"When the Battle Belongs to the Lord"
(Delivered Sunday, August 19, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
This morning's passage is about warfare. We often get the impression that people in ancient times - particularly in Bible times - really liked battles and warfare a lot. There are lots of people today who make a hobby of the study of warfare; people who are enthusiasts about the history of the civil war, or of World War II, or who collect military paraphernalia. Few of them actually "like" war, however; and wouldn't want to be in the heat of battle if they had a choice. But we have it in our minds that ancient people must have loved it; after all, it seems as if they talked about it all the time.
I don't believe, though, that ancient people really liked warfare any more than we do today. Sure; they talked about it a great deal, and used 'warfare' themes in their stories and songs. But this was because warfare was much more of a part of everyday life for them. It's not that they "liked" it; it's just that they were being realistic about it's relevance.
As Christians, "warfare" is a very relevant issue for us - though we don't give it much thought. I remember seeing a drawing many years ago on the cover of a little comic-book style gospel tract. I saw it before I became a Christian; and the image of it still remains in my mind today. It was a drawing of two angels - one of them an angel of God, and the other clearly an angel of the devil - both in brutal, hand-to-hand combat; swords flashing and fists flying. It was a very violent drawing. But in the middle of all the violence - situated between the two angelic combatants with his back to the fighting - was a man in a shirt and tie; calmly standing, contentedly smiling, and peacefully smelling a rose. A vicious spiritual battle was raging around him.; and it appeared that he didn't have a clue.
I suspect that almost any one of us could have been drawn in the place of that man in the middle of the battle, and the drawing would be an accurate portrayal of our own complacent attitude. The people of ancient times spoke a lot about warfare because they lived in it all the time. They saw the reality of warfare all around themselves. As Christians, however, we tend to forget that we're in the midst of a fierce spiritual battle; and so, we don't talk about warfare as if it were anything relevant.
And so, even though this passage is about warfare - something that we don't feel much of a connection to right now - we need to resist the temptation to consider it irrelevant to us. It's far more relevant to us that we may realize.
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This passage contains the instructions God gave the people of Israel through Moses, just before they were to enter the Promised Land. They had wandered in the desert for forty years, because the previous generation had refused to obey the command of God and go take the land that He was giving them. That first generation had died off, and a new generation was about to claim the land that their fathers had refused to take. And so, the twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy contains God's instructions to the Israelites on warfare. In it, He tells them how to fight and win the land God - with His unfailing help - was about to give them. It has much to teach us about our own engagement in the warfare that rages around us.
But am I justified in relating that passage to us today? After all, this passage is about a physical battle with a physical enemy; and we aren't engaged in such a battle. Does this really have anything to do with us?
I have two ways to answer that. For one thing, the Bible teaches that we're to pay attention to the broad principles of an Old Testament passage like this one, and apply those broad principles to ourselves. As Paul said in Romans 15:4, "For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope." Generally speaking, the stories of the Old Testament were intended by God to teach us lessons about spiritual realities; and so, we should always be alert to the broad principles those passages teach us - passages such as this one.
And for another thing, the fact is that we're engaged in a real battle. It may be spiritual in nature; but it's still very real. And while the outcome of physical war might be physical death, the outcome of spiritual warfare could involve eternal loss. And so, we have a very serious need to know about God's broad principles for warfare.
First, the Bible teaches us that we're in a constant battle against the ungodly philosophies and values of the world system. The apostle Paul writes, "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ ..." (2 Cor. 10:3-5). The Bible warns us that such philosophies and values can easily take us captive and cause us harm if we're not alert to their danger (Col. 2:8). In fact, Paul wrote to Timothy and encouraged him, "This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck" (1 Tim. 1:18-19).
Second, the Bible says that we're in constant battle against the sinful inclinations within us. Paul once wrote of the powerful tension we feel within ourselves between the spiritual principle and the fleshly principle; "I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Gal. 5:16-17). And so, he speaks of a war being waged within himself in Romans 7:22-23; "For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." He wrote, "... I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).
And third, the Bible teaches us that we are in a constant state of war with a powerful, spiritual enemy. Peter writes, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world" (1 Peter 5:8-9). In fact, the devil is very often the powerful influence behind the war we wage against our own flesh and against the values and priorities of this world. James writes;
Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you know now that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world is enmity with God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously"? But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:1-6).
And after speaking of our war against the philosophies of the world and the temptations of the flesh, James adds this word: "Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (v. 7).
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So, let's get forget about the idea that "warfare" themes in the Bible don't have anything to do with us. We're to consider ourselves to be in a constant state of battle on three fronts: the world, the flesh and the devil. Our combat and struggle may not be physical, as was the warfare of ancient Israel, but it's just as real. And, as was true for them, "warfare" means being forced into a decisive conflict, against a powerful enemy, over tremendous stakes, whether one wants to be in the conflict or not.
But also like them, we also have an almighty God who fights this seemingly overwhelming battle for us. Yes, we're in a battle; but the battle belongs to the Lord. Let's look together, then, at His principles of the good warfare that this passage presents to us.
I. DON'T BE AFRAID (v. 1).
"When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt" (v. 1).
As the people of Israel faced the enemy, they saw many things that had the potential of intimidating them. The passage is specific: "horses and chariots and people more numerous than you". On a purely human level, who wouldn't be intimidated? In fact, it was the sight of such things that first intimidated the previous generation into refusing to take the land at God's command.
Those who were originally sent by Moses to spy out the land saw, at that time, that the land "truly flows with milk and honey" (Num. 13:27); and that the fruit of the land was luscious and plentiful. "Nevertheless," they said, "the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan" (vv. 28-29).
The conclusion that they presented to their fellow Israelites, therefore, was this: "'We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.' And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, 'The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight'" (vv. 31-33). And as a result of this bad report, the people were frozen in fear; and they turned in rebellion against Moses - and against God's command to go in and take the land. For this, they were punished by being made to wander in the wilderness for forty years, until their children would grow up to take the land they had refused to conquer.
It's interesting that the spies said, "We were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight." Fear is a thing that has a life of its own; and causes us to transfer our own sense of inadequacy onto perceptions of those we fear. Fear can take what is, otherwise, merely a challenging situation and turn it into a dreadful impossibility. The devil is a bully; and he knows how to capitalize on our fear. The Bible tells us, in Ephesians 6:16, that he fires "fiery darts" at our "shield of faith"; seeking not so much to hit us as to engulf our shield in flames, and cause us to cast aside our faith in a moment of panic. Once we've abandoned our faith in God in order to turn to some lesser expedient, we become easy prey to the devil's attacks.
In facing an intimidating enemy, God tells this new generation, "Do not be afraid of them." And why are they not to be afraid? "... For the LORD your God is with you." God even specifies which "LORD your God" is meant: the one "who brought you up from the land of Egypt". The same God that fought for them before, to deliver them from their terrible, seemingly inescapable bondage from the most powerful nation in the world at that time, is the same God who fights for them now.
As we wage war against the world, the flesh and the devil, we certainly would lose if we fought in the power of our own resources. If that were the case, we'd have every reason in the world to be afraid. But the fact is that we cannot lose if God fights for us. Anytime the Lord calls us into battle, it's because it's a battle that He is already fighting on our behalf. He has never yet lost a single battle; and He never will! And so, let's remember the command of this verse: "Do not be afraid".
II. TAKE TIME TO GAIN PERSPECTIVE (vv. 2-4).
"So it shall be, when you are on the verge of battle, that the priests shall approach and speak to the people. And He shall say to them, 'Hear O Israel: Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them; for the LORD your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you'" (vv. 2-4).
These words were spoken "on the verge of battle" - just before the troops went in. It may have been tempting, after hearing the words "Do not be afraid", to dash boldly into the fray. But here, they're told to stop "on the verge of battle", and listen to a word of exhortation from the priest.
It was then that the priest - perhaps the high priest - stepped forward as the representative of God, to minister spiritual courage to the soldiers. Notice how he encourages them. He says, "Do not let your hearts faint" - that is, don't loose the zeal of your faith. "Do not be afraid" - that is, don't be fearful over the things you see with mere human eyes. "Do not tremble" - which is a physical reaction to what they saw. and "Do not be terrified" - which is a powerful, internal reaction.
What's instructive about this is that the priest gets specific. One by one, he identifies the very things that may have been troubling the soldiers about to go into battle. And he helps the soldiers gain perspective in these specific reactions to the enemy by holding those things up to relevant truths about God. He tells them that God Himself goes with them, fights for them, and will save them. It was God Himself who commanded the spiritual leaders to tell the soldiers all this, just before they went into battle. When you weave exhortations together, you see what a powerful word of encouragement it was: "Do not let your hearts faint" - "for the LORD your God is He who goes with you". "Do not be afraid" - "for the LORD your God is He who goes ... to fight for you". "Do not tremble" - "for the LORD your God is He who goes ... to save you". "Do not be terrified.
When we're engaged in spiritual battle - particularly when the odds seem particularly overwhelming - we'll do a lot to dispel the paralyzing fear in our hearts, and to motivate ourselves to courageous faith, when we take time out first to gain perspective. We need to follow the pattern shown to us here: first, identify the things that we're afraid of - calling them out by name; and then, one by one, hold them up to the things that are true about God in our situation.
I see a wonderful illustration of this in the New Testament. Peter and John were arrested for having preached the Gospel. The Son of God commanded them to do so; but the authorities of Jerusalem ordered them to stop and threatened them if they persisted. And so, the apostles went to the disciples and reported what the authorities had commanded them. A spiritual battle had begun. That's when they took time out to gain perspective.
So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: 'Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ.' For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:24-31).
I wonder, too, if there isn't a lesson in the fact that it was the spiritual leaders of Israel who where commanded to minister courage to the people before the battle began. God, speaking through His prophet Malachi, said, "For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts" (Mal. 2:7). We who are pastors and spiritual leaders in the church have an important role to play at such times; and the encouragement of the word should be readily on our lips for the exhortation of the people of God about to engage in spiritual battle.
And so, we must take time out - whenever we face a situation or challenge that causes us to panic - to allow these important truths to sink in: that God is with us, fights for us, and will bring us into victory. We should look faithfully to the word of God, and commit key passages to memory; so that we can call them to mind when the battle becomes intense and our faith begins to falter. We should also discipline ourselves to call the leaders of the church at such a critical time, and allow them to perform their God-appointed duty: to minister God's word to our hearts and help bring things into proper spiritual perspective. We should do this before we dare to enter into battle; because only after we've done so are we truly prepared.
III. STAND AMONG THE COMMITTED (vv. 5-9).
"Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying: 'What man is there who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicated it. Also what man is there who has planted a vineyard and has not eaten of it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man eat of it. And what man is there who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man marry her.' The officers shall speak further to the people, and say, 'What man is there who is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faith like his heart.' And it shall be, when the officers have finished speaking to the people, that they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people" (vv. 5-9).
Now that the priest has finished, the people may have been ready to run courageously into the battle. But it still wasn't time to do so. The officers now step forward - just, once again, on the verge of battle - to send some people home. Think of that! What other army would send people home at such a time as this? None - except, of course, an army for whom the almighty God fights! "For nothing restrains the LORD from saving by many or by few" (1 Sam. 14:6).
The officers were about to appoint captains over the armies to lead the people. But before they did, they released those for whom the matters of daily life might prove to be a distraction: those who might have built a house, but had not yet had a chance to dedicate it; or those who had planted a vineyard, but had not yet had a chance to eat from it; or those who had just become betrothed to a wife, but had not yet married her.
It's interesting that to suffer the loss of these things was considered a curse in Israel. A few chapters later, God warned that if the people of Israel didn't keep His commandments, "You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but shall not gather its grapes" (Deut. 28:30). What's more, these things bear an interesting resemblance to a parable that Jesus once told. In Luke 14:18-20, He spoke of how some were invited by a certain man to a great feast; but how, one by one, they made excuses. "The first said, to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.'"
In Jesus' parable, these were all excuses for not coming at the invitation to the feast. And perhaps God was commanding the officers to take away any excuse the armies of Israel might have had for holding back from whole-hearted devotion in a time of battle. Paul told Timothy, "You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2 Tim. 2:3-4).
But also notice that the officers were to also release those who might still be fearful - even after all that had been said about how God fought for them. A man who was still fearful after all that was sent home, "lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart" (v. 8). It wasn't that there was anything to genuinely fear; it was all a matter of perception. But this too could be a detraction to the whole-hearted devotion of the armies of Israel, and could cause others to fall into the faith-strangling grip of fear. Only after all these distraction were removed did the officers begin to appoint leaders over the people.
This reminds us to, like them, discipline ourselves to stand with the committed in a time of spiritual battle. It's crucial that we align ourselves with those who have a confident, stable faith in God, and who are committed uncompromisingly to His cause. It's important that we choose our fellow-soldiers carefully, and not allow ourselves to be brought down by the doubts, fears, excuses and distractions of others. It's important, in times of spiritual warfare, that we lock arms together with the faithful, and encourage one another's confidence in God. It's vital at such times that we stand with the committed!
IV. SEEK PEACE WITHOUT COMPROMISE (vv. 10-11).
"When you go near a city to fight against it, then proclaim an offer of peace to it. And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you, and serve you" (vv. 10-11).
After all these other preparations had been completed, it was now - at last - time to enter the battlefield. But even then, the people were not to go marching in mercilessly to conquer and destroy any city they wished.
Sometimes in their journeys, the people of Israel would pass by cities - or even through them - that expressed no hostility whatsoever. These were to be left alone. But at other times, they faced hostile cities and nations that took the initiative against them. This passage is speaking of hostile cities that were not a part of the land that God was giving to Israel. In such cases, God commanded that the Israelites were to approach such hostile, aggressive cities with an offer of peace. (Again, what kind of an army would do that - except, of course, one for whom the Lord fought!)
In the case of such hostile cities, the Israelites were to seek peace with their enemies. But notice that it was not a 'peace at any cost'. They were, in no way, to accept a compromise to God's goal for them: that of taking full possession of the land He was giving them, nor to be the servants of any other nation. The peaceful offer was this: if you open to us, we will allow you to be placed under us and serve us. You shall live under our domain.
As believers, we are to be faithful warriors against the forces of the world, the flesh and the devil. Our battle is not ultimately against people - that is, not against flesh and blood. Rather, it's against spiritual forces (Eph. 6:12). And so, we should never allow ourselves to become belligerent, rude, or harsh toward the people of this world. The Bible tells us to "walk in wisdom toward those who are outside" (Col. 4:5); and "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18). We should never go about starting a fight.
But neither should we run from a fight when a fight is unavoidable. We should pursue peace, as much as it is within our power to do so. But we should do so only in as much as we can still be true to God's calling, and faithfully fulfill our God-given commission. There must be no compromise with evil. While seeking peace, we should remember that we are "casting down arguments and every high things that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5-6); and that "those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24); and that "the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (Rom. 16:20).
We must seek peace if we can; but we must seek a peace without compromise. "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21).
V. ACT DECISIVELY (vv. 12-18).
"Now if the city will not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. and when the LORD your God delivers it into your hands, you shall strike every male in it with the edge of the sword. But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall eat the enemies' plunder which the LORD your God gives you. Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breaths remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God" (vv. 12-18).
These words of instruction are concerned with two different kinds of battle against two different classes of enemy. In the case of a city that had shown itself to be a hostile enemy, and yet remained outside the boundaries of the land God was giving them (and, of course, assuming that the offer of peace was clearly rejected) Israel was to strike the city. They were to put every adult male to death; but they were permitted to take the spoils of the city to themselves, and assimilate the women and children into the community of Israel.
But when it came to the cities in the nations of the land that God was giving them, the matter was completely different. There wasn't even to be an offer of peace. The people groups that then occupied the land God was giving Israel - the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites - were to be completely and utterly destroyed. Totally wiped out! Nothing that breathed was to be left alive!
This may seem brutal to us today. But our omniscient God - who is all-wise, and who knows the end from the beginning - was simply taking serious things as seriously as it should be taken. He warned the Israelites of the danger that lay before them if it didn't do what He said. He warned that they were to do to these people groups "just as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God." When He gave this seemingly harsh command, He did so for the protection and preservation of the future generations of His own precious people.
It might help if we knew what was going on in the Promised Land before the people of Israel came to occupy it. When God instructed His people to stay away from sexual immorality, for example, He described some of the grossest practices imaginable; and then said,
Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, either any of your own nation or any stranger who dwells among you (for all these abominations the men of the land have done, who were before you, and thus the land is defiled) (Lev. 18:24-27).
On another occasion, God told them;
When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the LORD your God has not appointed such for you (Deut. 18:9- 14).
And so, though God's instructions in our passage seem brutal and unmerciful to us, we need to appreciate the serious situation His people faced. God earlier warned,
Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, an they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifices to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods (Ex. 34:12-13).
How do we apply something like this to our own struggle in spiritual battles? I suggest that it teaches us that we're not to allow ourselves to be deceived by the subtlety of sin. We may think that we can survive with a tolerant attitude toward sin in our lives; but in the end, it will always ensnare us and destroy us. We mustn't allow the world, the flesh, or the devil, to set up camp within ourselves or within our homes. We must to act decisively toward sin in our own lives.
Jesus spoke of the matter this way: "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:29-30). Jesus is speaking figuratively. He isn't commanding us to literally maim ourselves. But His point is clear: we are to have such a decisive intolerance of sin in our lives that, even if the source of temptation is something so precious and close to us as our right hand or right eye, we're to completely sever it from ourselves.
There must be no compromise with sin. Every time we compromise with sin, we plant the seeds for our own defeat later.
And God fights for us, not for our defeat but for our victory. This leads us to the last principle this passage teaches us:
VI. PLAN FOR VICTORY (vv. 19-20).
"When you besiege a city for a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man's food. Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, to build siege-works against the city that makes war with you, until it is subdued" (vv. 19-20).
This, to me, is one of the most fascinating things about this passage. Nowhere in God's instructions for battle do we find a single word about defeat. Final victory is assumed in all these instructions from God. The battle is His to wage; His to war; and His to win. Failure is not even considered as an option, because battle belongs to the Lord!
And we see this fact affirmed to us in this curious command not to destroy the fruit trees of the land when building siege-works against a city. Even if the work of defeating an enemy city took a long time, they were only to cut down trees that were not fruit-producing trees. There is a little bit of variation in the way this passage is translated. Some versions translate the line in verse 19 as an assertion that the fruit trees are good for food; literally "... for the tree of the field is man's ...", meaning that the fruit tree is given by God to be a source of food to man - not a source of building materials for desperate soldiers. Other versions translate it as if it were a rhetorical question; as it's rendered in an almost humorous way in the NIV: "Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?"
Either way, however, the point is the same. Don't destroy the trees that produce food. "... If you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege ..." Why? Because, when the dust was all cleared and the battle was over, the people of Israel are going to be living in the land. And the fruit trees are a part of God's gracious provision of food to them.
I believe that the lesson we're to learn from this is that we should enter into times of spiritual battle with an eye to the long-term outcome. We should enter the spiritual conflict with the full expectation that our God will win. We should not become frantic and exasperated; giving ourselves over to wasteful expedients in our attempt to gain the upper-hand in our own power. We should not commit sins in fighting the battle against sin. The battle belongs to the Lord; and, so long as we trust in Him, He will certainly give us the victory. We have no reason to ever become desperate.
And so, we should live our Christian lives, and fight the good fight, as if we're already the victors. We should enter into the battle with the expectation of enjoying the spoils. We should fight the battle in such a way as to protect the good things God has given us to enjoy when the battle is over. We should treat each human adversary as if, by God's grace and mercy, they could one day be our friend. We should choose our words in battle carefully, so that our words won't be a cause of embarrassment to us when the battle is over. We should wage war on each spiritual battlefield as if it will one day be our own homeland.
Remember: Don't sacrifice the future on the altar of the present. Don't cut down fruit trees to build siege works!
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I hope that you can see that God's instructions on warfare have much to teach us. So long as we live in these bodies of ours, we will be in the midst of an intense spiritual battle. Paul was very much aware of it. But at the end of his life, he was able to say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
With God's help, may we fight the good fight as he fought it - according to God's instructions in warfare. If we do so faithfully, we can expect the victorious crown that Paul expected to receive from his King.
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
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