In previous chapters, the Lord had given laws that demanded the vigorous and effectual punishment of a willful murderer. Such a person was to be put to death in order to rid the land of the guilt of innocent blood. However, in some cases, the murderer may not be known or discovered; and yet even in those cases, the people of Israel were not to suppose that they were free from danger, simply because it was not their fault that the murderer could not be punished. Rather, the Lord proscribed a solemn ceremony for the putting away of this guilt, as an expression of their dread and hatred of that sin in particular. The dread of murder ought to be deeply impressed upon every heart, and all should join in detecting and punishing those who are guilty of it. The Providence of God has often wonderfully brought to light such hidden works of darkness as these, and the sin of the guilty has often strangely found them out. And even if these sins are not revealed during this lifetime, there is a time coming when those who have escaped the justice of men will stand condemned under the righteous judgment of God Himself.
The Lord gave directions as to what His people were to do in such a case as this. The elders of the nearest city were to bring a heifer down into a rough and unoccupied valley, and kill it there. This was not a sacrifice (for it was not brought to the altar), but rather, it was a solemn protestation that they would thus put the murderer to death if they had him in their hands. The elders were to wash their hands in water, over the heifer that was killed. And they were not only to profess that they themselves were guiltless of this innocent blood; but also that they did not know who was guilty of the crime, nor had they knowingly concealed the murderer, or helped him make his escape, or aided and abetted him in any way. It was to this custom that David alluded in Psalm 26:6, when he said, “I will wash my hands in innocency.” The priests were to pray to God for the country and nation, that God would be merciful to them, and not bring upon them the judgments which the sin of murder would deserve. When we hear of the wickedness of the wicked, we need to earnestly cry to God for mercy on our land, which groans and trembles under it.
The law of Moses allowed an Israelite soldier to marry a woman from among those who were taken captive in war. This was allowed because of the hardness of their hearts, lest they should defile themselves by immoral relationships with these women; however, this indulgence of inordinate desires is by no means agreeable to the law of Christ, which far exceeds the glory of the law of Moses. The Gospel requires us to mortify and deny all improper desires – even if it is as uneasy to do as cutting off one’s right hand. And although the Israelites were allowed to marry one of these captives of war if they desired, great care was to be taken so that this liberty was not misused. They must not do this hastily; rather, they were to wait at least a full month. During this time, the captive had to shave her head and change her apparel, in token that she was renouncing her idolatry, putting off her former lifestyle, and becoming a new creation. Also, during this month, she was to be taught the good knowledge of the Lord and the true worship of Him; and clearly, if she refused to worship Him and continued to remain obstinate in her idolatry, then the man must not marry her. But if, after a month, the man changed his mind and decided not to marry this woman, then he must give her liberty to go where she pleased; for he had humbled and afflicted her by raising her expectations and then disappointing them. This shows the great solemnity of the courting of affections and the promises of marriage; they are sacred things and ought not to be jested with.
This chapter also contains a law that restrained men from disinheriting their eldest sons without just cause. The eldest son was to have the birthright privilege (a double portion of the father’s estate); for in him, his father’s family began to be strengthened, and his quiver began to be filled with the arrows of a mighty man (Ps. 127:4). But just as this law required that parents must not deprive their children of what was rightfully theirs, it was fitting that the next law required that children must not withdraw the honor that they owe to their parents. It was not to be tolerated if they were stubborn, proud, insolent, disobedient, and rebellious – refusing to heed reproof and admonition. It is particularly supposed that the rebellious child here described had reached the height of rebellion, by being a glutton and a drunkard (verse 20). Nothing draws men into all manner of wickedness, and hardens them in it more certainly and fatally, than drunkenness. In the case of such a rebellious child, his own father and mother were to complain of him to the elders of the city; and then he must be publicly stoned to death by the men of his city. In this manner, obedience to one’s parents would quickly be promoted and encouraged throughout the land.
According to the law of Moses, the touching of a dead body was a defilement; and therefore, the Lord commanded that even the dead bodies of executed criminals must not be left exposed, for that would defile the land. The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:13, referred to this passage – speaking of the humiliation of a person who was hanged on a tree – when he was showing how Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, by Himself becoming a curse for us. This proves His love indeed, and encourages us to have faith in Him!
Lord, as we study this chapter, may we receive grace from the Holy Spirit to see Jesus shadowed forth! Guide our souls into all truth. May Jesus become our strength and song, for He is our salvation! Amen.
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