As I was studying Deuteronomy 20 last week, I had songs going through my mind. War songs. Anti-war songs. It is interesting to me that there is in our culture an intersection of war and music. Then again, I suppose music touches all aspects of life. And, perhaps, so does war. I wanted to start my sermon with one or two of these songs, maybe a representative piece from each side of the war debate. There are so many songs about war and peace, so I asked my son to help me mash-up one of each. My younger kids later told me that it was a very weird way to introduce my sermon. See what you think:
As we return to our study of Deuteronomy, we come to chapter 20, and it is all about war. Deuteronomy is written with a backdrop of war. The people of Israel were a nomadic, traveling nation, with an army. They left Egypt as slaves 40 years before, but in the intervening years, they had been transformed into a nation with a military, having fought battles here and there. Read the first chapters of the book of Numbers, for example, and it refers to the men 20 years old or older that are able to fight. That brings us to Deuteronomy where they are encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, getting ready for their most significant battle yet, the conquest of the land of Canaan. This is a people at war.
Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, particularly in chapters 2, 3, and 7 we talked about war. This goes back to the fall of 2017, and I remember thinking back then, “Why did I choose to preach through Deuteronomy? All this talk about war?” That was over a year ago, and so we’re going to talk about it again today. One final time in this study of Deuteronomy. And we need to talk about it. The USA has been at war for almost 16 years…did you know that? We invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. Then go back through our history, and it has been one war after the other. We, too, are a nation with a context of war.
Can Deuteronomy help us at all? Turn to Deuteronomy 20.
Verses 1-4 are very straightforward. Moses is saying to the people, “When you go to war, and the enemy seems more powerful than you, do not be afraid, God is with you, and God fights for you.” Remember that this was a major issue for the people. They had sent spies across the river into the Promised Land of Canaan, scoped out the land, and most of the spies came back saying, “All the people over there are giants, and we will surely lose.” But two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, said, “No…God will fight for us…we can take them.” Moses is reminding the people that God, the one with unlimited power, is on their side.
I find it interesting that the priest is the first person described as addressing the people. Look at verse 2, and it says the priest will speak before they go into battle. It seems that Moses is not speaking chronologically here. The words “into battle” give the impression that the message from the priest is a final encouragement before the army engages the enemy. It is a reminder to the army of the reality of God at work. But Moses lists it first in the chapter showing its thematic preeminence.
This is a principle that can carry over to us. God is with you, he is for you, no matter what you are going through in life. Israel was not to trust in their own ability, their own weaponry, the size of their army, or the wisdom of their officers. They were to trust in God’s power. From the moment they left Egypt 40 years prior, this was a principle they were to build their nation on: that God was with them and would fight for them. Humanly speaking, there was no way they should have won any of the battles they fought through the whole process. They were a nation of slaves, with no military training, no history, no experience, while the nations around them were much stronger and experienced. But Israel had God who has ultimate power. The whole point was that they should trust in him. We should trust God too. The principle is not saying that we can wage war whenever we want, and God will put his stamp of approval on it, if we just somehow trust in him. No. The principle in these first four verses is that we must trust in God and depend on God about anything difficult or scary that we are going through. But how do we do this? I regularly struggle with how a person actually places their trust in God. It has to be more than saying, “I trust God,” or believing it in our minds. What do we do with our bodies, our choices, our possessions, our time, our relationships, that show we trust in God? We’ll come back to this question at the end of the series.
Check back in to part 2, as we continue looking at what God says about Israel’s army.