Verses 10-20 (Deuteronomy 20:10-20)

They are here directed what method to take in dealing with the cities (these only are mentioned, Deut. 20:10; but doubtless the armies in the field, and the nations they had occasion to deal with, are likewise intended) upon which they made war. They must not make a descent upon any of their neighbours till they had first given them fair notice, by a public manifesto, or remonstrance, stating the ground of their quarrel with them. In dealing with the worst of enemies, the laws of justice and honour must be observed; and, as the sword must never be taken in hand without cause, so not without cause shown. War is an appeal, in which the merits of the cause must be set forth.

I. Even to the proclamation of war must be subjoined a tender of peace, if they would accept of it upon reasonable terms. That is (say the Jewish writers), ?upon condition that they renounce idolatry, worship the God of Israel, as proselytes of the gate that were not circumcised, pay to their new masters a yearly tribute, and submit to their government:? on these terms the process of war should be stayed, and their conquerors, upon this submission, were to be their protectors, Deut. 20:10, 11. Some think that even the seven nations of Canaan were to have this offer of peace made to them; and the offer was no jest or mockery, though it was of the Lord to harden their hearts that they should not accept it, Josh. 11:20. Others think that they are excluded (Deut. 20:16) not only from the benefit of that law (Deut. 20:13) which confines military execution to the males only, but from the benefit of this also, which allows not to make war till peace was refused. And I see not how they could proclaim peace to those who by the law were to be utterly rooted out, and to whom they were to show no mercy, Deut. 7:2. But for any other nation which they made war upon, for the enlarging of their coast, the avenging of any wrong done, or the recovery of any right denied, they must first proclaim peace to the. Let this show, 1. God?s grace in dealing with sinners: though he might most justly and easily destroy them, yet, having no pleasure in their ruin, he proclaims peace, and beseeches them to be reconciled; so that those who lie most obnoxious to his justice, and ready to fall as sacrifices to it, if they make him an answer of peace, and open to him, upon condition that they will be tributaries and servants to him, shall not only be saved from ruin, but incorporated with his Israel, as fellow-citizens with the saints. 2. Let it show us our duty in dealing with our brethren: if any quarrel happen, let us not only be ready to hearken to the proposals of peace, but forward to make such proposals. We should never make use of the law till we have first tried to accommodate matters in variance amicably, and without expense and vexation. We must be for peace, whoever are for war.

II. If the offers of peace were not accepted, then they must proceed to push on the war. And let those to whom God offers peace know that if they reject the offer, and take not the benefit of it within the time limited, judgment will rejoice against mercy in the execution as much as now mercy rejoices against judgment in the reprieve. In this case, 1. There is a promise implied that they should be victorious. It is taken for granted that the Lord their God would deliver it into their hands, Deut. 20:13. Note, Those enterprises which we undertake by a divine warrant, and prosecute by divine direction, we may expect to succeed in. If we take God?s method, we shall have his blessing. 2. They are ordered, in honour to the public justice, to put all the soldiers to the sword, for them I understand by every male (Deut. 20:13), all that bore arms (as all then did that were able); but the spoil they are allowed to take to themselves (Deut. 20:14), in which were reckoned the women and children. Note, A justifiable property is acquired in that which is won in lawful war. God himself owns the title: The Lord thy God gives it thee; and therefore he must be owned in it, Ps. 44:3.

III. The nations of Canaan are excepted from the merciful provisions made by this law. Remnants might be left of the cities that were very far off (Deut. 20:15), because by them they were not in so much danger of being infected with idolatry, nor was their country so directly and immediately intended in the promise; but of the cities which were given to Israel for an inheritance no remnants must be left of their inhabitants (Deut. 20:16), for it put a slight upon the promise to admit Canaanites to share with them in the peculiar land of promise; and for another reason they must be utterly destroyed (Deut. 20:17), because, since it could not be expected that they should be cured of their idolatry, if they were left with that plague-sore upon them they would be in danger of infecting God?s Israel, who were too apt to take the infection: They will teach you to do after their abominations (Deut. 20:18), to introduce their customs into the worship of the God of Israel, and by degrees to forsake him and to worship false gods; for those that dare violate the second commandment will not long keep to the first. Strange worships open the door to strange deities.

IV. Care is here taken that in the besieging of cities there should not be any destruction made of fruit-trees, Deut. 20:19-20. In those times, when besiegers forced their way, not as now with bombs and cannon-ball, but with battering rams, they had occasion for much timber in carrying on their sieges: now because, in the heat of war, men are not apt to consider, as they ought, the public good, it is expressly provided that fruit-trees should not be used as timber-trees. That reason, for the tree of the field is man?s (the word life we supply), all the ancient versions, the Septuagint, Targums, etc., read, For is the tree of the field a man? Or the tree of the field is not a man, that it should come against thee in the siege, or retire from thee into the bulwark. ?Do not brutishly vent thy rage against the trees that can do thee no harm.? But our translation seems most agreeable to the intent of the law, and it teaches us, 1. That God is a better friend to man than man is to himself; and God?s law, which we are apt to complain of as a heavy yoke, consults our interest and comfort, while our own appetites and passions, of which we are so indulgent, are really enemies to our welfare. The intent of many of the divine precepts is to restrain us from destroying that which is our life and food. 2. That armies and their commanders are not allowed to make what desolation they please in the countries that are the seat of war. Military rage must always be checked and ruled with reason. War, though carried on with ever so much caution, is destructive enough, and should not be made more so than is absolutely necessary. Generous spirits will show themselves tender, not only of men?s lives, but of their livelihoods; for, though the life is more than meat, yet it will soon be nothing without meat. 3. The Jews understand this as a prohibition of all wilful waste upon any account whatsoever. No fruit-tree is to be destroyed unless it be barren, and cumber the ground. ?Nay,? they maintain, ?whoso wilfully breaks vessels, tears clothes, stops wells, pulls down buildings, or destroys meat, transgresses this law: Thou shalt not destroy.? Christ took care that the broken meat should be gathered up, that nothing might be lost. Every creature of God is good, and, as nothing is to be refused, so nothing is to be abused. We may live to want what we carelessly waste.

- Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary

Related Bible Verse Pictures

“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? ~ Deuteronomy 20:19 ESV
That they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God. ~ Deuteronomy 20:18 ESV