Deuteronomy 20
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The wars of the world form a large part of its history. Savage nations delight in war, revel in its bloodshed and barbarities. Their heaven is a Valhalla. Civilized communities, while averse from having wars waged on them, are not always so averse from waging war on others. Military ambition, lust of conquest, hope of enrichment by pillage, the wiping out of old grudges, may instigate them to this course. Wherever or however waged, wars are a source of incalculable misery. It may be said of them, "It must needs be that wars come, but woe to that man by whom the war cometh!" War is not to be sought, it is to be by every legitimate means avoided, but it may become a necessity. In this case it must be bravely undertaken, and our trust placed in God for his help.

I. RELIGIOUS COURAGE NEEDED IN WAR. It is a not uncommon idea that the influence of religion is adverse to the hardier elements in character. The Christian faith in particular is thought to inculcate a meek passivity of disposition, which, if not absolutely inconsistent with patriotism, courage, and other soldierly virtues, is at least unfavorable to their development. The man of spirit and the devout man are supposed to represent two opposite and incompatible types of character. This idea is strange, when we remember how largely the images and illustrations of the Christian life in Scripture are drawn from warfare. But it is sufficiently refuted by reference to facts. The meekness and unwearied forgivingness which is to characterize the Christian in his private relations is perfectly compatible with the most unflinching heroism in the discharge of public duty, and in the service of his country in her appeal to the God of battles. Christian meekness is not softness or effeminacy. On the contrary, it is an aspect of the highest courage, and develops moral qualities which make it easier to act courageously in any circumstances in which the individual may be placed. Civil liberty has seldom fared better than in the hands of God-fearing men. Instead of being the worst, they make the best soldiers. An army of soldiers, God-fearing and thoroughly disciplined, has usually proved more than a match for vastly superior forces of the enemy: Cromwell's Ironsides, the Scotch Covenanters, the Cameronians. As fine examples of the soldierly character, we may name Colonel Gardiner, Sir Henry Havelock, Captain Hedley Vicars. It would be the life and strength of our armies were they composed of such men from the top to the bottom of the scale.

II. WARLIKE COURAGE NEEDED IN RELIGION. We may apply the exhortations of these verses to the spiritual warfare. The gospel summons us to warfare.

1. With evil within us.

2. With the spiritual forces of evil around us.

3. With the hydra-headed incarnations of that evil in the institutions and customs, sins and follies of society.

It would be well if, in this campaign against evil, we could command in our ranks the same union, the same strict discipline, the same steadiness of action, above all, the same heroic bravery and endurance and preparedness to face the worst, which are often seen in earthly armies. Courage and readiness to sacrifice for Christ all that his cause demands, is a first condition of success in the spiritual warfare. There must be faith in the cause, devotion to the Leader, enthusiasm in his service, and the spirit of those who "love not their lives unto the death" (Revelation 12:11). Instead of this, how often, when the battle approaches, do our hearts faint, fear, tremble, and are terrified because of our enemies! Victories are not thus to be gained. We forget that he who is with us is more than they who are against us. The Lord is more to those in whose midst he is than all the horses and chariots and multitudes of people that can be brought against them. - J.O.

We have in this chapter an instructive direction about the prosecution of a religious war. For, after all, war may be the only way of advancing the interests of nations. Disputes become so entangled, and great principles become so staked in the disputes, that war is welcomed as the one way to peace and progress. It is an awful expedient, but there are worse things than war. "Cowardice," said Rev. F. W. Robertson, of Brighton, "is worse. And the decay of enthusiasm and manliness is worse. And it is worse than death, ay, worse than a hundred thousand deaths, when a people has gravitated down into the creed that 'the wealth of nations' consists, not in generous hearts - 'Fire in each breast, and freedom on each brow' - in national virtues, and primitive simplicity, and heroic endurance, and preference of duty to life; - not in men, but in silk and cotton and something that they call 'capital.' Peace is blessed. Peace arising out of charity. But peace springing out of the calculations of selfishness is not blessed. If the price to be paid for peace is this, that 'wealth accumulate and men decay,' better far that every street in every town of our once noble country should run blood!" From the directions in the chapter before us, we learn such lessons as these -

I. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE CAUSE, AND NOT THE NUMBERS IN THE FIELD, IS TO BE THE FOUNDATION OF TRUST. The Jews were going into Palestine as the Lord's host, and, even though a minority sometimes, they were sure to win. "If God be for us, who can be against us?" was to be their ground of confidence. And our Lord contemplated the victory of a minority in his illustration about calculating the cost. "Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?" (Luke 14:31). A good cause, like a good king, is worth ten thousand soldiers (2 Samuel 18:3). David's great sin was trusting in numbers and not in God (2 Samuel 24:2, etc.).

II. A RIGHTEOUS CAUSE ADMITS OF THE WAR BEING ENTERED UPON RELIGIOUSLY. The priest was to give them an oration before the battle, showing that they were going to fight the Lord's battles, and that he would be with them (vers. 2-4). Of course, this has been imitated often by those who had not right on their side. Yet the hypocrisy of a party or people is in itself a testimony to the need for a religious spirit characterizing combatants. The most depraved feel somehow in the tremendous game of war that they are appealing to the God of battles, and should at least acknowledge him in entering the contest.

III. THE ARMY SHOULD BE WEEDED OF THE CAREFUL AND THE COWARDLY. Provision is here made for the dismissal home of those who are careworn about an undedicated habitation (ver. 5), or about a newly acquired vineyard (ver. 6), or about a betrothed wife (ver. 7), and also for the dismissal of those who are faint-hearted (ver. 8). The combatants should be as free as possible from care, and from the infection of cowardice. They might have sung, with the modern minstrels -

"We want no cowards in our band,
That from their colors fly;
We cell for valiant-hearted men,
Who're not afraid to die."

IV. IN ORDINARY CONQUESTS, PEACEFUL PROPOSALS ARE FIRST TO BE TRIED. (Vers. 10-15.) If these are entertained, well and good; if not, then the conquest will be all the surer of having shown the preliminary consideration. This was to regulate any foreign conquest into which they might be forced. When the victory was won, the male adult population were to be put to the sword, because they had forfeited their lives by rejecting the peaceful proposals; but the women and children and property were to be the prey of the invaders. We have here the suggestion of arbitration, from which much is properly hoped in mitigation of war.

V. BUT IN THE CONQUEST OF THE IDOLATROUS NATIONS OF CANAAN, EXTERMINATION WAS THE ONLY SAFETY FOR THE INVADING HOST. By their abominable idolatries they had forfeited all right to life, and their continued existence would only have been a snare to Israel. Children and women as well as adult males were to be included in the desolation. This apparently harsh decree has its counterpart still in the government of the world. A storm or pestilence does not respect children any more than men. It shows that the Great Ruler does not intend the present state of things to be final. A judgment to come is surely the logical lesson of such a feature of war and of providence. The innocent who suffer with the guilty shall get their compensation in the other life.

VI. THE RAVAGES OF WAR ARE TO BE KEPT WITHIN AS NARROW LIMITS AS POSSIBLE. This seems to be the lesson in this arrangement about the protection of fruit trees in the siege (vers. 19, 20). The future peaceful and prosperous state of things is to be considered, and no more harm done by the stress of war than is absolutely unavoidable. We have thus great principles applicable to all the warring period of human progress. Wars are still desperate remedies. A time is coming when "the war-drum shall throb no longer;" but meanwhile, let wars be prosecuted in a religious spirit and with all religious precautions, when they must be engaged in. A noble illustration of what may be done in war-time by Christian men is afforded by the "Christian Commission" in the United States. Its 'Annals,' written by Rev. Lemuel Moss, Home Secretary of the Commission, Philadelphia, 1868, form a handsome volume of 752 pages, which amply repay perusal. We must fight for principle, if we cannot secure its triumph by more peaceful means; but one day all will submit to it, and war be needed no longer. May God hasten the happy day! - R.M.E.

In war, forced service is worse than useless; it is a source of weakness - a cause of defeat. For successful warfare, all the skill and energy of every soldier is demanded; and unless the hearts of the warriors are in the conflict, no triumph can be anticipated.

I. TO BE LOYAL FRIENDS OF GOD, WE MUST SOMETIMES TREAT MEN AS FOES. If we are truly God's children, we must count God's friends to be our friends, God's foes to be our foes. We are not our own. We cannot expend life according to our personal will We are the property of another - the Supreme King. Therefore we must do his work and fight his battles. Our notion of what is right and just must be made subordinate to his. Our minds are often too much biased with selfish feeling to judge what is right, if left to ourselves; but we shall not err if we closely follow the precepts of our God. The interests of God's kingdom are to be held by us as paramount over the interests of man's kingdom.

II. GOD'S PRESENCE IN BATTLE OUTMATCHES ALL HUMAN FORCES. The source of conquest is not in the visible material of war. Victory is not on the side of the largest battalions. This is the creed of the infidel. If there were no God, it might be true. Mere numbers of combatants have as often hindered triumph as helped it. If God be ranged on the one side, it is a most unequal contest. The issue is a foregone event. Multiply human weapons or develop human skill as much as you please; let all the powers of arithmetic be exhausted in the computation; and still the finite is confronted by the Infinite. "Before him the inhabitants of the world are as grasshoppers." "If God be for us," vain is all opposition. Simple faith is the best equipment.

III. GOD'S PRIEST IS THE INSPIRER OF TRUE COURAGE. The sanctions and the inspirations of religion may be obtained for the business of war. The true priest will not heedlessly lend his sanction to any emprise of war, nor will he withhold his benediction from a righteous contest. By virtue of his office, he is the messenger from God to the royal court, as well as to the people. If ever the oracle of the sanctuary should be consulted, it is when war is imminent. It is not the business of the priest to initiate war; but if war becomes a duty, it is the business of the priest to encourage and 'respire the host of God's elect. The true priest is in close accord with God. God's heart beats within his heart; God's will finds prompt response in him. Hence the priest's voice is the human exponent of God's thought. God's strength is through hint conveyed to the mailed warriors, for he speaks with just authority.

IV. GOD WILL ACHIEVE VICTORY ONLY THROUGH THE RIGHT-HEARTED. Unless the soldier's mind and heart and soul be in the conflict, he had better tarry by his fireside. A few earnest, ardent warriors are preferred to mere array of numbers. If any soldier found more delight in his habitation or in his vineyard than in the success of battle, he might forthwith return. With the double-minded and the half-hearted God does not work. The channel must be emptied of self if Divine energy is to pass through it. We are not to conclude that God prefers the few to the many. But he will have the right kind of agents, or he will not work through them. The thirsty man does not prefer one drop of water to ten; but he does prefer one drop of wholesome water to a gallon of poisonous beverage. God works according to wise methods, and sends help through fitting channels. The best media through which he conveys military conquest is unselfish devotion to his cause. The consecrated soldier is the predestined conqueror.

V. LEADERS IN GREAT ENTERPRISES ARE TO BE SELECTED FROM THE COURAGEOUS FEW. Men will most faithfully follow those leaders whom they have themselves chosen. As the faint-hearted were unfit to go to the battle, so were they unfit to choose captains over the host. The courageous are also the most judicious. Accurately measuring the work that has to be done, they can the better judge who are the most competent to do it. The brave heart and the clear eye go together. These captains, so appointed, would be strong in the consciousness that they enjoyed the esteem and support of the troops. Such an arrangement gives the best guarantee for efficient leaders. On the same ground, the rulers of the Church should be chosen on the ground of spiritual fitness - solely on the ground of moral qualification. - D.

Three classes were exempted from service in war, and one class was forbidden to take part in it. The exempted classes were:

1. He who had built a house, but had not dedicated it.

2. He who had planted a vineyard, but had not eaten of its fruit.

3. He who had betrothed a wife, but had not married her.

The class forbidden to engage in the war was the class of cowards (ver. 8). These regulations -

I. HAD AN IMPORTANT BEARING ON THE STABILITY OF SOCIETY. War has naturally a disturbing effect on industry and commerce. It unsettles the public mind. It creates a feeling of insecurity. It prevents enterprise. These evils would be intensified in a state of society where, besides the danger of the country being overrun by hostile armies, each adult male was liable for service in the field. In such a condition of society there would obviously be a disinclination, when war was imminent, to acquire property, to institute improvements, or to enter into any new engagements. The man who built a house would not be sure that he would live to dedicate it; the man who planted a vineyard, that he would live to eat of it; the man who betrothed a wife, that he would be spared to take her. This provision of the Law was therefore calculated to have a reassuring and tranquillizing effect, and would so far counteract the tendency of warlike rumors to paralyze industry and the arrangements of domestic life.

II. WERE AN IMPORTANT ALLEVIATION OF THE EVILS OF WAR. They aimed at exempting those who, from their circumstances and prospects, would feel most keenly the hardship of a call to service. Ver. 7 connects itself with the importance attached in ancient nations to the perpetuation of the house. "According to modern notions, a forlorn hope would naturally be composed of men who had not given hostages to fortune. Such, however, was not the light in which the matter presented itself to the Greek mind. The human plant had flowered. The continuance of the house was secure. It was therefore comparatively of little moment what befell the man whose duty to his ancestors had been fulfilled" (Renouf). The sentiment here expressed was that of ancient nations generally.

III. WERE OF GREAT IMPORTANCE IN SECURING EFFICIENCY IN THE ARMY. The army was plainly better without the cowards than with them. One coward may do harm to a whole company. But, besides these, it was likely that persons serving by compulsion, in a spirit of discontent at disappointed prospects, and for the sake of their prospects unwilling to part with their lives, would prove but inferior soldiers. At any rate, there was policy in recruiting the army only from those who had a fixed stake in the welfare of the nation. The man with house, wife, and vineyard was more likely to be ready to shed the last drop of his blood in defense of his treasures than one wholly unattached, or attached only in hope.


1. Those entering the Christian warfare need to count the cost (Luke 14:25-34).

2. In Christ's service there are no exemptions.

3. Nevertheless, consideration should be shown in the work of the Church for those who are peculiarly situated.

4. The danger of being entangled in spirit in Christ's service (2 Timothy 2:4).

5. The faint-hearted are no strength to a cause (Judges 7:3).

6. Numbers are not the only thing to be considered in reckoning the efficiency of a Church or of any body of spiritual warriors. - J.O.

If these rules embody a severity happily rare in modern warfare, they also exhibit a forbearance which many modern nations might well learn from. We have here -


1. Peace was invariably to be offered before attack to a foreign city (vers. 10, 11). It is presumed that the war was just, and undertaken with the sanction of Jehovah. If peace was accepted, no one was to be injured, but only tribute imposed. The peacemaking spirit is pleasing to God (Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18).

2. In the case of a city taken by storm, no women, children, or cattle were to be destroyed (ver. 14). The amount of self-restraint which this implies can only be appreciated after reading the accounts of warfare as anciently conducted. But we may get some light upon it by studying the horrors of the sack of a city, even in modern times, and under European, or even British, generalship (see histories of the Peninsular wars).

3. In the sparing of trees useful for food (ver. 19). War conducted on these principles, however severe in certain of its aspects, cannot be described as barbarous.


1. The resisting city, if foreign, was to be punished by the slaughter of its adult males (ver. 13). This, which sounds so harsh, was perhaps a necessity from the circumstances of the nation. It certainly typifies the "utter destruction" which shall fall on all resisting God's will, and placing themselves in an attitude of hostility to his kingdom on the earth.

2. The Canaanites were to be completely exterminated (vers. 16-18). This case differs from the other in being the execution of a judicial sentence, as well as an indispensable means to their own preservation against corruption (ver. 18). A general type of the fate which shall overtake the ungodly. - J.O.

Sin has made such fatal havoc in our world, that the most severe remedies have to be applied. In the administration of these remedies God has chosen to employ men. Thus he allies himself with us and makes us partners with him in the administration of his kingdom. "Such honor have all his saints."

I. THE AIMS OF THE DIVINE GOVERNMENT MUST BE ACCOMPLISHED. Every aim which is formed in God's mind is a seed of righteousness. Therefore it must grow and come to perfection. Necessity enters into its very essence. No power on earth or in hell is able to hinder its accomplishment. Who shall withstand the will of Omnipotence? Righteousness shall, sooner or later, be triumphant. All opposition to Jehovah's will shall eventually be crushed out. He who created is able also to destroy. For the present his patient love provides other remedies; and if remedial measures fail, then fell destruction shall sweep into eternal darkness all opposition to his supreme will.

II. THE ENDS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS MAY BE ATTAINED BY PEACEABLE MEANS IF MEN WILL SUBMIT TO GOD'S TERMS. (Ver. 10.) Terms of peace were to be offered by the Hebrews in their wars with outlying nations. The main condition of peace and friendship was the relinquishment of idolatry. If men will fear and serve God, they shall live. To know God as our God is life eternal. If men will turn their backs upon the sun, they must dwell in shadow; so if men will sever themselves from the Source of life, they inevitably die. Not once, but often, does God offer to us reconciliation, blessing, peace. By every method of persuasion and entreaty the Father of our spirits has endeavored to win us to paths of righteous obedience. His will is our sanctification; purity or perdition - here is the alternative!

III. THE EXECUTORS OF JEHOVAH'S WILL, SHALL BE AMPLY REWARDED. "All the spoil thereof shalt thou take unto thyself" (ver. 14). The harder the work, the more abundant shall be the reward. God's remuneration is ever ample and munificent. Most carefully does he weigh every hardship we endure for him. Our every tear he puts into his bottle. Blind unbelief may count him an "austere Master," who requires irksome and painful work; but the man of filial temper will run on most difficult errands, and his language is uniformly this, "I do always the things that please him;" "They who suffer with their Lord now shall be glorified by-and-by together."

IV. EXCESSIVE WICKEDNESS INVOLVES MEN IN COMPLETE DESTRUCTION. Terms of peace were offered to less guilty nations lying in Israel's vicinity, but for the inhabitants of Canaan - such was their moral rottenness - there was no alternative but destruction. "Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" (ver. 16). It is well for us to learn that there is a stage in our moral disease when the remedy of mercy ceases to take effect. It becomes "a savor of death unto death." "With the breath of his mouth shall he slay the wicked." When the heart has become identified with rebellion, when all feeling is averse from God, when total depravity has set in, - then God abandons the man to his inevitable doom. "Israel would have none of him... so he gave them up to their own hearts' lust." This is man's blackest doom. Yet this is mercy for others.

V. THE WORK OF DESTRUCTION SHOULD BE BLENDED WITH PRUDENT KINDNESS. In laying siege against a city, not an axe was to be laid upon any fruit tree. Here we have a sample of' God's thoughtful and generous love for men! Whatever can minister to the need and comfort of his servants shall be secured to them. Though engaged in the awful work of destruction, he does not forget mercy; he is planning all the while for his servants' good. Though a frown is upon his face, tenderest love is active within his heart. More careful is he for us than we are for ourselves. Not a want, however minute, is by him overlooked. The desolating flood is upon the earth, but an ark is provided for Noah. The rain of fire is consuming Sodom, but Lot is safe in Zoar. "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered." - D.

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