When you are come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.
It is recognised as a principle amongst legislators and magistrates, that the great end of punishment is the prevention of crime. And there is no doubt that, up to a certain point, this object is gained. The public execution will strike terror into many, though numbers, again, more hardened in wickedness, will depart from the spectacle, and perhaps commit the very crime for which they have just seen a fellow creature die. It is not, however, that they actually set at nought the punishment; it is rather that there are always so many chances of escape, the men transgress in the hope that they shall elude detection, The fearfulness of a threatening, even though combined with the certainty of execution, will not always, nor even commonly, deter men from violating the commandments of God. There is no need for having recourse to imagination for the destruction of a people on account of their wickedness, and their inheritance passing into the possession of others. This is only what actually occurred in the instance of the land of Canaan, whose inhabitants were exterminated because of their crimes, and it was then handed over to a new population. There was here what might strictly be called a public execution. There was no giving a secret commission to the angel of death to move through the doomed ranks, and lay them low; which might perhaps have left it doubtful whether or not there had been any judicial interference; but the Israelites were put visibly into the place of public executioners, being charged with the terrible commission — "Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them." They were sent expressly to punish a guilty and condemned population. And the first memorable thing, if you examine the Scriptural record, is that God Himself placed no dependence on the influence and effect of the public execution; for His Word is full of warning to the Israelites, that they would fall under the like condemnation if they imitated the practices of those whom they destroyed. So far from its being reckoned on as an insupposable or even an improbable thing, that they who had been commissioned to slay multitudes on account of their sin would themselves practise the sin so fearfully and openly visited, there is the frequent repetition of energetic denunciations of that sin; and Moses is directed to urge the Israelites, with all earnestness and affection, to take heed that they provoke not the Lord by following the example of their predecessors in the land. You must be further aware, that so far from having been unnecessary, the warning actually failed in deterring the Israelites from the accursed practices; so that it was not against improbable danger that Moses directed his parting admonitions. For when the Israelites had destroyed the Canaanites, and taken possession of their land, they quickly gave in to the very abominations which had been visited with all the fearfulness of a public execution. You read of them in the earliest period of their settlement — "They forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth." And their whole history, up to the time when God was provoked to let loose against them the power of the Assyrian, is a record of rebellion under those special and flagrant forms which had marked the guilty career of the tribes which had perished by their sword. Where, then, was the supposed influence of a public execution? What ground is there for the imagination, that even were the Almighty visibly to interfere, and in His character of moral Governor of the universe to anticipate in certain cases those judgments which shall hereafter be poured out on the impenitent, there would be wrought any permanent effect on the great mass of men? — as though the thing wanted in order to repress the actings of unrighteousness were only a more open and express demonstration that punishment is to follow upon sin. And now you may be disposed to ask with what view we have endeavoured to show, that even what might be called a public execution, the present visible descent of the vengeance of God on the perpetrators of certain sins, would probably be ineffectual in deterring others from the practice of those sins — ineffectual even in regard of such persons as had the best means of knowing that the infliction was the direct and judicial consequence of the crime. We have but one object; not that of merely presenting a severe and repulsive picture of the depravity of our nature, but that of shutting you up to the conviction of the necessity, the indispensableness of the Divine grace, in order to your being withheld from the commission of sin. We would withdraw you, if we could, from all reliance on anything but the immediate workings of the Spirit of God, when the matter in question is the being able to resist this or that temptation, or to keep oneself undefiled by this or that wickedness. We would teach you, however harsh the teaching may sound, that there is no wickedness of which you are not capable, and that if you think yourselves secure against a sin just because the sin may be held in abhorrence, or because you may be thoroughly aware of God's purpose of visiting it with extraordinary vengeance, you display a confidence in your own resolution and strength which, as savouring of pride, can only be expected to issue in defeat. This is virtually the doctrine of our text. For you will perceive that God ascribes it wholly to Himself that the Israelites were preserved from the abominations of the heathen. "These nations hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do." They would have been just as bad had they been left to themselves; but God had not suffered them to fall into such flagrant transgression. He had so acted upon them by His grace as to preserve them from sins, of which they had the seeds in their hearts, just as much as others, in whom those seeds were allowed to bring forth their fruits. And though the text speaks only of the past, making mention of preventing grace as having hitherto wrought upon the Israelites, it is clearly implied in the fact of a remonstrance against any future imitation of the heathen, that there would be no security for them except in their being still withheld by the influences of God's Spirit.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.