The Israelites knew that they had a future of fighting other nations. The Lord had promised them that he would be on their side, as long as they righteously followed His commandments. Even after they would be established in the land of Canaan, I am sure they expected that other nations would try to come against them. In this chapter, the Lord set up some laws for the army of Israel.
1 When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the Lord thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
2 And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people,
3 And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them;
4 For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.
They were told again, that they were not to fear armies that were bigger or more armed then they were. This was because the Lord would be with them. Others may have had much strength, but the Lord was stronger. The Lord wanted the Israelites to have courage. Their priest (the high priest, I am guessing, or a priest given this duty), was to rally the spirits of their soldiers in preparation for battles, with this promise that the Lord was on their side and would fight and preserve them. The Lord has promised protection to those who are faithful to His commandments. If we truly believe, that He is the same yesterday, today and forever, than we should be able to trust in this part of the nature of our Father in Heaven. We fight battles each day, against temptation, the natural man within us, and against the ways of the world. In Doctrine and Covenants 84:88, the Lord gave a message to the prophet, Joseph Smith, and other elders of the church. In this verse we read, “And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.” If we live righteously, following the words of our church leaders, and serve and depend upon God, our Father in Heaven will fight our battles for us as well. We need to do our part, and then He will be there to give us the strength that we need in order to succeed. His work and glory is for our success in this life.
5 And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.
6 And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it.
7 And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.
8 And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.
9 And it shall be, when the officers have made an end of speaking unto the people, that they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people.
In selecting the soldiers, they were to relieve any who had not dedicated the home he had built, had not eaten of his crops, or was betrothed and not married yet, and they were allowed to return to their homes. Any men who were too afraid to fight, were to leave so that they would not cause others to loose faith. Then, the officers of the army, could appoint captains to lead the remaining men. I think this law shows the love of God for those who are trying to live good lives and do what was right. The Lord did not want men to lose out on seeing benefits of their hard work in their fields, or the amazing blessings of marriage. In fact, for the entire first year of marriage, a man was to remain with his new wife and not go out to fight. This shows us some of the things of greater importance to the Lord and to our personal progression in this life. I am reminded, that we can learn time and time again through the old testament, that the Lord does not need numbers to win a battle. He can succeed with only a handful of faithful, courageous men. As with the story of David and Goliath, he can succeed with just one man, if that man has courage and faith in the Lord.
10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.
11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.
12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:
13 And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
14 But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.
15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.
16 But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
18 That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.
If they planned for war against a city, which was not in the land of inheritance, they were to approach that city in peace. If the other city was willing to remain peaceful towards the Israelites, and did not want to fight, they were to have them do a service of paying tribute to Israel. If that city wanted to fight, the Israelite army was to besiege, and take control of it by the power of the Lord. Once they took that city, they were to kill every man and then take everything else as spoil from their victory. They were to enjoy these as blessings from the Lord. I am glad that even in preparing for war against others, the Lord wanted them to try to be peacemakers first. This leaves the choice of fighting to the other side. In this case, I think the Israelites would not become a blood-thirsty nation, or one who was seeking purely to get gain from other people. They would only fight those who had a real desire to fight against them.
The cities within the land of promise, were to be destroyed completely, including the cities of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and the Jebusites. This they needed to do because it was a commandment which would help them avoid the temptations of those people and therefore avoid falling away from the Lord. In this case, it was better to preserve and protect the souls of the Israelite nation, than to allow anything wicked to remain, living or not.
19 When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege:
20 Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.
When they took the city, they were to leave any fruit trees, but they could use any other trees to gain control of the city.
The Lord commands His people in all things. Having and following military commandments and counsel, would have helped the Israelites to remain a mighty nation, because the Lord would have continued to help them. I believe that throughout the remainder of the old testament, we can see what results from the choice whether or not to following these commandments. The blessings of following commandments, can only be expected when we do what the Lord asks of us. We can learn this principle in Doctrine and Covenants 130:
20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
Likewise, we read the following in Doctrine and Covenants 82:10, which reads, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” I am grateful for this promise from the Lord. I know it applies to all his commandments and the blessings that would come from following them. I hold fast to the hope that this gives me, and that hope gives me the courage to strive to follow the commandments each day.