Title of Sermon: "Victory has been ascertained as it is God’s battle"
Scripture: Exodus 17:9-12 & 15
9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 15 Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner (Jehovah-Nissi).
The incident recorded in these verses is a matter of life and death for the Israelites. It is also a crucial event concerning the relationship between Lord Jehovah and His people. The event involved two parties: the Amalekites and the Israelites. Some concepts revealed in these verses have been subjects of debate among Biblical scholars for a long time. Firstly: what symbolic meaning does the “staff of God” carry? Secondly, why did Moses have to hold up his hands? Thirdly, what does “Jehovah-Nissi” mean?
Who are the Amalekites? They are the descendants of Esau, the elder brother of Jacob, from the stream of his concubine. After so many years of proliferation, these descendants turn into a tribe. This tribe is partially Nomadic and they raise camels apart from raising sheep. The camels raised by them are so amazing that can run even faster than horses in deserts. According to researches done by scholars, camels raised by the Amalekites can run up to a speed of 72 kilometres per hour! In addition to camel-raising, the Amalekites would also rob weaker tribes. As shown in these verses, the Amalekites have no regard to the blood relation with the Israelites and attacked them at a time when they were so vulnerable. The Israelites just escaped from Egypt and were naturally almost unarmed. They were far from being an army. They have been made slaves for the past few decades and have utterly no fighting spirit. It is impossible for them to win any battle against anyone.
In the Scripture, Moses said “Choose some of our men …” This does not mean there were so many elite soldiers among the Israelites that a selection is required. According to the Hebrew original, it actually means whoever can barely fight is called up to fight.
“Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” “Top of the hill” is not a high mountain but only an elevation. Moses is going to hold up the staff at a high place. What meaning does the “staff” carry? According to Chapter 4 of Exodus, God gives His staff to Moses as a symbol of His presence and His power. The Ark of Covenant did not exist at the time. Later the Ark of Covenant came into place and took up the role of the staff.
Why did Moses have to uphold the staff? A traditional way of explanation is that it is a gesture of praying. No doubt Moses prays. But why did he hold his hands up as he prays? Modern scholars tend to believe that Moses upheld his hand in order to uphold the staff of God, which represents the presence and power of God. In other words, upholding hands and the staff signifies the upholding of God’s glory and superiority. More importantly, scholars believe that upholding the staff of God means that they were fighting a holy war, a war for God, not for the Israelites. This has become the mainstream view of scholars. The Israelites at the time were a bunch of weak men for whom failure is almost certain. Yet they won over the Amalekites eventually. Why? Because that was a holy war. When the staff of God was upheld, it meant that the Israelites were fighting God’s war and failure was not an option. Yet when Moses lowered down his hands and no longer upheld God’s superiority, the Israelites were going to lose the battle. This is a very important point that the Israelites must reflect upon after the incident and it would help Moses leading them during the long exile.
How could this be a holy war? Scholars opine that there are a few key elements for a holy war. Firstly, the war must be for the purpose of getting into or defending the promised land – Canaan – the place promised by God to Abraham. A war to invade any other place would not be a holy war. Secondly, the fighters cannot be official soldiers but civilians. A war fought by civilians is a fundamental element of a holy war. Thirdly, those who fight must have a “right” attitude, that is, they do not fight for their own prospect, settlement or life.
After this war, the concept of “holy war” kept developing and expanding. This is very important. What matters most to God? His glory, His mightiness, His gravity and significance. How could God be glorified if He loses His war? On the other hand, if man say “we can win even without God”, that also doesn’t bring glory to God. The “glory of God” indeed refers to His gravity and significance. Without God, the Israelites would not have been able to achieve anything. It was God who led them to leave Egypt, cross the Red Sea and win the Amalekites! It was God who led them fight for God’s promise be fulfilled and glory manifested.
According to Joshua 5: 13-15, Joshua was about to take Canaan forty years later. When he took an army of civilians, also not official soldiers, to approach Jericho, he was blocked by a messenger of God. Joshua asked him who he is, questioning him: “are you for us or for our enemies?” The messenger of God answered “neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” He was actually telling Joshua: “Be smart! Instead of asking me which side I am for, ask yourself which side you are in. For I am the commander of the army of the Lord, the commander of this holy war.” How did Joshua respond? Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence and asked him: “what message does my Lord for his servant?” What Joshua did was submitting totally to the Commander and the whole army was made at the disposal of him.
The Commander of the Lord replied right away: “take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” Obviously, the war was not for the settlement of Israelites but for the promise of God be fulfilled. Whether man has a land of settlement is not as important as God’s promise fulfilled. It is true that when the promise of God was fulfilled, man would get their land of settlement. Yet that was still a war for God. It was fought for the glory of God. The different must be made clear. The same applies today. What is the purpose of following Jesus Christ? It is not for man to fulfill his personal goals by exploiting God’s power. The call from Jesus Christ for everyone is for him or her to step onto a spiritual journey of following God. That’s what Gospel means. This message is made very clear in the New Testament.
Therefore, Moses upheld his hands not for praying but for upholding the power and glory of God and indicating that it is a holy war. When man choose to be the people of God, they are taking part in a war for which victory has already be certain as God never loses.
Then what does “Jehovah-Nissi” mean? The earliest Greek Old Testament text had it meant “Jehovah is my refuge”. Subsequent views tend to consider “refuge” not the best rendition and replace it with “the throne of Jehovah”. More recent English versions had the term translated as military terms like “banner” or “standard”. “Nissi” originally refers to a wooden staff without any cloth hanged on it. Words were inscribed on the staff as a record. When the Israelites built an altar and put on the wooden staff with recording text inscribed thereon, the symbolic meaning is to uphold a military standard in a war scene, indicating a “drumming up” to summon together people on their side. As such, the most important meaning of Jehovah-Nissi is to align with God. Not only to align in position but also in spirit - to fight for God’s promise be fulfilled and for God’s glory. They do not fight for their own land for settlement but share the same purpose of God. Only then would they be qualified as members who join the holy war.
Looking at the New Testament, we would clearly know that in a holy war, it is God’s followers who fight for Jesus Christ, not vice versa. Every person who believes in the Gospel should be clear about this. Israelites at first did not get the point but they understood after the war. At the time they thought they certainly would be killed. They fought the war in order to buy time for the women and infants to escape as far as possible. It was to their absolute surprise to win the war eventually. Through this incredible victory, the Israelites came to realize that the war was a holy war, one fought for God, a war over which victory has been ascertained.
Today the church and pastors are subject to radical criticisms for keeping silent towards social issues. My position is clear: brothers and sisters are free to participate in social movements on individual basis as long as they have reflected on their decision according to their faith. If they have gone through such a reflection process, their decision should not be challenged, whatever position they take. But it is different for the church. It is not realistic to demand a unified view from the church against controversial social issues. Social movements would not be the battlefield that the church should take part in. It is not a holy war for Jesus Christ. Absolutely not.
[Rev. Donavan Ng graciously gave me permission to publish his great sermon in Hugh's News. It was 100 years ago in November 1920 that my dear mother, Julia Payne, from Birmingham, AL, set sail for Hong Kong to carry the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Chinese people. She remained in China for nine years. She was a graduate of Holmes Bible and Missionary Institute when N. J. Holmes was the president, and Paul F. Beacham was a teacher of the Bible. My Father, Hugh Henry Morgan, was also a graduate of Holmes. I am grateful for the friendship God has given me with Donavan Ng. I pray for him almost daily, and the Chinese Christians in Hong Kong, and in Pakhoi, China where my mother, along with Laura Hylton, planted a church there under the supervision of W. H. Turner.]