Even though we live an ocean away, it has been difficult in recent times to ignore the debates in the United States over the flying of the Confederate flag. For many, the Confederate flag represents racial segregation and a distinct racist cultural and political identity. The same debate raged in the mid 1990s after the new South African flag was unveiled and some still flew the old flag. The old South African flag is listed as a hate symbol on the Anti-Defamation League website. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old mass murderer, who gunned down nine black parishioners in a Methodist Church in June 2015, wore the old South African and Rhodesian flags on his jacket as a symbol of white supremacy.
A national flag symbolises and represents a given nation. Typically, flags are designed with specific meanings applied to their colours and symbols. The desecration of a national flag is a significant symbolic act. Some nations have a pledge of allegiance to the country’s flag as a representation of national patriotism.
Historically, flags originated as military standards, which were used field signs. The standard would often identify the location of the general, and armies would rally together under their military standard. The standard represented the kingdom for which the army was fighting. In the Old Testament, the ark of the covenant was something of a military standard, which frequently went before the Israelites into battle. Of course, the ark itself was not Israel’s rallying point but merely represented the nation’s true rallying point, which was its God.
Moses understood this principle. Exodus 17:8–16 records an Israelite skirmish with the Amalekites, a powerful group of warrior nomads. (This was before the ark of the covenant had been constructed.) Moses instructed Joshua to lead Israel’s soldiers into battle, while he stood atop a nearby hill with the staff of God in his hand. Moses led his brother, Aaron, and another man, Hur, to the top of the hill while Joshua led the army into battle. As Moses held the staff aloft, Israel proved victorious. When his arms tired and the staff dropped, Israel faltered. Eventually, Aaron and Hur allowed Moses to sit on a rock and propped his arms up so that Israel would gain the victory.
After Israel had fully defeated the Amalekites, “Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner, saying, ‘A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have wat with Amalek from generation to generation” (vv. 15–16). “The LORD Is My Banner” translates the Hebrew name Yahweh Nissi, which is our name of God focus for the coming week.
This significance of this event must not be missed. For Israel’s army, it was plain that they fought under the Lord’s direction and care. They fought in his name and conquered in his strength. They were not fighting for an earthly kingdom, but for a heavenly kingdom, which they represented on earth. Yahweh Nissi was teaching them, long before they entered the Promised Land, that their hope for victory did not lie in Moses or in Joshua but in Yahweh Nissi alone. Only as they fought under his banner could they expect to emerge victorious in the battles they would face.
As Christians, we must remember that our primary allegiance is to God and our identity is rooted in Jesus Christ. Writing of Messiah, Isaiah prophesied, “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations enquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). Yahweh was Israel’s banner; Jesus—who is Yahweh in the flesh—is our banner today. We pledge allegiance to him. We fight for and under him. Our identity is found in him. If we allow anything other than our relationship with Christ to shape our primary identity—politics, family, employment, sexuality—we have failed to recognise Yahweh Nissi as our banner.
All of this may seem very foreign to us. Most reading this are probably not soldiers and the concept of a military signal is foreign to us. As we think, therefore, of what this name of God means for us, it may be helpful to frame our thoughts around three questions.
First, what battles are you choosing to fight? The fight against the Amalekites was divinely sanctioned. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven’” (v. 14). There were times in the wilderness wandering when the Lord told Israel to evade military action, but here he not only fought for them but gave direct promises that he would continue to do so against this particular enemy. They could be sure that they were fighting the Lord’s battle when they fought the Amalekites.
Too often, Christians choose to fight battles they should not fight. They assume that the Lord is on their side but fail to realise that they have turned their back on the real battle. We know we have fallen into this trap when the battle we are fighting is not clearly sanctioned by Scripture. We might choose to fight to death over a particular translation of the Bible or insist that the Bible says it is a sin to drink alcohol (it doesn’t). These are battles that Christians sometimes choose to fight, but when they do they are not fighting under the Lord’s banner. In fact, more often than not, these battles are waged against fellow Christians, not even against the enemies of the Lord!
Second, how are you choosing to fight the battles you fight? Moses gave Joshua clear instructions for how to wage the war, and only as things were done God’s way—with the raised staff—did Israel prove victorious. There are accounts in the book of Joshua of Israel choosing to fight their way, without consulting God, which never turned out well. (Think for example, of the battle against Ai in Joshua 7, or the Gibeonite deception in Joshua 9.)
We are in a spiritual war and God has told us how to fight. We do not use fleshly weapons to wage our war (2 Corinthians 10:3–4). God has carefully designed our arsenal for the war that lies before us (Ephesians 6:10–20). We must rest in the fact that the weapons he has provided are sufficient and not choose to introduce our own inventions into the divine arsenal. We cannot claim to be fighting under Yahweh Nissi when we reject the weapons he has provided in favour of our own.
For example, God has told us that, when wielded by wise, godly men and women, the Scriptures are sufficient for us. Yet too often, when spiritual warfare manifests itself as marital conflict, we run to the world with its worldly counsel instead of looking to the Scriptures in the context of the church. How can we expect to emerge victorious when we fail to use the weapons God has provided for us?
Third, are you waving the right banner? Moses boldly declared “The LORD Is My Banner.” Yahweh Nissi. He openly identified with the Lord, which meant living in accordance with what God commanded. God had specific expectations of his people in the Old Testament (see, for example, the Levitical laws) and they could only properly be identified as his people—and he as their banner—when they lived as he called them to live.
Jesus Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers. He is eager to identify with his people, but since he is holy, he calls his people to be holy. We cannot claim to be fighting under the Lord’s banner when we reject biblical standards of living and instead embrace a worldly philosophy and lifestyle. We must not only profess the Lord as our banner, but must also live according to his standards, if we expect him to fight for us in the warfare we face.