The Lord's people are trained to advance through an ancient battle in the wilderness
So God led the people through the desert toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up from Egypt in military formation. - Exodus 13:18 (ISV)
As the death of Prince Philip was recently broadcast around the world, many of his royal assignments were highlighted, and one such duty was his honorary patronage as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Canadian Regiment. One article that came across my news-feed mentioned Prince Philip’s numerous visits to the 31st Canadian Brigade Group out of London, On and it showed a photo of the Prince during one of those visits… a photo that also hangs in the halls of Wolseley Barracks… a photo I remember well.
It was near the beginning of my brief service in the 4th Battalion Infantry Reserve, stationed out of London’s Wolseley Barracks, that I first saw that photo. Extensive military exercises throughout the day, instructional courses extending into the wee hours of the night and demanding physical training that commenced at 5am were all responsible for an exhausting and often painful inauguration into the rigid discipline and routine of military life. Whatever naively-assumed idea of basic training I had arrived with quickly evaporated after one particularly gruelling march in the early-morning rain, and an exchange of pleasantries with the Master Warrant Officer – ‘McBURNEY!! Because you seem to be incapable of shaving with anything other than a dull spoon you’re on latrine duty, you clown!!’ (minus the Master Warrant’s salient and rather imaginative use of cuss words). As I tried to stomach the thought of soon being elbow-deep in a toilet shared by a couple dozen soldiers, my appetite for breakfast immediately waned, and I wandered a short distance from the Mess Hall, absently gazing at the few photos that hung on the otherwise unadorned walls… one of which was that picture of Prince Philip. Quietly, our Sargent approached and calmly said, ‘You do realize the whole point of this, right? Basic training is meant to eliminate your civilian tendencies; it’s meant to dismantle the life you had and rebuild it in the military’s liking… now get back to the Mess Hall.’ Although it did little to comfort me at the time, unbeknownst to Sargent Penford that morning, he may very well have provided one of the most astute explanations for the reality of God’s people as they enter life in the wilderness.
Twice (Ex.13:3 & 14), as Israel is hastily preparing to leave Egypt, God’s people are reminded that for more than 400 years, they existed as slaves in the land, but as they are departing from that realm of captivity, something remarkable occurs. God leads His people "through the desert toward the Red Sea... and the Israelites were armed for battle." (Ex.13:18 GNT) Occurring only 3 other times in the Bible (Josh.1:14; 4:12 & Judg.7:11), this verse uses a very unique word (chamushim) also translated as: ‘battle formation’, ‘armed warriors’, or ‘equipped for war’, to depict Israel’s wilderness transformation from a group of rag-tag captives into a military entity. We find something similar occurring in Numbers 1 when God directs Moses to take a census of Israel in the wilderness. Moses is instructed not to number the people according to tribes or families, but to “number them by their armies.” (Num.1:3 NASB) When God redeems His people, He not only brings them out of a life of bondage in a land of oppression, He brings them into battle formation… and a life of war in the wilderness.
Interestingly, upon leaving Egypt, Israel is led away from the land of the Philistines because they are not yet ready to face battle (Ex.13:17). Though they have suddenly become ‘equipped for war’, they have yet to be trained and disciplined in the fundamentals of their newly-acquired military reality. The mentality and sensibilities that God's people adopt in captivity must be dismantled and replaced, and the wilderness becomes the context for the basic training of God’s newly-formed army.
In Israel’s old covenant context, their military existence eventually demands physical confrontation, but we don’t find God’s people being instructed in hand-to-hand combat, or weapons manoeuvres; rather, their immediate immersion into wilderness hostilities centers on the reality of a spiritual conflict - a conflict that first began in Eden. Armed with devious deceit, the Serpent attacked first, convincing Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, but it’s God who actually pronounces a formal declaration of war with the Serpent – “I will put enmity/hostility between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen3:15 NIV)
Israel enters the wilderness in ‘chamushim’, and they may be ‘equipped for battle’ as they stand between the Egyptians and the Red Sea, but it’s God who has absolute command of that wilderness battlefield. It quickly becomes obvious that this theatre of war is a stage upon which the Lord will exercise His matchless power, and initiate the training of His people. It is God who expertly lays an ambush (Ex.13:1-4); it is God who engages in combat (Ex.14:14); it is God who orders a forward march (Ex.14:15); it is God who lays down cover for His people (Ex.14:19-20); it is God who launches the offensive (Ex.14:24-25); it is God who is making all the tactical decisions (Ex.14:26); and it is God who attains victory (Ex.14:30) It is God alone who storms the desert with divine shock and awe, as His people are being trained to trust His command to move forward; as they advance in faithful reliance in their cosmic Warrior-King.
The Lord’s people today are expected to continue advancing through that ancient, spiritual battlefield - relentlessly warring against our sin (Rom.7:23), constantly combatting the deceptive influences of the world (2Cor.10:3-5), persistently moving forward into enemy territory with the gospel (Mt.28:20; Mk.16:15) … and doing so, only as we are equipped and empowered by the entirety of God’s gracious enablement (Eph.6:12-20).
Some days the battle can feel more fierce than others – when profound brokenness and loss is experienced, when temptations and failures surge, when the world around us seems to grow darker, and when our gospel message appears to be met with ever-increasing hostility… but not only can God be trusted to carry us through every one of our battles, He has secured our ultimate victory. In fact, we are never advancing through our wilderness in pursuit of victory… we are advancing FROM victory.
At the end of His life, God’s Son was taken outside the walls of Jerusalem to be executed and He was brought to Golgotha, a hill known as ‘The Skull’. As Jesus, ‘the seed of the woman’, was crucified on that hill, the serpent indeed struck His heel, but as His cross was driven into ‘The Skull’, the head of the enemy was crushed by Christ and we now advance with ultimate, everlasting victory having been secured for us. We find strength and courage to advance through our wilderness battlefield in faithful dependence on our great God, as we move steadily closer toward the most glorious victory celebration awaiting on the horizon of eternity.
We are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age. - Ephesians 6:12 (GNT)