Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
1. The case supposed is one in which the prophet contradicts a revelation already received.
2. The prophet does not dispute the evidence of that earlier revelation. On the contrary, he admits it. He stands within the lines of it. He professes to speak under its authority. Yet he asks the people to violate its fundamental laws. This of itself was sufficient to convict him. His pretensions are disposed of by the simple fact that, professing to speak in the Name of God, he gives the people a message contradictory of what he admits God to have previously revealed. No sign and wonder can accredit contradictions. The prophet is inconsistent with himself, and is not to be listened to. Nay, his message had been anticipated, and the thing he bids the people do, expressly forbidden. Notice, then -
I. EXTERNAL MIRACLES DO NOT OF THEMSELVES ACCREDIT A REVELATION AS FROM GOD. (Vers. 1-3.) This prophet gives a sign or wonder - presumably a predictive word - and it actually comes to pass. The failure of his sign, according to Deuteronomy 18:21, 22, would have been a proof of falsity. The converse of this, however, that he speaks God's word because his sign has not failed, is not immediately to be admitted. There are other tests to be applied. In this case, the prophet's message is condemned because contradictory of what he himself allows to have been a true revelation. This raises the question of the value of miracles as credentials of revelation. That they have a value is not disputed, but not as mere signs and wonders. This will be best seen by contrasting the sign or wonder given by this prophet with the evidence of the earlier revelation. If we take the Scripture account of the founding of the Mosaic dispensation, it is impossible to question the magnificence and convincingness of the displays of Divine power and holiness therein contained. In founding his dispensations (Mosaic and Christian), God has not only given evidence, but an amount and kind of evidence which put the source of the revelation - admitting the facts to be as stated - beyond all cavil. For here, it is not merely the fact of miracle which is to be regarded, but the number, nature, magnitude, variety, spiritual quality of the supernatural events, in connection with the self-evidencing divineness of the revelation itself. The difficulty as to whether the miracle proves the doctrine, or the doctrine the miracle, or in what proportions the two factors combine, has little place in the actual evidences of revelation. The two cannot be separated, either in thought or in fact. Grant the authenticity of the miracles of the Gospels or of the Pentateuch, and it will not be disputed that they originated with God, not with Beelzebub. To this mass of evidence, overwhelming in its sublimity and convincingness - evidence- embracing the wonders of Egypt, the displays of God's power, love, and grace in the events of the Exodus, the miracles of the desert, the stupendous revelations of Sinai, etc. - the prophet opposes a few stray signs and wonders. Which were the people to believe? Plainly, no sign or wonder would have justified an Israelite in believing a prophet whose teaching contradicted the first principles of his revelation; as no sign or wonder would justify us in believing teachings contradictory of the first principles of ours.
II. THE RISE OF FALSE PROPHETS IS TO BE ANTICIPATED. (Ver. 1.) The passage takes it for granted that they will arise. They did arise in Old Testament times, and they will do so again. Their appearance is predicted in connection with "the last days" (Matthew 24:11; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1). "Signs and wonders" will not be wanting (Matthew 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10). False teachers are included under the category of false prophets (Matthew 7:15; 2 Peter 2:1). They assert as the truth of God principles and doctrines subversive of the revelation God has given. The readiness of people to believe them arises from want of knowledge (Ephesians 4:14); from the itch for novelties (2 Timothy 4:3); from a diseased craving for the marvelous - witness the credulity displayed in connection with spiritualism (2 Thessalonians 2:9-13); above all, from the adaptation of their teachings to the inclinations of depraved hearts (2 Timothy 3:1-8).
III. THE RISE OF FALSE PROPHETS IS PERMITTED FOR THE SIFTING OF THE CHURCH. (Ver. 3.) God has thus much to do with their appearance that he permits it as a means of proving and sifting the Church. The trial is a searching and real one. The plausibility of their errors may occasion, even to believers, much mental conflict, But out of this conflict they come forth strengthened and purified, with firmer hold upon the truth, and clearer insight into Scripture. Those willing to be deceived are, on the other hand, led by the spirit of delusion. False prophets shake all but "the very elect" (Matthew 24:24). The heresies, schisms, controversies, etc., which have agitated the Church, with the teachings of antichristian philosophy and science outside of it, have always had this effect of sifting, while in the end they have subserved the progress of the truth.
IV. THE TEACHING OF FALSE PROPHETS IS TO BE REJECTED.
1. Their doctrine is to be tried by its conformity with the rule of faith (Isaiah 8:20). John bids us "try the spirits," giving as the reason that "many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
2. Their doctrine, if found contradictory of Scripture, is to be unhesitatingly rejected.
3. Of old, the prophet whose teachings struck at the foundations of the theocracy was to be put to death (ver. 5). This rule no longer applies. But it is the duty of the Church, in the exercise of her judicial functions, to deprive such a teacher of office and status in her ministry (see also 2 John 1:10, 11. - J.O.
treason against the Divine King, and justly punishable with death. The previous chapter (vers. 29-32) affords timely warning against sinful curiosity about heathen practices; and in this chapter the people are warned against all who would tempt them towards idolatry. The three cases mentioned are worthy of separate study.
I. THE FALSE PROPHET, WITH HIS SIGNS AND WONDERS. Moses admits the possibility of signs and wonders in the interests of idolatry. This raises the whole question of miracles. These may be "helps to faith," or they may be "a trial of faith." It is evidently in the latter light that they are to be regarded when the wonder-worker wishes to lead them to idolatry. The horror of idolatry is really to fortify them against the miracle, so that, though it may try their faith, it will not overcome it. A miracle in itself, consequently, is not decisive, but must be taken along with the doctrine it proposes to support. God allows the miracle to be wrought by the false prophet to prove his people, "to know whether they love the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul" (ver. 3). The false prophet is to be taken, as a criminal convicted of a capital offence, and put to death. He has acted a traitor's part among God's subjects, and must suffer a traitor's doom. By this terrible judgment does God stamp out all tendency to idolatry.
II. THE NEAR RELATIVE AS A SEDUCER TO IDOLATRY. The false prophet might fail, and a near relative succeed. The public miracle, with its meretricious ostentation, might be withstood, while the unostentatious and secret insinuation of a near relative might prevail. Hence the instruction in these verses, 6-11, as to how the idol-loving relative is to be treated. Not only is the insinuation to be put away, but the person making it, no matter how nearly related, is to be treated as a public criminal, and put to death. All the sympathy which blood relationship ensures is to be set aside before this crime of appalling magnitude, and the relative is to cast the first stone at the apostate, the execution being completed by "the hand of all the people."
III. THE APOSTASY OF A CITY. In this collective case, after a careful investigation, the utter destruction of the city is to be carried out, the idolatrous inhabitants are to be put to death, with all their cattle, their property burnt with fire, and the city to be never afterwards rebuilt (vers. 12-18). The idolatry, in propagating itself, must be stamped out even more carefully than in the individual cases of apostasy already mentioned. The sin must not be tolerated in the theocracy.
IV. WE SHOULD SURELY LEARN FROM THIS HOW HEINOUS EVERY KIND OF IDOLATRY IS TO THE MOST HIGH. We may be idolaters through covetousness (Colossians 3:5), through ambition, through any disposition to look for succor to things or persons instead of to God. It may be as needful for us to be exhorted against this sin, as it was for those to whom John in his Epistle wrote, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). The temptation is strong to live by sense and sight instead of by faith. It will help us in withstanding temptation to remember how heinous the sin is! It is not less a sin because now idolaters are not taken out to a public place and executed. We deserve execution, though we do not receive it. For idolatry is high treason against God. When we trust, e.g. in money or in men, so as to attribute to them the powers belonging really to God, we rob him of his rights and bestow them upon others. If this was a capital offence in the Mosaic times, it is no less offensive to the Lord now. He is changeless in his judgments, and so must regard the iniquity as in the same serious light as ever. In such circumstances it surely becomes us -
1. To humble ourselves most penitently before God because of our idolatries. We have been guilty of greater crimes than we suspected, and consequently should entertain the deepest possible penitence.
2. We should carefully abstain from all tendencies to an idolatrous spirit. "Keep yourselves from idols," says John. It shows how much is in our own power. We can abstain from much idolatry, if we are only watchful. In loyalty to God, out of respect for his honor and glory, we ought to keep ourselves in a trustful, humble attitude towards him, and reject every temptation to transfer our allegiance. We shall thus find ourselves going forward steadily in the exercise of spiritual purity and power. - R.M.E.
I. THAT GOD HAD ASSURED ISRAEL OF HIS UNITY, SUPREMACY, AND GOODNESS. In that early age men had not indulged in intellectual speculation touching the existence of a God. Mind had not yet formulated its proofs, nor its disproofs. The tendency of depraved tastes and instincts was practically to ignore a spiritual Deity, and to put a rash confidence in inferior beings or in intermediate agents. The demonstrations which God gave of his supremacy, to Israel in Egypt, were demonstrations addressed to their practical experience. They had been bondmen. They had long endured a crushing oppression. They were reduced to a condition of abject and dependent weakness. By whom had they been rescued from Pharaoh's giant grasp? By whom? Not by any angelic champion, nor by any of the idols of the earth! Obviously, and without question, they had been recovered to freedom and to national life by the arm of Jehovah and by none other! Their new condition was the manifest proof that God reigned, and that he had gloriously triumphed. The unity and supremacy of the true God was established upon a solid basis. This cardinal truth shone upon the nation with the clear radiance of noon day. If anything was known this was known, that Jehovah was absolute Monarch - God of gods and Lord of lords. Of this grand truth Israel was a witness to all the nations of the earth.
II. THAT ISRAEL'S FAITH IN GOD WAS SOMETIMES PUT TO SEVERE TESTS BY THE PRETEXTS OF DIVINERS. The dream of fanatics would at times be verified. The arts of necromancers would sometimes succeed. Base motives of gain and renown would keep these pursuits alive. The specious successes may have been fortunate coincidences. They may have been specially permitted by God for wise and practical purposes. They served as a test for the faith of Israel. Faith never put to the proof would soon lose its tone and fiber. Granted that the prediction of a soothsayer found fulfillment, was this sufficient ground for sundering their loyalty to Jehovah? - any ground for recognizing the power of an idol-god? Granted that something might be said on behalf of intermediate intelligences - agents and servants of the Most High - did this warrant their offering to such, honors which were the prerogative of Jehovah alone? Had not Jehovah alone redeemed them from Egyptian misery, and led them through the wilderness? And did not every impulse of gratitude, and every principle of reason, require that Jehovah alone should be worshipped? These artifices of soothsayers would serve to test their faith, and (if faith was sound) to brace and strengthen it. For this they should have rejoiced greatly, that the "trial of their faith, more precious far than gold, though it were tried by fire, might appear unto praise and honor and glory."
III. THAT GOD HAD APPOINTED ISRAEL TO BE HIS EXECUTIONER OF ALL IDOLATERS, The only reasonable ground on which the Hebrews could vindicate their possession of Canaan was, that the foul idolatries of the Canaanites had made them a pest and a curse upon the globe. And if now the conquerors should yield to the habits and vices of the conquered, reason and right would require that they likewise should be displaced. The Nemesis of extermination had fallen upon the dwellers in Canaan, not because they were Canaanites, but because they were idolaters. Abraham had been called out of Charran, and received the promise of Canaan, that he might be a living and loyal witness for God. And the special mission of Abraham's posterity was to stamp out idolatry, and to lift high the banner of Jehovah. To do this effectually, no connivance with the cursed thing must be tolerated. If the luminous agent employed to shed light makes alliance with the element of darkness, its mission is terminated: it is good for nothing. Hence, in order that the Hebrews might keep alive the lamp of heavenly truth, they must burn pure oil. The evil growth must be nipped in the bud. The dread disease must be checked at its very first symptom. If they are to continue "the sacramental host of God's elect," no secret foe must be concealed in the camp. The decree had gone forth, "Idolatry shall cease!" and Israel had been commissioned to execute that decree.
IV. THAT ISRAEL'S LOYALTY TO GOD REQUIRED THE SUBORDINATION OF ALL OTHER TIES AND CLAIMS. The ligaments of blood relationship are strong - dear as very life. The ties of friendship and of conjugal love are tender and sacred. No language can adequately set them forth. Yet God has a prior claim. His will forestalls every other obligation. The love which is due to him overleaps every boundary - absorbs every other affection. "With all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength," that love to him, if adequate, must be. And this superior and incomparable obligation of love will sometimes necessitate most painful self-denial - the amputation of a right hand, the sacrifice of aright eye. The demand made upon the Jews, to slay a wife or child, if addicted to idolatry, was a demand replete with awful severity; yet no one can question its righteousness. And if so be the will of God is clearly understood, natural inclination must yield to dutiful obedience. Said the immaculate Son, "I do always the things that please him."
V. THAT THE HABIT OF IDOLATRY MUST BE ROOTED OUT, THOUGH IT MAY REQUIRE THE MOST DRASTIC MEASURES.
1. Searching investigation was first required (ver. 14). They were to inquire - to inquire "diligently" - to search into the very heart of the matter. It would be a crime - yea, a murder - if they should act judicially on mere rumor or through any evil bias. The very utmost endeavors to reach the facts were required in the interests of truth and humanity. Certainty of the fact must precede any sentence of destruction.
2. The perilous effects of evil influence (ver. 13). Certain men of Belial can draw away into rebellion the inhabitants of a whole city. Some men of strong will anti clever ingenuity are well adapted to lead their fellows; and men of weak judgment readily follow. Both classes err. Men of superior parts are highly responsible to use their powers as God-entrusted talents; and those possessing lesser capacity are bound to examine for themselves, and to suspend action until judgment is convinced.
3. Where idolatry was clearly proved, the most complete punishment was exacted. The whole Hebrew nation were at once converted into soldiers, and were summoned to assail that miscreant city. The body politic was to gather up into a point all its righteous strength, and expel that foreign evil from its midst, life mercy was to be shown; no life was to be spared. Not a lamb in the flock was to escape; not an ounce of spoil was to be gathered. The executors of God's vengeance must be above all suspicion of selfish and sordid interest. No material gain must accrue to them. The charred and blackened ruins of that city were to be a monument forever of the righteous severity of Jehovah.
VI. THAT THE DESIGN OF PUNISHMENT IS THE MORAL GOOD OF SURVIVORS. (Vers. 5, 11, 17.) The effect anticipated was this, "All Israel shall hear, and fear, and do no more any such wickedness." On God's side the result would be that he would "turn and show them mercy, and multiply" their numbers. Very clearly was it announced that this judicial action was the action of God - that righteous and obedient Hebrews were the officers of Jehovah. In view of the magnificent results upon the whole nation, yea, upon the world, this grave disaster might be patiently endured. To spare the lives of these rebels, and yet to retain the favor of Jehovah, was a sheer impossibility. A severe choice was demanded. The remedy was painful, but the effect anticipated was precious. The smile of God, and the moral elevation of the nation, were the practical fruits. In these benign results, the survivors would have great occasion for grateful joy. The destruction of sinners is a beacon-light, to which we also should take heed. - D.
Deuteronomy 17:2-8; Deuteronomy 19:15-21).
I. GOD ALLOWS NO CLAIM OF NATURAL AFFECTION TO INTERFERE WITH HIGHER DUTY TO HIMSELF. It is the same stern voice which we hear even in the Gospels (Matthew 8:21, 22; Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26). The demands of God on his people's supreme and undivided allegiance are not now a whit less rigorous than they were of old.
II. GOD WOULD HAVE US REGARD THOSE WHO DELIBERATELY ATTEMPT TO SEDUCE US FROM HIM AS OUR WORST FOES. They really are so, whether they think it or not. No language is strong enough to paint the crime of seeking to seduce a soul from its allegiance to its God. The guilt of the man who deliberately sets himself to counter-work a child's affection for its parent, and to produce alienation of heart between them, is trivial in comparison with it. The crime is that of soul-murder. For in fidelity to God lies the happiness of life here, and salvation in the world to come. We are not, therefore, to allow any private affection to blind us to the enormity of this crime. Those whom we cherish as dearest are only the more guilty if they take advantage of our affection to betray us into deadly sin.
III. GOD REQUIRES THAT WE DO NOT SPARE THOSE WHO ARE GUILTY OF THIS CRIME. We are no longer called upon - and we may be thankful for it-to impeach our seducers, and lead them out to death. Our religion requires that we return good for evil, that we pray for those who injure us, that we seek their conversion and salvation. But it does not require of us that we do not abhor their conduct, and severely reprobate and denounce it. We fail in duty if there is not placed on all attempts at spiritual seduction the immediate brand of our strongest condemnation. - J.O.
I. EVIL-DISPOSED PERSONS CAN DO MUCH HARM. A few men - "children of Belial" - perhaps, at first, but one or two, succeed in seducing, and ultimately in destroying, a whole city. Their cancerous influence speedily infected the mass. Like fire breaking out in a little corner of a building, it soon involved the whole place in ruin. "One sinner destroyeth, much good" (Ecclesiastes 9:18). "Evil communications corrupt good manners (1 Corinthians 15:33). Evil is not to be thought lightly of, because at first confined to a few individuals, and circumscribed in its range of operations. It will spread faster than good.
II. THE SPIRITUAL CONDITION OF EACH CITY IS OF INTEREST TO THE WHOLE COMMUNITY. Disease in one part of the social organism will speedily communicate itself to the other parts.
III. IMMEDIATE ACTION SHOULD BE TAKEN TO REDUCE EVIL IN ITS CHOSEN SEATS. No longer, indeed, with carnal weapons. We have no warrant to proceed by fire and sword. A better way is open to us of reducing evil than by judicial slaughter. The wickedness of a city is doubtless a token of God's wrath resting upon it. If it repent not, his judgments will fall upon it with all the old severity. But it does not lie with us to give effect to these judgments; God keeps them in his own hand. Our work, meanwhile, is the happier one of seeking the reduction of evil by spiritual means - by reasoning, by persuasion, by preaching of the truth, by substituting good influences for bad ones. These weapons are adequate to the work for which they are given, and ought to be plied to the utmost. Places differ in spiritual character. There are those of which it may be said - as of Pergamos, "where Satan's seat is" (Revelation 2:13) - that in them evil has a kind of stronghold. Against these, by preference, the assaults of God's servants should be directed. The apostles chose for their attacks the leading centers of pagan influence. One stronghold gained is worth a dozen outposts, - J.O.