The laws of war are mainly recorded in Deuteronomy 20. According to Ferrar Fenton’s outline of Deuteronomy, this section is Moses’ sixth speech. However, we treat it as the end of Moses’ fifth speech, because warfare is part of Kingdom Government and because it is a natural extension of the question, “what is murder?”
When men are executed for capital crimes, God does not consider it to be murder. Neither is a just war considered to be murder. Yet both executions and wars must be conducted according to the mind of God in order to avoid being murder. The main concern, then, is that wars are conducted for the right reasons and are strictly regulated by God’s rules of warfare.
What is a Just War?
The first questions that we must ask ourselves are these: What is a just and righteous war? Under what circumstance does a Prince of Peace wage war? What steps ought to be taken to avoid war altogether? Then, once the decision for war has been made, how does one conduct it in a righteous manner?
In Deuteronomy 20 Moses bypasses all of these questions, because he assumes we already know that the war in question is necessary and is just. Yet there have been many over the years who have waged war for unjust purposes, while cloaking it in religious terms and promoting it through false propaganda to motivate people to fight. For this reason it is imperative that the people know the entire law of God and are led by the Spirit, so that they are not tricked into fighting for the wealth and aggrandizement of carnally-minded leaders.
When one nation wrongs another, they ought to settle the matter between themselves, even as individuals should do (Matt. 18:15-17). If they cannot find a resolution, they should bring witnesses (evidence) in their search for the truth. If this still does not satisfy both parties, then they should take it to an international court—ideally, one that functions according to biblical law and where the justices know the mind of Christ and are led by the Spirit.
If the international court justifies one nation and rules against the other, the case should be settled. If a nation believes that it has been condemned unjustly, that nation may appeal to God Himself, while paying the penalty that is due, and God will take up the matter in His own way. But if the condemned nation refuses to submit to the decision of the court, it is guilty of contempt of court, which is the death penalty (Deut. 17:9-13).
This, then, is a just cause for war. War is a last resort in enforcing justice internationally, even as the system of law enforcement in each nation is designed to do domestically.
God is Responsible for National Defense
When a nation recognizes Jesus Christ and follows His laws and daily leading, the nation will be blessed beyond measure (Deut. 28:1-14). He guarantees this in 28:7,
7 The Lord will cause your enemies who rise up against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out one way and shall flee before you seven ways.
In other words, if we recognized God and obey His law, we would not fight no-win wars, we would not fight open-ended wars for generations, and we would not suffer casualties. Hence, when God raises up an enemy to bring multiple casualties, we know that we ourselves have sinned, and that God is bringing judgment upon us. Casualties, then, should give us cause to repent. Casualties should not be used to motivate men into fighting a war of revenge. Neither do casualties occur in a righteous war.
We are told of no Israelite casualties in the great battle of Jericho, but the next smaller war against Ai saw 36 Israelites killed in battle (Joshua 7:5). Why? God gave the answer to Joshua in verse 11, “Israel has sinned and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them.”
When we are a Kingdom nation under God and in compliance with His law, we are protected by God Himself by covenant. We do not need huge armies or powerful weaponry to protect us. In fact, Deut. 17:16 gives instructions to the kings,
16 Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You shall never again return that way.”
Carnally-minded men are incapable of placing their trust in God for national defense. They do not have faith that God will actually protect them as He promised. So they believe that they must develop large armies and weaponry to retain an advantage over potential enemies. Unfortunately, because they are so carnal, they often end up using their power to threaten or bully other nations, building fear and resentment that may be the cause for the next war.
The Coming Age of Peace
Isaiah prophesied of the day when men would “hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4). This will come about when Christ, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), is recognized among the nations as the King and Heir of all things.
If nations today would recognize Him as King, these blessed conditions would be seen on earth. War would be a thing of the past, and the nations would rejoice, knowing that equal justice was available to all nations, great and small. Psalm 67:4 says,
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for Thou wilt judge the peoples with uprightness and guide the nations on the earth.
In other words, Scripture contemplates a time when war will become unnecessary. It is a time when international justice will be maintained by a King who loves all men and who does not treat nations unequally in matters of justice. The gods of this world favor their own “chosen” people at the expense of others, but Jesus Christ loves all men and admonishes us to love the foreigner as ourselves.
Meanwhile, however, we live in a time when nations do not recognize Jesus Christ’s right to rule the world. As advocates of the Kingdom of God, we are different, and for this reason we present the biblical solution for consideration. Perhaps when men tire of governments that function by the principle of self-interest, and when they see that carnally-minded leaders will never break free of that selfish motive, then they will be ready to consider the biblical solution.
The Two Covenants
The true heart of God cannot be understood in such matters apart from recognizing the difference between the Old and New Covenants and the reason why each came about. There is a different mindset applicable to each. The Old Covenant was given during a time of carnality. The law was not the problem, for the law was an expression of the mind of God. But the hearts of the people were yet rebellious.
When God spoke the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the people ran and refused to hear the voice of God, by which the law might have been written on their hearts. Hence, the law came to them externally on tablets of stone, a set of laws imposed upon a rebellious people. External law enforcement means their carnal hearts were subjected to the law unwillingly, even though they had vowed obedience in Exodus 19:8.
By refusing to hear His voice in Exodus 19:18-21, the people rejected the Holy Spirit and His work to change their hearts from within. In relation to their war with the Canaanites, Israel was left only with a physical sword, whereas they might have been equipped with the armor of God and the Sword of the Spirit. Had they been so equipped, their war would have taken the form of the Great Commission, as was given under the New Covenant many years later.
But because Israel (as a nation) was unable to hear God’s voice in those days, they were required to use physical swords to conquer the land. Even so, God helped them in battle. The only caveat was that God reminded them not to become too dependent upon their ability to make war, nor upon “horses” and powerful weaponry. Even under the Old Covenant, God admonished them live by faith—essentially, by New Covenant principles—for He was teaching them as a man trains his sons in order to bring them to spiritual maturity.
The apparent discrepancy between physical and spiritual warfare is resolved when we understand that the Old Covenant was not the ideal relationship that God desired with Israel. This is apparent also in the difference between animal sacrifice and the perfect Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is apparent in the difference between the two priesthoods, that of Levi with a mortal high priest and that of Melchizedek with an immortal high priest. It is apparent in the difference between an earthly temple with its ritualistic ceremonies and a heavenly temple made of living stones. And finally, it is apparent in the method by which the nations are conquered. Under the Old Covenant, this is done by a physical sword; under the New it is done by the Sword of the Spirit.
While these covenants are vastly different in their methods, we must understand that the discrepancy is explained primarily in the fact that the Kingdom began as an immature nation that needed training (Gal. 4:1). God expected less of immature sons than He expects of us today under the New Covenant. Those who claim to be under the New Covenant ought to act accordingly, having a greater understanding of the mind of God as revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.
The Laws of Spiritual Warfare
Moses begins his speech in Deuteronomy 20, saying,
1 When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.
Here Moses admonishes the people to have faith in God, believing that God is responsible for their national defense as long as they are in obedience to Him.
2 Now it shall come about that when you are approaching the battle, the priest shall come near and speak to the people. 3 And he shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, you are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, 4 for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”
How could the priest assure them of victory? Was this just another motivational speech, based on hype? No, it presumed ahead of time that the priests had already inquired of God and that God had instructed them to go to war. It also presumed that, if necessary, the priests had engaged in spiritual warfare, and that they had already seen the victory by the Spirit. After all, Num. 4:3 describes the priestly ministry in military terms:
3 from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service [enter military service, or literally, “war the warfare”] to do the work in the tent of meeting.
Obviously, the priests did not take up physical arms or conduct physical warfare. Theirs was a call to spiritual warfare. Such spiritual warfare is pictured as occurring in the heavens, but in fact everyone fights an internal battle to overcome the enemy within. When our hearts are right with God, then the victories are complete in the heavens. And when we are conquerors in the heavens, we will be more than conquerors here on earth. All things happen in the spiritual realm before the earthly events occur, because the spiritual conditions are reflected on earth.
There are three main dimensions, or heavens (2 Cor. 12:2), each subdivided into four sections. The first is our physical universe with its length, width, height, and time. The second heaven is the place of spiritual warfare, and it too has its own subdivisions that correlate with those of the first heaven. The third heaven is the place of God’s throne and is where the “man” was caught up in 2 Cor. 12:2.
The second heaven is where spiritual warfare occurs, and as the war progresses, the changes are reflected in the first heaven—here on earth. To make any permanent change on the earth, one must change the spiritual condition in the second heaven. And so, for a priest to predict confidently that the Israelites would win the upcoming battle, he had to see it with the eye of faith, having overcome the enemy in the spiritual battle beforehand.
Under the New Covenant, we do the same spiritual warfare, except that the corresponding earthly warfare is less likely to need a physical sword. Physical warfare is only necessary as a last resort, after the international court’s ruling has been defied or ignored. In such a case, the offending nation is shown to be yet carnal and immature, and this might call for an Old Covenant solution, if God so leads.
The Inner War
Before any nation goes to war (as a last resort), they must search their own hearts and overcome any rebellion and lawlessness. This is to avoid the penalty seen in Matt. 7:2, for as we judge others, we shall be judged by the same standard of measure. Paul says in 2 Cor. 10:3-6,
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. 6 And we are ready to punish [ekdikeo, “to do justice”] all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.
Spiritual warfare, as Paul sees it, is designed to rectify all disobedience in our own hearts, and when our obedience is complete, then the battle has been won. The battle is to overthrow “speculations” (NASB), or human reasonings, carnal thoughts, and secular viewpoints which are contrary to the knowledge of God. Only when that battle has been won can we see full victory manifested on earth.
When Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” He was speaking of the conditions in the third heaven being reflected here on earth. However, it is also true that in the present age, the earth reflects the imperfect conditions of the second heaven. The principle, “as in heaven, so on earth,” is true. Many occultists know this principle and use it all the time to create conditions on earth that are in accord with their own carnal will. Christians, however, are often ignorant of this principle and of spiritual warfare in general, and so they are disadvantaged.
Yet when Christians finally come to appreciate that Deuteronomy 20 is the foundational teaching for spiritual warfare, they will be able to overcome the real enemy and bring righteousness and peace to the earth.