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The Hope of War

Click here to read Deuteronomy 20 on BibleGateway.com

 “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” – Deuteronomy 20:19

civilwarIt’s interesting how fascinated we are by war.  We write poems about it, make stirring and heroic movies about it, and create imaginary wars when we’re kids.  We use war and battle for metaphors in sports (“those linemen are doing some heavy battle down in the trenches”), and even use war as a symbol for relationships (on occasion, of course).

But the reality is different.  Men come home from war, not heroically, but with post-traumatic stress disorders.  Some may never come home at all.  Many of the diaries you can read of men in war time are not filled with inspiring quotes or poems; they talk of wanting to go home, of seeing their loved ones one more time, or the horrors of watching friends and comrades killed or maimed in front of them.  As more than one general has said; war is as close to hell as we get on earth.


Of course, there’s little question that war is sometimes necessary.  The obvious example is World War II; there are always the fringe debaters, but nearly everyone agrees that stopping Hitler was necessary, even at a terrible cost.  Sometimes the necessity of protecting innocent lives requires taking another life; but it’s rarely glorious and never beautiful.

Because it accurately describes reality, the Bible has frequent descriptions of war, primarily regarding the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament.  Christians have struggled for centuries with the carnage described in these books, and even moreso with the seemingly genocidal commands of God regarding the nations around them.

But notice that even in war, God demands self control.  They were not just to run rampant through the countryside, killing and looting to their hearts content.  In the very first battle, at Jericho, they were not even allowed to take any plunder at all, but instead dedicate it all to God.  People who desired peace were to be treated well, and there are multiple stories of “enemies” joining with the Israelites (Rahab, for example).


In our reading today, God even extends that idea of self-control to the environment.  In a siege, the armies were allowed to cut down nearby trees for siege works, but not to destroy fruit trees.  Why would God include such a random command?

One – it required the armies to have self-control, even while performing violent acts.  Throughout the Bible, violence, and especially killing, are always done in a restrained manner.  Sometimes necessary, but never to be enjoyed or pursued.

Two – it required discernment.  Notice that God does not say “don’t cut down any trees,” nor does He say “cut down any trees you want.”  But they could cut down trees that were not producing fruit.  This would require a moment’s reflection and possibly some patience, depending on the time of year.

Three – Hope.  Leaving the fruit trees to produce again reminded the armies that war was temporary.  Chaos and pain and death will eventually pass. Someday, life would go on again.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment of our struggle.  If we are fighting depression, it seems like it will never end.  If we are having marital problems, divorce seems like the only option.  If we are betrayed by a friend, we are tempted to never trust another.  But God always reminds us that trouble is short-term;  don’t burn down the house because there’s a few repairs to do.  Look to the future; there is always hope when we trust God and his plan, no matter what the current situation is.

Someday, those trees may blossom again.  Don’t give up.

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