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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 21

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-23



One general idea, viz. the sacredness of human life and of personal rights, connects the laws in this chapter together, as well as connects them with the laws in the two preceding chapters.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9

If a body was found lying dead from a wound, and it was not known by whom the wound had been inflicted, the whole land would be involved in the guilt of the murder, unless it was duly expiated as here directed. First, the elders and judges (presumably of the neighboring towns; of Josephus, 'Antiq.' 4.8, 16) were to meet, the former as magistrates representing the communities, the latter as administrators of the law, and were to measure the distance from the body of the slain man to each of the surrounding towns, in order to ascertain which was the nearest. This ascertained, upon that town was to be laid the duty of expiating the crime.

Deuteronomy 21:3

An heifer, which hath not boon wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; a young cow which had not been rendered unfit for consecration, nor had its vital force impaired, by being subjected to forced labor (cf. Numbers 19:2).

Deuteronomy 21:4

A rough valley; literally, a stream of perpetuity, a perennial stream (cf. Psalms 74:15, Authorized Version, "mighty rivers;" Amos 5:24); but here rather the valley or wady through which a stream flowed, as is evident from its being described as neither eared—that is, ploughed (literally, wrought, tilled)nor sown; a place which had not been profaned by the hand of man, but was in a state of nature. "This regulation as to the locality in which the act of expiation was to be performed was probably founded on the idea that the water of the brook-valley would suck in the blood and clean it away, and that the blood sucked in by the earth would not be brought to light again by the ploughing and working of the soil" (Keil). Strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley; rather, break the heifer's neck. As this was not an act of sacrifice, for which the shedding of blood would have been required, but simply a symbolical representation of the infliction of death on the undiscovered murderer, the animal was to be killed by breaking its neck (cf. Exodus 13:13).

Deuteronomy 21:5

And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near. The presence of the priests at this ceremony was due to their position as the servants of Jehovah the King of Israel, on whom it devolved to see that all was done in any matter as his Law prescribed. The priests present were probably those from the nearest Levitical town. And by their word shall every controversy and every stroke he tried; literally, And upon their mouth shall be every strife and every stroke, i.e. by their judgment the character of the act shall be determined, and as they decide so shall the matter stand (cf. Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 17:8). In the present case the presence of the priests at the transaction gave it sanction as valid.

Deuteronomy 21:6

The elders of that city. The elders, by the significant act of washing their hands, indicated that they threw off from them, utterly repudiated, the charge of blood-guiltiness on the part of the town which they represented (cf. Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13; Matthew 27:24).

Deuteronomy 21:7, Deuteronomy 21:8

This act they were to accompany with a solemn declaration of their innocence of this crime, and of their entire ignorance of the perpetrator of it; and with an earnest cry to God that the sin which had been done might be forgiven. Be merciful … unto; be propitiated towards (literally, cover, כַּפֵּר לְעַמְךָ; for the phrase, כַּפֵר לְ, see Le Deuteronomy 1:4). And lay not innocent blood; the blood of the innocent man who has been slain.

Deuteronomy 21:9

In this way they were to deliver themselves as a nation from blood-guiltiness. "Expiation was made by the killing of the transgressor when he could be found (Deuteronomy 19:13; Numbers 35:33); when he was not known, by the process here described. Of course, if afterwards he were apprehended, he would suffer the penalty he had incurred" (Knobel); so also Keil, Herxheimer, etc; after the Talmud ('Sota,' 9.7).

Deuteronomy 21:10-14

If an Israelite saw among captives taken in war a woman, fair of aspect, and loved her, and took her to be his wife, he was to allow her a full month to mourn her lost kindred, and become accustomed to her new condition, before he consummated his union with her. This refers to captives from other nations than those of Canaan, with whom the Israelites were to form no alliance, and whom they were not to take captive, but either wholly destroy or render tributary (cf. Deuteronomy 7:3; Numbers 21:1, etc.; Joshua 11:19).

Deuteronomy 21:12

She shall shave her head, and pare her nails. The shaving of the head and the paring of the nails, as well as the putting off of the garments worn when taken captive, were signs of purification, of separation from former heathenism, preparatory to reception among the covenant people of Jehovah (cf. Le Deuteronomy 14:8; Numbers 8:7). Pare her nails; literally, make or prepare her nails, i.e. by cutting them down to a proper size and form (cf. 2 Samuel 19:25, where the same word is used of dressing the feet and trimming the beard). The Targum of Onkelos takes this in quite an opposite sense, rendering, as in the margin of the Authorized Version, "suffer to grow," and the rabbins who adopt this meaning suppose that the design of the prescription was that the woman, being rendered unlovely, the man might be deterred from taking her to be his wife. But this is altogether alien from the spirit and scope of the passage.

Deuteronomy 21:13

The raiment of her captivity; i.e. the raiment she had on whoa taken captive; this she was to lay aside, that she might put on garments of mourning. A full month; literally, a month of days; the period of mourning was forty days (cf. Genesis 50:3).

Deuteronomy 21:14

Should the man afterwards come no longer to have pleasure in her, he was to let her go whither she would, but he was not to sell her for money or use any violence to her. Thou shalt not make merchandise of her. The verb in the form here used occurs only hero and in Deuteronomy 24:7; derived from a root which signifies to gather or press, it properly means to press for one's self, to lay hands on one, to use violence to one.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

If a man have two wives, one of whom is a favorite and the other disliked, and if his firstborn son be the child of the latter, he is not to allow his love for the other to prejudice the right of the son, but must allow him, both in his own lifetime and in the disposition of his property after death, the full privilege and right of a firstborn son.

Deuteronomy 21:16

He may not make; literally, is not able to make; i.e. is legally incapable of making.

Deuteronomy 21:17

A double portion; literally, a mouth of two; i.e. a portion (so "mouth" is used in 2 Kings 2:9; Zechariah 13:8) equal to that of two; consequently, the firstborn inherited twice as much as any of the other sons. Amongst all nations and from the earliest times, the right of the eldest son to pre-eminence among his brethren has been recognized; and in legislating for Israel, Moses so far simply sanctioned a usage he found already existing; the assignment, however, of a double share in the inheritance to the eldest son is a new and special provision, mentioned only here. Beginning of his strength (cf. Genesis 49:3).

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

If a son was refractory and unmanageable by his parents, if, given to sensual indulgence, he would yield neither to reproof nor to chastisement,—the parents were to lay hold on him, and lead him to the ciders of the town, sitting as magistrates at its gates, and there accuse him of his evil ways and rebelliousness. The testimony of the parents was apparently held sufficient to substantiate the charge, and this being received by the elders, the culprit was to be put to death by stoning.

Deuteronomy 21:20

He will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. Gluttony and drunkenness were regarded by the Hebrews as highly criminal. The word rendered by "glutton," however (זוֹלַל, from זָלַל, to shake, to shake out, to squander), includes other kinds of excess besides eating. It designates one who is prodigal, who wastes his means or wastes his person by indulgence. In Proverbs 23:30, the whole phrase (זוֹלְלֵי בָּשָׂר) is given—squanderers of flesh, i.e. wasters of their own body, debauchees. In Proverbs 28:7, the word is translated "riotous men" in the Authorized Version. Disobedience to parents was deemed an offense, which struck at the roots of the whole social institute.

Deuteronomy 21:21

The penalty of such crimes was death; but the power of inflicting this was not among the Hebrews—as among some other ancient peoples, the Greeks and Romans, for instance—left with the father; the punishment could be inflicted only by the community, with the sanction of the magistrate. A Hebrew parent might chastise his child with severity, but not so as to affect his life (Proverbs 19:18, "Chasten thy son while there is hope, but raise not thy soul [let not thy passion rise so high as] to slay him"). While parental authority was sacredly preserved, a check was by the Law imposed on hasty passion.

Deuteronomy 21:22, Deuteronomy 21:23

When a criminal was put to death and was hanged upon a tree, his body was not to remain there over-night, but was to be buried the same day on which he was executed.

Deuteronomy 21:22

If a man have committed a sin worthy of death; literally, If there be on a man a judgment of death; if he lie under sentence of death. Hang him on a tree. This refers not to putting to death by strangling, but to the impaling of the body after death. This was an aggravation of the punishment, as the body so impaled was exposed to insult and assault (cf. Numbers 25:4; Genesis 40:19).

Deuteronomy 21:23

He that is hanged is accursed of God; literally, a curse of God. Some take this as meaning an insult to God, a contemning of him, "since man his image is thus given up to scorn and insult" (Rashi). But the more probable meaning is "a curse inflicted by God," which the transgressor is made to endure (cf. Galatians 3:13). That thy land be not defiled. The land was defiled, not only by sins committed by its inhabitants, but also by the public exposure of criminals who had been put to death for their sins (cf. Leviticus 18:24, Leviticus 18:25; Numbers 35:33, Numbers 35:34). On this law Joshua acted (cf. Joshua 8:29; Joshua 10:26, Joshua 10:27).


Deuteronomy 21:1-9

The preciousness of one human life in the sight of God.

The value of this paragraph can be duly appreciated only as the indifference with which pagan nations of old regarded human life is studied and understood. As a piece of civil legislation, it is far superior to anything in the code of the nations around at that time. Dr. Jameson remarks that in it we have undoubtedly the origin or the germ of modern coroners' inquests. The following points in it are worthy of note.

1. It is a rule to be observed when they should be settled in the land of Canaan.

2. It indicates that from the first, each human life should be regarded as an object of common interest to the whole people, and that it was to be one of their prime points of honor, that no human life could be tampered with without arousing national indignation and concern.

3. God would teach them, that if it should be found that any one's life had been trifled with, it was a sin against Heaven as well as a crime against earth.

4. That this sin could be laid at the door of all the people if they were indifferent to the fact of its commission, and if they did not make full inquiry respecting it, and solemnly put it away from among them. At the back of this piece of civil legislation, yea, as the fount from which it sprang, we get this beautiful, sublime, and comforting truth—"Each human life an object of Divine concern."


1. This passage is pregnant with blessed teaching thereon. We have:

(1) The fact of man's ill-treatment of men recognized.

(2) Rebuked.

(3) Marked out as a brand of shame on any community which tolerates it.

(4) In demanding an account thereof, God foreshadows his own coming judgment.

2. The Lord Jesus Christ taught it in terms more beautiful, more clear (Luke 12:1-59.; Matthew 18:1-35.; Luke 15:1-32.). How often does Christ lay stress on "one!"

3. The death of the Lord Jesus Christ for every man, is a standing proof of every man's worth before God; so the apostle argues (2 Corinthians 5:16).

4. The Spirit of God stirreth in every man to move his sluggish nature that it may rise toward heaven. Materialism merges the man in his accidents. Pantheism drowns him in the All. Deism hides him in vastness. Ultramontanism smothers him in the Church. Caesarism makes the State all, the individual nothing. Christ rescues the one from being lost in the many, and cries aloud, "It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."


1. It should fill us with intense thankfulness that we are not lost in the crowd (see Isaiah 40:27). We are so apt to say, "God has too much to do to think of us," that we need to meditate often on the words, "He careth for you."

2. It should impress us with the dignity of man. When God fences every man round with such a guard against ill treatment from others, it may well lead us to "honor all men."

3. It should teach us the solidarity of the race. The weal of one is a concern to all.

4. It should teach us to cultivate the spirit of a universal brotherhood. "Have we not all one Father?"

5. It should lead us to aim at saving man. If God cares for all, well may we.

6. It should make us very indignant at any doctrines concerning the constitution and destiny of man, that would put him, or even seem to put him, on a level with the brute creation.

7. We should take every opportunity of warning men that, if ever they trifle with the interests and destinies of their brother man, God will call them to account at his bar. The voice of Abel's blood cried unto God from the ground. If a neglected, mutilated, slain body of any one, however obscure, was found in Israel's fields, they were responsible to the God of nations for inquiry and for expiation. No one is at liberty to cry, "Am I my brother's keeper?" When he maketh inquisition for blood, he forgetteth not the cry of the humble (see Psalms 94:1-23.). And terrible beyond all power of expression, will be the shame and dismay, at the bar of God, of those who have trifled with human interests, and who go into eternity laden with the guilt of their brothers' blood!

Deuteronomy 21:10-14

The female captive; or, Divine regard for woman's safety and honor.

Any one who is acquainted with the fearful license practiced among many nations towards female captives taken in war, can surely appreciate the humanizing influence which the injunction in this paragraph was intended to exert. The law here laid down may or may not be abstractly the best; but if it was the best that the people could bear: if it would certainly lift up the people a step higher in their regard for womanly honor: if, moreover, it would have the effect of enforcing a restraint upon the passions of men at that most perilous of all times, even that of war,—then the hallowed influence which was shaping Hebrew legislation becomes clearly manifest. A woman taken captive as a prisoner of war was not to be a plaything of passion, but was to be dealt with honorably; to feel that she might part with the symbols of slavery, enter into relation with the covenant people, become invested with the rights of a daughter of Israel, and learn to worship, love, and glorify Israel's God! (For details, see the Exposition, and also valuable remarks in Keil and Jameson.) And if, in the issue, there was no true and proper home for her, she was to have that most precious of blessings—liberty! In opening up the theme suggested here—Divine care for woman's safety and honor—some seven or eight lines of thought may be taken up and worked out by the preacher.

1. Here is a Divine protest against the tendency of men to make woman a mere tool of passion. This book is the charter of woman's honor and happiness.

2. Our God would aim at bringing about the true nobility of woman, by means of educating the people up to the standard at which it shall be a point of honor with them to insist upon it.

3. To secure this end, Spate laws should be stringently framed.

4. Not even in war-time, nor in connection with our soldiery, is it ever to be tolerated that woman should be at the mercy of the stronger sex.

5. The right place of woman is in the love and protection of one to whom she is dearer than his own soul; and no more honorable place need she desire than that assigned her by Solomon in his description of "a virtuous woman." Many of the holy women of Scripture illustrate this.

6. Under the gospel, woman's position is yet more strikingly asserted. "In Christ Jesus there is … neither male nor female." In religious relationship man and woman are, caeteris paribus, on an equal footing.

7. While, in the home, the wives are to be in subjection to their own husbands, yet the sway of the husband is to be with a love pure and tender, like that of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is only where the purifying and love-creating power of the gospel is known, that woman rises to her right position in the home, the family, the social circle, and the nation. The legislation on her behalf, which Moses began, has been going on under Judaism and Christianity for long ages, with what results we know in our happy homes. But how much we are indebted for these happy homes to the influence of Jewish and Christian law, can best be told by those who know the dark places of the earth, still "full of the habitations of cruelty."

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

Home partialities never to warp home justice.

This paragraph indicates deep insight into human nature, and a far-seeing wisdom which surely indicates its superhuman origin. It is designed to restrict the action of the father with reference to the inheritance of the children, in cases where there were two families, not, apparently, by two wives living at the same time (as is the passage favored polygamy), but rather by two of whom the second became the wife after the death of the first (comp. Jameson and Keil). It would probably, nay, almost certainly, occur, that one of the two would be thought more of than the other; the influence of the second wife, being later and withal continuous, might be exerted with the husband in favor of her own children, to the detriment of his by the former wife. And thus a son who was the father's firstborn might be put at a disadvantage through later preferences coming athwart his proper claims. Moses here teaches that he may not be dispossessed of the right of the firstborn, even though another should come on the scene who should be the firstborn in a second family. The principle on which this is based is indicated in the title of this Homily—"Home partialities never to warp home justice." The following lines of thought may serve as a plan on which to enforce this principle.

I. It is an acknowledged duty of parents to care for the temporal weal of their children (see 2 Corinthians 12:14). There is indeed, on the part of some, a consuming desire to leave large fortunes to their families—a desire so great as to be inconsistent with faith in God's care. This is to be avoided on the one hand, while at the same time the opposite extreme is to be shunned on the other.

II. There are certain rights which belong to the children, supposing their father is possessed of an inheritance which he can leave them. Of course, if he has none, this paragraph in detail does not apply. Even in such a case, however, a parent owes it to his family to leave them the best of all heritages—a holy example, God's blessing, and a father's prayers. If he leaves them this, they will not want.

III. It is not impossible, nor even improbable, that circumstances may occur giving rise to partialities in a parent, which may lead him to consult the interest of some of his children to the detriment of that of others. Cases like that named in this paragraph are notoriously fraught with peril in this respect. And where such is the case there should be a special guard.

IV. These partialities are dangerous. They are so even during the father's lifetime, but the results thereof after his death are likely to be serious and even disastrous. It is not possible to calculate the mischief wrought upon children, when the earthly name which should ever stand to them dearest in affection and highest in honor, is associated with an inequality by which some are advantaged and others wronged. No bitterness of feeling can surpass that which is thus engendered. It will wrap in shade an otherwise most venerated name.

V. God would teach us that he is ever watchful over the right in families, in every respect. The same Being who says to the children, "Honor your parents," says also to the parents, "Honor your children." As he would guard the heads of the house from being trifled with by the sons, so would he guard the sons from any injustice on the part of their parents. A wrong on either side towards the other is a sin against God. And so largely does the observance of the right in the family concerning money and property, affect the well-being of the State, that it is here made a part of the civil code of the "commonwealth of Israel," that no parent shall be at liberty, whatever his preferences, to ignore the standing claims of his children.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

A bad son a State peril.

This is a very remarkable provision. It is based on the well-known fact that there are some who need a strong deterrent to keep them from being a plague and peril to a State, and also on the all-important principle, that whoever is a pest and nuisance in the home, is the bane of the commonwealth to which he belongs. Moses had just laid down the duty of the parent to deal justly with his sons, whatever his personal partialities might be. He now lays down the extent and limits of parental authority over the son. He does not give the father the absolute power of life and death in reference to the child, as some ancient codes did, but, without abolishing that power altogether, he places such checks upon it that while, on the one hand, if a bad son became so outrageous that his life was putting others in peril through its poisonous influence, he would have before him the possibility of capital punishment; yet, on the other hand, this penalty could only be inflicted with the sanction of the elders of the city; the consent of both parents was required ere he could be brought before them; and they (the parents) were expected to be able to say that they had exhausted every known means of reclaiming him before they brought him to that tribunal. It is evident that the law is enacted with the intention of being so deterrent that it may never need to be put into execution. And thus indeed it seems to have proved. For there is no known instance in Jewish history of its having been carried out. £ Forming part, as it did, of an ancient civil code for the Hebrew nation only, it is not in force with us now, and we are not called upon to appreciate its real worth as a guard to the stability of the Hebrew nation. But here, as elsewhere, even in obsolete statutes, we discover permanent principles, which it behooves preachers to develop and enforce, if they would not "shun to declare the whole counsel of God." The truth here taught is this—A bad son is a State peril. Five lines of thought may with advantage be followed out here, with the view of impressing this truth upon the hearts of the people.

I. A STATE IS WHAT ITS HOMES MAKE IT. It cannot be otherwise. It is made up of its own cities, towns, villages, and hamlets. Each one of these is made up of its homes. If they axe all good, little legislation will be required; if they are all bad, no legislation will avail, even if it could be secured. And according as the good or bad element preponderates, will a State be secure and prosperous or otherwise.

II. AN INCORRIGIBLE SON IS THE BANE OF ANY HOME. It is not within our present province to illustrate or even take up the truth that it is extremely unlikely any son will become incorrigible, unless there is some grievous failure in duty on the part of the parents in not correcting him betimes, and in not keeping the reins in their own hands. It is, unhappily, too often true—"his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not." But, however it may come about, the truth is the same, that where a son hearkens not to the voice of his father, and despises to obey his mother, there will be in any home in which such is the case, a source of deep sorrow and indescribable misery; there will be an example fraught with evil influence to the other members of the family. "One sickly sheep infects the flock."

III. SUCH A HOME, SO POISONED, MAY BECOME A CENTER OF UNSPEAKABLE MISCHIEF. For the sons who act so mischievously in the house are, as a rule, those who wander far and wide in pursuit of forbidden pleasure, giving way to the lusts of the flesh, and to sins of the tongue, polluting others wherever they go. Thus a moral miasma, pestilential and even deadly, may be carried from street to street, and from town to town.

IV. THOSE THUS POLLUTED WILL TAKE THE POISON TO OTHER HOMES, One home will infect others. Each infected home will spread the contagion. And so the evil will spread far and wide, not only in an arithmetical, but in a geometrical progression, till even in the course of one or two generations, it will assume a proportion which baffle all powers of calculation to formulate it, and a virulence which may defy the most powerful legislation to arrest it.

V. HENCE THE VERY EXISTENCE OF SUCH A CENTER OF EVIL OUT OF WHICH SUCH COMPLICATED AND WIDESPREAD MISCHIEF MAY ARISE, IS A SOURCE OF GRAVE PERIL TO ANY COMMONWEALTH IN THE WORLD! It may not be seen nor even suspected when in germ. But germs of evil are fraught with all the evil of which they are the germs.

1. Learn how far-seeing are the provisions of this Mosaic law! What seems severity to the individual is really mercy to the nation. Preventive measures, though severe, may be most genuinely philanthropic.

2. Learn how great is the importance of wisdom and firmness in maintaining parental authority.

3. Learn the need of early habits of obedience to parents. An obedient son is a joy and honor to his parents, a credit to the home, an element of safety in a State. But "God never smiles on a boy that breaks his mother's heart." So said Richard Knill. Finally: What we have said thus far is valid, even if this life were all. But if to this life we add on the next, and bethink us of the amazing issues projecting themselves from time into eternity, who can adequately set forth the importance of taking heed to those early steps on which depend the direction of this earthly life, when on it depends the weal or woe of the life which is to come?

Deuteronomy 21:22, Deuteronomy 21:23

Upon the tree!

These words form part of the criminal code of the Hebrews, and though as such they may be regarded as practically obsolete, yet they contain principles which will never wax old, and are, moreover, so frequently alluded to in the New Testament, that they furnish us with a starting-point of no mean interest for a devout Christian meditation. The case supposed in the text is not that of a man being put to death by crucifixion, but of his having suffered capital punishment, and of his body being afterwards hung upon a stake and put to an open shame by the exposure, as having been one of the vilest of criminals. Such an exposure after death was to be, so to speak, the expression of the execration of the people. It would be their public brand upon detestable guilt. And, when thus the public detestation and horror of wickedness had been expressed, that accursed thing was to be taken down that night and buried out of sight forever, as a sign that the curse had spent itself. This vox populi was vox Dei. "He that is hanged is accursed of God."

Now, it may be asked, "Why take up the time of a congregation by recalling an obsolete enactment like this?" Our reply is, Let us now turn to Acts 5:30. Peter knew how the Jews would regard these words—"whom ye slew and hanged on a tree." They would understand their significance to be, "You put him to an open shame, as though he, the best of men, were one of the vilest malefactors." Shall we call this the "irony of history?" How was it that God let the treatment of the basest of criminals be accorded to the holiest of our race? We often speak of it as a "mystery of Providence" when some great trouble befalls a good man. But of all such mysteries there is none so great as this. As a bare piece of history unexplained, there is no fact which in all its surroundings is so inexplicable as this, that Jesus Christ of Nazareth should have died amid such deep disgrace and shame. "Hanged on a tree!" Let us go further on. Read 1 Peter 2:24. Note the emphasis, "who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree." Here is an explanation of the strange fact. He was pressed down with others' woes, and burdened with the guilt of others' sins. And why? What was the effect of all? Read again. In Galatians 3:13, Galatians 3:14, the apostle, quoting these words of Moses, shows us that in the fact of the ignominious death of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the tree, we are to see at once

(1) the Divine execration of sin, and

(2) the Divine redemption of the sinner.

I. Under a moral government, a righteous governor will, yea, must append blessing to good, and affix a curse to evil. If anyone asks Why? we do not know that any one can answer further than to say that suffering is the desert of ill, and gladness the appropriate consequence of well-doing. No other theory would be workable in any well-ordered family, or nation, or city. In the family, paternal punishment expresses the father's sense of wrong done in the State, punishment marks the nation's sense of wrong done. And these are but echoes of that Divine disapproval of sin to which the conscience of man with certainty points. And it is well known and understood that the disapproval and condemnation of wrong on the part of any government is never to be confounded with, but is very far removed from, personal vindictiveness. No government, indeed, would command the confidence of the people under which crime could be carried on with impunity. Without branding crime against a State, no government could long exist. That brand is "the curse of the law."

II. There is a law above all human laws. The latter are partial and defective, and may become obsolete. The everlasting law of righteousness is co-eternal with the Great Supreme. He judges the world in righteousness. Every child of man is answerable to his tribunal. Every deed, word, and thought are scanned by his all-seeing eye, and are estimated rightly by his unerring judgment. And he, the Great Judge, brings against each and all the charge of being law-breakers (see Romans 1:1-32; Romans 2:1-29.). The Jew is so because he has broken a written Law; the Gentile, because he has broken an unwritten one. All the world is guilty before God. Under such circumstances, what is a righteous Being to do to secure the stability of his throne? To connive at sin? To pass it by, and take no notice of it? To let the sinner have the same grace as if he had never sinned? No; there must be a declaration, a demonstration, of his righteousness, as Paul calls it. And the demonstration of righteousness certainly involves the condemnation of sin.

III. If we are sinners, as we are, the Divine condemnation of sin places us under a curse. We must be careful to understand that in the Divine curse there is nothing vindictive, excessive, defective, or ineffective; there is nothing in it out of harmony with the everlasting love of righteousness which is the bulwark and safeguard of the Divine government of souls. As many as are of the works of the Law are—continue to be—under the curse. As long as a man's life is unright, by God's law he abides under condemnation.

IV. Guilty men are under the curse; a Guiltless One comes under it. So Galatians 3:13, "being made a curse for us," rather, "having become a curse." (Let the student note here, as in John 1:1-51; the careful use of, and the distinction between, the words for" being" and "becoming.") The Son of God, the Law-maker, comes and dwells with the lawbreakers, and becomes as one of them. Joyfully taking their place, he bears their burdens and accepts their liabilities as if they were his own! He is pressed down as with a great weight. His sweat is as it were great drops of blood. He goes to the tree. The deepest indignity the Law knows is his. He is numbered with the transgressors. He is put to "an open shame." He dies as the worst of male. factors died—on the tree! The One who stands pre-eminent among men for the purity of his life stands out also conspicuously among men for the humiliation which attends on his death! He hangs on a tree, as if accursed of God!

V. Our Lord Jesus Christ then represented our race, and for them had become a curse. A stupendous transaction was then and there effected, to which we know of no parallel in heaven or on earth (cf. Matthew 20:28; 1 Peter 2:24; 2 Corinthians 5:21; John 1:29).


1. He was of such dignity that he could represent the race.

2. His act was entirely spontaneous; he willed to do it.

3. It was the Father's appointment that he should do it.

4. Foreseeing the result of his work, he rejoiced to do it (Isaiah 53:11 (Hebrew); Hebrews 12:1, Hebrews 12:2).

Amid the external humiliation, the thought of saving men thereby, bore him on and bore him through.

VI. By bearing the curse on himself upon the tree he bore it off from us. He has redeemed us therefrom. He has bought us up out of it. He who deserved it not, was pressed down by it, that we who deserved it might be lifted up out of it. Sin having been, in him, condemned—once, completely, righteously, eternally—the righteousness of the Lawgiver was demonstrated. Then was his love free to act towards us apart from Law, on the principle of grace.

VII. The curse being thus rolled away, the way is prepared for the coming in of the blessing. However fully and freely infinite love now heaps blessing on blessing on the vilest sinner, not from one quarter of the universe can the murmur rise up that God thinks lightly of sin, when, in order to lift its weight off the guilty sinner, the Infinite Son of God has taken the whole load upon himself, and atoned for sin by his own sacrifice!

VIII. The blessing comes to men when they repent and believe. So argues Paul in both his Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. See especially Romans 4:16, and the wonderful parallel between the first and the second Adam in Romans 5:1-21.


1. Let us adore and magnify the grace and righteousness of God in the atoning work of Christ on the tree. The manifold perfections of the Divine nature shine forth here in combined luster. Thousands have objected to the doctrine of' the atonement. No one ever objected to it who did not first misapprehend it.

2. Let us cultivate deep, serious, and earnest thinkings as to the evil of sin, thus branded with the curse of God. Only low moral conceptions can consist with the denial of the necessity for an atonement.

3. Let us see that we rely entirely and penitently on the work of the Son of God on our behalf.

4. Let us defend the manifold glories of the cross against all deniers and opponents.

5. Let us, before whom this Divine act of self-surrender stands as the warrant of our hope, have it ever before us also as the model and standard of our life. And, in studying ever more and more fully the meaning of Christ's self-surrender to God for us, shall we find the inspiration of our self-surrender to God for others!


Deuteronomy 21:1-9

Atonement for unknown sin.

We have here a ritual applicable to cases where murder has not been expiated by the apprehension and execution of the murderer. The mystery has remained unraveled. The elders and judges, in such a case, are to come and measure which city is nearest the slain man, and the elders of that city are then required to take the heifer prescribed and make atonement, that the country may be delivered from the guilt of innocent blood. The heifer is to be one in the full vigor of life, which has not been wrought with, and consequently expressed in the fullest form the life-producing power to which the violent death stood as a contrast. £ She is to be taken down into a "rough valley," or, as the words (נַחַל אֵיתָן) more accurately mean, "a perennial stream," and there is her neck to be struck off, and the blood thus violently shed is to pass away in the never-failing stream. While this is taking place, the eiders of the city are to wash their hands over her, in protestation of their innocence, and to pray for deliverance from the guilt, and it shall be forgiven them.

I. AN UNDISCOVERED MURDER IS PROPERLY IMPUTED TO THE DISTRICT WHERE THE VICTIM HAS BEEN FOUND. In a well-ordered society life should be safe. When it is proved unsafe, society cannot plead "Not guilty." Locally, it must be allocated, and so the city nearest the victim has the crime imputed to it. The sense of guilt is distributed territorially, and the elders, or representatives of the people, are required to clear themselves by the special rite here described.

Sin has thus wider relations than to the individual who has committed it. It may lie at the door of a city, or of a neighborhood, and in their collective capacity they may be required to deal with it.

II. THE DISTRICT THUS GUILTY THROUGH IMPUTATION IS MOST PROPERLY SUMMONED TO A RELIGIOUS SERVICE. It is surely a matter for general humiliation that such a crime could be secretly committed, and the murderer escape. It should lead to special religious exercises. It would be a very seemly thing if neighborhoods where great crimes have gone undiscovered were to unite in supplicating God's mercy, in view of the guilt thus contracted.


1. The violent death of an innocent and full-blooded animal. The cruel killing of the heifer was a repetition of the tragedy, and was well fitted to bring its guilt before them. Thus was a sense of sin deepened.

2. Its shed blood was carried away on the surface of the never-failing stream. In this beautiful, poetic way, the providential removal of innocent blood, did God convey the idea of removing the guilt from the district concerned.

3. Over the heifer so slain the elders were to wash their hands and protest their innocency. In this way the most solemn sanctions were associated with their plea of "Not guilty."

4. And they were further to intercede for the removal of the imputation against Israel. Only after this minute ritual had been gone through was the assurance of forgiveness pronounced by the priest.

IV. IN THIS WAY WE DISCOVER A TYPIFICATION OF THE PARDON PROVIDED BY CHRIST. And here we do well to notice, as facts incapable of dispute—

1. That people who are innocent have often to incur imputation along with the guilty. The children of evil-doers incur an evil repute, although they may be perfectly innocent. It is a law of society as at present constituted—the innocent are grouped with the guilty.

2. Jesus Christ is One who has voluntarily accepted of the imputation of sin, though innocent, and suffered in consequence. Just as the innocent heifer was paraded with the guilty district, and alone suffered because of the committed and undiscovered sin, so Jesus takes up his position in the sad procession, and is the selected, yet voluntary, Victim.

3. The Holy Spirit, as a perennial stream, carries the sense and sight of blood-guiltiness away. For, without the Spirit's help, the shed blood of Jesus might only increase human guilt; with his help it takes all the guilt away.

4. Those who wish pardon must not be too proud to ask for it. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." So have we the gospel vividly presented to us.—R.M.E.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14

Through love to liberty.

We have here a regulation or law of war. Captives might be sold as slaves, but through love they might reach the position of a wife in a Jewish household, and if she did not please her conqueror, then she was to be made free again. So that the possible fate of the captive was "through love to liberty."

I. LOVE IS THE BEST CURE FOR THE ILLS OF WAR. The men were to be slain: women might be kept as a prey (Deuteronomy 20:14). It was a blessed issue when the conqueror was himself conquered by his captive. Then slavery was over, and love brought liberty. The passion of hate had given place to the passion of love. The better time had come.

II. BUT THE PASSION MUST RE SUBJECT TO WISE RESTRAINT. A month's mourning is allowed the beautiful captive, during which her person is sacred in the house of her captor. She bids farewell to her relations, whether living or dead, for she is going to be the wife of a Jew; and her intended husband has time to think quietly over his passion of love, and to see whether it is lasting or no.

III. HER PRIVILEGE WAS TO BECOME THE FREE WIFE OF HER JEWISH LORD. If a happily ordered marriage, it must have been a joyful issue of the war. The terrible ordeal had proved to her the path to honor and social blessedness and peace. All the agony had given place to enlarging love.

IV. AT THE VERY WORST, SHE REGAINED HER LIBERTY. The love had in this case proved transient—she had not pleased him—they would not be happy together. In such a case she was given a legal title to liberty. If not loved, she had the next best privilege of being free.

In this arrangement, consequently, we have love and liberty in the house of a husband; or liberty, if the love proves fickle and the match ill arranged. This was a beneficent arrangement compared with the licentiousness which usually accompanied war.

V. WE MAY CONTRAST THIS WITH THE LOVE AND LIBERTY GUARANTEED US BY CHRIST JESUS. Our Lord, in fact, offers us his love, oh, how strong and bow true! And in his love there is liberty, the liberty wherewith he makes his people free. No uncertainty hangs over his offer to us; no slavery is possible in his house. We shall, in fact, have reason to bless him for conquering us for loving purposes, and any anguish his conquest may have cost us, will be amply compensated in his royal and limitless love.

Conquest, love, and liberty forever is the experience through which we pass in the hands of Jesus, the Conquering Hero, and no one ever regrets entering upon it, for it is enjoyment indeed!—R.M.E.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

The rights of the firstborn in the house of a bigamist.

Bigamy was not encouraged by the Mosaic Law. Where it took place in man's passion, the Law stepped in to regulate the relations in the household impartially. The house of a bigamist may be the scene of sudden jealousies and dispeace, but God steps in to forbid it being the scene of injustice. The discomfort is providentially inseparable from the bigamy—it would have been a pity had it been otherwise! But the Lord steps in to prevent flagrant injustice being done to the children solely through the father's caprice. Caprice may be permitted up to a certain point, with all its painful checks, but it will not be suffered to perpetuate undeserved wrong.

I. THE RIGHTS OF THE FIRSTBORN CONSISTED IN A DOUBLE SHARE OF THE FAMILY PROPERTYTWICE AS MUCH AS THE OTHER CHILDREN. This was that he, as the beginning of his father's strength, and as acknowledged head of the family, might be able to sustain its honor properly. It was for this portion Elisha prayed when he desired a double portion of Elijah's spirit; not twice as much, but twice as much as the other sons of the prophets (2 Kings 2:9). And this is what Jesus gets from the Father, according to the promise, "I will make him my Firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth" (Psalms 89:27). There was another right of the firstborn, in having a seed raised up for him in case of his premature decease. This also has its import in the case of Jesus.

II. BECAUSE A FIRSTBORN'S MOTHER WAS HATED WAS NO REASON WHY HE SHOULD BE DENIED HIS RIGHTS. The dark cloud of hate was not to envelop him, and keep him out of his double portion, or his right to a seed, if he prematurely died. And yet this was what Jesus received in the way of treatment. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." As the Firstborn of humanity, he deserved the double portion, yet had not where to lay his head. He was denied his rights among men.

III. FROM THE CAPRICE OF MEN WE MAY ALWAYS LOOK UP TO THE IMPARTIAL JUSTICE OF GOD. This was the protection of the firstborn in the house of a bigamist. God was on his side. This was the protection of Jesus amid the injustice of men—the Father was along with him. He always did what pleased him. And whenever we feel aggrieved through the capricious conduct of our fellows, let us always look up confidingly to our Father above.

The Lord is just, at all events. We may rely on his vindication of our case in the great day, if not before.—R.M.E.

Deuteronomy 21:18-23

Parental authority enforced.

It is plain that parents are to deal with their children to the best of their ability: but in case a stubborn and rebellious son would not hearken to father or mother, would not appreciate chastisement, and had become a drunkard and glutton, then the parents were directed to bring the case before the elders of the city, and the impenitent, licentious son was to be taken away from the earth by public stoning. The public law was thus, in the last resort, to back up parental authority and to remove the "scapegrace."

I. PARENTAL AUTHORITY IS TO BE EXERCISED TO THE UTMOST. Father and mother are both to do their best to save their son from being a public disgrace. They are to use the rod, to chasten him, if nothing milder will do. Only after they have prosecuted their parental authority to the last degree are they to seek the public officers.

II. GLUTTONY AND DRUNKENNESS ARE TREATED AS CAPITAL OFFENCES UNDER THE THEOCRACY. They are incompatible with membership in God's kingdom. Hence they are deemed worthy of death. Because they are not now so severely visited by public law does not imply that they are less heinous in God's sight than they were then.

III. IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE LAST RESORT WHEN PARENTS WOULD BRING FORTH THEIR SON FOR PUBLIC EXECUTION. What a wearying of love and patience there must have been before such a commandment as this would be carried out! The father and mother would bear long before they would bring themselves to make of their child a public infamy.

IV. THE EXECUTION OF THE SCAPEGRACE WAS A SOLEMN DEDICATION OF HIM, BY IMPOSITION OF HANDS, TO DEATH BY STONING. Such a public disgrace must have had a very wholesome effect in deterring reckless children from self-abandonment. We do not hear of any instance of such an execution. Drunkenness and gluttony were not common crimes in Israel.

V. IT WOULD SEEM THAT GIBBETING WAS ADDED TO THE STONING, TO EMPHASIZE STILL MORE THE DISGRACE IN SUCH CASES. When this was carried out, it was understood that the gibbeted person was taken down at sundown, so as not to defile the land, and was buried without delay. As accursed of God, the corpse was as soon as possible put out of sight into the tomb.

VI. IT IS INSTRUCTIVE TO THINK OF JESUS CHRIST BEING EXPOSED TO JUST SUCH A PUBLIC INFAMY. He was made a curse for us. He was hanged on a tree, gibbeted as a malefactor. What love led him to place himself in such a position! The authorities took him, and in his Father's and mother's presence they did him to death, as if he bad been a disobedient and disgraceful Son. Thus did he deliver us from the curse of the Law. We receive honor because he accepted shame. The "holy Child Jesus" was nailed to the cross, was suspended on a tree, as if he were accursed of God. May we all profit by his voluntary humiliation, and imitate him as the holy, consecrated Child!—R.M.E.


Deuteronomy 21:1-9

Purification from guilt of an uncertain murder.

The explanation commonly given of this peculiar ceremony seems unsatisfactory. Keil's view, that "it was a symbolical infliction of the punishment that should have been borne by the murderer, upon the animal which was substituted for him," is contradicted by the fact that, for deliberate murder, the Law, as he admits, provided no expiation, while the object of this ceremony was plainly in some way to remove blood-guiltiness. Fairbairn's explanation (in his 'Typology') is even more far-fetched, that the heifer was "a palpable representative of the person whose life had been wantonly and murderously taken away." The key to the ceremony is, we think, to be sought for in another direction. The central idea is that a responsibility attaches to a whole community for crimes committed in its midst. The members of the community are implicated in the guilt of the murder till they absolve themselves by bringing the murderer to justice (Deuteronomy 21:8, Deuteronomy 21:9). In the case here treated of, the murderer is unknown, and a rite is appointed by which the share of the community in his blood-guiltiness, which cannot be removed in the ordinary way, by executing justice on the criminal, is otherwise abolished. The heifer, in this view, represents neither the murdered man nor his murderer, but the people of the city, who seek to purge themselves from guilt by putting it to death. It is their own guilt they seek to get rid of, not the criminal's. Expiation was not admitted for the actual murderer, but the responsibility for the crime, which, failing the visitation of justice on the criminal, devolved on the community—for that, expiation was admitted. The animal, suffering vicariously, in full possession of its vital powers, while the elders of the city washed their hands over it, and declared their innocence of all knowledge of the murder, sufficed to secure that "the blood should be forgiven them"—forgiveness implying previous imputation. The valley, "neither eared nor sown," was, in its desolation and sterility, a fit place for such a transaction, which, while it cleansed the city, left the curse upon the murderer, and indeed made the spot a sort of witness of his yet unexpiated guilt.

We learn:

1. That responsibility attaches to each and all in a community for crimes committed in its midst.

2. That the community is not absolved till every effort has been made to discover the perpetrators of crime and to bring them to justice.

3. That the punishment of murder is death.

4. That to ignore, connive at, or encourage crime in a community, involves the authorities in the criminality of the deeds connived at.

5. That all parties, the people (represented by the elders), the magistrates (judges), the Church (priests), are alike interested in bringing criminals to justice.—J.O.

Deuteronomy 21:10-15

The captive wife.

The kindness, thoughtfulness, and strict justice of the Mosaic laws is very striking. The Law here interposes to secure—

I. CONSIDERATE TREATMENT OF ONE BEREAVED. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14.) The case supposed comes under the law of Deuteronomy 20:14. The woman was a captive in war and a heathen, yet the Israelite is required to respect her chastity, and, if he conceive a passion for her, must not only make her his wife in a proper manner, but must allow her a full month to bewail her dead relatives. The question of religion is a difficult one in such cases, but we may suppose that no force was applied to captives and strangers further than forbidding to them the outward practice of idolatry. The laying aside of the symbols of captivity, and the purificatory rites of cutting the hair and nails, could only imply reception into the fellowship of the covenant nation in the event of the woman freely accepting Jehovah as her God (cf. Ruth 1:15, Ruth 1:16).


1. That the tumult and disorder of war is no excuse for immoral license.

2. We are to consider the situation and feelings of those whose circumstances place them at our mercy.

3. Natural affections are to be respected underneath all differences of creed and race.

II. PROTECTION FOR ONE UNFRIENDED. (Deuteronomy 20:14.) The captive stranger wedded to an Israelite was not left to be treated by him as he listed. Her unfriended position exposed her to the risk of suffering from her husband's caprice and unfeelingness. While, therefore, he is permitted, if he lose delight in her, to divorce her—for the "letting her go" must be construed in the light of Deuteronomy 24:3—he must on no account sell her or detain her as a captive. Another instance of God's care for "the stranger." Hasty marriages, founded on passion inspired by mere external attractions, seldom result in lasting happiness.—J.O.

Deuteronomy 21:15-18

The firstborn of the hated wife.

The firstborn, in patriarchal and tribal societies, had recognized rights and honors, correlative with the duties and responsibilities which his position as prospective head of the household entailed on him. The principle is here asserted that individual preferences and partialities are not to be allowed to set aside the rights of the son who is lawfully the firstborn. Men would fain, sometimes, bend justice to their likings. Where an Israelite had two wives, either together or in succession, the one loved and the other hated, he might be tempted to pass by the son of the hated, and confer the rights of the firstborn on the son of the wife whom he loved, though it was the son of the hated wife who was entitled to that honor. With strict impartiality, the Law steps in and forbids this act of injustice. It demands that the son of the hated wife have all his rights. It will tolerate no tampering with them.

1. The evils of polygamy.

2. The sin of allowing likes and dislikes to influence us to acts of injustice.

3. The danger of natural preferences degenerating into blameworthy partialities.

4. The duty of doing always what is right, whatever the bent of our private inclinations.—J.O.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

The rebellious son.

A law of this kind, which left it to the parents themselves to impeach their disobedient son, while ordaining that, when the charge was proved against him, and it could be shown that the parents had duly corrected him, the offender should be put to death, would, we may believe, very rarely be enforced. In cases so aggravated that its enforcement was necessary, the penalty, judged by the usages and state of feeling of the time, would be thought anything but severe. The law, whether enforced or not, was a standing testimony to the enormity attaching in the eyes of God to the sin of filial disobedience. We learn—

I. INSUBORDINATION TO PARENTS IS A GRAVE OFFENCE AGAINST SOCIETY. It is treated here, not simply as a private wrong, but as a crime. Hebrew society rested so largely on the patriarchal basis that the due maintenance of parental authority was a necessity of its existence. The theocratic principle, according to which parents were invested with a peculiar sacredness as representatives of God, likewise called for the repression of incorrigible disobedience. But, whatever the form of social order, a spread of the spirit of insubordination to parents is the invariable prelude to a universal loosening of the ties and obligations of corporate existence. "It has been found," says Dr. Fleming, in his ' Moral Philosophy,' "in the history of all nations that the best security for the public welfare is a wise and happy exercise of parental authority; and one of the surest forerunners of national degradation and public anarchy and disorder is neglect or contempt of domestic happiness or rule."

II. PARENTS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO COMPLAIN OF THE DISOBEDIENCE OF CHILDREN, SAVE WHERE THEIR OWN DUTIES TO THEIR CHILDREN HAVE BEEN FAITHFULLY DISCHARGED. TO secure a conviction, the parents had to show, not only that they had done their best to bring the son up in right ways, but that they had corrected him, and otherwise endeavored to reclaim him from his vices. Before parents are entitled to complain of the disobedience of children, they must have done their utmost

(1) by instruction,

(2) by admonition,

(3) by correction,

(4) by example,

(5) by a firm assertion of parental authority generally, to keep them from error.

Parents who neglect these duties have little cause to wonder at a son turning out ill; the wonder would be if he should turn out well. It is they, as much as the son, who deserve blame. Lesson: Compare with the behavior of this rebellious son our own treatment of our heavenly Father.—J.O.

Deuteronomy 21:22, Deuteronomy 21:23

Accursed of God.

The criminal who had committed a sin worthy of death, and was put to death under the law, was viewed as dying under the ban or curse of God. When the crime was very execrable, and the criminal might be regarded as perishing under God's most awful curse, the fact was intimated by exposing the body on a tree. Compare the old custom of hanging a notorious criminal in chains. The placing of the body on a tree was not that which made the person accursed, but was an external sign or token of his being an accursed one. It was, therefore, a singular and striking feature in God's providential arrangements, not only that the death of Christ should be brought about as a result of judgment passed on him by the constituted authorities of his nation, pronouncing him guilty of the worst of all crimes under the theocracy, that of blasphemy, but that in the manner of his death even this external token of ignominy should not be wanting. In this act, the placing of Jesus on the cross, the sin and madness of the world were overruled, as in several other instances, to give unwitting expression to the highest truth. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Galatians 3:13). The crucifixion of Jesus signifies to us:

1. The world's judgment upon Christ. It put him to death as one accursed of God. It treated him as the worst of malefactors, and interpreted his death upon the cross as a sure token of God having forsaken him (Matthew 27:43). To many it may have appeared as if the inference were just. The Sanhedrim had convicted him of blasphemy, and their verdict seemed confirmed by the failure of Christ to deliver himself out of their hands. A true Christ would not thus have succumbed before his enemies. The cross was the refutation of his claims, and the proof of his being an impostor, justly doomed to die. "We did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4). The world was wrong, for Jesus was never dearer to his Father than in that hour when he hung upon the tree; but, in a sense unknown to itself, it gave utterance to a truth.

2. Christ's submission to a cursed death for the world. The subjection of the sinless Christ to the death of the cross is a fact which requires explanation. If the world put him to death as one accursed, it is none the less true that he voluntarily submitted to this suffering and ignominy, and that the Father permitted him so to be "made a curse." A yet more mysterious feature in the death of Christ is that, in the direst hour of his agony, the Father seemed to side with the world, by withdrawing from him the light and comfort of his presence (Matthew 27:46). Christ was dealt with by Heaven, not less than by men, as One under a curse; if not a sinner, he was treated as if he were one. The apostolic writings lay stress on this as a fact of essential importance in the work of Christ for man's salvation (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). Subjection to the curse of the Law in the name of the world of sinners with whose lot he had identified himself, was not all that was necessary for their redemption from that curse, but it was involved in what was necessary. Any theory of atonement which leaves out the recognition of Christ "made sin" for us by voluntary endurance of sin's doom, must, on scriptural grounds, be pronounced at least incomplete.—J.O.


Deuteronomy 21:1-9

The creation of righteous, public sentiment.

The influence of man upon man is omnific; it touches him at every point. The potency of influence depends on character, rank, age, station. The character of kings is soon reflected on their courtiers. From this principle is born the adage, "Like priest, like people." Crimes proceed from depraved sentiment, and sentiment can be purified by righteous influence.

I. CRIME COVETS CONCEALMENT. All crime is cowardly, base, mean. It fears the light. This may furnish a test for acts that lie near the boundary lines of morality, and admit of question. If the fierce light of righteous opinion is dreaded, the thing is already condemned. So lacking in fortitude and courage is the murderer, that he will seldom confess the truth unless conscience scourges him with intolerable remorse. Yet it is, in well-organized society, an exceptional thing if the murderer escapes. The movements of Divine providence usually furnish some clue to the red-handed man. Still, if amid the infirmities of human government the culprit should escape, he is amenable to another jurisdiction where concealment is impossible. Every crime shall eventually be seen in a blaze of noontide light.

II. MAGISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITY IS INDICATED. Crime is not merely injury against an individual, it is an assault upon society. If murder pass with impunity, no life will soon be safe. In the human race there is a solidarity of interest. Men constitute a family. Cities have a character as well as persons. The real leaders in society are laden with heavy responsibility. It is their paramount duty to foster healthy public sentiment; and if this sentiment does not penetrate far enough to prevent crime, it should penetrate far enough to detect crime. Every man can contribute something to influence public morals, and magistrates should lead the way.

III. PUBLIC ABHORRENCE OF CRIME IS IMPRESSIVELY SHOWN. The minds of men are more impressed by deeds than by words, especially by symbolic acts surrounded by the sanctions of religion. It was of the first importance that the city elders should be beyond any suspicion of connivance with the deed. Therefore they must publicly purge themselves by solemn attestation. A valuable heifer was to be selected, and the elders were required to decapitate the victim—a public protest that this would be their own desert if in any degree they had been accessories to the crime. The natural scene selected for this rite was significant. It was to be done in a rugged valley given over to barrenness or natural desolation; being an impressive picture of sin's effect. Accompanying this solemn immolation—this appeal of innocence to Heaven—there was the most explicit utterance of words; so that the honor of the rulers might shine out clear and bright. Magisterial authority is founded on public regard. It was, moreover, a representative act. Every citizen spoke through these elders.

IV. MEDIATION IS HERE FORESHADOWED. It is possible by our thoughtlessness to "become partaker of other men's sins." We all share, in greater or lesser measures, in the guilt of the race. There are sins of ignorance, and to these a measure of culpability belongs. Evils might have been prevented if we had been more faithful. But, by God's appointment, substitution is permitted. Other blood may be shed, by virtue of which we may be redeemed. "The blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin;" nor can the blood of man. No material compensation can be made for moral wrong. But moral effects may be produced by substitution, which shall be equally just and more beneficent. As the priests of olden time were mediators between God and the Jews, so we have a Great High Priest, who is a real Mediator, having royal interest for us with God.

V. PENITENCE AND PURITY ARE TWIN SISTERS. (See Deuteronomy 21:9.) There is an appeal for mercy: "Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel." Some measure of culpability must be felt in every solicitation of mercy. For mercy is that principle in God which conveys blessing when no merit exists. And if true penitence moves in the breast, it is the parent of reformation; its purpose is amendment. It seeks not only removal of burdens, but the destruction of the evil thing. In the hour of penitence, new love and new hate are born. Unless fruits of righteousness appear, penitence is only pretence. The sincere cry for mercy is always followed by "doing that which is right in the sight of the Lord."—D.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14

The captor captured.

God's laws are accommodations to human infirmities. To require from men summarily, and as the result of law, perfect conduct of life is impracticable. Hence legislation, to be successful, must be adapted to the case, and must lead by gradations to a nobler life. This law, though tolerant of lesser evil, is a marked amelioration of earlier custom—a step towards order and purity.

I. FEMALE BEAUTY WINS THE HEARTS EVEN OF WARRIORS. There are other conquests, and nobler, than military conquests. Beauty snatches the palm from strength. In the very hour of victory the conqueror has laid all his spoils at the feet of a gentle woman. Love rules the camp. External beauty has its uses. Real beauty is the exponent of some hidden worth. It eloquently says, "There is some goodness here: search and find it out." And beauty has its perils too—it may excite sexual passion which cannot be controlled.

II. CONJUGAL UNION IS TO RESULT, NOT FROM SUDDEN. PASSION, BUT FROM WELL-TRIED LOVE. This sudden desire to have his captive as his wife was required to be tested by time. Calm reflection is to precede a union so full of possible results. Beauty may fling her robe of color about the haze of dawn, but the gray haze of dawn does not constitute the day. Mere bloom on summer fruit will not meet the hunger of the man. Marriage is a temple of God, and must not be built on an imaginary foundation. The charm of the fair captive's locks was to be temporarily removed, so that the lover's desire might rest, not on fleeting accessories, but on personal worth. Ill-assorted marriages are a fertile curse. Sympathy in religion is essential to a prosperous marriage union.

III. THE NATURAL FEELINGS OF WOMAN, AS WOMAN, ARE TO BE SCRUPULOUSLY RESPECTED. We may not understand all the purposes this Jewish law was designed to serve; but certain it is that, though a captive, the natural feeling of filial sorrow was to be allowed, yea, expected. To repress or root out the affectionate feeling of a daughter would be mutilation of the soul. A forgetful daughter will never be a worthy wife. Nothing in our external fortunes—not even success in war—warrants our playing the tyrant. It is for the benefit of the human race that woman should be treated on equal terms. Her fine endowments have a noble part to play in the culture of humanity.

IV. MARRIAGE HAS ITS DUTIES AS WELL AS ITS ENJOYMENTS. By the custom of that barbarous age, the captive, whether male or female, became the absolute property of the captor. He could reduce her to slavery. But if he chose to make her his wife, he conveyed to her rights which could not be alienated. It became henceforth his duty to protect her and all her interests. She was secure against the lust of avarice. God threw around her the shield of his sacred Law. But the very necessity for this commandment disclosed the rampant greed for gain which rules in some men. Thankful ought we to be that God removes such a possible temptation out of our way. Not by God's consent is marriage ever contracted or terminated for the sake of money gain.—D.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

Monogamy essential to domestic peace.

Every indication of God's will is a finger-post to felicity. A wise man will not wait for peremptory law. The faintest whisper of Jehovah's will is law to him. Without doubt, that each man should be the husband of one wife was the ordination of God.

I. THE FIRSTBORN SON IS PLACED IN A POSITION OF SPECIAL PRIVILEGE AND POWER. All human government is built upon the model of the family. Within the compass of the family the firstborn was a sovereign, had sovereign rule and responsibility. In families like Jacob's, where there were many children and dependents, this was a position of eminence and power. In every case, special duties devolve upon the firstborn. He has often to act as the representative of the family, and to defend family rights. He becomes the natural arbitrator in family disputes. His influence, for good or for evil, is great. Therefore, to sustain his position and power, a double portion of the ancestral estate was his.

II. THE PRIVILEGE OF THE FIRSTBORN IS INALIENABLE. For a time the firstborn son is sole heir to his father's rank and riches; hence, for reasons external to him, it would be unjust to depose him. And injustice always leads to strife, disorder, and mischief. Filial reverence would be undermined. Seeds of hatred would be sown. The removal of the father's authority by death would be the sign for feud, litigation, and waste. What God has ordained let not man disturb. Our earthly possessions are entrusted to us temporarily by God, and the entailment has been determined by the Divine Proprietor. For the just management of our secular estates and of our family concerns, we are accountable at the great assize. Favoritism among children is a prolific evil.

III. THIS PROSPECTIVE MISCHIEF ISSUES FROM A PLURALITY OF WIVES. God has often tolerated among men what he has not approved. He does this, in some respect, every day. If he had imposed capital punishment upon the violation of monogamy, the effect, in many cases, would have been unchastity. Law, in order to be effectual, can never transcend the highest level of moral sentiment prevalent in the age. Otherwise judges themselves would be culprits, and no one could be found to administer the law. But the family intrigues, quarrels, and miseries which spring from a plurality of wives are God's visible brands and scourges on disobedience. What works best for society, for the human race, is (in the absence of other instruction) the revealed will of God. Wherever there is more than one wife there must be divided affection, divided interests, divided authority. The house is divided against itself.—D.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

A slippery path to ruin.

It is of the first importance that a child should begin life well. A twist in the young stem will develop into a gnarled and crooked tree. A slight divergence at the outset of a voyage may end in a complete reversal of the ship's course. Early obedience is the pathway to a prosperous life; disobedience leads to death. The tongue that curseth its father shall be scorched with devouring flame.

I. SELFISH INDULGENCE DESTROYS FILIAL REVERENCE. The human body is to be the servant of the mind. If the appetites and lusts of the body are allowed to rule, the mind becomes a slave, and all the better principles are manacled and enfeebled. We begin life as dependent children, and the fresh sense of loving obligation should be an antidote for selfishness. But if we set out in life with a resolve to please self, we are already on the way to ruin. Reverence for the parental character, and regard for parental authority, are the only solid foundations for a noble life. To feed unduly the body, and for gratification alone, is to starve the soul. Sensuality fosters self-will.

II. REBELLION IN THE CHILD DESTROYS SONSHIP. Disregard of authority soon chokes and strangles filial feeling. The tie of sonship is snapped. The qualities and attributes of a son are wanting. There is a relationship of body, but no true relationship of soul. Alienation has sprung up instead of vital union. The lad may dwell under the old roof-tree, but in reality there is a great gulf between him and his parents: he is a descendant, but not a son. To be the children of God there must be resemblance of character.

III. UNFRUITFUL CHASTISEMENT IS A TREMENDOUS CURSE. The medicine that does not do good, does harm. The flame that does not melt, hardens. Parental chastisement, when needed, is an imperative duty, but should be administered with wisdom, self-restraint, and pity. The obstinacy of the son is not infrequently due to the foolish leniency or unrestrained severity of the parent. Chastisement is a serious experiment, and always produces some effect, either favorable or unfavorable. We are not the same men after trial or pain that we were before.

IV. THE STATE MUST SUPPORT PARENTAL AUTHORITY. SO valuable is human life that the State wisely claims the sole power of capital punishment. If the disciplines and chastisements of home have failed to produce a virtuous citizen, the whole community must deal with the incorrigible reprobate. The State cannot afford, for its safety's sake, to allow a firebrand to be let loose in its midst. The example and influence of such a miscreant would be fatally mischievous. The whole State has vital interests to serve, and it would be sheerest folly to sacrifice them to a drunken madman.

V. PERSISTENT REBELLION LEADS TO AN IGNOMINIOUS END. It must be a duty, the most painful for human nature to perform, to surrender a son to public execution. Yet it sometimes is a duty. The hope of amendment has been quenched. To continue such a one in life has become a bane to himself and to others. If all remedies have failed, destruction must ensue. All the men of the city shall put their hand to the deed. This may be done by personal service or by representation. The mad career of the culprit ends in pain, loss, and perpetual disgrace. It is a symbol of the great judgment doom.—D.

Deuteronomy 21:22, Deuteronomy 21:23

The doom of law the embodiment of Divine curse.

The suspension of a human body on the gallows-tree is the utmost climax of ruin and disgrace. It is the fullest exponent of the public detestation and horror for the deed. In this case the curse of men is the curse of God. But this curse was not to continue. Blessing was to be perpetual, abiding, uninterrupted; but the curse was to endure for a moment. The body so accursed was to be buried before sunset. Many reasons have been assigned for this.

I. BECAUSE VINDICTIVE ANGER SHOULD BE KEPT WITHIN DUE BOUNDS. Anger against monstrous crime is a great assistance in the performance of painful duty. We are braced to do under stress of anger what we could scarcely do in calmer moods of feeling. Anger has its use, but should not be prolonged. When the painful deed is done, vengeful passion should cease. To this end let the lifeless body be buried out of sight.

II. BECAUSE THE HUMAN FORM IS SACRED AS GOD'S TEMPLE. The temple may be in ruins, yet sentiments of veneration hover round the ruined shrines. We know that yonder executed man was the workmanship of the living God. Every vein, and artery, and muscle, and nerve in that mutilated body was the handiwork of God. With that man's history God had taken pains; and over his mistaken course God had grieved. We think of what that man might have been, how fruitful in goodness and virtue! how meet for Divine service and honor! And the spectacle of that man's doom should arouse our fear. We may well stand in awe of sin. To commit such a corpse with gentle pity to the grave will do us good.

III. BECAUSE MORAL DEFILEMENT WOULD OTHERWISE RESULT. The exposure of a dead body in that climate beyond a single day would taint the atmosphere and damage health. But to accustom the minds of men to such a ghastly spectacle would tend to moral defilement. It would serve to harden their better feelings, and make too familiar the exhibition of Jehovah's curse. In our present condition sacred things may become too common. Here especially "familiarity breeds contempt." No greater evil can befall the soul than when it becomes heedless of Divine judgments.—D.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/deuteronomy-21.html. 1897.
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