As cheesy Tumblr pages dutifully inform us: “We all have our battles to fight.”
But what are you fighting for? As you toggle between the different roles you play and stages you run through, the question is the same - who are you fighting, and what are you fighting for? This open ended question will reveal your identity, your loyalty, the challenges you face, and the resources at your disposal. But today’s study is not about answering that problem head on. It is about seeing a different battle and finding the Bible’s answer to it. One of the challenges of the Christian life is that we are at war. We don’t like to think about it that way, for we like to think about life as a “journey”. What does Exo 17 have to say about a Christian’s life-at-war?
(A) A banner for battle: God’s people, by faith, are at war (Exo 17:8-10)
Early in this chapter, we see God brings the Israelites across the Red Sea and into the wilderness after their Exodus. Eventually, God brings them to Rephidim, they encamp there, and they experience their second water story: God shows them an amazing display of His power by using Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Moses did this as he held “the staff of God”, and “the staff of God” is always a staff of judgment. When Moses wields it up over Egypt, strikes the Nile, always a symbol of God’s judgment being poured out. And we learnt last week that Moses struck the rock in judgment. Most significantly, God stands before the rock as Moses judges the rock - God took the judgment on Himself for His complaining people.
In today’s passage, we learn something specific about the action Amalek took in Exo 17:8. We learn that they moved toward Israel to backstab them when they were tired! Deut 25:17-18 tells us that Amalek chose a time when Israel faint and weary to attack Israel’s weakest in their moment of weakness. They did not engage Israel bravely - against Israel's fighting men - but as a malicious marauding band that sought to prey on the women, children, and elderly. And they did this because they did not fear God. Here, Moses tells Israel to remember the way the battle took place.
Pause to remember that thus far, Israel’s greatest threat has been a threat from within. It has been their own sin and grumbling. But now we see Amalek, a threat from without. The background of Amalek in Gen 36 tells us that they are descendants of Esau. The Bible is presenting us with a pattern of conflict, for Esau was the brother of Jacob, and they were rivals in the womb. The pattern goes up and up to Gen 3, where you have the offspring of the woman set in conflict and the offspring of the serpent. The same situation is at play here, where Amalek arises as Israel’s rival. This doesn’t just go backwards in time, but it also goes down through the annals of biblical history. It goes down to Edom, that Obadiah speaks to in judgment, and even King Herod the Tyrant, who tries to kill the Messiah as he slaughtered innocents.
This tells us that God’s people have always been at war. Scripture tells us that where there is wheat, there will be weeds, and both will grow to the end (Matt 13:24-30). That’s why Revelation sets up the new Jerusalem in contrast with Babylon, Christ’s bride with the great harlot! No wonder then, that Paul reminds us in Eph 6 that we are at war. Ps 2 speaks to the same theme as well, for it tells us that the nations are in rebellion against God. Hence, we should not be surprised that Amalek comes up and tries to strike Israel in the tail. God’s people should not be surprised when they face adversity. Our Lord Jesus says as much in John 15:18 - some of Jesus’ strongest possible words. "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”
The battle lines have been drawn clearly. Do you believe that you are in a fight? Who do you stand for? You are either on Jesus’ side or you are not. Revelation tells us that those with the mark of the Beast will suffer the wrath of the Lamb. Many of us, especially those who have grown up in Church, have learned to exploit the middle ground. We tell ourselves that we can devote a couple of days to do Christian things, but we are indistinguishable from the world during the rest of the days. We do not read our Bibles, and we do not tithe (our money controls us). It might be terrifying to think that you are in a battle, but we need to be reminded of this reality in order to live our lives with the right priorities!
Consider now the two things that Moses instructs Israel to do. There are two steps of action - the first profoundly practical, and the second profoundly spiritual:
1) Joshua whose name means "Yeshua or Jehovah saves” appears for the first time. The practical thing he does is to choose men. This instruction takes a whole day’s preparation. One minute they were slaves, then hungry slaves, and then they were hungry and thirsty. But suddenly, they had to choose an elite to form some kind of militia. Who knows what poor Joshua had been doing in Egypt? Whatever it was, he had to be a military commander. But Joshua had huge faith, as we see how he responded in obedience to Moses’ commandments.
2) Moses makes known his intention to take hold of the staff and goes up on the hill. Is this a morale boosting statement? Is Moses a proto-World of Warcraft mage who’s going to channel lightning bolts to secure the victory? No! These instructions are about God delivering His people, through His people. God could have chosen to do anything, for He had already demonstrated His might to work supernatural victories through the Ten Plagues. But here, God wants to give His people victory through His people. And the way they are to fight is to look atop the hill and know the source of their power - Moses atop the hill with the staff of God.
What can we learn from Joshua and Israel’s response? Exo 17:10 tells us that Joshua did as Moses taught him, and fought with Amalek. Joshua might have been scared. He had to stare down scary looking guys, with only the word of Moses saying, “Joshua go.” But he went. What energised these men as they went into terrifying battle for their lives? What gave them energy, rigour, and the strength to fight? One, the sure word of the LORD through Moses, and two, the clear visible leadership of God on that hill.
Friends, I wonder what God has called you to do. What simple, straightforward, direct personal command God has issued you? Have you gone? Did you go? Have you responded to His word? Have you entered into the fight, trusting fully on God’s delivered word? That’s what Joshua did, and that’s what the men of Israel did in their first military campaign.
God’s people, by faith, are at war. Faith here is not blind trust. It means trusting in something. It means resting on the reliability of something. It means preferring something rather than my own sense. It always involves leaning on something other than what I am able to summon up for myself. It means trusting on God’s word - He said it, I struggle to believe it, my senses tell me it’s dubious, but I will believe it. We trust in the Word of God simply because the very God of the universe who has revealed Himself to us has spoken it. So we go, looking to and trusting in His banner.
(B) Not man’s banner: our victories are God-won, and in our weakness (Exo 17:11-13)
But then they face a curious problem. When they go off to battle, they win whenever the staff is raised up, and lose whenever the staff comes down. This is a matter of life and death! And the narrative doesn’t tell us that it’s about the Israelites finding a strategic advantage, and somehow it coincided with Moses’ staff-raising. It’s very clear that the narrative wants us to understand that the problem here is Moses’ strength. He couldn’t raise the staff long enough. Moses, who was more than 80 years old, was too weak to keep the staff lifted perpetually - Israel faced the problem of Moses’ weak arms.
The writer of Exodus, Moses, is trying to communicate that God’s Word, Promise, and Person are not failing. Moses just doesn’t have the strength. From Exo 17:11-12, the narrative slows down in such a pensive way for us to see Aaron holding up one hand, and Hur on the other side doing the same. Moses sits, rests his weight on the stone, and struggles with all his might to keep his arms up. For he knows that when his arms come down, people die.
If you’ve ever been disappointed by leadership, this is the place to look. If you occupy some kind of leadership position, this is also the place to look. For as long as human beings are responsible for holding up that burden, they’re just not going to make it. So Moses needs friends to hold it up. Remember that Moses himself - the author here - is communicating to us his weakness. And this entire episode takes place on the hill so that everyone can see and know that when the staff is lifted up like a banner and flag - that staff that broke the Nile and poured forth water from the rock - is lifted high, God’s people find victory. That banner is the sign of victory (Exo 17:13), and Joshua and Israel overwhelm Amalek because of it. This battle was won by God’s strength, and through Moses’ weakness!
It might sound absurd that a battle can be won through man’s weaknesses, but doesn’t the testimony of Scripture speak to this very phenomenon? Jer 10:23-25 tells us that man’s way is not in himself, and man’s weakness is always on display. 1 Cor 1:26-29 shows that this was not just an Old Testament interesting fun fact, but a pattern throughout the Bible. God chooses what is foolish, weak, low, despised, and things that are not to bring to nothing that things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
If God is eternal and doesn’t change, then His preferences in the past are His preferences for the present and into eternity. God chose what is weak to shame the strong, foolish to shame the wise in the past, and He continues to do so now and into the future.
What about the battle you have been fighting? Who’s really fighting? What would it look like if in your circumstances right now, you won the victory. And what would it look like for God to win the victory for you and through you? If it is the latter, then it will probably involve some humiliation on our part, which entails being made humble. Do you feel that God only brings you down all the time? Remember that God delights to bring Himself glory. In situations where we would write ourselves glory, He brings us to places where we have no other means of hope other than Him, precisely to show us that He is all that we need. When we are there, we are dragged there kicking and screaming, for we want to be in successful places of glory and honour.
But God calls us to remember our Saviour: Where was his great triumph and victory? It was in His moment of greatest humiliation on the Cross. Maybe you feel like you are close to the bottom today. Could it be that when you are the bottom, God has actually brought you to the top? Remember that the banner Christians take heed from is not man’s banner. Our victories are God-won, and in our weaknesses.
(C) A banner for God’s fighting army: remember and raise God’s triumphant banner (Exo 17:14-16)
Exo 17:14 injunction to “write this as a memorial in a book” and “recite it in the ears of Joshua” tells us that we should take this seriously and not just as “superstition”. Moses is to recite it so that Joshua would remember it - not just a careless whisper. Moses also builds an altar, called “The LORD Is My Banner”, saying “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek generation to generation” This cannot merely be a myth. It’s highly unlikely that it’s mythical because there’s a national role for it. It might have a nationalistic agenda, but it is not meant to be made up. He is neither passing on superstition nor the magical nature of Moses’ staff. We are supposed, instead, to realise that God has some purpose in this confrontation. And here is the key message of what Moses is to tell, repeat, and remind Joshua of: the LORD is going to utterly blot out Amalek from under heaven.
And we ask: what kind of key point is that?
Remember that the first king loses favour with God because of this. God tells Saul to utterly blot out the Amalekites, and Saul does not. And Saul is rejected as king. Instead of remembering that the LORD Himself would be responsible for war against His enemies, Saul took matters in his own hands.
This war reveals how God’s righteousness judgment has been poured out on the Amalekites. This place, summarising the character of God, was to have the name “the LORD is my banner”. When we think banner, we think a large flag billowing in the wind. But at the time of Moses, and all the way down to the later medieval period, it's meant to be a practical symbol that informs the troops about the King’s location. In this case, the banner was the staff of God. And Moses knew clearly that the rod had no magical powers. The LORD was his banner. And when the LORD is lifted up and we look at Him, the more we find strength.
However, the problem is also that He can’t be seen, so this stick is woefully inadequate. When the Lord Jesus came, He was always asked “is this not the time that you reveal your glory, show your power, and show yourself to be the true banner?” But Jesus would always say “My time has not yet come.” Then things change in John 12:27-33: Jesus is to be lifted up from the earth! This is neither referring to His resurrection not Ascension? Jn 12:33 tells us that Jesus was lifted up, when his body had no strength to carry Him, by the Cross.
This is not just a nice convenient way of segueway-ing from Ex 17. This is pointed to in all of Scripture! Is 11 foretells that the root of Jesse will stand as a signal for the peoples. Of Him, shall the nations inquire, and His resting place shall be glorious. Exo 17:11-12 inform us that when God raises His banner, it will be so much more than Israel overwhelming Amalek. When He is lifted up, all the nations will be drawn! This message is displayed again in Is 49, and again in Is 63 - a resounding call all the way to Jesus referring to Himself as the great banner being lifted up for all nations! For we are in a battle, and we rally to Him. Hence the message of Exo 17. Hence the message to remember and not forget!
Are you good at remembering His great victory in Christ? What great fight are you involved in? That great fight that determines your identity, loyalty, challenges you face, and resources at your disposal. If you have pledged your allegiances to Jesus Christ, you are involved in a great great battle. You stand with God’s people against a world that hates Him.
But how do we stand in battle?
Not on your great bible study schedule. Not your accountability partner or cell group leader. Not on TGC. This is something we all struggle with, where we desperately try to do what we think is right, so much so that we do not look at Jesus at all. Because of this, our souls shrivel up. Guilt starts to pile up. Bitterness and envy is bred.
We must lift high Jesus Christ if we are to fight this battle. If He’s lifted high we will gain strength. If we fail to raise Him up, we will be overwhelmed. Friends, look to Christ your banner today!