If you have engaged very much with culture, you know that there are many misconceptions about the God of the Bible. One such misconception, often portrayed in cartoons and comic strips, is that God is a kind, grandfatherly figure who would never do anything that could be characterised as angry or harsh. People sometimes like to portray Jesus the same way. After all, was he not gentle and lowly in heart?
The gentleness and kindness of God and of Jesus are certainly consistent with Scripture. “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). Jesus is indeed “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:28–30). But that is only one aspect of God’s self-revelation.
Moses sang of God overthrowing his adversaries and sending out his fury to consume them like stubble (Exodus 15:7). The Lord warned that his anger would burn against his rebellious people (Exodus 32:10–11). God’s anger causes the wicked to come to an end (Job 4:9).
While Jesus was gentle and lowly, patient and approachable, his anger was displayed in the temple when he saw God’s house of prayer being used as a den of thieves. He frequently and publicly confronted and corrected the hypocrisy of Israel’s religious leaders, openly labelling them hypocrites (see Matthew 23). He strongly rebuked the faithlessness of his disciples (Matthew 8:23–27) and even compared Peter to Satan when he opposed the work of the cross (Matthew 16:21–23). The same Jesus who is described as gentle and lowly will return “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 2:7–8).
Sadly, over-emphasis extends both ways. Many highlight and almost seem to rejoice in the wrath of God. Others ignore his wrath and overemphasise his love and gentleness in an unhelpful way. A well-rounded biblical approach recognises that he is both approachable and willing to forgive but also that he takes sin seriously and is not unwilling to rebuke sinners and punish the unrepentant.
As Israel entered the Promised Land, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses wanted them to remember this. But he wanted them to understand that the reality of God’s justice should be an encouragement to them. For forty years, his people had witnessed God’s anger poured out on the faithless exodus generation. For forty years, hundreds of people daily encountered the wages of their sin. An idle observe might be forgiven for assuming that God was against his covenant people. Moses would not allow them to believe this. In his final exhortation to his people, he urged them, “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs” (Deuteronomy 33:29).
Here, Moses reminded the Israelites that their God was “the LORD … the sword of [their] triumph.” The name “the LORD [your] sword” translates the Hebrew Yahweh Chereb. To realise that Yahweh was their chereb—their sword—was a source of blessedness and happiness. He was their sword in a unique way. He was a God who would fight for his people in a way that he would not fight for others. As they entered the Promised Land, faced with an insurmountable task, they should be encouraged that the fight was not theirs but the Lord’s. He would go before them. He would secure victory for them.
The concept of God as our sword—Yahweh Chereb—is an unapologetically military concept. “Them’s fightin’ words,” as they say. These “fightin’ words” should offer us encouragement because, unless the Lord fights for us, we are helpless in the battle before us. We can only be assured of victory if Yahweh is our chereb. There are many ways in which this truth should encourage us. Let me mention a few.
First, the truth of Yahweh Chereb should encourage is in the Great Commission. To make disciples of Jesus Christ is to enter a spiritual war and it is a war in which God’s people will emerge as victors only by his power. Unbelievers follow the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2). They are blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:3–4), caught in his snare (2 Timothy 2:25–26), and imprisoned in the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13). To evangelise is to go behind enemy lines to rescue prisoners of war. But this is a war that we cannot win in our strength. The enemy is too strong. We can only be victorious as the Lord fights for us. We must, therefore, enter the battlefield confident that the Lord is our sword. He must fight for us and we must rely on his to do so. Our clever arguments are useless unless he blesses our efforts.
Second, the truth if Yahweh Chereb should encourage us in our church ministry. After seventy years in exile, the Lord sent his people back to their land with instructions to rebuild the temple of the Lord. They soon found that this was a difficult and frustrating experience. For one thing, comparatively few were willing to return to be involved in the work. For another, enemies opposed them on every front. And even when they made progress, what they saw never quite matched up to the good old days. The older generation reminded them that their temple did not match the glory of Solomon’s. Discouraged, the people threw their hands up in despair. Was there any point in continuing? The Lord sent this encouragement to them via Zechariah the prophet: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The work could and should and would continue, not by the wisdom of effective leaders but by the power of Yahweh Chereb. We may face similar frustrations in the Lord’s work—paucity of labourers; opposition from without; criticism from within—but we must not allow those things to distract us. The work continues not by our wisdom and might but by God’s power. He is our sword. He will secure the victory.
Third, the promise of Yahweh Chereb should encourage us in our own war against sin. As we fight against our own sin, it so often seems to be a losing battle. Sin so easily besets us. We fall to the same temptations over and over again. If we rely on our own strength, we cannot hope to emerge victorious in this fight. We must trust the Lord to finish the work that he has begun in us (Colossians 1:6). He invites us into the work with him, but he started it and only he can (and will) finish it.
Finally, Yahweh Chereb must encourage us in opposition and persecution. Voice of the Martyrs recently asked for prayer for a pastor virtually imprisoned in his own house because of threats from enemies of the gospel. This man, ministering in a difficult part of the Middle East, has isolated himself and his family in their own home for more than a month after receiving threatening text messages and having a group of men show up on his doorstep with automatic rifles. Local police have turned a blind eye to the events. How does a man like that continue his ministry with any form of confidence? How do any of us persevere confidently in the face of opposition? Surely only by recognising that God is our chereb—that he will fight for us.
We should allow this name of God to encourage us that we do not go about the work to which God has called is in our own strength. Whether evangelism, discipleship, church planting, or personal sanctification—or persevering in the face of opposition—we can only face our calling with confidence in Yahweh Chereb.