Book of Deuteronomy Chapter Twenty Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
War And Faith
Verse 1: "When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you." Israel was about to invade the land of Canaan at the Lord's command—a real war but also a parable of more. Everyone on earth, especially those who have said "yes" to the Lord, are in the midst of a supernatural war that we usually don't see with our eyes or hear with our ears. An earthly war has the ability to kill the bodies of both participants and spectators, and give post-traumatic stress to survivors... This supernatural war has participants who mostly don't even know they are in a war, but we can learn about this terrible struggle from these chapters in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in Scripture. The stakes are high. On behalf of the Lord, "bullets" of faith, hope and love are aimed at the hearts of enemy soldiers, and the enemy himself, who started all this, responds with "ammo" which might best be called, "fear and unbelief." The initial message to God's people of faith here in Verse 1 is simply, "Do not be afraid of them." And the reason for your confidence is this: "The Lord your God, who brought you up from (sin and death) is with you." Let's join David, who spoke words for us all: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me" (Psalm 23:4). Physical death is awful, but eternal death is worse—only God's grace, operative through faith in the Lord, will deliver you from a death that never ends.
Verses 2-4: "When you are approaching the battle, the priest shall come near and speak to the people. 3 He shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, you are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, 4 for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.’" In Ephesians 6:11-18, Paul urges us, as God's soldiers, to "put on the full armor of God," relating it to the familiar uniform and equipment of a Roman soldier, so prominent at that time. I remember the equipment initially thrown at us as we entered the military decades ago, which included underwear, uniforms, fatigues, brogans, dress shoes, a canteen and more. Here's the uniform issued to those in Christ: "truth... righteousness... the preparation of the gospel of peace... faith... salvation... (and) the word of God..." concluding in Verse 18, "pray at all times in the Spirit..." We are "approaching the battle," as seen in Verse 2 of this chapter of Deuteronomy, and unlike most human generals who are well behind the lines, "the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies to save you," as represented by the priest who spoke to the people, saying, "Do not be afraid." Faith is the antidote to fear.
Verses 5-7: "The officers also shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Who is the man that has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would dedicate it. 6 Who is the man that has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would begin to use its fruit. 7 And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would marry her.’" If you have just built a really nice new house, or just opened the business of your dreams, or are engaged and about to be married, what are you thinking about? What excites you at the moment? Certainly going off to war and becoming one of those grouchy soldiers who tells everybody how unhappy you are is not good. Such attitudes are contagious and morale goes down through the floor. According to the later-in-time Jewish historian, Josephus, by the way, the military exemption of these verses lasted for one year. Verse 8 carries the idea of an exemption further: "Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart.’" You may not have a new house, or a business, or a new marriage, but if you're terrified by the supernatural war we are in, your fear is contagious and will spread to other "troops" in the Lord's army. They don't need fear—they need to see our faith in the Lord.
Verse 9: "When the officers have finished speaking to the people, they shall appoint commanders of armies at the head of the people." Leadership is important. Our ultimate Leader is the Lord Himself, but most prefer humans to fill that role. God is aware that most people are afraid of what and who we cannot hear or see, and so we are given priests, presidents, kings, governors and more, to tell us what we should do and when to do it. We may gripe about the way they tell us to do things, but God gives the capacity for leadership to those willing to carry the burden of office. They may be good or bad leaders, but they will do something when others won't. "Commanders of armies" were essential in Israel just like everywhere else, then and now.
Verses 10-11: "When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. 11 If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you." The tribes of Canaan had lapsed into absolute idolatry. Faith in the Lord had become non-existant among all the people of the land. There were exceptions. Rahab the harlot, of Jericho, "did not perish along with those who were disobedient..." (Hebrews 11:31). And the Lord, who knows all possible roads into the future just like He knows the past and present, was fully aware that nothing would change in that land without His intervention. Death is not the end for anyone, though what comes after death diverges in two very different directions—some, like Rahab, would "make peace" and not be destroyed by the advancing armies of Israel or be ruined by eternal death.
Verses 12-14: "However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. 14 Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you." The words of these verses are scary indeed. The Lord has warned us, "every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7:19). The people of Canaan were those "trees," as are all who will not place their trust in the Lord. We are also like the "sparrows" of Matthew 10:28-29—"Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father." To "fear" God is to recognize who He is; to understand our own weakness in relation to Him, and then to grasp, at least to some extent, His love for you and me. The Lord offers "peace" to you, but He also declares war upon those who refuse Him. The purpose is that we will finally open the gates and let Him in, becoming God's servants and discovering His great love for us all.
Verses 15-18: "Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby. 16 Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God." Frankly, I am sorry for those who would be destroyed by the armies that were to advance against them. But what would have happened if they were allowed to continue in the world? Only God knows, but we have specific information in Verse 18 that unbelief, manifested in idolatry, would have spread like an infection to others, including those of Israel. What would the world be like if Canaan was not changed by war? Would their idolatry have become like a virus, infecting us all? Often surgical removal is the only way to deal with a cancerous growth, which characterized the Canaan of that time. The "patient" in this imagery, the tribes of Canaan, had developed an incurable cancer of the soul. But God did not want them to die. Jeremiah, in Lamentations 3:32-33, blessedly revealed—"Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion... He does not afflict willingly." Another glimpse of God's tender mercy is seen in Ezekiel 33:11—"'As I live,' says the Lord God, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.'"
Verses 19-20: "When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls." War has a way of destroying not only people, but the environment as well. Moses, in continuing this recitation, this warning, to Israel and its leaders, is making exactly that point. In the years after 600 AD, later invaders into the holy land would chop down as many trees as possible, in order for their chariots to have more room to bring destruction. In a remarkably short time, that fertile, green land became essentially a barren desert for the centuries that followed. People are warlike and destructive, usually for very selfish reasons. God will wage war also, but He is good. "Our Lord is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). "It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (Romans 8:34). He who died for us is at the right hand of the Father, praying for you right now.
Lord, humanity has strangely and sadly declared war upon God. And yet You died for us, declaring peace to those who will have faith in You. I surrender, Lord. Please forgive my resistance, my sin. I open my gates. Please come into my heart, Lord. I am Yours. In Jesus Name. Amen.