The Pulpit Commentary

Deuteronomy 19:15-21 (Deuteronomy 19:15-21)

To secure against injury to life or property through inadequate or false attestation, it is enacted that more than one witness must appear before anything can be established; and that, should a witness be found on trial to have testified falsely against his neighbor, he was to be punished by having done to him what he thought to have done to his neighbor (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6 ; Numbers 35:30 ).

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Deuteronomy 19:15 (Deuteronomy 19:15)

The rule in Deuteronomy 17:6 , regarding accusations of idolatry, is here extended to accusations of every kind before a court of justice; a single witness was not to be admitted as sufficient to convict a man of any offence, either civil or criminal.

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Deuteronomy 19:14-21 (Deuteronomy 19:14-21)

The law of retaliation.

When we consider "retaliation," we find that it is the converse of the "golden rule." In fact, it is giving back to a person his breach of that rule to see how he likes it. It is just a rough method of teaching rude, selfish souls that there is retribution in all selfish practices; the gun may be fired maliciously, but it sooner or later lays the sportsman in the dust. Now, it is morally right that those who do to others as they do not wish others to do to them should have precisely their own paid back to them. It is simple justice.

I. PUBLIC JUSTICE MAKES PROVISION FOR THIS IN EVERY CIVILIZED COUNTRY . When Jesus directed his disciples not to retaliate, but to cultivate the spirit of nonresistance to evil ( Matthew 5:38 42), he did not wish them to take the law into their own hands, but to leave to public justice what in the olden time had to be settled privately. He certainly did not mean that his disciples should screen men from the processes of public law, when they had made themselves amenable thereto. His advice regarded the edifice of public justice as raised by advancing civilization, and taking up consequently many matters which private parties in a ruder age had to deal with. £

II. RETALIATION WAS IN THE EARLY TIME A DUTY WHICH INDIVIDUALS OWED TO THE PUBLIC . It is too often supposed that revenge is such a gratification that men need no exhortation to take it. But we find men that are too cowardly to retaliate, men who would rather let the greatest ruffians escape than risk anything in giving them their desert. £ Before the erection of public justice, therefore, as a recognized and well-wrought institution, it was necessary to sustain the courage of the people against lawlessness by making retaliation a public duty. The avenger was not a man thirsting for blood, but one who would very likely have remained snugly at home instead of risking his life in retaliation. Men have to be "whipped up" oftentimes to the requisite courage for public duty.

III. RETALIATION , WHEN FAITHFULLY CARRIED OUT , WAS A CHECK ON SELFISH CONDUCT AND A HELP TO A HIGHER MORALITY . The golden rule of doing unto others as we would that they should do to us was the goal at which the morality of the Old Testament was aiming. One way of leading up to it is by carrying out its opposite, and giving to the wrong-doer an idea of what it is to receive what we do not desire. We have to practice this in the correction of children. When they act a cruel part by others, they get a taste of suffering themselves, just to let them know what it is like.

IV. AT THE BACK OF ALL GOD 'S MERCY THERE IS THE ALTERNATIVE OF STRICT JUDGMENT IN CASE HIS MERCY IS REFUSED . The gospel is the golden rule in its highest exemplification. It is God doing unto man as he would have man do unto him were he in such circumstances. But if men reject the Divine mercy, and will not receive God's love, then there is no other alternative but strict justice. And strict justice means retaliation. It is giving back to man what he dares to give to God. If man refuses God's love, and, instead of accepting and returning it, gives to God hate; then it is only right, eternally right, that he should receive what he gives. God cannot bat hate as utterly abominable the soul that hates him who is essential Love. Wrath is the "love-pain of God" ( Liebes-schmertz Gottes ), as Schoberlein has called it. It is forced on him by the action of his creatures. They have had the opportunity of love, but, since they refuse it, they must be visited by wrath.

Hence there is nothing weak about the Divine administration. Its backbone is justice; but special arrangements were made in the atonement of Jesus to allow of God being "justly merciful;" when, however, this just mercy is rejected, God must return to the stricter lines, and deal with the ungrateful as they deserve. In the retaliation of God there is, of course, nothing mean and nothing selfish. His vengeance is in the interests of public morals, and a necessary part of a wise administration. There should be no trifling, then, with the Divine offer; for, if it be not accepted, men must prepare for wrath.—R.M.E.


- The Pulpit Commentary

Deuteronomy 19:15-21 (Deuteronomy 19:15-21)

Bulwark against perjury.

"The tongue is an unruly member, and cannot easily be restrained." Private slander is base enough, but its basest utterance is when, in the sacred halls of justice, it swears away a man's reputation or his life. It is doubtful if a deed so black is done in hell.

I. PERJURY IS SO COMMON AS TO NECESSITATE A PUBLIC STIGMA ON HUMANITY . "One witness shall not rise up against a man." If every man had been known as truthful, the testimony of one witness on any accusation would be ample. The narration of one eye-witness or ear-witness ought to be enough. For a truthful man would always speak within the limits of truth, and would promptly express his doubt, if certainty could not be reached. But the common experience of humanity has been that the bulk of men will prevaricate and conceal the truth, even under the solemn sanction of an oath. Hence it has been found wise to condemn no man judicially, unless more than one witness can be found. Cumulative evidence is required to obtain a valid sentence. This can be interpreted in no other way than a public testimony to the depravity of man. The prisoner obtains the benefit.

II. PERJURY IS A CRIME , TO BE TRIED IN THE HIGHEST COURT OF THE REALM . The accused and the accuser in such a case shall "stand before the Lord." This is not so much a sin against man as a sin against God. The sacred person of Truth has been publicly violated, and the wisest and holiest in the land are commissioned by God to be the judges. As often as we violate the truth, we insult the God of truth, and stand before God for judgment. Hence it is of the first importance that we cultivate truthfulness in our thoughts and in our speech.

III. IN PROPORTION TO THE GRAVITY OF THE CHARGE SHOULD BE THE THOROUGHNESS OF THE SCRUTINY . Although we may expect to know the will of God in any particular ease by laying our own minds open to the action of God's Spirit, we are still bound to pursue the most diligent and thorough inquiry. God rewards, not the indolent, but the patient searcher after truth. He that does the truth will discover the truth. "God helps those who help themselves."

IV. INTENDED MISCHIEF IS TREATED AS ACTUAL CRIME . The character and quality of a deed depend upon the moral intention. Whether the intention becomes an overt act will often depend upon outward opportunity and circumstance. But God sees the incipient motive and purpose; in his court, judgment passes upon the offender. Human courts are to be, as far as possible, copies of the court of heaven. Hence the perjured witness, who seeks to visit judicial penalties upon the head of the innocent, is himself as guilty as if his base project had succeeded. "Into the pit which he had digged for another he shall fall himself." The gallows which Haman prepared for Mordecai, served for his own doom. This is God's law of retribution.

V. THE END SOUGHT IN THIS JUDICIAL EXECUTION IS THE PUBLIC GOOD . The sacrifice of one life is intended to bring advantage to the many. The moral effect is most precious, viz. regard for righteousness—public abstinence from crime. Every man should be filled with this patriotic sentiment—the higher virtue of the nation. We may do good in our circle, either intensively on the minds of a few, or extensively on the minds of the many. In doing good to others we do good to ourselves. "We are members one of another."—D.

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