Courts of judgment were ordered to be erected in every city (Deut. 16:18), and they were empowered to hear and determine causes according to law, both those which we call pleas of the crown and those between party and party; and we may suppose that ordinarily they ended the matters that were brought before them, and their sentence was definitive; but, 1. It is here taken for granted that sometimes a case might come into their court too difficult for those inferior judges to determine, who could not be thought to be so learned in the laws as those that presided in the higher courts; so that (to speak in the language of our law) they must find a special verdict, and take time to advise before the giving of judgment (Deut. 17:8): If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, which it would be no dishonour to the judges to own the difficulty of,—suppose it between blood and blood, the blood of a person which cried and the blood of him that was charged with the murder which was demanded, when it was doubtful upon the evidence whether it was wilful or casual,—or between plea and plea, the plea (that is, the bill or declaration) of the plaintiff and the plea of the defendant,—or between stroke and stroke, in actions of assault and battery; in these and similar cases, thought the evidence were plain, yet doubts might arise about the sense and meaning of the law and the application of it to the particular case. 2. These difficult cases, which hitherto had been brought to Moses, according to Jethro’s advice, were, after his death, to be brought to the supreme power, wherever it was lodged, whether in a judge (when there was such an extraordinary person raised up and qualified for that great service, as Othniel, Deborah, Gideon, etc.) or in the high-priest (when he was by the eminency of his gifts called of God to preside in public affairs, as Eli), or, if no single person were marked by heaven for this honour, then in the priests and Levites (or in the priests, who were Levites of course), who not only attended the sanctuary, but met in council to receive appeals from the inferior courts, who might reasonably be supposed, not only to be best qualified by their learning and experience, but to have the best assistance of the divine Spirit for the deciding of doubts, Deut. 17:9, 11, 12. They are not appointed to consult the urim and thummim, for it is supposed that these were to be consulted only in cases relating to the public, either the body of the people or the prince; but in ordinary cases the wisdom and integrity of those that sat at the stern must be relied on, their judgment had not the divine authority of an oracle, yet besides the moral certainty it had, as the judgment of knowing, prudent, and experienced men, it had the advantage of a divine promise, implied in those words (Deut. 17:9), They shall show thee the sentence of judgment; it had also the support of a divine institution, by which they were made the supreme judicature of the nation. 3. The definitive sentence given by the judge, priest, or great council, must be obeyed by the parties concerned, upon pain of death: Thou shalt do according to their sentence (Deut. 17:10); thou shalt observe to do it, thou shalt not decline from it (Deut. 17:11), to the right hand nor to the left. Note, It is for the honour of God and the welfare of a people that the authority of the higher power be supported and the due order of government observed, that those be obeyed who are appointed to rule, and that every soul be subject to them in all those things that fall within their commission. Though the party thought himself injured by the sentence (as every man is apt to be partial in is own cause), yet he must needs be subject, must stand to the award, how unpleasing soever, and bear, or lose, or pay, according to it, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. But if an inferior judge contradict the sentence of the higher court and will not execute the orders of it, or a private person refuse to conform to their sentence, the contumacy must be punished with death, though the matter were ever so small in which the opposition was made: That man shall die, and all the people shall hear and fear, Deut. 17:12, 13. See here, (1.) The evil of disobedience. Rebellion and stubbornness, from a spirit of contradiction and opposition of God, or those in authority under him, from a principle of contempt and self-willedness, are as witchcraft and idolatry. To differ in opinion from weakness and infirmity may be excused and must be borne with; but to do so presumptuously, in pride and wickedness (as the ancient translations explain it), this is to take up arms against the government, and is an affront to him by whom the powers that be are ordained. (2.) The design of punishment: that others may hear and fear, and not do the like. Some would be so considerate as to infer the heinousness of the offence from the grievousness of the penalty, and therefore would detest it; and others would so far consult their own safety as to cross their humours by conforming to the sentence rather than to sin against their own heads, and forfeit their lives by going contrary to it. From this law the apostle infers the greatness of the punishment of which those will be thought worthy that trample on the authority of the Son of God, Heb. 10:28, 29.
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