Holy War! What is it Good For?

1 SAMUEL #12. (1 SAMUEL 15:1-3)



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There is one big and totally natural question when we read 1 Samuel chapter 15. Why did God want the Israelites to destroy every living Amalekite? Why the women and children too? How can we accept that God wanted this, and yet still believe that he is merciful, forgiving and loving? There are a handful of passages like this in the Old Testament, and for the modern mind, it seems inexplicable and even repulsive. I think we can get help sorting this out if we consider three things.

First, God does not answer to us. The questions are natural, but the truth is, God does not owe us an explanation. Our human nature wants God to justify himself toward us. But this is exactly the opposite of the situation the Bible describes. We are accountable for our actions before God, not the other way around. If God indeed made the universe, if he is infinite and we are not, then he has the right to do what he wants, and what he wants may be beyond the ability of our limited minds to comprehend.

This is true, but the Lord often chooses to reveal his reasons anyway. So the second thing to consider is that this is about holiness. Several weeks ago I shared what happens when pure sodium is exposed to water. The sodium explodes and burns up. Pure sodium simply cannot exist in the presence of water. The greatest scientist in the world cannot bring the two things into actual contact without creating spontaneous combustion. In the same way, sin simply cannot exist in the presence of God. So unless there is some kind of intervention, God’s presence will destroy sin. We live after the time of Jesus. Jesus and his sacrifice have eliminated the holiness problem for us, if we trust him. He has made us holy. He took the destruction of sin into himself so we could be spared. But we forget that without Jesus, God’s holiness is a huge problem for sinful people. Sin is so serious and God’s holiness is so pure, that if it wasn’t for Jesus, it requires the destruction of every living thing associated with sin.

The Israelites, however imperfectly, were living in faith that God’s promises to Abraham were true, and that God would redeem them from their sins. So the Lord included them in what he was going to do through Jesus. Their faith in God’s promises protected them from the effect of God upon sin. Paul writes to the Romans:

1 So what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? 2 Considerable in every way. First, they were entrusted with the spoken words of God. 3 What then? If some did not believe, will their unbelief cancel God’s faithfulness? 4 Absolutely not! God must be true, even if everyone is a liar, as it is written: That You may be justified in Your words and triumph when You judge. 5 But if our unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness, what are we to say? I use a human argument: Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath? 6 Absolutely not! Otherwise, how will God judge the world? (Rom 3:1-6 )

Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath? Absolutely not. His presence destroys sin, whether or not you believe his words. The only salvation through Jesus Christ, by faith. This was true even for the generations who lived before Jesus came:

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. (Romans 3:22-26 NLT, emphasis mine)

Everyone in the past who believed God’s promises, was included in what God was going to do through Jesus. But in Old Testament times, before Jesus had come, those who rejected God became physical illustrations of how serious God’s holiness is, and how big a problem our sin is. God was showing the world their desperate need for a messiah who could bridge a gap between our sin and God’s holiness.

In the case of the Amalekites and the other Canaanite tribes that God commanded Israel to destroy, they were given both a witness to God’s holiness and grace, and an abundance of time to repent of sin. All the way back in the time of Abraham, the Lord said this:

13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be foreigners in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. 14 However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions. 15 But you will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. 16 In the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” Gen 15:13-16 (emphasis mine)

Amorites were just one of the tribes that Israel was supposed to drive out or destroy. They had witnesses to the truth of God through Abraham, Lot, Isaac, and Jacob. They had four hundred years after Jacob to correct their ways – God was still giving them a chance to repent and live in faith. For forty years, after the Israelites left Egypt the nations in Canaan heard about what God did for them. They had the chance to repent during that time, and a few of them did (Joshua 2:9-15).

The Israelites invaded the Canaanite lands under Joshua. The Israelites in subsequent generations did not eradicate the Canaanites as they were supposed to. So the tribes of Canaan had four hundred more years through the time of the Judges to repent and follow the Lord. All told, these civilizations had roughly 800 years before the time of Saul to repent and follow God. During all of those centuries, they were witnesses to the truth about God through the Israelites. So it isn’t as if God suddenly woke up one day and said, “ You know, I hate the Amalekites.” Basically, the Canaanite civilizations had showed, over the course of about 800 years, that they would not live by faith, that they would not repent, that they were determined to continue in their sinful, rebellious ways. As such, there was no purpose in giving them more time, and until they were eradicated, they remained a spiritual and military threat to God’s people.

A third possible reason for this harsh command was that while the Canaanite peoples continued to live in the land next to the people of Israel, the people of God were often led astray. The Israelites were the only people in the whole world who understood about living in faith. They were the people entrusted with the word of God, as Paul points out in Romans. God could not allow them to be corrupted and lose the truth. If they lost it, the whole world lost it. So the Lord commanded his people to take extreme measures to make sure the world did not lose the truth about faith-relationship with God.

Fourth, God did not choose the promised land randomly. For thousands of years it has been both the cradle and the crossroads of civilization. Trade routes flowed through the land from Africa to Asia and Europe, back from Europe to Asia and Africa, and from Asia to Africa and Europe. It is the meeting place of three continents and two oceans. Whoever lived in this geographical location from the beginning of civilization until the fall of the Roman Empire was in a position to spread ideas, culture and religion to most of the people in the world. In fact, one reason Christianity spread so quickly and influentially is because it began in the Holy Land. In fact, the three most dominant religions in the world – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all began in the Holy Land. The reasons these three are so widespread is due in part to geography. Even today, Jerusalem is a major epicenter of the world political situation. [click the link to keep reading]

Back in the time of Saul, God did not want the depraved, evil practices of the Canaanites to spread around the entire world. The Canaanites engaged in ritual prostitution. They sacrificed their children to false gods in acts of demonic worship, burning the infants alive. They accepted homosexuality without question, and even bestiality. Their religion and culture was like a cancer. It was a cancer situated in a prime spot to spread quickly around the entire world, as subsequent history has proven. So God had to take the extreme measure of completely removing the cancer before it metastasized. He did not want traders and travelers carrying these depraved demonic ideas around the world. In Leviticus 18:21-30, the Lord describes some of the vile practices of the Canaanites.

21 “You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh. 22 You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable. 23 You are not to have sexual intercourse with any animal, defiling yourself with it; a woman is not to present herself to an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion. 24 “Do not defile yourselves by any of these practices, for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things. 25 The land has become defiled, so I am punishing it for its sin, and the land will vomit out its inhabitants. 26 But you are to keep My statutes and ordinances. You must not commit any of these detestable things — not the native or the foreigner who lives among you. 27 For the men who were in the land prior to you have committed all these detestable things, and the land has become defiled. 28 If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it has vomited out the nations that were before you.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-11, he warns the Israelites not to be influenced by them.

1 “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and He drives out many nations before you — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you — 2 and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 because they will turn your sons away from Me to worship other gods. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and He will swiftly destroy you. 5 Instead, this is what you are to do to them: tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn up their carved images. 6 For you are a holy people belonging to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.

There is another thing here. God did not command just the destruction of the population, but even of the good and livestock of these tribes. This is my speculation, but it is possible that the Lord commanded the war to be waged this way, because he did not want the Israelites to engage in such brutality as a matter of course. The gratuitous sacrifice of animals and articles of value showed that the war was waged for God, with a spiritual purpose. It did not enrich the Israelites when they fought this sort of war. This removed the temptation wage war this way so except when God commanded it.

The idea of total destruction is also reflected in the sacrificial system, in the burnt offering. The idea is that the entire thing is God’s and belongs to him alone. So in some ways, when everything was killed and no plunder was saved, it was to say that this was a sacrifice that belonged entirely to God. In that sense, the very war and annihilation of the people was God’s doing, not the doing of plain brutality by human kings. In other words, God was taking responsibility for this destruction, and it did not have to rest upon human leaders who might otherwise begin to indulge their sadistic impulses.

Now, I want to make some things very clear. Jesus said he was not concerned with human government, but rather with the human heart. And so, Jesus very clearly repudiated Holy War in Matthew 26:52-54

52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels? 54 How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way? ”

49 When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword? ” 50 Then one of them struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus responded, “No more of this! ” And touching his ear, He healed him. Luke 22:49-51 (HCSB)

36 “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” John 18:36 (HCSB)

So if someone ever comes to you and says, “the bible commands holy war, just like the Koran,” it is in fact very different. Even in the Old Testament Holy War is very rare and limited, and Jesus completely rejects it in the New Testament.

But there is still a kind of Holy War for us to who have put our faith in Jesus. It isn’t literal warfare. But it is an internal commitment to follow Jesus, even if it means utterly rejecting something in our lives that is holding us back from him. Jesus did command this type of “war”:

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell! Matt 5:29-30 (HCSB)

In many ways, the challenge to obey this is the same as Saul’s challenge. Is there anything this coming year that God wants you leave entirely up to him? Anything he is saying to you, “this belongs to me – all of it. And it all belongs to me alone. It is time to give it up.”

Maybe you like to drink sometimes. Drinking moderately – drinking without getting buzzed/tipsy or drunk – is something that the Bible does not condemn. But maybe in your own personal relationship with the Lord, alcohol is a hindrance. Maybe you can’t drink without getting a buzz. Maybe it is costing you too much money. Maybe it is something you find comfort in instead of seeking God. It could be that the Lord is calling you to stop consuming all alcohol. Maybe that feels radical. But the Lord may be calling you to that kind of radical obedience.

Maybe it is a friendship or relationship. I’m not talking about marriage now, but maybe you are single and dating someone that the Lord is asking you to break up with. Or maybe you are hanging out with friends who are actually a hindrance to you growing in your faith. I am not saying you should cut off all contact with them. But I am saying that sometimes the Lord calls us to obey him radically in that kind of situation, so radically that he does ask us to do those sorts of things..

God is compassionate and gracious. But this scripture reminds us that he also calls us to a life of radical obedience. It reminds us that he does not want anything to get between us and him.

In this passage we have a negative example. Saul balked at this sort of radical faith. This is because he lived by religion not by faith. He chose to keep the Amalekite king alive. He chose to keep the best of the plunder. When Samuel confronted him about it, Saul said he kept it for the Lord. He said he would sacrifice it. But that doesn’t fool anyone, least of all Samuel or God. No doubt Saul would have sacrificed it all, now that he had been caught.

One thought on “Holy War! What is it Good For?

  1. Thank you for thinking this passage through and sharing your thoughts with us. What you’re saying makes a lot of sense.I also appreciate the application you suggested: “What is God telling me to let go of that keeps Him and me apart?”

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