‘The Commands of God are not a Burden’ Deuteronomy 20: 1-9 October 11, 1992
v. 1 Israel’s strength lay not in the size or equipment of her army, but in her God, and this was a matter not only of faith, but of her own experience. Egypt had a far greater army than the ill-equipped and untrained Israelite people, but it was the vaunted Army of Egypt which was destroyed in the Red Sea.
v. 4 Before the battle the priest was to remind the soldiers of the fact that God is worth many armies!
v. 5 ‘Officers’ here probably refers to officials of the tribes of lsrael, not to army officers as is confirmed in v. 9. These men, knowing the men of their tribe, would know which ones qualified to be exempted from service. They are the ones who are referred to as ‘tribal officials’ in 1:15.
v. 9 It is clear that Israel, at least at this early stage, did not maintain a standing army or had very little of one. For each war the army had to be recruited separately.
We enter now a section of the Book of Deuteronomy devoted to particular laws addressing many different issues. In certain cases they reiterate points which have already been made in the chapters we have so far read and studied. This chapter 20, for example, recapitulates some of what we already read in chapter 7. In any case, to do justice to all of these various laws or groups of laws would take many months of sermons, and I propose instead to take, over the next few Lord’s Days, just a few as exemplary of the rest.
We begin then with a few of the laws governing the conduct of war. There are, of course, certain features of Israel’s warfare which were unique. For example, she alone, ofall the nations that ever were or are today, actually was commanded by God directly to inflict his judgment upon other peoples and nations. But, many of the laws which governed Israel’s practice of war were expressive of timeless obligations of right and wrong and of the nature of God and of his ways with his people. So, while we may never actually go to holy war on God’s behalf as Israel did, these laws have much to teach us of perpetual importance and relevance.
And, it seems to me, chief among the lessons which these laws which we have just read teach us, is this: that, as the Apostle John would later put it, ‘the commandments of God are not burdensome.’ These verses are simply teaching us in another way that the Law of God is, as Paul put it: ‘holy, wise, and good.’ It is the point so often and so beautifully made in the Psalms and in the Wisdom books, that God’s law is a great blessing to his people, one of his great gifts to them, and is intended to lead them into a life which is rich and secure and happy and satisfying and fruitful.
All of us do chafe under the commandments of God. We have a rebellious streak and, like little children, we resent being told what to do. But that is our foolishness and childishness expressing itself and not good sense or maturity. The godly know that God’s commands are kindly given and well-meant and the one who lives by them is going to find a great reward. That is the lesson before us here in Deuteronomy 20:1-9. We are being taught to love and cherish the laws and commandments of God as not only right, but good, and health-giving.
The point is made in at least three ways in these laws exempting certain men from military duty.
First, as illustrated by these commandments, the laws of God are full of kindness and compassion. We think of God’s commandments too often as rigid, unbending rules which brook no qualifications of any kind. We can think of them, and do from time to time, simply as spoilers of our fun — I can’t do this and can’t do that. Thinking about God’s commandments that way, we can then begin to think about God that way, as a dispassionate and uncaring dictator, as an autocrat who lays down the law without caring much about the trouble his subjects have in keeping it. But no despot, no thoughtless autocrat made the laws we have before us in vv. 5-8.
What we have here is tender regard for people and a very thoughtful and kind attention to their every day circumstances. We might have thought otherwise. We might well have thought that the high God, especially in a matter of such weight and importance as the holy wars of the army of Israel, would have insisted on every man’s participation come wind, come weather. We might have expected him to say, instead, ‘I grant no one leave from the warfare of the Lord.’ I’ll bet not a one of us would have been a bit surprised if we had read that here instead of what we read in vv. 5-8. But, instead, we read, that even right before great battles are to be fought in the Lord’s name, fellows who have a good reason to be home are to be sent home. God thinks it important to ensure that no man, dying in battle, should have been deprived of the pleasure of seeing his new vineyard begin to bear fruit, and that no young man miss the joy of marrying his bride.
Now those exemptions from military service are nothing else but generous and kind. And they reveal the mind and heart of the Law Giver who has given us all of the laws and commandments in the Bible. He is a generous, kind, and compassionate God. His commandments, far from being burdensome and oppressive, are, in fact, his way of doing us good and making our lives happy.
It is such an unspeakable sadness that so many Christians refuse to see this and think of God’s commandments as chains rather than as wings!
God didn’t give us the fourth commandment, didn’t command us to keep the Lord’s Day Holy because he wanted to test our loyalty to him by seeing if we would be willing to be miserable one day a week for his sake. That is what some Christians seem to think the Sabbath is all about. But God gave us the fourth commandment so that we would have a holiday once a week and a day for the refreshment of our lives.
It is a profound injustice against God and an act of high ingratitude for us to take God’s commandments as burdens to bear when He gave them to us as presents to enjoy! Everyone of his commandments is motivated by the very same kindness and generosity and interest in our welfare that we see with such sparkling clarity in these laws exempting certain men from military service. God forbids adultery and commands prayer, he forbids disrespect to parents and commands generosity to the poor, for the very same reason that he exempted some men from service in his army: as our Father in heaven he wants our lives to be good and rich and full and fruitful and satisfying and worthy of his reward. We ought never to read a single of the Lord’s commandments in Holy Scripture without asking ourselves what kindness, what good, what thoughtful consideration is He showing us in requiring this of us or forbidding this to us.
Second, as illustrated by these commandments, the laws of God are carefully suited to the realities of human life. This too is often forgotten by Christian people who far too often speak as though God had quite forgotten what human life is like and what human beings are like when he gave his commandments. But we see here that that is not so! You see God suiting his commandments to human realities in the way in which he does not expect the same thing of a man who has just been engaged that he expects from a man who has been married for some time; nor the same thing from a man who has just begun his farming that he expects from a man whose farm is well-developed and established.
But, more remarkable still, I think, is v. 8, where we learn that God doesn’t require the same thing of the faint hearted that he does of the brave. As the Psalm writer put it, ‘God knows our frame, or our make-up.’ He knows the difference between men and women and doesn’t require the same thing of both sexes. He knows the difference between the rich and the poor and his laws took those very real differences into account. He knows the differences in personality and character which separate one man from another or one woman from another, and his commandments take such differences into account.
It is not that the standard shifts or that we are left to define righteousness for ourselves and do what we please. No, God’s commands are for everyone to obey, but to obey in the way appropriate to each person and to each person’s situation. Those who could afford to, had to bring a lamb or goat for sacrifice. Those were expensive animals. The poor however could bring instead a pair of little birds that sold for almost nothing. God counted the sacrifice the same, but he was careful in his laws to have regard for the different circumstances of human beings.
So many of the commandments reveal how thoughtfully the Lord has suited his commandments to our real everyday lives. For example, he is careful to make clear that the commandment not to work on the Lord’s Day certainly should not be taken, in a kind of wooden literalism, to mean that emergencies cannot be taken care of on that day, or necessary work cannot be done. He gave the command to help us not to hurt us.
There are people who read the law against lighting a fire on the Sabbath day as if God actually meant that his people were miserably to shiver their way through a cold Lord’s Day enjoying neither heat nor light. But that is a travesty of interpretation. What is forbidden is the making of fires with which to do work, not the making of fires to stay warm, or even upon which to cook food, which was never forbidden in the law. Jesus himself ate food cooked over fires on the Sabbath day. The Sabbath, he said, was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. God’s commandments are suited to be a help to us, not a burden and certainly not a punishment.
Or think of other ways in which God carefully accommodates his laws to the world and the circumstances we actually face. ‘So far as it depends upon you, live at peace with all men.’ The Lord knows that often a single Christian can do only so much to maintain peace among the brethren. Do what you can, the Lord says; I don’t hold you responsible for the unwillingness of others to do what is right. What a relief it is to hear that!
What all of this indicates is that the God who gave us every single one of the commandments in the Bible, is our loving heavenly father who, knowing us perfectly as he does, has suited his commandments to our circumstances so that every one of us can keep them and everyone of us can profit from them, however different we are from one another, however different our circumstances may be from time to time.
Third, as illustrated by these commandments, the laws of God are wisdom, sound judgment, and good sense. Here too, far too many Christians perversely refuse to see the Bible’s often repeated point. The laws of God do not complicate our lives, they are precisely suited to simplify our lives and make them easier and happier. The laws of God work! They are the Creator’s ‘Owner’s Manual’ for human life. Live according to them and life will work! Ignore these rules and life will breakdown!
We have a marvelously good example of this characteristic of all of God’s laws here in v. 8. God knows what a battlefield is like and how soldiers behave in battle. One coward can send an entire army running from the field.
One whiner can demoralize an entire troop. And so, with a stunning practicality, the Lord orders the cowards sent home. Notice, he doesn’t order them shot. He doesn’t order General Patton to search out and slap all cowards who have taken refuge in army field hospitals. He simply commands that they be sent home, so that they do not adversely affect everyone else.
I don’t know about you, but I think most of us are surprised to find a commandment like that in the Bible. What? Aren’t God’s people supposed to be brave? Doesn’t God have a right — given all that he has done and promised to do for Israel in battle — to require all the eligible men to shoulder arms? Given what the priest has already said to them about God being their strength and about God going with them onto the field of battle, isn’t every Israelite man obliged to fight? We might have thought so. But God says, very gently and softly, send the frightened ones home. It is hard enough to have faith when the arrows start to fly; let’s not make it harder by sprinkling a number of Caspar Milquetoasts throughout the ranks. Remember God himself followed his own orders in the case of Gideon’s army. God told him to tell his troops: ‘Whoever is fearful and afraid, let him turn and depart at once.’ 22,000 out of 32,000 left as soon as Gideon had finished his sentence.
David Chilton, a minister in California, writing in the most recent issue of World magazine and commenting upon all of the discussion in the press about Governor Clinton’s avoidance of army duty during the Vietnam war, admits that he also got a draft deferment as a conscientious objector during that same war. But, being a Christian, he is more honest with himself than many. He writes: ‘I had numerous principled objections to our involvement in Southeast Asia, but my main psychological motivation was probably that I didn’t want to get my head blown off. The smartest thing the army ever did was keep me out. I ask you: Who would you rather have pinned down with you in a firefight — John Wayne and Rambo, or…me?’
God’s commandments, all of them, like this one here are designed to make human life work well — whether it is in battle or in marriage or in the handling of money.
The very same point is made here in v. 6 with regard to the man who has just planted a vineyard. The point briefly made here is made with more detail in Leviticus 19:23-25 with reference to fruit bearing plants in general — trees as well as vines. For the first three years no fruit was to be taken; the fourth year the fruit was to be dedicated to the Lord; and from the fifth year on, the fruit was to be harvested and sold or eaten. Those who were engaged in this lengthy process, but one which was very important for the long-term production of the land, were exempted from army service. God is always after his people’s welfare. He didn’t want farms and orchards and vineyards ruined because the men who had to cultivate and care for them were absent at the critical period.
And he is always after your welfare and mine and that of our families and our church when he gives every one of his commandments. He is more committed to your prosperity and happiness than you are! So, you can be sure that the very best way to promote your own well-being and the blessing of your loved ones, is to do everything that he says.
The commandments of God come to us from the One who made us and so knows us far, far better than we know ourselves. They come from one who loves his children with a love so vast and so strong and so deep that we cannot begin to measure it. And they come from the mind and heart of a being so good, so true, so pure, and so wise, that we ought to hunger and thirst to do his will even if he had no power to punish us should we choose instead to disobey. How foolish of us, how wrong, how ungrateful when we do not prize and cherish these commandments, when we are not always looking into God’s Word to find our what he wants us to do in the sure and certain expectation that no human life could be better than that life which is lived according to God’s laws.
Now, let no one mistake me. You cannot be saved, you cannot earn God’s favor by keeping God’s commandments. These commandments will never be for you or for me, as Martin Luther used to put it, ‘ladders to heaven.’ You have broken and still do break them all far too often and far too willingly for that! But, if you are a Christian, if your sin and all your disobedience is forgiven because you have trusted Christ to take it away, then, as a child of the Heavenly Father, you should love and honor and obey the commandments of the Lord simply because as his child you know that ‘Father knows best.’
What are the commandments you are chafing under right now? To keep the Lord’s Day holy? To respect your husband? To love your wife as Christ loved the church? That fathers should not exasperate their children, but be gentle with them? Not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers? To pray without ceasing? To do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith? To mediate in the Word of God day and night? To teach your children the Law of the Lord? Not to forsake the meetings of the church, when Christians assemble together? That there should be no obscenity, foolish talk or coarse jesting, which are out of place? That we should put to death all immorality and greed, which is idolatry? That we must rid ourselves of anger, rage, and malice? That we should forgive our brother or sister seventy times seven times? That we should live a life of love? That we should redeem the time? That we should not love money?
What are the commandments you are chafing under so unwisely these days? Read again these exemptions from military service; think again of what they teach us about God’s kindness, and wisdom, and perfect understanding of our situation. You can’t believe that you are better off not doing what God says? If you have Christian blood in your veins at all, you cannot believe that your life is better for having disobeyed God’s commandments. He loves you, if you love Christ! He gave you these commandments because he loves you so much! And so well!
And you should keep them — every one of them. You should keep them not only because you love him, but because you love yourself!