A Historical and Spiritual Look at Banners
“Lift high, the Lord our banner!” A choir swells with the majestic anthem as men and women enter the church sanctuary, carrying ornate gold and white velvet and red satin banners bearing the phrases “Hallelujah” and “Rose of Sharon.” At the front of the church hang two decorative banners–on one, a lion and a lamb peacefully lie together; on the other, a cup spills over with wine.
It is a familiar scene in churches around the world these days. From Virginia Beach, Virginia to Ghana, Africa, more and more congregations are using banners to enhance their worship and help them focus on God. The banner designs change from church to church, but the message everywhere seems to be the same: “We want to declare God’s praises; we want to honor Him by reflecting His beauty here on earth.”
As visual art, the banners we use in church today reflect symbols of God’s majesty and glory. They remind us of His attributes. But a look at Scripture shows that banners aren’t a new concept. They offer more than mere decoration in worship.
A Family I.D.
The Old Testament references the use of banners. In those days, banners not only served a practical purpose in the people’s everyday lives, but also gave rich spiritual significance that meant as much to God’s people then as they do today.
Surprisingly, Old Testament banners didn’t always look like they do today. Although some were made of heavily adorned materials, others were simply long wooden poles topped with ornaments, such as suns or serpents. In either case, banners frequently were used simply to identify a people or their purpose.
In the book of Numbers for example, God instructed Moses to have each tribe set up camp under its own banner. “The Israelites are to set up their tents by divisions, each man in his own camp under his own standard” (1:52). Banners helped keep order among the people as they traveled across the desert to the Promised Land. If you became separated from your tribe, you could always find your way back by searching above the throngs for the standard that carried your tribe’s symbol.
The Israelites weren’t the only ones who used banners in this way. Other people also carried tribal banners, and the custom was handed down through the centuries. Today, we call each nation’s “tribal banner” a flag. In America, we fly the stars and stripes; Israel has the Star of David; Japan has the sun.
As believers in Christ, we carry praise and worship banners that identify us as God’s people. They point to the One we represent and declare that He alone is worthy of praise and adoration – “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens” (Psalm 148:13).
Onward Christian Solders
When Israelite soldiers went to war, banners played a particular crucial role, helping the tribes stay organized (Numbers 2:34) and serving as a rallying point. Wherever the banner was raised, the troops could gather to strategize before continuing the battle. Moreover, as Kay Arthur notes in her book To Know Him by Name, the banners were a symbol of courage and strength to the troops.
Imagine the thrill that must have swept among the worn and wounded allied soldiers during World War II when they spotted flags of reinforcement troops. Think of the relief Saudi Arabians must have felt during Desert Storm when they saw American or European flags on the planes or tanks moving toward them.
The Hebrew people also must have been empowered by seeing their leader’s banner raised. It signaled that he was still in control and helped fortify them for battle.
When the Hebrews won, the banners were raised even higher as the people celebrated and shouted their thanksgiving to God for victory. Consider these verses:
- “We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God” (Psalm 20:5).
- Announce and proclaim among the nations, lift up a banner and proclaim it; keep nothing back, but say, ‘Babylon will be captured; Bel will be put to shame, Markduk filled with terror’”(Jeremiah 50:2).
Today, we use our banners in a spiritual battle. As soldiers of Christ (2 Timothy 2:3-4), we use them as we fight the good fight of faith (2 Timothy 4:7), proclaiming that we are God’s people and declaring His victories. The messages on our banners shout these encouraging truths: we are more than conquerors through God who loves us (Romans 8:37) and the victory that overcomes the world is our faith (1 John 5:4).
The Ultimate Banner
Some of the most powerful Scripture passages about banners show God working for His people with banners–and as their banner.
Consider Exodus 17:15. Moses’ troops had just defeated the Amalekites after a long battle. Weary but thankful, Moses built an altar of praise to God and called it “The Lord is my Banner” (17:15). Through his actions, Moses was telling the people that “God is the One who gave us the victory.” “And God says he will give us victory again–the Amalekites will never defeat a future generation” (see verse 16).
That wasn’t the only victory God granted the Israelites. In Psalm 60:4, David wrote, “But for those who fear you [God], you have raised a banner to be unfurled against the bow.” God promised to fight for those who had faith in Him. Isaiah prophesied He would cause the physical enemy to flee: “They shall fear the name of the Lord from the West, and His glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy comes in like a flood the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him and put him to flight” (59:19, Amplified Version). “Their stronghold will fall because of terror; at sight of the battle standard their commanders will panic” (31:9).
Ultimately, the prophet Isaiah demonstrated how God would become a banner among us: “In that day, the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious” (11:10). He was talking about Jesus, who would also raise a banner to “gather the exiles of Israel” and “assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth” (11:12). Jesus would unify God’s faithfulness; He would be the gathering place, where people could find physical and spiritual rest.
Perhaps the most poignant historical foreshadowing of how Jesus would become a banner, a rallying place for spiritual healing, is in the book of Numbers. The Hebrew people had sinned against God. Consequently, God had sent a plague of snakes among them.
“The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole (a banner). Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived” (21:7-9).
Just as the disobedient Hebrews gained life from looking at the bronze-snake banner God commanded Moses to create, we gain eternal life today when we look to the cross where Jesus was lifted up. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
His Banner Over Me…
The more you understand what banners meant to the Israelites, the more you will appreciate creating banners for praise and worship today. As part of your own banner ministry, we hope you’ll continue to read and study God’s Word. You can start with the following verses:
“Raise a banner on a bare hilltop, shout to them; beckon to them to enter the gates of the nobles.” Isaiah 13:2
“Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.” Isaiah 60:10
“Lift up a banner against the walls of Babylon! Reinforce the guard, station the watchmen, and prepare an ambush!” Jeremiah 51:12
“His banner over me is love.” Solomon 2:4
“You are beautiful, my darling as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, majestic as troops with banners.”
Of course, you won’t want to stop here. Scripture study will not only help you learn and grow, but will also provide you with a multitude of ideas for banner themes and designs. For example, some groups have chosen to study the names of God together, and then made banners for each name. You may also want to study God’s attributes or the Fruit of the Spirit.