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]

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