The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you.
Deuteronomy is, in a way, a book of explanation. Moses, the weathered, old leader of Israel, stands before his flock as they are on the verge of finding the fruition of a forty year march; and in this setting he does something slightly unexpected, but not totally. What is a bit of a surprise is that he doesn’t really offer his people any new information, no new statutes, no new rules or laws, no more protocol, etc… He does what he has been doing all along: he repeats. And he repeats and repeats and repeats. If there is one thing about the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) that dominates the stylistic landscape it is repetition. This makes a great deal of sense in an oral tradition, but when you read the account of an oral tradition documented so meticulously it can begin to get wearisome.
Deuteronomy is a bit different though in that Moses begins to offer some explanations as he is recounting the history and the laws and the rules and the promises. Deuteronomy is kind of like Moses writing a commentary on the previous three books he’s written. But this commentary, as we seed in the verse above, is not limited to information about the past, but also about the future.
The promise Moses relays from God in this verse is interesting, particularly when we look at it from the perspective of the children of Israel as a type of our own Christian journey. God’s “promised land” not only contains enemies and foes, but it contains enemies and foes that God will not immediately do away with. God, here, makes it clear that the promise of a new home land, a land greater than any previously known, and a land that has been presented as a gift of grace is going to require some work. Not just work, but warfare.
God says a few things implicitly here:
- I am giving you this land as a gift
- I could give you the land emptied of all enemies
- I am not going to give you the land emptied of all enemies
- I am leaving your enemies in this land, temporarily, for your own good
“Little by little”, God says. How frustrating for us. Is there no complete victory? Is there no definitive rescue? Is redemption just a modified form of slavery? Or as the Israelites continuously droned on and on, “Have you brought us out here to kill us? Weren’t we better of in Egypt?” We don’t “get saved” so that we can keep fighting, we “get saved” so that we can be free from all of that. Don’t we?
The truth here is one that flies in the face of much of westernized Christian teaching over the last 60 years, but is in itself one of the most liberating things that I have ever encountered in my own life. Basically the truth is this: freedom is found in the fighting, not in the absence of it. If you look at the American Revolution you see this truth clearly. We declared our independence from England and THEN fought for it. It was because we were free that we COULD fight. Freedom is not the spoils of war, freedom is a positional declaration by an authority either recognized or assumed. God told the Hebrews that the land was theirs long before they ever set foot in it. Ownership of Canaan was declared by God, not fought for and won.
So, why did God not simply present this land to them devoid of opposition? And, for us, why is Salvation not the moment of all wrong’s expulsion from our hearts and minds? There are at least two reasons. One I will mention today and the other I will deal with tomorrow.
First, because God understands that fighting for what has been given to us creates not ownership (that is declared) but character. Let me be true to my Protestant background, we can never fight our way out of the curse of sin or our destiny in hell. Likewise, and more importantly, we can never fight our way into relationship with God. Reconciliation is not a spoil of war. Only by God’s benevolent grace, the free gift, can we find new life. But, after we have found new life there certainly is war. This war does absolutely nothing to change our sealed status in Christ, our position in His body, or our level of importance in His eyes. Fighting the fight of faith is not about “leveling up” or being more worthy because those are changes of perception, God’s perception. The fundamental reality here is that God does not change. He even told them this in the book of Deuteronomy, “I the Lord do not change”. The fighting, post-redemption, is about changing us. There is a change that occurs in us that ONLY fighting can bring about. God, knowing that this change is good for us and necessary for our growth leaves enemies in “our land”. He drives them out “little by little” as we engage them, always continuing to rely on Him for our victory.
There is a process that is involved in deciding what we will “fight” for, and this is largely an internal process. Essentially all we are doing is sorting through our hierarchy of value to figure out if we really care enough about the thing in question to put our peace, our comfort, and even our very life on the line for it. This assessing, for the Christian, is a diagnostic tool that should always either show us that we have Christ firmly placed on the throne of our heart, or expose whatever we’ve allowed to reign from a higher position of influence in us. Only in the preparation to fight, the gathering of courage, the stressful and difficult mental exercise required to say, “I’ll go to war for that” can we be changed in this way. And war for us now is obviously not carried out with fists, guns, and swords, but with prayer, study, compassion, and love.
Friends, don’t foolishly expect the Christian life to be free of difficulty. And don’t think that difficulty is a sign of God’s absence or displeasure. Sometimes, more often than we may think, the moments of great trial that we come to are compelling evidence for the near presence of God. Perhaps this is why James tells us to “count it all joy when you encounter trials of various kinds” (James1:2). Remember, the fighting that we do is not for victory, it is from victory. The fact that we fight at all is proof of redemption and hope.