Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
By Rev. Thomas Whitelaw, D.D.
("The Lord is my Banner").
The practice of altar-building and sacrifice-offering had come down to Moses from a remote antiquity. Noah when the Flood was over, Abraham on entering into Canaan, Jacob after returning from Padan-aram, had each erected an altar for the worship of Jehovah. Following their example, after the brilliant victory over Amalek at Rephidim in the neighbourhood of Sinai, Moses erected an altar and inscribed it with the words " Jehovah-nissi, — the Lord is my banner."
A banner is a piece of cloth, suspended from and displayed by a pole, usually having on it a figure or device of some sort, and frequently inscribed with a form of words. Banners have from time immemorial been borne in front of armies — sometimes as rallying - points for the soldiers, as with the Israelites, every tribe of whom had its own particular standard; sometimes declaring the object of their warfare, as with the Covenanters, who went to battle " For Christ: His Crown and Covenant "; sometimes setting forth the power by which it was hoped to conquer, as did Constantine's banner with the sign of the Cross. Possibly Moses had all of these ideas in his mind when he erected his altar and wrote across it " Jehovah-nissi, — the Lord is my banner."
The occasion for his doing this, as has been stated, was the victory just achieved over Amalek, one of the fiercest of Israel's enemies. Amalek was a nomad tribe (of Idumean origin, descending from Amalek, the grandson of Esau) that inhabited the desert region through which Israel*s journey led. Fearing the approach of Israel, the Amalekites fell upon the tribes at Rephidim, but were defeated by Joshua with a company of picked men. Whereupon the altar was built and inscribed as recorded in the narrative.
The lessons of the incident are as much needed to-day by nations, churches, and individuals as they were then by Moses, Joshua, and Israel.
The first lesson
That God has a campaign which He is carrying on to-day, of which that war with Amalek was a type.
Let it be observed that as Moses declared at the Red Sea, '" The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace," so now Jehovah distinctly claimed that the battle was His even more than it was that of Moses, or of Joshua, or of Israel: " I will have war with Amalek from generation to generation."
The reason of Jehovah's hostility to Amalek was threefold: (i) that they had without cause attacked the Israelites when these were faint and weary; (2) that they were hereditary foes of Israel, and knew well that the Israelites were the people of Jehovah; and (3) that in fighting against Israel they were practically fighting against Jehovah. A different reading of verse 16 says: '" Because the hand (of Amalek) is upon (ie. directed against) the throne of Jehovah, therefore Jehovah will have war with Amalek." This war lasted at least to the days of Saul and David, when the Amalekites were completely subdued, and practically ceased to be a people.
Amalek represented all the forces of the day that were opposed to Jehovah and all the forces in every subsequent age that should war against God and Jesus Christ, — " the Lord and His Anointed," — against His Church and people. And therefore God is against these to-day as He was against those in Amalek's time. "The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off their memory from the earth."
In this sense Jehovah is a man of war, as Miriam and her maidens sang at the Red Sea (Ex. xv. 3). It would, however, be unsafe to infer that God takes a part or even an interest in the battles of modern times — battles for conquest, revenge, commerce, extension of empire, or even for defence and religion — not even when these are carried on by Christian peoples, professedly in His name and ostensibly under His protection. The Greeks and Romans fabled that their gods came down to mingle in the conflicts of men. It would be safer to argue that God, who is essentially and pre-eminently the God of Peace, is never in the field at all; or if He is, that He is rather opposed to both parties than that He is on the side of either. The one warfare in which He eternally participates is that of light against darkness, truth against error, good against evil, holiness against sin, the Church against the world. It is not needful to say that Jesus when on earth was constantly engaged in this same holy war, and is still engaged in it, as He sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father — "like an invisible commander surveying the whole field of conflict, observing the plans and purposes of the enemy, and directing the movements of His spiritual army in such a way as to lead it to victory. " The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend and them that work iniquity." The second lesson is —
That in this campaign God's people must themselves actively engage.
One cannot but be struck with the different treatment accorded by Jehovah to Israel at Rephidim from that experienced by them at the Red Sea. At the Red Sea Jehovah Himself was the sole Actor, while Israel was passive. " Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord " was Moses* word to the people. But no sooner had they crossed the Sea and entered the Wilderness than they were expected to draw their own swords and fight their way to the Promised Land.
The reason was obvious. The emancipation from Egypt was a type of the sublime work of redemption to be afterwards accomplished for mankind sinners — a work in which none should or could take part but God alone in the person of His Son: " I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the people there was none with Me." Hence Israel had to stand still and see the great deliverance which Jehovah should work for them on that never-to-be-forgotten night. Different from this, however, the war with Amalek was intended to symbolise the good fight of faith to which God's people and Christ's followers in every age are called; and so the Israelites themselves had to ungird their weapons, give battle to Amalek, and work out their own salvation.
Many Christian people forget that the same thing is expected of them — supposing that after redemption through the blood of Christ nothing remains to be done in order to secure salvation; or if anything must be done, that God alone is responsible for it. To suppose this is as great a heresy as to imagine that man has to do with purchasing redemption. The two things are different — redemption and salvation, or sanctification. The first work, that of redemption, belonged and belongs, as has been stated, to God alone; the second, that of sanctification, belongs to man as well as to God. When God delivers a soul from guilt He calls that soul into His spiritual army to fight with and for Him against His and their foes. We are saved not by works, but unto works. "We are His workmanship, created in Jesus Christ unto good works." Hence the individual who is not fighting against the forces of evil in his day, against the world with its fascinations and temptations, against the superstitions of heathendom and the wickednesses of civilised society, against drunkenness, gambling, impurity, unbelief, etc., against the flesh with its sinful appetites, affections, and lusts, and against the Devil with his subtleties and snares, has reason to doubt whether he has been emancipated at all. At least, if he is emancipated, he is untrue to his calling — which is to be "' a good soldier of Jesus Christ, to fight the good fight of faith, and to abstain from every form or even appearance of evil"
A third lesson is —
That without God this campaign cannot be successfully conducted.
Though in a sense Israel had henceforth to depend on the strength of her own arm and the sharpness of her own sword, these by themselves would not have led to victory. The best military skill and the most courageous troops could not have done without Jehovah. Jehovah could have done without Israel: Israel could not have done without Jehovah. Jehovah could as easily have defeated Amalek as He drowned the Egyptians: Amalek could as easily have swallowed up Israel in the absence of Jehovah as the sea swallowed up the hosts of Pharaoh. One man with Jehovah could have chased a thousand: without Jehovah a thousand could have been chased by one man. Hence, while Joshua went down into the valley to fight, Moses went up the hill to pray.
This also is a truth frequently forgotten by Christians. When God summons them into the field, He does not mean that He should be left out of the ranks or put out of the combat, and as it were should only keep the ring. He means that His people should fight with Him and for Him — should be fellow-workers with Him in resisting evil, for without Him their best efforts would be fruitless. " Without Me ye can do nothing' said Christ to His disciples. Possibly this is one of the reasons why so much Christian work is ineffective. Christian nations and Christian Churches depend too largely upon machinery — the first upon civil legislation for the remedy of social evils; the second upon ecclesiastical organisations for Christianising the heathen at home and abroad. Both forget that success depends more upon prayer than upon work. " More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of," says Tennyson. "Pray without ceasing," wrote Paul. Perhaps the neglect of this is the explanation of the comparatively slow progress of individual Christians in holiness, and of the collective Church in its evangelisation of the world, — they lean more on themselves than on God, not remembering that " the weakness of God is stronger than men," and that " God*s strength is made perfect in man's weakness." A fourth lesson
That with God's help victory is sure.
No matter who or what the enemies may be — however numerous their bands, powerful their weapons, skilful their assaults, or embittered their malice — they are certain to be overthrown. "The Lord is on my side: I will not fear: what can man do unto me?" sang David. "If God be for us, who can be against us?" exclaimed Paul.
This truth had been illustrated already by the deliverance from Egypt: it was now emphasised by the victory over Amalek. That the victory was due to Moses* prayer upon the mount more than to Joshua's soldiers in the valley was rendered apparent by the fact that Joshua prevailed precisely as Moses* hands were held up. And so the truth was impressed upon the minds of all who witnessed the scene that with Jehovah's help the campaign could be successfully carried through.
This truth also is frequently forgotten by both nations and individuals, by states and churches, that with God upon their side nothing should be impossible. The Lord on high is mightier not only than the noise of many waters, but than all the powers that can be put into the field against Himself, His Church, or His people. To impress this thought upon Joshua, Moses was directed to write the story of this victory over Amalek and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua, that he might never forget whence his help had come, viz. from Jehovah, and how it had been obtained, viz. by prayer. The story has the same lesson of confidence in God and Christ for us to-day. " I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me,'' said Paul for himself; and for himself and all Christians, " We are more than conquerors through Him that loved us." What the priests were directed to say to Israel when they went to battle against their enemies may be confidently repeated to Christ's soldiers to-day — " Let not your heart faint: fear not, nor tremble: neither be ye affrighted at them; for the Lord your God is He that goeth with you to fight for you against your enemies, to save you."
A last lesson is —
That victory when achieved should be thankfully acknowledged and the glory of it given to God,
Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, who ascribed all his magnificent achievements to himself, — a common characteristic of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings, — Moses signified his gratitude to Jehovah by building an altar and inscribing it with the words "Jehovah-Nissi." It was like a devout act of thanksgiving to the Lord of hosts for the help He had given — an act which Joshua imitated after conquering Ai, by erecting an altar of unhewn stones in Mount Ebal and offering thereon burnt offerings unto the Lord and sacrificing peace offerings. This was their way of recognising their indebtedness to God. Heathen peoples were afterwards accustomed to dedicate altars to the deities through whose help they supposed their victories had been won. And the like practice of celebrating victories by solemn thanksgiving services has often been followed by Christian nations. After the battle of Sedan, King William of Prussia ordered a Te Deum to be sung in all the churches of Prussia, When the victory of Santiago de Cuba in the Spanish War was won, President McKinley of America at once issued a proclamation to his subjects, inviting them to join in a public thanksgiving service for the Lord's mercy; while of Captain Philip of the ship Texas, it is told that he summoned all his men to the quarter-deck at the close of the fight and said to them, "M want to make public acknowledgment here that I believe in God the Father Almighty. I want all of you, officers and men, to lift your hats and offer silent thanksgiving to the Almighty."
And coming to our own country, some will remember how the Sirdar of Egypt before he fired a shot at Omdurman, asked the Kalifa to remove all women and children from the town, and how after the victory he held a thanksgiving service in Khartoum at Gordon's grave, — a service in which grateful acknowledgment was made of God's gracious assistance in triumphing over probably a fiercer enemy of righteousness than ever Amalek was, — a service in which prayer was offered up that God would bless that unhappy country and send it rulers animated by the spirit of justice and righteousness, — a service in which, says one who was present, all hearts were touched and the Sirdar himself was freely weeping.
In like manner private Christians should devoutly recognise the hand of God (Jehovah-Jesus) in every victory they achieve over the sin that still dwells within them and doth so easily beset them, over the world with its temptations and seductions, over the principalities and powers, the spiritual wickedness in high places, by which they are assailed, remembering who it is that hath made them conquerors, and saying —
" Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory, for Thy mercy and for Thy truth's sake." "The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation' " O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; because His mercy endureth for ever."