‘Lest innocent blood be shed’ Deuteronomy 19:1-21 October 4, 1992

Text Comments

v. I   ‘Cities ofRefuge’ as in the paragraph title, is not used here, but is used in Numbers 35:6, 11 for these same cities.

v. 2   In addition to the three cities already set aside east ofthe Jordan for the 2 and 1/2 tribes which were to settle there, and mentioned already in Deuteronomy 4:41-43.

v. 6  This is an expansion of the law of Exodus 21:12-14, according to which the altar was a sanctuary or asylum for someone who had accidently killed another. There he could not be molested by anyone bent on vengeance. But, when Israel entered the land, the altar would be too far away and a person fleeing to it might not reach it before being overtaken by the avenger ofblood. Hence three centrally located cities.

The ‘avenger of blood’ is not merely a hotheaded relative bent on revenge, but the kinsman who by culture and law was responsible to see that justice was executed. The ANE cultures did not have a police system like ours and enforcement was handled in different ways.

v. 7         The cities ofrefuge were not only for the purpose ofasylum. They were also places ofpunishment, for while manslaughter may not be murder, in many cases it is still a wrong. In Numbers 35:25-28, where the more comprehensive explanation ofthese cities is found, we read that at least in some cases, once a person was been found to be guilty not ofmurder but of manslaughter, he was to be returned to the city ofrefuge and there to remain until the death ofthe High Priest. Ifhe left that city, the avenger of blood was free to take his life. In effect, the city ofrefuge then became a prison, though certainly not like our modem prisons.

v. 21       The ‘lex talionis’ or ‘law of retaliation’ which is found also in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:17-20.

Now, I will tell you frankly, that I experienced a certain disappointment when I looked at the next chapter of Deuteronomy and discovered that my sermon subject was going to be the cities of refuge. I freely admit that I would, any Lord’s Day, prefer to preach on Christ as our prophet, priest, and king, as I did last Sunday morning from the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy, than on social and ethical issues as are before us in chapter 19.

But, then, that is why it is so important for ministers to preach consecutively through the books ofthe Bible. If I didn’t, I fear it would be many years before you ever heard from me a sermon on Deuteronomy 19, or sermons on many other such passages ofthe Bible. That would be a great mistake. God speaks here too and what he says to us here is also part ofhis will and should also be part ofour thinking and our faith as Christians.

What is more, surely no one can doubt the immense practical relevance of this passage for people living in a society like ours, chock full of murder and brutality as it has become. The Bible is, of course, chiefly about Christ and salvation. But, it also speaks to the life of mankind in the world — for the God of the Bible is the creator and ruler of all men — and it speaks of the laws God has established for the welfare and happiness of mankind. Laws which ought to be kept whether a person is a Christian or not, and laws which will not be flaunted with impunity. Laws touching marriage, for example, or, as here, laws touching crime and punishment. In a day of exploding crime and uncertain and highly ineffective punishment, we must turn back to the Word of God. The Lord has taught us how a society is to be justly ruled. Our society has ignored what he has said to its own great harm.

Now, the particular subject of this chapter is the laws touching murder and its punishment. You know that this is a matter of great controversy even among Christians. There are Christians who are adamantly opposed to the death penalty and base their opposition upon what they understand to be Christian principles. It is by no means only liberal Christians with little regard for the authority of Holy Scripture who take that view. Charles Colson, for example, whose political and social instincts would have to be classified as conservative and who surely has a very high view of the authority of the Bible, nevertheless is opposed to capital punishment.

On the other hand, I have to say that, if Holy Scripture is to be our guide, it does not seem possible to deny that both in the OT and the NT capital punishment for certain crimes is taught to be both right and necessary. The Apostle Paul himself, on several occasions, says this and he is only reiterating what has been the teaching of God’s Word from the beginning. Perhaps, however, some of the confusion is due to a failure to pay due heed to all that the Bible has to say on this subject. A good place to begin to do that is right here in Deuteronomy 19.

I said that the subject of the chapter is the laws governing murder and its punishment. But, really, the subject of the chapter is the end or purpose of all of these laws, which is stated in v. 10: namely that God’s people not be guilty of bloodshed, that innocent blood not be shed in the land. This is the purpose of all that we read in this chapter. And, with innocent blood being shed all around us in our land today, surely this is a chapter of great relevance for us. Let me demonstrate this.

In the first place, we are here taught that guilt for bloodshed can be contracted by allowing a man innocent of murder to be executed for murder. Executing an innocent man is equivalent to murder. One of the ways innocent blood may be shed is for someone to be executed for a crime he did not commit. One of the ways for the society as a whole to become guilty of bloodshed is for it to allow those who are not guilty of murder to be executed for it anyway. And history shows us far too often how brutalized and ugly societies become where people are regularly executed or otherwise severely punished who have done nothing to deserve such a punishment.

All of this about cities of refuge and about trials to discriminate between what is truly murder and what is something less requiring a lesser penalty or no penalty at all is really to ensure that no one be executed for anything other than a capital crime.

But, surely, we are to take notice of what pains were taken to ensure that that would be so. Six entire cities were to be centrally located amidst the population of Israel. Roads were to be built to ensure easy access to them. Trials were to be conducted in every case. It had to be clearly demonstrated in the trial that the accused acted with malice aforethought. Witnesses were sworn to the truth upon the most serious penalty should they be found to have perjured themselves. If a witness’s lie resulted in the condemning of an innocent man to death, the witness must himself be executed. And, finally, one witness, even an eyewitness, is not sufficient to prove the guilt of an accused murderer. There must be two or three, which is a cryptic way of saying that the evidence must be incontestable. The Scripture very clearly here — and in other parts of the law dealing with evidence and criminal judgments — entertains the possibility that guilty men might go free for want of adequate evidence to demonstrate beyond doubt that the accused actually committed the crime.

And, then, above and beyond all this, and far more profound a consideration for the man or woman of faith, is that God holds the people to account for the shedding of innocent blood if it fails to protect from execution someone who is not guilty of murder in the same way that God holds a murderer to account for the shedding of the blood of his victim. Notice the very similar statements in vv. 10 and 13. In each case Israel would stand guilty. Yet v. 10 has to do with the society’s failure to protect an innocent man and v. 13 with society’s obligation to punish a murderer. Failure in either case rendered Israel herself guilty of bloodshed!

Now, you will often hear the opponents of capital punishment make precisely this point. You cannot always be sure that a man is guilty of murder but once he is executed there can be no correction of your mistake. That is a good point and the Bible makes that same point itself and emphatically. In Holy Scripture, God insists that extraordinary steps be taken to ensure the guilt of those who are to be executed for murder and, indeed, to ensure that those whose guilt has not been convincingly demonstrated never be executed. The Bible clearly does not make this risk an argument against capital punishment, but it is very far from minimizing or being uncaring about such an irrevocable injustice being done. The Bible never speaks cavalierly or incautiously about the death penalty — like some people today — but always very carefully and circumspectly.

But, secondly, we are also taught here, that guilt for bloodshed can also be contracted by failing to execute those guilty of murder. If executing an innocent man is a crime to be avoided at all costs, so is the failure to punish a murderer by execution. From beginning to end, the Bible says nothing other than this. As far back as Genesis 9:5-6 we read that God demands an accounting from man for the life of his neighbor. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man.’

The perspective of Scripture is two-fold. First, alone being made in the image of God, the life of human beings is so sacred, so important, that it is a crime of almost unimaginable proportion for a person to murder another. Because we are made in the image of God it is a form of deicide (of God-killing) as well as homicide to lift up our hand against our neighbor. Murder is immeasurably wicked!

Second, justice is a matter of equity or balance and, in the case of a criminal, his receiving what is due. Human beings instinctively, if not always consistently, recognize the wrong of a small crime being punished with a great penalty — a man being sent to Devil’s island for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry family — or, contrarily, of a great crime being punished with a small penalty. This is the principle expressed in the statue of Justice as a woman with eyes blindfolded holding balances or scales in her hand. Crime lies on one side of the balance, punishment on the other and the scales are to be even at the end of the matter. Justice requires an impartial reckoning of a punishment which fits the crime.

The principle of justice by equity is stated here in 19:21 as it is stated elsewhere in the Bible in terms of punishments which are, as far as possible, the exact equivalent of the crime. An eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, and a life for a life. Which is to say that justice requires that a murderer, one who intentionally and with malice takes the life of another, forfeit his own life. Anything less is not justice, is not retribution in proportion to the crime. And, what is more to the point, anything less than this, as the Lord explicitly says in v. 13, involves the whole people in the guilt of that murder. If the murderer is not executed, the people share in the guilt of his crime.

Now there are, of course, those who say that if we execute murderers we are as bad as they are. But the Bible clearly has no time for that kind of reasoning. That would mean that those who do wrong and those who punish them are equally bad and that God is thus as bad as the wicked, for he promises to punish the wicked and to give them exactly what they deserve. Capital punishment is no more ‘legalized murder’ than imprisonment is ‘legalized kidnapping.’ It is rather, retributive justice — a punishment to fit the crime.

If one wishes to know why our land is drowning in a sea of shed-blood, why babies in the womb and the aged and infirm and everyone else in between are being killed in unprecedented numbers, and ever more brutally, the first reason must be this: that God has permitted our society’s heart to be hardened, punishing us for our failure to do justice, and to treat the taking of life made in his image as the enormous crime against him and against mankind that it is.

Third and finally, the Lord makes clear that failure to do justice in the matter of punishing murder, makes us guilty also for subsequent murders which more readily occur in such a permissive atmosphere. This point is made by implication in v. 20, though no less clearly for that, and is, in any case a point already made in Deuteronomy and often enough elsewhere in the Bible. It is the principle of deterrence. Swift, sure, and just punishment deters others from the commission of the same crime. That is what is said explicitly in v. 20. Contrarily, failure to provide such punishment must, whatever people may protest to the contrary, lead others to a greater willingness to commit such crimes.

Now you will, of course, hear many argue today that capital punishment is not an effective deterrence and that supposedly studies have shown this. Well, the Almighty thinks differently and has said the contrary in his holy Word. Who are you going to believe? But, of course, that counter-claim is, in any case, ridiculous. It is what is called counter-intuitive. It strikes against what everybody knows to be true who has ever taken his foot off the accelerator at the sight of a police car by the side of the road!

Today it is argued, with regard to murder and every other crime, that people will do it anyway. But, of course, that attitude has more to do with the crime rate than almost anything else. Some people will do it anyway. There will always be murderers and thieves. The Bible assumes this fact even here in Deuteronomy 19. But the question is not whether some will commit crimes even in the face of the prospect of stern punishments, but whether most will. Abortion happened when it was still a criminal act. But it happened comparatively rarely. Now that there is no punishment for it, there are abortions by the millions every year.

The simple fact is that no one believes that people would behave the same way if they were no threat of punishment. How many people would continue in the habit of buying train tickets if it became known that there were no conductors on the trains anymore? How many stores would be safe from looting if the police went on strike? How many would obey the speed limit if there were no punishments for exceeding it? In every area of life, not just in the matter of criminal behavior, we must and do reckon with the consequences of choices and behavior. And, for most people, and for society in general, the more sure and the more severe the threatened punishment, the less likely one is to commit the crime. Many more people speed than commit burglary. God has made us that way. And it is a great wrong, which strikes at the dignity of human beings, to seek to break the connection between our actions and their just deserts. It is also near blasphemy to argue that it is wrong to punish in order to deter, for God is always punishing us with exactly that intention. He teaches us to do good by making us fear the consequences of doing evil. It is hardly the only motivation he employs and hardly the only reason for doing good — indeed, it is not a sufficient reason by itself — but it is a valid and an important reason and God teaches us obedience in just that way.

Now, that is the Bible’s doctrine of capital punishment.

Scrupulous and extravagant care must be taken to ensure that it is administered only to those who deserve it. Failure to impose it upon one who is demonstrably a murderer is itself a great crime and an act of high injustice. And, it is the true and effective deterrent to the crime of murder in the community at large.

In our day, when the likelihood that any American citizen will not be touched by violent crime in his or her lifetime has reached the vanishing point, we are hardly in any position to argue that we have found a better way, a more just way. Fact is, God alone — infinite in justice –, who is our Maker, knows how best justice is to be served and how best the sinful instincts of human beings are to be controlled. And he has spoken in his word. And his word is true and is to be believed and obeyed by all men. That should settle the issue in all of our minds. But there is one last consideration. Paul said to Festus, the Roman Governor (Acts 25:11), ‘Ifl am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.’ He recognized the justice of the death penalty in certain cases, but, of course, he was not guilty of any such crime.

But, there have been people who came to Christ and received his forgiveness as criminals in prison, even as murderers sentenced to die. There is the breathtaking account of Tokichi lchii, a Japanese murderer who was hanged in a Tokyo prison in 1918. From a life of supreme cruelty he had been converted in prison while awaiting his execution, through the witness borne by two lady missionaries. One of the most dramatic and immediate effects of his conversion to Christ was that he now saw and acknowledged that his execution was the fair and impartial judgment of God. He went to his death with no complaints but in the hope that others might hear that the most desperate villain who ever lived was saved by the power of Christ and repented of his sins, and hearing that might come to repent also.

But the Bible furnishes a better example still. As our Savior hung on the cross, his life ebbing away, next to him hung two criminals, one on either side. One of them taunted him and made the Lord’s dying more miserable still. But the other, in a flash of understanding given him by the Spirit of God, came to himself and realized that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah and the Savior of the world. Everything was suddenly perfectly clear. And he looked over at his former partner in crime, the one hurling insults at the Lord, and called to him: ‘Don’t you fear God, since we are under the same sentence [of death]? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man had done nothing wrong.’ He admitted that he should be executed for his crimes.

Who better than a murderer himself, who by the Spirit of God, has come to see the true enormity of his sin; who better than the condemned criminal himself — now seeing his life rightly for the first time — to tell us that capital punishment for murder is only justice? And that’s what God says it is and what human peace and order require. But let it be done with scrupulous care.