The Lord is My Banner
In the last two weeks, we have been in a series of sermons called Wilderness Lessons, which is based in the book of Exodus as God’s people had recently left Egypt in a miraculous way. The point of this series is to see exactly what God’s people were learning in that desolate wilderness and what lessons we can take as God’s people today. Up until this point, the lessons revolved around food and water and the grumbling of the people in response. This makes sense that in the desert people would become hungry and thirsty and then begin to complain. It is understandable that a myriad of people would begin to grumble and complain. However, what we see through those accounts is how God is training his people for greater obedience and to teach them that they are called to obey Him. In a sea of a thousand voices, it was God whom they were called to listen to and obey. This lesson of obedience, although it doesn’t seem to have always taken hold in their lives, will be a key part of Israel’s existence and sadly their destruction. Of course, these food lessons also taught that God would provide for them, which is also a critical lesson when wandering through the desert. Today, we will see another account from Exodus that also includes a lesson: The existence and preservation of Israel centered around God’s presence in their lives.
Read Exodus 17:8-16
So let’s just take a minute to put ourselves into the situation that the Israelites were currently in. They have been in the desert after a miraculous escape from Egypt. They have been thirsty, hungry, and thirsty again. They have seen the miraculous provision of God, they have been taught about obedience. They have grumbled and complained along the way. The last encounter, Moses striking the rock and having something to drink ended with a very important question that the people were asking as they were thirsty: “Is the Lord among us or not?” Not only are they physically thirsty and hungry, perhaps they are spiritually as well. They seemed disillusioned about all that was happening: Is God among us or not? In some ways, the water from the rock should be their answer but in just a moment, this question is going to be very relevant for their very lives.
The Amalekites were an interesting group of people with an interesting relationship with God’s people in the Bible. They can be traced back to Amalek who was a grandson of Esau, thus making the Amalekites the descendants of Esau. This is interesting because the conflicts between Jacob and Esau seem to carry on throughout history. They are a nomadic band of people who seemed to thrive on attacking others, perhaps for the plunder that they would receive. One commentator notes that they Amalekites were responsible for domesticating the camel and using the camel for their attacks (Stuart, New American Commentary, 393). There is no real provocation for their attack other than the possible idea that they were afraid that this large caravan of people would overrun or take over the areas that they operated in. A common strategy that they may have used would be to come up behind a group of people and pick off the stragglers (Cole, TOTC). Imagine that as the Israelites were caravanning through the desert, a huge number of people, the Amalekites were stalking them along the way. Perhaps as it began to get rocky, they were hiding out among the rocks… waiting, waiting, waiting. As the people were drinking water, perhaps a few hadn’t arrived or others were milling around but either way it may be that the Amalekites began to pick off their people and harass those not with the group. It appears that it wasn’t an all-out invasion yet because Moses had time to alert Joshua to build up an army. This is the first time that we hear of Joshua but we know that he will become a very important figure in the years to come, as an assistant to Moses and then as the man that would lead God’s people into the wilderness. Moses gathers Joshua and has him choose men that will fight. Likely, Joshua doesn’t have a lot of fighting men to choose from. Perhaps he had to search around to find anyone that could possibly meet the description of a fighting man. Joshua is recognized as a warrior early on and here he would bhe the man to train up a group of fighters. Not only does Moses tell Joshua to gather an army but he also gives part of his strategy, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be a strategy at all: “I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” This staff has been used mightily in the hands of Moses, ultimately by the hand of God. Recently to strike the rock to get water, but also to part the red sea and even during the plagues that God would bring on the Egyptian people. This staff would certainly produce a reaction from the people because if they have been paying attention at all, then they would know that this staff in the hands of Moses would be a powerful thing.
Joshua responds just as Moses tells him to and he begins to fight with the Amalekites. At the very same time, Moses is on top of a hill along with Aaron and Hur. We know that Aaron is the brother of Moses but we don’t know much about Hur, other than the fact that he is with Moses on this particular day. Hills and mountains are important in the Bible, as a place that God’s presence is particularly noticed. This hill would also have a strategic advantage, in that Moses could see the battle raging on and quite likely others could see him on the hill. Moses raises his hands, with the staff of God, which leads to the question: What do the raised hands mean? Is it prayer? A military reason? It could be either of those and perhaps related to that, I believe that is the reliance of Moses upon God Himself. As long as he has his hands raised he is depending on the power of God to fight his battles. Indeed, as his hands are up the Israelites prevail, and as they falter the Israelites begin to fade. The picture here is of a tightly contested battle, a back and forth, which could seem to go either way. In a stroke of brilliance and a beautiful picture, they have Moses sit on a rock, which would allow him to be lower so that Aaron and Hur could help keep Moses' hands in the air. This was quite a show of friendship and support and sure enough, it allowed the Israelites to prevail because Moses had his hands outstretched to God himself. The battle, no longer a tense back and forth becomes completely lopsided and the Israelites pull out the overwhelming victory. They didn’t just win, they overwhelmed the Amalekites.
As the battle is freshly won, perhaps as the wounded soldiers are coming back to camp, the Lord speaks to Moses. He tells him to “write this down,” which is the first time that we have this particular phrase. What is he going to write down? He wants him to write down that he will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek. In one sense, this writing down would be a memorial of what God had done in the lives of his people and what he will do in the future. If you stop and think, this is exactly what the Bible is for us today, isn’t it? The Bible itself is a memorial for all that God has done for his people throughout the ages, which is designed to give us comfort as we see the hand of God has been active for his people. Yet, it is also designed to tell us what will happen in the future. The Bible has, and always has had, a very important prophetic function for God’s people. It is not just a memory book but a book that is alive with a message to all of us about what will happen in the future. To be certain, God would wipe out the Amalekites later on.
Moses then goes and builds an altar. An altar would be a place to thank God for what he had done and for who He is. What did they say about God in this place? The Lord is my banner. The phrase in the Hebrew would be Yahweh-Nissi. What does that mean for the Lord to be our banner? This is likely, and appropriately, a military designation to refer to God. We may think of a banner like a long cloth flag, or something that we might hand between two poles. However, in this period a banner may be a long, large pole that would serve as a rallying point for soldiers to go to regroup and to receive further instructions from the commander. In the thick of the battle, a soldier may look up and would see the banner or the pole and would know that this was the place that he could go to. It represented the presence of those who would give him directions in the chaotic nature of war. Not only does Moses say that, but he says, a hand upon the throne of the Lord, which could further symbolize what Moses was doing, reaching out to God during the battle.
I want us to think back through to the idea of the Lord is my banner because I believe that there is a beautiful truth in there. For God’s people to know that the Lord is the banner is a reminder that the existence and preservation of Israel centered around God’s presence in their lives. Do you remember what they said in the previous account? Is the Lord among us or not? Now, in a powerful, miraculous way the people were reminded that the Lord is with them and His very presence with them is what brought them through the battle. What was the symbol of God’s presence? Moses standing there with the staff in his hands, a physical representation of a banner. Listen, the Israelites didn’t win because they were trained fighters. The Israelites didn’t win because Joshua was a great leader (which he was). The Israelites didn’t win because they came up with some sort of genius military strategy that would change the course of warfare for ages to come. No, the Israelites won the battle because God was with them. He was their rallying point. As long as God was there with them, they would have the victory. The victory belonged to the Lord.
I love this visual picture because I believe that it has extraordinary spiritual implications for all of us. The Lord’s presence in our lives is what brings victory and triumph over the difficulties and battles that we will face in life. The Lord is our banner, which means that he is our rallying point, the place that we go to receive rest, to receive instructions, and to receive encouragement to keep fighting in this life. Think about this: we have this promise that because of the Holy Spirit, we have God living in us right now, at this moment. His presence is always with us. However, sometimes we ignore this truth and instead of going to him, we keep trying to fight the battles in our own strength, in our own powers. Listen folks, we need to continually return to the banner, we need to continually step into his presence through prayer and meditating on His Word. Sometimes in the thick of war, when the battle is raging all around us, the fires are burning in our midst, we need to return to the banner and sit in the presence of the Lord. It is there that we will receive instruction. It is there that we will receive encouragement. It is there that we receive all that we need to continue living and persevering in this life. The Lord is our banner!
As I think about this passage, and the picture of the banner as a pole, I cannot help but think about the cross of Jesus Christ. The old rugged cross, sitting at the top of Golgotha, a hill outside of Jerusalem burns into my mind. On that cross Jesus himself died but he died as no ordinary person but he died as the Son of God. His was no ordinary death but the substitutionary death in which Jesus took our sin, our pain, our punishment on himself. I see the cross in all its glory, as the banner, the place of God’s presence. Since Jesus is the son of God, God in the flesh, to be with Christ and to be with God. I think of John 12:32 where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” That wonderful cross, almost two thousand years later is beckoning all people to come. The cross is a place of salvation where that lost soul, that person who does not know Christ, that man or woman who is lost in their sin and shame, that child who is beginning to feel the weight of their sin, that teenager who feels no purpose in life… the cross is the place where any person no matter their background can come and find peace! Peace first with God, and peace in this life. Come to the Cross and remember: The Lord is my banner!