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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 20

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-20

CRITICAL NOTES.—Reverence for life, and that which tends to preserve it, was the motive for laws given in last chapter. The same is the basis of those in this chapter. Even in time of war, forbearance was to be exercised in respect of Israelites themselves who are levied for war (Deuteronomy 20:1-9); in respect of the enemy (Deuteronomy 20:10-15); Canaanitish nations alone excepted (Deuteronomy 20:16-18); and in respect of the property of the vanquished. (Speak. Com.)

Deuteronomy 20:1-9. Instructions for military service. Prospective in nature, but of permanent authority; not a temporary arrangement in prospect of war, but standing orders in future settlement of Israel. Horses, the chief strength of nations surrounding (Exodus 14:7; Joshua 17:6; Judges 4:3).

Deuteronomy 20:2. Priest, not high priest, but one appointed; called by Rabbins “the anointed of war,” like Phinehas (Numbers 31:6), who exhorted the people in formula (Deuteronomy 20:3-4). Tremble, lit., make haste, as if confused.

Deuteronomy 20:5-7. Officers, i.e., the Shoterim, roll-keepers (Exodus 5:6-10) (Sept. scribes), whose duty to muster men and announce orders of generals (2 Chronicles 26:11). Exemptions given. Dedicated the house on taking possession, by certain religious ceremonies (cf. Nehemiah 12:27; Psalms 30:0) (title). A yearly immunity. Eaten (Deuteronomy 20:6), lit., made it common. When fruit trees were planted (Leviticus 19:23) and vines set (Judges 19:24) fruit was not eaten the first four years, but set apart from common uses. Betrothed, always considerable time before marriage. Faint (Deuteronomy 20:8), melt, or flow down, become despondent (Genesis 17:15; Joshua 7:5). Captains at the head of the people, in smaller levies (Deuteronomy 20:10-20). Instructions concerning sieges, to prevent wanton destruction of life and property.

Deuteronomy 20:10. If towns peaceably surrendered, armed men were not put to death. Offensive wars not encouraged. Tributaries conquered nations would become servants, yet receive the highest blessings in alliance with Israel (2 Samuel 20:18-20). If besieged cities refused to capitulate, those found in arms, every male put to death. Women and children kindly treated (Deuteronomy 20:14).

Deuteronomy 20:15-18. With Canaanitish towns Israel was not to act thus. These people put under the ban must be exterminated. Nothing that breatheth, lit. every breath by which human beings alone are understood (cf. Joshua 10:40; Joshua 11:11, with chap Deuteronomy 11:14). If the seige was long, trees were not cut down (Deuteronomy 20:19). Various renderings have been given of this difficult text. The general sense seems to be that man’s life depends upon the fruit of the trees, in a sense he is identified with them; their destruction would be a sort of sacrilege, and would diminish fuel and hinder military operations. Trees whose fruit not edible, cut down and used for ramparts in seige (Ezekiel 4:2).

RIGHTEOUS WAR.—Deuteronomy 20:1-5

Israel was not a warlike nation, but they were about to enter into serious conflict with other nations. In future years they might have to maintain their independence and defend themselves from aggression. Instructions are given to show the spirit in which war must be undertaken, carried on and finished. If war was inevitable the Providence of God would lead them into it. That would be righteous war.

I. War undertaken to accomplish the purpose of God. Israel undertook war, not of their own accord; not for selfish aggrandisement nor to realise ambitious schemes. They were commanded by God to possess the land. Fearful may be the consequences of rash and inconsiderate war “In the name of our God we will set up our banners.”

II. War sanctioned by the will of God. Every nation prays for its armies; but no war in which the presence of God cannot be expected is justifiable.

1. God’s will is ascertained by His presence. “The Lord thy God is with thee.” God may permit enterprises, but never helps them when they oppose His will. Israel rebelled, “went presumptuously up into the hill; God went not with them and they were smitten by the Amorites (Deuteronomy 1:43-44).

2. God’s will is declared by His servants. “The priest shall approach and speak unto the people.” They are not mere captains of the army, but ministers of God, reminding of the past and encouraging for the present. Their presence and help indicate God’s purpose. “The sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow with the trumpets; and they shall be to you for an ordinance for ever” (Numbers 10:8).

III. War conducted by the precepts of God. Here are specific directions, commands from God concerning war. War unprovoked and for unlawful conquest finds no sanction in God’s word. When it becomes a necessity to defend ourselves and punish evil doers, when it cannot justly be avoided, “The belligerent nation then becomes the executioner of Divine judgments, but it must also know and confess that it is used by God for this purpose, and that it only carries on war aright when it does so with this conviction. Then only can we come before God with confidence and a good conscience, because it is His will that we have performed; and every wilfully undertaken war forbids our having free and happy access to God.”—Luthardt. “Every purpose is established by counsel, and with good advice make war.”


In war, God alone was Israel’s confidence. Their enemies might excel in numbers and in military strength, but they were not to be afraid. God would protect and help them.

I. This warfare is against mighty enemies. Surrounding nations were often a terror to Israel. The Christian fights against powerful odds; principalities and powers in earthly and heavenly places.

1. Enemies great in number. “A people more than thou.” God is not always with the strongest battalions. Numbers are often ranged against Him and His people. But He counts nations as nothing and less than nothing.

2. Enemies terrible in equipment. Horses and chariots were most formidable elements of ancient nations. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses,” but that is confidence vain and displeasing to God. Glorious were the victories when Israel renounced trust in human strength. “The horse is prepared against the day of battle, but safety (victory) is of the Lord.”

II. In this warfare right men are wanted. Every soldier is not valiant. Gideon’s army was sifted, and many in Israel were sent away for lack of faith and enthusiasm.

1. Good leaders are wanted. Men “anointed for war,” as the Rabbins called the priests—men of the stamp of Henry Havelock and Hedley Vicars. Men of undaunted courage, strong in God and prepared to lead.

2. Good soldiers are wanted. Soldiers who can endure hardness. a. Soldiers conscious of right. For if a man feels that he is in the wrong, he fears detection, disgrace and punishment. Macbeth started at the whisper of every wind. “Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.”—Shakespeare. b. Soldiers willing to serve. Volunteers, not pressed men. None can be forced. Service that is forced is weakness and useless. Our hearts must be in the conflict or we fight in vain. c. Soldiers full of courage The faint-hearted injure the morale of the troops. Fear is contagious and leads to flight. Beware of this infection, “neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid” (Isaiah 8:12).

III. In this warfare we should not be disheartened. “Let not your hearts faint; fear not, and do not tremble.” Why be terrified? Opponents flee before a brave man. “One of you shall chase a thousand.”

1. God’s providence encourages us. “Brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” There is constant reference to this deliverance most striking and instructive. History unfolds Divine providence; abounds with proofs of omnipotence, and pledges of help. Examples are cited to animate to fortitude and virtue.

2. God’s presence is with us. “The Lord thy God is with thee.” Not merely as commander, but “goeth with you” into the greatest danger. Not as a spectator, like Xerxes, who viewed the conflict from on high, but “to fight for you” with the determination “to save you.” “The Lord thy God, He it is,” not a common general, “that doth go with thee; He will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”

THE EXEMPTIONS IN WAR.—Deuteronomy 20:5-9

Soldiers must be as free from care and cowardice as possible. Wellington declared “that the power of the greatest armies depends upon what the individual soldier is capable of doing and bearing.” Four classes are here exempted:—

I. Those involved in business. The soldier leaves his private business when he enlists to serve his country. The farmer leaves his plough, the mechanic his shop, and the merchant his store. In Israel those were not called to serve who, from circumstances and prospects, would feel most keenly the hardship.

1. Those engaged in dedicating a house. They must return to their house lest another dedicate it.

2. Those engaged in planting a vineyard must enjoy the fruit of it. Building and planting are good and needful for the community, but encumber the soldier.

II. Those hindered by social ties. “What man hath betrothed a wife and not taken her” (Deuteronomy 20:7; Deuteronomy 24:5). “It was deemed a great hardship to leave a house unfinished, a new property half-cultivated, and a recently contracted marriage unconsummated, and the exemptions allowed in these cases were founded on the principle, that a man’s heart being deeply engrossed with something at a distance, he would not be very enthusiastic in the public service.” (Jamieson). In an army there should be one heart, one purpose and one desire to please the commander. In the corps of Christian soldiers there is entire obedience to the will of the Captain of our Salvation. “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life: that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.”

III. Those deficient in personal qualifications. The fearful and faint-hearted were not permitted to war.

1. In moral qualifications. Some think that the fear named arose from an evil conscience which makes a man afraid of danger and death. Men of loose and profligate lives are often cowards and curses to an army. Hence those conscious of guilt were to be sent away. “A guilty conscience needs no accuser.” “Conscience makes cowards of us all.”

2. In natural qualification. The allusion seems to be natural cowardice. Men reverence bravery, but cowards are objects of scorn. Wellington said of some foreigners who ran away from the field of Waterloo, “Let them go; we are better without them.” There must be no fear in officers or men. No cowards in the ranks lest the army flee before the enemy. “Let him go and return unto his house lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.”


Deuteronomy 20:1. Fear forbidden. Israel had seen little of war, only a few brushes in their journey with inferior adversaries. Things would soon become more serious. Hence alarm and need of admonition and encouragement. All Christians are soldiers and wage a good warfare. It is a necessary and trying warfare—continues through every season and in every condition. The forces of their enemies may be superior in number, vigilance, wisdom and might. Hence danger of alarm and need of fortitude in the warrior. None have better grounds for courage than we, not in ourselves for then we must fail. First, the Divine presence: “For the Lord thy God is with thee.” Antigonus said to his troops, dismayed at the numbers of the foe, “How many do you reckon me for?” But God is all-wise and almighty. Nothing is too hard for the Lord, and if He be with us, “they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” “Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.” Secondly, His agency: “Who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” To a Jew, this was not only a proof but a pledge; not only showed what He could do, but was a voucher of what He would do. He is always the same, and never suffers what he has done to be undone. Strange would it have been, after opening a passage through the sea, to have drowned them in Jordan. What would have been thought of His great name, after placing himself at their head to lead them to Canaan, if He had suffered them to be overcome by the way? He, who begins the work, is not only able to finish, but begins it for the very purpose. “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with him also freely give us all things?”—Jay.

Deuteronomy 20:2-3. The priest helping the soldier. The priest shall approach and speak unto the people. “A minister of peace an advocate of war” only when war is justified. Even then only in showing how to regulate, mitigate, and direct it. Learn—

1. The connection of religion with war in its sanctions and inspirations.
2. The business of the priest to caution the leaders and encourage the soldiers in a righteous contest.

Deuteronomy 20:5. Building and dedicating a house.

1. By liberality to the poor. Festive ceremonies and entertainments were given.

2. By consecrating it to God through whose aid it had been built and by whose blessing it would prosper. There should be a family altar and a family religion. “A church in the house” (Psalms 30:0 th—compare title). This the best ornament and defence of the house.

Deuteronomy 20:8. Faint-hearted.

1. Cowardice weakens—faint, fear, tremble and terrify (Deuteronomy 20:3) are degrees of weakness.

2. Cowardice renders incapable of right impressions. Let not your hearts be tender to receive impressions of fear and despair. Melting hearts are like hot iron, capable of any impression. “Steel your hearts.”

3. Cowardice affects others. “Lest his brethren’s heart faint.”

Deuteronomy 20:5-9. Defective armies (churches or organizations).

1. Requiring to be sifted. The incapable and unfit sent home.
2. Requiring to be re-organized. “Captains” chosen fit “to lead the people.” Defects remedied and efficiency secured. Much to be done before the Christian Church can fight and conquer the world.

Christianity and Heroism. Christianity makes true heroes in war. Rulers in church and state should be chosen on account of spiritual or Christian character.

THE METHOD OF CONDUCTING WAR.—Deuteronomy 20:10-15

When Israel came nigh a city not belonging to the Canaanites, they were to summon it to peaceable surrender and submission (Judges 21:13). Moses does not encourage aggressive war. If the town resisted a regular siege was undertaken, and when captured males were slain, women and children spared, and booty appropriated to their own use.

I. Try mild measures before severe. Even in war there should be honour and justice.

1. Offer peace before war. “Proclaim peace unto it.” In the settlement of quarrels, be ready to give and to submit to arbitration, proposals of peace. God in mercy offers peace to sinners—has no pleasure in their destruction, but beseeches them to be reconciled to Him.

2. Make men tributary rather than exterminate them. If peace proposals were accepted, they must acknowledge the supremacy of Israel by tribute-money. They must renounce idolatry and become servants. Then their conquerors would be their protectors. If we yield to God and become His servants, we shall not only be saved from destruction, but become fellow-citizens with saints and members of God’s household.

II. Display the spirit of humanity. In most barbarous times this has often been seen. Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon were not devoid of feeling.

1. Spare property. Cities not plundered, trees not destroyed. Cattle and spoil to be appropriated to personal use.

2. Spare human lives. Helpless women and innocent children not to be touched. Here is a degree of self-control not displayed in modern Christian warfare.

A WAR OF EXTERMINATION.—Deuteronomy 20:16-18

The Canaanites were to be completely exterminated. They fell under the judicial displeasure of God and were utterly ruined, as the only means to preserve Israel from moral corruption. Learn—

I. That men may become so wicked that utter ruin ensues. Of cities given to Israel no remnant of inhabitants must be spared. Canaanites must not share with Israelites in the land of promise. No terms of peace were offered them. They had filled up the measure of iniquity; had become totally averse to God; and were abandoned to there awful doom. Their punishment was not the execution of revenge upon enemies, but the result of their own wickedness, the fulfilment of a Divine sentence upon that wickedness. “Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.”

II. This utter ruin ensues lest the people of God should be endangered. Israel would have been corrupted by the lives and idolatry of Canaanites. God’s people are morally endangered by the pollutions and customs of the world. God is concerned for their character and preservation (Exodus 34:11-16). He loves them, and has given men for them, and people for their life (Isaiah 43:4). “That they teach you not to do after their abominations.”

III. What a warning this utter ruin should be to all. First to God’s people. What a motive for separation from sin and the world! What an argument for obedience when the disobedient are punished so fearfully. War against sin should be one of extermination. The least evil, if spared, may ruin the character. But to the impenitent and ungodly, here is a picture of the destruction which awaits them unless found in Christ. They are reserved “unto the judgment of the great day.”


In carrying on war, leaders are apt to indulge in passion and destroy everything within reach. In a long siege, Israel might use non-fruit-bearing trees, but those bearing fruit were not to be touched.

I. God’s laws are intended to check unlawful feeling and action. God is more merciful than we are. Food trees and human life have been wantonly destroyed, and military rage is often most furious. The ravages of war must be checked. A voice must be heard, above the tramp of horsemen and the command of kings. “Thou shalt not.”

II. God’s laws prohibit any wilful waste at all times. God ever consults our interests and economises our resources. “The Jews,” says Henry, “understand this as a prohibition of all wilful waste upon any account whatsoever. No fruit tree is to be destroyed, unless it be barren and cumber the ground. Nay, they maintain, ‘Whoso wilfully breaks vessels, tears clothes, stops wells, pulls down buildings, or destroys meat, transgresses this law. Thou shalt not destroy.’ ” Broken fragments must be gathered up, that nothing be lost. Every creature is good in its end, and nothing must be refused or abused.


What are the lessons touching our own life which are suggested by this exemption?

1. Spare the fruit trees,—Then men are to be self-controlled under the most exciting circumstances. Jews were to bear this restriction in mind at a time when most intensely excited. It was not to be remembered in moments of tranquilly, but to be sent before them, when fiercest passions were ablaze. We have been taught “that all is fair in war”—this law contradicts that proverbial morality. We are not to excuse wantonness by pleading excitement of circumstances. Beautiful the provision that in the keenest contest there was to be recollection of law! It should be so in our lives. In this day of fierce competition men are in danger of giving themselves up to passion, rather than judgement, and pleading the pressure of circumstances as an excuse for doing some things they would never think of doing in calmer moments. Such plea is vicious. Even in battle men are not to lose reflectiveness, in the presence of death they must remember the law of God.

2. Spare the fruit trees. Then do not force a present victory at the expense of future suffering. Victories may cost too much. What, if after conquest, we have cut off sources of supply and left ourselves without bread and water? The frequent question should be not, can I reach yonder point? but can I reach it without sacrificing obedience to divine law? You may get your own way in life, but what if you have to burn an orchard in doing so? A fruit tree standing between you and victory may appear a small thing, but that small thing represents the sources at which life renews itself. What if a man gain the whole world and loose his own soul?

3. Spare the fruit trees. Then judge all things by their highest usefulness and not by their temporary advantages. The tree might have been useful for bulwarks but there was a higher use to which it could be put, and its treatment was determined by this higher use. Things are not judged by their meanest, but by their highest possibilities. Are we living along the line of our highest capabilities, or consulting the conveniences of the passing moment? Who can find a fruit tree being cut down to help a man over a brooklet, when the meanest gate-post would have done just as well? Yet men lie in the dust, when they could exert most beneficial influence upon society. “Aim high, for he who aimeth at the sky shoots higher far than he who means a tree.”

4. Spare the fruit trees. Then man has it in his power to inflict great mischief upon himself and upon society. You can cut down. You have power to do mischief, but not right. A man may show strength in cutting down, but if he knew it he would show far greater strength in not doing so. Forbearance is often the last point of power. What is the Christian application of all this?

1. All in Christ Jesus are expected to bear fruit.

2. Only as Christians bear fruit will they be spared by Jesus Christ Himself.

3. Only in so far as Christians bear fruit ought they to receive toleration at the hands of society.

4. It is possible to bring forth evil fruit.

5. Fruit trees must be pruned. “That ye may bring forth much fruit” (Vol. III., The City Temple).


Deuteronomy 20:10-15. Mercy and wrath.

1. Offered mercy precedes the execution of wrath.
1. A city beseiged.
2. Summons to surrender; city not to fall by sudden surprise, or unwarned.
3. Offer of peace. II. Condign punishment follows rejected mercy. Such rebels, if permitted to escape, would raise the standard of revolt elsewhere, and strengthen the resistance of other towns. Learn—
1. The gospel a message of reconciliation.
2. The gospel accepted brings peace.
3. The gospel rejected declares the eternal ruin of the rejector.—Bib. Museum.

Deuteronomy 20:19. Our interpretation of the primeval law of food is strongly confirmed by this passage and the essential wickedness of destroying the sources of human sustenance and comfort. The idea is that the tree which God planted is for all the children of men who pass by or dwell near, and need its fruit for food—a permanent supply, which no temporary exigency must be suffered to destroy. The Mahommedans to this day observe this law, and a curious story is related of the Arabian prophet, that when on one occasion in the siege of a fortress, prolonged by the access of the besieged during the night to the date palms outside its walls, he ordered some of his personal followers secretly to cut down these palm trees, his soldiers next morning remonstrated, so that Mahommed had to invent a special commission for the work, which however, he never afterwards repeated. (Temperance Com.) Fruit trees might not be destroyed. Doth God take care for trees? It was to teach us that if we bring forth fruit fit for God’s taste and relish, sanctifying God and Christ in our hearts, we shall not be destroyed.—Trapp.


Deuteronomy 20:1. Battle. On the whole subject of Old Testament wars we give an extract from a paper read at the Church Congress last week (Oct. 14, 1885):—“The Old Testament takes man as he is, with savage, warlike instincts, and does not ignore his nature and proclaim at once the reign of peace. But the people are taught to see war in a new light. It is taken out of the hands of man and becomes God’s prerogative. Man wages war only as his vice-regent. He is fighting ‘the battle of the Lord.’ There is nothing personal in the campaigns of Israelites, nothing national except so far as the cause of Israel is the cause of God. It is a great advance in civilization when men neither take the law into their own hands nor suffer a relative to be the avenger of blood, but trust to the administration of impersonal law. Revenge, which in the individual is a kind of wild justice, is then transformed into that righteous indignation which is the root of the judicial system. This was the first, the indirect blow to the war-spirit of the Jews. But they had more to learn—that God is a God of battles is only a half truth. The higher truth was dimly shadowed forth when the patriarchal conqueror did homage to the mysterious King of Peace—when the wars of conquest were over and the chosen people established in the land their King, ‘a man of war’ is forbidden to build the temple and the honour given to ‘a man of rest.’ From first to last the Jews were taught that the explanation of the present is in the future, and as this kingdom becomes clearer it is revealed as a kingdom of peace. This Old Testament teaching in respect to war is propœdeutic, leading men on by little and little till they could sit at the feet of Jesus: and provisional, destroyed only by being fulfilled.”—Rev. Aubrey L. Moore.

Deuteronomy 20:1; Deuteronomy 20:4. God with thee. When the Crusaders encamped before Jerusalem, a terrible struggle ensued. The Saracens, who possessed the city, bore down upon them in countless numbers, and it seemed as though all was lost to the Christian army. All at once a joyful cry rang through the ranks—“St. James is with us! He fights on our side!” In the excitement of the conflict some of them fancied they saw the apostle in the clouds advancing to help them! It gave them new courage. They rushed forward with an energy which could not be withstood, and the battle was won.

Deuteronomy 20:5-9. Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, or engage in any husbandry or trade; and they were forbidden to act as tutors to any person, or curators to any man’s estate, or proctors in the cause of other men. The general principle was to exclude them from those relations, agencies, and engagements, which would divert their minds from that which was to be the sole object of pursuit—A. Barnes.

Deuteronomy 20:9. Lead. Like Hannibal, whom Livy says was first in battle and last out of it.

Deuteronomy 20:10. Peace. When Alexander besieged a city, he sent an herald into it with burning torch in hand, to proclaim that if any man would repair and submit to him while the torch was burning, he should be saved; otherwise they might expect nothing but fire and sword. Tamerlane, when he came against any place, first hung out a white flag of grace, then a red, and lastly a black flag, to show that now there was no hope of mercy.—Trapp.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/deuteronomy-20.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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