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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 20

 

 

Verse 1

1When thou goest out to battle. This law also, which concerns their political government, is a Supplement to the First Commandment, enacting that they should carry on their wars under the auspices of God, and, trusting in His help, should follow Him as their leader. For it behoved them to give this proof of their piety, so as to look to God not less in war than in peace, and not to rest their hopes of safety on anything but the invocation of His name. Whence we gather that the worship of God should be by no means passed over in civil and earthly government; for, although its direct object is to preserve mutual equity between men, yet religion always ought to hold the first, place. The sum, therefore, is that, amidst the very clang of arms, they must not be in such confusion as not to recognize that they are under the guardianship of God, or to lose the confidence they will be safe in reliance on His power. He does not, however, encourage them rashly to engage in war, but takes it for granted that there is a legitimate cause for it; because this would be a gross abuse of God’s name, to seek a prosperous issue from Him, when we are engaged in anything contrary to His command. But He forbids them to fear, although the enemy should be superior in horses, in multitude, and in all their warlike array; and in these words He reminds them that they would not be liable to suffer defeat, because they were not supplied with abundance of chariots and horses; for we have lately seen that not even their kings were permitted to collect the forces in which the Gentile nations gloried; and therefore, lest the consciousness of their weakness should make them afraid, God declares that His strength would be a sufficient safeguard to them. And without question that passage in Psalms 20:7, is taken from hence, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” On which score Isaiah reproves the people, because, refusing the waters of Shiloah, they long for great and rapid rivers; viz., as he elsewhere explains it, because they trust in the horsemen of Egypt. (Isaiah 8:6.) But we must observe upon what their security is to be founded, viz., because the people ought to hope that the same Divine power would be with them to the end, which their fathers had experienced when they were redeemed from Egypt.


Verse 2

2And it shall be, when ye are come nigh. God commits the duty of exhortation to the priests, when the time of the conflict shall have arrived. But we gather from the expressions used that this passage is supplementary to the First Commandment, for it contains no more than that the priest should encourage the Israelites to confidence, the ground of which is declared to be the help of God in preserving and constantly protecting the Church, which He has once redeemed. Moreover, He forbids their fears not in one word only, but heaps many together, “let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified.” By this we are reminded how difficult it is to cure that evil — fear, which in so many different ways assails and disturbs our minds, that they should not rest in God. And surely we all experience that we are troubled by such various besetments, that we have need of manifold remedies for the establishment of our faith. We must observe, too, the familiar representation of the presence of God, that He should go together with His people, to save them, viz., if they should be exposed to danger not by their own fault, but by the unjust aggression of their enemies.


Verse 5

5.And the officers shall speak unto the people. I have added the commencement, “quum bellandum erit, ” (when there shall be war,) that my readers may know what is the subject here discussed; for although the instruction given may seem somewhat remote from the prohibition of theft, still it accords well, and is closely connected with it. For by this indulgence God shews how just it is, that every one should enjoy peaceably what he possesses; because, if it be hard that men on account of war should be deprived of the use of their new house, or of the produce of their vineyard, how much more harsh and intolerable it will be to deprive men of their fortunes, or to drive them from the lands which they justly call their own! Since, therefore, it is expedient for the state that vineyards should be sown or planted, and that houses should be built, whilst men would not address themselves to these duties with sufficient alacrity, unless encouraged by the hope of enjoying them, God gives them the privilege of exemption from fighting, if they be owners of new houses which they have not yet inhabited. He makes also the same appointment as to possessors of vineyards, if they have not yet tasted of the fruit of their labor, and will not have men torn from their affianced wives until they have enjoyed their embraces. A different principle applies to a fourth class, because the faint-hearted and lazy are not deserving that God should have consideration for their cowardice, when they shun dangers to be incurred for the public welfare; but because it concerns the whole people that soldiers should go forth readily to war, God will not have more required from any one than he is disposed to bear. We now understand the substance of this passage, viz., that, when every man’s right is asserted to enjoy what he possesses, it extends so far as that a man who has built a house should not be dragged unwillingly to war, until by dwelling in it he shall have received some advantage from the expenses incurred. To make a vineyard common, (162) or to profane it, is equivalent to applying the vintage to the common uses of life; for it was not lawful, as we saw under the First Commandment, (163) to gather its first-fruits, as if it were as yet uncircumcised; therefore the recompence for their industry and diligence is made when those who have planted vines are thus set free, until they have enjoyed some of their produce. As regards the betrothed, although it seems to have been an indulgence granted in honor of marriage, that they should return to the wives whom they had not yet enjoyed, yet it is probable that they were not torn away from the dearest of all possessions, in order that every man’s property should be maintained. Besides, if the hope of progeny were taken away, the inheritance would be thus transferred to others, which would have been tantamount to diverting it from its rightful owner. We have said that the lazy and timid were sent home, that the Israelites might learn that none were to be pressed beyond their ability; and this also depends upon that rule of equity (164) which dictates that we should abstain from all unjust oppression.


Verse 10

10.When thou goest forth to war. He now teaches that, even in lawful wars, cruelty is to be repressed, and bloodshed to be abstained from as much as possible. He therefore commands that, when they shall have come to take a city, they should first of all exhort its inhabitants to obtain peace by capitulating; and if they should do so, to keep them alive, and to be content with imposing a tribute on them. This principle of equity was naturally implanted in all nations; hence heralds took their rise, (45) nor did they commence a just war without a solemn proclamation. Besides, inasmuch as the word hostis (an enemy) formerly signified a foreigner (peregrinum,) the Romans mitigated by its mildness the sadness of the reality. On this ground they deemed that faith was to be kept with an enemy; and that sentiment of Cicero is worthy of praise, “that wars must not be undertaken except that we may live in unmolested peace.”

But if God would have his people mindful of humanity in the very midst of the din of arms, we may hence infer how greatly displeasing to Him is human bloodshed. Even those whom He has armed with his authority, He would still have disposed to clemency, and He represses their ardor, lest they should stain with blood the swords given them by His permission. How, then, shall it be lawful for a private person to assume the sword for the purpose of killing his brother? We now understand the object of the instructions here given, and how appropriately they are connected with the Sixth Commandment.

The references in the two following sentences are to Cicero, de Off. 1:12, and 11, and 13.


Verse 12

12.And if he will make no peace. The permission here given seems to confer too great a license; for, since heathen writers (46) command even the conquered to be spared, and enjoin that those should be admitted to mercy who lay down their arms, and cast themselves on the good faith of the General, although the battering-ram may have actually made a breach in the wall, how does God, the Father of mercies, give His sanction to indiscriminate bloodshed? It has already been stated, that more was conceded to the Jews on account of their hardness of heart, than was justly lawful for them. Unquestionably, by the law of charity, even armed men should be spared, if, casting away the sword, they crave for mercy; at any rate it was not lawful to kill any but those who were taken in arms, and sword in hand. This permission, therefore, to slaughter, which is extended to all the males, is far distant from perfection. (47) But, although in their ferocity the Jews would have hardly suffered the perfection of equity to be prescribed to them, still God would at least restrain their excessive violence from proceeding to the extremity of cruelty. The question is as to cities taken by force, where it sometimes happens that there is no distinction of sex or age regarded; this inhumanity is here mitigated, since they might not kill either women or children.


Verse 15

15.Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities. An exception is introduced, that the Jews should not apply the common laws of war to the Canaanitish nations, with respect to whose extermination the sentence had passed. (48) For God had not only armed the Jews to carry on war with them, but had appointed them to be the ministers and executioners of His vengeance. We have elsewhere explained that there were just causes why He would have their race and memory radically destroyed; especially since He had borne with them for four hundred years, whilst in their wicked obstinacy they had not ceased to grow worse and worse, from whence their desperate impiety was manifest. What had been said before is here, however, repeated, i e. , that since that land was consecrated to God’s service, its inhabitants were to be exterminated, who could do nothing but contaminate it; and therefore this would be profitable for the Israelites, lest by their wiles they should be attracted to false superstitions.


Verse 19

19.When thou shalt besiege a city a long time. I have not hesitated to annex this precept to the Eighth Commandment, for when God lays a restraint on the liberty of inflicting injuries in the very heat of war, with respect to felling trees, much more did He desire His people to abstain from all mischievous acts in time of peace. The sum is, that although the laws of war opened the gate to plunder and rapine, still they were to beware, as much as possible, lest the land being desolated, it should be barren for the future; in short, that the booty was so to be taken from the enemy, as that the advantage of the human race should still be considered, and that posterity might still be nourished by the trees which do not quickly arrive at the age of fruit-bearing. He commands them to spare fruit-trees, first of all, for this reason, because they supply food to all men; and thus the blessing of God is manifested in them. He then adds, as a second reason, that trees are exposed to everybody, whereby He signifies that war should not be waged with them as with men. This passage is indeed variously explained, but the sense which I have chosen accords very well and appears to be the right one. For, (160) although the letter ה is demonstrative, according to the rules of grammar, and thus points out the enemy; yet, in my opinion, the sentence is to be taken interrogatively. But מצור, matzor, signifies rather a bulwark than a siege. God, therefore, indirectly reproves the stupidity and madness of men, who, when in arms, exert their strength against a tree which does not move from its place, but waits to meet them. Thus the open field is contrasted with the bulwark. Meanwhile, God permits ramparts and palisadoes, and other machines used in sieges, to be made of trees which do not bear fruit, and only provides that the tempest of war, which ought to be momentary, should not strip the land of its ornaments for many years. Still, there is no such strict rule laid down as that a fruit-tree may not be cut down if necessity demands it; but God restrains the Israelites from giving way to destruction and devastation under the impulse of anger and hatred, and in forgetfulness of the calls of humanity.

Dathe’s version is, “for they (i. e. the trees) are appointed by God for the use of men,” and he thinks that Moses undoubtedly had in view the precept in Genesis 1:29.

 


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/deuteronomy-20.html. 1840-57.

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