatrous nations to be spared? The reason then is this: God, being in a peculiar manner the king of the Jews, would not suffer the adoration of any other deity, which was properly an act of high-treason against himself, in the land of Canaan, his kingdom. Such a manifest revolt could no way consist with his dominion, which was political in that country: all idolatry, therefore, was to be rooted out, as it was an acknowledgment of another god, i.e. another king, contrary to the laws of empire.—Every idolater, however, was not put to death. The whole family of Rahab, and the whole nation of the Gibeonites, were allowed by treaty; and there were many captives among the Jews, who were idolaters. David and Solomon subdued many countries without the confines of the Land of Promise, and carried their conquests as far as the Euphrates; and yet, among so many captives taken, and so many nations reduced to their obedience, we do not find one man forced into the Jewish religion, and the worship of the true God; or at all punished for idolatry, though all of them were certainly guilty of it. If any one indeed, becoming a proselyte, desired to be made a denizen of their commonwealth, he was obliged to submit to their laws; that is, to embrace their religion; but this he did willingly, not by constraint. He sought and solicited to shew his obedience, as for a privilege; and, as soon as he was admitted, became subject to the laws of the commonwealth, by which all idolatry was forbidden within the borders of the land of Canaan; but that law did not reach to any of those regions which were situated without the before-mentioned bounds.

Verses 8-9

Ver. 8, 9. If there arise a matter too hard for thee, &c.— Moses now returns to speak of the courts of judgment, which he had ordered to be erected in all their cities when they came into the land of Canaan, chap. Deuteronomy 16:18. These words, therefore, are to be considered as directed to the ordinary judges, who were appointed in every city. The particular number of them seems to have been left to discretion, though we are told, that in later times it was fixed to three in lesser towns, and twenty-three in greater: from these judges there seldom lay an appeal, except in such cases as are here specified. See Lowman's Dissert. chap. 5: Between blood and blood is interpreted by many, of questions respecting bloodshed; whether, for instance, it was wilful, or casual only. Others, however, imagine it to signify contentions which arise from the degrees of consanguinity. Between plea and plea signifies civil causes only. Between stroke and stroke, say some, refers to cases of wounds or strokes inflicted by one man upon another: the Vulgate, however, and other versions, understand it of the leprosy; an interpretation which Houbigant follows, and very strongly contends for. Le Clerc's argument against this sense is, that the cognizance of the leprosy did not belong to the ordinary judges, of whom Moses is here speaking, but to the priests: an argument, says Houbigant, easily refuted; for the priests did not only live where the tabernacle or temple was, but in many cities of the tribes, in which it may be proved, from the 12th verse, they exercised the judicial part of religion. The law itself seems to shew the same thing, which refers the more difficult causes, some to the priests who minister to the Lord, others to the judge who shall then be; i.e. the civil causes were referred to the judge; the religious ones to the priests. The disjunctive particle or, in the 12th verse, proves this. Nothing hinders us, therefore, from understanding נגע negang, rendered stroke, of the leprosy; of which if the priests of particular cities were not able to judge, reference was to be made to the high-priest. In the 9th verse we should read, thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, or unto the judge: thus understanding the passage with Houbigant, we see a very evident and sufficient reason, why the religious as well as civil magistrate is mentioned. By the priests the Levites is generally understood the supreme court of the nation, the Sanhedrin. Though the priests were not the only persons of whom this high court consisted, yet they are here first mentioned, because they were likely to be the most capable persons to exercise this authority; and, being best qualified, the Sanhedrin was chiefly made up of them. By judge, those supreme judges of the nation are understood, whom God raised up when the Israelites were oppressed by their enemies; such as Gideon, Jephthah, Samuel, &c. Such judges were by their office invested with the highest power, civil as well as military; for, to judge Israel, was to administer justice, as well as to command armies. Moses intimates, ver. 14 that the Hebrew commonwealth was to retain after his death the same form as it had now he was alive: for he himself was the supreme judge, or administrator of justice, to whom the more difficult causes were to be referred; chap. Deuteronomy 1:17. So Joshua was judge after Him, and many others.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. The man that—will not hearken unto the priest, &c.— By priest in this place is thought to be meant the high-priest; or it may be put for priests, the enallage of numbers being frequent in the sacred book; and so it means the same as the priests the Levites in the 9th verse. But, however the word be interpreted, the crime here mentioned was contumacy, in not submitting to the sentence of the highest authority, whereby the government was in danger of being broken; and therefore God orders such a person to be put to death. St. Augustin, cited by Grotius, observes, that, in the church, excommunication has succeeded to the punishment of death denounced by this law. See Cyprian in Epist. ad Pomponium, de Virgin. Ephesians 4:0.

Verse 13

Ver. 13. And all the people shall hear, &c.— This punishment was inflicted for an example and severe warning to those who were yet innocent; as Seneca observes, nemo prudens punit quia peccatum est, sed ne peccetur; a wise man does not so much punish the fault, as furnish a warning to others, that they do not the same. Rabbi Akiba tells us, that offenders of this sort were kept in custody till the nearest great festival, and then executed when the whole nation was present. This, Mr. Selden observes, is the most received opinion: though other Rabbis say, that they did not make the sentence sharper by a long delay, but executed it immediately; and for the further publication of it, they sent letters to all the tribes and cities of Israel, to give notice that such a man was to be executed at such a time for this offence.

Verse 14

Ver. 14. When thou art come unto the land, &c.— These words by no means import that God commanded them to make a king when they came to Canaan, as some of the Jews understand it; but only, that if they would needs have a king, he should be one of their brethren: so it was understood by Josephus. See 1 Samuel 8:5; 1 Samuel 19:20.

Verse 15

Ver. 15. Whom the Lord—shall choose Either by the ministry of his prophets, by Urim and Thummim; or by lot. The king whom the Lord permitted them to choose, was not an absolute monarch, nor did he reign in his own right; but was only the Lord's deputy or viceroy; and on that account he was not left to the people's election, but was chosen by God himself. The only difference between God's appointment of the judges, and of Saul, being this, that they were chosen by internal influence, he, by lots, or external designation. See Div. Leg. book 5: sect. 3 where the reader will find a satisfactory account of the theocracy of the Jews, concerning which the learned author observes, that as it was Jesus Christ, who, in quality of high-priest, abolished the law of the Jewish worship; so it is He, who, in quality of king of the Jews, and of the church, put an end to the theocracy, when he received from his Father all power both in heaven and in earth. Thus the famous prophecy of Jacob was fulfilled; the sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a law-giver from between his feet, till SHILOH come: that is to say, "The theocracy shall not cease from amongst the Jews, nor shall they have any other lawgiver than God himself, by the ministry of Moses, until the coming of the MESSIAH."

One from among thy brethren An Israelite by nation and religion. This precaution was necessary, as well to preserve the purity of the worship which God had established, as that the king of Israel might be a type of the king of the church, Jesus Christ, who was to be of our brethren, as St. Paul acquaints us, Hebrews 2:0.

Verse 16

Ver. 16. He shall not multiply horses to himself The injunction here laid being to prevent all commerce with Egypt, we must conclude that Egypt supplied other nations with horses; but it may give light to the sacred text, to inquire more particularly into the reasons of this prohibition, which we shall find so weighty and various, as to appear worthy of its author, and accommodated only to a law of divine origin. The first reason, which was expressly delivered with the law, is, properly, religious. Now this is, that the king should not establish a body of cavalry, because that could not be effected without sending into Egypt, with which people the Lord had forbidden any communication. When Solomon had violated this law, and multiplied horses, it was soon attended with those fatal consequences which the law foretold. Isaiah, with his usual majesty, denounces the mischiefs of this traffic, and foretels, that one of the good effects of leaving it would be the forsaking of their idolatries. Isaiah 4:6; Isaiah 4:6. The second reason against multiplying horses, may have been, properly, political. The Israelites, separated by God for his peculiar people, under his government as king, must necessarily have been designed for one certain country: accordingly, the land of Canaan was marked out for their proper inheritance: within those limits they were to be confined, it being foreign to the nature of their institution to make conquests, or to extend their dominion; but the expulsion of the seven nations being to be effected by the extraordinary assistance of their king JEHOVAH, their successes must of course be full and rapid. But nothing is so impatient of bounds as a multitude flushed with victories: the projects of such a people are always going on from conquest to conquest. Now, to defeat this so natural a disposition in a nation not designed for empire, a law is given against multiplying horses, than which nothing can be conceived more effectual. The country which confined them was rocky and mountainous, and therefore unfit for the breed and support of horses: besides, when they had once gotten possession of these mountains, they had little need of horse to preserve their conquest. The Israelites, therefore, if they had been either wise or pious, would soon have found that their true strength, as well political as religious, lay in infantry. The observation made by Benhadad, 1 Kings 20:23; 1Ki 20:43 supports what has been advanced. But this want of horse would effectually prevent any attempt at extending their dominions either into the lesser Asia, Mesopotamia, or Egypt; all of which, being stretched out into large and extended plains, could not be safely invaded without a numerous cavalry: in this view, therefore, the wisdom of the law can never be sufficiently admired. But the third reason of the prohibition was evidently to be a lasting manifestation of that extraordinary providence, by which the Israelites were conducted into the land of Canaan. When once settled, they might very well defend their possession without the help of cavalry; but to conquer it without cavalry, and from a warlike people abounding in horse, was more than a raw, unpractised infantry could ever have performed alone. For, first, in the invasion of a country, the invaded can choose their ground: and as it is their interest to avoid coming to a decisive action; so, being amidst their own native stores and provisions, they have it in their power to decline it: on the contrary, the invader must attack his enemies wherever he finds them posted. Secondly, we may observe, that the possessors of mountainous regions may so dispose their cities and fortresses, with which they cover their country, as to make an invader's cavalry absolutely useless; and consequently to have no occasion for one of their own. But the invaders of such a place, where cavalry is in use, and consequently the defences disposed in a contrary manner, so as best to favour the operations of horse; the invaders, I say, go to certain destruction, without a body of horse to support their infantry. This then being the very situation of affairs when the Israelites invaded Canaan, and conquered it, I conclude that they must have been miraculously assisted. See Div. Leg. book 4: sect. 4. "The law given to the kings of Israel," says Bishop Sherlock, "considered together with the history of that nation, seems a very strong presumption for the divine original of the law of Moses. For, supposing Moses to be a mere human legislator, like Solon or Lycurgus, what could tempt him to forbid the princes of his country the use of horses and chariots for their defence? Should such a law be proposed for France or Germany at this day, what would the world think of it?—Or, supposing this law to be his own contrivance, how comes it to pass that the event and success of things, through many ages, doth so exactly correspond to the law? That the princes prospered, and extended their dominion over great countries, when they had neither chariots nor horses, and were ruined and undone when they were strong in these forces? Can it be supposed, that the history of many ages, and which relates to the affairs not only of the princes of Israel, but of other contemporary kings, is all forged, and that merely to shew an agreement between the history and this particular law? Or, how shall we account for the conduct of the prophets, who saw the people ruined, and, instead of reproaching them with cowardice, and a neglect of their necessary defence, reproach them with having been too strong, too powerful in horses and horsemen?"

Verse 17

Ver. 17. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself He shall not indulge himself in a vast number of wives and concubines, especially women of different nations and religions, after the manner of the eastern monarchs. The reason is added, that his heart turn not away; i.e. lest his thoughts be diverted from minding the good of his people; and lest he be seduced from the true religion by marrying the worshippers of strange gods, as was the case with Solomon.

Neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold He shall not set himself to heap up treasure in his own coffers for his private interest, which could not be done without great oppression of his subjects. Add to this, that luxury, and dissolution of manners, are the common effects of exorbitant wealth; vices most destructive to the people in general, who are too apt to imitate the example of their prince. Of this we have many instances in history, particularly in the kings of Persia, who, by their overgrown wealth, entailed ruin both on themselves and their whole people. Another fatal effect of immoderate wealth is, that it begets pride and tyranny; it being the epidemic folly of mankind to trust in their riches, and upon account thereof to form an over-weening opinion of themselves, and to behave with insolence and cruelty towards others.

Verse 18

Ver. 18. When he sitteth upon the throne—he shall write him a copy of this law Either this book of Deuteronomy, which is an abstract of the law, or, as others think, the whole five books of Moses; and that with his own hand, as a mean to fix it more strongly in his mind; insomuch, that though a copy was left him by his father, he was, notwithstanding, to transcribe one for himself. So the Jews understand it: and in like manner they tell us, that every private Israelite was bound to write a copy of the law: but it may well be questioned, whether the king of Israel was obliged to write such a copy with his own hand; as Philo assures us, that it was sufficient if he caused it to be written by another: it is frequent in Scripture to say, that a person does that which he commands to be done. See 2 Samuel 13:28; 2Sa 13:30 and John Frischmuth's Dissertation, sect. 51. Out of that which is before the priests, means the original uncorrupted copy, which was kept in the sanctuary, in the custody of God's ministers.

Verse 19

Ver. 19. It shall be with him, and he shall read therein, &c.— He shall carry it always with him: and, says Maimonides, instead of losing his time in feasting and idle diversions, he shall apply himself to the study of the law of his God. But how these orders were observed, we may judge from the example of Josiah, who, when he was near sixteen years of age, had not so much as ever seen a copy of the law, the original of which he found in the temple, where it had lain long neglected. See 2 Chronicles 34:18; 2 Chronicles 34:33.

Verse 20

Ver. 20. That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren Not imagining himself to be above all laws, nor slighting his subjects as unworthy of his notice; but taking due care to promote their happiness: for, "as the Scriptures," says Maimonides, "provided that the king should have great honour done him, obliging all to reverence him, so it commands him to be lowly in heart, and not to carry himself insolently. Let him be gracious, and full of clemency to little and great: so shall he go out, and come in, with the love and good wishes of them all." To which Nachmanides adds this pious reflection, "If the Scripture deters kings from pride and haughtiness of heart, how unbecoming is it in other men, who are far inferior to them!"

That he may prolong his days,—he, and his children We see from this, that God designed to give that family, whom he should choose, an hereditary right to the throne; but under the express condition of a sincere obedience to the laws. Nothing, certainly, is more proper to preserve a family in the possession of sovereign authority, than an inviolable attachment to the laws, both human and divine; for, as one of the ancients has well expressed it, "To cause the laws to reign, is, in some sort, to make God himself reign with the laws. It is, as it were, to raise a wild beast to the government, to submit every thing to the empire of a man without any other rule than his own will." See Aristotle's Polit. lib. iii. c. 16. Princes ought, above all things, to study to gain the affections of their people by their humility and clemency. It was good counsel given to Alexander the Great, that he should rather attach his subjects to him by the mildness of his government, than reign over them with a severe and despotic power; since it is very useless to endeavour to reign over the bodies of men, as he is always the master of these who reigns in their hearts; "gain, therefore, their hearts by your clemency," said the adviser to the conqueror, "and all the rest will follow." See Rabbi Jedajah in Mibcah Happeninim, and Selden in Success in Pontif. lib. ii. c. 1.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.