HOLDING THE GROUND
It would seem that in every generation there is always some key ground that the Church needs to hold. This might be in the area of ethics, human rights, social justice, biblical truth, philosophy, the sciences, the humanities, medicine, genetics, sexuality, or even the holding of actual territory. The exodus of Arab Christians from many nations in the Middle East today is tragic. We need them to hold the ground as a toehold for the church in the region.
There is one very powerful example of this principle in the exile of Israel from the land. But before dealing with that I will give some general examples to illustrate the principle. Even though Lot is called a righteous man in the New Testament and it is recorded that he grieved over the wickedness of Sodom, he was unable to hold the ground in even a minimal way. The Lord said to Abraham that if he could find fifty righteous in the city he would spare it. And of course we know that not even ten could be found. It is interesting that the rabbis say that this phrase “in the city” doesn’t simply mean that one’s residence is there it is used in the same way as how we would describe somebody being in engineering or in economics or in education. In other words, they’ve sunk their life into it. The Lord could not find even ten who under Lot’s leadership had sunk their lives into upholding righteousness in Sodom. They did not hold the ground and the city was destroyed.
Another illustration would be during the priesthood of Eli where he was unable to hold the ground of righteousness in the priesthood. Israel went into battle carrying the ark the Philistines defeated them and the ark was taken captive into the territory of the Philistines. Eli was unable to hold the ground of righteousness within the priesthood (and even within his own family) and therefore the ark was lost.
By way of contrast in 2 Samuel we read of one of David’s mighty men, Shammah, who took his stand in the midst of a field of lentils. Lentils were a basic staple in the Middle East and so this perhaps was prophetic of defending the food supply for the people of God. He defended the plot of ground and the Lord struck down the Philistines. He only held a little ground but that was enough to turn the tide.
It would seem that in the 4th century AD the church was unable to hold the ground after the conversion of Constantine. The political alliance very much weakened them. As we know in the 5th century the barbarians invaded the empire, Rome collapsed, and the Dark Ages began. It was the Celtic Church that rescued us from that collapse of civilization and the western church. They were able to retake the ground that was lost.
In the aftermath of the Reformation the religious wars began. A house divided against itself cannot stand—and indeed we did not stand. We failed to hold the ground as God’s peacemakers. Thinking people were disgusted by the amount of bloodshed that took place between Protestants and Catholics and this gave rise to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Revelation was dismissed as a valid epistemology and we have suffered from this ever since. We failed to hold the ground at that key time.
In the 19th century biblical scholars in Briton and Germany were unable to hold the ground against the flood of higher criticism that began to pour out of Tübingen. This led to the rise of liberalism and the further weakening of the church in the Western Hemisphere.
Since Darwin we have been unable to hold the ground in the realm of creation. Now we see ourselves as simply the shrapnel from the Big Bang and inevitably human life is devalued.
The church in Germany was unable to hold the ground against ultra nationalism, which led to the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Second World War.
In our day, we are struggling to hold the ground in the area of ethics and are seeing the rise of homosexuality, euthanasia, infanticide, and fetal tissue research.
These are just a few illustrations and I’m sure you could add many of your own. However, the most powerful biblical illustration I have come across was given to me by Roger Forster some years ago. He pointed out that when Israel went into exile (the north going in 722 BC and the south in 586 BC) immediately we saw the rise of six major religious systems that are still with us today.
As we know, a remnant returned in 539 but for a period of 70 years they failed to hold any ground whatever (most people date the 70-year period from the destruction of the temple in 586 to the beginning of its rebuilding in 515 making a 70 year period). During this period when they failed to hold any ground whatever because they were in exile, we see the rise of Buddhism, Confucianism, Janeism, Zoroasterism, Taoism, and Upanishadic Hinduism. This was the point in the development of Hinduism when God ceased to be a “he” and became an “it”, an impersonable principle.
When Roger told me this I was so shocked that I actually went to the encyclopedia and looked it all up and indeed he is correct. Sometimes we lose a lot of insight by failing to correlate biblical events with other secular or religious events that are happening simultaneously outside the biblical world.
Beginning with Abraham God began to establish some ground, some land, a foothold on which redemptive history could take place. However, because of their rebellion and unfaithfulness in 586 BC the southern kingdom is taken captive to Babylon and the temple destroyed. Ironically, of course, Babylon was the very region from which the Lord took Abraham when he first called him (then called Ur of the Chaldeans). Now they are back where they began 1,500 years previously.
During the period of the exile the ground, the epicenter of God’s redemptive action since Abraham, was lost and, of course, when a vacuum opens up the forces of darkness fill it. It was only recently that I discovered that this period is called by secular historians the Axiel Age. They point out that it was such an extraordinary short period of time where so much emerged that has altered human history and is still with us today. They view it very positively as an innovative and
creative period in religious history. Of course, we know that it was an in-rush of demonic deception because Israel had failed to hold the ground that God had given them.
We can, of course, draw many applications from this and so I won’t labor the point except to say that in every generation there seems to be some key ground that needs to be held. Our job is to identify it and to be like the men of Issachar who knew the times. This is not easy as there are so many fronts we could fight on but we need to be sensitive to the prophetic voice and identify the key ground that must be held in for our day. We then need to sound a trumpet, to mobilize resources in prayer, and fight to hold this ground. We need to be tenacious; believing that if we can hold this one strategic point the enemy cannot breach the wall and come in like a flood to devastate both the church and society.
Just two illustrations to close with. One, of course, would be Gettysburg, which many see as the turning point of the Civil War. The failure of the Confederate Army was to hold the high ground. They had an opportunity to do so but they failed and hence they lost that strategic battle.
Another (but perhaps more controversial) one would be the First World War when the British and the Germans were fighting trench warfare in Flanders. As we all know these trenches often were only a hundred yards apart and they stretched for hundreds of miles. To take even a few yards of ground would often result in the loss of thousands of lives. Churchill, who was the First Sea Lord at that time, came up with a plan of sailing battleships through the Mediterranean to Istanbul, landing troops, and coming at Germany through the back door.
While risky, it was a brilliant strategic plan and would have shortened the war by several years. However, the battleships had to sail through the narrows in the approach to Istanbul and came under heavy shelling. Churchill had urged them to press on at any cost, but they failed to do so. What they didn’t know is that the Turks were virtually out of ammunition. If they had stood their ground (metaphorically, as they were at sea!) and pushed on, Istanbul would have fallen, thousands of troops could have been quickly moved through the Balkans and the war won within a matter of months. However, again, it was a failure to understand the critical nature of holding the ground at that strategic point
I don’t need to labor the point. The illustration and application is obvious, but I do believe that the example written for us in the history of Israel, that during their few short years in exile Buddhism, Confucianism, Janeism, Zoroasterism, Taoism, and Upanishadic Hinduism all arose in the vacuum created by their not holding the ground, is indeed very salutary and a lesson we should not forget.