A military veteran prays in Psalm 144. To be sure, this veteran/author may be the king (Verses 2 and 10 suggest at the least a petition on behalf of the king), but he still has trained for war and has fought successfully. He attributes his skill and his victories to his trainer:
“Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me” (Psalm 144:1-2).
God trains him for war. He is this warrior’s fortress and stronghold. God prepares his to wage war offensively, but also defends him – God is his shield and his refuge against his enemies. Psalm 144’s beginning resembles that of Psalm 18, which praises God with identical terms but does not address him as a trainer for war, a drill sergeant. However, later verses in Psalm 18 suggest that it, too, is the prayer of a warrior:
“You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall…He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze (Psalm 18:28-29, 34 NIV).
Both these Psalms are soldiers’ prayers, even if the soldier may be the commander-in-chief. In those days, the king sometimes was among the combatants. Israel’s King Saul died after being wounded in a battle. Three of his sons died in the same battle. The prayers assume that God approves of at least some instances of war. Psalm 144 pointedly calls for fire, asking God to act in specific ways to defeat an enemy. Psalm 18 records the fact of such a call, followed by a recounting of how God acted in answer to the prayer (Psalm 18:6-15).
Military personnel, to include chaplains, have used passages like these two psalms of prayer to encourage and inspire one another as they train for war or go into combat. The prayers imply a trusting faith that God approves the combatant’s course of behavior. The prayers confide in a God who will equip, will sustain, will train and will energize during life-threatening battles. He will protect and provide refuge. Soldiers incur physical injury. Some witness events that they will scar their memories for the rest of their lives. Some may take action, even if inadvertently or if reluctantly under orders, that violate their consciences and create a moral injury that persists after their return home. Others witness the death of a dear friend and wonder why they survive. As a chaplain in a combat zone, I served with medical and mortuary affairs personnel on a team that struggled to identify the physical remains of combatants. Awareness of these potential consequences stokes the flames of fear. Prayer, faith in a God who knows and approves at some level, and confidence that their cause is just mitigates the fear and allows the soldier to continue.
Psalm 144 reminds of other variables in this prayer that a pacifist might dismiss as blood-thirsty or anachronistic for followers of Jesus. The praying soldier offers his prayer to “my loving God,” not to a bellicose deity intent on bloodshed. The final verses of the prayer offer another reason why the soldier goes to war and explain what he believes God will provide in the wake of victory:
“Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace. …There will be no breaching of walls, no going into captivity, no cry of distress in our streets: (Psalm 144:12,14b).
The soldiers prays for victory so that his family may survivor and prospers. He hopes that agony and suffering will be avoided in his hometown. The praying soldier, like almost all soldiers throughout history, prays that the aftermath of combat will be a lasting peace. The prayer concludes,
“Blessed is the people of whom this true; blessed is the people whose God is the LORD” (Psalm 144:15)
• Biblical quotations are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.
God who trains for war, who equips your people for the tasks he has prepared, we pray that your love will fuel our confidence to seek justice and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed. We who are veterans harbor chilling memories of charred flesh and agonized cries for help, of decisions made in moments of stress that later are questioned in our nightmares. Thank you for protecting us, for having given us courage when we needed it and refuge in our most desperate moments. Heal our minds and our bodies from the injuries we have suffered. Help us to be patient with those who do not understand what we endure or why we did what we did. Help us to forgive. Thank you for our families who worried and persevered in our absences. We pray for their prosperity and safety. We pray that as our military trains, that they will master skills that they will never have to use. We pray for peace, but even more for justice and reconciliation. In Jesus’ name, amen.