War in the Bible: Why Did God’s People Go to War?

Are there different teachings about war in the Bible? Did God change His mind about war between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

Jesus Christ told us to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies (Matthew 5:9, 39, 43-44). He warned that those who “take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He expanded the spiritual intent of the Sixth Commandment to include anger and vicious name-calling (Matthew 5:21-22). He explained that His Kingdom is not of this world, so His servants did not fight (John 18:36). The New Testament teaching on fighting is clear.

So why did Jesus Christ, the Rock of Old Testament Israel (1 Corinthians 10:4), allow the Israelites to fight wars in the Old Testament? Are there different teachings on war in the Bible?

Not everything God allows is what He wants

Just because God allowed His people to fight in war in the Bible, doesn’t mean war was what He wanted.

Consider what Jesus said about divorce, for example. When Jesus defended the sanctity of marriage by saying, “What God has joined together, let not man separate,” the Pharisees asked, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” Jesus answered, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:6-8).

The same can be said of warfare. Because of the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief, God allowed the Israelites to fight most of their own battles. But from the beginning, He had intended to fight for them.

When God fought their battles

During the Exodus, God protected the Israelites and destroyed the Egyptian army without the Israelites doing anything except walking through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:14, 30). God intended to “drive out the Canaanite” before them (Exodus 33:2).

Through the years, there were some dramatic examples of God intervening for His people. He knocked down the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6), and He caused the entire Syrian army to hear noises that frightened them into running for their lives without a fight (2 Kings 7:6-7).

But most times Israel chose to trust mainly in themselves. Once they chose to fight for themselves, they rarely turned back.

When Israel rejected God

As Israel approached the Promised Land, they heard reports of giants in the land and strong, fortified cities. Rather than remembering that God had fought for them and destroyed the Egyptian army, they thought of how impossible it would be for Israel to win in battle. They decided to rebel against God and to return to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4). When, too late, they changed their minds and decided to stage an invasion of the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “You shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you” (Numbers 14:43).

Their defeat was only the start of Israel’s reliance on their army rather than God. Occasionally they would call on God to help their army, but rarely did Israel fully trust in God. In response to the hardness of their hearts, God allowed Israel to fight their own battles and even gave them laws to regulate war in the Bible. As a result, Israel’s history, like the history of all nations, was filled with battles, war heroes, victories and defeats.

Though it was not God’s intention, the culture of war permeated His people. Even David, though he was basically a man after God’s own heart, was not allowed to build God’s temple because he had “shed much blood” (1 Chronicles 22:8).

The Old Testament hope: the end of war

Many of the prophecies of the Old Testament point out the horrors of future wars. But they also point to a time of peace to come.

The prophet Isaiah recorded this wonderful prophecy of the time after Jesus Christ’s return to this earth when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, will eventually end all war and restore the universe to the peace He always intended (Isaiah 9:6).