The English longbow is a remarkable weapon. It came into its own in the Hundred Years War, the appallingly brutal conflict between France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Known simply as the “bow,” it was the decisive weapon in the crushing English victories at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415).
Here’s what made the bow so outstanding. Firstly, it was quick and cheap to make. D-shaped staves of wood, five to six feet long, were cut in winter from the trunks of hardwood trees: yew trees were the most prized. Springy sapwood made up the outside of the bow, and the incompressible heart-wood made up the inside. This gave the perfect compromise of rigidity and flexibility. Although it was best to let the yew staves cure for a few years, a skilled bowyer could shape such a bow in less than 10 hours.
Bowstrings were made of twisted hemp. Some archers weaved the long hairs of their women into the strings. The claim that this improved the string was never verified, but no doubt many an archer, in the terror of battle, was comforted by such mementos. Dampness greatly reduced the power of the string, and so archers kept them carefully dry under their headgear. To preserve the shape of the stave, bows were only strung when they were about to be used.
The arrows, the famous “clothyard shafts,” were made from 70cm lengths of ash, or some other hardwood that gave the right compromise of lightness and rigid strength. Skilled fletchers took goose feathers, always from the same wing, so that they curved the same way, and trimmed and bound them to the end of the arrow to create the slight drag needed for stable flight. Steel tipped arrow heads were kept razor sharp. “Bearded” arrowheads were brutally barbed to cause maximum flesh damage. Bodkin heads were four-sided needles of steel capable of piercing plate armour, the chainmail under that, and the thick leather under that. Arrows had to be kept dry, and so were kept not in open quivers, but enclosed waterproofed bags.
A skilled archer could shoot an arrow with instinctively deadly accuracy every three to four seconds. That means that an army with 4,000 archers could, in less than a minute, unleash onto the enemy a lethal torrent of 68,000 steel tipped shafts.
The French army used crossbows. These were very deadly weapons, but they were also complicated, heavy, and generally clumsy. You had to use a lever or a pulley system to pull back the string. So it cost at least ten times as much to make a crossbow as it did a longbow, and whereas a bow could be reloaded in three seconds, the average crossbow took about thirty seconds.
English archers were skilled, hardened, and merciless killers. It is no wonder the French feared and abominated them. When they captured an archer they immediately cleaved off his bow-fingers, the middle three fingers of the right hand. Other brutal tortures would follow.
So why didn’t the French take up the bow for themselves? The reason is simple: whereas the bow was cheap, and could be made in less than ten hours, an archer could not be made in less than ten years. Boys began using bows before they turned eight, and if their fathers took things seriously they would shoot some three hundred arrows a day.
Firstly, this developed the massive strength needed to draw and hold and aim a bow, and shoot arrow after arrow. The English war bow had a draw weight of 50kg, with some bows exceeding even 70kg. You didn’t just draw back the string: you used every muscle in your body to push out the bow to its maximum arc. Archers therefore were very strong, and you could pick an archer by his massive arm, back, and chest muscles. This kind of strength took many years to develop.
Second, years of practice enabled the archer to land an arrow on his target instinctively. He knew, without pausing to think, how high to aim the arrow—and to compensate for wind at the same time—so that it would pierce the heart of his target. An archer didn’t aim his bow; he killed with his bow. Nothing within a 150m radius of the archer was safe.
The French didn’t use bows because the French didn’t raise archers. Crossbows required only a fraction of the training to fire accurately, but the crossbow could never compete with the portability and rate of fire of the bow. That’s why, at Agincourt, some 4,000 yeoman archers slaughtered at least 20,000 expensively armed and armoured French knights.
And all this has got me thinking about the Bible.
We need not be squeamish about likening the Bible to a weapon. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29). Paul calls the word of God “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). Hebrews says that the word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (4:12).
God’s words have force. God spoke and there was light. The physical universe, the planets and stars and galaxies—who can grasp its apparently infinite weight and size and power?—was brought into existence by God’s words. God speaks, and people live, and people die. God speaks and nations rise and fall. The Son of God healed the sick, exorcised demons, raised the dead, and calmed the raging storm, with his words.
The Bible is the Word of God written (2Ti 3:16). And if the Bible is a weapon, then it is a very powerful weapon. Any blunt instrument can impact the human body, but no tool made by human hands has ever put a scratch on the soul. The Bible “pierces to the division of soul and spirit.” “It is capable of judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Whenever Paul talks about God’s words, whether it is God’s Gospel revealed and preached, or God’s Word written, he always speaks with a sense of awe of its power.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18).
The Bible is war-bow powerful. And, like the bow, its devastating strength cannot be mastered overnight. You and I would struggle to draw an English bow more than a handbreadth. We simply have not spent years building up the great mass of muscle that is required to harness the power of the bow.
In the same way, if we have not built up the necessary strength, we will never harness more than a tiny fraction of the devastating power of God’s Word. And just as the French resorted to their clumsy crossbows, which pretty much anyone could quickly learn to use, how often do we pick up far lesser weapons than the Bible to try to impact the souls of others? In our church gatherings we rely, perhaps, on moving music. One-to-one we may pass on a book by C. S. Lewis, Tim Keller, or Lee Strobel. Nothing wrong with these books, we are very grateful for them! But they cannot possibly compare with the power of the Bible.
In his book Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell posits that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. That is the equivalent of five years fulltime work. Or if you practiced something an hour a day, every day, it would take you 27 years. It takes long years of sacrificial dedicated work and practice to be truly good at something.
The medieval English knew that archers didn’t grow overnight. And so they trained their young boys to be toxophiles, lovers of the bow, and put little bows into their hands just as soon as they could hold them. English kings even mandated archery by law to guarantee a supply of lethal archers. Thus Henry VIII, alarmed by the decline of archery in the sixteenth century, decreed:
All Men under the Age of sixty Years “shall have Bows and Arrows for shooting. Men-Children between Seven “Years and Seventeen shall have a Bow and 2 Shafts. Men about Seventeen “Years of Age shall keep a Bow and 4 Arrows – Penalty 6s.8d.”
Do we want to harness the nuclear power of God’s Word? We must become strong in it. And that means long and patient mastery. We must look ahead not to one year’s time, or five year’s time, or even ten year’s time. We must look thirty years into the future. We must determine to read through the Bible at least once a year for those thirty years. And not just reading the words, but taking a full hour each and every day to ponder those words, and to memorise a part of it.
Then we will begin to know the Word. Then our “muscles” will strengthen to properly use it. Then we will be at home in it and fluent in it. Then its words will instinctively come to mind in our discussions, in our family life, in our work, and in our trials and temptations.
Our Lord Jesus began his public ministry aged thirty. After decades of reading and pondering the Word he could quote it at will. He could easily defeat the devil’s cunning temptations. He could expose the ignorance and sweep aside the subtle arguments of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who did not know the Scriptures nearly as well as him. (John 3:10, Matthew 22:29.)
Take any great Christian preacher or leader: they were masters of the Word. John Bunyan wrote extraordinary books because he had mastered the Word. Jonathan Edwards’ sermons brought great revival to eighteenth century New England because, famously, he studied the Bible thirteen hours a day.
But it is not just the superstars. Those Christian men and women who are so wise, so measured, so trusting, and who bring such words of influence and blessing to those around them, are those who have spent long years with the Word. They are spiritually muscular and powerful. Their aim is experienced and instinctually on target. In their hands the Word of God becomes a mighty life-giving weapon.
For this is where metaphor and reality part ways. Whereas the English archer was a powerfully brutal and destructive man; the Christian disciple, trained for long years in the Word, is a powerfully healing person. Like Jesus, like Peter and Paul and John, they wreak life, blessing, and happiness.
God’s Word is a mighty weapon. It takes decades to harness its awesome life-giving power. We’d best get started.