Exhortation and proclamation respecting those who went to war. (Verse 1-9.)
Peace to be offered, What cities were to be devoted. (Verse 10-20.)
Chapter Twenty gives the rules of warfare that the Jews were commanded to follow. Included are the exemptions for certain groups of people, the command to always attempt making peace before fighting, and the command to spare the fruit-bearing trees when besieging a city.
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.
2 And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest 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.
This presents the Lord as a Man of War. The battles described are those which the children of Israel were to have with the Canaanites in order to get possession of the promised land. This conquest was not theirs but Jehovah’s. Vengeance is still in His hands (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19-21). The people were to be addressed first by the priest and then by the officers. The priest was here the representative of God.
5 And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate 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.
[Prov 27:18, 1st Cor 9:7]
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.
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.
faintheartedness is contagious!
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.
From this passage we learn that there are two things essential to all who would fight for the Lord: 1) a heart disentangled from the affairs of the world
(Deuteronomy 24:5; 2 Timothy 2:4); and 2) an unclouded confidence in God (Judges 7:3). How are these obtained (Ephesians 6:13-18).
10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.
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.
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, 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.
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.
They were to discriminate between the cities which were far from them and those that pertained to the seven judged nations (cf. Joshua 9:1ff). In verses 10-15 we learn that they were to make overtures of peace to those who were far from them. In verses 16-18 we learn that they were to make not terms whatsoever with the cities of the seven judged nations.
the principle here is that any sin spared will eventually come back to haunt you; therefore the Christian should make sure that no sin is “tolerated” in his or her life or it could very well be their downfall.
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:
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.
They were instructed to carefully guard against all reckless waste of aught that can be made available for human use. To waste any creature of God is displeasing in His sight.
Commentary by Matthew Henry, 1710.
Verse 1-9 – In the wars wherein Israel engaged according to the will of God, they might expect the Divine assistance. The Lord was to be their only confidence. In these respects they were types of the Christian’s warfare. Those unwilling to fight, must be sent away. The unwillingness might arise from a man’s outward condition. God would not be served by men forced against their will. Thy people shall be willing, Psalms 110:3. In running the Christian race, and fighting the good fight of faith, we must lay aside all that would make us unwilling. If a man’s unwillingness rose from weakness and fear, he had leave to return from the war. The reason here given is, lest his brethren’s heart fail as well as his heart. We must take heed that we fear not with the fear of them that are afraid, Isaiah 8:12.
Verse 10-12 – The Israelites are here directed about the nations on whom they made war. Let this show God’s grace in dealing with sinners. He proclaims peace, and beseeches them to be reconciled. Let it also show us our duty in dealing with our brethren. Whoever are for war, we must be for peace. Of the cities given to Israel, none of their inhabitants must be left. Since it could not be expected that they should be cured of their idolatry, they would hurt Israel. These regulations are not the rules of our conduct, but Christ’s law of love. The horrors of war must fill the feeling heart with anguish upon every recollection; and are proofs of the wickedness of man, the power of Satan, and the just vengeance of God, who thus scourges a guilty world. But how dreadful their case who are engaged in unequal conflict with their Maker, who will not submit to render him the easy tribute of worship and praise! Certain ruin awaits them. Let neither the number nor the power of the enemies of our souls dismay us; nor let even our own weakness cause us to tremble or to faint. The Lord will save us; but in this war let none engage whose hearts are fond of the world, or afraid of the cross and the conflict. Care is here taken that in besieging cities the fruit-trees should not be destroyed. God is a better friend to man than he is to himself; and God’s law consults our interests and comforts; while our own appetites and passions, which we indulge, are enemies to our welfare. Many of the Divine precepts restrain us from destroying that which is for our life and food. The Jews understand this as forbidding all wilful waste upon any account whatsoever. Every creature of God is good; as nothing is to be refused, so nothing is to be abused. We may live to want what we carelessly waste.