Israel was at this time to be considered rather as a camp than as a kingdom, entering upon an enemy’s country, and not yet settled in a country of their own; and, besides the war they were now entering upon in order to their settlement, even after their settlement they could neither protect nor enlarge their coast without hearing the alarms of war. It was therefore needful that they should have directions given them in their military affairs; and in these verses they are directed in managing, marshalling, and drawing up their own forces. And it is observable that the discipline of war here prescribed is so far from having any thing in it harsh or severe, as is usual in martial law, that the intent of the whole is, on the contrary, to encourage the soldiers, and to make their service easy to them.
I. Those that were disposed to fight must be encouraged and animated against their fears.
1. Moses here gives a general encouragement, which the leaders and commanders in the war must take to themselves: “Be not afraid of them, Deut. 20:1. Though the enemy have ever so much the advantage by their numbers (being more than thou), and by their cavalry (their armies being much made up of horses and chariots, which thou art not allowed to multiply), yet decline not coming to a battle with them, dread not the issue, nor doubt of success.” Two things they must encourage themselves with in their wars, provided they kept close to their God and their religion, otherwise they forfeited these encouragements:—(1.) The presence of God with them: “The Lord thy God is with thee, and therefore thou art not in danger, nor needest thou be afraid.” See Isa. 41:10. (2.) The experience they and their fathers had had of God’s power and goodness in bringing them out of the land of Egypt, in defiance of Pharaoh and all his hosts, which was not only in general a proof of the divine omnipotence, but to them in particular a pledge of what God would do further for them. He that saved them from those greater enemies would not suffer them to be run down by those that were every way less considerable, and thus to have all he had done for them undone again.
2. This encouragement must be particularly addressed to the common soldiers by a priest appointed, and, the Jews say, anointed, for that purpose, whom they call the anointed of the war, a very proper title for our anointed Redeemer, the captain of our salvation: This priest, in God’s name, was to animate the people; and who so fit to do that as he whose office it was as priest to pray for them? For the best encouragements arise from the precious promises made to the prayer of faith. This priest must, (1.) Charge them not to be afraid (Deut. 20:3), for nothing weakens the hands so much as that which makes the heart tremble, Deut. 20:3. There is need of precept upon precept to this purport, as there is here: Let not your hearts be tender (so the word is), to receive all the impressions of fear, but let a believing confidence in the power and promise of God harden them. Fear not, and do not make haste (so the word is), for he that believeth doth not make more haste than good speed. “Do not make haste either rashly to anticipate your advantages or basely to fly off upon every disadvantage.” (2.) He must assure them of the presence of God with them, to own and plead their righteous cause, and not only to save them from their enemies, but to give them victory over them, Deut. 20:4. Note, Those have no reason to fear that have God with them. The giving of this encouragement by a priest, one of the Lord’s ministers, intimates, [1.] That it is very fit that armies should have chaplains, not only to pray for them, but to preach to them, both to reprove that which would hinder their success and to raise their hopes of it. [2.] That it is the work of Christ’s ministers to encourage his good soldiers in their spiritual conflict with the world and the flesh, and to assure them of a conquest, yea, more than a conquest, through Christ that loved us.
II. Those that were indisposed to fight must be discharged, whether the indisposition did arise,
1. From the circumstances of a man’s outward condition; as, (1.) If he had lately built or purchased a new house, and had not taken possession of it, had not dedicated it (Deut. 20:5), that is, made a solemn festival for the entertainment of his friends, that came to him to welcome him to his house; let him go home and take the comfort of that which God had blessed him with, till, by enjoying it for some time, he become less fond of it, and consequently less disturbed in the war by the thoughts of it, and more willing to lie and leave it. For this is the nature of all our worldly enjoyments, that they please us best at first; after a while we see the vanity of them. Some think that this dedication of their houses was a religious act, and that they took possession of them with prayers and praises, with a solemn devoting of themselves and all their enjoyments to the service and honour of God. David penned the Ps. 30:1-12 on such an occasion, as appears by the title. Note, He that has a house of his own should dedicate it to God by setting up and keeping up the fear and worship of God in it, that he may have a church in his house; and nothing should be suffered to divert a man from this. Or, (2.) If a man had been at a great expense to plant a vineyard, and longed to eat of the fruit of it, which for the first three years he was forbidden to do by the law (Lev. 19:23-25), let him go home, if he has a mind, and gratify his own humour with the fruits of it, Deut. 20:6. See how indulgent God is to his people in innocent things, and how far from being a hard Master. Since we naturally covet to eat the labour of our hands, rather than an Israelite should be crossed therein, his service in war shall be dispensed with., Or, (3.) If a man had made up his mind to be married, and the marriage were not solemnized, he was at liberty to return (Deut. 20:7), as also to tarry at home for one year after marriage (Deut. 24:5), for the terrors of war would be disagreeable to a man who had just welcomed the soft scene of domestic attachment. And God would not be served in his wars by pressed men, that were forced into the army against their will, but they must all be perfectly volunteers. Ps. 110:3; Thy people shall be willing. In running the Christian race, and fighting the good fight of faith, we must lay aside every weight, and all that which would clog and divert our minds and make us unwilling. The Jewish writers agree that this liberty to return was allowed only in those wars which they made voluntarily (as bishop Patrick expresses it), not those which were made by the divine command against Amalek and the Canaanites, in which every man was bound to fight.
2. If a man’s indisposition to fight arose from the weakness and timidity of his own spirit, he had leave to return from the war, Deut. 20:8. This proclamation Gideon made to his army, and it detached above two-thirds of them, Jdg. 7:3. Some make the fearfulness and faintheartedness here supposed to arise from the terrors of an evil conscience, which would make a man afraid to look death and danger in the face. It was then thought that men of loose and profligate lives would not be good soldiers, but must needs be both cowards in an army and curses to it, the shame and trouble of the camp; and therefore those who were conscious to themselves of notorious guilt were shaken off. But it seems rather to be meant of a natural fearfulness. It was partly in kindness to them that they had their discharge (for, though shamed, they were eased); but much more in kindness to the rest of the army, who were hereby freed from the incumbrance of such as were useless and unserviceable, while the danger of infection from their cowardice and flight was prevented. This is the reason here given: Lest his brethren’s heart fail as well as his heart. Fear is catching, and in an army is of most pernicious consequence. We must take heed that we fear not the fear of those that are afraid, Isa. 8:12.
III. It is here ordered that, when all the cowards were dismissed, then captains should be nominated (Deut. 20:9), for it was in a special manner necessary that the leaders and commanders should be men of courage. That reform therefore must be made when the army was first mustered and marshalled. The soldiers of Christ have need of courage, that they may quit themselves like men, and endure hardness like good soldiers, especially the officers of his army.