The Battle for the Banner K. Schilder (1)

(In memory of the national synod of Dort, opened November 13, 1618.)

Psalm 60: 3 and 4 ~ You have shown Your people hard things; You have made us drink the wine of confusion. You have given a banner to those who fear You, that it may be displayed because of the truth.

It looks as if the madness of war in the world’s killing fields has fallen upon the churches. Last year we had our warlike Reformation feast, and oh how we showed the brightness of our weapons then! And this year it is again a glorying in deserved blessings after a long struggle. Coming this week is a commemoration of the national Synod of Dort which began meeting on November 13, 1618; 300 (400; 2016) years ago.

Yet we do not seek war for the sake of war. The readiness for battle, which we also want to admire in the Synod of Dort, was not an expression of militarism, to fight for the sake of fighting. For in the year 1618 it was all about maintaining 1517. The year 1517 ~ the reformation ~ had returned the bible to us. 1618 preserved that. They were somewhat hasty in the year 1517, the prize was taken, but not securely vested; this was done in 1618. Then the gold of Reformed doctrine ~ which conceited people don’t even know, even if they do mock it ~ was refined and made known. In 1517 the stream of “living by free grace” broke free; and became the beautiful display of a magnificent raging waterfall. But in 1618 they guided the stream to its proper channel. The channel was deepened, dug out and ~ the stream of free grace received the appearance of the flowing of a quiet majestic river.

But; that did not go so easy. Our psalm writer also knows very well that the banner of truth is not raised by itself. Misery had first to be endured before it came that far. “You have shown Your people hard things; You have made us drink the wine of confusion”, is how he says it. So it is double misery. The “hard things” are those from the outside; the “wine of confusion”, are those taken inside us, approaching from within. What the writer meant is in the introduction of the psalm. There had been war with two enemies; first with the Syrians, afterwards with the Edomites. The Syrians, a mighty nation at the time, were vanquished. But the battle was barely decided, the sweet mirage that finally there could be demobilization and ~ peace could come; was cruelly disturbed. The message came with the news, that while the Syrians had been defeated in the north, the Edomites had treacherously invaded in the south. With that news the army turned about and this psalm was written (2) when Israel’s armed force went out again, to meet Edom.

Wasn’t that difficult, a hard pill to swallow; wine of confusion. To think it was finally over; and then to have to fight again anyway. But ~ wasn’t it exactly the same in the days before the Synod of Dort? After long years of fighting the Spaniards a twelve year truce was finally reached in 1609 and the united provinces of the Netherlands were recognized as independent nations also by Spain. Finally a stop to the business of waging war! Finally peace for once ~ and ~ a chance to catch your breath! Yes, so they thought. But rest did not return; because the remonstrant commotion brought at the least an even greater misery upon the land then did the war that had just ended.

But Psalm 60 is our psalm in yet another way in this week of remembering Dort. The enemies of Israel, who were they? First the Syrians, that is understandable. They were heathens of the most heathen sort. But also: Edom. They were the second enemy. That was so lamentably sad; because wasn’t Edom a brother-nation? Edom, the same is Esau. And: ~ Jacob and Esau ~ their conflict has been an ever remaining antithesis! They were born in one tent; brothers of each other from the same father. But a confrontation arose between these two brothers. And that confrontation was in essence a lawsuit about the matter of election. “Jacob have I loved and Esau I have hated”, that says everything. Jacob is God’s elected notwithstanding his sins. And Esau is not, notwithstanding his robust impulsive nature. This Esau cannot stomach, he is the titan (stormer of heaven), the personification of self empowerment! And the wrestling between Jacob and Esau has become a worldview; brother battles brother, the war is carried on by the generations and continues to do so. For those who can see it, the struggle between spiritual and unspiritual seed, between the election of God or the self conscious, free will of his majesty Man! This struggle continues to work through the invasion of Edom into the territory within Israel’s borders. It was the old territorial feud.

Our fathers also had such experiences. First against Syria, then against Edom. That is to say: first against Spain, against the Catholics, against the inquisition, against Philip II and his gang. That was bad, a hard thing. Wine of confusion. But it was more difficult when they had to fight with the Remonstrant, for they were Edom, brother nation. They also were sons of one father, born with us in one tent; weren’t they also children of the Reformation of 1517? Yes that they were; but as those in Isaac’s tent persisted on division, so it was also in the camp of the sons of the Reformation, there was a litigation between the Reformed and the Remonstrant. And ~ again it was about election. Again the old protest surfaced, of all the wisdom of Edom, which could not endure that God still accepts the one and rejects the other, though Jacob in himself being no more humane than Esau.

A hard matter. Wine of confusion.

But deliverance is coming. “You have given a banner to those who fear Thee”. The heathen have a saying: “Whoever would eliminate the Deity, would be made mad, desperate, they get…. wine of confusion”. But Christianity does not say so. God gave the wine of confusion to preserve, to cleanse, and via the confusion, the wavering from the wine of confusion they are brought to the certainty, the fortitude of the banner! The banner, isn’t that the epitome of the warriors’ understanding and wishes. The banner, with its lofty cheer, with its short concise watchword or meaningful symbol is the bond that unifies the warriors. This is how David sees his soldiers march: forward! And they carry the banner out; but when they go out then his soul rejoices that God Himself goes out before his brave soldiers, that God has put the banner in their hands anew himself.

So it was also in the days of Dort. The banner is unfurled; the banner of the Reformation is carried high; sola fida, only by faith. But that faith again also not merited; for if that was true, as the Remonstrant says, then the Reformation is again denied; then Rome, with its doctrine of merit is right again.

No, says Dort; it says on our banner, that man is saved only by grace. In this way also faith CANNOT be our righteousness before God.

You see, it was not a new watchword; a new banner. It was the old one, newly cast into the battle, and its watchword, the doctrine of free grace, is thoroughly thought out consequent to the great idea of election. So God first receives all honor; and didn’t Luther write that already on the banner of the Reformation?

God has given His warriors the banner anew; herein lies the liberating element for David’s awareness. He sees them go out with the courage of lions; because it is God Himself who spurs them on. Now it was well. When Israel took the ark into the army the battle was lost; but when God gave the banner, then victory came! Thou hast done it, that is the joy of the text. This was also the thought of Dort. The Remonstrant wanted their doctrine to be investigated on equal footing, but the church did not give in to the pressure. They knew that the banner of the Word was given in hand by God Himself; therefore our fathers could not deal on equal footing with the Remonstrant, who had affected the Word and its authority. If that had happened then the banner would have been hidden behind a screen.

Well now, herein was their THANKFULNESS. They had lifted up the banner along with David’s servants, or, as can be better translated they have gathered themselves around it. The battle was fought within sight of the banner and of its watchword; the foundation of 1517. Then they accomplished wonders. We, who have struggled for years over one phrase in article 36, we stand amazed about a work like the Cannons of Dort, accomplished in such a short time. They have spoken up for the sovereignty of God, but also His mercy, His irresistible will, but also His earnest call to the gospel, his irrefutable counsel, but also our responsibility, His unassisted power in working regeneration, but also our renewed activity. And the explanation of this wonder? Well, they lifted the banner: on ACCOUNT of the truth. The truth itself was their uplifting, compelling, driving, power. They could not do otherwise.

And us, the sons of Dort? We often satisfy ourselves with the impoverished game of lifting the banner for the truth. But that is easy enough: fighting for a dogma, for a slogan, for a party motto. Oh reader, do you know the power of Dort? The bringing out of the banner on account of the truth, because you, yourself are carried away by it? It is the legacy of Dort, the doctrine of election, that puts the matter before you so forcefully, if you very specifically, very sincerely, personally know godliness . Let us then stand according to that power, that inner strength. Only then can you know the sweet wealth of what Dort advocates in such stern language: not from you, not from the will of the one who walks, but from a merciful God. We can only be children of Dort in this way.

(1) Kerkbode (Church news) of Vlaardingen Nov. 9, 1918.

(2) The inscription which communicates the conclusion of the struggle against Edom, was naturally added to the psalm later.