Do not return a slave to his master if he has taken refuge with you.
No very close connection exists between the precepts in these verses, yet they are variously related, and suggest by their juxtaposition lessons of importance. We have -
I. A WORD SPOKEN IN THE INTERESTS OF LIBERTY. (Vers. 15, 16.)
1. The fugitive slave is not to be given back to his master. The case is that of a slave escaping from a heathen master. The spirit of the Mosaic Law is wholly opposed to slavery. This precept anticipates our own law, that a slave setting foot on British territory is free.
2. Every encouragement is to be given him to settle in the land. He is not to be oppressed or treated with unkindness, but is to be allowed to settle where he pleases. The holy land was thus a true asylum for the oppressed.
II. A BLOW STRUCK AT LEWDNESS. (Vers. 17, 18.) The lawgiver alone, so far as we know, among ancient nations, lays his axe at the root of this great evil. He refuses to it the least toleration. He is right. The prevalence of lewdness in a land blights and withers everything good. It saps the manhood of the nation, destroys its love of liberty (2 Peter 2:19), turns religion to hypocrisy (Matthew 23:25-29), kills humane feeling, dissolves domestic ties, and degrades the wretched victim of it to the lowest point of brutishness -
"It hardens a' within,
And petrifies the feeling!"
BURNS. The contrast between the noble severity of the Bible teaching on this subject, and the wretchedly low tone of the teaching of such writers as Bolingbroke, or even of Hume, is very noteworthy.
III. CHECKS IMPOSED ON COVETOUSNESS.
1. The lender is not permitted to exact usury from his brother (vers. 19, 20). That the taking of interest was not regarded as in itself sinful is plain from the permission to take usury from a stranger. But in the circumstances of the time, and in view of the design of the lawgiver to cheek rather than to encourage extensive commercial operations on the part of the Jews, the law was a wise one, and tended to repress covetousness in a form which would very readily have developed itself. Lending was to be free and cordial, and God's blessing, the best usury, was promised in return.
2. Vows were to be faithfully performed (vers. 21-23). This checked covetousness, so far as that might prompt the person vowing to grudge payment when the time for paying his vow arrived. The vow was in his own choice, but, if made, it was to be religiously performed (Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5). It is easier to vow than at the proper time to make the sacrifices which the vow demands. - J.O.
Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped.
A Flemish artist was painting a picture when two friends noticed the high finish of a broom which was only an insignificant item in the composition. He told them he should spend three more days in working on the broom, intending to be mindful of detail in the general effect of his picture. Moses gave grand laws to the Israelites. His legislation as to the religious duties of the people is sublime. But he was not indifferent to regulations touching their common life, and bent his mind to the task of showing the minute as well as the vast in the order of right-doing. The word servant as used by Moses meant slave. Remembering what the Israelites had to endure in their Egyptian bondage, he had great sympathy with those who were held in servitude and compelled to work without remuneration. He could well understand that a man or woman in slavery, badly treated, and with no hope of an ameliorated lot, would, if possible, get away from the cruel owner and make a desperate rush for liberty. He did not blame the slave for stealing away from the owner. If technically there was theft in such an action, there was no dishonesty. The slaves who at one time escaped from southern plantations to Canada did no wrong. The masters suffered loss, but they lost what did not belong to them by any righteous law. There is a moral and spiritual application of this. Many people are in slavery. It is true they have not lost their civil liberty; they have not been sold in any slave market; they know nothing of literal chains, scourges, and labour for which there is no payment. They are proud of the freedom which is one of the glories of their native land. But they are slaves, for they are in bondage to evils which they have allowed to obtain mastery over their souls. There are powers in them which make them feeble for action when they would do good, and almost force them to transgression of Divine law. They have a right to break loose from the enthralling powers of sin, for sin holds nothing by legal proprietorship. Every sinner has a right to freedom, and is urged to rush to Jesus as a refuge from tyranny. The escaped slave was to be kept from the pursuer. When in the morning the master called for the slave, and there was no answer, and looked for him, but could not find him, he would conclude at once that the slave had gone away. Making inquiries, the master would ascertain the direction the fugitive had gone, and follow him until he found the place in which he was hiding. He would say to the elders: "My slave is here, and I must have him. Give him up to me." "No, no" was to be the reply; "we shall never give him up, and so long as these walls stand the poor man shall be kept out of your hands." We rejoice that our country has long been what the Israelitish village and city were to be to the escaped slave in the old time. The footprint of the slave on British soil is the certificate of his manumission. When the slaves of sin get loose from their bonds, and escape into Immanuel's land, they at once experience the blessedness there is in the liberty of the children of God. Christ never gives up to any old master those who have fled for refuge to His land; He loves them so much that He does not wish to have them out of His sight; and to defend them from the powers which would tear them back to sin He throws around them the awful grandeur and radiant blaze of His own perfections. The escaped slave was to be kindly treated. The man who had made a rush for freedom was not to rush into a new slavery. Those to whom he fled for refuge were not to take advantage of his necessities and use him in compulsory labour for their own profit; no service or tax was to be levied on him as the price of security from his old master. He was to be treated as a free Israelite, and to be allowed to live and work where he liked. The sinner who escapes from slavery to Immanuel's land is to be welcomed and cared for by members of the Church. He is to be recognised as having a claim to brotherly love, and to all the dignities and privileges that distinguish the Christian life. Even if members of the Church do look shyly on a newly converted sinner, Jesus does not, but bids him welcome to the palace of love, and opens to him immensities of blessing.
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