As we continue to work through Deuteronomy, we are treating it as extended commentary on the Ten Words. We come now to the treatment of the sixth commandment, the prohibition of murder. As we do this, we have to keep in mind the fact that we are Christians, and our faith holds as one of its central tenets or doctrines a wise understanding of a judicial murder -- the murder of Christ. When the Lord thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the Lord thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses . . . (Deuteronomy 19:1-21)
When Israel had crossed over Jordan they were to establish three cities of refuge in the land (vv. 1-4). Three cities had already been set aside for this purpose on the east side of Jordan. The purpose of the cities was explained with an example of accidental manslaughter (vv. 5-7). If Israel was obedient, God would expand their borders even further and it would be necessary to add three more such cities (vv. 8-10). But a murderer was not deserving of the same protections (vv. 11-13). The landmarks of the land were not to be tampered with (v. 14). Moses then turns to the questions concerning witnesses. A minimum of two witnesses is necessary (v. 15). False witnesses were to be treated fairly but very strictly (vv. 16-21).
The cities of refuges were to be situated in such a way that they were accessible to all who through some misfortune became guilty of manslaughter. When these cities were established later, Kedesh was in the north, Hebron was in the south, and Shechem was in the middle (Josh. 20). But consider for a moment all the possible variables that can come up in manslaughter cases, and note the need for careful and deliberate judgment.
One problem is that honest institutions will never be maintained by dishonest men. In Hosea 6:8-9, we see the prophet attack these judicial protections as corrupted in two ways. Gilead was full of murderers who should not have been given refuge, and Shechem was guilty of murdering those fleeing for legitimate refuge. Whenever a society refuses to take the lives of the guilty, we should not be surprised at a willingness to take the lives of the innocent.
And in ancient Israel, theft of land was theft of livelihood (v. 14). Tampering with landmarks and boundaries was treated as a very serious offense (Hos. 5:10; Prov. 23:10f; Job 24:2-4). Not surprisingly, such tampering could lead easily to border disputes and bloodshed.
When we have drifted into a deceitful life, we like to think that if truth became really important, we would rise to the occasion. This is how we lie to ourselves first. But it is hard to imagine that a man’s first lie would be in a court of law in a capital trial. At least two witnesses are required because of the propensity men have for falsehood. When contradictory testimony is given, somebody is not being trustworthy with the truth, and so the judges must be. And the law of God requires that such vile behavior carry a significant price tag—you shall do to him as he thought to do to his brother (v. 19). This has a deterrent value (v. 20).
The law of retaliation (lex talionis) was not intended to licence personal vendettas—just the opposite. If the civil authority quits exercising justice, then it will not be long before it will be done on a vigilante basis. The requirement that the magistrate take over this responsibility meant that God was restricting personal vengeance, not encouraging it. In any vigilante system, you have a life for an eye, a life for a tooth, and ten lives for a life. This is why such enmities always escalate. Jesus taught against this distortion on a personal, and not against the appropriate practice of justice in courts of law (Matt. 5: 38-42)
The applications here are two-fold. One has to do with our justification, and the other with our sanctifiction. First, remember our City of Refuge—we have here a type of one aspect of the gospel. The one who took refuge in one of these (Levitical) cities of refuge was protected there until the death of the high priest (Num. 35:25). Upon the death of his high priest, he was free to go. In a similar way, our "freedom to go" was accomplished through the death of our great High Priest. But additionally, we must remember that our High Priest did not just die—He was Himself murdered by the judicial authorities. This murder, this predestinated murder, is right at the center of our faith (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
This leads to a right understanding of our sanctification, and our lives as brothers together. Knowing this, trusting in it, believing the gospel, we are called to live in a certain way. If you love life, then you love the truth. If you love truth, you love life (Ps. 34:12-13). If your tongue is filled with guile, then you will gossip, murdering the names of others. But it is important to note that one favorite form of gossip is that form which accuses other people of gossip. And if you lie, then you are simply in training for that time when you can shed blood with your tongue. How can you murder the truth, but say that you would draw the line at murdering a man? And this is why the law deals strictly with all such deceit.