This is a guest post by Robert B. Chisholm, department chair and Senior Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
It’s easy to become confused while reading the prophets’ depictions of God. Malachi, for instance, warns that God is a powerful warrior who will consume all evildoers in the fire of his judgment (Mal 4:1). In contrast, Isaiah anticipates God’s kingdom as a time of peace—when nations will beat their weapons into farming tools (Isa 2:2–4). God himself looks forward to the day that “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9).
So, is God for war or for peace?
God is a warrior
Among the sixth- and fifth-century BC Minor Prophets, three prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—repeatedly call God “Lord of Hosts.” This title portrays God enthroned among his heavenly assembly, whom he sometimes leads into battle. It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” in some contexts. For these prophets, it epitomizes God’s identity as the mighty warrior-king who rules over all.
Like the prophets who came before them, the prophets of this era describe startling images of God as warrior-king. Joel describes an army that burns like fire and destroys everything in its path (Joel 2:3). God himself rides as general of these fearsome troops (2:11). In Obadiah, God warns the nations—and Edom in particular—that he will avenge his people (Obad 15). He will transform his people into a fire to consume the Edomites as easily as if they were stubble (Obad 18).
Depictions from other prophets can be equally as frightening. According to Haggai, the Lord will shake the cosmos and overthrow the earth’s kingdoms, destroying warriors and their chariots (Hag 2:21–22). In Zechariah 14:12, the prophet warns about the terror that meets those who defy God: “And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.”
The prophets match anything Hollywood could dream up. It’s easy to excuse this imagery as not representative of the true God revealed through Jesus—as if it is only Israel’s conception of him. But it’s much more than that, and it seems wrong to set aside Scripture so easily.
God ultimately desires peace
The Bible provides us with a picture of God’s ideal for life, harmony and peace. Genesis tells us that God desires us to be fruitful, multiply and rule the world as his representatives (Gen 1:28; 9:1, 7). His intention for this world was a place of peace: Violence (like murder) is an attack upon his image (Gen 9:5–6).
The prophets tell us God intends to establish his kingdom on earth; when he does (in fullness) there will be peace among the once-warring nations (Isa 2:2–4; 11:1–10; 19:23–25; Mic 4:1–4; Zeph 3:9). We see a foreshadowing of this day in God’s choice of Solomon (whose name means “peace”) over David as builder of the temple. God said to David, “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth. Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest … He shall build a house for my name” (1 Chr 22:8–10; see 28:3).
The ever-present reality
Peace is God’s ideal, yet the Old Testament affirms that the God of Israel is also a “man of war” (Exod 15:3), who is “mighty in battle” (Psa 24:8) and stores up weapons for the fight (Job 38:22–23). God’s actions show us there is a time for war and a time for peace (Eccl 3:8)—but what prompts him toward one or the other?
In Exodus, we find an example of God’s warrior-king behavior. Moses and the people of Israel sing a song of praise in Exodus 15. They have just passed through the sea after being pursued by Egyptian chariots and horsemen:
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters (Exod 15:9–10).
These actions are part of God’s work of redemption, which the Israelites acknowledge: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (15:13).
The prophets elaborate on this picture of God. One day, God will intervene as warrior-king to judge the earth (Isa 24:5–6; 26:21). His wars implement his justice and become, ironically, the avenue to his peaceful ideal. In Revelation 19:11–16 we see a vision of Jesus as a mighty warrior-king, descending from heaven to ride into battle with his army behind him. He strikes the ungodly nations, thus clearing the way for his kingdom of peace. This is not senseless violence; it is the only way that violence can be removed from the earth. It is the only way that God’s peace can be established for good.
The battle today
God does not advocate violence. When Jesus was taken in the garden, he told Peter to put away his sword, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52). Jesus’ statement reflects the ultimate futility of human violence: Those who embark on a path of destruction will fall victim to it themselves.
Yet, today, Christians are involved in a different sort of battle. Prior to the ultimate battle in which Jesus establishes his kingdom on earth, the New Testament depicts the Church engaged in war. We take on the chaos of this world with the “gospel of peace” that Paul talks about in Ephesians 6. This war takes up arms, but not the physical kind. The spiritual instruments for this battle are faith, perseverance and prayer.
Paul says this battle is not against flesh and blood, but against all spiritual forces that oppose God. God has given us victory in Christ and his resurrection against spiritual forces. We see this when the Holy Spirit, evoked in Jesus’ name, does the miraculous. Until Christ comes and brings the final victory, we fight for the peace he desires in the world.
Robert Chisholm is the department chair and senior professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. While he enjoys teaching the full breadth of Old Testament studies, he takes special delight in the Former and Latter Prophets. Chisholm is the author of Handbook on the Prophets and From Exegesis and Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew. He is senior Old Testament editor of the NET Bible.
Originally published in the Mar–Apr 2014 edition of Bible Study Magazine with the title “God of War or Peace?”
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