A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 11/03/1996

Exodus 17:8-16

The Lord Is My Banner 8 then Amalek came and fought against the sons of Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, "Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand." 10 And Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set. 13 so Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. 14 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write this in a book as a memorial, and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." 15 And Moses built an altar and named it, "The Lord is my Banner." 16 And he said, "The Lord has sworn: the Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation." INTRODUCTION

Rephidim was destined to be a place Israel would remember. There they put God to the test over the waters of Meribah, and there they experienced their first major military engagement. In both cases, there were lessons about God's goodness and his sufficiency to be hammered home.


The Amalekites were one of the Bedouin tribes that wandered through the wilderness Israel had to traverse on their way to the Promised Land. So they were not invading the Amalekites' homeland as such. The Amalekites just happened to be in the area looking for pasturage for their flocks, and they did not want to share it. God's particular and unquenchable anger against them is explained by the further details given in Deut. 25:17-19. The Amalekite force had not challenged the Israeli army; they "attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary." It was, in other words, a cowardly attack directed against civilians, non-combatants. As King Lune might have said, "by attacking our castle of Anvard in time of peace without defiance sent, you have proved yourself no knight, but a traitor, and one rather to be whipped by the hangman than to be suffered to cross swords with any person of honor" (The Horse and his Boy 208).

Israel had been slaves only a month ago. They had had no military training during their years in Egypt and had had time for precious little since. Was Joshua chosen as general because he had been owned by an Egyptian military officer and perhaps picked up a few things that way? Perhaps. At least he had distinguished himself as a person of strength, courage, and leadership ability. He put together what defense force he could and counterattacked the next day to prevent further predations against the weak and elderly in the Israelite rear. It was pretty much an act of necessity and of desperation. Joshua definitely went into the battle as the underdog.


With the organization of the battle left in the hands of Joshua, what was Moses doing up on the hill? And what did the raising of his hands have to do with Joshua's success? There is no theory so absurd that no biblical critic will propose it. It has been suggested that Moses raised his staff as an encouragement to the Israelite army. Some think it must have been a signal: raised staff meant attack, lowered staff meant retreat. Others speculate that the Israelites superstitiously viewed the staff as having magic properties, so that when they saw it lifted victory became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

A much more sensible view would be that Moses was praying for the army on top of the hill. The staff, though it was taken, drops out of the text after that, and the focus is on Moses' hands. Why? because standing with hands lifted toward heaven in symbolic anticipation of receiving God's blessing was the traditional Hebrew stance adopted for prayer. Think of the Publican of the parable who "would not even lift up his eyes [or hands] to heaven," or of Paul's admonition that Timothy's parishioners pray, "lifting holy hands" (1 Tim. 2:8). In other words, as long as Moses was praying for Joshua and his army, they were winning. When Moses stopped interceding for them, they were losing.

Now, this explanation is very realistic applied to ancient Hebrews, but it might not sound so to us today. "Why this emphasis on position?" we might ask. "Couldn't Moses pray with his hands down?" It almost sounds as superstitious as the "magic staff" explanation. Now, I could say that it is possible that primitive people do not so easily separate inner acts from their accompanying physical gestures as we do, living not in terms of habitual abstraction but in terms of holistic body-soul gestalts. But while I think this is likely to be true, it is not the most significant thing that can be said. We have to remember that this was not some casual bedtime prayer but intense spiritual warfare. At such times, one needs full concentration. I would not argue that we should be superstitious about positions; I myself have prayed in every position imaginable and will continue to do so without apology. But neither can I think they are irrelevant. Try this experiment yourself. One night, say your bedtime prayers kneeling by the bed with your hands folded. Next night, go ahead and get into bed and say them lying down. Which time is more focused, more intense, more meaningful? Probably just imagining the experiment is sufficient to give you the answer without even attempting it. When Moses couldn't keep his hands up, couldn't adopt the position which to him meant "prayer," it hindered his praying, with significant results on the ground.

Another practical lesson from this battle is our need of the support of our brothers and sisters in the Christian life. Moses needed the support of Aaron and Hur in a very literal way. What they were giving was spiritual and moral support, expressed in the very practical physical terms that allowed Moses to continue interceding for the army. It is characteristic of the Old Testament that spiritual realities are expressed in physical terms. The New Testament continues this needed kind of expression, focused most importantly in the sacraments, but there is a sense in which the spiritual meaning comes more into focus on its own terms in the New Testament. In the Old Testament you have a geographical plot of land; in the New we have Heaven. In the Old we defeat Egyptians or Amalekites or Philistines; in the New we defeat Satan. In the Old we have a temple made of wood and stone; in the New we have the spiritual temple in the hearts of believers. My point is that when I speak of Aaron and Hur's action as symbolic of the kind of spiritual and moral support we need from other Christians in the spiritual life, I am not illegitimately "spiritualizing" the text (something I abominate), but merely translating it into New Testament terms. We should grasp the spiritual meaning and then find our own ways of expressing it, which may also be concretely physical, whether it be a hand on a shoulder or a meal prepared.


Let's break down the practical lessons of Moses' intercession even further. One is certainly the importance of prayer. Jesus said, "Without me you can do nothing." A full understanding of the situation described in this passage makes it clear that it was God, not Israel, who defeated the Amalekites. But prayer was the point of contact through which God worked. As C. S. Lewis was fond of saying, "God instituted prayer to give us the dignity of being causes."

Importance of Consistency

A second lesson is the importance of consistency in prayer. Moses did not just ask for victory once and then sit back to watch Joshua administer an attitude adjustment to the enemy. He prayed continually throughout the struggle. Why? Because we need a fresh supply of grace every day, every hour, indeed every moment. Prayer is the way we maintain the relationship with the Father which keeps that grace operative in our lives. Therefore we should "pray without ceasing," as the New Testament says. I got some good advice from a camp counselor once. "When you finish your devotions in the morning, just don't say, 'Amen.'" It is a simple gesture, but a profound one. It implies that the conversation with God has not ended but continues throughout the day--you just aren't talking all the time. But you can resume the verbal part of it at any moment.

Importance of the Use of Means

We also see here the importance of the use of means in prayer. "Means" are external supports that are not inherently necessary but are nonetheless very helpful. For Moses they were a staff, a rock, uplifted hands, and two friends. For us they may be the Bible, the sound expository preaching of the Word, public worship, the elements of the Lord's Supper. They may also be a position, a rock, and some friends, just as they were for Moses. And why not a hymnbook or a prayerbook? We let other believers "lead" us in prayer in a public service without thinking that it is incompatible with spontaneity or sincerity. Why not let the great saints who have gone before do it too?

Importance of "Prayer Warriors"

And surely we see here the importance of "prayer warriors." No doubt most believers should pray more, but some are called to a special ministry of prayer, as Moses was here. Prayer is not a substitute for work. If Moses had just prayed without commissioning Joshua to fight, it would have been just as much of a disaster as Joshua trying to fight without Moses praying. You may have one role at one time, the other role at another, or both at once. Both are absolutely essential.


No one can honestly pursue the pastoral ministry without becoming convinced of the absolute necessity of supernatural power if anything significant or lasting is to be accomplished in the Lord's work. In myself I can do nothing. Whatever talents or abilities I might have are impotent against the spiritual darkness we are trying to overcome. It is important to have those abilities and to dedicate them completely, but it is not enough to do so; of themselves, they can do nothing. It would be just as useless for me to get into the pulpit without praying as it would be to do so without preparing. Neither is a substitute for the other. But what many people do not realize is that even that is not enough. It is just as useless for me to get into the pulpit without you praying as it would be for me to do so without my own praying and preparing. You are indispensable. So be faithful in prayer, be consistent in prayer, and you and I and all of us will be blessed and God's work will go forward. Amen.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 11/13/2003