Verses 18–23

Here is, I. A law for the punishing of a rebellious son. Having in the former law provided that parents should not deprive their children of their right, it was fit that it should next be provided that children withdraw not the honour and duty which are owing to their parents, for there is no partiality in the divine law. Observe,

1. How the criminal is here described. He is a stubborn and rebellious son, Deut. 21:18. No child was to fare the worse for the weakness of his capacity, the slowness or dulness of his understanding, but for his wilfulness and obstinacy. If he carry himself proudly and insolently towards his parents, contemn their authority, slight their reproofs and admonitions, disobey the express commands they give him for his own good, hate to be reformed by the correction they give him, shame their family, grieve their hearts, waste their substance, and threaten to ruin their estate by riotous living—this is a stubborn and rebellious son. He is particularly supposed (Deut. 21:20) to be a glutton or a drunkard. This intimates either, (1.) That these were sins which his parents did in a particular manner warn him against, and therefore that in these instances there was a plain evidence that he did not obey their voice. Lemuel had this charge from his mother, Prov. 31:4. Note, In the education of children, great care should be taken to suppress all inclinations to drunkenness, and to keep them out of the way of temptations to it; in order hereunto they should be possessed betimes with a dread and detestation of that beastly sin, and taught betimes to deny themselves. Or, (2.) That his being a glutton and a drunkard was the cause of his insolence and obstinacy towards his parents. Note, There is nothing that draws men into all manner of wickedness, and hardens them in it, more certainly and fatally than drunkenness does. When men take to drink they forget the law, they forget all law (Prov. 31:5), even that fundamental law of honouring parents.

2. How this criminal is to be proceeded against. His own father and mother are to be his prosecutors, Deut. 21:19, 20. They might not put him to death themselves, but they must complain of him to the elders of the city, and the complaint must needs be made with a sad heart: This our son is stubborn and rebellious. Note, Those that give up themselves to vice and wickedness, and will not be reclaimed, forfeit their interest in the natural affections of the nearest relations; the instruments of their being justly become the instruments of their destruction. The children that forget their duty must thank themselves and not blame their parents if they are regarded with less and less affection. And, how difficult soever tender parents now find it to reconcile themselves to the just punishment of their rebellious children, in the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God all natural affection will be so entirely swallowed up in divine love that they will acquiesce even in the condemnation of those children, because God will be therein for ever glorified.

3. What judgment is to be executed upon him: he must publicly stoned to death by the men of his city, Deut. 21:21. And thus, (1.) The paternal authority was supported, and God, our common Father, showed himself jealous for it, it being one of the first and most ancient streams derived from him that is the fountain of all power. (2.) This law, if duly executed, would early destroy the wicked of the land. (Ps. 101:8), and prevent the spreading of the gangrene, by cutting off the corrupt part betimes; for those that were bad members of families would never make good members of the commonwealth. (3.) It would strike an awe upon children, and frighten them into obedience to their parents, if they would not otherwise be brought to their duty and kept in it: All Israel shall hear. The Jews say, “The elders that condemned him were to send notice of it in writing all the nation over, In such a court, such a day, we stoned such a one, because he was a stubborn and rebellious son.” And I have sometimes wished that as in all our courts there is an exact record kept of the condemnation of criminals, in perpetuam rei memoriam—that the memorial may never be lost, so there might be public and authentic notice given in print to the kingdom of such condemnations, and the executions upon them, by the elders themselves, in terrorem—that all may hear and fear.

II. A law for the burying of the bodies of malefactors that were hanged, Deut. 21:22. The hanging of them by the neck till the body was dead was not used at all among the Jews, as with us; but of such as were stoned to death, if it were for blasphemy, or some other very execrable crime, it was usual, by order of the judges, to hang up the dead bodies upon a post for some time, as a spectacle to the world, to express the ignominy of the crime, and to strike the greater terror upon others, that they might not only hear and fear, but see and fear. Now it is here provided that, whatever time of the day they were thus hanged up, at sun-set they should be taken down and buried, and not left to hang out all night; sufficient (says the law) to such a man is this punishment; hitherto let it go, but no further. Let the malefactor and his crime be hidden in the grave. Now, 1. God would thus preserve the honour of human bodies and tenderness towards the worst of criminals. The time of exposing dead bodies thus is limited for the same reason that the number of stripes was limited by another law: Lest thy brother seem vile unto thee. Punishing beyond death God reserves to himself; as for man, there is no more that he can do. Whether therefore the hanging of malefactors in chains, and setting up their heads and quarters, be decent among Christians that look for the resurrection of the body, may perhaps be worth considering. 2. Yet it is plain there was something ceremonial in it; by the law of Moses the touch of a dead body was defiling, and therefore dead bodies must not be left hanging up in the country, because, by the same rule, this would defile the land. But, 3. There is one reason here given which c88 has reference to Christ. He that is hanged is accursed of God, that is, it is the highest degree of disgrace and reproach that can be done to a man, and proclaims him under the curse of God as much as any external punishment can. Those that see him thus hang between heaven and earth will conclude him abandoned of both and unworthy of either; and therefore let him not hang all night, for that would carry it too far. Now the apostle, showing how Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by being himself made a curse for us, illustrates it by comparing the brand here put on him that was hanged on a tree with the death of Christ, Gal. 3:13. Moses, by the Spirit, uses this phrase of being accursed of God, when he means no more than being treated most ignominiously, that it might afterwards be applied to the death of Christ, and might show that in it he underwent the curse of the law for us, which is a great enhancement of his love and a great encouragement to our faith in him. And (as the excellent bishop Patrick well observes) this passage is applied to the death of Christ, not only because he bore our sins and was exposed to shame, as these malefactors were that were accursed of God, but because he was in the evening taken down from the cursed tree and buried (and that by the particular care of the Jews, with an eye to this law, John 19:31), in token that now, the guilt being removed, the law was satisfied, as it was when the malefactor had hanged till sun-set; it demanded no more. Then he ceased to be a curse, and those that were his. And, as the land of Israel was pure and clean when the dead body was buried, so the church is washed and cleansed by the complete satisfaction which thus Christ made.