Commentary Critical and Explanatory
on the Whole Bible
1. When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies--In the
approaching invasion of Canaan, or in any just and defensive war, the
Israelites had reason to expect the presence and favor of God.
2-4. when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall
approach and speak unto the people--Jewish writers say that there was
a war priest appointed by a special ceremonial to attend the army. It
was natural that the solemn objects and motives of religion should have
been applied to animate patriotism, and so give additional impulse to
valor; other people have done this. But in the case of Israel, the
regular attendance of a priest on the battlefield was in accordance
with their theocratic government, in which everything was done directly
by God through His delegated ministers. It was the province of this
priest to sound the trumpets
(Nu 10:9; 31:6),
and he had others under him who repeated at the head of each battalion
the exhortations which he addressed to the warriors in general. The
(De 20:3, 4)
is marked by a brevity and expressiveness admirably suited to the
occasion, namely, when the men were drawn up in line.
4. your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your
enemies, to save you--According to Jewish writers, the ark was always
taken into the field of combat. But there is no evidence of this in the
sacred history; and it must have been a sufficient ground of
encouragement to be assured that God was on their side.
5-8. And the officers shall speak unto the people--literally,
Shoterim, who are called "scribes" or "overseers"
They might be keepers of the muster-roll, or perhaps rather military
heralds, whose duty it was to announce the orders of the generals
must have been made previous to the priest's address, as great disorder
and inconvenience must have been occasioned if the serried ranks were
broken by the departure of those to whom the privilege was granted.
Four grounds of exemption are expressly mentioned: (1) The dedication
of a new house, which, as in all Oriental countries still, was an
important event, and celebrated by festive and religious ceremonies
exemption for a year. (2) The planting of a vineyard. The fruit of the
first three years being declared unfit for use, and the first-fruits
producible on the fourth, the exemption in this case lasted at least
four years. (3) The betrothal of a wife, which was always a
considerable time before marriage. It was deemed a great hardship to
leave a house unfinished, a new property half cultivated, and a
recently contracted marriage; and the exemptions allowed in these cases
were founded on the principle that a man's heart being deeply engrossed
by something at a distance, he would not be very enthusiastic in the
public service. (4) The ground of exemption was cowardice. From the
composition of the Israelitish army, which was an irregular militia,
all above twenty years being liable to serve, many totally unfit for
war must have been called to the field; and it was therefore a
prudential arrangement to rid the army of such unwarlike
elements--persons who could render no efficient service, and the
contagion of whose craven spirit might lead to panic and defeat.
9. they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people--When the
exempted parties have withdrawn, the combatants shall be ranged in
order of battle.
10-20. When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then
proclaim peace unto it--An important principle is here introduced into
the war law of Israel regarding the people they fought against and the
cities they besieged. With "the cities of those people which God doth
give thee" in Canaan, it was to be a war of utter extermination
(De 20:17, 18).
But when on a just occasion, they went against other nations, they were
first to make a proclamation of peace, which if allowed by a surrender,
the people would become dependent
and in the relation of tributaries the conquered nations would receive
the highest blessings from alliance with the chosen people; they would
be brought to the knowledge of Israel's God and of Israel's worship, as
well as a participation of Israel's privileges. But if the besieged
city refused to capitulate and be taken, a universal massacre was to be
made of the males while the women and children were to be preserved and
(De 20:13, 14).
By this means a provision was made for a friendly and useful connection
being established between the captors and the captives; and Israel,
even through her conquests, would prove a blessing to the nations.
19. thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against
them--In a protracted siege, wood would be required for various
purposes, both for military works and for fuel. But fruit-bearing trees
were to be carefully spared; and, indeed, in warm countries like India,
where the people live much more on fruit than we do, the destruction of
a fruit tree is considered a sort of sacrilege.
20. thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with
thee--It is evident that some sort of military engines were intended;
and accordingly we know, that in Egypt, where the Israelites learned
their military tactics, the method of conducting a siege was by
throwing up banks, and making advances with movable towers, or with the