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What the Old Testament Teaches Concerning War

In all matters of controversy among Christians the Scriptures are accepted as the highest court of appeal. Historically they have been the common authority of Christendom. We believe that they “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and practice” (The Westminster Confession of Faith I, 2); that they contain one harmonious, consistent, and sufficiently complete system of doctrine; and that it is our duty to trace out this consistency by a careful investigation of the meaning of particular passages. No person, acting merely on his own observations and judgments, can know what are the basic principles of the plan that God is following.

All philosophical speculation and emotional sentiment should be held in abeyance until we have first heard the testimony of Scripture. And when we have heard that testimony we should submit. Would that we had more people with that noble characteristic of the Bereans, who, when Paul preached to them, searched the Scriptures daily to see whether or not the things that he spoke were so.

The question at issue is simply this: What do the Scriptures teach concerning war? We say that this is the issue, even though liberals in the church, who in the main are the sponsors of the modern pacifist movement, do not feel themselves bound to take seriously the teachings of either the Old or the New Testament. In this chapter we shall consider the teaching of the Old Testament, and in the next chapter, the New.

Time and again in the Old Testament we read that God gave the Israelites the direct command to go into battle against their enemies and that He gave them the victory. “Jehovah is a man of war: Jehovah is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea,” sang Moses after the Israelites had been delivered from the Egyptians (Exod. 15:3, 4).

Almost immediately after the Israelites came out of Egypt they were attacked by the Amalekites. Israel was at that time a theocracy, the purest form of government, with God speaking through His prophet and ruling directly in the affairs of the nation. Thus guided, Moses chose the young man Joshua to lead the army. During the battle, as the hands of Moses were held up to God in prayer, the Israelites prevailed, and when his hands were let down, the Amalekites prevailed. With the assistance of Aaron and Hur his hands were held up until evening, and the victory was won (Exod. 17:8–16).

After the Israelites had spent forty years in the wilderness they received the direct command from God to go into the land of Palestine and drive out or destroy the inhabitants. They were told that they did not go in their own strength, but that Jehovah would go before them, and that the battle was not theirs but Jehovah’s. They were also told not to make any alliances with the inhabitants of the land and that if they disobeyed that command, those degraded people would be a snare and a trap to them, a scourge in their side and thorns in their eyes, until they themselves would be corrupted and would perish (Num. 33:50–56; Josh. 1:1–9).

As Joshua stood before the walls of Jericho he met a stranger with a drawn sword in his hand, whom he soon discovered to be Jehovah, the Angel of the Covenant, the same one who had visited Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, who had wrestled with Jacob at Peniel, and who had appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Thus Joshua received directly from God specific instructions for the conquest and destruction of the city (Josh. 5:13–6:27). And it is further true that if we pursue the theophany into the New Testament, we find that this was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the active agent of the Godhead in all creation. This is the one who stood before Joshua and gave him detailed instructions for the taking of Jericho and for the complete destruction of that people—men, women, and children—with the exception of Rahab and her family.

If anyone today is inclined to feel that the wars against the Philistines were unjust, let him consider the declarations of Scripture and the evidence from archaeology concerning the abominable sins of those people, the sex crimes practiced even in connection with their religion, the burning of their infant sons and daughters as human sacrifices to Baal and Molech, and their fiendish cruelty in war; in contrast with which their forthright execution by the Israelites seems manly and dignified, if not even merciful. There we find, as in the cases of Sodom and Gomorrah, not merely individuals but whole tribes too degraded and sinful to live. And the Israelites were but the divinely appointed means for their extermination.

Deborah, the prophetess, and Barak, the captain of the army, were directed of God in the battle against Sisera and the Canaanites (Judg. 4:1–23); and in Deborah’s song of victory we hear judgment pronounced against the city of Meroz, whose inhabitants had refused to help in the battle:

Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of Jehovah,
Curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof.
Because they came not to the help of Jehovah,
To the help of Jehovah against the mighty (Judg. 5:23).

Gideon received a vision in which he was directed to free the people from the Midianites, and the battle was so ordered that the Israelites knew most definitely that they had not won by their own strength, but that Jehovah had given them the victory (Judg. chaps. 6–7). God commanded the destruction of the Amalekites, and when King Saul carried out his mission only halfheartedly, sparing Agag the king, we read that “Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before Jehovah in Gilgal” (1 Sam. 15:1–33). David was providentially called to go and fight the giant Goliath, who was defying the God of the armies of Israel. Jehovah delivered Goliath into his hands, and Israel was freed from Philistine domination (1 Sam. 17:1–54). Soon after David became king, the Philistines came up to pillage the land. In 2 Samuel 5:19–20 we read, “And David inquired of Jehovah, saying, Shall I go up against the Philistines? Wilt thou deliver them into my hand? And Jehovah said unto David, Go up; for I will certainly deliver the Philistines into thy hand. And David came to Baal-perazin, and David smote them there; and he said, Jehovah hath broken mine enemies before me.”

Many of the Psalms are prayers to God for guidance in war or hymns of thanksgiving to God for victories in war. “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; Let them also that hate him flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: As wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.… Kings of armies flee, they flee; And she that tarrieth at home divideth the spoil.… The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands upon thousands: The Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the sanctuary” (Ps. 68:1–2, 12, 17). David acknowledged that his skill in battle was a gift from God: “Blessed be Jehovah my rock, who teacheth my hands to war, And my fingers to fight” (Ps. 144:1).

There is absolutely no question that in the Old Testament wars were sanctioned as a means of gaining righteous ends. At other times they were used as severe disciplinary measures against the Israelites when they went into apostasy, and God allowed them to be conquered by the Midianites, the Philistines, or the Assyrians (Judg. 6:1; 13:1; Isa. 10:5–14). In such events God is revealed as Creator, Lawgiver, Father, and Judge, and also as the Lord God of battle. He commands Israel to go to war, and goes before her, but (and this is the important point) Israel must not go before God. When Israel was so presumptuous as to go to war after God had forbidden it, she was disastrously defeated (cf. Num. 14:39–45; Josh. 7:1–8:29; 1 Sam. 28:15–19).

Sometimes we hear the sixth commandment quoted to prove that all war is wrong. But the same God who in the twentieth chapter of Exodus said, “Thou shalt not kill,” which literally means, “Thou shalt not commit murder,” says in the twenty-first chapter, “He that smiteth a man so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death.” And centuries before that, the commandment had been given, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). The command against wilful murder is to be made effective by the sentence of capital punishment against the offender. The judge who sentences the criminal to death is no more guilty of murder than he would be guilty of robbery were he to sentence him to pay a fine. Otherwise there would be no possible way to maintain public justice. And the policeman or the soldier who defends his country, like the judge who protects society, does not act with a malicious motive to avenge a personal wrong, but with an altruistic motive for public safety. He performs his duty not as an individual but as an officer of the state. And in the Scriptures war among nations is given the same status as capital punishment among individuals.

There is nothing in the Old Testament that even suggests that it is inconsistent to be at one and the same time a soldier and a follower of the Lord God of hosts. There are some thirty-five or more references throughout the Old Testament where God has commanded the use of armed force in carrying out His divine purposes. The Scriptures reveal God as a God of war as well as a God of peace. And to say, as some pacifists do, that war defies the righteousness of God is not only presumptuous but equivalent to saying that God Himself is unrighteous. For the Bible, the very Book that we as Christians profess to accept as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” declares that on certain occasions God not only has permitted war but has commanded it.

There is, however, in the Scriptures no glorification of war or of the warrior as such. On several occasions the Israelites were refused permission to take booty or to glory in their achievements. David, the foremost warrior in the Old Testament, was forbidden to build the temple of Jehovah because he had shed so much blood. War was looked upon as a grim and terrible necessity in the hands of God for the restraint and punishment of national sins. It was to be avoided if possible, and it was never to be glorified. And that is the attitude that we should take toward it today.

Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1985), 12.

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