Volume 10, Issue 1: Exegetica
Through Faith Subduing Kingdoms - Hebrews 11:29-34
Having completed his exposition of the faith of particular Hebrew patriarchs—Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses—the author of this epistle now considers the faith of the Hebrews as a people. We see in this section of the letter that such corporate, national faith is often manifested in the victory of God's people and the vanquishing of their foes.
"By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, whereas the Egyptians, attempting to do so, were drowned" (Heb. 11:29). God redeemed the Hebrews out of Egypt through the total devastation of that evil nation. He struck Egypt, bringing them to their knees. But His final stroke at the Red Sea laid them utterly low, bringing both glory to Himself and—by His grace—wisdom to His enemies. "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord" (Exod. 14:4). So the Egyptian army (minus the eldest sons executed in the tenth plague) pursued Israel to Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the Sea. With the sea before and Egypt behind, Israel cried out in fear. But Moses responded with courage founded in faith, "Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will accomplish for you today" (Exod. 14:13). Moses lifted his rod, the Sea was divided, and Israel passed through walls of water. Then, for the final time, the Lord hardened the hearts of the Egyptians so that they followed them in fury and were drowned, "and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. . . . So the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and His servant Moses" (Exod. 14:30-31). Thus the Hebrews by faith accomplished what was impossible for their unbelieving enemies, even as our Lord said, "All things are possible to him who believes."
Passing over the generation of Israelites who, as he explained earlier, "could not enter in because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:19), the author now brings his readers to another major military triumph. "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days" (Heb. 11:30). Here the Lord again presents Israel with the impossible: the conquering of an unconquerable city. He does not have them build siegeworks, battering rams, or catapults. The high walls of Jericho exalted against the people of God were cast down, not by works, but by faith. "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4). The silent circumscribing of the city no doubt seemed foolish to the wicked behind their walls, but by it they were utterly defeated, "because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor. 10:25).
But even within those very walls God distinguished believer and unbeliever. For Rahab's house "was on the city wall; she dwelt on the wall" (Josh. 2:15). Yet God must have preserved the wall at that place, for "by faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace" (Heb. 11:31).
"And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets" (Heb. 11:32). The author here briefly lists his last examples of faithful Hebrews through the times of the judges, kings and prophets. These are men whose failings were often more evident than their faith: Gideon's ephod was a snare to him and his house (Judges 8:27); Barak's glory went to Jael, Heber's wife (4:9, 22); Samson's strength was shorn by Delilah (16:19); and Jephthah's victory was tainted by his vow (11:36). The failings of David and Samuel are in like manner familiar to all.
Yet the author dismisses these failings in order to display their faith. He identifies for his readers nine works of faith, a triplet of triplets (Heb. 11:33-34), which apply throughout the time period of the men mentioned in verse 32. The first three can be seen in the conquest of Canaan and the reign of the faithful kings of Judah, "Who through faith subdued kingdoms." Consider the conquests of Joshua (Josh. 11:23), the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 7:10), and King David (2 Sam. 5:19), all of whom conquered kingdoms while trusting in God. They also "worked righteousness" by faith, executing judgment on God's enemies (Josh. 10:12; 1 Sam. 14:12; 2 Sam. 8), and establishing righteousness among God's people (cf. Josh. 8:35; 2 Sam. 8:15; 1 Kings 3:9). Finally, they "obtained promises": Joshua obtained Canaan, Gideon conquered Midian, David obtained the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The next three works apply best to the prophets, especially Daniel and his friends. They "stopped the mouths of lions" (Dan. 6:22), as did other heroes of old (cf. Judges 14:6; 2 Sam. 23:20). Daniel's three friends "quenched the violence of fire" (Dan. 3:27), and they all "escaped the edge of the sword" (Dan. 2:24).
The final triplet of faith seems to fit best with the judges. The first, "out of weakness were made strong," is probably a reference to Samson (Judges 16:28), though David is described that way also (Ps. 89:21). They "became valiant in battle," as the Lord raised up deliverers for His people, deliverers who trusted in God to grant them victory. Finally, they "turned to flight the armies of the aliens," for God would hand over the armies of evil nations to men who trusted in Him.
The author mentions these that the people of God in all times (whether the Hebrews of this letter or the church of today) might take heart, knowing that God will deliver those who trust in Him. For through faith in Him we are more than conquerors.