Verses 14–21

Here is a statute for the preventing of frauds and perjuries; for the divine law takes care of men’s rights and properties, and has made a hedge about them. Such a friend is it to human society and men’s civil interest.

I. A law against frauds, Deut. 19:14. 1. Here is an implicit direction given to the first planters of Canaan to fix land-marks, according to the distribution of the land to the several tribes and families by lot. Note, It is the will of God that every one should know his own, and that all good means should be used to prevent encroachments and the doing and suffering of wrong. When right is settled, care must be taken that it be not afterwards unsettled, and that, if possible, no occasion of dispute may arise. 2. An express law to posterity not to remove those land-marks which were thus fixed at first, by which a man secretly got that to himself which was his neighbour’s. This, without doubt, is a moral precept, and still binding, and to us it forbids, (1.) The invading of any man’s right, and taking to ourselves that which is not our own, by any fraudulent arts or practices, as by forging, concealing, destroying, or altering deeds and writings (which are our land-marks, to which appeals are made), or by shifting hedges, meer-stones, and boundaries. Though the land-marks were set by the hand of man, yet he was a thief and a robber by the law of God that removed them. Let every man be content with his own lot, and just to his neighbours, and then we shall have no land-marks removed. (2.) It forbids the sowing of discord among neighbours, and doing any thing to occasion strife and law-suits, which is done (and it is very ill done) by confounding those things which should determine disputes and decide controversies. And, (3.) It forbids breaking in upon the settled order and constitution of civil government, and the altering of ancient usages without just cause. This law supports the honour of prescriptions. Consuetudo facit jus—Custom is to be held as law.

II. A law against perjuries, which enacts two things:—1. That a single witness should never be admitted to give evidence in a criminal cause, so as that sentence should be passed upon his testimony, Deut. 19:15. This law we had before, Num. 35:30; and in this book, Deut. 17:6. This was enacted in favour to the prisoner, whose life and honour should not lie at the mercy of a particular person that had a pique against him, and for caution to the accuser not to say that which he could not corroborate by the testimony of another. It is a just shame which this law puts upon mankind as false and not to be trusted; every man is by it suspected: and it is the honour of God’s grace that the record he has given concerning his Son is confirmed both in heaven and in earth by three witnesses, 1 John 5:7. Let God be true and every man a liar, Rom. 3:4. 2. That a false witness should incur the same punishment which was to have been inflicted upon the person he accused. If two, or three, or many witnesses, concurred in a false testimony, they were all liable to be prosecuted upon this law. (2.) The person wronged or brought into peril by the false testimony is supposed to be the appellant, Deut. 19:17. And yet if the person were put to death upon the evidence, and afterwards it appeared to be false, any other person, or the judges themselves, ex officio—by virtue of their office, might call the false witness to account. (3.) Causes of this kind, having more than ordinary difficulty in them, were to be brought before the supreme court, The priests and judges, who are said to be before the Lord, because, as other judges sat in the gates of their cities, so these at the gate of the sanctuary, Deut. 17:12. (4.) There must be great care in the trial, Deut. 19:18. A diligent inquisition must be made into the characters of the persons, and all the circumstances of the case, which must be compared, that the truth might be found out, which, where it is thus faithfully and impartially enquired into, Providence, it may be hoped, will particularly advance the discovery of. (5.) If it appeared that a man had knowingly and maliciously borne false witness against his neighbour, though the mischief he designed him thereby was not effected, he must undergo the same penalty which his evidence would have brought his neighbour under, Deut. 19:19. Nec lex est justior ulla—Nor could any law be more just. If the crime he accused his neighbour of was to be punished with death, the false witness must be put to death; if with stripes, he must be beaten; if with a pecuniary mulct, he was to be fined the sum. And because to those who considered not the heinousness of the crime, and the necessity of making this provision against it, it might seem hard to punish a man so severely for a few words’ speaking, especially when no mischief did actually follow, it is added: Thy eye shall not pity, Deut. 19:21. No man needs to be more merciful than God. The benefit that will accrue to the public from this severity will abundantly recompense it: Those that remain shall hear and fear, Deut. 19:20. Such exemplary punishments will be warnings to others not to attempt any such mischief, when they see how he that made the pit and digged it has fallen into the ditch which he made.