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D'varim/Deuteronomy 20:4 For the L-rd your G-d is the one going with you: to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.
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These words are to come from the mouth of the priest who encourages the Israelite army after they have assembled, before they go out to fight against their enemies. Commanding them not to fear or panic, he reminds them that it isHaShem Himself who goes with them to fight the battle, just as He did when He brought the people out of Egypt and defeated Pharaoh's army, as Moshe told the people at the time: "The L-RD will battle for you; you hold your peace!" (Shemot 14:14, NJPS). With this backdrop, the priest "encompasses the troops in an enactment of faith"1 - this is HaShem's battle and He Himself will be the unseen force that changes everything on the battlefield. As the prophet Jahaziel told King Jehoshaphat and the assembled people of Judah when they were attacked by a coalition of Ammonites and Moabites, "Give heed, all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat; thus said the L-RD to you, 'Do not fear or be dismayed by this great multitude, for the battle is G-d's, not yours" (2 Chronicles 20:15, NJPS).
Sifrei exhorts the Jewish people that "He who was with you in the wilderness will be with you in time of trouble" (Sifrei Piska 193), adding that "the enemies come in the triumph of flesh and blood, but you come in the triumph of the Omnipresent One" (Piska 192), and the ancient rabbis connect Moshe's instructions with David hearing and then going out, alone, against the Philistine champion, Goliath. The Yerushalmi Talmud says, "The Philistines came with the victory of Goliath; how did he end? In the end, he fell by the sword and they fell with him. But you, you are not so but 'for the Eternal, your God, is He Who goes with you to make war on your enemies to save you,' that is, the camp of the Ark" (y. Sotah 8:3).
Goliath challenged and mocked the armies of Israel, saying, "I herewith defy the ranks of Israel. Get me a man and let's fight it out!" (1 Samuel 17:10, NJPS) and all Israel trembled before him. David, who had brought provisions to his brothers in the army, overheard and was indignant: "Who is that uncircumcised Philistine that he dares defy the ranks of the living G-d?" (v. 26, NJPS). As David went out, armed with just a sling and a few smooth stones from the brook, Goliath jeered, "Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks?" (v. 43, NJPS) but David responded, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of the L-RD of Hosts, the G-d of the ranks of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the L-RD will deliver you into my hands ... All the earth shall know that there is a G-d in Israel. And this whole assembly shall know that the L-RD can give victory without sword or spear. For the battle is the L-RD's, and He will deliver you into our hands" (vv. 45-47, NJPS).
King Hezekiah encourages the people of Judah when the Assyrians came up to attack Jerusalem, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him, for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the L-RD our G-d, to help us and to fight our battles" (2 Chronicles 32:7-8, NJPS) and Tanakh reports that the Ark often accompanied the Israelite army into battle: "Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts" (B'Midbar 31:6, NJPS), "Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were in charge of the Ark of the Covenant of G-d, and they brought down from there the Ark of the Covenant of the L-RD of Hosts enthroned on the cherubim. When the Ark of the Covenant of the L-RD entered the camp, all Israel burst into a great shout, so that the earth resounded" (1 Samuel 4:4-5, NJPS).
Israel is not to trust in their weapons or strategy, but in the presence of HaShem in their midst. TheRamban explains that "that is why they must 'have no fear'. They must not trust in their own valour and say, 'We are warriors, valiant men for war' (Jeremiah 48:14, NJPS), but must turn their hearts to YHVH and trust that He will give them victory: 'He does not prize the strength of horses, nor value the fleetness of men; but the L-RD values those who fear Him, those who depend on His faithful care' (Psalm 147:10-11, NJPS). The L-rd Himself will do battle against their enemies, felling them with the sword. Not only will He fight for them, but He will 'save' them - not a man of them will fall." As Walter Brueggemann points out, this verse "asserts that YHVH is a real player in Israel's conflict. By YHVH's engagement, historical battles are never what they seem, because the unseen force of YHVH is decisive."2
In his last sentence, however, the Ramban makes an even more significant point: the last verb in our text - - is the Hif'il infinitive of the root , to save, and means a lot more than military victory: HaShem saves His people. While it is true that here the Ramban seems to have physical life and safety in view, the general Hebrew use of the word 'save' is a lot broader than the rather narrow modern, evangelical Christian understanding and extends to a blend of continuity, well-being and, safety, financial, family and national security. It also has a significantly greater communal application than the distinctly individualistic salvation view adopted by some believers today. Being saved is not about individual fire insurance, a ticket to heaven when I die; it is about the people and community being preserved in the promises of G-d and together accomplishing His purposes and therefore an appropriate share in both this world and the world to come.
Let's pursue that thought a little further. Christopher Wright comments about "the Deuteronomic perspective that the wars Israel would fight in obedience to Yahweh would effectively be Yahweh's own wars against His enemies."3 There is a sense in which all the conflicts in which the followers of Yeshua are called to engage are not our battles, but those of Yeshua, our L-rd and Master, as He fights to accomplish the wider purposes of G-d in these days. Back at the time of the Babylonian exile, Isaiah voices this word for HaShem: "Thus says the L-RD to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed ..." (Isaiah 45:1, ESV). Cyrus, the Persian king - though he neither knew or acknowledged HaShem - was called and anointed to subdue nations, re-arrange kingdoms and alter the geopolitical map of the time so that the Jewish people could return to the land that HaShem had promised them.
In an argument with the Pharisees, Yeshua pointed to His own role as the Son of David: "David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, 'The L-rd said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet'" (Mark 12:36, ESV). Whereas Cyrus was commissioned to subdue the kings and nations in the ANE region, Yeshua is commissioned to subdue all of God's enemies, to put them "under His feet". This is picked up by the other Apostolic Writers: Rav Sha'ul tells us that "He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25, ESV), implying that the battle continues right through this age until all is accomplished, which the writer to the Hebrew confirms: "when Messiah had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of G-d, waiting from that time until His enemies should be made a footstool for His feet" (Hebrew 10:12-13, ESV). At that time, "He delivers the kingdom to G-d the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power" (1 Corinthians 15:24, ESV).
Since that battle is ongoing, we - as Yeshua's hands and feet - often find ourselves rather in the thick of it. Sha'ul reminds us that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12, ESV), but that doesn't always take the practical heat of the battle away. Just like the ancient Israelites, we depend on Yeshua fighting the battle and taking the ground - destroying His enemies - while we stand, watching Him at work, holding our weapons to support what He is already doing, "For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Corinthians 10:3-4, ESV). The battle is His because "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him" (Colossians 2:15, ESV).
When the enemy closes in, remember it is G-d's battle; Yeshua is there, fighting His enemies. Rejoice for the victory is already won. When the going gets tough, look to see what Yeshua is already doing. Praise His name that He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. When you stumble or fall, feel Yeshua's hands around you, putting you back on your feet. Bless Him that "there is no condemnation for those that are in Him" (Romans 8:1).
1. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 209.
2. - Ibid.
3. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 218.
Further Study: Daniel 7:13-14; Colossians 3:1-4
Application: Do you ever wobble in the heat of the battle or find yourself wondering what it's all about? Take a deep breath and call on Yeshua, the Anointed Messiah and Son of G-d. Ask Him to open your eyes so that you can see all that He is already doing in you and in your world.
Comment - 08:08 13Aug23 TB: One of the things that has come through to me recently is a mental block some of us have. The cross is something Yeshua did FOR US. We can therefore become obsessed with a servant God who is there to do things for us. Many promises, like this one, are about God being there WITH US. We still have to do the fighting. God knows the battle and is there in it being the hidden force and achieving the victory, but that doesnt absolve us from the battle.'
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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