The ninth commandment prohibits judicial deceit and corruption, and we now come to the portion of Deuteronomy that treats this commandment. While lying is a way to break the ninth commandment “downstream,” the commandment is actually prohibiting “false witness” or what we would call “false testimony in a judicial setting” against one’s neighbor. We see in this passage a number of laws designed to keep the holders of power honest. “Take heed in the plague of leprosy . . .” (Dt. 24:8-25:3).
The stage is set in the warning about leprosy (vv. 8-9). When a pledge is taken for a loan, it must not be taken in a way that insults the debtor’s dignity (vv. 10-13). The day-laborer, the migrant worker, is not to be oppressed (vv. 14-15). Personal responsibility for crimes committed is a cornerstone of the law (v. 16). The defenseless are not to be oppressed, and this is to be avoided for the right reason (vv. 17-18). Ownership of the means of production is not absolute; the gleanings belong to the poor (vv. 19-22). When a brother is found at fault before the law, his dignity is still to be respected (25:1-3).
The first thing we are told in this section is that we are to remember the lesson of Miriam (v. 9). She had been guilty of opposing Moses, and her false witness was struck with leprosy (Num. 12:1-3). If this kind of leprosy is not put outside the camp, everything is then corrupted. And once rot in the courts sets in, a return to justice is extremely difficult—the halls of justice must be torn down, not one stone left upon another.
While usury is prohibited, taking a pledge is not. But in the taking of the pledge, two things are to be observed. First, the creditor is not to go into the poor man’s house. His dignity is respected (vv. 10-11). Second, the pledge is not to be used in a way that would grind the poor man down (vv. 12-13). “And they lay themselves down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god” (Amos 2:8).
The laboring poor tend to live from hand to mouth. This is not to be used against them. If they have done the work, pay them now. This principle is found here in the law, in the prophets (Jer. 22:13; Is. 58:3), and in the words of James. “Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth” (Jas. 5:4). This falls under the heading of a ninth commandment violation, and not under the prohibition of theft (although that applies as well). Note that the withholding of wages, biblically speaking, is reckoned as fraud. And Jesus places it in the front rank of sins (Mark 10:19).
Each man needs to be responsible for his own sin. In the Code of Hammurabi, if a man built a house which collapsed, killing another man’s son, then his own son was to be put to death. But in Scripture, the courts of man were limited to the guilty party only. When he consolidated his rule, King Amaziah honored this law (2 Kings 14:5-6). The three “exceptions” in the Old Testament (Num. 16; Josh. 7; 2 Sam. 21) are not examples of the court system operating. The first two are divine judgments, and the third (in my view) is tantamount to an act of war. But before the law, judgment is limited to the guilty party.
We then come to widows and orphans. Notice in v. 17 that what is prohibited is the perversion of judgment. The alien, the orphan, and the widow are all legally vulnerable. Those who have the power to bless them or to hurt them must remember when they were slaves. Remembering this and showing economic and legal kindness is true and undefiled religion.
The creditor was not to go into the poor man’s house. But the poor had gleaning privileges in the grain fields, orchards, and vineyards of the wealthy (vv. 19-21). The remainders belonged to the poor. And the reason for doing this is important (v. 22).
And even if a man deserved a beating, the law set a limit (vv. 1-3). Remember that forty is the number of affliction. But even here, the dignity of the fool is respected, in part by beating him, in part by stopping. A rod is for the back of fools, but even a fool bears the image of God.