“Keep yourself from every evil thing”—Deut. 23:9
Texts: Luke 3:9-15a; 2 Samuel 11:8-11
When the Revolutionary War began at Concord, the pastor there was asked was asked if his congregation was ready for the coming conflict. He replied stoutly, “This is what I have prepared them for.” I believe that his meaning was “I have prepared them to be godly soldiers and I have prepared them to fight the good fight of the faith.” I came to manhood in the days of the anti-war movement that surrounded the Vietnam War. The circumstances of the church in those days worked against the equipping of that generation to be godly soldiers—indeed, the idea that one could be godly and a soldier would have been considered a contradiction in terms.
Listening to the church in those days, you might have concluded that a Christian could not possibly be godly soldier. This opinion collided with another current of the church and culture in that day which encouraged men to surrender their manly virtues. The message was that men ought to be soft, nurturing and sensitive, not competitive, assertive and valorous. Warrior virtues were “out,” and caregiver/provider virtues were “in.” And, quite frankly, men were confused by the mixed messages they were receiving and, as the church became more feminized—both in terms of values and in terms of leadership (with women assuming the role of ministers and pastors)—the men left in droves. They concluded that church was a womanly thing, that Christianity and religion was not manly and so, irrelevant. They desired to be where men could be men, and where masculinity was openly demonstrated and valued. The intergenerational mentoring of fathers and sons fell off, and bonding, essential to a balanced manhood, ceased. Many men became silent partners in the religious upbringing of their children. Two things follow from this that are pertinent to the message today:
a. It is essential to sustain a culture that embraces and engenders wholesome manhood and womanhood.
b. It is equally important to prepare everyone for warfare in both the worldly and the spiritual realms.
Our text for today reads:
“When the host goeth forth against thine enemies, then keep thee from every wicked thing.”
This means that every impiety and injustice is to be shunned. The Hebraic warriors in Old Testament times purified themselves before going into battle. They abstained from fornication and maintained such sexual purity that while the conflict continued; they would not even sleep with their wives while on leave. While their comrades were still in the field, they were wholly given to the business at hand: winning the war. The religious constraint practiced by the Hebrews was not necessarily imitated by their foes just so you understand how exceptional these godly standards made them.
The story of David and Bath-sheba sheds some light on what I am relating to you. Bath-sheba was the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. Uriah was a loyal soldier in King David’s army. While Uriah was fighting David’s battles, David lingered in Jerusalem taking his ease. He broke the rule of celibacy and committed adultery with Bath-sheba. She conceived. So, to cover the matter up, David sends for Uriah. He asks the man to report on the wars. The he sent Uriah home with the hope that he would sleep with his wife and so assume that the unborn child’s paternity was his own. Uriah refused to even go down to his house. When questioned about his decision not to go home, Uriah said:
The ark and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants
of my lord are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house to eat and
to drink, and to lie with my wife? As thou livest, and as my soul liveth, I will not
do this thing. (v.11)
David’s response to the righteous reply of Uriah was to try and get him drunk so that he would forget his vows. When this failed, the desperate king devised a means by which to have Uriah slain. Joab set Uriah up against some worthy adversaries and Uriah died in the ensuing action. (v.16)
David allowed his entanglements with fleshly pleasure to interfere with the conduct of war. The results were disastrous. He committed a grave injustice in his treachery towards a loyal soldier. What David had done displeased the Lord. (v.27) It also compromised the integrity of his field commander Joab, a development that would come back to haunt David later. God is concerned with the moral conduct of soldiers, and soldiers, they are not immune from divine scrutiny and accountability for what they do while on duty.
In Luke 3: 14 we read John the Baptist’s counsel to some soldiers who were concerned to be righteous. He said:
Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages.
Now it was the practice of tax gatherers to hire soldiers to extort, to intimidate people into paying excessive taxes. Those who embraced such practices threatened violence, and often perpetrated that violence for personal financial gain—monies above and beyond their legitimate wages. John the Baptist was demanding that they be just, and have nothing to do with this thievery. He was in essence urging them to keep themselves from every wicked thing.
Richard Baxter, a Puritan divine, had some practical counsel to give soldiers which follows in this tradition. If you purpose to be a soldier, make your peace with God and live in continual readiness to die. What does it mean to make your peace with God? It means to insure that your soul is regenerate because an unregenerate soul is sure to go to hell. While physical death is something that one may choose to risk, we certainly should not be willing to risk eternity in hell. The valiant, Baxter noted, tend to be of two sorts: first are brutish, ignorant boys who do not know enough to value their own souls; the second, those who are truly valiant, are those who have made their peace with God and are fitted, if necessarily, to be martyred. The latter sort is ready and fearless, dependable in the greatest of perils. Some veterans of the Vietnam War were horrified by the ruthless of young children guerillas—Baxter’s insight might have helped them see that they are but brutish, ignorant boys. What a terrible judgment awaits those who wasted their souls by making them mere machines of war!
A second directive: be certain that you have a warrantable cause to engage in warfare. God is always to be feared and obeyed first when one ponders being a soldier. The cause to fight is justice. The cause may be lawful in itself as when you fight to defend your government from revenge—even if that government was wrongful initially. If you cannot not ascertain the justness of the cause, you should consider your call—is God leading you to become engaged? It is important to avoid the prospect of murdering someone. One must remember that sometimes only the ruler is competent to judge whether or not warfare is warranted. We must guard against allowing our doubts to be unreasonable, or our attitude prejudicial from the outset.
Thirdly, one should never soldier against one’s conscience. It is better to be an abused neutral in an unjust conflict, even to spending time in prison, rather than to incur bloodguilt.
When forced/compelled to fight in a just war, do so with great humiliation. Never make a sport of killing! Remember that war will make you spoil and undo many in the process. It must be a very clear and great necessity to warrant a war. Warfare is inherently pernicious—like a plague unto the body! War is a nursery and school for pride, cruelty and moral vices like drunkenness, whoring, robbery, and licentiousness. It is typically the bane of piety, common civility and humanity. Its rigors leave too little time for prayer. It offers temptations to errors in judgment, and to viciousness of heart and life. Bloodthirsty men are a terror to all—like wolves and tigers, not men. Our tendency to romanticize freedom fighters is misguided.
Fifthly, one should be sure that the cause is greater than one’s life. This knowledge has proved of great solace to the veterans of WW I and WW II. It also offers them a foundation for courage. Baxter notes that cowards are the most detestable of murderers making sport of slaying those who flee. And the cowards who flee invite that slaughter. Far better that the few courageous died and hold the line—in that valor many will be saved.
Sixthly, resolve absolute obedience to your commanders in all things consistent with God. Of course, this assumes that you are conversant with the things of God, well read and informed of Scripture. It is important that a commander not have to give a reason for every command—it may be unfit for the soldier to know! And the willfulness implicit in demanding reasons is very unsafe.
Seventh, once engaged in a righteous war detest all murmuring, mutinies and rebellions because such things cost lives. Those who lead such actions aggravate seeming injuries, treat officers as odious and unworthy only to advance themselves. Avoid them as renegades determined to overthrow all government.
Do not abuse your power, or liberty to rob, oppress, or injure anyone. For God will avenge those you harm—maybe not in the present, but absolutely in the end.
Ninth, do not grow callused to the judgments of God implied in the deaths around you. It is foolish to assume that because you have survived so far, you are invincible. Be aware that you may be most in danger of being killed when you least expect it.
Take heed that you do not fall in with carousers, those who are captive to drunkenness and sensuality—these things are traps and snares. Do not fail to exercise moderation, especially in view of the fact that you may have seasons of scarcity.
Eleventh, labor to repair the loss of public worship when so deprived by the necessities of your duty. If you cannot get to church and hear a sermon, find a great book to instruct you. Let you meditations be holy and guard your mouth to speak in an edifying manner to your comrades.
Twelfth, and finally, do not allow military success to cause you to become proud, or conceited. Do not overvalue yourself and so be misled into mutiny. Many more soldiers have been undone by great success than by modest achievement. Great success can breed ambition and it can conquer reason, religion and righteousness—canceling our promises, vows and even obligation to God. A heart that is full of pride makes the understanding drunk!
It is plain to see that this counsel while worldly in some respects is never detached from the spiritual and moral dimensions of the soldier’s life. We should make our peace with God, secure our place in heaven and we should shun impiety and injustice—if we do this, even our adversaries will praise us. Only the righteous can handle victory properly and justly. Only the righteous can lay the foundations of a lasting peace. When the unrighteous dominate, any peace is but a cease-fire for God will not let the matter rest. We are to hold all our decisions up to the light of God’s word and we are to seek wisdom in picking our battles. IF we do these things, we shall do well either in war, or in peace.