Care had been taken by some preceding laws for the vigorous and effectual persecution of a wilful murderer (Deut. 19:11-13), the putting of whom to death was the putting away of the guilt of blood from the land; but if this could not be done, the murderer not being discovered, they must not think that the land was in no danger of contracting any pollution because it was not through any neglect of theirs that the murderer was unpunished; no, a great solemnity is here provided for the putting away of the guilt, as an expression of their dread and detestation of that sin.
I. The case supposed is that one is found slain, and it is not known who slew him, Deut. 21:1. The providence of God has sometimes wonderfully brought to light these hidden works of darkness, and by strange occurrences the sin of the guilty has found them out, insomuch that it has become a proverb, Murder will out. But it is not always so; now and then the devil’s promises of secresy and impunity in this world are made good; yet it is but for a while: there is a time coming when secret murders will be discovered; the earth shall disclose her blood (Isa. 26:21), upon the inquisition which justice makes for it; and there is an eternity coming when those that escaped punishment from men will lie under the righteous judgment of God. And the impunity with which so many murders and other wickednesses are committed in this world makes it necessary that there should be a day of judgment, to require that which is past, Eccl. 3:15.
II. Directions are given concerning what is to be done in this case. Observe,
1. It is taken for granted that a diligent search had been made for the murderer, witnesses examined, and circumstances strictly enquired into, that if possible they might find out the guilty person; but if, after all, they could not trace it out, not fasten the charge upon any, then, (1.) The elders of the next city (that had a court of three and twenty in it) were to concern themselves about this matter. If it were doubtful which city was next, the great sanhedrim were to send commissioners to determine that matter by an exact measure, Deut. 21:2, 3. Note, Public persons must be solicitous about the public good; and those that are in power and reputation in cities must lay out themselves to redress grievances, and reform what is amiss in the country and neighbourhood that lie about them. Those that are next to them should have the largest share of their good influence, as ministers of God for good. (2.) The priests and Levites must assist and preside in this solemnity (Deut. 21:5), that they might direct the management of it in all points according to the law, and particularly might be the people’s mouth to God in the prayer that was to be put up on this sad occasion, Deut. 21:8. God being Israel’s King, his ministers must be their magistrates, and by their word, as the mouth of the court and learned in the laws, every controversy must be tried. It was Israel’s privilege that they had such guides, overseers, and rulers, and their duty to make use of them upon all occasions, especially in sacred things, as this was. (3.) They were to bring a heifer down into a rough and unoccupied valley, and to kill it there, Deut. 21:3, 4. This was not a sacrifice (for it was not brought to the altar), but a solemn protestation that thus they would put the murderer to death if they had him in their hands. The heifer must be one that had not drawn in the yoke, to signify (say some) that the murderer was a son of Belial; it must be brought into a rough valley, to signify the horror of the fact, and that the defilement which blood brings upon a land turns it into barrenness. And the Jews say that unless, after this, the murderer was found out, this valley where the heifer was killed was never to be tilled nor sown. (4.) The elders were to wash their hands in water over the heifer that was killed, and to profess, not only that they had not shed this innocent blood themselves, but that they knew not who had (Deut. 21:6, 7), nor had knowingly concealed the murderer, helped him to make his escape, or been any way aiding or abetting. To this custom David alludes, Ps. 26:6; I will wash my hands in innocency; but if Pilate had any eye to it (Matt. 27:24) he wretchedly misapplied it when he condemned Christ, knowing him to be innocent, and yet acquitted himself from the guilt of innocent blood. Protestatio non valet contra factum—Protestations are of no avail when contradicted by fact. (5.) The priests were to pray to God for the country and nation, that God would be merciful to them, and not bring upon them the judgments which the connivance at the sin of murder would deserve. It might be presumed that the murderer was either one of their city or was now harboured in their city; and therefore they must pray that they might not fare the worse for his being among them, Num. 16:22. Be merciful, O Lord, to thy people Israel, Deut. 21:8. Note, When we hear of the wickedness of the wicked we have need to cry earnestly to God for mercy for our land, which groans and trembles under it. We must empty the measure by our prayers which others are filling by their sins. Now,
2. This solemnity was appointed, (1.) That it might give occasion to common and public discourse concerning the murder, which perhaps might some way or other occasion the discovery of it. (2.) That it might possess people with a dread of the guilt of blood, which defiles not only the conscience of him that sheds it (this should engage us all to pray with David, Deliver me from blood—guiltiness), but the land in which it is shed; it cries to the magistrate for justice on the criminal, and, if that cry be not heard, it cries to heaven for judgment on the land. If there must be so much care employed to save the land from guilt when the murderer was not known, it was certainly impossible to secure it from guilt if the murderer was known and yet protected. All would be taught, by this solemnity, to use their utmost care and diligence to prevent, discover, and punish murder. Even the heathen mariners dreaded the guilt of blood, Jonah 1:14. (3.) That we might all learn to take heed of partaking in other men’s sins, and making ourselves accessory to them ex post facto—after the fact, by countenancing the sin or sinner, and not witnessing against it in our places. We have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness if we do not reprove them rather, and bear our testimony against them. The repentance of the church of Corinth for the sin of one of their members produced such a carefulness, such a clearing of themselves, such a holy indignation, fear, and revenge (2 Cor. 7:11), as were signified by the solemnity here appointed.