“The officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart.‘” ~Deuteronomy 20:8
In this passage, there are a number of laws restricting who should, and who should not, go into battle on behalf of Israel. In Chapter 20, we read that anyone who has just built a house, planted a vineyard, or is betrothed to be married is not to go to battle. The concern of the text is that this person might miss out on partaking of the first-fruits of his home, vineyard, or betrothed. In each case, it says that if he is killed in battle someone else might dedicate his house, eat from his vineyard, or lie with his betrothed. In short, this person has the right, and responsibility, to partake in the dedication of his home, the tasting of the first-fruits of his vineyard, or laying with his betrothed.
There is one final group of men who are not supposed to go to battle.
This group is not excused on account of right or responsibility. Rather, they are excused on account of their fear. They are terrified to go to battle and these cowards are given a pass. At first glance, one might think this is unfair. However, we have to remember two things. First, the shame involved with making such a decision, and second, the power and might of God.
First, the shame associated with fleeing from the battle field must have been great. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to stay home from battle, with all the women, while the men were off to battle. It might seem like a good idea at first, but in time that decision would soon wear on a man’s pride. I say only in passing that it is a wonder that King David was able to stay in the palace while his men were off to battle. It’s no surprise that such a decision lead to his falling into sexual immorality.
I don’t think many men, when called upon to stand for God and country, walked away because they were afraid. I’m sure there were a few, but any man who trusted God and believed in his calling of their people would not have hesitated to go to battle.
Second, while it may seem unfair, numbers don’t matter. I can see a bunch of military men seeing this as a disadvantage. Letting these cowards go reduces their numbers on the battle field and, therefore, reduces their chances of victory. Not so. When God fights on our side, and we believe he’s there, it doesn’t matter if we are an army of one, or one million. I wonder how many Israelites hung their heads when they watched all the people who fell into these categories leave. They shouldn’t have, but I bet some did.
It’s interesting to me that the reason God commands these people to be sent home is exactly the opposite reasoning of man. Men think that there is strength in numbers. However, God knows that if these cowards are allowed to go to the battlefield, so far from strengthening the people, they will weaken them in battle. Their cowardice will spread like wild-fire and infect the camp when hard times come. For their sakes, God wants these people sent home.
That makes me wonder about the church of Jesus Christ.
We have been called to take up our crosses and follow him. This Christian life is not one for the faint of heart. Oftentimes, the apostle Paul relates our life in Christ to battle. As Paul came to the end of his life, he said that he had “fought a good fight.” Jesus Christ also likened being one of his disciples to going into battle.
“Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”
If we have chosen to follow Christ, we have also chosen to forsake all else. We have looked to the battlefield and we have counted the cost. Or have we? This doesn’t look like the typical Gospel presentation does it? When was the last time anyone preaching the Gospel said “if you want to be a disciple of Christ, you must forsake all else?” It gets preached this way in some churches, but not many.
Brothers and Sisters, have we counted the cost? Has it occurred to us that when we chose to follow Christ we were picking sides in a battle? This battle is not a battle for the fainthearted. The fainthearted can go home. Their cowardice will only spread like wild-fire. I dare say it already has. If we didn’t follow Christ to join a battle, we ought to head home.
Let us not think that dwindling numbers is to our disadvantage or that preaching such a message will weaken the church. On the contrary, as the coward is removed and the church is full of only the courageous and the faithful, our strength will not be in our numbers, nor our confidence in our bank accounts. Rather, our strength, and our confidence, will be alone in our God who will ever be victorious in battle.
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. ”