A Biblical Theology of War, part 2

God, the Commander and Chief?

In the last post I suggested that the Bible contains one consistent and harmonious message whenever it speaks to any subject-even on the subject of war. I am convinced that God speaks on this subject with enough clarity to be understood, and in a manner that is completely consistent with His unchangeable character and nature.

We showed last time that the various opinions Christians hold on this subject are largely a result of different approaches to Scripture. Some people attempt to apply Old Testament commands or narratives in this age and arrive at a position that may support war efforts too aggressively or without discernment. Others attempt to blindly apply New Testament personal ethics to national governmental decisions and arrive at a position that is too passive.

Let’s look at the Scripture together and see what the consistent, harmonious teaching regarding this issue is. As we attempt to answer the difficult questions that arise on this subject, please recognize that I am not alone in my assumptions.

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,” 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 God is following. All philosophical speculation and emotional sentiment should be held in abeyance until we have first heard the testimony of Scripture (Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War, p. 20).

We need to recognize, and I am hoping to prove to you in this post, that the testimony of Scripture (Old and New Testaments) is that war is not inherently or morally wrong. Let me give you what I believe are the sufficient biblical reasons. Today we will cover our first broad point.

Our unchanging God condones and even commands war as an instrument of judgment

We’ll start by answering some objections to this assertion and outline some biblical teachings about the subject.

  • Many people, when considering the ethics of war, will object by an appeal to prohibition of murder in the sixth commandment

Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not murder.”

They suggest that all war involves killing, and that this taking of life is murder–and this must always be a violation of the sixth commandment. However, in the Bible there are different words for taking the life of another. There was a word that is the equivalent of murder (used in Exodus 20), which is a personal crime of killing someone. There is another word used to describe putting people to death in other ways and for other reasons. God Himself prescribed in the OT Law that the death penalty (putting to death another way) was a just and necessary punishment for the crime murder.

Genesis 9:6 – Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.

Clearly God does not command murder. But He does command the death penalty in many instances. In fact, in the OT Law there are at least 30 crimes and immoral acts for which God Himself prescribed the death penalty (taking of life) as a just punishment. In some cases, there was no room for judicial leniency.

Numbers 35:31 – Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.

As you can see, some of these crimes would not always require the death penalty. There was the possibility of a ransom, a fine or restitution. However, for the murderer, the one who committed the crime of pre-meditated murder, another form of punishment was not allowed. The death penalty was required! God commanded death as the only possible expression of justice in that instance.

In the OT law there were also gracious provisions for accidental killing. God established cities of refuge where those who were being accused of crimes could wait out satisfactory justice. This provision came complete with a statute of limitations. In order to preserve justice, it was made clear that the punishment was not to be carried out as an act of personal vengeance, but as the just pronouncement of justice and as an act of the government [judicial system] of Israel.

What is true for us today was also true for them. The judge who sentences the criminal to death is no more guilty of murder than he would have been guilty of robbery had he sentenced a thief to pay a fine or restitution.

  • In addition to the death penalty, God also gave directives to Israel to wage war as His instrument of justice, and states that even other nations were His instruments of justice on the earth.

God’s directives to wage war were always to execute justice on the earth.

Genesis 15:13, 14, 16 – And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions…16 “Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

Why the delay in giving them the Promised Land through military conquest? Because it would not have been just at that point to send the Israelites into the land to utterly destroy the Amorite, and so God allowed them to be enslaved and oppressed instead. This slavery and oppression in Egypt challenges us to consider the question of when a military response to oppression might be appropriate.

Their oppression in Egypt implied that uprising and rebellion is not always an appropriate action to take either, but there comes a point where it becomes a justified action-even in God’s sight. The Egyptians began slaughtering Israelite children because they were becoming so numerous the Egyptians feared them. That’s why Moses was put into the basket and floated down the river.

Exodus 2:23-25 – Now it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died. And the sons of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God. 24 So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 And God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them.

The result in Egypt was that God delivered the Israelites out of slavery, and destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. And the destruction of that army by God’s hand was the inspiration for a song that was written by Moses and sung by the Israelites, that memorialized and celebrated their deliverance by God-listen to some of the words of that song, and pay attention to the self-inspired description of God in this song.

Exodus 15:3-4 – The LORD is a warrior [literally, “a man of war”]; The LORD is His name. 4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; And the choicest of his officers are drowned in the Red Sea.

I must remind us again, that God has not changed. If He can go by the title “man of war” in Moses’ day then He legitimately carries that title today.

The destruction of the armies of Egypt is not the only example of a just war campaign by God.

1 Samuel 15:2-3 – Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Many recoil at the suggestion that entire peoples could be destroyed justly, but archaeology has shown that the nations destroyed in this way (Amalekites, Philistines, and Canaanites) were practicing the worst kind of sex crimes in connection with their religion, burning their infant children as human sacrifices to their gods, and brutally torturing other nations as a regular practice of war.

The justice of such actions is not ultimately determined by men. God does not answer to us, or to any human institution. We know that He is always just, and if God commanded these actions, then they were just. Clearly, there comes a point where destroying war-loving, and brutally violent nations (or at least defeating and dethroning those who rule) is the only just and reasonable solution. In fact, it is often the only merciful solution–it spares countless others from suffering at their hands.

God’s commands to wage war were given in those kinds of contexts. They were not ever random, selfish, or capricious decisions (nor were they subject to man’s approval; theirs or ours!). And when the kings of Israel did wage selfish or aggressive campaigns God set His face against them and they were defeated and punished.

We must conclude then, that God not only condoned, but at times commanded war be waged, even waging it Himself as a warrior [a man of war] as He did in Egypt and at other times. In addition to wars waged through His chosen people, God also used other nations [pagan nations] as instruments of His judgment. God used Babylon to judge the rebellious nation of Israel, but in the process, they desecrated Jerusalem and God’s temple, and treated the Israelites cruelly. So God raised up another nation to punish them for the harsh way they carried out the justice that God prescribed. Through the prophet Jeremiah God spoke to Cyrus, the king of Persia, before using him to judge Babylon.

Jeremiah 51:20-24 – He says, “You are My war-club, My weapon of war; And with you I shatter nations, And with you I destroy kingdoms. 21 And with you I shatter the horse and his rider, 22 And with you I shatter the chariot and its rider, And with you I shatter man and woman, And with you I shatter old man and youth, And with you I shatter young man and virgin, 23 And with you I shatter the shepherd and his flock, And with you I shatter the farmer and his team, And with you I shatter governors and prefects. 24 But I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea for all their evil that they have done in Zion before your eyes,” declares the LORD.

So God commanded the nation of Israel to be His instrument of justice, and He used other nations to bring about justice as well, even against His chosen people. Much of the travels and exploits of the armies of Israel was recorded in what is called, “The Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Num. 21:14). It contained historical records, and songs of triumph. While we do not have extent copies of these books today, we know from biblical revelation that they existed.

While we recognize God’s direct involvement in wars, we must be careful not to misunderstand or overstate His attitude about them.

  • At the same time, God does not delight in death or war, and neither should we.

Here is the simplest statement in all of Scripture describing God’s opinion of judging others through physical death.

Ezekiel 33:11 – Say to them, “As I live!” declares the Lord God, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?”

One proof of God possessing this desire to see others repent rather than be judged is contained the story of Jonah. God commanded Jonah to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah (they were Babylonians, or Chaldeans). He was to warn them that if they didn’t repent God would judge them. They were cruel, wicked people, and would have been justly destroyed by God for their sin. We know how the story goes. Jonah ended up in the belly of the great fish [whale] because he didn’t want to preach to them. Why? Because he knew how gracious God was, and that if they listened to his warnings, God might actually spare them.

Eventually, after a few days in the fish, that is exactly what happened. But their repentance and God’s mercy didn’t last more than a couple of generations. About 100 years later they were back to their old ways, and the book of Nahum records God’s final warning to the people of Ninevah that His judgment was coming upon them soon.

Another evidence of God’s opinion and approach to war involves His giving of certain “rules of engagement” in Deuteronomy 20. First there needed to be an offer of peace (20:10). Then he says that men [those who might fight back-the soldiers] were to be killed, but women, children and animals were to be kept alive and taken (Deut. 20:13-14). That would be the only means of preserving them alive. There were even rules for preserving the economy (20:19). All of these “rules of engagement” show that God’s wars were not random, capricious or conducted unjustly.

Another proof that God does not delight in war is that He condemns wars of aggression.

Habakkuk 2:5b-6a, 12 – He also gathers to himself all nations and collects to himself all peoples. 6 Will not all of these take up a taunt-song against him, even mockery and insinuations against him, And say, “Woe to him who increases what is not his…12 Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed, and founds a town with violence!

Psalm 68:30b – …He has scattered the peoples who delight in war.

These “wars of aggression” could be lust for power, control, money, territory, dominance or even the destruction of others. In any case, God condemns wars of aggression.

What conclusions can we draw at this point?

Remember, our first point is this, “Our unchanging God condones and even commands war as an instrument of judgment.”

  1. The death penalty, prescribed by God in the OT, was an instrument of criminal justice, to be carried out by the civil government, not individuals.
  2. War is similarly an expression of justice. However, war is an example of national justice and also must be carried out by the civil government, and not for individual reasons or personal gain.
  3. But we must carefully recognize that God does not delight in war, but sees it as a terrible necessity for the restraint of evil and the punishment of evil doers.
  4. As a harsh but necessary instrument, it is not to be done capriciously or without regard to other principles of diplomacy, justice, mercy and equity.

If we conclude, contrary to what we have seen above, that war is inherently evil and always morally wrong, then we must also conclude that God Himself is unrighteous. This would necessarily be true because at times He commanded war, and at other times even waged war Himself. To take a position that implies God Himself is unrighteous is dangerous ground for a Christian.

So we have stated that God condones and even commanded war. We have seen that in the Scripture, and it should be clear. Again, I am working on the assumptions that the Scripture is true, that God never changes, and that therefore, we can deduce a single consistent ethic for war and conflict from the Bible.

The discussion [or disagreement] within Christian circles might turn at this point and propose that the ethic of Jesus changed all this (principles like, “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “do unto others,” etc.). In the third and final post on this subject, we will examine that claim at length.

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