At this point in their history, Israel was considered more of a camp than a kingdom. They were entering into an enemy’s country to take possession of it; and even after they had gotten the possession of it, they could not expect to protect nor enlarge their dominions without going to war. It was necessary, therefore, that the Lord should give them some directions concerning warfare and military actions. And it is interesting to note the great difference between what is prescribed here and what we normally expect from military law and order. Instead of being harsh and severe, the main point of the Lord’s directions on this subject only tended to encourage the warriors and to make their service easy.
Moses began with a general encouragement which the leaders and commanders in the war were to take to heart. This encouragement was also to be particularly addressed to the common soldiers by a priest who was appointed for this very purpose; they called him “the anointed of the war,” which was a very proper title to serve as a picture of our Redeemer, the Captain of our salvation. In the wars that Israel engaged in, according to the will of God, they were assured that they could expect Divine assistance. This encouragement of the soldiers by one of the priests teaches us how it is the work of Christ’s ministers to encourage His spiritual soldiers in their spiritual conflict with the world and the flesh, and to assure them that they will be more than conquerors through Him Who loves them.
The Lord was to be the Israelite soldiers’ only confidence. In this respect, their battles were pictures of the Christian’s warfare. Those among the men of Israel who were unwilling to fight were to be sent away. Their unwillingness might arise from outward conditions – such as having just built or purchased a new house, without yet dedicating it; or having just planted a vineyard, without partaking of the fruits of it; or having just become engaged to a wife, without yet marrying her. God would not be served by men who were forced against their will. “Thy people shall be willing,” says Psalm 110:3. In running the Christian race, and in fighting the good fight of faith, we also must lay aside all that would weigh us down, divert our minds, and make us unwilling.
If an Israelite soldier’s unwillingness to fight was from weakness and fear, then he was given permission to return home. Not only was this a kindness to those who were relieved by it, but it also prevented their brethren’s heart from failing and fearing as well as their own.
After all the fearful and unwilling soldiers were sent home, it was ordered that captains were to be nominated among them. It was especially necessary for these leaders to be men of courage. The soldiers of Jesus must likewise have courage so that they may quit themselves like men and be strong, enduring hardness (1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Tim. 2:3). Let neither the number nor the power of the enemies of our souls dismay us, nor let even our own weakness cause us to tremble or faint! The Lord will save us; but in this war, we cannot have those whose hearts are fond of the world, or afraid of the cross and the conflict.
In the latter half of this chapter, the Israelites were directed about the nations upon whom they made war. They were not to attack any of their neighbors until they had first given them fair notice, by a public manifesto, of the grounds of their quarrel with them. And even with the proclamation of war, there was to be an accompanying offer of peace, if they would accept it upon certain terms. Let this show God’s grace in dealing with sinners! He proclaims peace, and He beseeches them to be reconciled; for He has no pleasure in their ruin and destruction. Let this also show us our duty when dealing with not only our enemies, but especially our brothers and sisters. No matter what the quarrel may be, let us not only be willing to accept offers of peace, but let us also be eager and willing to extend such offers ourselves!
If the Israelites’ terms of peace were not accepted, then they were to push on with the war; and it was taken for granted (verse 13) that the Lord would make them the victors. If we undertake to use God’s methods, then we may expect His promised blessings.
This process of war (offering peace before making an attack) was only to be used with the cities and nations that were far away from where Israel was to settle in the Promised Land, for there was not so much danger of these far-away neighbors leading Israel into idolatry. As for the Canaanites, however, whose land the Israelites were about to take over – these offers of mercy were not to be extended to them. If they were left to “share” the land with God’s people, the Israelites would surely learn their ways of abominable wickedness. For this reason, therefore, all the Canaanites in the Israelites’ land of promise had to be utterly destroyed. There can be no coalition nor agreement between the people of God and the people of the world. The seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent have an everlasting war. But let us observe the grace of God, which is beautifully set forth in the proclamation made to sinners, in the Gospel of salvation! If sinners will throw down their arms and receive the Lord Jesus, all shall be well. It is only the incorrigible and rebellious who will be ruined. How ought the ministers of Jesus to be unceasingly employed as His ambassadors – beseeching sinners to be reconciled, and to be at peace with God! (2 Cor. 5:20)
Lord, we give You thanks that we are part of the peaceable Kingdom of Jesus, Who has gone before us, and driven out the enemies of our salvation. May we never give any truce to those everlasting foes which wage war against Him and us! Amen.
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