Deu_21:6-8. And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley; and they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.
THE ceremonial law of the Jews was confessedly figurative and typical in every part: nor was even their judicial law altogether destitute of a spiritual import. The injunction, “not to muzzle the ox that trod out the corn,” appears as void of any, except a literal, meaning, as any law whatever; yet was there in that law a particular reference to the preachers o. the Gospel, who were to be supported by the people to whom they ministered. In the law that we are now to consider, there is indeed a manifest appearance of mystery: and we shall find it by no means unprofitable to consider the mystery contained in it. We shall endeavour then,
To explain the ordinance—
In doing this we must notice,
Its general design—
[God, no doubt, intended by this law, to prevent the commission of murder. The shedding of human blood was, in his eyes, so great a crime, that it must never be pardoned by the civil magistrate. If a wilful murderer had fled to a city of refuge, or even to the altar itself, neither the one nor the other was to prove a sanctuary to him; he must be taken thence, and be carried forth for execution [Note: See Num_35:31; Num_35:33; Deu_19:11-13 and Exo_21:14.]. In the event of a slain man being found, and the murderer being unknown, this law was to be carried into effect: the elders of the city that was nearest to the slain man, (which, if doubtful, was to be ascertained by measurement,) were, together with the priests, to go to a rough valley, and there slay a heifer, and wash their hands over him, protesting their own innocence, and their inability to discover the offender; and in that manner to implore forgiveness for the guilty land [Note: ver. 1–9.]. Now this had a tendency to strike a terror into the minds of all the people, to fill them with an abhorrence of murder, to shew them what pains would be taken to discover the person who should be guilty of it, and what terrible vengeance he must expect at the hands of God, though he should escape the punishment that he deserved from man. Somewhat of a similar process obtains amongst us: a coroner’s inquest is taken whenever a suspicion of murder or of suicide appears to have any just foundation. But there is no comparison between our law and that which existed amongst the Jews; so far superior was the solemnity of their proceedings; and so much more calculated to beget in the minds of men an abhorrence of the dreadful sin of murder.
But besides this more obvious end of the law, God designed also to provide means for removing guilt from his land. No sooner had the whole world sinned in Adam, than He devised means for their restoration to his favour through the incarnation and death of his only dear Son. And when “all flesh had corrupted their way before him,” and determined him to execute vengeance upon them, he still waited to be gracious unto them, and sent them messages of mercy by the hands of Noah for the space of an hundred and twenty years. When the destruction of Nineveh was so imminent, that there remained but forty days before its completion, he sent them a prophet to warn them of their danger, and to bring them to repentance. Thus at all times has God been slow to anger, whilst the exercise of mercy was his delight. Now considering the wickedness of the human heart, it could not be but that sometimes murder should have been committed: and he had declared that, in that case, “the land could not be cleansed from blood but by the blood of him that shed it.” Yet, as it must sometimes happen that the criminal could not be discovered, here was a method provided for expiating the guilt, so that his judgments might not fall upon any in this world, but only on the criminal himself in the world to come. How amiable does God appear in this view! and how plainly may we see in this very ordinance that “judgment is a strange act,” to which he is extremely averse; and that he is rich in mercy unto all them that call upon him!]
Its particular provisions—
[These deserve a minute attention. Some have thought that the heifer which had not drawn in the yoke represented the murderer, the son of Belial, who refused to bear the yoke of God’s law; and that “the rough valley in which he was to be slain, denoted the worthlessness of the criminal’s character, or the disagreeableness of the business [Note: See Scott, on the place.].” But we apprehend that much more was designed by these particular appointments. The heifer that had not drawn in the yoke represented Christ, who, though he died under the curse of the law, had no previous obligation to do so, but did it voluntarily, giving himself freely for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour [Note: Compare Num_19:2 and Eph_5:2.]. His death marked the utter excision which the murderer deserved; and the rough valley in which he was beheaded, marked the desolation, which the land itself merited for the transgression that had been committed [Note: See Psa_107:34 and Heb_6:8.]. Thus, the victim, the death, the place, all conspired to impress the minds of the beholders with the malignity of the offence, which required such a sacrifice; whilst the presence of the priests, which was especially required, (not to officiate themselves, but to overlook and direct the offices of others,) intimated the indispensable necessity of seeking pardon precisely in God’s appointed way, and not in any method of their own devising [Note: Deu_17:8-12.]. To this sacrifice was to be added a public profession of their personal innocence, and, at the same time, a public acknowledgment of their national guilt: they must profess their innocence both by an appropriate sign, (washing their hands over the slain heifer,) and an express declaration; and they must acknowledge their guilt, with earnest supplications for mercy and forgiveness. Thus, namely, by their protestations and petitions, did they shew to all, that, as God would “not hear those who regarded iniquity in their hearts,” so neither would he punish any, who should humble themselves before him in his appointed way. Truly, in this view, the ordinance, though merely judicial, was most interesting and most instructive.]
The mystical import of the ordinance being explained, we proceed,
To point out some lessons which may be learned from it—
We of course pass over those things which are less appropriate, and fix our attention upon those which seem to arise most naturally out of the subject before us.
We may learn then,
The importance of preventing or punishing sin—
[The concurrence of the elders and the priests in this ordinance shews, that magistrates and ministers should unite their efforts for the preservation of the public morals, and the averting of guilt from the land in which they dwell. To discourage, detect, and punish it, should be their constant endeavour; that the interests of society may not suffer, and that the honour of God may be maintained. The magistrate ought “not to bear the sword in vain:” he should be “a terror to evil-doers, and a revenger to execute wrath upon them:” and though it does not comport so well with the ministerial office to be exercising civil authority, the minister should be forward on every occasion to aid and stimulate to the utmost of his power those whom God has ordained to be his vicegerents upon earth — — — Were such a co-operation more common, the flagrant violations of the Sabbath, and a thousand other enormities which are daily committed in our streets, would vanish at least from public view, and in a great measure be prevented.
But it is not only public sin which should be thus discountenanced: the crimes perpetrated in secret, and especially the hidden abominations of our own hearts, should be carefully investigated by us, and unreservedly suppressed. Every one should consider sin, of whatever kind it be, as that “abominable thing which God hateth:” and should remember, that, though it should never be detected and punished in this world. God will expose it in the world to come, and manifest his righteous indignation against all who commit it. Then at least, if not now, “our sin will find us out:” and therefore it becomes us now with all diligence to search and try ourselves, and to beg of God also to “search and try us, to see if there be any wicked way in us, and to lead us in the way everlasting.”]
The comfort of a good conscience—
[The persons who were thus solemnly to assert their innocence in the presence of God, would doubtless feel happy that they were able to make their appeal to him in truth. To do so with respect to all sin, would be impossible, because “there is no man that liveth and sinneth not:” but with respect to allowed and indulged sin, we all ought to be able to call God to witness that we are free from it. We must be Israelites indeed, and without any allowed guile. And O! what a comfort is it when we can say with Job, “O God, thou knowest I am not wicked [Note: Job_10:7.]!” Such was the comfort enjoyed by Paul; “Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world [Note: 2Co_1:12.];” When indeed we can make that appeal to God, we should do it with holy fear and jealousy, lest there should, after all, be some sin undiscovered by us. We should say with Paul, “Though I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord [Note: 1Co_4:4.].” We may see in the instance of Pilate how awfully a man may deceive his own soul: he washed his hands before the multitude, and said, “I am free from the blood of this just person:” but his reluctance to commit sin could not excuse the actual commission of it; any more than the washing of his hands could cleanse his soul. Nevertheless we should labour to “keep a conscience void of offence,” and so to have every evil disposition mortified, as to be able constantly to say with David, “I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord, and so will I compass thine altar [Note: Psa_26:6.].”]
The efficacy of united faith and prayer—
[Great as the guilt of murder was, the Lord declared that it should not be imputed to the land, if this ordinance were duly complied with. And what sin is there that shall be imputed to us, if we look by faith to that great Sacrifice which was once offered for sin, and implore mercy from God “as his redeemed people?” Not even murder itself should be excepted, if the forgiveness of it were diligently sought in this manner. Hear how David prayed, after the murder of Uriah: “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation; and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness! Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow [Note: Psa_51:2; Psa_51:7; Psa_51:14.].” O glorious truth! “Though our sins be as crimson, they may be made white as snow.” Beloved Brethren, see your guilt as already irrevocably contracted: see the judgments of God hanging over you: see death ready to execute its commission, and the jaws of hell opening to swallow you up. And now turn your eyes to the “heifer slain in the rough valley,” and averting from you the wrath of an offended God: in that heifer, see the Lord Jesus Christ, who has “redeemed you from the curse of the law, being made a curse for you.” To you, even to you, that blessed Redeemer says, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth!” O look to Him, plead with him, trust in him! and “he will in no wise cast you out.” This is “the violence by which the kingdom of heaven is taken,” even the violence of faith and prayer; and this force shall never be exerted in vain [Note: Mat_11:12.].]