Exodus 17(08–16)


Last week we were looking at the passage which runs from verse 22 of chapter 15 to verse 7 of chapter 17 and which contained the stories of how the Lord provided the Israelites with food and water in the wilderness. Do you remember? For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water. Then, when they came to Marah, there was bitter disappointment because the water there was bitter. And the people grumbled, but the Lord showed Moses a piece of wood; and when he tossed the wood into the water, the bitter water became sweet and they had water to drink. Then, a month after leaving Egypt, their food ran out. And they began to grumble because they had no food, whereas in Egypt they sat around pots of meat and had all the food they wanted. But the Lord provided them with food: quail to eat that evening and then the next morning, and throughout the next forty years, there was manna for them to eat.

And then after that, they again grumbled and complained because once again there was no water. And this time the Lord told Moses to strike a rock with his staff; and when he did so, water came out of the rock. And so, the Lord provided for them: he provided water for them to drink and he provided food for them to eat. And do you remember? I said that they were living in the in-between time. The in-between time, which is the time in between their deliverance from Egypt and their arrival in Canaan. The Lord had brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea. He was going to lead them to the Promised Land of Canaan, and to the temple in Jerusalem, which was God’s holy dwelling place. That’s where they were heading. That was their destination. But they weren’t there yet. So, they were living in the in-between time, which was a time of testing for them, to see whether they would trust and obey the Lord. But it was also a time when they would see how the Lord was willing and able to provide for them all that they needed, as they made their way to the place God had prepared for them, where they could enjoy the presence of the Lord in their midst.

And I said how their experience in the wilderness points forward to our experience, because we too are living in the in-between time. The Israelites were freed from Egypt on the night the Passover Lambs were killed. And Jesus Christ, who is the true Passover Lamb, has died to purchase our freedom, because he died to free us from our sin and misery. And just as the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, leaving behind their old life as slaves to start a new life of freedom, so we have passed from death to life through faith in Christ, leaving behind our old life without Christ to begin a new life with Christ.

And just as the Israelites were heading for the Promised Land of Canaan and to the place God had chosen for his holy dwelling place, so we are looking forward to coming into God’s holy dwelling place in the life and in the world to come. But we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet. We’re only pilgrims on the way, living in this in-between time. And in this in-between time, we’re to trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Bread of Life who has come down from heaven to give us life. And he is able to supply us with everything we need, everything we need, to keep going along the narrow path that leads to everlasting life in the presence of the Lord.

And now we come to today’s passage, which shows us that living in the in-between time also means being involved in a conflict with forces who are against us and who want to prevent us from reaching God’s holy dwelling place.

The Text

In verse 8 we read that the Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites. Who were these people? Well, Amalek was a grandson of Esau. We learn that back in Genesis 36:12. You’ll remember that Esau was Jacob’s twin brother, the one who was tricked out of his father’s blessing by his brother’s cunning. And afterwards, he hated his brother so much that he wanted to kill him. So Jacob had to flee for his life. Well, it seems the rivalry between the two families continued, because here now we have the descendants of Esau who have come to attack the descendants of Jacob. And this is only the first of many occasions when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, because we read about them again in Numbers 14 at the time when the Israelites tried to force their way into Canaan against the will of the Lord.

And Moses warned them that they would not succeed, because the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face them and defeat them. Then they’re mentioned in Judges 3 where we have the king of Moab joining forces with the Ammonites and the Amalekites to attack Israel. And they’re mentioned a few other times in the book of Judges and they continued to attack the Israelites in the days of Saul and David. And, in fact, Haman from the book of Esther who plotted the extermination of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire, was descended from Amalek, because Haman was an Agagite, and Agag was king of the Amalekites. And here now, in Exodus 17, they attacked the Israelites.

In verse 9 Joshua is mentioned for the first time. Eventually he will succeed Moses as the leader of God’s people; but for now, he seems to have been Moses’s assistant. And Moses asked him to go and choose some men to fight against the Amalekites. Now, we need to be careful not to misunderstand what Moses was asking. When you first read what Moses says, it sounds as if there were many men among the Israelites who were capable of fighting the Amalekites, but only some of them were needed. So, we imagine they had an army of many thousands, but only a few good men were needed on this occasion. But that’s not really what Moses was saying. He was really saying to Joshua:

Go and see if you can find any men who can fight.

The Israelites — remember? — were not soldiers. They had been slaves all the lives, working in the fields and in the buildings sites of Egypt. They were not trained in how to use swords and spears; and they had no experience of this kind of thing. So, Joshua was being asked to go and see if any of them are able to put up a fight against the Amalekites. And then Moses adds:

Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.

And so, in verses 10 to 13 we have an account of the battle. But it’s very odd, isn’t it? The focus is not so much on what happened down on the plain, where the Israelites faced the Amalekites; no, the focus is very much on what happened on top of the hill, where Moses stood, with his hands held up, helped by his brother, Aaron, and this other man called Hur. And we read that so long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning. But whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. And so, when Moses’s arms grew tired — and if you’ve ever had to change a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, or if you’ve ever painted a room and you’ve had to hold your hands above your head, you’ll know how quickly your arms become tired — so when Moses’s arms grew tired, he sat down on a rock, and Aaron and Hur helped to hold his hands up so that his hands remained steady until sunset. And in that way, Joshua with his ragbag army of Israelites defeated the Amalekites. We’re told almost nothing about what the army did, or how they overcame their enemies; all the focus is on what was happening on the top of the hill where Moses stood with the staff of the Lord in his hands.

And then in verses 14 to 16 we read several things. First of all, the Lord commanded Moses to write down on a scroll what had taken place so that it would be remembered. So, the Lord wanted a record kept of this battle. Secondly, there’s that little note about making sure Joshua hears it. And, of course, that’s an indication that Joshua was already earmarked as the one who would take over from Moses. And thirdly, the Lord adds that he wants Joshua to hear about it, because the Lord was going to blot out the memory of the Amalekites from under heaven. This nation who had attacked the Lord’s people for no good reason are going to be destroyed. And fourthly, we read that Moses built an altar to the Lord and called it, ‘The Lord is my Banner’. Well, the commentators explain that it’s possible, if not more probable, that the name of the altar should be ‘The Lord is my Signal Pole’. A signal pole was used in those days as a rallying point for armies. Today, we’d think about a flag. So, imagine an army, tired and weary and ready to give up, but the men manage to revive whenever they see their flag hoisted high; and they’re ready once more to press on against their enemy. So, Moses was saying that the Lord is the one who unites them together; and he’ll lead them to victory over their enemies. And the altar was built to signify that and to remind them of it.

And then, in verse 16 Moses said:

For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.

It’s not clear what Moses means. One option is that he means that hands have been lifted up to swear an oath concerning the destruction of the Amalekites. A second option is that he means the Amalekites lifted up their hands against the Lord whenever they attacked the Lord’s people. It could be either. In any case, the passage ends with the assurance that the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.

Holy War

As we turn now to consider the significance of this brief passage, I first want to say something about these battles which we meet in the Old Testament. As I’ve said before, in these days of Isis and jihads and genocide and terrorism, it’s very easy for us to become uneasy when we read about God’s people in the Old Testament fighting against and destroying the other nations. People complain that religions have caused so many wars; and so we get uneasy when we open the Bible and read about God’s people fighting wars against their enemies.

But one of the commentators (Douglas K. Stuart) has very helpfully provided a summary of what we might call rules for holy wars in the Old Testament. Many of the rules are found in Deuteronomy 20, but other rules and regulations turn up in other parts of the Old Testament. And it’s interesting, when we see these rules, to be reminded that Israel had no standing army. I was talking to someone only this past week who was telling me about various cuts which have been made in recent years to our own defence forces and how, if the Falkland War took place now, Britain would not be able to manage as they did before, because we don’t have the same number of ships and aircraft carriers and planes as before. But the Israelites had no standing army. If there was a battle to be fought, men had to be recruited and an army started from scratch. And if you were called up, you weren’t paid any salary, because it was considered an entirely voluntary service which you were offering to the Lord. And you weren’t normally allowed to take any plunder for yourself. Think of how Achan was punished because he took some of the plunder from Jericho for himself. It wasn’t allowed. And wasn’t that a good safeguard? If they were able to take the plunder for themselves, then we can imagine then wanting to attack more and more nations, because by doing so, they’d make themselves rich. But that was forbidden by the Lord. And you see, there were really only two reasons for going to war.

The first reason for going to war was in order to conquer the Promised Land. But do you remember? The nations who possessed the Promised Land were wicked. They were wicked people; and the Lord sent the Israelites against them in order to punish them for their wickedness. So, it was an act of judgment on them, and not an act of terrorism. And, of course, in due course, the Lord sent other nations against the Israelites to punish them for their wickedness. So, the Lord used these wars to punish the nations for their sin.

And then the second reason for going to war was to defend themselves against other nations who were attacking them. And that’s what we find here in Exodus 17. The Israelites had done nothing to provoke this battle; and the Amalekites had no good reason for attacking them. But because the Amalaketes attacked them, the Israelites were permitted to defend themselves.

Those were the two reasons for going to war. And there were all these rules and regulations in the Old Testament to control what the Israelites could and couldn’t do so that they did not terrorise the nations, but only did what was according to the will of the Lord. But, of course, and I’ve said this before, whenever we read about these wars and how the Lord enabled his people to destroy their enemies, it foreshadows the great and terrible Day of Judgment, when the Lord Jesus Christ will come in power and glory to judge the nations and to punish all people everywhere for all that they have done wrong and for all the ways they have fallen short of doing his will. All of these wars which we read in the Old Testament foreshadow the Day of Judgment to come; and so they teach us why we need to repent and to believe the good news of salvation, because the only way to escape the wrath of God when he comes to judge the living and the dead is to believe in his Son, who died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment we deserve for our sins, so that all who believe in him will not be condemned — which is what we deserved, because all of us are sinners — but will have everlasting life. And so, since Jesus Christ is coming again to judge everyone who has ever lived, we need to repent and to believe in him in order to escape the wrath to come.

Moses and the Staff

These wars were tightly controlled and regulated; and all of these wars and battles foreshadow the coming Day of Judgment. The second thing for us to consider is the significance of what Moses was doing on the top of the hill.

Now, because Moses foreshadows and points to Christ, some interpreters have suggested that when Moses stretched out his arms on top of the hill, he was foreshadowing Christ who stretched out his arms when he was crucified on the hill of Calvary. And Aaron and Hur, standing on either side of Moses, represent the two criminals who were crucified next to the Lord Jesus. But that seems a fanciful interpretation which we can disregard.

A more popular interpretation is to say that Moses was stretching out his hands in prayer and supplication. And so, so long as he prayed, the Lord helped them to triumph over their enemies. But when he lowered his hands and stopped praying, their enemies had the upper hand. And so, this passage is designed to teach us the importance of prayer. Do we want to see Christ’s kingdom advance throughout the world? Well, we must pray as Moses did. Now, that’s true. We must pray and pray and pray again. If you read our church’s Larger and Shorter Catechisms, they explain that when the Lord Jesus taught us to pray and to say, ‘Your kingdom come’, we’re reminded of our duty to pray for the gospel to be spread throughout the world, and for us and for others to be brought into God’s kingdom of grace. And so, on Sundays, we pray together for the extension of Christ’s kingdom; and everyone is encouraged to come to the congregational prayer meeting on Wednesdays where we pray for the gospel to spread throughout the world. We must pray and keep praying for the Lord to deliver sinners from Satan’s tyranny and to bring them into his kingdom.

But is that the point of this passage? I don’t think so. In the previous passages — when they had no water at Marah; and when they had no food to eat; and when they again had no water — we’re told plainly how Moses cried out to the Lord in prayer. But prayer isn’t mentioned in today’s passage. The reason people think Moses was praying, was because he had his hands raised out. And we imagine him, standing with his hands raised to heaven, praying to the Lord. However, what we forget is that he was holding the staff in his hands. Look back to verse 9 where Moses told Joshua that he would be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in his hands. And then, after the battle was over, Moses called the altar ‘The Lord is my Signal Pole’. And he referred to the ‘Signal Pole’ because he had been holding a kind of pole in his hand. What was Moses doing on top of the hill? He was holding the staff of God in his hands. And when the staff of God was held high, the Israelites were winning. And when the staff of God was lowered, the Amalekites were winning.

What is the significance of the staff of God in his hand? It signified God’s powerful presence with them. Back in chapter 4, the Lord commanded Moses to take the staff so that he would be able to perform miraculous signs with it. And so, back in Egypt, Moses stretched it over the Nile, and turned the water into blood; and he struck the dust of the earth with it and turned the dust into gnats; and when he stretched the staff up towards heaven, the Lord sent thunder and hail on the earth; and when he lifted it up over the Red Sea, the Lord divided the sea into two; and in the wilderness, when Moses struck the rock with it, water came from the rock. The staff signified God’s powerful presence with them. And so, today’s passage is to teach us that the only reason the Israelites were able to stand up to their enemies was because of God’s powerful presence with them. When the staff was stretched out, it represented how God was fighting for them. When the staff was lowered, it represented that God was no longer fighting for them. So, whether they won or whether they lost, had nothing to do with the skill or the expertise or the strength of Joshua and his men; whether they won or lost was due to God’s power and might and whether or not he was for them or against them.

And so, as the Israelites began their journey, as they set off as pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land, living in the in-between time, they had to learn the lesson that they were to look to the Lord and trust in him for his help, because he is the one who is mighty to save. And just as he provided them with water, and just as he provided them with food, so he would provide them with protection from their enemies, because the Lord was committed to doing all that he promised, and he would do all things necessary to bring his people into the promised land he had prepared for them so that they could enjoy his presence in their midst.

And we need to learn that lesson too, because as those who live in the in-between time, as those who are pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life, we need to remember and believe that we’re to look to the Lord Jesus Christ for the help and strength we need, because there are still many enemies in our way. There’s the unbelieving world, and the pressure we face from it to conform to its ways and to become just like it. There’s sin living inside each one of us, like an unwanted guest who will not leave us alone, but who is always trying to get us to do what’s wrong. And then there’s the Devil himself, that roaring lion who is looking for people to devour and who uses all kinds of wicked schemes to trip us up or to lead us astray or to cause us to despair.

And so, every day we need to take our stand against the world, the flesh and the Devil; we need to stand firm against them when they attack us. We need to be constantly alert to be able to withstand their temptations. And we’re to do it in the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the one who is mighty to save. And just as we’re to look to the Lord Jesus, the Bread of Life, to sustain us on the way, so we’re to look to him to protect us on the way. And if we trust in him, if we rely on him each day, we can be confident that he will protect us for all harm, because he is committed to doing all that he has promised, which is to bring all of his people into the place he has prepared for us in the life and in the world to come, where we will enjoy the presence of God for ever and for ever.

But the secret is to trust in the Lord and to rely on him, because as soon as we go astray from him, or look to someone else for the strength we need, then we’ve cut ourselves off from the one person who is mighty to save.

From generation to generation

Let me close with one last point. The Lord wanted Moses to re-assure Joshua that the Lord would blot out the Amalekites. But at the same time, there was the announcement at the end that the Lord would be at war against them from generation to generation. And, you see, that was an indication that though they were headed for the Promised Land of Canaan, which was to be a land flowing with milk and honey, nevertheless, the land of Canaan would not be a place of peace and rest. In the land of Canaan, they would still have to put up with their enemies, and they would still have to fight to defend themselves, and there would still be trouble and strife.

And so, if they were counting on finding eternal peace and rest in Canaan, they would be disappointed. For that, they would have to look upwards and forwards to heaven, because only in life and in the world to come would they find eternal peace and rest. And it’s the same for us. The Christian life, life in the in-between time, is a life of conflict against the temptations of the world and the flesh and the devil. Everyday we must fight with the strength the Lord provides. And we’re mistaken if we think we can ever rest in this life. But we have the promise, the sure and certain hope, that in the life and in the world to come, there will be perfect peace and rest. There will be no more sorrow or sadness, trouble or pain; there will be no one to hurt us or harm us; there will be no one to tempt us. Right now, as pilgrims on the way, living in the in-between time, we need to fight against sin and temptation with the strength the Lord provides. And as we fight against sin and temptation, we’re to look forward to that eternal peace and rest which we’ll find one day in the presence of the Lord.