Where is the real ‘Holy War’ raging today?
We have chosen to immerse ourselves in the book of Judges this term -sermons, Lifegroups, Sunday school and youth group. Seeing God’s longsuffering faithfulness in spite of the rebellion of his people, should be a searchlight of hope for us in our messy world and lives. But Judges is also a difficult, disturbing and violent book. That raises some questions. We know on the one hand, it is just the point -to see the awful, tragic mess that results from a people who say ‘no’ to God. But how are we to process some of the violence that is commanded by God, when, for example, he tells his people to ruthlessly do away with the Canaanite inhabitants of the land? This, so called ‘Holy war’? There is a very helpful reflection on this from Tim Keller in our Lifegroup material, but I offer the following thoughts* too as we work through Judges this term (*based on a previous sermon).
Here are 3 things to ponder:
- The character of God
We used to paint this scenario at youth groups sometimes: ‘If you could rule for one month, what 5 new rules would you make? (For example, it’s against the law to ask husband to change a nappy! Although many husbands seem to somehow avoid that anyway!)
It may be a fun scenario, but when it comes to the Ruler of the Universe, we are sadly adept at doing the same, with tragic consequences: We make God in our own image. We make the rules about what God should be like and act like. And when we do that, what are we most tempted to do in terms of this god’s character and actions? We are much more comfortable with a god who never gets angry, has less rules, and certainly one who doesn’t send people to hell. The god of our design is all candy floss and squishiness. It’s certainly not the God Isaiah knew in the Bible, as Shaun showed us a few weeks back in the evening service: In ch6 he gets a glimpse of God in a vision which almost scares him to death (Isaiah 6:3-5).
How God describes himself
What is God like really? We cannot do better than His description of himself in Exodus 34:6-7
Like Isaiah, Moses gets a glimpse of God’s glory, but it’s what he hears that is significant: God describes himself as a God of loving pursuit of his people – mercy, grace, love, forgiving…a God for us! And he is perfect in those attributes. That is wonderful, gospel news; but we can’t stop halfway through: In v7, we read that God is also a judging God –a God who responds to sin in judgment, and he is likewise perfect in that attribute too. The overwhelming description of God in the Bible is that he is kind, loving and caring. But part of his love is to not let people get away with their sin: To know the God of the Bible is to know that all he does is good, perfect, upright and just. God’s judgment is always just. We need a God like this. We need perfect justice in a world of terrifying injustice. But that does confront us with some hard truths, things that are not easy to understand. There are many mysteries about God’s ways. And there ought to be. A God we could figure out, would not be God. (Romans 11:33-36) Lisa Beam, a Christian, who lost her husband in the 9/11 twin tower attacks, said this: “My faith wasn’t rooted in governments, religion, tall buildings, or frail people. Instead, my faith and security were in God. A thought struck me. Who are you to question God and say that you have a better plan than He does? You don’t have the same wisdom and knowledge that he has, or the understanding of the big picture… Faith means that, regardless of circumstances, we take him at his word, that he loves us and will bring us to a good result if we just trust and obey him.” Don’t presume to know better than God how to run the world.
God is the perfect judge, and it in no way conflicts with his love, but is part of it.
- The nature of the wars
Having said this about God’s character, how do we see that displayed in these wars and conflicts that we read of in Joshua and Judges?
When Israel, under Joshua, first cross the Jordan to begin the conquest of the promised land, there is an event that explains much of what is happening with these conflicts:
In Joshua 5 we read of a strange interruption in Israel’s march on the land (5:13-16): Joshua and the people are on their way to destroy Jericho, under the command of God, but before they get there they are stopped by a soldier. When Joshua asks whether he is fighting for them or against them he says: ‘No.’
He turns out to be the commander of the armies of the Lord, and God sends him across Joshua’s path at this crucial point to make one thing absolutely clear: God is not fighting for Joshua, Joshua is fighting for God. The Lord doesn’t follow Joshua into battle, Joshua is following the Lord.
And so we see throughout Joshua, God instigates the battles, and Joshua follows commands (e.g 10:40, 11:20). This is true in Judges too, as the conquest of the land continues under God’s command (e.g. Judges 1:1-2, 22, 2:28).
We also see in a number of places in Judges, how God makes it clear that He is sovereignly controlling the nations to do his bidding, especially in judgment over Israel. (e.g. 2:14-17)
And so it’s at this point that we need to trust the justice of God. We need to realize that God has every reason, and every right, to deal with people as he sees fit. We need to remind ourselves that what he does is good, perfect and upright. God doesn’t even need to explain to us his actions. In the case of the conquest of the land, however, God gives us an explanation for his actions: 400 years before the time of Joshua, God speaks to Abraham and says that, though God promised that Abraham and his descendants would come take possession of the land, the reason the inhabitants would be destroyed by them is because ‘their iniquity is not yet complete.’ (Genesis 15:16-21) When the battle began under Joshua, the people living in the promised land had been sinning against God, rejecting him and denying his rule, for over 400 years. So the wiping out of all the people in the land as Joshua and Israel take possession of it, are not the actions of bloodthirsty, venge-filled men, nor the actions of a vindictive God, but we are reading of the awful, but just, judgment of God against sinful men, through his agents, Israel. (I take it we are to keep the same principle in mind when it comes to those passages that speak of punishment of the sins of the fathers on their children, such as in Deut 34:7, Ex 20:5-6. Explicit here, is that it is people in generations following, who hate Him.)
Having said all that, you might still feel it all seems too much, too harsh –doesn’t God’s judgment go too far?
Let’s look finally at that, as we examine our response:
- Our response
The seriousness of sin
Part of the reason we think God is seriously overreacting is because we haven’t reacted enough to the seriousness of sin. Part of the reason we won’t share the gospel is because we don’t really want to tell people that sinners are deserving of hell. Yet the Bible is very clear about the problem of sin and the reality of hell. Jesus is very clear about it. I believe in hell, because Jesus did (Mark 9:47-48; Romans 3:23, 6:23). Not to give God glory is serious. We need to realize that every act of judgment we read about is a reminder that if God were to deal justly with us, we all deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth. We are sinners who only deserve death, and that is graphically illustrated in those tough OT texts. We should wince, we should be uncomfortable at the pain and destruction, but not with disbelief that God could justifiably do such a thing, but with a holy fear that he should do such a thing to you and me because of our sin. Truth is, all of us have lived just as they lived, rejecting God and denying his rule in our lives. We deserve to face the judgment of God for our sins. But because of Jesus we don’t have to face that judgment. And so secondly, our response should be to be filled with…
Joy over Jesus, and a hunger for holiness
How does God forgive sinners and remain just? Once again we see God using evil humanity, murdering Jesus. But 1 Peter 3:18 tells us why Jesus died (not as a tragic accident, but under the sovereign will of God): “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.”
Judgment stories in OT should not only remind us how great our sin is, but also how great a price Jesus paid on the cross to forgive us. And we should be filled with praise for the Father sending the Son, and praise the Son for willingly going through all that for us. Isn’t it an incredible comfort to know that when the events of the mad world are raging around you, God is delighted with you in Christ, and that will never change! And that too should make us a people passionate for holiness -to be different from the world, to be salt and light to a lost, dying world. As Titus 2:11-14 clearly shows us -holiness is rooted in our salvation.
The real ‘holy war’ that now rages for the Christian, then, is in the heart: The fight against sin, and the fight to honour and obey this Life-giving gracious God who has done everything to save us from his right wrath.