War and War Images (in Psalms)

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War and war images play a prominent role in the literature of the OT. How do we understand these stories of war and God’s role in them?

God’s sovereignty is affirmed throughout the OT, and the language of war is one of the ways of speaking about God’s sovereignty. The OT accepts war as a fact of human life; although it presents some wars as God’s, the OT extols the desirability of peace even for its own day.

In recent years, biblical scholars have come to use the term “holy war” to describe God’s involvement in some of the OT wars. The term is problematic because of its connections with Christian crusades or Islamic jihads. People fought/fight in crusades not so much with God’s help as on God’s behalf; the term implies spreading a certain religion by force of arms. A jihad was/is directed at the conversion of pagans or the subjection of Christians and Jews under Muslim rule. “Holy war,” as articulated by Gerhard von Rad (first in 1951) and others, focuses on wars in which the Lord (Yahweh) fights the battle without help or with only minimal help from human warriors (see Rad 1991: 1–33, Ollenburger’s “Introduction”). In this commentary, we use the term “Yahweh war” to describe this understanding (Janzen, 2000: 464).

Israel’s earliest literature, a group of poems, describes divine activity in terms of war. These poems (Exod 15; Deut 33; Judg 5; Hab 3) are hymns of victory recording Israel’s early military successes or reporting a theophany. They describe God as fighting on behalf of or alongside Israel’s tribal militia, and thus representing the determining factor in the victory. The oldest of these poems introduces Israel’s deity with “The LORD [Yahweh] is a warrior” (Exod 15:3). Such faith in a God who has the power to win victories is later declared as “the battle is the LORD’s” (1 Sam 17:47). In this manner, Israel’s earliest poets expressed their confidence that the Lord would preserve his people’s life from all threats against it.

During the early tribal confederacy, the warfare of Israel has been described as primarily defensive (Rad 1991), primarily offensive (Miller), or as a popular struggle for liberation from an oppressive city-state regime (Gottwald). In these early battles, the divine power is portrayed as determining the outcome (Exod 14–15; Judg 5:12–18, 23). Yahweh war was conducted with the full support of the priests and involved ritual preparation (Deut 20:2–4; 23:14; 1 Sam 10:1).

With the coming of centralized administration during the monarchy, the concept of Yahweh war lost much of its power. The text indicates that David tested his plans with God, and the Lord is said to have given approval numerous times for war (2 Sam 2:1–5:25). Increasingly, it appears, warfare was transformed into an instrument of national policy declared at the wish of the king to serve his purposes (2 Sam 10:6–19; 11:1, 14–25; 1 Kings 4:20–28; 10:26–11:40).

The prophets considered the Lord to be king of the universe, executing divine will through the practice of divine warfare (Isa 6:11–13; Joel 2:1–11; Mic 1:2–4; Zeph 1:14–18). However, their concern for justice led them to warn the Israelite ruling class and state apparatus against oppressing others. Indeed, Yahweh war could include the divine warrior attacking Israel itself (through the armies of its enemies) as judgment for the corruption in its own society (Isa 5:20–30; 63:10; Jer 9:7–11; Hos 9:1, 5–6; Amos 2:4–8; Mic 1:1–7). The prophets associated the warfare of God with God’s justice, which would eventually abolish war and bring the reign of peace (Isa 2:2–11; Jer 31:1–14).

The Deuteronomistic history (from the time of Josiah) represented a reform movement. It included teaching Yahweh war as God’s demand that the nearby enemy, with its idols and possessions, be completely annihilated (Deut 20:10–18; Josh 6–7) to protect the Israelites from learning “abhorrent things.” This history emphasized God’s demand for obedience to the law and rejection of idolatry (2 Kings 17:34–40).

After the exile, the concept of Yahweh war took the form of apocalyptic literature in which the appearance of the divine warrior was understood as someone leading an attack made up of heavenly forces, which would destroy existing political institutions oppressing God’s faithful people. The result would be establishment of an unending divine government (Dan 7–12; Rev 19:11–21).

Millard Lind has traced the history and theology of Yahweh war from the exodus events to the sixth century BCE. Lind contends that Israel’s calling was to serve God in a nonviolent manner, allowing itself to be led by the prophetic word and by God’s own miraculous intervention. He sees the increased participation of Israel in military conflict through the monarch as a falling away from God’s command to establish a new and peaceful theopolitical society in the world based on obedience to God, rather than on the use of military power. Thus, Yahweh war is not the endorsement of OT violence in the name of God, but rather a restriction on warfare and violence. It is God’s command to Israel to hold back and let God deal with the enemies (Ps 46:10–11; Lind, 1971; 1980: 23–113; Janzen, 1982: 173–211).

In psalms written to honor the rule of God and the Davidic king on Mt. Zion, the imagery of the divine warrior is prominent (Pss 2; 18; 24; 46; 48; 76; 89; 97; 132; 144). These poems depict the Lord as warrior who has vanquished primordial chaos and become king in the universe, ruling on Zion and ensuring the failure of any natural or historical threat to Israel’s security and well-being.

The psalms also express open criticism of earthly kings who take upon themselves oppressive power and set themselves against the Lord (Ps 2:1–4, 10–12). While the emphasis in Psalm 18 is on arming the king and conquest of the enemy, limits to kingly power are suggested (18:22, 35). Psalm 20 offers a similar caution about pride in military might (vv. 7–8). Psalm 33 underscores the truth that force does not have the last word. Even the most formidable weapons are nothing more than a lie in terms of security (33:13–19). Psalm 46 speaks of a God who “makes wars to cease” and invites the people: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (vv. 9–10). Midway through the Psalter is found the prayer for a just king who will “defend the cause of the poor of the people” (72:4) and the conjunction of peace and righteousness (85:10–13). At the end of this collection of psalms, the warning is sounded once again not to place undue trust in princes and their armies (146:3; 147:10).

The imagery and terminology of battle have strongly influenced the language of the OT. The protection of the Lord is compared to that of a shield (Ps 5:12), but his help against the wicked is expressed by the offensive power of the sword (Deut 33:29). This is metaphorical language. All our language about God is borrowed from some realm of human life. The references to God as warrior and king are intended to highlight metaphorically God’s sovereign authority and power to establish justice rather than violence. The warrior metaphor used for God does not command or sanction human warfare (Janzen, 2000: 465).

References: Gottwald: 942–44; Hiebert: 876–79; Janzen, 1982: 173–211; 2000: 463–65; Lind, 1971; 1980: 23–113, 169–74; McDonald: 73–97; Rad 1962: 17, 59–60, 307; 1991: 1–33; Toombs: 796–801.


  • Gottwald, Norman. “War, Holy.” In vol. 5, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by Keith Crim. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1976.
  • Hiebert, Theodore. “Warrior, Divine.” In vol. 6, Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Janzen, Waldemar. Exodus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2000.
  • ______. Still in the Image. Newton, KS: Faith & Life, 1982.
  • Lind, Millard. “Paradigm of Holy War in the Old Testament.” Biblical Research 16 (1971): 16-31.
  • ______. Yahweh Is a Warrior. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1980.
  • McDonald, Patricia M. God and Violence: Biblical Resources for Living in a Small World. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004.
  • Miller, Patrick D., Jr. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  • Rad, Gerhard von. Holy War in Ancient Israel. First German ed. 1951. Translated from the 3d German ed. (1958) and edited by Marva J. Dawn. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Toombs, Lawrence E. “War, Ideas of.” In vol. 4, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by G. A. Buttrick. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962.

James H. Waltner