And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovahnissi:
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)Moses built an altar.—Primarily, no doubt, to sacrifice thank-offerings upon it, as an acknowledgment of the Divine mercy in giving Israel the victory. But secondarily as a memorial—a monument to commemorate Israel’s triumph.
And called the name of it Jehovah-nissi.—Jacob had named an altar “El-Elohe-Israel” (Genesis 33:20); but otherwise we do not find altars given special names. When an altar was built as a memorial, the purpose would be helped by a name, which would tend to keep the event commemorated in remembrance. Jehovah-nissi—“the Lord is my banner”—would tell to all who heard the word that here there had been a struggle, and that a people which worshipped Jehovah had been victorious. It is not clear that there is any reference to “the rod of God” (Exodus 17:9) as in any sense the “banner” under which Israel had fought. The banner is Jehovah Himself, under whose protection Israel had fought and conquered.
We are all familiar with that picturesque incident of the conflict between Israel and Amalek, which ended in victory and the erection of this memorial trophy. Moses, as you remember, went up on the mount whilst Joshua and the men of war fought in the plain. But I question whether we usually attach the right meaning to the symbolism of this event. We ordinarily, I suppose, think of Moses as interceding on the mountain with God. But there is no word about prayer in the story, and the attitude of Moses is contrary to the idea that his occupation was intercession. He sat there, with the rod of God in his hand, and the rod of God was the symbol and the vehicle of divine power. When he lifted the rod Amalek fled before Israel; when the rod dropped Israel fled before Amalek. That is to say, the uplifted hand was not the hand of intercession, but the hand which communicated power and victory. And so, when the conflict is over, Moses builds this memorial of thanksgiving to God, and piles together these great stones-which, perhaps, still stand in some of the unexplored valleys of that weird desert land-to teach Israel the laws of conflict and the conditions of victory. These laws and conditions are implied in the name which he gave to the altar that he built-Jehovah Nissi, ‘the Lord is my Banner.’
Now, then, what do these stones, with their significant name, teach us, as they taught the ancient Israelites? Let me throw these lessons into three brief exhortations.
I. First, realise for whose cause you fight.
The Banner was the symbol of the cause for which an army fought, or the cognizance of the king or commander whom it followed. So Moses, by that name given to the altar, would impress upon the minds of the cowardly mob that he had brought out of Egypt-and who now had looked into an enemy’s eyes for the first time-the elevating and bracing thought that they were God’s soldiers, and that the warfare which they waged was not for themselves, nor for the conquest of the country for their own sake, nor for mere outward liberty, but that they were fighting that the will of God might prevail, and that He might be the King now of one land-a mere corner of the earth-and thereby might come to be King of all the earth. That rude altar said to Israel: ‘Remember, when you go into the battle, that the battle is the Lord’s; and that the standard under which you war is the God for whose cause you contend-none else and none less than Jehovah Himself. You are consecrated soldiers, set apart to fight for God.’
Such is the destination of all Christians. They have a battle to fight, of which they do not think loftily enough, unless they clearly and constantly recognise that they are fighting on God’s side.
I need not dwell upon the particulars of this conflict, or run into details of the way in which it is to be waged. Only let us remember that the first field upon which we have to fight for God we carry about within ourselves; and that there will be no victories for us over other enemies until we have, first of all, subdued the foes that are within. And then let us remember that the absorbing importance of inward conflict absolves no Christian man from the duty of strenuously contending for all things that are ‘lovely and of good report,’ and from waging war against every form of sorrow and sin which his influence can touch. There is no surer way of securing victory in the warfare within and conquering self than to throw myself into the service of others, and lose myself in their sorrows and needs. There is no possibility of my taking my share in the merciful warfare against sin and sorrow, the tyrants that oppress my fellows, unless I conquer myself. These two fields of the Christian warfare are not two in the sense of being separable from one another, but they are two in the sense of being the inside and the outside of the same fabric. The warfare is one, though the fields are two.
Let us remember, on the other hand, that whilst it is our simple bounden duty, as Christian men and women, to reckon ourselves as anointed and called for the purpose of warring against sin and sorrow, wherever we can assail them, there is nothing more dangerous, and few things more common, than the hasty identification of fighting for some whim, or prejudice, or narrow view, or partial conception of our own, with contending for the establishment of the will of God. How many wicked things have been done in this world for God’s glory! How many obstinate men, who were really only forcing their own opinions down people’s throats because they were theirs, have fancied themselves to be pure-minded warriors for God! How easy it has been, in all generations, to make the sign of the Cross over what had none of the spirit of the Cross in it; and to say, ‘The cause is God’s, and therefore I war for it’; when the reality was, ‘The cause is mine, and therefore I take it for granted that it is God’s.’
Let us beware of the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ the pretence of sanctity which is only selfishness with a mask on. And, above all, let us beware of the uncharitableness and narrowness of view, the vehemence of temper, the fighting for our own hands, the enforcing of our own notions and whims and peculiarities, which have often done duty as being true Christian service for the Master’s sake. We are God’s host, but we are not to suppose that every notion that we take into our heads, and for which we may contend, is part of the cause of God.
And then remember what sort of men the soldiers in such an army ought to be. ‘Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord.’ These bearers may either be regarded as a solemn procession of priests carrying the sacrificial vessels; or, as is more probable from the context of the original, as the armour-bearers of the great King. They must be pure who bear His weapons, for these are His righteous love, His loving purity. If our camp is the camp of the Lord, no violence should be there. What sanctity, what purity, what patience, what long-suffering, what self-denial, and what enthusiastic confidence of victory there should be in those who can say, ‘We are the Lord’s host, Jehovah is our Banner!’ He always wins who sides with God. And he only worthily takes his place in the ranks of the sacramental host of the Most High who goes into the warfare knowing that, because He is God’s soldier, he will come out of it, bringing his victorious shield with him, and ready for the laurels to be twined round his undinted helmet. That is the first of the thoughts, then, that are here.
II. The second of the exhortations which come from the altar and its name is, Remember whose commands you follow.
The banner in ancient warfare, even more than in modern, moved in front of the host, and determined the movements of the army. And so, by the stones that he piled and the name which he gave them, Moses taught Israel and us that they and we are under the command of God, and that it is the movements of His staff that are to be followed. Absolute obedience is the first duty of the Christian soldier, and absolute obedience means the entire suppression of my own will, the holding of it in equilibrium until He puts His finger on the side that He desires to dip and lets the other rise. They only understand their place as Christ’s servants and soldiers who have learned to hush their own will until they know their Captain’s. In order to be blessed, to be strong, to be victorious, the indispensable condition is that our inmost desire shall be, ‘Not my will, but Thine be done.’
Sometimes, and often, there will be perplexities in our daily lives, and conflicts very hard to unravel. We shall often be brought to a point where we cannot see which way the Banner is leading us. What then? ‘It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait’ for the salvation and for the guidance of his God. And we shall generally find that it is when we are looking too far ahead that we do not get guidance. You will not get guidance to-day for this day next week. When this day next week comes, it will bring its own enlightenment with it.
‘Lead, kindly Light, . . .
. . .One step enough for me.’
Let us take short views both of duty and of hope, and we shall not so often have to complain that we are left without knowing what the Commander’s orders are. Sometimes we are so left, and that is a lesson in patience, and is generally God’s way of telling us that it is not His will that we should do anything at all just yet. Sometimes we are so left in order that we may put our hand out through the darkness, and hold on by Him, and say, ‘I know not what to do, but mine eyes are towards Thee.’
And be sure of this, brethren, that He will not desert His own promise, and that they who in their inmost hearts can say, ‘The Lord is my Banner,’ will never have to complain that He led them into a ‘pathless wilderness where there was no way.’ It is sometimes a very narrow track, it is often a very rough one, it is sometimes a dreadfully solitary one; but He always goes before us, and they who hold His hand will not hold it in vain. ‘The Lord is my Banner’; obey His orders and do not take anybody else’s; nor, above all, the suggestions of that impatient, talkative heart of yours, instead of His commandments.
III. Lastly, the third lesson that these grey stones preach to us is, Recognise by whose power you conquer.
The banner, I suppose, to us English people, suggests a false idea. It suggests the notion of a flag, or some bit of flexible drapery which fluttered and flapped in the wind; but the banner of old-world armies was a rigid pole, with some solid ornament of bright metal on the top, so as to catch the light. The banner-staff spoken of in the text links itself with the preceding incident. I said that Moses stood on the mountain-top with the rod in his hand. Now that rod was exactly a miniature banner, and when he lifted it, victory came to Israel; and when it fell, victory deserted their arms. So by the altar’s name he would say, Do not suppose that it was Moses that won the battle, nor that it was the rod that Moses carried in his hand that brought you strength. The true Victor was Jehovah, and it was He who was Moses’ Banner. It was by Him that the lifted rod brought victory; as for Moses, he had nothing to do with it; and the people had to look higher than the hill-top where he sat.
This thought puts stress on the first word of the phrase instead of on the last, as in my previous remarks. ‘The Lord is my Banner,’-no Moses, no outward symbol, no man or thing, but only He Himself. Therefore, in all our duties, and in all our difficulties, and in all our conflicts, and for all our conquests, we are to look away from creatures, self, externals, and to look only to God. We are all too apt to trust in rods instead of in Him, in Moses instead of in Moses’ Lord.
We are all too apt to trust in externals, in organisations, sacraments, services, committees, outside aids of all sorts, as our means for doing God’s work, and bringing power to us and blessing to the world. Let us get away from them all, dig deeper down than any of these, be sure that these are but surface reservoirs, but that the fountain which fills them with any refreshing liquid which they may bear lies in God Himself. Why should we trouble ourselves about reservoirs when we can go to the Fountain? Why should we put such reliance on churches and services and preaching and sermons and schemes and institutions and organisations when we have the divine Lord Himself for our strength? ‘Jehovah is my Banner,’ and Moses’ rod is only a symbol. At most it is like a lightning-conductor, but it is not the lightning. The lightning will come without the rod, if our eyes are to the heaven, for the true power that brings God down to men is that forsaking of externals and waiting upon Him which He never refuses to answer.
In like manner we are too apt to put far too much confidence in human teachers and human helpers of various kinds. And when God takes them away we say to ourselves that there is a gap that can never be filled. Ay! but the great sea can come in and fill any gap, and make the deepest and the driest of the excavations in the desert to abound in sweet water.
So let us turn away from everything external, gather in our souls and fix our hopes on Him; let us recognise the imperative duty of the Christian warfare which is laid upon us; let us docilely submit ourselves to His sweet commands, and trust in His sufficient and punctual guidance, and not expect from any outward sources that which no outward sources can ever give, but which He Himself will give-strength to our fingers to fight, and weapons for the warfare, and covering for our heads in the day of battle.
And then, when our lives are done, may the only inscription on the stone that covers us be ‘Jehovah Nissi: the Lord is my banner’ ! The trophy that commemorates the Christian’s victory should bear no name but His by whose grace we are more than conquerors. ‘Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’Exodus 17:15. And Moses built an altar, and called it Jehovah-nissi — The Lord is my banner. The presence and power of Jehovah was the banner under which they were listed, by which they were animated and kept together, and therefore which they erected in the day of their triumph. In the name of our God we must always lift up our banners: he that doth all the work should have all the praise.Moses built an altar, both for the offering of sacrifices of praise unto God, and to be a monument of this victory, and of the author of it. The name of it, viz. of the altar, which he so calls metonymically, because it was the sign and monument of Jehovah-nissi; even as circumcision is called God’s covenant, Genesis 17:13, and the lamb, the passover, Exodus 12:11, and the cup, the new testament, Luke 22:20, because they were the signs of them. Or the word altar is to be repeated out of the former member, which is frequent, and the place to be is read thus,
he called the name of it the altar of
Jehovah-nissi. Or the name given to it signifies only the inscription engraven upon it, which was not the single name of God, but an entire sentence, the lord my banner. By which words he takes all the praise of the victory from the Israelites, and gives it to God.
and he called the name of it Jehovahnissi; which signifies either "the Lord is my miracle" who wrought a miracle for them in giving them the victory over Amalek, as well as, through smiting the rock with the rod, brought out water from thence for the refreshment of the people, their children and cattle; or "the Lord is my banner": alluding to the hands of Moses being lifted up with the rod therein, as a banner displayed, under which Joshua and Israel fought, and got the victory. This may fitly be applied to Christ, who is both altar, sacrifice, and priest, and who is the true Jehovah, and after so called; and who is lifted up as a banner, standard, or ensign in the everlasting Gospel, in order to gather souls unto him, and enlist them under him, and to prepare them for war, and encourage them in it against their spiritual enemies; and as a token of their victory over them, and a direction to them where they shall stand, when to march, and whom they shall follow; and to distinguish them from all other bands and companies, and for the protection of them from all their enemies, see Isaiah 11:10. These words were inscribed upon the altar, or the altar was called the altar of Jehovahnissi, in memory of what was here done; from hence it has been thought (a), that Baachus, among the Heathens, had his name of Dionysius, as if it was Jehovahnyssaeus.And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovahnissi:
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)15. Moses erects an altar, to offer upon it a sacrifice of thanksgiving to Jehovah, and to preserve the memory of the victory for the future. For other examples of commemorative altars, with names, see Genesis 33:20 (unless, as the verb used here suggests, ‘standing-stone’ (ch. Exodus 24:4) should be read for ‘altar’), Exodus 35:7, Joshua 22:34, Jdg 6:24.
Yahweh-nissi] i.e. Yahweh is my banner, as though to say, He is our Leader; we fight under His banner (Psalm 20:5 [the Heb. for ‘banner’ different], 7); His name is the motto on our standards (Kn.).Verse 15. - Moses built an altar. An altar naturally implies a sacrifice, and Moses may well have thought that the signal victory obtained required to be acknowledged, and as it were requited, by offerings. In giving his altar a name, he followed the example of Jacob, who called an altar which he built, El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:20). Moses' name for his altar, Jehovah-nisi, meant "the Lord is my banner," and was intended to mark his ascription of the entire honour of the victory to Jehovah but had probably no reference to the particular mode in which the victory was gained. Deuteronomy 25:18). The expansion of this tribe, that was descended from a grandson of Esau (see Genesis 36:12), into so great a power even in the Mosaic times, is perfectly conceivable, if we imagine the process to have been analogous to that which we have already described in the case of the leading branches of the Edomites, who had grown into a powerful nation through the subjugation and incorporation of the earlier population of Mount Seir. The Amalekites had no doubt come to the neighbourhood of Sinai for the same reason for which, even in the present day, the Bedouin Arabs leave the lower districts at the beginning of summer, and congregate in the mountain regions of the Arabian peninsula, viz., because the grass is dried up in the former, whereas in the latter the pasturage remains green much longer, on account of the climate being comparatively cooler (Burckhardt, Syr. p. 789). There they fell upon the Israelites, probably in the Sheikh valley, where the rear had remained behind the main body, not merely for the purpose of plundering or of disputing the possession of this district and its pasture ground with the Israelites, but to assail Israel as the nation of God, and if possible to destroy it. The divine command to exterminate Amalek (Exodus 17:14) points to this; and still more the description given of the Amalekites in Balaam's utterances, as גּוים ראשׁית, "the beginning," i.e., the first and foremost of the heathen nations (Numbers 24:20). In Amalek the heathen world commenced that conflict with the people of God, which, while it aims at their destruction, can only be terminated by the complete annihilation of the ungodly powers of the world. Earlier theologians pointed out quite correctly the deepest ground for the hostility of the Amalekites, when they traced the causa belli to this fact, "quod timebat Amalec, qui erat de semine Esau, jam implendam benedictionem, quam Jacob obtinuit et praeripuit ipsi Esau, praesertim cum in magna potentia venirent Israelitae, ut promissam occuparent terram" Mnster, C. a Lapide, etc.). This peculiar significance in the conflict is apparent, not only from the divine command to exterminate the Amalekites, and to carry on the war of Jehovah with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:14 and Exodus 17:16), but also from the manner in which Moses led the Israelites to battle and to victory. Whereas he had performed all the miracles in Egypt and on the journey by stretching out his staff, on this occasion he directed his servant Joshua to choose men for the war, and to fight the battle with the sword. He himself went with Aaron and Hur to the summit of a hill to hold up the staff of God in his hands, that he might procure success to the warriors through the spiritual weapons of prayer.
The proper name of Joshua, who appears here for the first time in the service of Moses, as Hosea (הושׁע); he was a prince of the tribe of Ephraim (Numbers 13:8, Numbers 13:16; Deuteronomy 32:44). The name יהושׁע, "Jehovah is help" (or, God-help), he probably received at the time when he entered Moses' service, either before or after the battle with the Amalekites (see Numbers 13:16, and Hengstenberg, Dissertations, vol. ii.). Hur, who also held a prominent position in the nation, according to Exodus 24:14, in connection with Aaron, was the son of Caleb, the son of Hezron, the grandson of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:18-20), and the grandfather of Bezaleel, the architect of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:2; Exodus 35:30; Exodus 38:22, cf. 1 Chronicles 2:19-20). According to Jewish tradition, he was the husband of Miriam.
The battle was fought on the day after the first attack (Exodus 17:9). The hill (גּבעה, not Mount Horeb), upon the summit of which Moses took up his position during the battle, along with Aaron and Hur, cannot be fixed upon with exact precision, but it was probably situated in the table-land of Fureia, to the north of er Rahah and the Sheikh valley, which is a fertile piece of pasture ground (Burckhardt, p. 801; Robinson, i. pp. 139, 215), or else in the plateau which runs to the north-east of the Horeb mountains and to the east of the Sheikh valley, with the two peaks Umlanz and Um Alawy; supposing, that is, that the Amalekites attacked the Israelites from Wady Muklifeh or es Suweiriyeh. Moses went to the top of the hill that he might see the battle from thence. He took Aaron and Hur with him, not as adjutants to convey his orders to Joshua and the army engaged, but to support him in his own part in connection with the conflict. This was to hold up his hand with the staff of God in it. To understand the meaning of this sign, it must be borne in mind that, although Exodus 17:11 merely speaks of the raising and dropping of the hand (in the singular), yet, according to Exodus 17:12, both hands were supported by Aaron and Hur, who stood one on either side, so that Moses did not hold up his hands alternately, but grasped the staff with both his hands, and held it up with the two. The lifting up of the hands has been regarded almost with unvarying unanimity by Targumists, Rabbins, Fathers, Reformers, and nearly all the more modern commentators, as the sign or attitude of prayer. Kurtz, on the contrary, maintains, in direct opposition to the custom observed throughout the whole of the Old Testament by all pious and earnest worshipers, of lifting up their hands to God in heaven, that this view attributes an importance to the outward form of prayer which has no analogy even in the Old Testament; he therefore agrees with Lakemacher, in Rosenmller's Scholien, in regarding the attitude of Moses with his hand lifted up as "the attitude of a commander superintending and directing the battle," and the elevation of the hand as only the means adopted for raising the staff, which was elevated in the sight of the warriors of Israel as the banner of victory. But this meaning cannot be established from Exodus 17:15 and Exodus 17:16. For the altar with the name "Jehovah my banner," and the watchword "the hand on the banner of Jehovah, war of the Lord against Amalek," can neither be proved to be connected with the staff which Moses held in his hand, nor be adduced as a proof that Moses held the staff in front of the Israelites as the banner of victory. The lifting up of the staff of God was, no doubt, a banner to the Israelites of victory over their foes, but not in this sense, that Moses directed the battle as commander-in-chief, for he had transferred the command to Joshua; nor yet in this sense, that he imparted divine powers to the warriors by means of the staff, and so secured the victory. To effect this, he would not have lifted it up, but have stretched it out, either over the combatants, or at all events towards them, as in the case of all the other miracles that were performed with the staff. The lifting up of the staff secured to the warriors the strength needed to obtain the victory, from the fact that by means of the staff Moses brought down this strength from above, i.e., from the Almighty God in heaven; not indeed by a merely spiritless and unthinking elevation of the staff, but by the power of his prayer, which was embodied in the lifting up of his hands with the staff, and was so far strengthened thereby, that God had chosen and already employed this staff as a medium of the saving manifestation of His almighty power. There is no other way in which we can explain the effect produced upon the battle by the raising and dropping (הניח) of the staff in his hands. As long as Moses held up the staff, he drew down from God victorious powers for the Israelites by means of his prayer; but when he let it fall through the exhaustion of the strength of his hands, he ceased to draw down the power of God, and Amalek gained the upper hand. The staff, therefore, as it was stretched out on high, was not a sign to the Israelites that were fighting, for it is by no means certain that they could see it in the heat of the battle; but it was a sign to Jehovah, carrying up, as it were, to God the wishes and prayers of Moses, and bringing down from God victorious powers for Israel. If the intention had been the hold it up before the Israelites as a banner of victory. Moses would not have withdrawn to a hill apart from the field of battle, but would either have carried it himself in front of the army, or have given it to Joshua as commander, to be borne by him in front of the combatants, or else have entrusted it to Aaron, who had performed the miracles in Egypt, that he might carry it at their head. The pure reason why Moses did not do this, but withdrew from the field of battle to lift up the staff of God upon the summit of a hill, and to secure the victory by so doing, is to be found in the important character of the battle itself. As the heathen world was now commencing its conflict with the people of God in the persons of the Amalekites, and the prototype of the heathen world, with its hostility to God, was opposing the nation of the Lord, that had been redeemed from the bondage of Egypt and was on its way to Canaan, to contest its entrance into the promised inheritance; so the battle which Israel fought with this foe possessed a typical significance in relation to all the future history of Israel. It could not conquer by the sword alone, but could only gain the victory by the power of God, coming down from on high, and obtained through prayer and those means of grace with which it had been entrusted. The means now possessed by Moses were the staff, which was, as it were, a channel through which the powers of omnipotence were conducted to him. In most cases he used it under the direction of God; but God had not promised him miraculous help for the conflict with the Amalekites, and for this reason he lifted up his hands with the staff in prayer to God, that he might thereby secure the assistance of Jehovah for His struggling people. At length he became exhausted, and with the falling of his hands and the staff he held, the flow of divine power ceased, so that it was necessary to support his arms, that they might be kept firmly directed upwards (אמוּנה, lit., firmness) until the enemy was entirely subdued. And from this Israel was to learn the lesson, that in all its conflicts with the ungodly powers of the world, strength for victory could only be procured through the incessant lifting up of its hands in prayer. "And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people (the Amalekites and their people) with the edge of the sword" (i.e., without quarter. See Genesis 34:26).
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