The Contagion of Cowardice

As the ancient Israeli soldier gazes across the field of battle, he sees a sea of chariots and horses and soldiers far outnumbering his own. His hands tremble. His mouth dries. His breathing shortens. The gentle burn washes over him: fear. He struggles in vain to combat the thought, Will today be my last?

Since a child he has read, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 20:1). Now, in war, God didn’t feel as near as the soldier imagined as a child. Visions of glory are giving way to heat and stench and hoards growing fiercer under a blinding sun. He blinks back lightheadedness.

The enemy’s taunts grow louder as the cobra smiles at the mouse. Secret doubts begin to unman him. Even if the battle is ours, he reconsiders, the promise doesn’t ensure that I will live to share its victory.

A distant figure approaches. The men gather. The priest of God speaks to the soldiers,

Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory. (Deuteronomy 20:3–4)

To his dismay, this word does not shake his mounting suspicions of dying a horrible death. What if God does not show up and fight with Israel?

Next, an officer’s voice barks,

Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. (Deuteronomy 20:5)

He has no new house to dedicate.

The officer continues,

And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. (Deuteronomy 20:6)

Never did our soldier envy those with new vineyards like now.

And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her. (Deuteronomy 20:7)

He had been married for years.

Three groups of men turn from battle — he remains — with less horses, and less chariots, and less fellow soldiers than before. What little courage remained rides off with them.

His heartbeat drums in his ears, nearly drowning out the officer’s last word:

Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own. (Deuteronomy 20:8)

He hates himself for sighing. His heart calms, his legs regain feeling. As his breathing settles and the army fades behind his back, he comforts his questioning conscience, At least I’ll live to see tomorrow.

Seeing Tomorrow

The real-life scene illustrates cowardice in ancient Israel that still plagues professing Christian men today — a fear that keeps them from mission and manly conviction. Soldiers today turn away from battle before Philistines who won’t slash throats as much as gossip about them. For centuries, many have feared the flaming stake and hungry lion; today, we fear the shaking head and disinvitation to the friend group.

Why be too salty in a bland world, they reason, shine too brightly in this cave full of bats? Why go forth and risk the awkward silence, the chill of disapproval, the loss of this world and all its comforts? Rubber bullets suffice on their sins, and they see no need to cause a disturbance. These too say under their breath — albeit it, metaphorically — “At least I’ll live to see tomorrow.”

I believe that this scene of Israelite warfare and the exemptions God provides has something to teach us about God, cowardice, and ourselves.

Exemptions of Grace

First, it is noteworthy that God made special exemptions from military service for four groups of men. The first three pairs go together: Those who have not enjoyed their house, the fruit of their vineyard, or the love of their wife.

These three exceptions prevent the Israelite man from experiencing the covenant curses, which read, “You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit” (Deuteronomy 28:30).

In this, the Israelite was to learn about his gracious General. The God of Israel was no Pharoah, whipping his soldiers into compliance. He cared for his men. None would go forth to battle who had untasted joys at home. Each exemption spared from the curse and ensured each knew blessing (Isaiah 65:21–22). Israel’s soldiers had households growing with family, friends, and feasting, before the possibility of dying on the battlefield arose. They had something at home to defend.

Men of Melting Hearts

But a fourth provision is given, separate from the other three: one for those of melting hearts. Though God commands over and over to his men, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to fight for you,” these weaker souls cannot be comforted. Their hearts tremble within; their sweat beads without. They do not yet trust the God of their fathers with so much on the line. They consent to a release of duty, turn their backs on their brothers, and ride away to soft beds and supple securities.

In Israel’s history, such men went home by the thousands. When Gideon approached his army with a similar proposition — “Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead” — we read, “Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained” (Judges 7:3). For every man that stood fast, two of his intimidated brothers turned and hurried home.

God Fights One-Handed

What can we learn from this surprising provision to the cowardly?

First, we learn what Moses previously said, “The Lord (Yahweh) is a man of war; the Lord (Yahweh) is his name” (Exodus 15:3). The supreme Man of War needs no help from men. Moses saw God singlehandedly bring the world’s greatest power to its knees without one human warrior. Other armies and other gods fed men to war — searching the highways and byways for any able-bodied man, setting soldiers behind the army to kill deserters — our God needs no big army or many chariots or terrified soldiers to conquer his foes. Our God puts himself at disadvantage but is never at disadvantage.

“Our God puts himself at disadvantage but is never at disadvantage.”

And he does so to humble his people. The Lord dismisses 22,000, reasoning to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’” (Judges 7:2). He ties one arm behind his back, so to speak, and topples gods and nations to prove, “Yahweh your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory” (Deuteronomy 20:4). The weakness of our God, ever since the beginning, is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Contagion of Cowardice

Second, though, we see that cowardice is a sickness that calls for quarantine.

Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own. (Deuteronomy 20:8)

Warfare in ancient Israel was a contest of faith. A man before the swarming foe quickly discovers what he truly believes. Are the unseen promises, and presence, of his God real? Before a massive army, the soldier meant something different when he called texts “life-verses.”

“A man before the swarming foe quickly discovers what he truly believes.”

These men heard God speak through his priest: “Let not your heart faint. Be not afraid. Tremble not nor succumb to terror. Yahweh himself goes out with you. He fights with you. He will save you.”

But this does too little for the unbelieving man. He does not trust that his King is with him. And notice: his unwarlike spirit disheartens his brothers. His cowardice is contagious. His questions make others question. His hesitations cause more to hesitate. His timidity rusts blades beside him. His long journey home is better for the army as the leper dwelling outside the camp spared the rest. Israel’s forces were stronger without panicked soldiers.

Word to Collapsing Hearts

So how shall we profit from this word to ancient Israel?

A word to those men with melting hearts today (and a reminder to our own hearts in the process): To those who would swallow their tongues, who blush for God and his gospel, who have no stomach for conflict — whether in confronting untruth or killing their own sin, who hold no faith that God can yet bring about the unlikely victory, to those who count their lives more dear than their King’s cause, who prize this world above the next, who roar behind avatars and whimper in person, who mumble at Christ’s promises and who are ready to fight when society is on their side

but shrink when devils and Philistines draw swords against their Master — to you it might be said, sheath your sword and go home.

God Almighty does not need your half-hearted, quaking service. He is never at a disadvantage. We wish you to find your valor, your faith in our conquering Captain, and remain among us — it would be your great privilege to do so. We wish to see a lionhearted trust in our God. We would find new strength rising in us to hear you respond as Leonidas’s general did when the countless enemy threatened to shoot enough arrows to block out the sun: “Then we shall have our battle in the shade!”

We wish you would stand firm as God’s men and believe, “Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for Yahweh your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” We welcome you, desire your assistance, call you to entrust yourself to a trustworthy Savior and live for him — but if you will not have him decidedly as General, we cannot have you.

The cowardice of only ten spies soon proved so contagious, as to keep a whole nation from a victory they were “well able” to achieve (Numbers 13:30). You, in their lineage, unwittingly discourage God’s people and dampen his cause. Go home until God gives you a certain heart to venture on in his promises. But do not do so lightly. Buying a new field, purchasing new oxen, marrying a new bride, or being afraid will not discharge anyone from accepting and following Christ (Luke 14:16–24).

A courageous heart we earnestly pray for you since “cowards” will not finally inherit eternal life. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” Jesus charges his army in the vision at Patmos,

Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)