…civil righteousness is not a righteousness that will justify those that possess it. It is righteous only by sinful human standards, not by that perfect standard which God requires (Matt. 5:48; Jas. 2:10). The righteousness by which he justifies comes only through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-26, 28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 3:9), a thing which many Israelis and their government deny. Let us all therefore pray for the peace of Israel, but especially for that spiritual peace with God which she currently lacks (Rom. 5:1; comp. Isa. 32:17). For her salvation will not consist in earthly prosperity or triumph in this or any other war, but in her reconciliation to the God who created her and revealed himself in her land as Jesus of Nazareth.
War is not a matter of morality. Morality matters in war, as in business and politics and every other endeavor, but war is not itself a question of right and wrong. To be in the right is not enough to commend fighting a war. There are many other factors that must be considered, such as the probability of winning, the desired outcome, and whether the necessary sacrifices will be worth it all.
War is, in fact, a question of politics, economics, and prudence. By economics I do not mean anything to do with jobs, commerce, or any of the other things politicians mean when they talk about economic matters. Economics in its proper (as opposed to its popular/political) definition is the study of the use of scarce resources that have alternative uses (to paraphrase Lionel Robbins’ definition). Few things make the scarcity of resources felt more acutely than war: there are only so many troops and so much money and materiel to use in waging war, and it tends to consume them in enormous amounts with frightful rapidity. A nation can be morally superior to its rival, but that will not avail it if its military and economy are insufficient to overcome the unrighteous enemy in war. This economic consideration received the explicit mention of our Lord (Lk. 14:31-32).
And so also with the question of politics. What is militarily feasible is not always politically feasible or advisable. In the Afghan War it would have been militarily feasible for us to have invaded the border regions of Pakistan where the Taliban had sheltered with the local tribes. But it would not have been politically advisable, for it would have brought about a breach with Pakistan, further radicalized many people there against us, and deprived us of that necessary (if unsteady and partial) support which we received from her.
And where something is not economically or politically feasible it is not prudent to go ahead with it, even in those cases where one has been wronged or is unquestionably right in a dispute. It is this which many pundits have forgotten in the fortnight since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th. Yes, this is about as much a clear-cut matter of good versus evil as can be imagined in this world. Hamas is in the foremost ranks of depravity, as its actions show, and Israel is, by contrast, one of the most honorable and humane belligerents in history.
But that is largely beside the point. Hamas was wrong to attack Israel as it did, and while Israel has the right to defend itself, including by a counteroffensive into Gaza to destroy Hamas’s warfighting and civilian-murdering capabilities (i.e., its very existence), that says nothing about whether it is economically or politically feasible to do so. It takes but little reflection to see that Israel is in a difficult position. If it invades and destroys Hamas but then withdraws it is only a matter of time before a new Hamas arises. Gaza is essentially a giant refugee camp with squalid conditions that seem to breed an anti-Israel culture that will breed a new Hamas even if the current one is eradicated. Such an incursion is perhaps prudent in the short term, but it doesn’t provide a long-term solution – and this is now the third time Israel has invaded Gaza since it ended its previous occupation in 2005.
Alternatively, Israel could conquer Gaza and expel the inhabitants, except that it is not clear where they would go. The Arab nations refuse to take any refugees, and if any appreciable number made it to the West Bank that would almost certainly throw it into the hands of Hamas and be worse for Israel’s security, Gaza being much smaller and easier to guard than the West Bank. Israel could try to force another nation to take them by force, but that would entail another major regional war, probably undo all the diplomacy of the last 40 plus years, appreciably unsettle the global economy, and put the US in a difficult position politically and diplomatically.
Or Israel could once again occupy Gaza, as it did from 1967 to 2005, though that would entail all the difficulties of a military occupation. And given the security troubles it has just experienced in its own country, it seems reasonable to think they wouldn’t be easier in a place with a hostile culture. Lastly, Israel could forego an invasion, though that would embolden Hamas, earn them more recruits, and leave their offensive capabilities largely intact.
In short, Israel is in a difficult spot, and it is not clear how she should act. She is in this spot, not because of any lack of courage or martial prowess, but because of the current political environment; and that means that her being right has nothing to do with the question of what is prudent for her to do right now. One can say she should conquer Gaza, or occupy it, or eliminate Hamas without permanent annexation or occupation. Those are questions of military policy that have nothing to do with our faith; and they are ones about which many commentators are not fit to offer their opinions.
The only thing our faith has to say about the matter is that all people need personal forgiveness and that there is no such thing as a national righteousness (in war or otherwise) that saves anyone’s soul, as well as that the actual outworking of God’s providence has demonstrated the truth of my claims above about the nature of war and civil righteousness. Judah, even in the tenure of her righteous kings, was dwarfed by Israel, which went astray from the first. United Israel, even at its height under David and Solomon, was an insignificant backwater compared to many of her neighbors (Amos 7:5), and especially so in comparison to the wicked pagan empires by which she was conquered in succession: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedon, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and Rome.
If civil righteousness meant earthly prowess and military success, we would not expect these things to be so; and granting that foreign oppression and defeat were punishments for infidelity to the Lord (Deut. 28:25, 31-34), there is still the fact that Israel was sometimes more righteous than its defeaters (Habakkuk’s complaint, 1:12-17), and that civil righteousness did not guarantee Israel’s military success. When David took a census (perhaps with a view toward territorial expansion, 2 Sam. 22:45-48), God regarded it as sin and punished Israel (2 Sam. 24). We might think that God would wish for the only civilly righteous nation on Earth to be as large as possible, and yet we see in that episode that this was not God’s intention. In the times of the old covenant too God’s kingdom was spiritual and not synonymous with the Jewish nation, nor did its interests preclude other nations excelling Israel or ruling her.
In his providence both Israel and other nations had their places, and the development of his kingdom and the revelation of his Messiah did not require – and indeed, may have been hindered by – Israel experiencing imperial status and military success. It is conceivable that, even if Israel had been faithful to her covenant with God, she would still have been a small nation of little earthly significance. The greater her temporal glory, the harder it would have been for Israel to realize that God’s kingdom did not lie in such things, was not limited to her but was a spiritual gift for his elect among all peoples.
And so it is in our day as well. Civil righteousness is always imperfect, incomplete, and prone to rapid disappearance when circumstances change. It is not so essential to a nation’s legitimacy as to cause it to cease to be a nation where it is lost or to preclude a nation that lacks it from attaining earthly prominence or defeating a comparatively more righteous nation. Great empires are seldom morally commendable, but that has not kept God from using them for his purposes (Ex. 9:16; 14:17; Prov. 16:4).
The most important thing, however, is that civil righteousness does nothing to ensure the personal salvation of a nation’s citizens. Indeed, it may prove the snare that blinds them to their need for personal forgiveness or makes them imagine that the victims of cruelty and defeat proved thereby that they suffered their fate as divine punishment. Consider this episode from Jesus’ First Advent:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:1-3).
The immediate meaning of this is that suffering says nothing of the moral state of its victims, and that all people will perish unless they personally repent their sin. Its practical implication is of great importance as well, however, and that is that Christ’s primary concern is not with the justice of temporal affairs, but with the personal, eternal fate of individuals. Pilate’s act here bore the same character as Hamas’ recent actions: it was an act of bloodlustful murder by a foreign oppressor that included the blasphemous desecration of the victims’ bodies. And yet Jesus did not say that this called for any earthly retribution, much less commend his hearers to rebel against Rome on its account. Rather, he used it as an occasion to warn them to turn their attention to matters of eternal consequence that lay within their personal power and responsibility.
And so it should be in our case as well. How Israel responds to Hamas’ recent outrage is a military and political question that is beyond our immediate influence as citizens of a nation several thousand miles away. Justice and prudence may commend that we personally intervene on Israel’s behalf (e.g., by donating medical supplies) or urge our government to do so in a responsible way – indeed, I think they do commend such things – but the most important thing, more important by far than what will transpire in the coming days of the present war, is that we remember that the wars and kingdoms of this world will soon pass away, whereas the souls of those that are involved will endure forever. Looking after the soul is the key thing, and it is just there that Israel, for all her civil righteousness, greatly needs the Lord’s mercy.
For at the last, civil righteousness is not a righteousness that will justify those that possess it. It is righteous only by sinful human standards, not by that perfect standard which God requires (Matt. 5:48; Jas. 2:10). The righteousness by which he justifies comes only through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-26, 28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 3:9), a thing which many Israelis and their government deny. Let us all therefore pray for the peace of Israel, but especially for that spiritual peace with God which she currently lacks (Rom. 5:1; comp. Isa. 32:17). For her salvation will not consist in earthly prosperity or triumph in this or any other war, but in her reconciliation to the God who created her and revealed himself in her land as Jesus of Nazareth.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation.
 2 Sam. 24:1 says that David’s census arose, ultimately, because God was angry with Israel, which seems to contradict my characterization of it as the only civilly righteous nation on earth, as God’s anger would have been provoked by Israelite sin. But as I show elsewhere, civil righteousness is always conceived as such from a human standpoint and does not equal righteousness in the sight of God, nor fully accord with his providential will concerning the kingdom of God. From a human standpoint, Israel in David’s day would be considered just, but obviously she did not fully please God.