The War Horse

The Call of the Believer

This was preached at New Wine Christian Fellowship [12/16/2011]

The Strength of the Horse in Battle

Joel 2:3-4   Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run.

There is a movie coming out soon about a war horse, or more properly a young man's horse that is taken for wartime service during the First World War. That's about as much as I can gather about the movie from the preview. We don't think about war horses nowadays since they are not effective in modern day warfare. But for many millenia the horse was a powerful weapon in warfare. The Mongols and later the Saracens made powerful and effective use of the horse in battle.

In Shakespeare's “Richard III”, the King Richard III is felled from his horse:

Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!
The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Withdraw, my lord; I'll help you to a horse.

Slave! I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.”

(Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard III, Act V, Scene IV).

I'll come back to this, but notice the urgency of the situation: the King's horse has been slain, and now Richard is highly vulnerable and unable to withdraw quickly. The immediate thought that comes to mind when we hear “my kingdom for a horse” is that fear has driven the king to beg. This couldn't be farther from the truth. It is rather, it is that my kingdom falters for lack of a horse, since his next statement is one of distain at the offer to withdraw to find a horse. I believe the phrase “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name,” which we will see it again shortly, is a prayer of sorts, making the comparison to the king and divine providence.

Horses allowed heavily armed warriors to advance swiftly, to remain maneuverable, to sweep around battle arrays, or to plunge through lines of infantry. Horse drawn chariots gave a stable platform for archers, and soldiers with heavy spears or battle axes. Chariots were the strength of the Egyptian army. Egyptian armies at the time of Moses had many hundred of chariots, possibly more than a thousand. Pharaohs of later times may have had several thousand chariots.

Against this scenario God gives Moses instructions, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” (Exodus 14:1-4). God instructs Moses to deliberately place where the wilderness would shut them in. There was no way of escape when the Pharaoh pursues them. The Pharaoh, with arguably the most powerful army in the world at that time had reason for confidence. The Pharaoh's heart is hardened, and he decides to pursue the sons of Israel. He “took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them.” (Exodus 14:7). This was a formidable army. The Israelites had reason to fear when that army had them backed up against the sea. As we know, God sovereignly delivered the children of Israel so that “the Egyptians would know that I am the LORD.” Miriam danced and praised God, “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:21).

God gives the Israelites this experience early and asks them to never forget it. “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).

As you can imagine, in a world where invasions where common, the horse was a vivid picture of strength and security. Armies with large numbers of horses and chariots would cause any nation to tremble at that time. But God does not want Israel to rely on the strength of the horse. Moses gives them this song:

Exodus 15:1-18

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.
You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
The LORD will reign forever and ever.

This is a song that Moses gives the people. In this world, where reading and writing were for the very few, memories where kept by reciting the poem or song of great events. The sons of Israel were intended to remember and never forget that the strength of a thousand horses with choice warriors was no match for their God, who covered them and protected them.

To reinforce this, God tells them not to keep large numbers of horses themselves, least they come to rely on their strength. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20 God predicts that Israel will desire a king be set over them and so He lays down some general rules for the king. Rule number one: “he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’.” (Deuteronomy 17:16).


The Character of the War Horse

Psalm 33:17   The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.

The first thing to notice about the war horse is that he is not a weapon. The war horse is only a vehicle. Without a rider the war horse is of no use in combat. All of his strength, all of his speed is useless. Here the image of “El Cid” comes to mind. For those not old enough to remember the 1961 film with Charlton Heston as the Cid or Lord. He is wounded badly in battle when he is struck by an enemy arrow. If the arrow is removed he will live, but the recovery will take time. Without his leadership his army will falter, so El Cid chooses to keep the arrow, even though he will die, so that his lifeless body can be secured to his horse and thus ride out in battle at the dawn's light. The final image of the film is El Cid riding out and the suddenly demoralized Moors fleeing before him. They have no idea that El Cid is dead already.

Of course this is pure Hollywood. Why couldn't someone else have riden out in El Cid's armour, riding El Cid's horse? But the point is that this same scene of the horse high stepping out the gate, but without the rider, would have played out very differently.

Look again at Richard III, of whom Catesby says, “The king enacts more wonders than a man”. He is furious and relentless warrior, “Slave! I have set my life upon a cast, And I will stand the hazard of the die.” He has thrust himself into the battle and isn't about to withdraw, regardless the outcome. The loss of the horse isn't the big issue, the fear of the loss of the king is the issue. But, the horse is clearly a valuable part of the equation. His loss has severely impacted the battlefield concerns.

This is not an academic discussion. It does apply to the believer. But before I get to that I want to look closely at the character of the war horse, so that our application will make sense. The war horse is valuable because he has the strength to carry the rider and his various armaments, or to pull a loaded chariot fast. This is something common to horses generally. Some are stronger or faster, but they are all stronger and faster than you or I. What makes a really good war horse is built into the way he thinks and feels. Does this horse have the willingness and the stamina to keep going when he is tired? Does this horse face the clash and the noise of war fearlessly? Is this horse attentive to the rider, or is this horse headstrong and reckless, apt to throw his bit and run without direction?

Job 39:19-25   “Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrifying.
He paws in the valley and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword.
Upon him rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’ He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

In Job, Chapter 39, God is speaking to Job. This is towards the end of His first speach to Job. God begins in Chapter 38 by challanging Job's understanding and human capacities with a barrage of “Do you know...” and “Can you...” questions. The answer to them all is Job's human limitation; in other words, Job has no answer, nor could he. By the beginning of Chapter 39 there is a shift in the nature of the questions. God is asking about Job's ability to care for the living things of this world. Again, Job has no answer. And then, there is this passage that begins by asking, ‘Can you inspire the war horse?’, and ends by praising the war horse.

Strength is obviously important to the war horse. But many strong and fast horses are useless as war horses. When training a war horse, the trainer is trying to instill specific character traits. “He laughs at fear and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword” (v22). The war horse must be trained like a police horse to face the intensity of battle without loosing his cool. If the horse becomes confused, or turns and runs in terror, he cannot be used. He is also alert to the task he is trained for, “When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’” (v25). And the war horse is eager, “it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet” (v24).

The translators note that “it cannot stand still” uses a Hebrew word ('aman) which indicates impatience. We see this in Zechariah's apocalyptic vision, “When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, ‘Go, patrol the earth.’ So they patrolled the earth.” (Zechariah 6:7). According to Os Guinness, “A sure mark of Christian vision is an godly impatience and holy restlessness.” (Guinness, In Two Minds, 1976. Page 292). This is a major theme of Jonathan Edwards work On the Religious Affections, which he wrote to defend the activities, and to sort out the junk, of the Great Awakening.

This speaks of character trait we usually call zeal. This is an important characteristic of God's faithful, but as Jonathan Edwards notes, “There is nothing that belongs to Christian experience more liable to a corrupt mixture than zeal.” (Jonathan Edwards, Thoughts on the Revival of Religion, 1740).

Zechariah 10:3   “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like his majestic steed in battle.”

Zechariah, speaking God's voice, gives a snapshot of Job 38 & 39. In the previous verse, he says, “For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation.” (Zechariah 10:2). Human wisdom has failed. The shepherds and the leaders are not leading the people to God, but to false comfort. In Job 38, God questions Job's understanding, his ability to lead spiritually. Here in Zechariah, the challenge is sharper. Through Zechariah, God says your faulty understanding has caused you to lead the flock astray. God, “the Lord of Hosts cares for His flock”, he says. Leading into Job Chapter 39, God reveals His care and concern for all living things. And then, God speaks of the war horse which is what God intends to shape Job into. In Zechariah, God says “I will make the house of Judah My majestic steed” (Zechariah 10:3).

Two verses later Zechariah says, “they shall fight because the LORD is with them, and they shall put to shame the riders on horses.” (Zechariah 10:5). This is not because of the faithfulness of the shepherds, but because of the faithfulness of the LORD. And it is not by the power of many horses, but by the arm of the Almighty.


The Zeal That Makes a Great Warhorse

Isaiah 59:17   He put on righteousness like a breastplate, And a helmet of salvation on His head; And He put on garments of vengeance for clothing And wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle.

Zeal is a sword that cuts both ways. When Jesus clears the temple courtyard, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” (John 2:17; see Psalm 69:9). Paul stirs the saints, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Romans 12:11; see also: 2Corinthians 7:7 & 11). Paul closes his letter to Titus: “...our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:13-14). Zeal is not just a nice attribute, but like, “Do not fear” (1John 4:18, 2Timothy 1:7), “be zealous” is the fruitful character that we seek. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelations 3:19).

Francis Frangipane, in his book The Three Battlegrounds (Frangipane, The Three Battlegrounds. 1989. Page 49) tells us, “Victory begins with the name of Jesus on our lips. It is consummated by the nature of Jesus in our hearts.”. We enter the battle with the idea of the gospel, but we really begin to fight when the gospel is fire in our soul. That is why, for the past several months, I have been praying for a deeper vision of God for each and every member of this congregation, and especially for our intercessors. My model is Paul in Ephesians. The need for more than an intellectual understanding of God is a crystal clear theme in the Bible. Paul uses the rich image, “that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17-21).

Ephesians 1:17-21   I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.

At the recent fall retreat I spoke about the Nazarite, one of John Mulinde's themes. In the broader sense of the word, the Nazarite is someone whose zeal causes them to sacrifice, to set themselves apart. But, as I also mentioned, not all Nazarites are on God's team. I spent many years devoted to and sacrificing for the Moonies, and then for the arts. Neither of these blessed God. ‘Time’ Magazine has called the protestor the man of the year. But many of those protestors are rebellious, angry, bitter individuals who enjoy creating havoc just to get media attention. This doesn't bless God. And worst of all, there are many who labor for the glory of serving God, but never come to know Jesus or hear the true call of God. “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (Romans 10:2-3 ).

Often we can begin well, but loose our focus. To quote Frangipane again, “we are not called to focus on the battle or the devil, except when that battle hinders our immediate transformation into Christ's likeness. Our calling is to focus on Jesus.” (Frangipane, The Three Battlegrounds. 1989. Page 52). Many of us aren't even there. We are so focused on our comfort, our entertainment, our finances, our relationships, and whatever else, that the devil doesn't even need to fool with us. We are energetic, even zealous, but run here and there like a horse who has lost his rider. We lock in on our own understanding and no longer hear the rider's command, no longer feel the spur. We call the spur another attack of the devil.

Interestingly enough, I witnessed just such a situation. I went to watch a Civil War enactment of the Battle of Carthage, Missouri. When the cannonades began to explode one horse threw his rider and plunged over the fence into the viewing area, sending spectators into a panic. The horse wasn't captured until he wedged himself between two trailers. “Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the LORD.” (Jeremiah 8:6-7). This is a horse plunging headlong, through the lines of friend and foe alike. He doesn't know the difference.

So it all comes back to the horse and his rider. Does the horse have a rider, or does he have a rider created by his own imagination? And if the horse has a rider, is that rider God's own son. And finally, assuming the horse is under the command of Jesus Christ, is he attentive to the rider?


The War Horse and His Rider

“In religion, a person shall be proved as gold in a furnace, and no person in religion can remain long in grace and virtue unless he will humble himself with all his heart for the love of God.”

(Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. 1955. Page 51).

Faith that is based on an idea that is faulty, will eventually, if not challenged and revised, lead to a faulty view of God. A faulty view of God leads to a faulty devotion. Such a person, proclaiming devotion, becomes an impediment to God. To quote Os Guinness, “The more devout they are, the uglier their faith will become, since it is based on a lie.” (Guinness, In Two Minds, 1976. Page 92). Their zeal swirls in an imaginary world, where the devotee is the truly beloved servant. This is the picture of zealous war horse without a rider. Over the centuries, more damage has been done by Christians who think they are fulfilling God's will, than by the non-Christians who occasionally fill the shepherd's office.

So what is the antidote to foolhardy zeal. It is definitely not quitting, packing it in, going home and waiting for Jesus to knock on the door. How do we keep from being captured by the splendid idea? We keep expanding our knowledge of the Holy. And we keep seeking the face of God. Read you're Bible every day. And we need fellowship with believers. Listening to preaching and teaching is important. But conversation, both focused interaction like our Koinonia groups at New Wine, or free interactions at shared meals, games and work activities, shines light that helps us stay on the path. When the church is open, be there.

Os Guinness, who gives us the dim view of off-center devotion, also says, “Christian vision is a Christian world view that has caught fire and is ablaze with the knowledge of God.” (Guinness, In Two Minds, 1976. Pages 284-285). By our knowledge of God, we are set on Holy fire. This begins in our Bible study, and fellowship with believers, but will never catch fire if that is where it stops. I know many seminary professors with a fine head for the Bible and who love to fellowship, but avoid the fire. For the eyes of your heart to open you need worship, loud noisy worship, and quiet devotion, the surrender of Sabbath before the Lord. We should never forget (former pastor) Chris Simpson's mantra, Quiet times, quiet times, quiet times. Both petition and listening. Sabbath is essential to our devotions. That means drop all of our agendas, our ideas, our desperate needs, and sit before the Lord. We need a lot of prayer to come to the place where the Holy Father opens new windows of His knowledge and builds a blazing zeal that is mature and controlled by the Lord of Glory.

Let the world shake, but let us stand in devout surrender to the Lord of Glory. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29). And I will close with this, “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:49-50).


War Horse, the movie

It seems appropriate to add some comments on Spielburg's new film “War Horse”, which came out Christmas Day (2011). If you haven't seen the film, you may want to skip this until you have, although this isn't a movie which depends upon suspense or surprise. This film has several themes which I find useful for the above discussion.

First, what catches the eye of Albert's father Ted, who purchases the horse, is not the horse's aptness for the task Ted needs done (plowing), but his desire. Joey, as Albert names him, is a spirited horse. To save the farm the horse must plow a field beyond the ability of the toughest plough-horse. Joey, part thoroughbred, is skittish and refuses the collar. Albert's calm overcomes Joey's fear. Albert calmly places the collar on his own neck, and then face to face with Joey, lowers the collar over Joey's head.

Devonshire turns out to watch Joey try to plow to no avail. The plow can't cut the hard and rocky ground. As rain begins to fall heavily, the townsmen run for home. Albert realizes that ground is being softened dramatically. He calls to Joey, “walk on”. By the end of the day, Albert and Joey are both exhausted, cut and bleeding, but miracle of miracles, the impossible field is ploughed.

The horse's spirit is what catches the eye of Albert's father. Albert has already seen the horse and admired it from the first. When he is given the task of training the horse, and he and the horse become fast friends. Albert cares for the horse and comes to know the horse well. The horse learns to trust Albert completely. When Joey is asked to accept the horse collar, Albert's calmness, eye to eye with Joey, allows him to be bound into the collar. Although Joey is not a plough horse, Albert's persistent alongside gets Joey to pull off a miracle.

The points to note, are that the horse is not the best horse for the job, the horse is willing and eager. The relationship between the horse and his rider calms the horse's fears and allows him to be set to the task that the owner needs done. This is faith. Dogma won't work for the horse. Promises won't work. Joey's faith is in Albert who he knows and trusts. Joey looking into Albert's eyes, knows what to do, and is not afraid to do it. And finally, an act of God (rain) and the steady urging of his owner, helps the horse to push far beyond what was believed possible and to astonish the entire township.

Unfortunately the crop fails, war breaks out, and Joey is sold to a British officer in the light cavalry. Joey's training serves him well. He is able to trust his rider and charge into battle fearlessly. But the time of war horses is passed. Riding into German machine-gun fire, the feeble remnant falls into enemy hands. Joey becomes a work horse in a cruel war where the horses work until they die. As fate has it, Joey is released by his young German handler and ordered to flee.

Running through a night filled with terrible shelling, Joey becomes hopelessly entangled in the barbed wire between the lines. As the morning mists rise, the horse is seen trapped in the no man's land between the English and German armies. When he can't stand the cruelty anymore, an English lad edges out under a white flag to free Joey. He arrives at the horse to meet a German lad with the same intention. Together they cut Joey loose. He is returned to the English lines and eventually to Albert.

This seems an apt metaphor for me. Although the horse is trapped behind enemy lines by his rider's misjudgement and not his own, many of us can relate to Joey's predicament. We find ourselves on the wrong side of the war, without the rider who keeps us where we need to be. Perhaps we get headstrong and foolish, charging into the place we don't belong, where the rider won't follow. Perhaps we throw the bit and go our own way. Perhaps we never were in the hands of the rider. In any case, we suddenly realize we need to flee the place we are at, to the other side of the war.

In our flight, we become trapped and entangled in the bondages of the warfare. The bondages come in many forms: family history, the culture we embraced, the sins we have committed, to name a few. We give ourselves to the rider, Jesus, but we cannot move. Easily besetting sins, bad habits, old ways of thinking, or simply a lack of heart's desire keeps us fixed in place. Here in the no man's land, we learn to rely on grace. Between heaven, the church and the kindness of strangers, there are those who cut the wire, to bind up the wounds, and to lead us home.


*All Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

Wm.W.Wells – December 16, 2011

Copyright © 2011 Wm.W.Wells. May be freely copied without alteration.