SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
The Power of Persistent Prayer
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Introduction: Let’s begin today by reading Exodus 17:8-16.
The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.”
15 Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. 16 He said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”
Anyone heading into a desert on foot quickly becomes aware of five great needs: protection from the elements, guidance, food, water, and protection from dangerous enemies. God has already met the first four for Israel during the first two months of their desert wanderings. He provided the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to protect them from the blistering sun and the chilling cold and to guide them on their desert wanderings; He gave them manna from heaven for food and told Moses to strike the rock to provide water. Today we see God taking care of the fifth need—the need for protection from enemies through the power of persistent prayer.
I don’t know what or who your enemies are today but whether your fight is with a particular addiction, another kid in the neighborhood, an inconsiderate boss, a competitor in business, a fellow church member, or even demonic powers, I do know that your greatest weapon is prayer. Without it we are doomed to mediocrity at best and utter failure at worst. With it we can see the hand of God move mountains. Yet prayer is not our only weapon. For too long we have been satisfied to just pray about things as though prayer is a spiritual substitute for action. Somehow we seem to think that if we pray for our missionaries, that’s an acceptable substitute for going to the missionfield or giving to mission efforts. If we say a prayer for someone in the hospital, that’s a substitute for taking a meal to the home or sending a card of encouragement.
I believe the passage before us today in Exodus 17 clearly portrays prayer as the believer’s greatest weapon but just as clearly teaches that prayer goes hand in hand with action. In fact, the action is mentioned before the prayer, so we’ll start there.
A spiritual battle cannot be won without enormous effort.
When I talk about a spiritual battle, what am I talking about? I’m talking about anything that affects our spiritual walk with God. A battle with alcohol, then, is a spiritual battle as much as a physical or psychological one because Eph. 5:18 makes it clear that we cannot be under the influence of the Spirit of God and the influence of alcohol at the same time. A battle with one’s spouse is a spiritual battle, because two people cannot be spiritually united if they are at odds with one another. Most of the significant struggles we go through have definite spiritual implications. The first thing we need to grasp is that such battles cannot be won without effort. In fact, the greater the enemy the greater the effort that will have to go into defeating it.
Take temptation, for example. Suppose one has an addiction for Dove Bars. You will be pleased to hear that I have had only two Dove Bars this summer, and one of those is Doug Watson’s fault, because he brought it over to my house. The other I bought in a weak moment while out of town on a business trip. Frankly, I’ve had pretty good success in winning the battle of the Dove Bar without too much effort—I just stay away from the frozen food section of the grocery store. But if my addiction were alcohol, which causes identifiable chemical dependency in a person, then the effort needed to achieve victory would be enormously greater. I might have to go into treatment for 30 days costing thousands of dollars, I might have to attend a 12-step program for the rest of my life, I might even have to avoid every situation where alcohol is being served. But if I wanted to be free, I would have to put out the effort required.
Well, what was the enemy Israel faced in Exodus 17? It was the Amalekites, a vicious nomadic tribe indigenous to the Sinai desert. They were the descendants of Amalek, the son of Edom, the son of Esau, according to Gen. 36:12. They undoubtedly developed significant misgivings when they spotted 2 million Israelites marching through their land and decided that the best way to protect their territory was to attack, generally by hanging around Israel’s rear and flank and systematically cutting off the stragglers, according to Deut. 25:18. How long Israel tolerated these wild nomads nipping at their heels is unknown, but finally the situation became intolerable. Moses chose a young man named Joshua to lead Israel into battle. Let’s consider his role.
The role of Joshua. This is the first time Joshua is mentioned in the Bible. Born in the brick fields of Egypt, he is now about 45 years of age, and already he seems to have a reputation for courage and competence. As we will see in coming weeks, that reputation was well-earned, for nearly forty years later the same man was the one God chose to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. I think the key word in Joshua’s life is the word “obedience.” At every point in his life we read words like those in verse 10: “So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered.” In Number 32:12,18 it says he “wholly followed the Lord.” In Joshua 11:15 we are told that Joshua “left nothing undone of all the Lord commanded him.” And at the end of his life, he spoke to the whole nation and said, “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
This is the man called upon by the Lord and by Moses to fight against the forces of the Amalekites, because he was the one most likely to give it a 100% effort. But Joshua didn’t fight by himself. In verse 9 Moses says, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites.” In other words, Joshua had a support team that was crucial to his victory. Let’s consider its role.
The role of Joshua’s support team. Rarely does God send a man out to fight all by himself. I can think only of two examples—David when he went up against the Philistine giant Goliath and Elijah who went up against the 450 prophets of Baal (and in the latter incident Elijah was not as alone as he thought, for God told him there were 7,000 other faithful people in hiding, some of whom may have been praying for him). Most of the time God provides a support team, large or small but usually small, because God is always more interested in the quality of support than in the quantity. A case in point is when Gideon went up against the Midianites with 32,000 soldiers. The Lord said it was too many so Gideon weeded out all but 10,000. The Lord said it was still too many because Israel would be tempted to say that they had won the battle in their own strength. So, the army was whittled down to 300. With that tiny group God brought a tremendous victory.
When God calls us to fight, he not only provides the strength but also a support team to help. When we work together as the team God intended, victory is virtually assured, but when we go it alone we usually fail. My support team includes a special pastor friend I have met with weekly for over six years, my fellow-pastors and Elder Board, my family, and a few choice friends that regularly give me encouragement. I wouldn’t want to face the battles I face without them. I don’t consider the things God has used me to accomplish to be my successes; rather they are our successes. I know these individuals pray for me regularly and I can go to them in time of need.
Who constitutes your support team? Perhaps more importantly, let me ask, “Whose support team are you on?” Is there a Joshua on the front lines who needs some fighting men to come alongside him to help defeat a vicious enemy?
Joshua couldn’t have won the battle by himself. He played a role, but so did his men. But there’s a second major point here in our text, and that is that while a spiritual battle cannot be won without enormous effort, it also cannot be won without persistent prayer.
A spiritual battle cannot be won without persistent prayer.
And here we see the incredible role of Moses in this event.
The role of Moses. He says to Joshua in verse 9, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” Now you might at first think that Moses took advantage of Joshua; after all, anyone would rather watch a war from a safe vantage point than be involved in the thick of it. But that’s only a surface evaluation. Putting aside the fact that Moses is now over 80 years and Joshua only half his age, I would suggest to you that Moses had the more difficult job here, for the staff of God was not only in his hands; his hands were also held up in the air.
It’s at this point that I must stop briefly and tell you why I have called this sermon, “The Power of Persistent Prayer,” when the word “prayer” is not found in the text even once. I believe the whole point of Moses’ uplifted hands was that he was praying, for this is the standard posture for prayer in Bible times. Listen to these passages:
“I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.” Ps. 63:4
“Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place.” Ps. 28:2
“May my prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” Ps. 141:2
Even in the NT we read, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer.” 1 Tim. 2:8
Of course, lifted hands was not the only position for prayer in Bible times. Sometimes people stood with heads bowed, sometimes prostrate on the ground, sometimes looking heavenward, or kneeling. The outward posture was significant because it reflected the inward state of the soul and, I believe, even affected the state of the soul. Don’t you find a great difference between praying while lying in bed and praying on your knees?
The role of Moses, then, was to pray while Joshua fought. That doesn’t mean Joshua wasn’t also praying, but certainly he couldn’t give full attention to praying while he was swinging a sword and directing his troops. Moses was in a position where he could devote himself completely to persistent prayer. The only problem is that Moses grew tired. I can’t believe it! A supposedly mature believer and even a spiritual leader getting tired while praying after only a few hours?!?
Oh yes, I can believe it. At our National Conference in June the theme was prayer, and each night our guest speakers preached on prayer. Wednesday was a very busy day. I taught a seminar on church planting in the morning, and then because I was serving as Moderator, I had a number of meetings to attend. The evening service started at 7:00 and lasted until 9:00, and I knew the next morning I had to be back by 7:00 to prepare for the Business Session I was leading. But Dr. Cedar had announced a special prayer meeting from 9:00 P.M. until midnight and I decided to go. The first hour went fine, the second hour was tough. During that third hour I fought a tremendous spiritual battle just to stay awake and keep my mind on prayer. I couldn’t have made it were it not for the two guys in my prayer team; we stood up for most of that last hour so we wouldn’t fall out of our chairs. Prayer is hard work, but that is the role to which God called Moses.
So long as Moses lifted his hands in prayer the battle went Israel’s way; when he tired the Amalekites began to win. Please do not miss the fact, however, that Moses also was not alone; he, too, had a support team.
The role of Moses’ support team. It consisted of two men—Aaron and Hur. Aaron we already know because he was Moses’ brother and chief spokesman. Hur, on the other hand, is mentioned only here and in Exodus 24:14, where once again he is seen in a supporting role with Aaron. We don’t know anything else about him—who his family were, what his gifts and talents were, what significant things he accomplished. We only know that he was part of Moses’ support team when Moses was involved in a prayer battle. But isn’t it interesting God considered that a sufficient reason to memorialize Hur’s name in Holy Scripture for the rest of human history?
How did Aaron and Hur help? It says that “When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.” Now in my estimation the real issue here is not whether Moses’ hands remained in the air. God was trying to teach Israel through this visual means that dependence upon Him in prayer is basic to spiritual victory. When we quit depending upon him, we’re going to start losing; when we look once again to him for strength and guidance, we will again start winning if we are rightly related to Him by faith.
And God was also trying to teach Israel that one man cannot win the prayer battle alone. I have found through the years that prayer alone is extremely tough. I’m not very good at it. But when I join with a prayer partner or partners I am strengthened immensely and can pray much more effectively and persistently.
So what was the result of the fighting of Joshua and the praying of Moses? Verse 13 read, “So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” The Hebrew literally reads, “They mowed down Amalek, prostrated and disabled them.” But there’s a third point I see in our text.
A spiritual victory is not complete unless it is remembered.
After Joshua prevailed the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14) Believers of all ages have notoriously short memories when it comes to the grace of God. He can deliver us miraculously from some difficulty, but the next time we face a similar difficulty we revert to worry, manipulation and anger as our principal means of coping, instead of trusting the One who helped us through last time. To keep that from happening God suggests a written record. “Write it down!” And, of course, the reason we have profited from these messages on the life of Moses is that it was written down for our benefit. Yet I don’t think that’s just a first-century phenomenon. I believe spiritual journaling is a very valuable habit even today. \
The role of a journal. A spiritual journal is a confidential record of what God is teaching a believer through His Word, through others, and through personal experience. Some people write in their journal every day; others write only occasionally when something unusual happens. But the point is to keep some kind of record that we can go back to in times of difficulty to show us how far we’ve come. Joshua was going to have to face the Amalekites again during the conquest of the Promised Land, and he needed to remember that the same God who defeated them here would be fighting for him there. The written record would be his reminder. Then our text also mentions …
The role of a marker. It says in verse 15: “Moses built an altar and called it ‘The Lord is my Banner’. He said, ‘For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord. The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.'” This altar became a monument, a milestone which Israel could look at and be reminded of God’s power and grace. We need such markers in our lives. I’ve got an old orange box at home that’s simply labeled “Mike’s crud.” I named it that several decades ago, but that box has become anything but crud to me. In it I have placed many markers of special moments in my life. Periodically I get it down and go through it, bringing back significant memories of watershed events. There’s a newsletter from the camp I attended back in the 50’s, where I committed myself to vocational Christian ministry. There’s my diploma from seminary, the first Father’s Day cards I received from my sons, and special letters from former students and parishioners.
We all need written records and special markers to ensure that our spiritual victories are complete; that is, to ensure that the lessons learned in those victories are remembered so that the same battles don’t have to be fought all over again. The tragedy is that many of us find ourselves falling again and again in the same area.
Conclusion: The truth I want to drive home today is that spiritual battles are won by a partnership of the believer with God. Effort without prayer is doomed to fail or to succeed only temporarily while setting us up for greater failure down the road. Prayer without effort is equally prone to failure because God’s means of answering prayer is generally through his people.
Jerry Rich shared a pertinent story with me this week. It seems these two pilgrims were walking through the woods on their way to church and getting very tired when one asked the other, “Why are we carrying these heavy muskets? After all, if we really believe what we profess (Pilgrims, by the way, tended to be very Calvinistic, believing strongly in the sovereignty of God), and an Indian jumps out and attacks us, we’re not going to die before the time God has ordained. And if it is our time, these muskets aren’t going to keep us alive. So why are we wearing ourselves out carrying them?” The other Pilgrim was silent for a moment and then responded. “I agree, but what if an Indian jumps out and God has ordained that it’s his time to go?” I hope that story doesn’t offend any native Americans; it’s intended as a joke against radical Calvinists and radical Arminians, and I don’t mind offending them.
At any rate, this story reminds us of the dilemma we all face as we seek a balance between trust in God and personal effort. The book of James exhorts us, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) Submit and resist. I understand General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, put the same truth in a different way: “Work as if everything depended upon work and pray as if everything depended upon prayer.”
So go for it. Fight the good fight but enlist the help of others. Pray without ceasing but make sure you have a couple of prayer partners behind you, lifting up hands to God for you and for each other.
DATE: July 28, 1991