Week of March 18, 2018
The Point: We are always covered by God’s protection.
The Amalekites: Exodus 17:8-16.
 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.  So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”  So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.  Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.  But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.  And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.  Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”  And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner,  saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” [ESV]
“Lift Up Your Hands [17:8-16]. Lessons for life’s journey – that’s what Israel was learning in the wilderness: “God saves.” “No whining.” “Trust your leaders.” “God will guide you, protect you, and provide for you.” “He will always be with you.” These were the basic spiritual lessons that God’s people learned during their long pilgrimage through the desert. The next lesson had to do with prayer. There is an invisible war between the powers of darkness and the children of light. In the course of these hostilities, God’s enemies often attack God’s people, and the only way for us to prevail in this spiritual battle is by persevering in prayer.
It’s A Spiritual Battle. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the first enemies they faced were not external but internal. Their struggle was the war within – the battle that is waged in every human heart. The difficulties they encountered at Marah, in the Desert of Sin, and at Massah and Meribah were not caused by their outward circumstances, primarily, but by their own disbelief and discontent. They did not trust God to provide, and as a result they were divided and discouraged. Then suddenly and unexpectedly they were attacked from the outside by an enemy: Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim [17:8]. This was the first military skirmish in Israel’s long campaign to win the Promised Land. The Amalekites were nomads who traced their lineage back to Jacob’s brother Esau [Gen. 36:12], and thus there were longstanding ethnic tensions between the two tribes. It is not certain why the Amalekites attacked the Israelites on this particular occasion. They may have felt threatened by Israel’s sudden arrival in their territory, or they may have been trying to protect their water supply. Rephidim was an oasis, and the Amalekites must have been dismayed to watch so many people with so many animals come and drink “their” water. Whatever the reason, the attack itself was cowardly. Moses later told God’s people, Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God [Deut. 25:17,18]. Not only was the attack unprovoked – it was targeted against the weak and the helpless, the stragglers at the back of the caravan. Rather than waging an honorable war for just cause, the Amalekites made a sneak attack on defenseless women and children, hence Moses’ comment: he did not fear God. It is obvious that the Amalekites were taking their orders from somewhere higher up, or rather from somewhere lower down. Since they were enemies of God, these soldiers were really in Satan’s army, and Satan was determined to prevent the Israelites from ever reaching the Promised Land. For centuries he had kept them in bondage to Pharaoh. Now that tyranny was over, but Satan thought perhaps there was something else he could do to ambush the plan of salvation. So he enticed the Amalekites to attack the Israelites at Rephidim. To see how this relates to our own spiritual experience, remember that the Israelites were already saved. They had been delivered from their bondage back at the Red Sea. On that occasion they had not taken up arms against their oppressors. This was because they had someone to fight for them. So Moses had given them these orders: Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent [Ex. 14:13,14]. The God of Israel won their salvation all by Himself, as He always does. Israel’s survival was at stake once again at Rephidim, only this time the Israelites did have to stand and fight. Not only were they fighting in self-defense, but they were also waging a holy war in which they were fighting for the glory of God. This was the first of many battles that God’s people would fight before completing their conquest of Canaan. They had been saved out of Egypt by the strong arm of God. Now they were bound for the Promised Land, and they worked out their salvation by defeating the enemies they met along the way. Israel’s encounter with the Amalekites is a picture of the church in its spiritual warfare. This battle is another Old Testament type – a Biblical event that shows the pattern of our life in Christ. The attack was a historical event that pointed to a higher spiritual reality. We have been delivered from the Egypt of our sin, and now we are heading for the land of glory. Our ultimate victory is certain because Jesus won the crucial battle when He died on the cross. Now everyone who comes to faith in Christ is free from the powers of death and Hell. However, the enemies of Christ have not yet surrendered; so on our pilgrimage we continue to be ambushed by Satan. We are engaged in a constant spiritual struggle to resist temptation and carry on with the work of Christ and His gospel. The attacks we face are often sudden, but unlike the wars of the Old Testament, they are spiritual, not physical. The Scripture says that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places [Eph. 6:12]. Our real enemy is not other people, whether outside or inside the church. If we see them as our spiritual opponents, then we will end up demonizing them, and we will also fail to sense our own great danger of falling into sin. Our real enemy is Satan himself, with all his unholy helpers. Even after we are saved, they keep attacking us in the hope that we will do something to dishonor God and thus rob Him of His glory.
The Prophet at Prayer. How can we fight back: How do we engage the enemy? We know that Jesus Christ must win the war, but what is our part in helping to wage it? We join the battle the same way that Moses did: through prayer. It is by persevering and prevailing in prayer that we are victorious on the battlefield of sin and temptation. The Israelites fought their battle with real weapons. The next day they launched a counterattack [9,10]. This is the first time Joshua has been mentioned. Appropriately enough, his name means “the Lord is salvation.” Here he is introduced so matter-of-factly that the Bible seems to assume that we already know who he is. Joshua was Moses’ aide-de-camp, and when the Israelites went into battle, he was their field commander. First Joshua carefully selected Israel’s bravest warriors, and then he went down into the valley to fight. And he fought with real weapons, for the Scripture says, And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword . It was necessary for Israel to fight; God required the proper use of means. However, the victory did not depend merely on Joshua and his weapons. Rather, it depended on prayer: Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed . Before Israel’s counterattack, Moses had taken up his position on the hillside overlooking the battlefield. Where his only weapon was prayer. It is true that we do not know what Moses said while he was standing on the hillside. Nevertheless, his actions were an unmistakable sign of dependence upon God alone to win the battle. Moses was holding his staff, the instrument of divine power and the token of God’s covenant promises. By holding it up to Heaven, he was appealing for God to defend His people. Moses was also in the posture for prayer. He was standing with his arms raided up to God. The Israelites generally stood when they prayed, lifting their hands to offer their praises and their petitions up to God.
The Power of Prayer. God answers prayer. Moses saw this firsthand as he watched the battle unfold. As Joshua closed with the enemy, Moses went up the hillside and raised his staff. At first everything went in Israel’s favor. Things were going so well that prayer hardly seemed necessary; so Moses gradually lowered his staff. Then the fortunes of war seemed to turn. The Amalekites were gaining the upper hand. In desperation Moses lifted his staff ever higher, appealing to God for victory. But soon his arms grew tired. When he lowered his staff, the same thing happened again. As the battle went back and forth, eventually Moses figured out that what happened down in the valley depended on what he was doing up on the hillside. When his hands were up, Israel was winning; when his hands went down, they started to lose. Their success in battle depended on prayer. The same principle holds true for our own spiritual warfare. Our spiritual battles against the world, the flesh, and the devil are won and lost through the heavy artillery of prayer. This is why the Apostle Paul ended his famous teaching on the full armor of God by commanding Christians to be praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication [Eph. 6:18]. What happens when we do not pray? It is very simple: We start losing the battle, even if we have put on the full armor of God. We may be wearing the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. However, if we do not ask God to save us, we will not be able to make our stand against the devil. Instead we will be led away from the truth into error. We will give in to temptation. We will be dragged down into doubt and discouragement. This is true not only for individual Christians but also for the church. If we do not ask God to defend us, then our members will be divided, our leaders will fall into sin, our missionaries will fail to see any fruit, and the lost will not hear the gospel. Both individually and corporately, the neglect of prayer means the loss of spiritual warfare. Even if we fight like Joshua, we will not win the battle unless we pray like Moses. Why does it all depend on prayer? Why is prayer such an effective spiritual weapon? Why does it make the difference between victory and defeat? The answer is that God is the difference between victory and defeat, and it is by prayer that we depend on Him to win the battle. The victory depends on prayer because ultimately the victory depends on God. There is a lot of talk these days about the power of prayer. Some Christians think that prayer itself is the important thing. If only we pray long enough, hard enough, or often enough, then God will do what we want Him to do. The focus then becomes finding the right method for prayer. While it is good to pray early and often, the power of prayer is not the prayer itself, but the power of God. In prayer we acknowledge our absolute dependence on God to conquer the enemies of our faith. This means that like everything else in the Christian life, prayer is for the glory of God. The way it glorifies God is by showing that the victory belongs to Him alone.
The Banner of the Cross. Moses never forgot the way God answered his prayers, feeble though they were. To make sure that the rest of the Israelites remembered too, the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the member of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner [17:14-15]. The altar that Moses built was for God’s honor. It was not designed for atonement but for thanksgiving. By the grace of God Israel had won the battle, and the only proper way to respond was by giving praise back to God. The Israelites had worshiped God for their salvation back at the Red Sea. Now they needed to worship Him again, placing their thank offerings on Moses’ altar. This time they were not praising God for the great victory of their salvation. It was only a small victory along the pilgrim road, but it was still worthy of worship. We too should praise God not only for our salvation in Christ, but for every victory in our perpetual struggle against sin and temptation. The other thing that Moses did was to write a scroll of remembrance, which eventually became part of the first edition of the book of Exodus. He wrote a memorial inscription, a record of God’s victory in battle. This was important for two reasons. One is because the Israelites would meet the Amalekites again. When they did, they would need to remember that these people were their mortal enemies and that God had promised to destroy them for attacking His chosen people. Unfortunately, this was something the Israelites frequently managed to forget. There is another reason – a more important reason – why God had Moses record Israel’s victory over the Amalekites. He wanted His people to remember what He did for them, so that whenever they came under attack, they would look to Him for their salvation. Israel’s warfare was not over. They would have to fight many battles – spiritual and otherwise – before they reached the Promised Land, as well as within it. But if they remembered what happened at Rephidim, it would help them look to God for help. The Lord Is My Banner – that is how Moses summarized what Israel learned from their fight with the Amalekites. Here is another one of the divine names that God revealed during the exodus. A banner is a military standard, a piece of cloth bearing an army insignia and raised on a pole. Soldiers always look to their banner. It establishes their identity; it helps them know who they are. On the battlefield it also helps them keep their bearings and gives them courage and hope. As long as their banner is still flying, they know that the battle is not lost. Everyone has a banner, something they look to for identity and security. What is your banner? What is the emblem of your hope? Where do you look for courage in times of difficulty and despair? Moses had the best answer. He said, The Lord Is My Banner. The Lord is our banner too, but in a way that even Moses could hardly have imagined. The prophet Isaiah promised a day when the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal (banner) for the peoples – on him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious [Isa. 11:10]. Isaiah’s promise is now fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the root of Jesse – the son of David and the Son of God. Now He stands as a banner for God’s people, who rally to Him from every nation. The Bible does not say that Jesus has a banner; it says that He is the banner. It is by looking to Jesus that we are saved – specifically by looking to His cross. Jesus said, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life [John 3:14,15]. Jesus was lifted up on a cross to die for our sins. Now it is by looking to the crucified and risen Christ that we live. Our banner is the cross where He bled and died for our sins. Whenever we come under attack, Christ and His cross give us courage for the fight.” [Ryken, pp. 457-467].
Questions for Discussion:
- What spiritual lessons was God teaching His people on their journey in the wilderness? Our Christian life in this sinful world is often compared to a journey in the wilderness. How are you doing in learning the spiritual lessons God is teaching each of us?
- How is Israel’s encounter with the Amalekites a picture of the church in its spiritual warfare? How is this battle another Old Testament type – a biblical event that shows the pattern of our life in Christ?
- What means did God use in enabling the Israelites to defeat the Amalekites? What role did Joshua play? What role did Moses play? What do we learn here concerning God’s use of means in enabling His people to win their spiritual battles?
Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.
Exodus, Philip Ryken, Crossway.
Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, B & H Publishing.