In the days of Eli the priest, the Israelites went into battle against the Philistines carrying the Ark of the Covenant. As the story makes clear, this was not an act of faith or submission to God’s authority. Rather, they were treating the Ark as a kind of magic talisman, a sort of national lucky rabbit’s foot. God did not honor their attitude—they were defeated and the Ark was temporarily captured (see 1 Samuel 4).
Victory in war depended, like other covenant blessings, on obedience. Presuming on their status as God’s people got the Israelites nowhere, but when they trusted Him and were faithful to their covenant obligations, God promised to protect them from their enemies and give them victory in battle. The enemy might be stronger militarily, but “victory rests with the Lord” (Prov. 21:31). This was why a priest, not an army general, would address the troops before a battle: to remind them that the source of their courage should be God rather than military preparedness or resources (vv. 2–4).
Today’s reading also puts military ventures into proper perspective—there were more important things in life. Though the Israelites had been commanded to completely destroy the Canaanites, conquering and plundering was not to become a way of life. For example, exemptions from military duty were granted for simple domestic reasons, including a new wife, home, or vineyard (vv. 5–7). After all, these were the blessings for which they were fighting!
In addition, conflict was not to be pursued if terms of peace could be negotiated. Forced labor was better than killing. God cared enough for creation even to instruct that fruit trees should not be cut down for siege works but instead preserved and enjoyed after the victory (vv. 19–20).