D E U T E R O N O M Y
Here is, I. A law to moderate the scourging of malefactors, ver. 1-3. II. A law in favour of the ox that treads out the corn, ver. 4. III. For the disgracing of him that refused to marry his brother’s widow, ver. 5-10. IV. For the punishment of an immodest woman, ver. 11, 12. V. For just weights and measures, ver. 13-16. VI. For the destroying of Amalek, ver. 17, &c.
B. C. 1451.
1 If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. 2 And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. 3 Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee. 4 Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.
Here is, I. A direction to the judges in scourging malefactors, v. 1-3.
1. It is here supposed that, if a man be charged with a crime, the accuser and the accused (Actor and Reus) should be brought face to face before the judges, that the controversy may be determined.
2. If a man were accused of a crime, and the proof fell short, so that the charge could not be made out against him by the evidence, then he was to be acquitted: “Thou shalt justify the righteous,” that is, “him that appears to the court to be so.” If the accusation be proved, then the conviction of the accused is a justification of the accuser, as righteous in the prosecution.
3. If the accused were found guilty, judgment must be given against him: “Thou shalt condemn the wicked;” for to justify the wicked is as much an abomination to the Lord as it is to condemn the righteous, Prov. 17:15.
4. If the crime were not made capital by the law, then the criminal must be beaten. A great many precepts we have met with which have not any particular penalty annexed to them, the violation of most of which, according to the constant practice of the Jews, was punished by scourging, from which no person’s rank or quality did exempt him if he were a delinquent, but with this proviso, that he should never be upbraided with it, nor should it be looked upon as leaving any mark of infamy or disgrace upon him. The directions here given for the scourging of criminals are,
(1.) That it be done solemnly; not tumultuously through the streets, but in open court before the judge’s face, and with so much deliberation as that the stripes might be numbered. The Jews say that while execution was in doing the chief justice of the court read with a loud voice Deut. 28:58, 59, and 29:9, and concluded with those words (Ps. 78:38), But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity. Thus it was made a sort of religious act, and so much the more likely to reform the offender himself and to be a warning to others.
(2.) That it be done in proportion to the crime, according to his fault, that some crimes might appear, as they are, more heinous than others, the criminal being beaten with many stripes, to which perhaps there is an allusion, Luke 12:47, 48.
(3.) That how great soever the crime were the number of stripes should never exceed forty, v. 3. Forty save one was the common usage, as appears, 2 Cor. 11:24. It seems, they always gave Paul as many stripes as ever they gave to any malefactor whatsoever. They abated one for fear of having miscounted (though one of the judges was appointed to number the stripes), or because they would never go to the utmost rigour, or because the execution was usually done with a whip of three lashes, so that thirteen stripes (each one being counted for three) made up thirty-nine, but one more by that reckoning would have been forty-two. The reason given for this is, lest thy brother should seem vile unto thee. He must still be looked upon as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15), and his reputation as such was preserved by this merciful limitation of his punishment. It saves him from seeming vile to his brethren, when God himself by his law takes this care of him. Men must not be treated as dogs; nor must those seem vile in our sight to whom, for aught we know, God may yet give grace to make them precious in his sight.
II. A charge to husbandmen not to hinder their cattle from eating when they were working, if meat were within their reach, v. 4. This instance of the beast that trod out the corn (to which there is an allusion in that of the prophet, Hos. 10:11) is put for all similar instances. That which makes this law very remarkable above its fellows (and which countenances the like application of other such laws) is that it is twice quoted in the New Testament to show that it is the duty of the people to give their ministers a comfortable maintenance, 1 Cor. 9:9, 10, and 1 Tim. 5:17, 18. It teaches us in the letter of it to make much of the brute-creatures that serve us, and to allow them not only the necessary supports for their life, but the advantages of their labour; and thus we must learn not only to be just, but kind, to all that are employed for our good, not only to maintain but to encourage them, especially those that labour among us in the word and doctrine, and so are employed for the good of our better part.
– Matthew Henry Commentary