This morning, I spent time reading Psalm 33. Two verses stuck out to me:
“The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.” (Psalm 33:16-17)
While I did spend much of my childhood in Kentucky, I haven’t spent much time around horses. However, I’ve seen enough to know that horses are impressive animals. They are stunningly large, strong, fast, useful to man, and not least, beautiful.
Horses make appearances in many well-known stories in Scripture – and many of those stories back up the Psalmist’s words. A few examples to consider:
Exodus 14-15: Pharaoh’s army featured horses and chariots – military resources that a bunch of tired, hungry, homeless, newly-freed slaves couldn’t possibly match. But as God’s people stand on the shore of the Red Sea, facing certain doom, Moses says:
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)
Sure enough, God delivers the Israelites. In Exodus 15, Moses sings that the LORD has thrown Egypt’s horses and riders into the sea.
Judges 4-5: Jabin, king of Canaan, brutally oppresses God’s people. His army is led by Sisera and his “900 chariots of iron” – each pulled by a horse, of course, of course. And yet in spite of all Sisera’s might, God (notably NOT co-judges Deborah and Barak) frees his people. In an ironic twist, Sisera, the man with so many horses and chariots at his disposal, ends up fleeing the battle on foot. Sisera is eventually struck down by Jael, a seemingly insignificant woman who “just so happened” to be at the right place, at the right time.
2 Kings 6:8-19: God, through his prophet Elisha, thwarts the King of Syria’s plans to defeat Israel in battle. Syria’s army surrounds the city of Dothan (where Elisha is dwelling) with “horses and chariots and a great army”. When Elisha’s servant sees the army, he warns the prophet. Elisha responds: “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” He then prays that his servant would “see”. What does he see?
“So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:17)
As you might expect, God proceeds to deliver Elisha and his servant, as well as the King of Israel and his people.
John 12: As we read this past Sunday, as Jesus enters Jerusalem to a royal welcome, what’s striking is not the presence of a horse; rather, its absence. Victorious kings often rode home from successful battles on imposing war horses. Jesus, on the other hand, rides a lowly donkey. This is an intentional echo and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, looking forward to God’s deliverance of his people from their enemies:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Horses and chariots were signals of power and might in the ancient world; in the same way, things like money and fame signal power today. However, stories like those listed above remind us that God’s power far surpasses any form of earthly power humans can harness. Further, Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and his crucifixion, remind us that God often uses means we humans consider to be weak, shameful, and foolish to accomplish his purposes and save his people.
While God’s people today may not be standing between an army and a sea, or staring down 900 chariots, or anxiously longing for a king to overthrow a violent empire, we do face challenges of our own. Violence, oppression, and death are still alive and kicking. Disease, job loss, addiction, economic hardship, and even persecution are legitimate threats in our day and age. When times of hardship inevitably come, who (or what) do we trust in for our “salvation”? Political figures? Our bank accounts? The latest self-help trend? Physical abilities? Our own smarts? All too often, we’re seduced into trusting people and things which are opposed to the desires of God, and unable to deliver what they promised. Along the way, we end up thoroughly corrupted and abused by them.
Horses are a breathtaking part of God’s good creation, and they can be used for good purposes which glorify God. In the same way, modern forms of earthly power can be used in God-honoring ways. But do not be deceived: they cannot match the Creator himself. Earthly displays of size, strength, and speed are no match for the power of God. When we face the seemingly insurmountable challenges of our fallen world, may we adhere to the guidance of another Psalm:
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” (Psalm 20:7)
When life goes off the rails, who do you trust? By the power of the Holy Spirit, may we learn to trust God the Father, and Jesus the Son – the one who will one day return to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, defeating Satan and his armies once and for all.
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” (Revelation 19:11)