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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 19

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-21

CRITICAL NOTES.—This and the next two chapters contain enactments designed to protect human life, and to impress its sanctity on Israel.—Speak. Com.

With Deuteronomy 19:1-10 cf. Exodus 21:13, and Numbers 35:9-34. The laws concerning cities of refuge are not mere repetitions, but an admonition to carry out former laws with reference to future extension of boundaries in the land of Canaan. Cities of refuge had already been set apart on the east of Jordan. Directions are given concerning land on the west. Three Cities more were separated cf. Joshua 20:0.

Deuteronomy 19:3. Prepare. The Senate made good roads two or three cubits wide—not mere tracks for animals—bridged over rivers and removed barriers. This done generally in the month Adar. Every facility was given to the fugitive (Isaiah 40:3). Ignorantly, without premeditation—accidentally, as Deuteronomy 19:5. Avenger. Whose duty it was to avenge the rights and redeem the property of kinsmen. Not with sudden excitement or burning desire to revenge.

Deuteronomy 19:8-9, In case they should possess the whole land promised by God to the fathers for faithful obedience; then they were to add three more cities and have nine altogether. This command was not carried out because extension of country was never fully or permanently realised.

Deuteronomy 19:10-13. Innocent blood would be shed if the unintentional manslayer was not protected Israel would be guilty. Blood upon thee, if this duty was neglected. But the cities were not to be asylums for criminals. If a real murderer should flee for refuge, the (elders) magistrates of his own town were to fetch him back and deliver him to the avenger to be put to death.

Deuteronomy 19:14. Landmarks. Not only is human life sacred, but the means of sustaining it must be held sacred—hence this prohibition. Gardens were enclosed, but fields were left open, or marked off, by a small trench, a little cain or single stones easily removed.

Deuteronomy 19:15-21. False witness. The rule concerning capital charges (Deuteronomy 17:6) is extended to all accusations before a court of justice. A single witness was not sufficient to convict a man of any civil or criminal offence. Wrong, lit., falling away, apostacy (Deuteronomy 13:5); here any kind of crime worthy of capital punishment (Deuteronomy 19:19). The accused and the witness were to come before Jehovah, viz, before the priests and judges, at the sanctuary and not before the local court.—Keil. If the witness had lied they were to act towards him as he intended towards his brother (cf. Proverbs 19:5-9; Daniel 6:24. The lextalionis was applied without reserve (Exodus 21:23; Leviticus 24:20).—Keil. Observed in principle, not in letter, by the Jewish courts.—Speak. Com.

CITIES OF REFUGE.—Deuteronomy 19:1-10

Places of refuge where the guilty and unfortunate could find shelter were not unknown in heathen nations. Greece and Rome had their temples and groves. The jus asyli, the right of shelter was ever considered sacred. Cities of Refuge are some of the most delightful types of O. T. economy and may be considered in many ways (cf. Deuteronomy 4:41-43). Look at them—

I. As institutions promoting a spirit of humanity. They would act beneficially in ages when violence and revenge predominated and when fixed habitations were few. They were founded with a view to abate evils springing from the old-established rights of the blood avenger, and thus created a mild and gentle spirit; gave proof of the superior wisdom and benignant design of the Jewish laws. Impartial trial was given. Love of justice and regard for truth were to overrule sentiment. Revenge was checked, innocent blood was not lightly shed, and human life was considered sacred.

II. As institutions typical of Gospel truths. They exhibit the only method of safety, into which if the sinner once enters he will be free from peril.

1. The manslayer was in danger. He was pursued by the avenger, and might lose his life. The sinner has broken the law, is exposed to its curse and condemnation—Christ the refuge set before him in the gospel. Should the law reach him before he flees for safety he is undone for ever.

2. Refuge was easy of access. The cities were conveniently fixed, and could often be seen. Christ is not a distant refuge, inaccessible or closed against us. “The word is nigh thee, not in heaven above, nor in the depth beneath” (Romans 10:7-8).

3. The way was prepared. “Prepare thee a way.” Every river was bridged, every hillock levelled, and every obstruction that might hurt or hinder taken away. Guides or posts were fixed in every turning and cross road, with the words refuge, refuge, to direct the unhappy man in flight. The way of salvation is simple and plain, warfaring men, though fools, need not err therein. Ministers of the gospel are sent to urge, to direct the sinner to the Saviour. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).

4. Restoration was made at the death of the high priest. The fugitive remained in the city beyond the pursuer’s reach, gratuitously housed and taught until this event happened. Then he was released, restored to his relatives and “the land of his possession.” In Christ we are restored to the inheritance forfeited by sin, adopted children, and made joint heirs of mansions which He has gone to prepare for those who love Him. Our salvation depends upon exclusive reliance in His merits and atoning death. “There is none other name under heaven” (Acts 4:12).

FLIGHT WITHOUT SAFETY.—Deuteronomy 19:11-13

There was a difference between accidental and intentional murder. The murderer might flee, but he was not protected in the city of refuge. He was delivered up to be put to death. A fearful picture of disappointed hope.

I. Flight through atrocious wickedness. Murder was a sin for which the law provided no remedy. “Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer” (Numbers 35:31). To murder is to disregard the sanctity of life, resist the claims of our neighbour and demonstrate our hatred to God. Man is encircled by grandeur through his own immortality and his relation to the Infinite Majesty. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.”

II. Flight without safety. “The elders of the city send and fetch him. The murderer is pursued, brought back, and suffers. There is no escape from transgression. The law is broad, “exceeding broad” (Psalms 119:96) observes us in all we do, and goes where we go. God and conscience are omnipresent. Memory is alive and retribution is certain. “Murder will out” and “guilt hath no holiday,” says Bacon.

III. Flight ending in ruin. “That he may die”—concealment was impossible. The avenger, the priests and the people, were all concerned in the detection and punishment of the criminal.

1. Ruin without pity. “Thine eye shall not pity him.”

2. Ruin without remedy. “He that killeth a man shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17).

Murder may pass unpunished for a time,
But tardy justice will o’ertake the crime.—Dryden.

UNFULFILLED PROMISES.—Deuteronomy 19:8-10

God promised that their dominion should extend from the Nile to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18; Exodus 23:31). This promise was never really fulfilled. Hence learn that—

I. God’s promises express benevolent purpose. “Enlarge thy coast” (Deuteronomy 19:8). They reach far into our future, mark out, define and offer before-hand. They are accompanied by an oath and express the good pleasure of God.

II. The fulfilment of God’s promises is conditional. “If the Lord thy God enlarge”—God does not work independently of means and agencies. He is Sovereign and Absolute, but we must co-operate with Him. Nothing is left to chance. Humanly speaking all depends upon us. “If thou shalt keep.”

III. This fulfilment is not always realised. There is no change in God, but human conditions are wanting.

1. There is delay. This strengthens and fortifies the enemy. When Hanibal could have taken Rome he would not, and when he wished, he was unable.

2. There is sin. Disobedience hinders. Unbelief excludes from the land. Israel’s enlargement was transient through the sins of the people; conquered nations regained independence, and Solomon’s empire was dissolved.


Deuteronomy 19:1-6. Cities.

1. Cities of refuge divinely appointed.
2. Cities of refuge a protection for innocent blood.
3. Cities of refuge a proof of stringent law—original law not modified—special provision made for accidental manslaughter.
4. Cities of refuge a type of deliverance in Jesus. The atonement is not a violation or suspension of law, yet mercy and deliverance from penalty are given to him who flees to Christ. “The reason of these institutions seems to be this:—First of all, their appointment arose from a great law. Secondly, they were instituted to be an expressive foreshadow or type of a grand and precious shelter for all the people of God.”—Cumming.

Deuteronomy 19:3. Prepare. Every facility to flee.

1. The word nigh.
2. Ministers direct.
3. The Holy Spirit helps.

Deuteronomy 19:5. That he die.

1. Human life taken by trifling accidents. What need for preparation. The sons of men are “snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).

2. Human life safeguarded by Divine institutions. The law forbids murder. If this happens unintentionally cities are built for refuge. Life is hedged about by law, justice, humanity, and providence.

Deuteronomy 19:11-13. The cities were no shelter for wilful murder.

1. Mark the origin of the crime. “Hate his neighbour.” Cain hated his brother, could not speak peaceably to him, and then killed him. “Whose hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).

2. Notice the plot to carry out the design. “Lie in wait for him.” Men who thirst for blood hate the upright, and seek to destroy them. Saul sought to murder David, the Jews the Saviour and Paul. Malice will plot. The words and aims of the wicked “are to lie in wait for blood” (Proverbs 12:6).

Deuteronomy 19:13. Pity.

1. Without pity, lest crime should be encouraged, the criminal protected, and society injured.
2. Without pity lest the ends of justice be frustrated and the law of God broken.
3. Without pity, to warn and deter others from the danger.


Stones indicating boundaries might easily be removed. Ditches could be secretly levelled. This would materially affect property, and be a great evil in a land where territory was distributed by lot. Removal would be—

I. To disregard ancient custom. “They of old have set,” with care and justice. “Custom is held as law.” Fixed law and fixed boundaries should be respected. But many scorn ancient landmarks as relics of bygone days. Impatient of restraint, they seek wider range of thought and action, indulge in novelties, and cry, down with temples, and away with creeds and the Bible!

II. To violate the law of God. Heathen nations held every landmark as sacred; honoured every stone and staple as a god without whose aid every field would be subject to contention and strife. God as the proprietor of all the earth sets bounds for Israel, allotted their lands which they held in trust, and bound them in terms imposed by His will (Deuteronomy 27:17). Hence removal of landmarks is violation of His command, and direct insult to His authority.

III. To defraud our neighbour. Landmarks were memorials and witnesses of the rights of each man. Removal was selfish and unjust invasion of property. To enlarge your own estate at the expense of your neighbour’s is theft. Each one should know his own, and not defraud another by concealment, forgery, or robbery. “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him” (Leviticus 19:13; Mark 10:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:6).

IV. To expose to a dreadful curse. The execration of men is something, but who can bear the curse of God. The field of the fatherless is under Almighty protection. None can arm themselves against Him by entering it. The poor may seem helpless, but special warning is given against their oppression. “Remove not the old landmark, and enter not into the fields of the fatherless (by acts of violence or removal of boundaries) for their Redeemer is mighty, to vindicate outraged innocence” (Proverbs 23:10-11). This in aftertimes was the great affront of national provocation. “The princes of Judah were like them that remove the bounds, therefore I will pour out my wrath upon them like water” (Hosea 5:10).

I. Landmarks, an indication of Divine care. Nothing is too insignificant for God’s notice. The cities with their roads, the fields with their boundaries, the minute and the vast are under his guardianship. He sets bounds to sea and land and controls each element in its limit (Job 38:10-11). II. Landmarks, a vindication of the rights of property. Fields and gardens must be cultivated and held as personal estate. Land is not to be indiscriminately portioned out. God gives allotments to men, and personal property is needful for daily employment and healthy life. III. Landmarks, a check to fraud and rapacity. They warned against deceitful and unjust actions. We must neither touch nor covet our neighbour’s property. The avaricious and envious are checked by the order of society and the laws of nature. IV. Landmarks, a motive to neighbourly kindness. To remove them would injure our neighbour and disturb the community. We are not to sow discord nor create strife and law-suits, but to live peaceably together. “Strive not with a man without cause.” V. Landmarks, symbols of fixed spiritual truths There are certain fundamental and established doctrines which must not be removed, which can never be shaken. Rome may remove landmarks of Scripture by her traditions. Impatience of restraint, independence of spirit, and resistance to Divine authority may characterise the age. But the chief landmarks of faith stand solid and impregnable as a rock. “The foundation of God standeth sure.”


“The wrong” in Deuteronomy 19:16 is not merely falling into idolatry, but any kind of crime worthy of capital punishment (Deuteronomy 19:19). One witness even was tested and punished if proved false. Judges were to investigate most carefully and administer justice most rigidly—

I. The testimony of one witness was not enough to condemn (Deuteronomy 17:6) He might be prejudiced, interested or unable to judge rightly. Individuals are not always truthful and cannot be trusted. Hence it is wise, as proved by history and human experience, that the life of an innocent man should not depend upon the testimony of one witness. What a dishonour cast upon man-kind by the law! suspected of unfaithfulness! and what a check to accusers of men!

II. The accuser and the accused were to stand before God. “Both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 19:17). All sin is committed against God. He cannot permit evil to go unpunished. He will expose and visit it with condemnation.

1. Before “the priests and the judges,” who represent Him.
2. In the sanctuary, the residence of His glory. This is a picture of future trial, when the sinner will stand before the judgment seat and all iniquity be punished.

III. If the witness was false the punishment was severe. No sentimentalism nor misplaced compassion must be shown to a false witness. The law was inflexible, and one guilty of perjury was doomed to suffer penalty.

1. Punishment in kind. “Do unto him as he had thought to have done unto his brother (Deuteronomy 19:19). The lex talionis is applied, a person receives to himself what he gives to another; a law of retribution, which is God’s law to warn the transgressor.

2. Punishment without reserve. No indifference in the search, “diligent inquisition;”—no hesitation in executing the law; no pity whatever for the criminal. “Thine eye shall not pity” one who had no pity for another. “A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape” (Proverbs 19:5).

A FALSE WITNESS.—Deuteronomy 19:16

Society cannot exist without laws, and laws cannot be administered without testimony. False witness or perjury therefore is the most obnoxious of crimes, and as such deserves the severest condemnation.

I. A false witness is offensive to God. God is represented as “a God of truth, and without iniquity” (Deuteronomy 3:2; Deuteronomy 3:4); “a God that cannot lie” (Job 1:2). The perjurer takes His name in vain; dishonours His attributes, and defies His law. When we prevaricate, conceal truth, or speak lies, we insult the God of heaven, “the faithful and true witness.”

II. A false witness is injurious to society. In his heart he is uncharitable and envious towards his fellow-men. In his actions he is mischievous to society. He destroys its confidence, breaks its bonds, and becomes an agent of the devil, “the father of lies” (1 Kings 21:13). “The slanderer,” says Archbishop Leighton, “wounds three at once; himself, him he speaks of, and him that hears.” His cruelty and malice are set forth by three murderous instruments—weapons of death. “A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow” (Proverbs 25:18).

III. A false witness should be put down by every possible means. “So shalt thou put the evil away” (Deuteronomy 19:19). Everyone is interested in the suppression of crime. Priests, judges, and people—society, and the Christian Church are concerned. All should love truth and put down deceit (Colossians 3:9; Romans 3:13). “That shalt not raise (marg. receive) a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness” (Exodus 23:1).

Dare to be true, nothing can need a lie;
The fault that needs it most grows two thereby.

THE LAW OF RETALIATION.—Deuteronomy 19:19-21

Among the Israelites and in all nations where slavery existed, or where owners had the power of punishment in their own hands, the exercise of absolute authority was liable to be abused. Hence the importance and place of this law.

I. Its use in the Old Testament. It is probable that the law existed before the time of Moses, and was accepted by him as tolerable. It would be suitable—

1. As an elementary principle of justice. Theoretically it seems exact and right. It was accepted by magistrates as a rule in civil law. It is found in the code of primitive nations, recognised by the laws of Solon, by ancient Indians, and by the Thurians (cf. Speak. Com.; Exodus 21:22-25). It is the first lesson of civilization and public justice. “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye,” etc. (Exodus 21:23; Leviticus 24:20).

2. As a foundation of public morality. Power is often abused. Men forget and break the golden rule. Human life must be respected, wrong rectified, and laws administered. There must be no connivance in guilt. “Hand for hand, foot for foot.”

3. As a check to private revenge. “Revenge is sweet,” and men like to take law into their own hands. The law of the eternal must be asserted and vindictive tempers subdued. “He that studieth revenge keepeth his wounds open.”—Bacon. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.”

II. Its exposition in the New Testament. The scribes took their stand on the letter, disregarded the design and spirit of the law, and expounded in the wrong direction. Their popular casuistry made it one of private retaliation and not of judicial action. But the disciple of Christ, in suffering wrong, must cherish no desire to retaliate and accuse. He must be prepared in word and act to show the spirit of his master. The letter may not bind, but the principle should be the law of life. We are not to revenge, but cultivate the habit of non-resistance to evil (cf. Matthew 5:38-42). The law of the New Testament is not contradictory to that of the Old Testament. It is more than a civil enactment. It is forbearance with those who wrong us, well-doing to those who hate us, the characteristic and image of God’s children (Matthew 5:48).

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

The law of requital.

1. A doctrine of scripture. “As I have done, so God hath requited me” (Jude 1:7). The Lord of recompenses shall surely requite.” “With what measure ye mete,” etc. “A false witness shall not be unpunished” (Proverbs 19:5-9).

2. A law of providence. Men may deny and disregard it; but they cannot destroy, cannot escape this righteous and holy law. Be not deceived, God is not mocked. “He that speaketh lies shall not escape.”

3. A reason for submission to God. Indulge in no passion. Fret not because of evil doers. It costs more to revenge injuries than to bear them. Events are not under the control of wicked men. “Say not, then, I will recompense evil; but wait on the Lord and He shall save thee.”


Deuteronomy 19:11-21. Learn.—

1. Great wickedness often found among men—murder, fraud, perjury. Oppressive to society, insulting to God, and abounding even in Christian countries.
2. Divine methods of overcoming this wickedness. By religious laws and social restraints, by functions of state and spiritual institutions. What a debt we owe to the gospel which renews and controls man, elevates and purifies society!

Deuteronomy 19:16-19. False witness.

1. God is a God of truth, promotes it in the world and seeks it in His people.
2. Truth should be sacred to us in all circumstances of life.
3. The danger of lying.
4. The necessity of grace and prayer.

Deuteronomy 19:19. Retribution.

1. An appointment of God in social and civil, in national and individual life.
2. A warning to others. Sir W. Raleigh, challenged by a hot-headed youth, refused to fight. The young man spat in his face in public. Thinking of the consequences, Sir W. calmly wiped his face and replied, “Young man, if I could as easily wipe your blood from my conscience as I can this injury from my face, I would this moment take away your life.”

Deuteronomy 19:20. Hear. Others’ woes should be our warnings, others’ sufferings our sermons (1 Corinthians 10:5-12). God’s house of correction is the school of instruction.—Trapp.

Deuteronomy 19:19-21. Pity and justice.

1. Justice from the highest source of the land. The presence and the representatives of God.
2. Justice without pity. Right better than pity.
3. Justice for public good. “Those which remain hear and commit no more evil.” Life often sacrificed for the welfare of the community. True patriotism displayed in the suppression of crime.


Deuteronomy 19:1-10 Cities. A party of travellers in the desert were overtaken by the fierce simoon. Like blinding snow driven by the winds of March came the hot sands. Before the simoon had reached its height they came suddenly upon a rude building of stone, well protected with roof and doors, which the hand of charity had erected there in the desert for shelter. With joy they rushed into it, closed the doors, and were safe.

“The wonders of life and gladness,

All the wonders of hope and fear;

The wonders of death and sadness,

All the wonders of time are there.”


Deuteronomy 19:11. Hate. Whoever hates kills the soul.—Vinet. A true man hates no one.—Napoleon I. “From envy, hatred and malice,” etc.

Deuteronomy 19:12. Deliver him. By the conviction and execution of a murderer, humanity is not extinguished but enlarged; it is individual compassion overcome by a regard to the general good.—A. Fuller.

Deuteronomy 19:14. Landmarks removed. Covetousness, by a greediness of getting more, deprives itself of the true end of getting it; it loses the enjoyment of what it has got.—Sprat. Desire of having is the sin of covetousness.—Shakespeare.

Deuteronomy 19:18. False witness.

Sworn on every slight pretence,
Till perjuries are common as bad pence;
While thousands, careless of the dawning sin,
Kiss the book’s outside, who ne’er look within.


Deuteronomy 19:19-21. Not pity. Most just it is that he who breweth mischief should have the first draught of it himself.—Jemmat.

Revenge at first, though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 19". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/deuteronomy-19.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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