Throughout the Bible, God appears as a mighty warrior who battles against evil in the spiritual and physical worlds. The image of the warrior God is found as early as the Exodus. After God delivers Israel from Egyptian slavery at the Red Sea, Moses and Israel sing a victory song that asserts, “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name” (Exodus 15:3). The Bible virtually closes with King of kings and Lord of lords’ vision victory over physical and spiritual foes (Revelation 19:11-21).
According to Tremper Longman III, the biblical picture of God as a warrior is developed in five stages:
The first stage is God’s appearance as a warrior who fights on behalf of his people Israel against their flesh-and-blood enemies. The second stage overlaps with the first, yet culminates Israel’s independent political history as God fights in judgment against Israel itself. The Old Testament period ends during the third stage as Israel’s prophets look to the future and proclaim the advent of a powerful divine warrior . . . The Gospels and letters reflect on the fourth stage, Christ’s earthly ministry as the work of a conqueror, though they also look forward to the next stage. The fifth and final stage is anticipated by the church as it awaits the return of the divine warrior who will judge the spiritual and human enemies of God (God Is a Warrior, Zondervan, Kindle Edition).
There are many accounts of God fighting Israel’s physical enemies, which He promised to do as long as Israel was covenant faithful (Deuteronomy 28:7). One dramatic revelation of the warrior God took place before the battle of Jericho when Joshua beholds “a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand” (Joshua 5:13). The identity of this person is that of the “commander of the LORD’s army,” and His presence makes the ground “holy” (Joshua 5:14-15). Then, the LORD gives the battle plans for Jericho to Joshua (Joshua 6:1-5).
The primary symbol of God’s presence with Israel’s army was the ark of the covenant. Typically located in the sanctuary’s most holy place, the ark was removed to accompany the army during war times. The account of the defeat of Jericho focuses on the ark of the covenant (Joshua 6:4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13). “The ark then functioned somewhat like the divine standard of the armies of the ancient Near East. It was a tangible representation of a spiritual reality–God’s presence as divine warrior with his people” (Longman, Warrior).
God fighting for and against Israel is depicted in the poetic and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. The portraiture of the warrior, God in the Psalms, includes: 1) God fighting alone, sometimes by a miracle without any physical means and other times by using weapons (Psalms 7:12–13; 17:13–14; 35:1–3; 59:11–12; 64:7); 2) God using elements of nature such as fire, lightning, and hail as weapons (Psalms 18:12–19; 68:8–10; 83:13–18; 97:3–5); 3) God leading a divine army of heavenly beings (Psalm 34:7); and 4) God as the commander of Israel’s army as it goes into war (Psalms 18:34; 44:9; 60:10; 124:2–3). “By using the imagery of Yahweh as a divine warrior, these texts recast the community’s military victories as gifts rather than accomplishments achieved by its own might” (B. E. Kelle, “Warfare Imagery,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, 831).
The divine warrior motif carries forward into the New Testament. John states, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Immediately following His baptism, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to do battle with Satan (Mark 1:12-13). Following His victory in the wilderness, Jesus assaults the kingdom of Satan by preaching the “gospel of God” (Mark 1:14-15) and casting out demons (Mark 1:23-25). Satan did his worst to Jesus at the cross. Yet, Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave and ascended to the throne of God (Ephesians 1:18-23) and disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).
Though Satan was defeated, the battle continues to battle rage. As Leland Ryken observes, “The period of time between the cross and Christ’s return is the time … the battle continues, and the church is called upon to wage war against God’s enemies just as Israel was God’s army in the OT. The difference is that the church’s weapons are spiritual, not physical” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 213). It is in this time that you and I live. It is in this time that we are to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” by putting on God’s armor and doing battle against the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-20).
(a longer form of this article is published in the March edition of The Unveiled Gospel)