Deuteronomy 20






The instructions in this chapter are peculiar to Deuteronomy. As the people of God,

Israel was not a warlike nation; they were rather to abstain from warfare, and as a

general rule to cultivate the arts of peace. But they had before them at this time the

prospect of a serious and protracted conflict before they could occupy the land which

God had assigned to them; and they might in future years have to go to war to maintain

their independence and repel aggression. In view of this, instructions are here given

regarding the conducting of military service.


1  When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and

chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy

God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”  When they

found themselves opposed by an army more numerous than their own, and better

furnished with the material of warfare, they were not to be afraid or discouraged, for

Jehovah their God, who had brought them out of Egypt, would be with them

 to protect and help them (compare Psalm 20:7). Horses and chariots. In these,

which constituted the main strength of the nations with which they would have to

contend, the Israelites were deficient; and to them these were always objects of terror

in war (Joshua 11:4; 17:16; Judges 1:19; 4:3; I Samuel 13:5).


2 “And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest”- 

Not the high priest or any one of the priests, but the military priest, the priest appointed

to accompany the army, “the anointed for the war;” משׁיח המלחמה, as the

rabbins designate him (compare Numbers 21:6; I Samuel 4:4; II Chronicles 13:12).

His business was to exhort the people, and to encourage them by reminding them that

the Lord was their Leader, and would help them in the conflict. The formula of his

exhortation is here given in vs. 3-4 -“shall approach and speak unto the people,

3 And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle

against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble,

neither be ye terrified because of them;  4 For the LORD your God is He

that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”



                                                War (vs. 1-4)


The wars of the world form a large part of its history. Savage nations delight in war

and 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.


  • 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:

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.



exhortations of these verses to the spiritual warfare. The gospel summons

us to warfare.


Ø      With evil within us.

Ø      With the spiritual forces of evil around us.

Ø      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 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 (II Kings 6:15-20; I John 4:4).  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.



5 “And the officers” -  the shoterim, the keepers of the genealogical tables

(ch.16:18). It belonged to them to appoint the men who were to serve, and to release

those who had been summoned to the war, but whose domestic relations were such

as to entitle them to exemption - “shall speak unto the people, saying, What man

is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it?” – probably

formal possession was taken of the house by some solemn ceremony, followed by 

festive entertainment. - “let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the

battle, and another man dedicate it.”  If there was one who had built a house,

but had not dedicated it, i.e. by taking possession  of it and dwelling in it.  6 And

what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it?

let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another

man eat of it.” - or if there was  one who had planted a vineyard and had not

eaten of the fruit thereof - Vineyard. The Hebrew word (כֶּרֶם) here used designates

a field or park of the nobler plants and trees cultivated in the manner of a garden or

orchard, so that not vineyards alone, but also olive yards and plots of the more valuable

fruit trees may be intended. Hath not eaten of it; literally, hath not laid it open,

made it common, i.e. begun to use it, to gather its produce for common use (compare

ch.28:30; Jeremiah 31:5). Trees planted for food were not to be used before the

fifth year of their growth (Leviticus 19:23-25, compare ch. 24:5).  7 And what man is

there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return

unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.” - or if there

was one who had betrothed a wife, but had not  yet married her; — such were to be

allowed to return home, lest they should die in battle, and it be left to others to

consummate what they had begun. According to Josephus, this exemption was for a year,

according to the analogy of ch. 24:5.


8 “And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say,

What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto

his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.”  The shoterim

were also to allow any that were naturally timid and fainthearted to return to their

homes, lest, if they remained with the host, others, infected by them, should lose

courage and become unfit for service. His brethren’s heart faint; literally, flow

down or melt (compare Joshua 7:5). In ch.1:28, this verb is rendered by



9 “And it shall be, when the officers have made an end of speaking unto the

people that they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people.”

The next thing the shoterim had to do was to appoint captains to head the people who

were going to war. The army was divided into bands or companies, and over each of

these a captain was placed, whose it was to command and lead (Numbers 31:14, 48;

I Samuel 8:12; 22:7; II Samuel 18:1). Captains of the armies. The phrase, “captain of

a host” (שַׂר צָבָא), usually designates the general or commander-in-chief of the

entire army (Genesis 21:22; II Samuel 2:8; I Kings 16:16); but here the phrase is

used in the plural of the chiefs of the companies or detachments of which the whole

was composed.



Exemptions (vs. 5-9)


Three classes were exempted from service in war, and one class was forbidden to take

part in it. The exempted classes were:


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

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

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


The class forbidden to engage in the war was the class of cowards (v. 8).

These regulations :



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.



They aimed at exempting those who, from their circumstances and prospects,

would feel most keenly the hardship of a call to service. V. 7 connects itself

with the importance attached in ancient nations to the perpetuation of the house.



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





Ø      Those entering the Christian warfare need to count the cost

(Luke 14:25-34).

Ø      In Christ’s service there are no exemptions.

Ø      The danger of being entangled in spirit in Christ’s service

(II Timothy 2:4).

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

Ø      Numbers are not the only thing to be considered in reckoning

The efficiency of a Church or of any body of spiritual warriors.





In the case of a town at a distance, not belonging to any of the Canaanitish tribes, on

advancing against it they were first of all to summon the inhabitants to a peaceable

surrender and submission (compare Judges 21:13). If this was complied with, the

inhabitants were to become tributary to the Israelites and serve them; but if this was

refused, the town was to be besieged, and, when taken, all the males were to be slain,

and the women and children, as well as all the booty that was in the place, were to be

taken as the prey of the conquerors, who were to appropriate the spoil to their

own use.


10 “When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace

unto it.” - i.e. invite it peaceably to surrender.


11 “And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then

it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto

thee, and they shall serve thee.”  literally, shall be to thee for tribute and service.

The word rendered by “tribute” (מַם) denotes properly tribute service, service

rendered as a tribute, whether for a season or in perpetuity (compare Genesis 49:15;

Judges 1:30, 33, 35; I Kings 5:13; 9:21; Isaiah 31:8 [Authorized Version,

discomfited])  12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war

against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:  13 And when the LORD thy God hath

delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the

edge of the sword:”


14 “But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city,

even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the

spoil of thine enemies,” - consume it for thine own maintenance - “which the LORD

thy God hath given thee.  15  Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are

very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.”


This was for cities at a distance; it was to be otherwise with the cities of the Canaanites.

To them no offer of peaceful submission was to be made, and when the city was

taken, all the inhabitants without reserve were to be destroyed. This was in accordance

with God’s command to Israel (Exodus 23:31-33; 34:11-16; ch. 7:1-6), and as a

precaution against the risk of the people being seduced into idolatry by the heathen

should they be allowed to remain in the land. But whilst engaged in besieging a town,

they were not to destroy the fruit trees that were outside the walls; but trees that were

not for food they might cut down and use in their operations against the city.


16 “But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee

for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:  17 But thou

shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the

Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD

thy God hath commanded thee:  18 That they teach you not to do after all

their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye

sin against the LORD your God.  19 When thou shalt besiege a city a long

time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees

thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and

thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to

employ them in the siege:” - literally, to come, i.e. that they should come into

 the siege before thee, i.e. either as thine adversary or to be used by thee for the

siege. For the tree of the field is man’s life. This may mean that the tree supplies

 food for the sustenance of man’s life. But as the words stand in the text, they can

only be rendered thus: “For the man is a tree of the field.” This gives no good sense,

or indeed, any sense at all; and hence it is proposed to alter the reading of the text

so as to produce a meaning that shall be acceptable. From an early period the

expedient has been resorted to of reading the clause interrogatively, and,

instead of regarding it as parenthetical, connecting it with the following

words, thus: “Is the tree of the field a man to come into siege before thee?”

So the LXX., Rashi, etc. It has been thought that only a very slight change

in the punctuation is required to justify this rendering (הֶאָדָם instead of הָאָדָם);

but more than this is acquired: the subject and object are hereby

reversed, and this is more than can be allowed. From an early period also it

has been proposed to read the clause as a negation, “For the tree of the

field is not a man to come into siege before thee.” So the Targum of

Onkelos, Abarbanel, Vulgate, etc. The sense here is substantially the same

as in the preceding, and the same general objection applies to both. To

both also it may be objected that by this way of taking the passage Moses

is made to utter a sentiment at once puerile and irrelevant; for what need to

declare formally, or in effect, that a tree is not a man? and what reason is

there in this for not cutting down fruit trees any more than other trees? In

the margin of the Authorized Version an alternative rendering is proposed,

“O man, the tree of the field is to be employed in the siege.” But admitting

this as a possible rendering, it is exposed to the objection, on the one hand,

that it is improbable that in a prosaic address like this an explanatory appeal

would be introduced; and on the other, that it is inconceivable that Moses

would in this casual and startling way anticipate what he goes on in the

next sentence to express deliberately and clearly. The passage has probably

suffered at the hands of a transcriber, and the text as we have it is corrupt.

The sense put upon it in the Authorized Version is that suggested by Ibn

Ezra, and in the absence of anything better this may be accepted. The fruit

tree is man’s life, as it furnishes that by which life is sustained, just as, in

ch.24:6, the millstone is called a man’s life, inasmuch as it supplies the means

of life.


20  Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou

shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the

city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.” - literally, That thou

mayest build a siege — he, an instrument for besieging, a rampart, or bulwark

 against the city, till it come down (compare ch. 28:52).



The Terrible Side of Human Duty (vs. 10-20)


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.”



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?


 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


ALL OPPOSITION to His supreme will.




(v. 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. “What more could have been done more to my

vineyard, that I have not done in it?  (Isaiah 5:4) - His will is our

sanctification; purity or perdition - here is the alternative!



REWARDED. “All the spoil thereof shalt thou take unto thyself” (v. 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

(Psalm 56:8).  Blind unbelief may count Him an “austere Master”

(Luke 19:21), who requires irksome and painful work; but the man of filial

temper will run on most difficult errands, and his language, like the Master,

is uniformly this, I do always the things that please Him” (John 8:29);

They who suffer with their Lord now shall be glorified by and by together.!



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 (v. 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  (II Corinthians

2:16).  With the breath of His mouth shall He slay the wicked”

(Isaiah 11:4; II Thessalonians 2:8).  When the heart has become identified

with rebellion, when all feeling is averse from God, when TOTAL

DEPRAVITY SETS 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” (Psalm 81:12; Romans 1:24).






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 a

wful 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.   Jesus said, “Even the hairs

of your head are all numbered.”  (Luke 12:7)






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?” (Romans 8:31) - 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 (II Samuel 18:3).

David’s great sin was trusting in numbers and not in God (II Samuel 24:1-25).



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