The sun beat down on the Gaugamela plain, glinting off of helmets, spear tips and shields as dust and sand rose in great gusts, intermittently blocking the view of the enemy. The call from the officers rang out and the sandaled feet of the Macedonian phalanx advanced, not in a straight line, but at an angle instead. At first they advanced slowly, but they began picking up speed until they hit a full run while remaining in formation. Suddenly a shrill shout rose from the opposing line and archers and skirmishers stepped forward, letting loose their arrows, spears and slung stones which then flew harmlessly beyond the now-running hoplites.
Projectiles were not the only thing which the enemy had planned however and promptly scythed chariots raced forward up carefully pre-cleared paths in the middle of the plain, throwing more sand and dust into the already obscured air. The paths on which the chariots rocked and swayed were bordered by rocks and debris which would splinter and destroy their wheels if they strayed off of their lines. However, the Macedonian phalanx soon breathed a sigh of relief as they saw that their General’s intentional offset of their lines freed them from dealing with the vast majority of the chariots. Their formation simply split momentarily to allow the few which could attack them to pass through without harm, before re-forming their tight lines of bristling spears.
A third trick had been planned by the “King of Kings,” Darius III, whom the Macedonians fought: war elephants, their tusks bristling with spikes and men with spears and lances stationed on its mighty back, were meant to burst forth after the phalanx lines had been disoriented by the scythed chariots; putting the dangerous Macedonian infantry to flight and rout. But the double-time and angular advance of the hoplites surprised the “King of Kings” and permitted him no time to release the great beasts before the spears of the advancing Alexandrian column began running through the wicker shields of the Persian line.
In response, Darius instead released his heavy cavalry to swing from the Persian right flank, through the no-man’s land on the north side of the plain, into the now exposed left flank of the advancing Macedonians. Parmenion, the General commanding the Macedonian left, sent his horseman to hold back their advance while he slowly rotated his light infantry into position to stop the flanking movement. As Parmenion’s line held and then gave way, Alexander and his Companion Cavalry, stationed on the Macedonian right broke into a gallop and rode through and over the splintered ranks of Persian infantry directly at Darius and his bodyguard.
We know little about what happened afterward. Indeed, some of the above was only pieced together from various accounts after the battle and might not be entirely accurate itself. The dust kicked up by possibly 200,000 Persians and 47,000 Macedonians turned the plain into a cauldron-like tempest, obscuring vision beyond a few feet. The chaos must have favored the disciplined Macedonians who, when the dust settled, saw that they held the field. The Persians which did not lay dead at the Macedonians’ feet had all fled, and with them went the great Darius himself. But how did it happen? No one seemed to know.
Alexander had crushed Darius’ army once and for all and he now stood as the unchallenged ruler of what had, until then, belonged to Persia. No army existed west of the Indus which could challenge the Macedonians; and no terrain outside of the Hindu Kush and present-day Afghanistan could hinder their advance. The mighty Persian Empire had stood for 220 years but had now been toppled by a small western army from a nation which heretofore had never been a major player on the world stage. The whole thing would have been inconceivable to Mesopotamian minds. After a few millennia of local, indigenous rule via Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and Assyria, to have first been toppled by the Medes and Persians was one thing, but to now be under the thumb of what amounted to brigands from the unwholesome hills on the far side of the Hellespont was unthinkable. It was as if the gods were playing them for fools.
But we know that it wasn’t the “gods,” or even the toss of fate which caused these things to pass. And though the fogs of time obscure the ebb and flow of political and military power on the microscale – much like the sands of Gaugamela obscured what was taking place in the great battle – we see on the macro the hand of the Almighty Sovereign steering the near east into the perfect condition for the plan He had all along.
After all, God had announced His plan centuries before to His servant Daniel and to all of the court of Babylon in a very familiar story found in Daniel 2. That story starts with the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar having a dream that haunted him. He must have woken up in a very foul mood because he was completely disinterested in getting the run-around from a bunch of ingratiating “wise men” with vague, dodgy answers to his specific questions. Putting them to the test, he told these soothsayers and diviners not only to interpret his dream but to tell him what his dream was. This was, obviously, impossible for those charlatans and the resulting rage from Nebuchadnezzar would have sent them all (including Daniel and his friends) to their deaths had it not been for God revealing the dream to Daniel. God’s man then stood before the king and said, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you were lying in bed are these:” (vv. 27f). Daniel then went on to explain what Nebuchadnezzar saw: a large statue with the head being gold, the chest and arms being silver, the belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. Then a huge rock, uncut by human hands, hit the statue in the feet and broke it to dust, before growing to fill the entire world (vv. 31-35).
Daniel then revealed that the metals represented different kingdoms which would come in succession. We know them today because we can look back through history: the golden head was Babylon (Daniel identified that one at the time), the silver chest/arms was Medo-Persia (the coming of which is recorded later in Daniel), the bronze belly/thighs was Greece (Macedonia), its legs and feet were Rome, strong as iron at first, but lessened and marbled by the corruption that infiltrated as time passed. The stone not cut with human hands is, of course, Jesus Himself, striking down the powers of the age and growing to fill the whole world. He established a kingdom not of this world, but the new, all-encompassing power in it nonetheless.
As I said, it’s clear to us now, with the benefit of hindsight. But if the kingdoms had been identified to the Babylonians (or contemporary Assyrians, Sumerians, Elamites etc.), they would have scoffed at the idea. How could nomads from the Iranian Plateau defeat the great agricultural empires of Mesopotamia? How could sheep-herding peoples from the stony hills of the Greek Peninsula conquer the greatness of the Tigris? How could a city, only now being founded by knaves and thieves, populated through the kidnap of women from an enemy in the hills nearby, overthrow the civilized cities of the mighty Euphrates? They would have squinted through the lenses they fashioned for themselves, thinking their perspective clear and their interpretation genuine, but not knowing that their vision was hazy at best; not seeing that a hundred-thousand long-shots in the game of chance (though we know that chance had nothing to do with it) would come to pass between their day and that of the establishment of “the rock uncut by human hands.”
I mentioned it in passing a moment before, but the dusts of the plains of Gaugamela obscured not only the fighting and interpretation of the battle that took place, but it also acts as an example of my point by obscuring the Almighty hand which guided all of the battle’s pieces. It might be understood that the tactics as the battle unfolded had less to do with the Macedonian victory than the work of God on the elements in which they fought. It might be agreed that the charge of Alexander and the Companions had less to do with the outcome of the battle than the work of God on the courage and resistance of the Persian army. Or perhaps we could just agree that a series of hundreds, maybe thousands, of proverbial tosses of the dice might erect the framework out of which not just the battle, but the entire endeavor would bring about God’s will?
But that’s how it works with human nature, isn’t it? We look at a battle maybe through the eyes of a general and examine why the tactics or strategy of one side prevailed against the other. Or we look at it through the eyes of an anthropologist, examining how one side’s culture provided the superiority over the other. Or maybe we look through the eyes of a historian, reflecting on the aftermath of the result. Or even as a politician, on how the result could be exploited for personal gain (yeah, I’m a pessimist regarding the intentions of politicians). Or … as I’m doing now, we could look at the battle as a rhetorician, in order to make a point … because there’s always an agenda when we look at anything, isn’t there?
What’s sad is how seldom our agenda – or, more appropriately, our presupposition – takes into account the presence of God’s hand in the things and events we analyze. We look back at Gaugamela and believe that Alexander’s irresistible and irrepressible strengths were what brought ruin on an army outnumbering him maybe 4 to 1. In our haste to prove our presuppositions about the inevitability of the path which transpired, we don’t see the fact that the Macedonians had long, strung-out supply lines stretching hundreds of miles into Persian home turf, which should have been easy pickings for Darius, and ask why he didn’t attack them and force retreat.
Similarly, we look further back in time and recall explanations erected for ourselves as to why the Neo-Assyrian Empire so obligingly stepped out of the way (though it was at the heights of its power in the late 600s BC) in order to allow Babylon to be independent at the time of Daniel. We tie ourselves in knots explaining how Babylon the Great fell to a group of pastoral nomads like the Medes, how the Persians became pre-eminent, how the Macedonians rose from vassal to master, and how the city founded by a mythical Romulus would come to rule the world. As our knot-tying continues by advancing our own explanations for things, in service to our own presuppositions, too few of those explanations start or end with, “Because God wanted it that way.”
It’s not a surrender to say such a thing – as if it declares one too lazy in consideration of cause and effect. Nor does it necessarily reveal disinterest – as if one is not even willing to give the affairs of history a second thought. Even though I suppose both of those problems could be present. Instead, what it should reveal is a willingness to acknowledge the sovereignty, omniscience and omnipotence of God. That which God wills, He guides into being.
More importantly though: this acknowledgement of God being present and active in ordering the affairs of men throughout history in order to bring about His will also allows us to be consistent in what we SAY we believe about our salvation. We pay a lot of lip service to the idea that God has saved us from the eternal consequences of the wrong things we have done. But how many times do we look at the deeper aspect of that fact? By all means, marvel at the grace of God in saving us from our sins through the death of Jesus on the cross. That fact is immense and deserves every breath that we breathe to be a praise to the Almighty! But don’t just stop there … praise Him also for first loving you before you loved Him (1 Jn 4:19)!
Is God unrighteous to choose which empire rises and which one falls in order to bring about His perfect will? Certainly not (see Romans 9). Similarly, is He unrighteous in bending the paths of each one of us according to His foreknowledge and will? Of course not! So why are we not also praising Him for the conditions which He set and which pre-date our feeble actions? Let’s hope we don’t (like Alexander) attribute our victories to our own greatness. But let’s also hope that we don’t disregard the conditions in which we operate and in which we gain the victory (like all of us tend to do in our study of turning points in human history).
Now, I’ve just used a lot of words to express what Paul much more eloquently wrote in Romans 8, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those He predestined, he also called; those He called, he also justified; those He justified, He also glorified” (vv.28ff). How incredible is that? The God whom we serve has the power to know His people even before His people choose Him? And this God whom we serve also has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son? And therefore, He called us to Him (before we called to Him) that we might answer Him and find justification and glorification as a result? That’s too much goodness for the depraved human mind to imagine. But it’s true and it’s the definition of the deeper grace which God doesn’t just give to us, He lavishes on us (Eph 1:7f).
This seems hard, at first, for us to grasp; almost as if we stand on a dust-obscured battlefield, trying to get an overall impression of how the battle is going while only seeing things within a few feet of ourselves. After all, we would likely ask, “How can God predestine some to ultimate glorification and others to ultimate destruction, and then still be considered gracious and good?” Or maybe we would ask, “If I have free will, how can He foreknow that I will answer Him if He calls without a violation of my free will?” But, as Jesus said to His disciples in Mark 10:27, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” He was talking about salvation there, just as Paul is in Romans 8.
We think in terms of human boundaries. None of us can time-travel. None of us can overcome the will of his fellow man (except by force). But God isn’t just omnipotent – shaping and conforming all things to His will – He is also touching all points of time at all times – to know and to guide, to inform His will and His power. This changes every interaction that He has with our world and therefore every conclusion we, as humans, come to about Him: because God becomes not only AN explanation for life … but THE explanation. His existence and attributes transform – NECESSARILY TRANSFORM – our thinking about ourselves, our sin, our world, our history, our relationships; every thought, every word, every action, every breath must confess Him as Lord, not only of our lives, but of our very existence and our ultimate glory!
To use the well-known words of Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry out, ‘Mine!’” Christ says this not in some childish, selfish way. He makes this claim as the only true, honorable and worthy sovereign King. And who are we to question His direction? Who are we to object to His claim? Who are we to argue His dominion? Who are we to forget the acts of guidance and providence that have led us to where we are?
Do you want a good example of how God “works [all things] for the good of those who love Him?” How about the fact that He inspired Paul to write the verses I quoted above and then led him to write immediately after,
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv.31-39)
How can that assurance not overcome you? How can that guarantee not fill you with praise? The thought that the God of all glory and goodness does not condemn you to torment, but instead shares with you His glory, is breathtaking.
And so, the next time you stand triumphant, or kneel, broken and defeated, on a battlefield of life, remember the storms of circumstance which confined your view, not to mention your own limitations. Consider the invisible hand of a sovereign God guiding the unseen conditions and bringing you to the point where you find yourself taking stock. Realize that He is there and He is not inactive or slow (2 Pet 3:8f). Realize that no matter the outcome of a single battle, the war is already won. Realize that He is working and He is guiding … and He will one day bring about what He said He would do; just as He did with the prophecy of Daniel and the kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.