Gates of Fire

Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire centers on the Battle of Thermopylae. In 480 BC three hundred Spartan warriors and their allies held back the colossal Persian army for seven days at the narrow gates, dying to the last man. The story’s narrator, a badly wounded Spartan servant and the only survivor, tells his tale at the command of Xerxes, the Persian king. As his recitation draws to a close, the wounded man explains how the Spartan king Leonidas led his men:

“Of what does the nature of kingship consist? What are its qualities in itself; what the qualities it inspires in those who attend it? These, if one may presume to divine the meditations of His Majesty’s heart, are the questions which most preoccupy his own reason and reflection…

I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him…

That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free…I and every [Spartan at Thermopylae] were never more free than when we gave freely obedience to those harsh laws which take life and give it back again.”

This describes not just human or Spartan leadership, but our own King’s leadership. Christ did not sit and watch sin and death from a distance, but became man and spent sleepless nights, endured hunger, conquered sin and death, and fights our battles with and for us:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage…Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” – Hebrews 2:14,15,17,18

Several Adult Bible Fellowship teachers at our church are Army chaplains. One, a West Point grad and Green Beret for many years, decided mid-career to go to seminary then returned to the Special Forces as a chaplain. He’s currently gone on yet another deployment in yet another war zone. Before leaving, he recommended Gates of Fire as the most accurate portrayal of mens’ thoughts and actions in battle he’d ever encountered. I sent this book to Carl during his deployment, and he loved it. I just finished it myself. We both highly recommend this novel, while suggesting each reader use their own discretion. It’s a story about soldiers, Special Forces essentially, and has a full complement of brutal scenes and soldiers’ foul language.

As an interesting side note, the King Xerxes in this story is traditionally believed to be the same Xerxes (Ahasuerus in the Hebrew Bible) who made Esther his Queen in the Old Testament. For all we know, she may have been present in her husband’s battle train and tent during his campaign and the Battle of Thermopylae.

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