The LORD Is My Banner | Exodus 17:8-16

The truth is that a life well lived is always lived on a rising scale of difficulty.

As a little kid, I had a job: Obey my mother. Don’t lie. Play hard. Be kind to my sisters.

At the time, that job was actually difficult. My mom kept saying things like, “Come here.” And, “No jumping on the couch.” Or, “Don’t stand on the doorknob and swing on the door.” And, “No hitting.”

But my sisters were there, and so were my fists. The couch was bouncy. Doors are cool to swing on.

Man, I was bad at my job…

And just as I began to get good at my job, I got promoted. The law remained the same, but the number of ways in which it was possible to transgress radically increased. I was bigger. I was faster. I was a school.

It’s that way for all of us. But the promotions come regardless of whether or not we’ve actually improved. If you are bad at being two, you will be bad at beign four. If you’re bad at being four, you will be bad at being six.

Temptations increase. Potential fails multiply. We look at a two-year-old attempting to overthrow righteousness and establish evil in all the land, and we snicker. Lazy parents tell themselves that the wee little he (or she) will outgrow this little tendency of theirs.

Yipes. Wong. Buzzer. Gong.

What they mean is that the child will grow into someone else’s problem. Once they are at day care, the struggle will be out of sight and will be dealt with by other struggling peers and/or unrelated adults. Or not.

The school years escalate in difficulty and multiply in temptation. Add sports and friends and hormones and petty power structures. You can now sit in huge chunks of hurtling metal, taking the lives of every one of your passengers and every passenger in every other passing chunk of metal and every passing pedestrian and every passing bicyclist into your irresponsible hands. You can now make mistakes that kill people (and you). Off to college and mustachioed professors will pour nonsense all over you. You are ready or you aren’t. And you can now (far more easily than in high school) ruin your life forever.

You are now on your own.

And then you aren’t. Other real live souls are now depending on you. You are the creator of their childhoods. You are the influencer of their dreams and tastes and fears. You are the emcee of all reality, the one to introduce those small people to the true personality of their Maker (as imaged by your life more than your words). The choices you now make have lives riding on them. Always. Their problems and struggles are yours to help them resolve. Their weaknesses yours to strengthen. Or not. (Maybe they’ll outgrow them.)…

Our challenges always build. A ninety-five-year-old man sits in his chair with a wandering mind because a century cannot pass without many blows. That much life is heavy for the strongest shoulders. A young man might feel bold; he might feel courageous, gambling with life and death. And he might be courageous. But he trusts his strength; he feels as if he could fight, as if he could run, as if he has a chance. He may even choose his danger.

It takes a different kind of courage to face death when you cannot run, when you cannot fight, when you are pinned beneath heavy decades, beneath the weight of life–when your faith really must be in another.

Those words from N. D. Wilson are some of the most impactful words that I have ever read. Time really does keep marching on, ready or not, and life really does get more difficult as you go on. Thankfully, the road to maturity can be entered at any time, but the further the can is kicked the more the difficulty compounds.

As we have seen, the same is also true for Israel as a whole. Yahweh redeemed them from the Egypt with many signs and wonders so that they would know Him, and even though they did not fully learn that lesson, their journey into the wilderness began with new lessons being given to them. So far, in the couple of months that they have been out of Egypt, they have failed three times to trust in the LORD as their Provider, but ready or not the next test soon came upon them, which is exactly what we find in our present text.


Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. We ought to feel a bit jarred by the abruptness of this verse. The word then clearly means for us to observe a connection between Israel’s quarreling with Moses over water and Amalek’s quarrel with Israel, but did Israel’s testing of God cause this battle with the Amalekites? Spurgeon suggests this answer:

On the one hand this attack on Israel was Amalek’s great sin, on account of which the nation was doomed to be destroyed (v. 14). But, on the other hand, this assault was the result of Israel’s sin, for it is significantly put after the strife at Massah and Meribah. The point is this—persecution may come to us from evil people acting according to their wickedness. But at the same time, it may be our sin that lies at the bottom of it, and because we have erred, they have been permitted and even appointed to bring us trouble.[1]

I agree with Spurgeon’s assessment that both thoughts can be held together. Clearly, the Amalekites were acting wickedly here. Indeed, the suddenness of this verse is likely intended to reflect the suddenness of the battle itself. At the end of the forty-year wandering, Moses would recount this event to the Israel by saying,

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

From what little we know about the Amalekites, that description fits perfectly. They were essentially a nation of nomadic thieves, roaming the outskirts of civilization, attacking and stealing whatever they could. Thus, they did not meet the Israelites directly as if they were a noble nation defending their homeland. No, they took advantage of Israel’s false sense of security from being in the middle of the wilderness and believing that they were entirely isolated from any other nations, and they attacked Israel’s weakest that were lagging behind, like lions cornering the limping gazelle. So, this attack was entirely the sin of the Amalekites.

Yet the LORD is also clearly using this to test Israel. They refused to trust in the LORD to give them water, putting Him on trial instead. Now, in God’s divine providence, the Amalekites make war on Israel, forcing them to trust in His protection.


After the unprovoked attack by the Amalekites, verse 9 then gives us how Moses and the Israelites responded: So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.

This is the first mention of Joshua in the Bible, and he is introduced as if Moses expects for us to already be familiar with Israel’s military commander. Moses, we ought to remember, was eighty years old at this point in history, and Joshua clearly belongs to the generation below him. We know that Joshua’s fellow faithful spy Caleb was forty years old whenever they spied out the land of Canaan (Joshua 14:7), and of the exodus generation, only Joshua and Caleb were permitted to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:30). Thus, Joshua was probably around Caleb’s age, that is, in his 30s or 40s.

Joshua would, of course, become Moses’ successor as Israel’s leader and would be the one who would lead Israel into Canaan and into their many battles of judgment with the inhabitants of that land. Thus, it is fitting that Joshua’s first mention in the Bible would be in relation to a military conflict.

Seeing that the rear of Israel was being harassed and perhaps even cut off by the Amalekites, Moses gave Joshua the task of assembling a fighting force to defeat the enemy. We ought to remind ourselves here that Israel had only been thrust out of Egypt for about two months at this point, and while they did plunder the Egyptians of their wealth, we have not been told that they left Egypt well-armed for combat. Indeed, everything we have read so far indicates that Israel was not prepared for combat, which was the significance of the LORD fighting unilaterally on their behalf. Thus, Joshua’s task of choosing men to fight was probably not the challenge of assembling an elite and efficient force; rather, he was likely sent to assemble a makeshift army of men who were physically capable of battle and possessed some kind of weapon.

This is a powerful picture of our own salvation. God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt clearly corresponds with our justification through Christ. Just as the LORD told Israel upon the shores of the Red Sea “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:14), that is precisely how our sin is defeated in Christ. He fought the decisive battle upon the cross. He paid for each and every one of our sins once for all with His sinless and divine blood. We only have to be silent. We only have to believe in His name and to cast our faith upon His atoning work. Amen!

Yet, like the Israelites, our deliverance from Egypt is not simultaneously our entrance into the Promised Land. Even though we are fully forgiven in Christ for our sin, we are not yet fully freed from the grip of sin. That will only happen whenever we are glorified, either upon death or the return of our Lord. In between our justification and glorification is our sanctification, which is our continual war against our sinful flesh throughout this life. This battle with the Amalekites is a fitting image of our sanctification as Paul describes in Philippians 2:12-13, saying, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is precisely what happened with Israel during this battle. Israel was still dependent upon the LORD for victory, yet this time God worked their deliverance through their own swords.

As evidence of their dependence upon the LORD for victory, Moses leaves the military command in the hands of Joshua and devotes himself to another work: holding up his staff, likely in prayer, on top of the hill for Israel’s soldiers to see. God may have verbally commanded Moses to do this, but I think it is more likely that Moses was simply acting under the wisdom of the Spirit, realizing that prayer would be just as crucial to victory as the actual fighting, which becomes clear in the following verses.


So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.

Here we are told how the battle with the Amalekites fared. Joshua led the actual fighting, while Moses stood upon the hill with the staff held high, most likely in prayer. Although the Israelites were certainly at the disadvantage, they prevailed so long as Moses kept the staff raised high. Thus, help was required from Aaron and Hur to keep his hands lifted up. And by the end of the day, the Israel was victorious.

It is right for us to emphasize Moses’ weakness and need of help in these verses; however, we ought to take care that we understand the true nature of his weakness. Again, Moses was eighty years old, but his age was not the source of his weakness. Deuteronomy 34:7 tells us that “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated.” God clearly preserved Moses’ vigor and health until the very end of his life. Rather, as Henry notes, “the strongest arm will fail with being long extended.” The weakness of Moses is not the point; the weakness of all men is. Joshua would have likewise been unable to keep the staff raised without the support of others, even though he was able to wield his sword the entire day against the Amalekites. Indeed, Henry goes on to note the spiritual principle that is being presented:

We do not find that Joshua’s hands were heavy in fighting, but Moses’ hands were heavy in praying. The more spiritual any service is the more apt we are to fail and flag in it. Praying work; if done with due intenseness of mind and vigour of affection, we be found hard work, and thought the spirit is willing, the flesh will be weak.[2]

I have frequently found Henry’s assessment to be true. Prayer very often is the most strenuous work. It requires faith to cry out to God continuously while also trusting in His unknowable will. It requires focus and attention to martial the very best of our mind and heart to speak to the invisible God. It requires diligence and devotion to prioritize prayer. In fact, it is far easier to trust our own strength, come what may, than to cast our souls fully upon the LORD. As Lewis Allen notes,

If we were actually honest with each other, it would be acceptable to confess that our prayers are rushed, shallow, or even nonexistent. We have been shallowed up by the activism of our age. To pray seems weak, a cowardly retreat from the world and the work.[3]

Of course, diligence in prayer does not make our actions null and void. The visibility of Moses and his staff was a sign to the Israelites that God would give them victory, just like He did over Pharaoh in Egypt. Yet the LORD did not use plagues this time to judge the Amalekites, He was using the Israelites themselves. They were becoming, as a people and nation, God’s servants and instruments, just like Moses was before Pharaoh during the exodus. Joshua and his soldiers really did have to fight for their lives against the Amalekites, but their victory only came from the LORD through the prayers of Moses. Ryken notes how this principle applies to us as individuals and collectively as the church:

What happens when we do not pray? It is very simple: We start losing the battle, even if we have put on the full armor of God. We may be wearing the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. However, if we do not ask God to save us, we will not be able to make our stand against the devil. Instead we will be led away from the truth into error. We will give in to temptation. We will be dragged down into doubt and discouragement.

This is true not only for Christians but also for the church. If we do not ask God to defend us, then our members will be divided, our leaders will fall into sin, our missionaries will fail to see any fruit, and the lost will not hear the gospel. Both individually and corporately, the neglect of prayer means the loss of spiritual warfare. Even if we fight like Joshua, we will not win the battle unless we pray like Moses.[4]

Yet we should again remember the weakness that Moses displays again. The man of God whom the LORD spoke face-to-face as a friend still needed the aid of others to keep his hands held high. How much more do we who are not Moses need the support of one another throughout the battles of life? And even more than we need each other, we need to the support of Christ our Savior who is the greater Moses and the greater Joshua, as Henry again notes:

No doubt it was great encouragement to the people to see Joshua before them in the field of battle and Moses above them upon the top of the hill: Christ is both to us—our Joshua, the captain of our salvation who fights our battles, and our Moses, who, in the upper world, ever lives making intercession, that our faith fail not.[5]


Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

In the aftermath of Israel’s first battle outside of Egypt, memorials are established. The first memorial is explicitly commanded by the LORD, and it is the first instance of Moses being told by God to write down the events that he was living in a book. That book presumably became the very book of Exodus that we are still studying today.

Yet notice that Moses was specifically commanded to write down the LORD’s promise to destroy the Amalekites completely. The battle was decisively won, but the Amalekites were far from being wiped off the face of the planet. Even so, God promised to do precisely that. For their exceeding wickedness and for this specific attack upon Israel in the wilderness, the LORD would not spare the Amalekites. The surety of that promise can be seen today, since there are no longer any Amalekites under heaven.

Notice also that Moses was to recite this promise in the ears of Joshua. Even here in Joshua’s first mention in the Bible, we find the LORD preparing the future leader for his task. Joshua’s task, we should note, was quite different from his predecessor. God used Moses certainly as a channel to work the Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but God also gave Israel His law through Moses. Joshua’s role was decisively military. God used Moses to shape a bunch of slaves into a nation, but God used Joshua to lead that nation in its conquest of other nations. Under Joshua’s command, Israel would slaughter entire people groups as they became the flood of God’s judgment and wrath upon the Canaanites; thus, Joshua needed to keep God’s word of judgment at heart from the very beginning.

The second memorial of the battle was an altar built by Moses, which he named The LORD Is My Banner. Like Noah after leaving the ark and like the patriarchs after a word from the LORD, Moses erected an altar to offer sacrifices to the LORD in thanksgiving for giving them victory. As you might expect, the name of the altar is highly significant. A banner was a rod or flag kept high above a battle so that soldiers could have a means of keeping oriented during the chaos of combat. Moses’ staff very much was a banner for Joshua and his men to look upon during their battle, yet the staff was only meant to represent God’s presence among His people. Yahweh Himself was Israel’s banner. He was the signal of their victory in the very heat of battle as well as their vision and clarity despite the chaos of war.

The LORD is still the banner of His people today. I find it frustrating that so many people want to pit theology and practicality against one another, as if doctrine is entirely divorced from our devotion to the LORD. In reality, our meditations upon God through His Word ought to be the banner upon which we orient ourselves every hour of every day. Indeed, to say, as many do, that theology is unnecessary because following Jesus every day is what is truly important is rather like saying that you shouldn’t look at a GPS because you should be focused on driving. Yes, your eyes still need to be on the road, but GPS does wonders to keep you from getting lost or from just driving in endless circles. In the same way, actual physical obedience is always expected but gazing upon God through His Word is how we make certainly that our obedience is in the right direction.

Both of these memorials, the book and the altar, are important because events do not repeat themselves. When a moment passes from the present to the past, it is eternally in the past. It will never come around again. Certainly, there may be moments of similarity, but never pure repetition. The Infinite One is too creative for that. This holds true for the single most important event in all of creation as well. The crucifixion of Christ will never be repeated. It stands eternally fixed in a moment in time, at a specific place and time in actual history. While we never return to that greatest mingling of God’s wrath and love, a memorial has been established for us as well. All four Gospels center their narratives around the death of the God-man, and they were expressly written so that we might still look upon the cross and believe.

An altar also has been raised, and throughout the world, God’s people gather together on Sunday morning to taste and see the goodness of God through a bite of bread and a sip of the cup. In doing so, we proclaim Christ’s victorious death and resurrection and confess our hope in His return to make all things new. This Supper is a physical memorial that has been strategically placed at the start of our week so that we will orient ourselves around the banner of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a declaration that the battle has been won, that our sin has been defeated, that forgiveness has been purchased, that communion with the Father has been renewed, but also that the war still rages a little while longer, that our Enemy knows his time is short and is looking for whom he may devour, and that unless we abide in Christ we will drift away. Thus, as we eat and drink, let our eyes be lifted up to Christ, our Banner and our Champion.

[1] Charles Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible, 96.

[2] Matthew Henry, Commentaries Vol 1: Genesis-Deuteronomy, 347.

[3] Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism, 194.

[4] Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 426.

[5] Henry, Commentaries Vol 1, 347.


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