In Deuteronomy 20 we find the special instructions God gave to ancient Israel as it was about to enter the Promised Land. These instructions were the “tactical briefs” given to Israel’s fighting forces. At first sight they may seem simple, but they are deceptively so - and they represented vital information Israel needed for successful conquest.
Today, those same tactical instructions can be applied in our own lives and offer us timeless guidelines for the spiritual battles we must fight – as we can see in each instruction and the lesson it carries.
COMMAND 1: “When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you” (Deuteronomy20:1). LESSON: God reminds Israel – and us – not to fight by sight. If we focus on the physical circumstances that surround us, we will often fail before the battle begins when the problems just look too big. God tells us that He has brought us this far and that we must remember the forces we do not see are greater than those we do see (read 2 Kings 6:17 for an example). Don’t fight by sight alone – our battles are won by what is not seen.
COMMAND 2: “When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: ‘Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory’” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4). LESSON: God had his servants deliver this message in person. This order helps us remember that victory is not found just in believing in the unseen God, but in trusting Him for the strength we need in any battle He tells us to fight. No problem is bigger than His power. Don’t fear, look to God for His strength.
COMMAND 3: “The officers shall say to the army: ‘Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? … Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it?... Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home’…” (Deuteronomy 20:5-7). LESSON: Next, the officers speak. Remember that in our case, that’s all of us who fight the good fight – because God is our “Commander in Chief,” but free moral agency means we relay to ourselves the orders as to what we do. Although there is a humane aspect to this particular command, excusing those who might not want to fight, the clear tactical reason is that we must not fight with distractions or our minds will be on them. It’s extremely dangerous to be distracted once the fighting starts! Don’t allow physical distractions to get in the way of the spiritual fight.
COMMAND 4: “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to labor and shall work for you” (Deuteronomy 20:10-11). LESSON: God shows that in our life battles we should be willing to work with people if they are willing to work with us and it does not interfere with our obeying God. For example, someone who has only recently come to the faith should try to work with co-workers as much as possible to facilitate changes he or she may need to affect rather than suddenly throwing the workplace into what might seem like destructive chaos to everyone else. This principle applies in many other areas - we need to be firm in our beliefs, but not to turn people off from them inasmuch as that is possible. Work with people as they are willing to work with you so that potential enemies become allies.
COMMAND 5: “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). LESSON: God shows clearly that we will never win our battles if we compromise with sin in any way. The nations around Israel not only enticed the Israelites to sin, but they also became a type of sin which must be destroyed. Make no compromise with sin - the enemy that is bent on destroying you must be destroyed.
COMMAND 6: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). LESSON: Finally, God shows that in fighting the battles we fight in life we must use wisdom. We should not make battles where there are none (“Are the trees people that you should besiege them?”), but in other cases we need to carefully use the resources that are available in the spiritual warfare we wage. Use wisdom, do not focus on things that are not the main problems and use all available resources in the fights that matter.
Although these six commands and the lessons they carry are deceptively simple, God knew what He was doing in giving them to Israel as it embarked on its mission of conquest through warfare. Interestingly, some of these lessons are found in the instructions of history’s great tactical thinkers such as Sun Tzu in his Art of War. This fact might well indicate to us that the biblical principles were not dreamed up, as some would like us to believe, by itinerant shepherds with no experience of warfare, but inspired by the One who is truly the supreme military commander, the Lord of Hosts (1 Samuel 17:45)!
Remember, rather than supernaturally destroying all of Israel’s enemies (or in our case, our problems), God let Israel (and now lets us) fight the fight, but gave the guidance needed to do it. As the warrior David wrote: “Blessed be the Lord my strength which teaches my hands to war, and my fingers to fight” (Psalms 144:1). This applies as much to us spiritually as it did to the ancient writer physically.
Simple as these instructions may seem, each one of them deserves thought and meditation. When we combine them with the rich advice given to us by the New Testament writers (Ephesians 6:10-20 and in many other places), we have a spiritual “manual of war” which can be of great help to us. It is to the degree that we apply these commands and lessons that we will be successful in the battles we face in claiming the Promise that God places before us.