Okay. Picking up again where we left off last week: God has been leading his newly liberated nation of Israel ever deeper into the Arabian desert east of Egypt. They are now camped in a place called Rephidim, alongside a river flowing with fresh, life-giving water.
But that river is actually a new feature. Rephidim used to be a waterless wasteland. But last week, in response to God’s instructions, Moses and some of the elders of Israel walked some hours — or perhaps even a day or two — away from camp until they came to the mountain where Moses had first met God in flames of fire, Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. And there Moses had struck a particular rock that God showed him, and out of that rock this river began to flow, down from the foothills of God’s mountain into the wilderness, transforming it into a place of life and order, just like the rivers that flowed down out of the Garden of Eden in the beginning.
And if you have been reading with us through the Book of Exodus over the last few weeks, then you know that the creation of this river of life is really just the end of a series of three exams, three tests that God has led his people through.
Like all exams, God’s tests have been designed to reveal just how much — or how little — his people are progressing in their studies. And their “studies”, in this case, means ”their relationship with God”. They were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt; now they are children of God. But while their freedom is the literal, physical truth, like all human beings the Israelites’ mindset has been lagging behind a bit. Their deliverance from Egypt happened suddenly; all at once they discovered that they are God’s firstborn nation — but they are still struggling to realize what this really means for them.
That is why God has been testing them: to mark where they are and to measure their progress as they learn how to relate to him as a Heavenly Father rather than as a slave master.
And over the last few weeks we have seen God’s people make a lot of good progress in a very short time. On the morning after they crossed the sea, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant. They understood that God is their Heavenly Father, not a bloodthirsty slave master like Pharaoh. They understood that they could not go back, that their only hope for a future lay ahead at a mountain on the far side of the wilderness. And they have consistently followed wherever God and Moses led them; they have been growing in their faith.
Unfortunately, they have also been growing in their capacity for complaint and rebellion. They have been following God — which is good! — but they have followed like children do: with a bad attitude. Because, really, they have had no choice.
And we can understand this. When we were small we all had to eat what we were given, and we did not always like what we were given. And if you were anything like me, you let your parents know about your discontent.
Once, when I was about 8, my mother made a brinjal casserole for dinner. I hated it. I said it tasted like throw up, and that if I ate any more I would throw up. My father had a different perspective: he informed me that I was, in fact, going to eat more, and that if I chose to throw up I would get a spanking.
That is when I discovered two important truths: first, that throwing up can be a choice. Second, that there was a limit to what my father would tolerate.
And that was a good lesson. I never doubted that my father and mother loved me, but it was clear from my behaviour that I was beginning to take advantage of their love. And my father was making sure I understood that this was not an appropriate response to my mother’s kindness. And because of his warning, I grew up a little bit that night.
Well, the people of Israel have just learned a similar lesson. Over the course of the last three exams we have seen them go from whining two-year-olds who did not know any better to whining, manipulative, confrontational teenagers. And just last week, even as God provided a new river of life for them, he let them know that if they continued to deliberately test him and accuse him of being a bad God, then he would have to spank them — quite literally: strike them, just as Moses struck the rock at Horeb.
And so, as we return to the narrative today, we are wondering: have God’s people grown up at all? Or are they still stuck in that awkward adolescent stage of their relationship with their Father? Let’s read on and find out:
So here are the Israelites, moving through the desert of Rephidim. For several weeks they have been eating this new bread from heaven that their Father provides for them; they have been practicing this new seven-day Sabbath cycle of rest; and now, as of last week, they are drinking the water from this new river of life while they follow it slowly up toward its source among the foothills of Mount Sinai. But even as they travel:
 The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.
And in the Book of Deuteronomy Moses describes what happened here in more detail: just when the Israelites were weary and worn out, the Amalekites intercepted them and attacked the weak who had fallen behind.
So clearly this is now the fourth test, the fourth exam in the wilderness. The first was a test of thirst; the second a test of hunger; the third another test of thirst. This is now — finally — the test of war that God did not want to give them back when they were first escaping from Egypt.
If you recall from Chapter 13, God could have led his people directly north, onto the main coastal highway, and they might have arrived home in Palestine just 11 days later. But the coastal highway is controlled by the Philistines, a nation of pirates, and God thought, “Too soon! If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”
Well, now, finally, they have grown up enough, and God believes they are ready to face the test of war.
And we are ready to find out whether the people are actually going to pass this exam!
But before we do that, we should pause here and ask: who are these Amalekites, and why are they attacking Israel?
To answer the first question: the Amalekites are the descendants of a man named Amalek, who was a grandson of Esau. Remember him? Esau was Isaac’s oldest son, Jacob’s older brother. Jacob became the father of the Israelites; Esau became the father of the Amalekites. So the Amalekites, as a nation, are actually distantly related to Israel.
Second question: so why, then, would the Amalekites attack their own relatives?
Well, the Amalekites are a nomadic desert people, and this is their territory. Just as the Philistine pirates control the coastal highway to Palestine, so also the Amalekite bedouins control the desert highways. And as we have seen, nothing much grows in this wilderness: there is very little food, very little water. Which means that, really, the Amalekites survive by stealing from the trade caravans that travel through their territory. Relatives or not, Israel must have been a very tempting target for them: thousands of men, women and children travelling slowly with thousands of animals — not to mention all the gold, silver, and expensive clothing they plundered from the Egyptians! So:
The short answer to these questions is: the Amalekites are a desert tribe that survives by raiding travellers, and the Israelites are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there is a deeper answer to these questions also.
On the surface this could be interpreted as a random attack of convenience; but if we dig down a bit into history we find that there is actually a deeper significance to the fact that these two nations are related, and that the nation descended from Isaac’s older son is now attacking the nation descended from Isaac’s younger son:
Remember back with me to the original relationship between the brothers. Esau was the firstborn, Jacob was second. But Esau traded away his firstborn status to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of red curry, and so Jacob became Isaac’s firstborn, along with all the rights and privileges that comes with that. When Esau figured out how Jacob had robbed him, he tried to murder Jacob so he could steal back his firstborn status, and Jacob had to run to his uncle’s house for 20+ years. And it was during those years that Jacob began the family that would grow up to become God’s firstborn nation.
So the Amalekites would have been God’s firstborn nation if their ancestor Esau had not given that status away. Israel is God’s firstborn nation instead. And now, five hundred years later, one of the privileges of being God’s firstborn nation is plenty of water and plenty of bread, even in the wilderness. These are the resources the Amalekites have decided they are going to take for themselves. So:
In short, the Amalekites are now symbolically trying to kill Israel and steal back the rights and privileges of the firstborn status their ancestor Esau so foolishly gave away. They are refusing to accept that God has disqualified them, that their own ancestor disqualified them.
In fact, to borrow some of the concepts we learned last week, the Amalekites are testing God. They desire the rights and privileges that come with firstborn nation status; God has denied them their desires. Yes, they can gain firstborn nation status, but only by submitting to Israel, not by fighting against. But the Amalekites, in their frustration, have decided that they are going to take what they want when they want it. Like confrontational teenagers, they are going to force their will on the Heavenly Father who created them.
Let’s read on and find out how God responds:
 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
Ah. Okay. This part will also take some explanation. Because now we are wondering: who is this dude Joshua? Why is he choosing men? Why is Moses going to stand on a hill with the staff of God in his hands?
Joshua is a new character to us. But apparently, during the months since the people escaped from Egypt, Joshua has become recognized among the people as a young man — in his late thirties, or perhaps early forties — who has a gift for military training and organization. In the Hebrew language his name — Yeshua — means “Yahweh is deliverance.”
And this explains why Joshua is supposed to choose some men to fight: he knows which men are trained and ready. And very likely this means every man with a sword or long knife of some kind, which may not have been very many. Remember, these people have been slaves all their lives; slaves are usually forbidden to own or use weapons. We do not know what weapons the Israelites managed to carry away with them from Egypt; but what we can know is that Joshua’s hand-picked army is no match for the fierce desert warriors of the Amalekite nation.
And this explains why Moses needs to stand on a hill with the staff of God in his hands. Already in the Book of Exodus we have learned that God is El-Shaddai, the Mountain God; in the beginning he appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, and he is leading his people back to that same mountain now. So when Moses stands on a nearby hill with God’s staff in his hands, he is standing as a physical symbol and reminder of how God is with them even now, even though they have not yet reached the mountain on the far side of the wilderness.
In other words: the point Moses is making is that God is going to fight this battle for them, just like he fought against the Egyptians at the sea. The only difference is that, instead of using water to win the fight, this time God is going to use Joshua and his men. So their small size and lack of training does not matter.
 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill.
Okay, another new character: who is this guy named Hur?
Well, again, Hur is new to us, but obviously well-known to the people. Later on we will find out that he is one of the chief elders of the nation.
So Moses is now on the top of this hill with two of the elders of Israel with him.
And  as long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.  When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.  So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
And this is where we realize that God’s people have finally actually passed an exam!
Amazing, right? For the first time there has been no whining, no manipulation, no confrontational attitude against Moses or God. Instead, there has been obedience: first Joshua obeyed Moses, and then the men Joshua chose obeyed Joshua, which Aaron and Hur worked alongside Moses, and working together they all won the battle!
Can it be that the people of Israel have finally heard their Father’s warning? Can it be that they have actually matured past the dangerously awkward adolescent stage of their faith they were stuck in last week? It sort of seems like it!
But we definitely have some questions now, don’t we! Like: what is this thing with Moses’ hands, that when he lifts them they are winning, when he drops them they are losing? What lesson is that supposed to teach: that God fights for his people, but he only wins as long as his people don’t get tired?
Some people have thought so. They look at Moses’ posture and they assume he is praying. Then they apply this passage directly to us and say, “Pray harder! God can’t win unless you pray!”
But that interpretation is not really taking the whole narrative into account. It is important to read every episode in context, to look at what has been happening before and see how those things feed into this scenario.
For instance, we know from previous chapters that God’s staff symbolizes God’s identity, his presence, and his power to judge and deliver. We know that God’s outstretched hand also symbolizes judgement and deliverance — several times during Parts 1 and 2 he talked about how he would stretch out his mighty hand, strike the Egyptians, and force them to let the Israelites go. We also know that Moses is God’s messiah, God’s representative on earth: anyone who complains against Moses is actually complaining against God. We have also seen that God’s people have been slow to learn this last point: they have been slow to believe that Moses really is God’s representative.
So now that we have reviewed the context a bit, we realize that Moses is not praying for judgement and deliverance when he lifts his hands with God’s staff in them, he is doing judgement and deliverance. Moses is not asking God to judge the Amalekites and deliver the Israelites, Moses is judging the Amalekites and delivering the Israelites on God’s behalf, as God’s representative, as God’s messiah.
We could say it like this: God said he would fight this battle for Israel. And he is! but he has commissioned Moses to do the fighting for him, just as Moses has commissioned Joshua to do the fighting for him. As long as Moses has the strength to fight, Joshua’s pathetic little army wins; when Moses loses strength, the Amalekites’ superior training and weaponry takes over and Joshua loses.
Basically, Moses is God’s messiah. So when he lifts his hands in judgement, God lifts his hands in judgement. But Moses is also just a man, so he gets tired and drops his hands. And because he is still God’s messiah even when he is tired, when he drops his hands God also drops his hands.
Now…that is interesting. And we might be tempted to question God’s judgement here: surely he knew Moses would get tired! So why entrust the success of this battle to a mere man? Why allow the Israelites to lose even for a few minutes? Why not just snap his fingers and win like he did at the Red Sea?
But this is also where we should remember that this was a test, Israel’s fourth exam in the wilderness. And the exams are all designed to reveal certain truths about God’s relationship with his people. Even the failures, even the moments of loss and disappointment and desperation, are designed to teach.
So, once again: what lesson is this supposed to teach?
Well, the lesson is certainly not: “Pray harder! God cannot win without his people’s help!” That is not true.
No, the first real lesson here is that Moses cannot win without his people’s help — his elders’ help in particular. Moses is God’s messiah, so he is obligated to represent God and obey God’s commands. But the lesson Moses just learned is that he actually cannot represent God fully, he cannot obey God’s commands perfectly in his human strength. The lesson God just taught Moses is this: you need help. You need elders.
Now, this is a lesson that actually began last week, when God sent elders with Moses to act as witnesses to the miracle of the rock and the water. Last week, Moses’ testimony alone was not enough, he needed the elders’ testimony also. This week, Moses’ hands alone were not enough, he needed the elders’ hands.
And this lesson will be completed in another couple of weeks, so make sure to come back for that…
So Moses just learned something. But the people have also just learned something: now they know for sure that Moses really is God’s representative. Two times Moses has warned them that complaining against him is the same as complaining against God; now the people have experienced the direct connection between Moses’ hands and God’s hands. Hopefully they are finally convinced!
But that’s not all. The people now also know for sure that Moses does not stand alone. Just as Moses represents God, now also the elders represent Moses. So if complaining against Moses is the same as complaining against God, then in the same way complaining against the elders is the same as complaining against Moses.
And this is also a lesson that began last week, when the elders came back from the rock with Moses and added their testimony to his, so the people would know that this new river of fresh water came from God. We can see that God is preparing his people in advance to accept a new structure for their society, just as he provided a new structure for their calendar a couple of weeks ago.
But again, this lesson will be completed in another couple of weeks, so…you know what to do.
So, we were asking what lesson this whole thing about Moses’ hands is supposed to teach, and we have discovered that three lessons were just taught. The people have learned, first, that Moses really does represent God directly, and second: that Moses does not stand alone in this task. Moses has also learned that he does not stand alone in this task — that he cannot, he dare not! do this work by himself.
But there is also a fourth lesson here, which is really the greatest lesson of all. And that lesson is this: the people of Israel need a better messiah than Moses.
This is the point: a purely human messiah is not going to be enough. Two times now God has fought for Israel. The first time, he commissioned Moses to stretch out his hand, and the sea closed on the Egyptians — the battle was over in a moment. The second time, God commissioned Moses to stretch out his hands, and Joshua’s army closed on the Amalekites — but that battle was not over in a moment. And Moses got tired.
So the biggest lesson God’s people are supposed to learn here is this: when it comes time for the great, final battle between good and evil, God himself is going to have to come down and do it himself. If he does decide to commission a human messiah to command in that final battle, then he is going to have to make sure that human messiah is somehow more than merely human.
And God makes this fourth lesson explicit with what he says next:
 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.”
This is the first time that God tells Moses to write something down. In fact, this is the first time in the bible that writing something down on a scroll is mentioned. And it is interesting to notice that what God tells Moses to write down is a curse against the Amalekites: this scroll — this book — is a prophecy of doom against this nation that just tried to steal firstborn nation status from God’s children.
So Moses is supposed to write down an eternal curse against the Amalekites, and then make sure he passes that scroll to Joshua, who will pass it on to the next messiah, who will pass it on to the next messiah, until finally that great Messiah arrives who will be more than merely human. And that great Messiah will finally finish the job that Moses failed to accomplish: he will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.
In short, God is telling Moses to pass on the lesson he just learned: “Tell Joshua that you are not enough, that he will not be enough, that God’s people are going to need a better messiah than you guys can ever be. But also make sure Joshua knows that I will one day provide that greater Messiah who will fight perfectly for me.”
And we find out next that Moses fully understood the point God is making:
 Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner.  He said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”
To celebrate this victory, Moses builds an altar, a monument of soil and stone designed to remind God’s people of this truth: that because the Amalekites — descendants of Esau who should have known better — tried to steal God’s blessings from Israel, God is going wipe them out. It is God who is going to fight for his people from generation to generation.
And that is what happened. About 500 years after Moses, the first king of Israel — a man named Saul — went to war against the Amalekites and almost wiped them out…almost. Really, God’s war against the Amalekites did not come to an end until almost 1000 years after Moses, when one of the last of the Amalekites — a man named Haman — tried again to wipe out God’s people. Unfortunately for Haman, when he tried to do this he accidentally made himself the enemy of a certain Persian queen named Esther, and she made sure Haman and all his family came to a very messy end.
If you are interested in the details of that story you can read it in the bible, in the Book of Esther; and you can find our sermon series on that book at CDPCKL.com, under the tab “What We Sound Like”. The series is entitled “Echoes of a Far-Off Country”.
History confirms that Moses’ scroll of prophecy against the Amalekites was fulfilled — the first scroll of prophecy ever written down in the bible. And this marks the official beginning of a war that was foreshadowed several times in Genesis: this is the official beginning of God’s War Against the Nations — specifically, the beginning of God’s Messiah’s War Against the Nations.
And there are a few smaller lessons contained in this passage, as we have seen, lessons that will be developed further over the next few weeks. But the one major lesson of this passage is that this is God’s War. While God’s people are obviously involved in fighting this war, they are supposed to understand that, ultimately, it is God who fights it for them.
So now, of course, we have to ask the question we like to ask every week: does this episode have anything to do with our lives today? Does this major lesson for ancient Israel also apply to us?
Well, if you have been worshiping with us regularly over the last weeks, then you have already noticed that Israel’s tests in the wilderness are also our tests. God tested them with hunger and thirst; God also tests us with hunger and thirst. So we should assume that our Father is also testing us with war in the wilderness of our world today, just as he tested ancient Israel.
And I don’t think there is any doubt among us who live, work and worship as Christians in Malaysia: we know the surrounding nations are at war with our faith. Some of our brothers and sisters in the west seem a bit uncertain about this; some seem to think that the government is supposed to be a friend to the Church, that human society is morally neutral and that it is okay to syncretize our Christian worldview with pagan worldviews — perhaps for the sake of evangelism. But we know better! For us the differences are very clear. We know there is no essential overlap between Islam and Christianity, between Buddhism and Christianity, between Secular Humanism or Hinduism or any other man-made -ism and Christianity. As one writer in the New Testament points out, “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? None.”
So we are being tested with war. That is certain. So the next question we need to ask is: how are we supposed to respond when our faith is attacked? Should we pick a Joshua from among us and let him choose some men and go out and fight with swords against the nations of the world?
No. Because our Heavenly Father has already chosen a Joshua from among us to fight our wars for us. The name of our Joshua is…Joshua. In the Hebrew language, Joshua is pronounced Yeshua, which means “Yahweh is deliverance.” But the Greeks of 2000 years ago could not pronounce Yeshua properly; they pronounced it Iesus. Which has now come down to us in English as Jesus. That’s right: the name Jesus is really the English mispronounciation of the Greek mispronounciation of the Hebrew name Joshua. Jesus’ name is Joshua, and his name means “Yahweh is deliverance.”
And during Jesus’ ministry on earth 2000 years ago, he made it clear that Yahweh is deliverance, that Yahweh will do all the fighting for his people.
For instance, at one point in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 9, while Jesus and his disciples were travelling from here to there, they passed through a village of foreigners, people from a non-Jewish nation. And those foreigners rejected Jesus, they refused to give him food or water or a place to sleep because he was a Jew, one of God’s people.
In response, Luke writes, two of Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” These two hot-headed disciples had this idea that, since Jesus is Joshua reborn, and since they are Joshua’s hand-picked warriors, all Jesus needed to do is lift up his hands and they would have the power to kill everybody!
But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Why? Because the disciples did not understand what phase of the war they were in. They thought they were already in the “Destroy the Amalekites” phase. But Jesus was still back in the “Deliver the Nations From Slavery and Then We See How They Respond” phase.
See, if we pay careful attention to God’s War Against the Nations in Moses’ time, we see that God delivers people from slavery first. Through Moses, God broke open the prison-house that was the Egyptian empire. Through Moses, God preached an offer of freedom to the Egyptians and the Israelites! The Israelites accepted the offer, along with some Egyptians and people from many other nations who wanted to escape from Egypt’s enslaving power. But many Egyptians refused the offer; they stayed back under Pharaoh’s rule, and only then were they destroyed.
The same pattern is repeated with the Amalekites: they have known from Esau’s time that they could receive the benefits of firstborn status by submitting to Jacob and joining Israel. God’s offer of freedom has been made clear to them. It is only after they reject that offer — and continue to reject it for hundreds of years — that God completely blots out the name of Amalek from under heaven.
In Chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel story, Jesus was still in the “Deliver the Nations From Slavery” phase, not in the “Destroy Them All” phase. And Luke makes this clear in his very next chapter when Jesus sends his disciples out with the power to conquer demons and preach God’s offer of freedom to everybody. Through Jesus, and his disciples, God broke open the prison-house that was Satan’s empire. Through Jesus, and his disciples, God preached an offer of freedom to all people.
And later on in the New Testament, the apostle Paul makes it clear that Jesus is still in the “Deliver the Nations From Slavery” phase of the war. Near the end of his Letter to the Ephesian Church, he says, “our war is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Jesus’ disciples in this age are not supposed to be calling down physical fire from heaven, we are supposed to be calling spiritual fire down from heaven.
So, in closing, let’s get practical: what does our Father want us to do in response to all this?
Well, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, then this is how the God who created you wants you respond: first, realize that you are a prisoner and a slave. There are some ways you are aware of your slavery: you are restricted by your culture, your religion, your circumstances. There are some ways you are not yet aware, and those are the truly insidious mechanisms that keep you enslaved: your own desires, your own self-deceptions. But all of that is overseen by unseen spirits that want to keep you enslaved, they want to keep you serving their Satanic empire, which is at war with the true God, his Messiah, and his people. So first, realize and accept that you are in slavery. Second, lift your eyes and realize that the doors of your prison have already been broken open, your prison guards disarmed. When Jesus Christ died on the cross and then rose again to life 2000 years ago, he shattered the power of Satan and opened up the road to the east, toward the rising sun. All you have to do to join him on that road is believe his promise of forgiveness and follow the rest of his people through the sea. Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.
Now, what about the rest of us, who have already followed Jesus through the sea into the wilderness? We are not supposed to physically fight back against the nations, we are not supposed to call down physical fire from heaven, we are supposed to call down spiritual fire instead — but how do we do that?
We do that by preaching and praying. And next week’s passage is going to get into this topic in more detail. But for now we can just summarise this point by saying we are called to preach the Good News that Jesus has broken open every spiritual and cultural prison, and we are called to pray for the people we preach to, that God might lift their eyes and lead them to freedom.
Through us, God is still breaking open the prison-house that is Satan’s empire. Through us, God is still preaching an offer of freedom for people from all nations. Some people hear the call and respond, they submit to Jesus and join us.
But many people do not. They choose to stay back, trying to build up Satan’s broken empire. They continue to try to lift themselves up to firstborn status. And in the end — sadly — they will be destroyed.
Now, how do we know this?
Well, today we have seen the first scroll of prophecy ever written in the bible, Moses’ prophecy of doom against a nation that tried to steal firstborn nation status from God’s children. And we have seen that Moses’ scroll of prophecy was fulfilled: the Amalekites are gone.
Well, at the very end of the bible, another scroll of prophecy was written called the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is Jesus’ prophecy of doom against all the nations that have tried to steal firstborn nation status from God’s people. That book describes, in great detail, how God’s War Against the Nations will end in fire and judgement for all who have tried to rob God and devour God’s children.
And since Moses’ scroll of prophecy against the Amalekites was fulfilled, we can be confident that Jesus’ scroll of prophecy against all nations will also be fulfilled.
And because we are confident of how God’s war will end, this sets us free to respond appropriately when we are attacked: with preaching and with prayer.
So let’s keep on doing that.