Religious Wars
Deuteronomy 20:1-20
When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses, and chariots, and a people more than you, be not afraid of them…

We have in this chapter an instructive direction about the prosecution of a religious war. For, after all, war may be the only way of advancing the interests of nations. Disputes become so entangled, and great principles become so staked in the disputes, that war is welcomed as the one way to peace and progress. It is an awful expedient, but there are worse things than war. "Cowardice," said Rev. F. W. Robertson, of Brighton, "is worse. And the decay of enthusiasm and manliness is worse. And it is worse than death, ay, worse than a hundred thousand deaths, when a people has gravitated down into the creed that 'the wealth of nations' consists, not in generous hearts - 'Fire in each breast, and freedom on each brow' - in national virtues, and primitive simplicity, and heroic endurance, and preference of duty to life; - not in men, but in silk and cotton and something that they call 'capital.' Peace is blessed. Peace arising out of charity. But peace springing out of the calculations of selfishness is not blessed. If the price to be paid for peace is this, that 'wealth accumulate and men decay,' better far that every street in every town of our once noble country should run blood!" From the directions in the chapter before us, we learn such lessons as these -

I. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE CAUSE, AND NOT THE NUMBERS IN THE FIELD, IS TO BE THE FOUNDATION OF TRUST. The Jews were going into Palestine as the Lord's host, and, even though a minority sometimes, they were sure to win. "If God be for us, who can be against us?" was to be their ground of confidence. And our Lord contemplated the victory of a minority in his illustration about calculating the cost. "Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?" (Luke 14:31). A good cause, like a good king, is worth ten thousand soldiers (2 Samuel 18:3). David's great sin was trusting in numbers and not in God (2 Samuel 24:2, etc.).

II. A RIGHTEOUS CAUSE ADMITS OF THE WAR BEING ENTERED UPON RELIGIOUSLY. The priest was to give them an oration before the battle, showing that they were going to fight the Lord's battles, and that he would be with them (vers. 2-4). Of course, this has been imitated often by those who had not right on their side. Yet the hypocrisy of a party or people is in itself a testimony to the need for a religious spirit characterizing combatants. The most depraved feel somehow in the tremendous game of war that they are appealing to the God of battles, and should at least acknowledge him in entering the contest.

III. THE ARMY SHOULD BE WEEDED OF THE CAREFUL AND THE COWARDLY. Provision is here made for the dismissal home of those who are careworn about an undedicated habitation (ver. 5), or about a newly acquired vineyard (ver. 6), or about a betrothed wife (ver. 7), and also for the dismissal of those who are faint-hearted (ver. 8). The combatants should be as free as possible from care, and from the infection of cowardice. They might have sung, with the modern minstrels -

"We want no cowards in our band,
That from their colors fly;
We cell for valiant-hearted men,
Who're not afraid to die."

IV. IN ORDINARY CONQUESTS, PEACEFUL PROPOSALS ARE FIRST TO BE TRIED. (Vers. 10-15.) If these are entertained, well and good; if not, then the conquest will be all the surer of having shown the preliminary consideration. This was to regulate any foreign conquest into which they might be forced. When the victory was won, the male adult population were to be put to the sword, because they had forfeited their lives by rejecting the peaceful proposals; but the women and children and property were to be the prey of the invaders. We have here the suggestion of arbitration, from which much is properly hoped in mitigation of war.

V. BUT IN THE CONQUEST OF THE IDOLATROUS NATIONS OF CANAAN, EXTERMINATION WAS THE ONLY SAFETY FOR THE INVADING HOST. By their abominable idolatries they had forfeited all right to life, and their continued existence would only have been a snare to Israel. Children and women as well as adult males were to be included in the desolation. This apparently harsh decree has its counterpart still in the government of the world. A storm or pestilence does not respect children any more than men. It shows that the Great Ruler does not intend the present state of things to be final. A judgment to come is surely the logical lesson of such a feature of war and of providence. The innocent who suffer with the guilty shall get their compensation in the other life.

VI. THE RAVAGES OF WAR ARE TO BE KEPT WITHIN AS NARROW LIMITS AS POSSIBLE. This seems to be the lesson in this arrangement about the protection of fruit trees in the siege (vers. 19, 20). The future peaceful and prosperous state of things is to be considered, and no more harm done by the stress of war than is absolutely unavoidable. We have thus great principles applicable to all the warring period of human progress. Wars are still desperate remedies. A time is coming when "the war-drum shall throb no longer;" but meanwhile, let wars be prosecuted in a religious spirit and with all religious precautions, when they must be engaged in. A noble illustration of what may be done in war-time by Christian men is afforded by the "Christian Commission" in the United States. Its 'Annals,' written by Rev. Lemuel Moss, Home Secretary of the Commission, Philadelphia, 1868, form a handsome volume of 752 pages, which amply repay perusal. We must fight for principle, if we cannot secure its triumph by more peaceful means; but one day all will submit to it, and war be needed no longer. May God hasten the happy day! - R.M.E.

Parallel Verses
KJV: When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

WEB: When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and see horses, and chariots, [and] a people more than you, you shall not be afraid of them; for Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

Military Service to be Voluntary
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