Studies in Exodus 17:8-16


Download sermon

Exodus 17:8-16

Review

The second section of Exodus, which began in 15:22, is a symphony with an often repeated theme, viz. God’s faithful provision for his people, a provision to be obtained through the exercise of faith in the Lord.  The Lord proved at Marah, again in the Desert of Sin, and again at Rephidim, that he stood willing to provide for his people, even in defiance of unpromising circumstances.  In each case the people failed to trust the Lord and in each case their need to trust him was the lesson being taught, with Moses the exemplar of faith and obedience, an example of a faithful man set before the whole people.

The last movement of this symphony repeats the theme once more but this time not with respect to food and water as in the first three movements, but in respect to Israel’s enemies who threaten her life.  There will be more of them as she makes her way to the Promised Land, so this was a timely lesson and one she needed to learn.

Text Comment

v.8       Amalek is said elsewhere to have inhabited the Negeb or south land.  They were, that is, a Bedouin tribe that lived in the area between Canaan and Egypt. Perhaps the Amalekites felt that the grazing in the Sinai Peninsula would not support both Israel’s flocks and herds as well as their own.  Perhaps they wanted for themselves the new source of water that the Israelites had uncovered at Rephidim. Perhaps they hoped for plunder. Perhaps they felt threatened by the approach of such a large force.  They were probably not very numerous and this may account for their method of attack which is described not here but in Deut. 25:18.  They harassed Israel’s rear and flanks and cut off stragglers.  It was a tactic that may well account for Israel’s later bitterness toward the Amalekites and the Lord’s promise to punish them for their attack against Israel here (1 Sam. 15:2).  In fact, apart from the Canaanites, whom the Lord ordered to be destroyed for other reasons, this is the only people whom God ordered to be completely destroyed and precisely for her attack on Israel here.  Amalek’s behavior here is clearly regarded as a profound violation of basic standards of morality.

v.9       Joshua appears for the first time in this verse as already Moses’ lieutenant.  Joshua may be mentioned here, in particular, because his name means “Yahweh is salvation,” the very point to be demonstrated in the history that follows.  In any case, Joshua is instructed to choose an elite fighting force to face what was apparently a relatively small Amalekite force.  Once again, the staff is the sign both of Moses’ authority and of Yahweh’s presence.

v.10     Hur is mentioned in only one other place (24:14), again as one of Moses’ aides.
Later Jewish tradition made him out to be Miriam’s husband but there is no evidence for that tradition.

v.11     It has been thought by some that the raising of Moses’ hands was a signal to attack and that lowering them would thus amount to an order to retreat.  But that does not seem to be the meaning of the gesture here.  It is rather an enacted sign of Moses, and so Israel, at prayer; an expression of dependence upon God for victory, a point made explicitly in the concluding statement of this section in v. 16.  That is, his hands are lifted up to God. This is the sense of our lifting of hands in worship. Our hands express the direction of our praise or petition.  As with little children lifting their hands to the parents, the hands express a plea and point in the direction they are sending that plea.  Once again, Moses believes for the people, as her official representative before God and as a faithful man who understands what so many of the people do not:  viz. that Israel’s hope in time of need is the faithfulness, power, and love of Yahweh.

v.12     Remember, Moses was not a young man.  He was more than 80 years old.

v.14     This is one of the few passages in the Pentateuch that mentions the preparation of contemporary written records of this history.  It is written in order to be read aloud.  Joshua is to hear it, not read it.  The actual fulfillment of this divine promise to eradicate Amalek would not take place until the reign of King Saul (1 Sam. 15).  If you remember, it was Saul’s failure fully to execute the Lord’s orders to destroy the Amalekites and everything that belonged to them that was the final nail in the coffin of Saul’s reign as Israel’s king.

v.15     Altars have been named before this.  Cf. Gen. 33:20.  The mention of this altar, constructed to memorialize the victory, indicates that Moses recognized that the Lord had given Israel the victory.  Israel’s first military engagement – an army of freed serfs with no military tradition or training – was a resounding victory.  Up to this point, Yahweh had done all of Israel’s fighting for her. Now she is to mature and the Lord will expect more of her.

v.16     The phrase in quotation marks is hard to translate.  Some scholars regard the statement – literally “A hand upon the banner of Yahweh” – as a war cry.  But it may also mean that hands were lifted up against the throne of Yahweh – that is, by the Amalekites – and this explains why the Lord will be against this people in the future.

That it is the Lord’s strength that gave Israel the victory is emphasized in the narrative by the fact that when Moses’ hands went down Israel lost power.  Yahweh is clearly the central actor in the battle, no matter that Moses, Hur, Joshua and the soldiers all play important roles.  It is Yahweh whose help wins the battle; it is Yahweh who is commemorated by the altar, Yahweh who pronounced the curse against Amalek.  The lesson is that God’s people are to look to him, to count on his provision and his help.  And the raising of Moses’ hands heavenward is an enacted expression of that faith in the Lord and that active dependence upon him.  It is an entirely natural and biblically faithful use of this text to teach from it, as Christian preachers have through the ages, the nature and the necessity of faith and, especially, faith as it is expressed in prayer.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that this text, this account of Moses’ hands being kept lifted up by Moses’ two helpers, Aaron and Hur, is one of the most memorable, helpful, and illuminating of all the biblical pictures of prayer.  Prayer is an act of faith and here we see that nature of prayer in a particularly striking way.

Faith is a complex idea in the Bible.  The word group is used in different ways in the Bible.  We are all aware that James tells us (in 2:19) that the Devil himself believes.  He knows certain things to be true; he even trembles over that knowledge.  Theologians call this faith historical faith, a bare assent to known facts.  But it is perfectly obvious that assent to facts must also be a part of true and living faith.  You must believe something and in someone!

But there is also what theologians have long called temporary faith.  The Lord, in his parable of the sower or the soils in Matthew 13, speaks of people who, when they hear the gospel, receive it with joy.  But those people fall away when trouble or persecution comes because they have no root.  But the same word is used in John 1:12 in reference to real believers, believers who last and who do not fall away.  “…to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, nor of a husband’s will, but born of God.”  So faith is receiving the gospel, or receiving Christ; but one can receive him temporarily only, in an inauthentic impermanent way, or receive him permanently and in truth.  In other words, it can seem to be faith when it is not really.  We cannot tell in every case who believes and who does not.  That makes the detection of faith and its demonstration in a life more complicated and difficult, indeed, often beyond the capacity of any man. Paul himself did not know that Demas’ faith was temporary, imitation faith only, until Demas deserted Paul because he loved this present world.

So far we can say that there is a kind of faith that unbelievers and devils have  – a faith that looks like the real thing but is proved over time to be an imitation only — and another kind of faith that professing Christians have.

So what is real faith, saving faith?  Reformed theologians have typically defined saving faith as consisting of three things:  1) knowledge of the facts of the gospel and of Christ as the Savior of sinners; 2) assent to or agreement with those facts, with the history of Christ’s work and with his promises to save those who call upon him; and 3) an actual trust in Christ, a putting of one’s hope and confidence of salvation in him.  Three Latin terms correspond to these three parts or dimensions of living, saving faith:  notitia (or sometimes scientia), knowledge; assensus, assent; and fiducia, confidence, trust, or reliance.  The first two components of saving faith belong to the intellect; the third belongs to the will.

Obviously there is a great deal of difference between saying “The Lord is a shepherd” and saying “The Lord is my shepherd.”  This is what Luther meant when he said that true faith rests in the pronouns.  True faith says and means “my” and “me” and “mine” when referring to Christ and salvation.  There is a personal appropriation of Christ and his benefits.

There has been any number of disputes through the ages concerning this tripartite definition of faith.  There have always been those who have held that scientia and assensus, knowledge and assent are sufficient, that saving faith need be nothing more than that.  Roman Catholics have typically held this.  It is why they are not particularly troubled if a Catholic church member doesn’t take the Christian faith very seriously and doesn’t aspire to and work to live a holy life.  So long as he agrees with the doctrine of the church in his mind and does a few things that are required, he can still be saved.  Indeed, it is worse than this.  In Roman Catholic theology it is not necessary to actually know what one is giving assent to.  It is enough simply to assent to whatever it is that the church teaches without knowing what that teaching is! But much as Protestants abominate these Roman Catholic views, they have often virtually accepted them with regard to what constitutes faith.

Sometimes certain Protestants have unapologetically defended a view of faith that sees it as nothing more than bare assent to the facts of the Gospel.  Robert Sandeman, an 18th century Scot, was such a man and so were his followers, known as Sandemanians.  Justifying faith, Sandeman famously said, is “the bare belief of the bare truth.”  And lest anyone underestimate his commitment to this principle, his gravestone reads:

“Here lies until the resurrection the body of Robert Sandeman, who, in the face of continual opposition from all sorts of men, long and boldly contended for the ancient faith that the bare death of Jesus Christ, without a deed or thought on the part of man, is sufficient to present the chief of sinners spotless before God.”

But, without the sophistication, that is also the view of a great many American evangelicals who have been taught what is often called “the carnal Christian theory,” teaching one found in the Schofield Reference Bible and, more recently, in the books of Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade.  This is the view that one can believe the gospel when presented with it – that is, give the gospel the assent of one’s mind – but never surrender one’s will to Christ and still be saved.  They speak of someone accepting Christ as savior but not as Lord.  In some evangelistic techniques this possibility is held out as a carrot.  You can accept the gospel, give your assent to it – either by going forward at a meeting or by saying a prayer when asked to do so or simply by giving one’s mental agreement to it silently – and never have to change your life, never have to become an actual servant of Christ.  Now the advocates of this view would certainly say that you ought to be a spiritual Christian, not a carnal one – your rewards would be greater, you would be happier, the world would be better for it – but you don’t have to be.  You can go to church, be in an evangelistic meeting, believe in Jesus and then go right back to your worldly life and never give much thought to Christ thereafter and still go to heaven when you die.  That is a view of faith that is all knowledge and assent and no personal, heartfelt trust or reliance.

Clearly in the Bible true faith, saving faith has this volitional element, this commitment to Christ, a commitment so sweeping that it must change the life.  Faith is not only knowledge and assent; it is trust, personal appropriation, and active, personal reliance upon the Lord.

It was this way of the Bible’s speaking about faith and illustrating faith that led Bishop Ryle to say that faith was the hand, the eye, the mouth, and the foot of the soul and a true believer, holds on to Christ, looks at Christ, feeds on Christ and runs to Christ.

But there is a further complication.  Faith in the Bible is considered both as a God-given disposition or capacity on the one hand, or as an act of the mind and the will on the other.  The theological term for this underlying disposition is habitus.  So our theologians have long distinguished between the habitus fidei and the actus fidei, the disposition of faith and the act of faith.  There are other arguments for or demonstrations of this distinction, but the one that will be most interesting and relevant to us is the case of our covenant children.

Our theologians have long argued against the Baptists that covenant children are to be assumed to be believers, even from their infancy.  But we do not say that because we think that infants know the gospel and assent to it in their minds and personally appropriate it for themselves in an act of their will.  We know that they are not capable of this.  But we must attend to the statements that the Bible makes.

  1. “I trusted in the Lord from my mother’s breasts”  Ps. 22;
  2. “From infancy you made me to trust in you” Ps. 71
  3. At the presence of the Lord in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the baby in the womb of Elizabeth – the baby who would be John the Baptist – leapt in her womb.

Such statements must be taken seriously and incorporated into our understanding of faith and how it comes to pass in the lives of covenant children.  John in Elizabeth’s womb was susceptible to spiritual impressions because of a capacity he had already been given.  He was able to rejoice in the presence of the Lord before and without conscious understanding of the gospel.  There was a spiritual condition already formed in him, a disposition of faith that lay deeper than his mind or his will and would prove the foundation of the believing exercise of mind and will as the child grew up.

It is upon the strength of this evidence and more like it in the Bible that our theologians have spoken of the “seed of faith” in the children of believers, a seed that blossoms into the exercise of actual faith as the child’s powers of mind and will develop.  This is not simply some technical and arcane theological explanation.  This is nothing else than the explanation for how the largest number of Christians come to be Christians.  How is it that such immense numbers of people do not remember a time when they were not believers in Christ?  How is it that they simply grew up in the faith of their parents and owned it for their own at every stage of the way?  It is because they had faith, living faith as a disposition of their natures long before they knew enough to understand who Christ is or what they are called to do.  Believing in Christ for them was natural because the Holy Spirit had changed their unbelieving nature to a believing nature when they were very young, no doubt in many cases when they were still in their mother’s womb.

One of the problems with our typical way of talking about justification by faith or about conversion is that our definitions and explanations seem to suggest that everyone becomes a believer in Christ by an act of the will at some point in their conscious life.  But, of course, a great many, no doubt most Christians do not.  Kuyper once wrote that the problem with our definitions and descriptions of faith, conversion, and justification is that before every statement we really should be placing the words, “I am speaking about adults…”

Now, what does all this about the nature of saving faith have to do with Moses and the Amalekites?  Just this.  There are many Sandemanians in the church of God and, worse still, we are all Sandemanians some of the time.  Our faith, if the truth be told, relaxes into little more than an agreement with the facts of Holy Scripture and with an assent to the Gospel.  If someone asked us if we were trusting in Christ we would say that we were and we would mean it.  But, the fact is, we weren’t doing much actual, real, personal trusting in Jesus for much of anything and, perhaps, had not for days.

Moses as an exemplar of faith in Exod. 17 had his hands outstretched to God. He was acutely conscious of his and Israel’s real and immediate dependence upon the Lord.  It was his conviction that he must continue to look to Yahweh or the battle would not be won.  And so he did look up, actively, personally, energetically.  He had the disposition of faith, to be sure – all believers must – but his faith was all act, pure act.  He was apprehending for himself and for his army below the help, the blessing, the grace, the provision, and the power of God.

It was not enough for Moses to know that God was the provider for and the protector of his people.  Moses was lifting up hands and heart to this Yahweh and begging him to provide and protect. He was laying hold of God’s nature and God’s promise for himself and putting those things to work in real prayer.

Prayer like that is the index of faith.  If our faith is more than bare assent it will lead us to pray and to pray earnestly, affectionately, and expectantly.  That is how Moses prayed.  And the fact that when his hands flagged the battle started to go against Israel and when Aaron and Hur lifted up Moses’ hands the battle swung back to Israel’s favor is designed to teach us this truth, that we are as powerful as we are in living contact with the Lord through believing prayer, which is just faith in action, faith as actus, as fiducia, as commitment and personal appropriation, and not simply as disposition or assent or agreement with a set of facts.

All the incidents in this series of events are designed to teach the same lesson but none does so as clearly as this last.  Moses obeyed the Lord and threw the wood into the water at Marah.  He acted on his trust in the Lord.  He obeyed the instructions given concerning the manna.  He struck the rock the Lord identified as he had been told to do at Rephidim.  Faith is not in any of these cases a simple a bare assent to facts.  It is an action founded upon those facts, a personal appropriation or apprehension of promises that God has made.

And it must be so with us.  We must keep watch lest our faith wither into little more than knowledge and assent.  We must be sure that it remains commitment and personal appropriation.  We need, you and I, to get our hands in the air, point them heavenward, and keep them there.

If you remember, some years ago, before the fitness became the mania it has become in our day, before it became necessary to have a gym and special equipment and to choose one or another of the trendy diets, all the rage was the Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plans for Physical Fitness.  This was an exercise plan for everyone and promised to make everyone who followed it physically fit.  It was quite simple really.  It required 12 minutes daily for women and 11 minutes for men.

If you and I spent only a similar amount of time every day making sure that we were not simply assuming the blessing and provision and grace of Christ but were actually seeking it, relying upon it, believing ourselves to have it, and looking up to Christ for more of it, there would be more real faith in our daily living.  And, according to a thousand texts in Holy Scripture, if we had more faith in our lives, we would have more of everything good, pure, and wonderful.  Faith connects us to the living power of God and to his goodness – real, active, energetic faith – and surely that is what all of us want more and more.

Faith is something so important to salvation and so important to the living of the Christian life, we should all be knowledgeable about faith.  We should know what it is and what it is not.  That way we can be sure whether we are really exercising our faith or simply assuming that we are.  And we have learned something about faith:  a good test of the genuineness, authenticity, reality, and energy of anyone’s faith is whether his hands are in the air.