Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 4: Harmony of the Law, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Deuteronomy 17:2-5, 7
2. If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
2. Si inventus fuerit in medio tui, in una portarum tuarum, quas Jehova Deus tuus dat tibi, vir sire mulier qui fecerit malum in oculis Jehovae Dei tui, ad transgrediendum pactum ejus:
3. And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
3. Iveritque et coluerit deos alienos: et adoraverit eos, solem aut lunam, aut universum exercitum coelorum, quod ego non praecepi:
4. And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:
4. Et nuntiatum fuerit tibi, audierisque: tune probe inquires: et ecce, si verus et certus fuerit sermo, et facta fuerit abominatio haec in Israel:
5. Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
5. Educes virum illum, aut mulierem illam, qui commiserunt facinus illud pravum ad portas tuas, virum, aut mulierem, et obrues cos lapidibus donec moriantur.
7. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.
7. Marius testium primo erit in eum ad occidendum ipsum, et manus populi postea: exterminabisque malum e medio tui.
2. If there be found among you. The same punishment is here decreed against idolaters, to which apostates had been before condemned; and thus either transgression is declared a capital crime. Hence we gather that it is accounted before God no less weighty a sin to violate His worship by gross and impure superstitions, than openly and professedly to fall away from religion altogether. Thus in Eze 20:39, He bids farewell to the Jews, and as it were emancipates them, that they may go every one after his idols, when they are no longer contented with Him alone. Whilst God, however, is so rigid an exactor of punishment, He would not have judgment pronounced precipitately. These are tokens of severity, that a woman as well as a man is to be slain; that the whole people should unite in stoning them; that the evil should be removed from the midst of the land, lest the abomination should continue unpunished. On the other hand moderation is to be observed, since diligent inquiry is to be made, nor is sentence to be pronounced unless the matter is fully proved; and again, that the trial may be lawful, the accusation of one man is not to convict the accused. God therefore would not have the judges, under pretext of zeal, shed blood inconsiderately; but only, after mature inquiry, the criminal was to be punished in proportion to his transgression. By synecdoche he speaks of their cities under the name of “gates,” and alludes to the land having been “given” them, that they might not shew their want of gratitude to God by profaning it. He marks too the heinous nature of the offense, by calling it the “transgressing of God’s covenant;” as much as to say that all who go aside unto idols are covenant-breakers. For the thief, and the fornicator, and the drunkard, and such like transgress the Law indeed, but still are not placed in this category. In fine, it is not simple impiety which is here punished, but the perfidy whereby true religion is forsaken, after men have devoted themselves to God, and professed themselves to be of the number of His people. The repetition of the words “that man or that woman,” more fully confirms what I have said, viz., that although the weakness of the female sex may extenuate their guilt, yet must they not be pardoned in such a case as this, where God’s worship is directly violated. Although mention is only made of the sun, and moon, and stars, the same thing applies to images also; nay, inasmuch as it is baser to transfer God’s honor to dead stones or stocks, than to those constellations in which something divine shines forth, so much more detestable are they who plunge themselves into such stupidity.
4. Then three shalt inquire 307 diligently. Although this moderation here refers only to the present matter, yet should it always be maintained in judicial proceedings, lest innocent persons should be treated with undue severity. Again, we must remember what I have said elsewhere, that judges are here not only restrained from precipitate condemnation, but also stimulated to beware of passing over, in idleness or negligence, anything that was necessary to be known. For they often fail in their duty, because they wilfully connive at guilt; and thus that which would be manifest if they would be at the pains to make more diligent inquiry, does not come to light. God, then, would not have them slumber nor take no notice of sinister reports, but rather inquire diligently as to things which may have come to their cars, so that no crime may remain unpunished. The same is the case as to witnesses; for whilst it would be unjust to pronounce sentence on the testimony of one man, still, if two or three will not suffice, there would be no end to litigation. Fitly, then, has God prescribed to judges both that they shall not be rashly credulous, and yet that they shall be content with the lawful number of witnesses; but this point will be more largely treated of elsewhere in commenting both on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments.
7. The hands of the witnesses shall be first. It was not without reason that God would have criminals put to death by the hand of those by whose testimony they were condemned. The ancient people did not employ public executioners, that there might be more solemnity, modesty, and reverence in the infliction of punishments. This office he peculiarly enjoins upon the witnesses, because the tongue of many is too hasty, not to say worse of it, so that they do not hesitate to stab people verbally, when they would not dare to lay a finger upon them. This, then, was an excellent remedy for the repression of light accusations, not to admit the testimony of any, whose hand was not prepared to execute the sentence. Stoning was indeed a sad and horrible kind of punishment; but it is probable that God made choice of it because it required the application of many hands. If hanging had not been in use, God would have commanded in vain that the corpse of a man who had been hanged should be taken down from the tree before sunset. (De 21:23.) There were, therefore, other kinds of capital punishment; but when the land was to be purged, as by a propitiation, by the death of the sinner, he was to be stoned by the hands of the whole people, since it would have been cruel for him to be slain by a lingering death, which would have been the case if they had stoned him one after another. The reason why the people were commanded to cast the stones with one consent was, that they might give proof of their zeal, and manifest their great indignation that God’s worship had been violated.
A.V., translates this word in the past tense, “and hast inquired."