Saturday, December 31, 2011

Walls Not Horses: Wise National Defense

In Deuteronomy 17:14-17, Moses indicates that Israel would eventually grow up to the point when they would have a king. This progress in the life of the nation would indicate a maturity beyond their priestly childhood into a kingly adolescence. The king would rule not only by use of the law of Moses but also by application of that law with wisdom, a knowledge of good and evil. In Deuteronomy 17, Moses outlines three commands specifically for the coming king in his rule over the nation: don’t multiply 1) horses, 2) wives or, 3) gold (16-17).

I recognize that the nation of Israel had a very specific and special role in the world at that particular point of history, which placed particular and peculiar requirements on them in fulfilling that role. I also recognize that the requirements upon that nation are not necessarily paradigmatic of civil rule for all time. Nonetheless, those requirements can be instructive to civil rulers today who desire to emulate biblical wisdom in their policies.

Israel got her king a generation too early due to her impatience to acquire and exercise a knowledge of good and evil before God’s time. Saul, though initially righteous, turned out to be a disaster. Yet, with the coming of David, in God’s providence, Israel was ready for a king. With the coming of David, Israel’s borders became established and secure. Her internal enemies were suppressed. Worship was set up in Jerusalem. And the nation became unanimously unified around that worship and the ruler God had placed there.

A few observations can be made about Israel at this point of her history, which are relevant to the point I want to make here. First, Israel’s primary threats came internally. As we see repeatedly throughout her history, her primary danger came from corrupt worship. It was when wicked kings worshiped other gods or worshiped the true God in the wrong way that God’s people became vulnerable.

Second, it was only when Israel had weakened herself through corruption of temple worship that she became vulnerable to outside attack. The fact that they would be attacked by the Assyrians would, presumably, remain. But as long as Israel was faithful to her highest King on His throne in Jerusalem, she would be impervious to attacks from the outside. Of course, God did appoint means of realizing that protection, as we shall see.

Third, Israel was not given the responsibility of conquering the lands outside her own borders. Her role in the world was primarily that of being a priestly, mediating boundary between God in his sanctuary and the world outside. She was to mediate God’s love to the world, primarily by guarding God’s sanctuary from uncleanness and death as well as to guard the nations from God’s consuming presence. Thus, Israel’s role was not one of extending her cleansed land beyond her appointed borders.

With these observations in mind, then, let’s return to the first of the three prohibitions that Yahweh placed on the kings of Israel, found in Deuteronomy 17. (Unpacking the other two is for a different time.) Why does God forbid the king to multiply horses? This question is best answered by examining the function that a horse has in Scripture.

The overwhelming association of the horse is with warfare. Though many passages show this association, Job 39:19-25 is the most complete. A horse was ideal for battle because of its strength (21), its boldness (22), its speed (23), and its fury (24). Adding a chariot to a horse made an army exceedingly formidable (Ex. 14-15; Deut. 20:1; Joshua 11:4-6). Horses, thus, are associated with aggressive, offensive warfare. As property of the king, the horse represented a king’s power to crush his enemies.

Israel’s subsequent history shows that many kings were unfaithful by amassing for themselves horses, beginning with Solomon (2 Chron. 9:25). Foreign invaders had horses (1 Kg. 20:1; 2 Chron. 12:2-3). Part of Josiah’s reforms included getting rid of horses and chariots (2 Kg. 23:11).

On the basis of this association, I suggest that God’s prohibition of multiplying horses largely was a prohibition of offensive, aggressive warfare in the time of the kings. Because at that time, in God’s plan, Israel’s borders were established, they no longer needed that type of warfare. They could be a secure nation and defend herself from outside invaders by other means.

So if Israel could not defend herself by aggressive means, how were they supposed to defend themselves? I suggest that she should have found her defense by means of cities that were fortified by walls (e.g. Num. 32:16-17). These protective fortifications were usually accompanied by a watchtower for warning of approaching enemies (2 Kg. 18:8; 2 Chron. 14:7).

In addition to restoring proper worship, faithful kings built up these defensive walls and towers: Solomon (1 Kg. 9:15; 2 Chron. 8:5); Rehoboam, eventually (2 Chron. 11:1-12, a very instructive passage); Asa (2 Chron. 14:6); Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 17:2, 19; 19:5); and Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:9). Nehemiah’s greatest priority for the protection of the city of Jerusalem after the exile was rebuilding her walls and gates (ch. 3, 6).

When Israel was an established nation, her defense was two-fold. First, by remaining faithful to Yahweh through proper worship, God would be her refuge (Ps. 61:3; 144:2). And, second, God would use fortified cities with strong and tall walls, towers, and gates to keep her safe.

The contrast is clear: not horses; rather, walls. Preemptive aggression does not bring security. Indeed, a king who maintains an army of horses and chariots (1 Sam. 8:11) is one who treats his people like his servants (17). Walls must be maintained, but they do no rely as much on the strength and wealth of the central administration in Jerusalem.

Of course, making a too strong analogy with our modern situation is improper, yet I think the principles should also speak strongly. An established nation doesn’t find its security by means of preemptive aggression. Indeed, those means result in oppression and slavery of the purportedly secure people. Rather, a nation finds true security by strengthening its walls of defense, that is, by focusing on its internal affairs.

1 comment: