Forty Blows He May Give Him and No More

Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 25:1-10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/26/2010 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Deuteronomy 25:1-10

”Forty Blows He May Give Him and No More”

Misguided; perverted; distorted; misapplied. These might all be terms to use when we take something good and use it in a wrong way. You might use these terms when you describe something that in theory is good, but humans execute it in the wrong way. That’s certainly been the history among humans for what’s described in verses 1-3. These are the verses I especially want us to focus on today.

The subject raised in these first three verses is about administering proper justice. Most specifically, it mandates for Israel the proper administration of what you might call judicial corporal punishment. In other words, the practice of someone incurring corporal punishment for some act of wickedness. It uses the language here of someone being beaten or stuck a certain number of times for their crime. This is the idea of someone being whipped or scourged or flogged as a punishment handed down by the judge for their actions.

This is a kind of judicial punishment that has been practiced in many nations down through the centuries. It’s of course one that has also been gradually removed from almost every western country over the last one hundred years or so. Throughout human history, people have used whippings and floggings as a judicial punishment and corrective measure. Many nations still do this today as well. You probably remember the incident in 1994 where American citizen Michael P. Fay was sentenced to 6 strikes of the cane in Singapore for his vandalism. And yet in our culture, this idea probably seems unthinkable to many. It’s even deemed inhumane by many; many might argue that it’s a violation of human rights. Of course, even in our own country it’s been practiced for most of our history. And yet today it’s fallen out of favor, to say the least, in our country. Why? Well, I think one clear reason would be that it’s often misapplied, perverted, distorted, in its execution. As an analogy, we know some people replace proper corrective spanking of their children with abusive beating of their children. Certainly judicial corporal punishment has been wrought with abuses and perversions down through the ages.

So, today I’d like to first look at the provisions and principles
given here in verses 1-3. We’ll think a little bit about both justice and judicial corporal punishment in Israel. Second, I’d like to then consider how Israel’s history shows how they weren’t faithful to all the provisions that are here; how they perverted these principles. Lastly, I’ll offer some application today for us as Christians in light of how people pervert the principles found in verses 1-3.

Let’s begin then with analyzing the judicial provisions in verses 1-3 for Israel. The context is put rather broadly. There’s some dispute between two parties that is brought to the court for judgment. The judges then are tasked to decide who is innocent and who is guilty. So right away before we get into any discussion on flogging or scourging, notice this first principle here. There is a principle that the judges must bring justice in the midst of a dispute. I love the language here in verse 1. They must “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” If a court of law could just get this right, we would all be better off. The judges must declare the righteous as righteous and condemn the wicked as wicked. Before the judges even think about what punishment to hand out in a situation, they need to first get this right. They need to rightly identify who is in the wrong and who is in the right, according to the law of God.

Moving on to verse two, you see that the judges then have to decide if a man deserves to be beaten. If so, then the judge has to decide how many number of blows or strikes he is to receive. So you see that in the principles of justice, there are several questions the judges have to ask in progression. First, who is the guilty party? Second, does this guilty person deserve to receive corporal punishment for his actions? Third, if so, how many lashes should he receive? This is all part of the due process afforded to the Israelites as a part of their civil laws. These were principles of justice that they needed to protect and live out.

So it’s helpful to point out here in our modern day, that the Bible does not present a problem, in theory, with scourging or flogging. The Bible recognizes that civil governments can use this form of punishment to aid in its work of justice. It’s a corrective measure for righteousness. Proverbs 26:3 says, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the fool’s back.” We know this is a corrective measure, when we compare this to the punishment of someone being stoned to death in Israel. There Deuteronomy describes that capital punishment as cutting the person off from Israel. They were removing the evil person from their midst; permanently. In contrast, the beating described here is meant as an act of chastisement; to correct the guilty person and look to restore him in the community.

And yet the Bible is obviously not unaware of the abuses that can come along with this. We see limits and protections for the guilty right here, in fact. There are several limits and protections given in verses 2-3 to help protect the dignity of the guilty person. This flogging is supposed to be corrective. It’s to restore the person in dignity and righteousness; not to humiliate him. That’s the concern raised in verse 3. If this flogging is not executed properly, but is perverted, it can have a negative effect on the person, instead of a corrective one.

So look at some of these limits and protections here. We already mentioned one; that there would be due process for the accused. But there’s more. The obvious one is the maximum sentence; no more than 40 lashes. Later, the Jews in their typical pharisaical fashion changed the limit to 40 minus one; so that just in case they miscounted by one, they wouldn’t exceed the maximum. This limit was to keep a reasonable amount for this sort of punishment; that people should not get carried away with too many lashes. Thus, a limit of 40 was set, though less could be ordered by the judge. The principle in verse 2 is that the judge must decide the appropriate amount of lashes, not to exceed 40. The idea here is that the amount of blows was to appropriate to the crime. The punishment should be fitting for the crime. Even then, the judge couldn’t just order the flogging and then leave it up to a guard to implement. The blows would have to take place in the presence of the judge. This would hopefully keep the guards accountable who executed the sentence. They couldn’t be too lenient nor too harsh; they had the judge overseeing it to make sure it was appropriately done. All of these provisions would have helped the guilty part from being humiliated, as it says in verse 3. It would be right and helpful to him to receive his fair punishment; but an excessive beating would not be just. Thus, even the Bible recognizes the abuses that could happen with judicial corporal punishment.

In fact, it is those abuses that we see in Israel’s own history. As you read on in the Scriptures, you see time and time again Israel failing in these areas. The most clear thing we see is a general perversion of justice. Remember in verse 1 they were tasked to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. Well, the Scriptures repeatedly show Israel failing at that first step. Micah 3:1, God said that the people didn’t know justice because they hated the good and loved the evil. Habakkuk 1:4 describes the law being numb and justice never going forth; that the wicked surround the righteous so that justice is perverted. Isaiah 5:23 laments the people justifying the wicked for a bribe, and taking away justice from the righteous man. The Bible sees Israel failing time and again in this. They falsely condemn a righteous person and they falsely justify a wicked person. Proverbs 17:15 says those things are an abomination to the Lord. That’s because they pervert justice and God is a God of justice. And so Israel’s history records their failure to condemn the wicked and uphold the righteous, as verse 1 requires.

We also see ways in which Israel perverted the specific practice of corporal punishment as well. In other words, they not only perverted the general principle of justice from verse 1. We also see them perverting justice in how they executed flogging and scourging. I think of King Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:11 who so rashly threatened the people on this. The people of Israel had come to King Rehoboam when his father King Solomon had died. As King Rehoboam took over for his father, they wanted to know if he would ease the heavy burdens that his father had placed on him. King Rehoboam, after listening to some bad counsel, answered the people very hashly. His response included this: “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions!” Some have suggested King Rehoboam was referring to a particularly painful and damaging type of whip known as a scorpion. That’s possible. He could have just being metaphorical of the sort of harsh treatment he would give them. But the bottom line is King Rehoboam was threatening that he would make use of corporal punishment in some excessive way. He’s saying that if they thought King Solomon’s use of the whip was hard to bear, his floggings would be far worse. This is a flagrant expression of the sort of abuse civil magistrates have done with the powers entrusted to them. Sometimes kings and judges have executed harsher punishments than the people deserved. Such rulers can use that as a way to hold tyranny over the people.

Of course, you have records in Scripture how they also abused this sort of judicial corporal punishment by beating the innocent. I have in mind the way Israel beat the prophets. We have an explicit reference of this in both Jeremiah 20:2 and 37:15. There Jeremiah was beaten on two different occasions; by the priests and the officials, the very people tasked with the sort of just judgment described here in Deuteronomy 25. Instead of bringing a fair punishment on the wicked, they falsely beat an innocent man. And not just an innocent man, but a prophet sent by God! There are passages in the New Testament that make it sound like this sort of treatment for the prophets was pretty common in the Old Testament (passages like Matthew 23:31-35, Luke 11:49-51, and Hebrews 11:36).

We know this kind of thing happens. Godly men are flogged. The guilty are flogged excessively. Humans in power can become corrupt; they can become blood thirsty and take joy in inflicting pain on others. It’s sickening to think about the abuses of this sort of thing. The rampant abuses of floggings are probably why so many societies today have outlawed it. They’ve recognized the difficulties men have had at enacting true justice. World history testifies to the perversions of judicial corporal punishment. Israel’s history in Scripture testifies to this. We know, of course, why people pervert this. The answer is simple. Sin. Sin is the reason why floggings are excessive or administered to the innocent. Sin is the ultimate cause of the injustice in our justice systems.

Of course the solution to this problem of sin was revealed in the greatest abuse ever of judicial corporal punishment. John 19:1, “So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.” Jesus was beaten. Jesus was scourged; flogged. This is a point that the gospel writers didn’t want us to miss. All four gospels report that Jesus was beaten as a part of his suffering that led up to the cross. Mark and Luke’s gospel specifically record Jesus predicting his flogging, death, and resurrection all together. We think about the cross especially as the pinnacle of Christ’s sufferings. But the flogging was also an important part of his sufferings for us, and in our place. By his wounds, we have been healed.

This was obviously an injustice. It’s bad when a guilty person receives an excessive flogging. It’s worse when an innocent person receives a flogging at all. It’s even worse when that innocent person is a prophet being punished for their God-given prophecies. Well, Jesus was the prophet above all. But not only that, Jesus was the Son of God come into the flesh. Jesus was perfectly sinless. He had committed no crime. There was no reason to flog the King of Kings. This was the greatest injustice. It was the greatest abuse ever of judicial corporal punishment. And yet Jesus knew it would happen. He knew it, he predicted it, and he allowed it to happen. He did not try to stop them. When all the earthly judges were falsely condemning him, Jesus instead entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).

Think about in terms of verse 1 from our passage. What should the judges at Jesus’ trial have done? They should have justified the righteous and condemned the wicked. When the dispute was presented between Jesus and the religious leaders, the judgment should have been that Jesus was innocent and that the religious leaders were guilty. That would have been justice. That would have been the right verdict. But what happened instead? They did the opposite. They condemned the righteous one. Jesus, innocent and fully righteous was condemned.

But we know why. We know why Jesus allowed this to happen. It was in fact his mission. He allowed the judgment of verse 1 to be reversed in his case. He allowed it so that you and I can be saved. He bore our punishment; yes on the cross, and even with the floggings. What happened in his trial is simple. The righteous one was condemned so that the wicked could be justified. I’m not talking about the religious leaders now. I’m talking about you and me and all who will put their trust in Jesus. We who believe in Christ have been justified. That’s because he allowed justice to be reversed on him, for our sake. We deserved to be condemned as the wicked. He rightly deserved to be justified as the righteous. But because he was condemned, though righteous, we can now be justified, though wicked. Wow. What a Savior! What a Lord! And so I declare to this congregation again today. Turn from your wickedness unto Christ. Repent of your sins and believe in Jesus. If you have never done this before, don’t wait any longer. Today, you can be justified. Though guilty on your own merits, your sins can be forgiven today when you call upon Jesus for salvation. Become identified today with Jesus, through faith. Be justified today. God will no longer see you as wicked, but as the righteous, for you will bear on your account the righteousness of Christ; a righteousness that comes through faith.

My final point today is a point of application for us as Christians. I want us to think for a moment about Christian suffering. You might recall how Jesus had told his disciples James and John how they would drink the same cup that Jesus drank; referring to a cup of suffering. Several places in the gospels records Jesus predicting that the disciples would suffer like Jesus did, specifically noting that they would be beaten and flogged (Matthew 10:17, 23:34, Mark 13:9). In other words, Jesus’ disciples would suffer just like Jesus did.

And that’s exactly what we see when we read the book of Acts. We see the apostles being flogged for Christ (Acts 5:39, 16:22, 22:25). Of course we read earlier in the service all the sufferings the Apostle Paul went through for the sake of Christ. There we specifically saw that on five different occasions Paul had received the forty lashes minus one. Three times he was even beaten with rods. Christ’s witnesses have suffered like Christ has suffered. This has included sharing in the beatings he received.

We are told in the New Testament that this is not something limited to just the apostles. All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution, 2 Timothy 3:12. Please understand this. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean all your life’s difficulties will be instantly solved. In fact, following Christ can be bad for your physical health. You could end up being beaten, flogged, and scourged, for Christ.

Of course, in today’s world, I find it very hard to imagine that any of us will end up being physically beaten by the United States government. And yet that doesn’t mean we won’t face persecution. Christians in the past have suffered under the hands of people perverting the principles found in verses 1-3. Christians in the past have suffered under the hand of the civil government, and under the hand of church courts gone awry. They’ve been beaten, tortured, and killed, for their faith in Christ. Today, we probably will never be faced with this sort of physical threat to our bodies for the sake of Christ. If we do, may we be ready to do so; but either way we must be ready to suffer any sort of persecution that might come our way.

In fact, in today’s age, the winds of tolerance in our government appear to be quickly changing. I can’t tell you what is in store for Christians in 5, 10, or 20 years from now. But I do know that there are some alarming trends in our government. It’s not inconceivable that a growing number of Christians could find direct persecution from our civil governments in the years to come. It’s not inconceivable that pastors or chaplains could find themselves imprisoned if they teach controversial topics from the Bible and get condemned as giving out hate speech. These are all real possibilities. I hope they never get materialized. I don’t want to be an alarmist. But if they do come to us, one day, how ought we respond?

1 Peter 2:20-22 gives us some advice. Go ahead and turn there now:

For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth.”

Peter says there that it is commendable if we suffer for God and endure it. Commendable before God. God is pleased when we suffer for him in this and endure it. It says that we can be following Christ in this. Christ gave us an example to follow. We too, like the disciples, share in Christ’s sufferings when we endure these sorts of things. We ought not to sin when we are sinned against in this way. Instead we ought to patiently endure it, and even count it a blessing that we have been counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Christ (Acts 5:41)!

In this, we are an example of Christ to others as well. It’s part of how we share Christ to the world, when we stand up even amidst persecution. Most of us find our faith encouraged when we think about how the disciples were willing to die for their faith. We say, this must be true, if they were willing to die for it. Would you be willing to suffer and even die for Christ? Would you do this joyfully for Christ?

I know that we are not faced with this now. We might be one day. A danger for us when we see politics changing unfavorably for Christians is to invest all our energy into the political realm to try to stop it. We can exhaust countless time and money on trying to secure political change to protect Christians’ from facing persecution. I’m certainly not opposed to efforts to protect our freedoms. Paul told slaves, that if you could gain your freedom, then that’s great, go for it. But he also told them not to be troubled about it if they couldn’t, to remain in whatever station God had called them to (1 Corinthians 7:20-21).

By analogy, my point then is, that if we can secure our freedom in the United States for the gospel, then that’s great. But as a church, that’s not the primary focus of our work. We have a spiritual mission. To bring the gospel. Some of you might especially take on as individual Christians the politics and look for supporting Christian freedoms. But if that effort doesn’t ultimately prevail in our country, that’s not the end to Christianity. It may be the start of widespread government persecution, but it cannot and will not prevail against the church of Christ. We have Christ’s promise for that. Not even the gates of Hades can prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18).

Today, this week, or even this month, none of us will probably face this kind of corporal suffering for Christ. What we could very well receive is verbal suffering for Christ. Someone could ridicule our faith. We could have our faith ridiculed. We could be looked down upon because of our OPC distinctives; what we hold out of conviction to believe the Bible teaches. If we ought to endure patiently and joyfully corporal suffering for Christ, shouldn’t we all the more endure in the same way verbal suffering for Christ? And yet we know how that can affect us. One small comment someone makes about our faith and we can be bothered about it for a weeks. I’m sure some of that is because Christian persecution is just so few and far between. If we faced persecution daily, we’d not have energy to let each one bother us that long.

The reality is that we have gotten so good at avoiding controversy with unbelievers. I think many of us have gotten so good at this so as to avoid persecution. Let us not go out of our way to find persecution. But let us not look to avoid it either. Let’s instead look to give the full complete gospel to all who are around us. Let’s not sugarcoat God’s truth just to avoid an argument. I’m not saying that we should proactively look to offend either. But let’s make sure we give forth the whole Word of God to people.

This is difficult, brothers and sisters. I know because I can speak from my own experience. Satan wants to have us hide. He wants us to self-marginalize the ministry of the church by keeping quiet. Let’s pray that we would share even in Christ’s boldness, even as we as share in his righteousness. Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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