I’m a lot of things.
I’m a husband. A father. A writer. An employee. A son. A brother. A friend. A blogger. A boardgamer. A tinkerer. These are some of the hats I wear, each with varying levels of frequency and importance.
You are a lot of things, too. I don’t doubt it. We all are.
But what are you most of all? Out of all those hats, what’s the one that always comes first, that defines you more than any of the others?
You have options. A lot of options. It’s the 21st century—there are more options for hobbies, entertainment, and professions than ever before in human history. There are easily accessible, fiercely passionate niches for every conceivable interest, and you can find a whole host of like-minded compatriots in almost no time at all with a quick Google search.
So what are you?
More importantly, how do you want to be remembered? As a film enthusiast? A parent? A musician? A social butterfly? A political activist? A spouse? An advocate for social justice? A welder? A salesman? A leader?
If your gravestone could have a single epitaph, “Here lies a good ________,” what identity would you want chiseled into that blank space?
* * *
Israel’s first real taste of battle came from an Amalekite surprise attack in the wilderness. Moses told Joshua, “Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand” (Exodus 17:9).
What happened next was a miracle: “And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Exodus 17:11). With some support from his friends (holding a staff above your head for a day doesn’t sound too hard until you try and do it), “his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. So Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exodus 17:12-13).
Amalek was defeated. Israel was victorious. But why? Because Moses held a magical stick in the air all day long?
After the battle, Moses built an altar and named it YHWH Nissi—”The-LORD-Is-My-Banner” (Exodus 17:15). It was a reminder where Israel’s victory had really come from—not from Moses, not from the people supporting him, and not even from the stick itself. The Eternal God has defeated Amalek, and He was the Banner of His people.
* * *
To really understand that sentiment, we first have to understand the role banners played in the ancient world. When I think of a standard or a banner, I usually think of a colorful, ornamental cloth emblazoned with some elaborate crest or design—but that’s not necessarily how they worked in Israel’s day.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that the Hebrew words degel [H5251] and nes [H1714] indicate “a flag, streamer, or wrought emblem” affixed to the end of a pole and that “the purpose of the banner was to indicate the rallying point for any group holding a common cause.”
We don’t know exactly what Israelite banners looked like, but it’s interesting to note that the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to build in the wilderness was fashioned as a banner [nes] as well (Numbers 21:8).
When God instructed Israel how to set up camp in the wilderness, He explained that “the people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses” (Numbers 2:2, English Standard Version). The rest of the chapter deals with the marching order and camping layout of each tribe, as well as a record of the size of each tribe’s army.
Whatever form those standards and banners took, they served a valuable purpose for the Israelites:
This was a nation of hundreds of thousands of people, but banners made it possible to identify tribes at a glance. There was Judah’s banner, and there was Simeon’s, and over there was Dan’s—there was never any doubt about what tribe was where.
In battle, the banner became even more important. With the ancient Romans, we know that “the Standard was important as a rallying point, symbol of pride and, more practically, as a means of communication in battle. A trumpet blast would draw the attention of the troops to the Standard which would then direct which action should be taken on the field. The Standard bearer would lower, raise, wave, or make some other motion with the Standard to indicate what the next move was for the troops or to change some tactic or formation.”
Warfare was loud. Communicating instructions to an entire army mid-battle was a challenge, but banners made it possible for soldiers to see instructions they couldn’t hear. Was it time to fall back? Surge forward? Change formation? Regroup? The banner was there to make it clear.
* * *
In many ways, Moses was something of a standard-bearer during the battle with Amalek. He was high atop a hill, raising a pole in the air on behalf of the army of God. Maybe that’s why he was so quick to build an altar that would remind the people that the real banner of Israel was not any masterfully crafted metal emblem or flag, but the Master Craftsman Himself—the LORD Our Banner.
David knew it, too. “You have given a banner to those who fear You, that it may be displayed because of the truth. … Through God we will do valiantly, for it is He who shall tread down our enemies” (Psalm 60:4, 12). And again: “We will rejoice in your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners!” (Psalm 20:5). Jesus Himself was prophesied as “a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people” (Isaiah 11:10).
* * *
All those hats you wear; all those things you are—which one is most important? Which one is the one you’d cling to if all the others were being ripped from you, one by one?
What is your banner?
What is the primary flag you stand under when it’s time to say, “This is me, this is my identity, this is who I am at my very core”?
You have a lot of options—but you only have one good option.
The LORD Our Banner. When we set up camp, He needs to be our identity; our unmistakable, defining marker. When others are looking for us, they can find us here, under the banner of our God.
And when we step onto the battlefield, it is YHWH Nissi who gives us instruction, who guides us to victory, who treads down our enemies.
I asked what you’d want on your gravestone if you could only have a single epitaph, and I think the best inscription I could hope for is this one:
“Here lies a good Christian.”
The battle rages on. Follow your Banner.
Until next time,