Kevin DeYoung / Jun 12, 2016 / Exodus 17:8-16
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
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.” Exodus 17:8-16
As I’ve said many times, Exodus is about the God who makes himself known: first to Moses, then to Pharaoh, then to the Egyptians, and now to the nation of Israel. We’ve been following Israel as they make their journey from the Red Sea (Exodus 14) to the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). We’ve seen a new lesson at each new stage of the journey. These lessons often need to be repeated and reinforced, for (like many of us) the Israelites were slow to learn and quick to forget.
The Israelites were at Rephidim when we came to Exodus 17, but by the end of the chapter the place was renamed “Massah and Meribah”—“Testing-ville and Quarrels-burg”. They’re still there, and for the first time since crossing the Red Sea, they face opposition from without instead of within.
Might there be a lesson for us there? Though the church of Jesus Christ will have opposition from without, the first obstacle we face is our own hardness of heart. The biggest threat to the church in any generation is not the government, some other religion, or enemies of the faith, but us. It’s our own waywardness, wandering, and hardheartedness—our love affair with sin. Well, here we finally move from inside finally to outside. Opponents are amassing outside the camp.
The Red Sea was the place of salvation. Marah was the place of testing and bitterness. Elim was the place of rest. The Wilderness of Sin, with the manna and quail, was a place of provision. Massah and Meribah was a place of warning. And now Rephidim is going to be a place of battle. Here again, God has something to teach his people.
Remember how, in Exodus 3, God revealed his name to Moses. Moses asked, “Who are you? Who should I say sent me to the people?” And he said, “I will give you my name—the divine name: YHWH. Jehovah. I am who I am.” That’s his name. Here we have a variation on that name. In fact, it’s the first (or perhaps the second) time in Israel’s wandering that they have received a new name from God. I say it may be the second because Exodus 15:26 ends by saying, “I am the LORD, your healer”—“YHWH rōp̄ə’eḵā”—which may be just a statement or may be a divine name.
In Exodus 17:15, the Lord reveals a name again. Moses is the one who announces the name, but it’s clearly an accurate description of all that God has proven against the Amalekites” “The God of the Hebrews is “YHWH nissî”—“The LORD Is My Banner.”
When we were in England, we took a tour of the Parliament building. There are all these paintings in it that show great battle scenes and events in British history. There was a hallway, bigger than this whole sanctuary, that had one wall painted with the British beating the French in some great battle. Our guide said, “Well, when the French come here, we have to cover it up.”
Then he showed us down another hall, and another gentleman said, “This is a very key painting right here.” Most Americans walking by wouldn’t pay attention to it. It’s not a scene of violent struggle. It’s a painting of King Charles I raising his standard (the military flag or banner) at Nottingham, with his arm around his son (who would be Charles II). Why was that so significant? Because Parliamentary forces had taken control of London and the surrounding counties—and a little bit to the north, in Nottingham, was the king and his army. In raising the standard, he was declaring war upon his own people. And so they mark August 24, 1622 as the beginning of the English Civil War.
So picture “Jehovah nissî”—“The LORD is My Banner”. When you hear “banner”, you may think of something that pops up on your computer, an advertisement on the side of a bus, or a nice, artistic accent piece—but “banner”, in verse 16, is a military term. It’s the signal pole around which the army can be gathered, regathered, or regrouped. “Here is our banner. In the midst of the fight, if there is a retreat, you come here. When we get our marching instructions and advance, you gather here.” Raising up the banner says, “The Lord will fight. We rally to him. We fight for him, and he fights for us.”
We’d all like to travel from the Red Sea (salvation) to the Promised Land. We’d like it to be a very short trip. If we have to stop anywhere between the Red Sea and the Promised Land, we’ll sign up for Elim. “Okay, God. We volunteer to be counselors at that campsite. That’s where we want to go.” That was the place with the 70 palm trees and the 12 springs, which was representative of fullness and rest: 12 tribes of Israel, and 70 elders. “It’s going to take a while to get to the Promised Land. We’d all like to camp at Elim. It’ll be a nice resort. We’ll read our Bibles and sing some songs, but we’ll hang out at Elim.” But of course, they didn’t stay there for very long. That’s not the reality.
You are going to have battles. The New Testament tells us to fight the good fight, to share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Of course, it’s transposed in the New Testament. We don’t fight physical battles as the church. Jesus told Peter to put away his sword. Paul says our battle is not against flesh and blood. We’re not to rally to our guns, tanks, and swords as a church.
But the battles are real, nonetheless. I’m sure every one of you could think of opponents, enemies, and struggles. Perhaps it’s very obvious: people in your life who don’t like you or what you stand for. The boss doesn’t like that you’re a Christian. Your students don’t like that you’re a Christian. Your family hates that you’re a Christian.
Maybe you see theological trenches in your life. There are difficult issues to sort through, and you see people wandering and wavering. Maybe it’s your own unbelief, your own struggle to believe the promises of God, or your own doubts and fears. Maybe it’s your temptation to seek revenge, to seek a name for yourself, to sexual impurity, to hold on to bitterness, to refuse to forgive, or to believe the worst about people. It does make it easier in life to believe the worst about people. You just move on in your merry way, assuming the worst about everyone.
Or maybe it’s your temptation to blame other people for your problems, to hold a grudge, to close your heart, or to fight the way that the world fights. Ultimately, the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, against spiritual forces of evil at work in the world and in our own hearts, sadly.
In the midst of all of this stands YHWH nissî: “The LORD Is My Banner.” There are three lessons today: (1) We need to fight, (2) We need each other, and (3) We need the Lord if we are to prevail.
We Need to Fight
The Amalekites were preying on a people that were weak and not battle-tested. Who were the Amalekites? Amelak was Esau’s grandson (Genesis 36:12), so these are distant relatives of the Israelites. As far as we can tell, they lived by attacking other people and plundering their wealth. There’s a story in Judges 3 where Eglon, the king of Moab, joins forces with the Ammonites and the Amalekites to attack the Israelites. They had no fear of God before their eyes.
We get a further description in Deuteronomy 25:
“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. Deuteronomy 25:17-18
That gives you a little more insight into their method. Maybe they were nervous that these people were going to take their land; or maybe they heard that they had water from a rock and that sounded good to them; or maybe they were just a rapacious sort of people looking to plunder the weak. But they saw this whole nation. They’ve been slaves. They’re looking for food and drink. They’re wandering around. They don’t have a place of their own. They are tired, haggard, and weary.
Then you hear Deuteronomy: they cut off their tail. They made some sort of movement, militarily, to cut off part of the trailing Israelite camp. They went to those who were lagging behind. No doubt, they came to the part of Israel where the elderly, the infirm, the pregnant or nursing women, and children were lagging behind in the marching nation. The Amalekites said, “That’s where we are going to strike—the low hanging fruit.” They had no fear of God before their eyes.
A year later, Israel was denied access into the Promised Land because they didn’t believe that God could defeat the giants there. But they said, “We’re going to go up and fight anyway,” and the Amalekites routed them at Hormah. But this first battle will be a triumphant one for Israel.
Look at verse 9: “…Moses said to Joshua…” We haven’t heard about Joshua before. There’s no introduction to him, so he must have been a very well-known person when this was written. Indeed he succeeds Moses 40 years later.
“Joshua, you need to find some soldiers.” Look, they had not done this before. Not one of the more than 2 million people had fought in a war or a battle. They had been slaves. Slavery was terrible, but you didn’t go out and fight battles. You stayed back and built storehouses for Pharaoh. So he’s got to go find some men. What he was probably looking for was: “Can you walk? Are you strong? Are you of age? Do you have a sword? Do you have something sharp and pointy? Do you have anything you can do?” They had to fight.
Listen, we don’t want to get too clever with analogies, but you really can map Christian experience and theology onto Israel’s journey here. Justification is when we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Regeneration is new birth, when God sovereignly, supernaturally, and without any work on our part causes us to be born again.
At the beginning of their journey, at the Red Sea, what did Israel have to do? Nothing! They had to have faith, but faith was just the instrumental cause of their salvation. Faith was what got them walking through the walls of water on either side. But God didn’t say, “Turn around, pick up your swords, and fight the Egyptians.” He didn’t say, “After 400 years, if you have accrued enough spiritual points in my book, then I’ll set you free.” No, God unilaterally said, “You’re my people. I’m going to save you. I will fight for you. I will make the water stand up. I will drown the Egyptians. You just have to have faith and walk.” That’s salvation, justification, and regeneration. God says, “You are my people. I choose you. Believe. Repent. You’ll be saved!” “What do I have to do?” “Believe!”
That’s not all for the Christian life. Now they have to fight. It still takes faith, but also action and energy. This is no “Let go and let God” theology. This is not sanctification by faith alone. There are times when God will say, “I’m going to do it all. Just march around the city and play your musical instrument, and the walls will come down.” But there are also lots of times in the Old Testament, when God says, “I’m going to do this, but I’m going to do it through you. You have to get up and fight.”
I love this line from J.C. Ryle. “The Christian is known by two great marks: his inner warfare and his inner peace.” God did not tell the Israelites, “Work hard and I’ll set you free from Egypt,” but neither did he tell them, “I love you and I set you free by my grace. Now I want nothing more than that you settle down at Elim, enjoy the palm trees, and just believe and remember what I did. All the rest will just happen automatically.”
It is consistent with the witness of the New Testament that Christian discipleship requires effort. Romans 8:13 tells us that by the Spirit, we must put to death the things of the flesh. Ephesians 4 tells us to put off the old self and put on the new. Ephesians 6 tells us to put on the full armor of God and stand fast against the devil. Colossians 3 tells us to put to death what is earthly in us. 1 Timothy 6:12 tells us to fight the good fight! Luke 13:24 tells us to strive to enter the narrow gate.
Again, do you see our Christian experience all throughout this journey? God is teaching them something, and he wants to show us something. This is what it is like when you follow God. He does all of this for you. He saves you. But then, before you get to the Promised Land, you have a lot to learn. You are going to have times when you feel hungry, tired, and thirsty—when you wonder what God is going to do and you start to grumble and complain. Then you have some fighting to do.
The fighting that Israel was to do wasn’t to somehow prove their merit to God—where God would say, “Well, if you can wield a sword, then I’ll allow you into the Promised Land.” Our effort is not self-justifying, but let’s not be more gospel-centered than the Bible. We’re not afraid of words like “striving”, “fighting”, “effort”, and “work”. These are Bible words too. The gospel that frees us from self-justification also frees us from cowardice and fear. “You need to get up. Joshua, I want you to find us some men.”
Some of us, I think, would say to Moses, “Wait a second. God’s got plagues, right? He can do the whole plague thing. You’re tight with YHWH. Tell him to make—I don’t know, frogs with spikes and fire balls or something. Mix it up a little bit. Let’s get plagues 1, 3, and 7 and have blood shooting out of their eyes. Just call up one of those. Aren’t there spells or something? You’ve seen Harry Potter. You just say something and it comes right down.”
Of course, that’s not the way that the Christian life works. “I’m going to fight for you. The victory will be mine, but Joshua, you need to get some soldiers ready. You have a day to do it. You need to get out there and fight.” I wonder if some of us are at the place where we think “I didn’t sign up for this.” It’s what the Lord signed you up for. You need to fight.
We Need Each Other
Verses 11-13 are a wonderful picture, familiar to many of us. Moses is on the mountain. When he lifts up his hands, Israel wins. When he lowers his hands, the Amalekites win. Moses realizes, “This is hard.”
Have you ever tried to hold your hands up? Don’t do it right now, but you get tired. When I was in high school, I volunteered in our children’s church. In our children’s church—I’m not telling Dave to get any ideas here—we had puppets, and so sometimes I’d be a puppeteer. Do you know how hard that is? Man, you’ve really got to work out to do puppets. And I would feel my arm and think, “How do people do this for a long time?” You’ve really got to practice. You’ve got to lower the bottom part of its mouth only. There was a lot to it—and I’m not ripped, per se (more like geared for long-distance), so it was tiring.
So I sympathize here. Any of us do. Moses realized that this was really important. This wasn’t puppets, but God’s people either winning or losing. So he needed help.
Aaron and Hur are up there. Aaron, you know, is his older brother. I think Aaron was a good older brother. To older brothers here: some of you say, “I’d keep my hands up. Come on, Moses. Let me give it a shot here.” He understands the authority. He understands who Moses is. The Lord has called him here to be the leader. “Moses, you need a rock. You need to sit down.”
And he’s got Hur. We don’t know a lot about this person. There are some references to Hur later in the Old Testament, whether it’s to the same person or not. There is one curious reference that Josephus (the first-century Jewish historian) makes. He says that Hur married Miriam. We have no way of confirming that, but it would make sense that we have Moses’ brother and his brother-in-law up here on the mountain.
They were there to help. That’s what we do. In Luke 22:32, Jesus told Peter, “Go and strengthen the brothers.” In Acts 18:23, Paul traveled back and strengthened all the disciples. In Romans 1:11, he said, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—”. In 1 Thessalonians 3:2, he said, “We sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage you in the faith.” This is what we do as Christians. We strengthen each other and hold up each others’ arms.
I’m sure there are many of you who feel like, “I get it, Moses. I don’t know how much longer I can keep up with the regular stuff of work, kids, cleaning, bills, and good old-fashioned fatigue and lack of sleep.” You just feel exhausted.
Then you add to it what some of you are facing. Marriages fall apart. People betray you and leave you. People hurt you. You have a fear of the unknown. You’re looking for a job or a spouse. You have doubts—or cancer. “I don’t know how long I can keep my arms up. I need an Aaron and a Hur.”
Some of you feel this very poignantly. You’re too weary to parent, to stick with your spouse, to keep working at the same relationship, to make it through another week, or to keep pushing. And then it gets very dangerous: you’re too weary to hope and pray.
We need each other. We need people to say, “I’ll pray for you when you run out of prayers. I’ll keep praying for that when your prayers have turned into anxiety.” Do you ever have that with your prayers? You’re trying to pray, and all you’re really doing is cycling through the same set of circumstances again and again, and all the what-ifs, unknowns, and bad things that could happen. Even Paul prayed three times for that thorn in the flesh to be removed, and then he said, “Okay, I’m just going to leave it up to God’s grace.” Sometimes you have to say, “I don’t even know if I can pray about this particular thing anymore. Would you hold up my arms?”
God is calling some of you this week to be Aaron and Hur. God wants others to admit that they are Moses in this moment. Sometimes it’s harder to admit that you are Moses—not the one who sends the plagues and leads the people. We love that Moses. But what about this Moses? Can you admit, “I can’t keep my hands up by myself anymore. I can’t do it”?
That’s hard for people like us. We like to think of ourselves as pretty accomplished people. There are a whole lot of degrees you could accumulate in this room—things that we’ve done for ourselves. We know how to fix things and do things. What about when you can’t? Are you willing to send out an email, a text, or a phone call to the Aarons and the Hurs in your life, and say, “I can’t keep my hands up anymore by myself. Could you get a rock and hold up my arms?” Would some of you have the humility to admit that that’s where you are at, and to ask somebody for help? Tell somebody about your weakness. Let someone enter into what you are struggling with.
Then there is the other side. All of us are going to be Moses on the mountain at some point, and all of us are going to be called to be Aaron and Hur at some point. We don’t know if Moses said, “Hey, bro! Get me a rock!” or if Aaron just said, “Moses doesn’t look so good right now.” If you see somebody struggling to stand up, go do something about it!
Don’t say, “Well, nobody ever asked.” Asking is hard. “Nobody ever said that they needed anything. I told her, ‘Hey, if you need anything, let me know.’” They never let you know when you say that. They should, but they don’t. You don’t have to go up after the service and say, “Hey, I really listened to Pastor’s message. Your life is falling apart. What can I do?” But you can say, “I’ve been thinking about and praying for you.” Or “I want to pray for you. I love you. I’ve just heard a little bit about what you are going through. That must be really hard.” Or “How’s it going with caring for your mom or dad, or for all those kids, or for whatever? Is there anything I can do this week to lift up your hands?”
If nothing else, they may say, “Thank you, but just pray for me.” But maybe there is something else. What will you do this week to say, “Friend, you’re going through a lot. I want to help”? Or, as Moses, to say, “I’m tired. I can’t keep this up. I need somebody to come around me and hold me up because I can’t do it anymore and I got a lot of people counting on me—a lot of kids. A lot of people. A lot of ministries. A lot of things. If these hands to start falling down, sin starts coming in, and I start faltering and give up, that’s going to be bad. Would you help me?”
We Need the Lord
We need to fight, but (thankfully) we don’t do it alone. We need each other and, even better, we need the Lord if we are to prevail. He says to Moses (verses 14-16), “Remember this. I want you to write it down.” I read in one of the commentaries—and I believe this is correct—that this is the first time in the Bible that there are instructions to write something down.
This is also the first time that an altar is built in Exodus. There are altars that Noah built. Abraham and Jacob built them in Genesis. But this is the first time in Exodus. An altar is a way of saying, “Here is the Lincoln Memorial. Here is the Vietnam Memorial. Here is Thomas Jefferson. Here is George Washington. Here are the sites. You can go through Birmingham and see the Civil Rights Movement. Here is where we memorialize difficult, triumphant moments in our history.” So they built an altar to observe it and remember it.
You know, the Amalekites are the only people in the Pentateuch that the Israelites fight against successfully. They peaked early. It wasn’t because God wasn’t with them. It was because they started to forget about who God was. The lesson here is that YHWH nissî was not one whom they took to heart.
It won’t be very long from now that Israel will be ready to go into the Promised Land. They will see giants and all sorts of strange, scary people there, and they will say, “We can’t do this.” They’ll forget that YHWH nissî can do it. Yeah, you need to fight, but it’s not up to you. God says, “I’ll take care of the Amalekites. Look, I took care of Egypt. That’s the superpower. Why are you scared about the Amalekites?” It may sound harsh to us for him to say, “I’ll blot out their name. I’ll be at war with them.” Remember that the Amalekites were doing some nasty stuff. These aren’t innocent people that are roaming around. These are people that are looking to plunder the Israelites—in particular, the elderly, the infirm, the women, and the children.
What God says is, “Look, I’ll take care of the Amalekites. Just walk with me. Don’t worry about them.” You know the point of the staff that Moses raised to heaven? A lot of people make it a sermon about prayer, and there are applications for prayer. We don’t know if Moses was praying. He’s got his hands up there, and he’s with Aaron and Hur. I imagine they prayed. But the point of the staff is about the power of God. That’s why we have this strange language in verse 16: “A hand upon the throne of the LORD!” It’s as if to say, “When I raise the staff heavenward, it was as if I laid hold of the throne room of heaven, and YHWH himself came down to fight for us.” That is the power of prayer: to reach into heaven, and heaven to reach down to us with divine power.
Think of the staff. It’s God’s power. Think of how it had been used. Moses threw it on the ground; it became a snake and ate up Pharaoh’s snakes. It touched the Nile River, which became blood; and then made it clean. It hit the rock, and water came gushing out. This staff is a picture of God’s power. Calvin says, “That single rod was of more avail than as if they had gone into the field preceded by a thousand banners.” If Joshua had said, “We don’t know how to fight. We’re not trained soldiers. We don’t have a thousand regiments”, Moses could have said, “We have the staff.” Which is to say, “We have the Lord.”
You and I are going to have more battles, more enemies, and hard days. Hopefully, you’ll have some days at Elim with the palm trees and springs, and God will give you some manna from heaven when you need it. But you are going to have Rephidim and Marah. Every one of these wilderness stops, in some sense, is the same lesson: “You can trust me. You don’t know where you are going to eat? You can trust me. You’re thirsty? You can trust me. You have enemies? You can trust me.”
You know what next week’s lesson is going to be? Moses is saying, “There are too many people here.” “You can trust me. You need to appoint some other people. to be helpers.” Sometimes the hardest lesson is not that God can take care of our enemies, but that he can take care of his own people. He can conquer his enemies. That’s chapter 17. Or he can convert his enemies. That’s chapter 18, with Jethro saying, “YHWH is dynamite!”—this Midianite priest coming over to the Israelites’ side.
How do we demonstrate that we truly believe that the Lord is necessary for the victory and that the he is able to give it to us? We do the same thing Moses did: We lift our hands to heaven. “I don’t have the staff.” You’ve got better than a staff. You have Jesus Christ at the right hand of God, interceding for you. You don’t need a stick. You’ve got a Savior. Lift your hands to heaven and pray.
Whether Moses was praying or not, it’s absolutely a story about prayer. That’s how we lay hold of the throne room of heaven and get access to this divine power. When you don’t pray, you say, “I can do it and God can’t.” But when you pray, you testify, “I’m not able, but he is.”
You pray—and you gather around the cross. The cross is our banner. I don’t know how to say it in Hebrew, otherwise I’d give it to you, but “YHWH nissî of the cross”—the Lord on the cross is our banner. Isn’t that what Jesus said? “The Son of Man will be lifted up.” The cross is our standard, raised high! We rally to its side. We regroup at it. We gather around it. In the midst of the battle, we look to the cross. When assaulted with temptations, we flee to the cross. There we find courage for the fight and the rest that we need when we just can’t lift up our arms any longer. Even the Son of Man grew faint and tired and could no longer hold up his arms—and on the third day, God gave him the victory.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, for all of this we give thanks. We ask, pray, and plead that you would strengthen our hands; give us an Aaron and a Hur to gather around us; give us the humility to ask for their help; and most of all, turn our eyes toward Christ and the banner of the cross. In his name we pray, amen.