But you may destroy the trees that you know do not produce fruit. Use them to build siege works against the city that is waging war against you, until it falls.
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 -
I. WAR'S HORRORS MITIGATED.
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.
II. WAR'S SEVERITIES EXEMPLIFIED.
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.
Thou shalt not destroy the trees.
It will be observed that this instruction is given to the Jews in the event of their going to war against any city. No question of mere horticulture arises in connection with this injunction. It is wantonness that is forbidden; it is not art that is decried. Trees that did not bear fruit were of course available for war, but trees that could be used for purposes of sustaining human life were to be regarded as in a sense sacred and inviolable. A prohibition of this kind is charged with lofty moral significance. When men go to war they are in hot blood; everything seems to go down before the determination to repulse the enemy and to establish a great victory. But here men in their keenest excitement are to discriminate between one thing and another, and are not to permit themselves to turn the exigencies of war into an excuse for wantonness or for the destruction of property that bears an intimate relation to human sustenance. Dropping all that is merely incidental in the instruction, the moral appeal to ourselves is perfect in completeness and dignity. Civilisation has turned human life into a daily war. We live in the midst of contentions, rivalries, oppositions, and fierce conflicts of every kind, and God puts down His law in the very midst of our life, and calls upon us to regulate everything by its sacredness. God has not left human life in a state of chaos; His boundaries are round about it; His written and unwritten laws constitute its restraints, its rewards, and its penalties; and even war in its most violent form is not to blind our eyes to the claims of God. Men say that all is fair in love and war, but this proverbial morality has no sanction in Holy Scripture. We are too apt to plead the exigency of circumstances in extenuation of acts that would not have otherwise been committed. It is evident that there are points in life at which circumstances must triumph or law must be maintained. Thus an appeal is made to reason and conscience nearly every day. When the human or the Divine must go down, the Christian ought to have no hesitation as to his choice. Victories maybe bought at too high a price. He who gives fruit-bearing trees in exchange for his triumphs may be said to have paid his soul for the prizes of this world. The young life, boastful of its energy, insists upon having its pleasures, cost what they may, and the old man is left to ruminate that in his youth he won his victories by cutting down his fruit trees. Two views may be taken of the circumstances and objects by which we are surrounded; the one is the highest view of their possible uses, and the other the low view which contents itself with immediate advantages. The wood of the fruit tree might be as useful as any other wood for keeping back an enemy or serving as a defence; but the fruit tree was never meant for that purpose, and to apply it in that direction is to oppose the intention of God. We are to look at the highest uses of all things — a fruit tree for fruit; a flower for beauty; a bird for music; a rock for building. Power and right are not co-equal terms. We have the power to cut down fruit trees, but not the right; we have the power to mislead the blind, but not the right; we have the power to prostitute our talents, but not the right. The right is often the more difficult course as to its process, but the difficulty of the process is forgotten in the heaven of its issue. To have the power of cutting down fruit trees is to have the power of inflicting great mischief upon society. A man may show great power in cutting down a fruit tree, but he may show still greater power in refusing to do so. The first power is merely physical, the second power is of the nature of God's omnipotence. Forbearance is often the last point of power. To love an enemy is to show greater strength than could possibly be shown by burning up himself and his house, and leaving nothing behind but the smoking ashes. There are times when even fruit trees are to be cut down. Perhaps this is hardly clear on the first putting of it. The meaning is that fruit tree may cease to be a fruit tree. When Jesus came to the fig tree and found on it nothing but leaves, He doomed it to perpetual barrenness, and it withered away. Even the husbandman pleaded that if the fruit tree did not bear fruit after one more trial it should be cut down as a cumberer of the ground. Fruit trees are not to be kept in the ground simply because in years long past they did bear fruit. Trees are only available according to the fruit which they bear today. "Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit."
A fruit tree may be used for timber, or it may be kept for fruit. In the legislation of Moses there is a command which directs the Hebrews to spare the fruit trees of the Promised Land. Moses knew that the land would be occupied by conquest. The Hebrews would have to besiege many of its towns and cities before they could enter them. For the siege they would require timber, and would be apt to destroy the groves of olives and palms and oranges, which have always been the wealth of Palestine. Inasmuch as they were expecting to find their homes in these conquered towns and cities, it was very important that the fruit trees should be preserved.
1. Life's opportunities and institutions are our fruit trees. They may be used for timber, or they may be preserved for fruit. It is possible to exhaust their power and vitality now, or they may be protected and developed, and made to yield fruit from generation to generation. The law of Moses — and his words here, or elsewhere, are confirmed by other portions of Holy Scripture — commands men to regard the future. Life's advantages are designed for those who shall come after us, as well as for those who now enjoy them. We are only stewards. Our interest is but a life interest. The future most not be sacrificed to the present.
2. Yet how often this sacrifice is witnessed! When I see a man who is making a fortune by dishonest practices, I feel that he is converting fruit trees into timber; when I see a young Christian, who is absorbed in all the gaieties of social life, eager for the dance and the card party and the race, I feel that he is turning his fruit trees into timber; when I see a schoolboy who refuses the education which his father offers him, I feel that he is raising an axe against the fruit trees; when I hear a man say that his business will be ruined if he becomes a Christian, I look about me to see what he is building with the timber of his fruit trees; when I meet with individuals who are neglecting the salvation of their souls for the sake of worldly pleasure, I tremble for the fruit trees; when I hear distant nations calling in vain for the Gospel, and then realise that the Church has wealth and influence, I wonder if the fruit trees are used for timber.
3. There are many ways of violating this law. The axe is busy all the time. Our fruit trees are constantly sacrificed. For men too often prefer a present gratification to a future good; and they try and gain the whole world, even at the risk of losing their immortal souls. The rich man of the parable did so, and Lazarus did not. And by and by the one was comforted and the other was tormented.
4. In our regard for the Sabbath this principle has place and importance. The Sabbath is a fruit. tree. It may be converted into timber. If you have a journey to make, you can use the Sabbath; if yon have any work to accomplish, you can employ the hours of holy time; if you wish to live for pleasure, you can count the days of pleasure in a week seven instead of six. A present and temporary advantage may thus be gained. But how about the future? Is it right or wise to break in upon the sanctity of the Sabbath? Can we prosper, can the nation prosper, without this holy day? Yet if we secularise the day now, there will soon be no Sabbath left; and when the Sabbath disappears, will not freedom disappear also, and will not the comfort of our happy homes be gone?
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