In Deuteronomy 20:1-9 Moses told Israelite soldiers not to fear because “the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory” (verse 4).Moses then talked about giving draft deferments to any man who, for various reasons (just built a house, just got married, just planted a vineyard), shouldn’t fight, pen yamut bamilchamah (“lest he die in battle”[verse 7, KJV]).
Lest he die in battle?
The Lord just finished telling the soldiers not to fear, because He was going to “fight for you against your enemies.” Yet He still issued the caveat pen yamut bamilchamah? God fights for them, yet some might be killed anyway?
Why not? Look at what Hebrews said happened to many of God’s faithful servants: “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated” (Heb. 11:36, 37).From all outward appearances, these people weren’t much better off than those Israelite soldiers who might have been killed in battle.
Look at all that Joseph suffered, even though Scripture said that “the Lord was with him” (Gen. 39:21). And if any sinner ever had the anointing of God, it was certainly John the Baptist, whose stay in the big house didn’t end as nicely as did Joseph’s: “So [Herod] immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went [and] beheaded John in the prison” (Mark 6:27). Jesus said, “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Yet this is what John gets?
How could this be?
It’s because our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and fingers funnel to us a very limited view of what’s really out there. And what’s really out there is much richer, more multilayered and complicated, than what our narrow, filtered, and faulty senses reveal.
In a hilarious poem called “Spiritual Chickens,” Stephen Dobyns wrote about a man “constantly being squeezed between the world and his idea of the world.” Isn’t that all of us?
We’re constantly bombarded by a host of unsensed forces, from the sun, from the big bang, from smartphones and tablets—neutrinos, gamma rays, electromagnetic radiation, muons—and who knows what else? How many million cell phone calls are zapping you right now, though you see, feel, taste, hear, and smell none of them, even if all of them are just as real as your own sweat and consciousness?
Our neurons don’t sprout enough synaptic connections for us to conceive of the entire cosmos, much less fully grasp the spiritual forces, the principalities and powers, jousting in it (see Eph. 6:12). Poor Job’s sure didn’t. So many evil things happen at ground level that we can’t make sense out of because evil can’t be made sense out of. Only in the big picture, when God brings to “light what is hidden in darkness” (1 Cor. 4:5),will we come to understand at least what’s understandable.
However bizarre his philosophy, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed that history was rational, and that it was moving toward a final goal. In this sense he was right, and that sweep of history itself, and that goal, are succinctly revealed in Daniel 2 and Daniel 7, powerful evidence to buttress our faith until we reach the goal: “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan. 2:44).
More than a half century ago Albert Camus wrote: “This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but those worries.” He was right. We believe that this “higher meaning” does exist, and that it was most powerfully revealed at the cross of Christ. The cross points us to a hope that goes beyond what our immediate senses could ever reveal, a hope that transcends this world and its worries, even when among those worries is the warning: pen yamut bamilchamah.