Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek,
that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
(Psalm 120:5-7, NIV)
Friday 1st July is the centenary of the start of the battle of the Somme. On that first day of fighting, the British Army sustained more casualties than on any other day in its history: 57,470, of whom 19,240 were killed.
My own great-grandfather, a captain in the West Yorkshire Regiment, was wounded on that very day. He had led his men over the top at the start of the battle and was left for dead. But three days later, when stretcher-bearers bravely went to recover the bodies, he was found alive. He was hospitalised for 18 months; his arm had to be amputated but he recovered and was awarded the Military Cross.
The fighting continued until 18 November, by which time over a million men had been killed or wounded. And the outcome of all this? An Allied advance of about six miles.
The effects of war are devastating. Yet they keep on happening. “The war to end all wars”, as the First World War was called at the time, has been followed by many since.
The Bible explains this terrible habit of the human race. Our sinful human nature means that war comes more naturally to us than we’d care to admit. Among those the Psalmist was mixing with (in the extract above), war was their default setting. Peace does not come naturally; it can only be kept by making a massive effort. We have to maintain armed forces, work hard via diplomacy to communicate with those around us, devise alliances of mutual interest - and ensure by threat of reprisal that war is not in an aggressor’s interests. It takes a great deal of work to stop us from doing to each other what comes so easily.
And yet, even when we try, war can still happen. In our turbulent world, then, it’s vital for us to pray to the One who has the nations in his hands, and to look to him, not ourselves, for help.
Just this week, I came across these words of the preacher and hymn-writer John Newton, writing on the occasion of another war, in 1796: “It is not Britannia, as our boasting song pretends, but the Lord who rules the waves, and them who sail upon them.” There is a word in season, to humble us and make us seek God!
As we remember the Somme, let’s pray that God would grant peace in our time. Let’s go on praying and working for the advance of his gospel, which changes hateful hearts and builds the great community which spans the nations: the world-wide church of Christ.