Be Strong and Courageous Joshua 1:1-9


Joshua 1:1-9

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We considered the book of Joshua as a whole last Lord’s Day morning as part of our celebration of the first Sunday in Advent. The taking of the Promised Land, we said, was an anticipation of the coming of the Lord, especially his second coming, since the Promised Land in the Bible is a type, or an embodied prophecy of heaven itself. But now we begin our consideration of the book paragraph by paragraph.

But, before we do, a word about the structure of the book. It will help us to appreciate its parts if we know something of the book as a whole. Joshua has four main sections. A recent study by a Dutch scholar argues that each of the four sections is marked by key word. As you may remember, it was the Jewish scholar Martin Buber, many years ago, who first pointed out that it was characteristic of the authors of the books of the Hebrew Bible to identify their themes, in a day before titles or table of contents, by the use of key words. Since Buber was German he referred to such a word as a leitwort, that is, the “leading” word. According to this new study the leitwort of the first section of Joshua is the verb “to cross,” which we find first in v. 2 where the ESV renders it “go over.” So the first section of the book (1:1-5:12) is about crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. That word “cross” is found twenty-six times in the first section. The leitwort of the second section of the book is the Hebrew verb “to take,” for the section from 5:13 to 12:24 narrates Israel’s conquest and taking possession of Canaan. The leitwort of the third section is the Hebrew verb “to divide,” or “allot,” since from 13:1-21:45 the land is divided among the tribes of Israel. The leitwort of the fourth and final section of the book, from 22:1 to the end, is the verb “to serve,” which occurs some sixteen times in the final chapter alone. Each section has a distinct conclusion, further indicating that the book does indeed neatly divide into these four sections.

Section 1 concludes with the reinstatement of the people, the end of God’s provision of manna, and the celebration of the Passover for the first time in thirty-eight years and the first time ever in the Promised Land. Section 2 concludes with a summary of all the kings and peoples and lands that Israel conquered. Section 3 ends with a ringing affirmation that God has been as good as his word in giving Israel the Promised Land. Section 4 and the book as a whole end with the statement that Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua.

What is interesting about the four sections is that the first three begin emphatically with the Lord, with Yahweh, taking the initiative. At God’s command and with God’s help Israel crossed the Jordan, took the land, and divided it into tribal allotments. The fourth section, however, does not begin with the divine initiative. Instead Joshua takes the initiative, calling on Israel to serve the Lord. In other words the structure of the book underscores the Bible’s understanding of the Christian faith and life: we love him because he first loved us! We are saved to serve! [Much of the above taken from Provan et al, A Biblical History of Israel, 151-152]

Text Comment

v.1

As you perhaps noticed the book begins as the continuation of an on-going narrative. We read of the death of Moses in the final chapter of Deuteronomy and Joshua takes up the story from there.

It is worth reminding you at the outset that in virtually every English translation of the Bible “Lord” is used to translate the personal name of the Lord, a name most scholars today suppose was pronounced Yahweh or something close to that. Yahweh doesn’t mean Lord, it’s a name, so Lord is not an actual translation. It is, in fact, a substitution, as long ago the Jews substituted adonai, a Hebrew word that meant “lord” or “master” for Yahweh, in a superstitious effort to avoid pronouncing the divine name for fear of being guilty of misusing it. Given that the Lord revealed his name to his people, told them what to call him, and given that this name appears thousands of times in the Old Testament, it is passing strange to me that translations executed by Bible-believing scholars — any scholars for that matter — should continue to practice this contrivance, but they do. This would be akin to saying “angel” whenever the names Michael or Gabriel appeared in the narrative. What’s the point of having a name, what’s the point of telling someone what your name is, if no one ever uses the name in speaking about or to you?

As we said last time, Joshua means “Yahweh saves.” The Greek form of this Hebrew name is “Jesus.” We already know Joshua as Moses’ assistant and as one of the twelve spies, one of the two who brought back an encouraging report when the twelve were sent ahead to reconnoiter the land and assess the military challenges some thirty-eight years before this.

v.2

You will notice throughout this opening paragraph the Hebrew penchant for thinking and writing in extremes. The word Hebrew word “all” appears eight times in these first nine verses: all the people, all the places, all the law, all the land, all the days, and so on. It occurs six more times in the rest of chapter 1.

Scholars point out that the phraseology of this entire opening section is drawn from Deuteronomy. The continuity between Moses and Joshua is in that way emphasized as is the continuing authority of the Law of Moses. [cf. Howard, 75]

v.3

Note the accent on the fact that the Lord is giving Israel the land. And notice the tenses of the verbs in vv. 2 and 3: I am giving and I have given. Israel doesn’t yet possess the land, but she already holds title to it! [Howard, 76]

v.5

Moses may be gone, but the Lord is present and will be with Joshua and Israel as he was with Moses.

v.8

What was being commanded was not a skimming of the Word of God or a superficial reading of the text, but a careful, thoughtful engagement with it with the intention to obey; a reading that seeks understanding and intends obedience. [Hubbard, 82-83]

Some of the Bible verses you learn as a child stick with you better than others. Often that is because you have cause to use them more often, to recite them to yourself or to others. One such verse for me was Joshua 1:9. Of course, I learned it in the King James translation.

“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

When I was a boy there was no electric power in our mountain valley in Colorado. We had electric lights and running water only when the gasoline generator was running. The generator was located in the pump house down the hill by the stream, the generator on one side of the little shed, the pump on the other. We only ran the generator from time to time because it burned gasoline that had to be brought from the city and, of course, it would be turned off at bed time. That was often my job. It is dark, very dark when night falls in the mountains; especially if there is no moon. I would walk down the hill to the pump house because there was a light outside the door and while the generator was running the light illuminated the surrounding area. But as soon as I turned off the generator, the world became pitch black. And not only that; there was suddenly, at least in the imagination of an eight or nine year old boy, either a mountain lion or a bear or a murderer behind each bush or tree. I walked down the hill but I ran up the hill reciting Joshua 1:9 all the way: “Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” I recited that verse a lot in my growing up years! And here I am today with nary a scar from an encounter with a wild beast or criminal intent on doing me bodily harm. This is a text that works!

That there was something necessary about this exhortation to be strong and courageous is indicated not only by the fact that it is repeated three times in these nine verses, but as well by the fact that Moses exhorted Joshua with these very same words, “be strong and courageous,” three times in Deut. 31 (vv. 6, 7, and 23).

The reason that Joshua and Israel must be strong and courageous would, at first glance, seem to be that the land is populated by strong and warlike peoples; that there were a number of walled cities, by definition not easy to conquer. Israel would have to win battles and battles with people whose reputation had gone before them. When the spies reported back after their foray into Canaan, you remember, ten of those twelve men, and those would have been brave men, strong men, the warrior type of men, I say ten of those twelve men had concluded that the Canaanites were simply too much for Israel. Some of that fear, some of that insecurity no doubt remained in the back of Joshua’s mind and the minds of the people.

But the emphasis here instead falls on the importance of obedience to God. The Lord will give Israel the land. The people of the land shouldn’t be Israel’s concern. Obeying the Lord is going to be what tells the tale. It isn’t the resolve of the Canaanites to defend their lands against an invader or their military prowess that should be Israel’s concern. The Lord says in v. 5: “No one shall be able to stand against you.” No; what should concern Joshua and Israel is Israel’s own potential lack of resolve to be faithful to the Lord, to keep his commandments, and to be holy as the Lord is holy.

Note the repetition of this command to be strong and courageous in vv. 6 and 7. “Be strong and courageous,” in the first instance, seems to refer to the requirement of courage in battle. Don’t be afraid of your enemies because the Lord will give them into your hand. That is the point there. But in v. 7 “Be strong and courageous” refers explicitly to Israel’s obedience to the Law of Moses. In this way the Lord relates Israel’s resolve in taking the land from its powerful inhabitants to Israel’s resolve to keep the commandments of the Lord! [Hawk, 13]

The Promised Land would be a gift of God, to be sure. As we are going to see as we read through the book, the Lord will fight for Israel and it will be the Lord who defeats her enemies. But, as with many of God’s gifts, to receive them requires commitment, loyalty, faithfulness, and obedience on our part. You know Maltbie Babcock as the author of the beloved hymn This is My Father’s World. He has another poem, the first verse of which reads:

   Be strong!
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift;
We have hard work to do, and loads to lift;
Shun not the struggle — face it; ‘tis God’s gift.

God gave Israel the land by leading her into battles he enabled her to win!

Some Israelites soldiers would die in battle, to be sure. Others would be wounded. The Lord’s promise to give Israel the land was not a promise to give it to her with no effort or sacrifice required on her part. We are not given the statistics of Israelite killed and wounded. No doubt there were many fewer of them than Canaanites killed and wounded in the many battles that the conquest of Canaan required. But, still, battles had to be fought. And in those days, battle was hand to hand. You went into battle afraid — almost anyone would — afraid of the soldiers coming to meet you; afraid of the spear point, of the sword; afraid of death. Be strong and courageous makes perfect sense, does it not, as advice to the commander and his army as they are about to take on a resolute and warlike enemy?

We, of course, are not poised to conquer a foreign land. We are not facing hand to hand combat as Joshua and Israel were at this moment in their history. The question comes naturally: does this exhortation to be strong and courageous apply to us today? Are you and I being given the same orders that Joshua and Israel were given as they prepared to cross the Jordan into Canaan? Of course we are! We are as much in need of strength and courage as they were. We too have adversaries, obstacles to overcome. We too are often beset with fears. We too need to remember that God is with us. And we certainly need to remember how vital it is for our success and our prosperity in life — as the Bible defines success and prosperity — that we keep the commandments of God.

Consider the Christians to whom the letter to the Hebrews was first addressed. They weren’t military men. They weren’t planning an invasion. They hadn’t to be bucked up in the prospect of facing a powerful enemy in hand to hand combat. But what does the author write to them?

“…for he [that is the Lord] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” [13:5-6]

Does that not sound very much like what we read here, both the exhortation not to fear and the reasons for it? “For thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

Think of all the things we fear and the things we fail to do because we are afraid. We do not open our mouths to say something about the Lord or his salvation because we are afraid of what others may think of us. There is a wonderful testimony in the most recent number of Christianity Today. A Mormon woman, a professor of education at BYU, had raised her children to be faithful Mormons. Her son, like many loyal Mormon young men went off on a two year mission. But three weeks before his two year stint was to end, he was sent home, something his mother says was “a horrible disgrace in Mormon culture.” He had been reading the New Testament and in that reading he had encountered a different Jesus than the one Mormonism had taught him. “To a roomful of missionaries at his parting testimony, [this young man] had professed faith in Jesus alone and not in the Mormon Church.” It did not go over well. He was expelled from the church. His family prevented his excommunication by hustling him on to a plane out of Utah. But as he boarded the plane he pleaded with his parents, “Please read the New Testament.” They did and the rest, as they say, is history. [CT (December 2013) 79-80]

That young man was strong and courageous, was he not, to open his mouth to confess Jesus Christ in a group that he knew would not take kindly to his words, when he knew full well that dire consequences were bound to ensure, even that he might bring disgrace down upon his parents. But that is but one way in which we can find ourselves afraid.

There are many others. We can be afraid to share our struggles with others; we fear that they will look down on us or perhaps resent us for asking them for time or support. We are afraid of missing out on something that we want and long for and so we spend our days and nights stewing. We are afraid of the unknown; of the future. Some of us fear for our children, for our health, for our marriage, for our job. We can certainly be afraid of other people and what they might do and how that might affect us or those we love. And of course, from time to time we fear God himself, not in the good way of reverence and awe, but fear his anger, his punishment, his becoming annoyed with or tired of us. And, of course, we are afraid of death. Virtually everyone, at least most of the time, is afraid of death and would rather remain in this world no matter how difficult or unhappy his or her life may be. As Achilles said to Ulysses when they met in the underworld;

“‘Say not a word in death’s favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” [Odyssey XI]

Is this not the way most of us think most of the time, if not all of the time? Add all of this up and add other fears and there is a great deal of fear in our lives. Christians may be told many times in the Bible that we should not fear, that we do not need to be afraid in these ways, but we struggle to be strong and courageous. It is natural for us to worry and to be afraid, precisely because the strength and courage that we read about in the opening verses of Joshua is an exercise of faith and to live by faith is very difficult, indeed it is the most difficult thing in the world, which is why so very few people do it well.

It takes faith to live in the serene confidence that God is with us when we can’t see him. It takes faith to believe that the only thing we really need to be concerned about is that we are faithful to God’s Word and law, that we live according to his will when there seem to be so many other things to worry about. It takes faith to believe that God will give us what we need according to the measure he thinks best, which measure must be best when we want so many things.

But as Joshua will dramatically remind us again and again, the Lord was with Israel; he did give her the Promised Land; she needn’t have feared the people of Canaan, for their armies were no match for the Lord of Hosts; and the only thing that proved to be of vital importance, so far as Israel’s success was concerned, was her obedience to God’s law! Her soldiers weren’t bigger, stronger, and faster than the soldiers of the Canaanite tribes. We never read that. Joshua wasn’t a much more clever general than the Canaanite armies had ever faced before. We never read that either. Israel’s weapons weren’t generations more advanced that those used by the Canaanites. We never read that. Everyone was using the same bows, spears, and swords. But Yahweh fought for Israel and against the Canaanites and that made the outcome of every battle a foregone conclusion.

I read the other day about a woman, an older woman, who drove her son’s car from Michigan to California to help him make a move there. It was Christmas time and the plan was that her husband would fly to California, meet her there, enjoy the holiday with their son, and then the two of them would fly home to Michigan. Just before she was to leave, however, she fell and broke her wrist. Despite the cast on her left arm, she decided that she could still make the trip and off she drove.

Several days later, she felt so tired that she pulled off the road and took a nap. Then shortly thereafter she stopped at a restaurant for a cup of coffee. At the restaurant a stranger approached her and asked if she were the woman who had been driving the Ford Explorer with Michigan license plates. She agreed that she was and he explained that a number of men had been looking for her. Somewhere in Indiana, near the beginning of her long trip, a truck driver had noticed the little white-haired lady with a cast on her arm driving down the highway. As the miles passed he had kept an eye on her — she was obviously traveling a long way and away from her home in Michigan — and when he left the highway he had radioed other truckers to take up the watch, and day by day, utterly unbeknownst to her, she had been passed on from one truck driver to another, each taking his turn looking out for the little white-haired lady with a cast on her left arm in the Ford Explorer with Michigan license plates.

When she had pulled off the highway to take a nap they had lost track of her and a number of drivers, alerted by radio, had been looking for her car. Finally one of them had spotted it in the restaurant parking lot. They had been near to calling the police! She had been blithely unaware that for almost her entire trip someone had kept her in view, indeed a small army of someones. She hadn’t been alone at all, though she didn’t know it. What a perfect picture of us so often; unaware, or at least unconscious of the fact that someone is looking out for us and that we are not alone.

Look. The Lord has made many great and precious promises to us and he is as good as his word. We took note last time of the fact that he fulfills his promises in his own time and that we must wait and sometimes wait a long time for their fulfillment. But not one of those promises has ever failed and many of them, even the most utterly unlikely promises, humanly speaking, have been magnificently fulfilled, once and for all. Israel did gain the Promised Land, an utterly unlikely thing when that promise was first made to Abraham six hundred years before. The Messiah did come. He did suffer and die for our sins. He did rise from the dead. He did return to his Father. And surely, after all of that, who can doubt that he will come again to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

What is more, he is with us always wherever we go. The Lord promised Joshua that; he reiterated it many times in those portions of his Word written after Joshua.

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day…” [Psalm 139:7-12]

And so important is that divine presence with God’s people and so important is it that they know it and remember it, that Jesus himself made a point of emphasizing it by making it one of the last things he said to his disciples.

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It is not our inheritance to live in fear, brothers and sisters, but to live in the confidence of God’s presence with us, the certainty of his promises, and the simplicity of our lives; that is, all we have to worry about is being faithful to the Lord by keeping his commandments. He’ll do the rest.

People are usually either sympathetic or strong. They are rarely both at the same time. But what those who are afraid crave are both those things at once. What the Lord gives us, but only he, is both sympathetic companionship, on the one hand, and the help we need. So “be strong and courageous” finally means simply live like someone who has the Lord at his or her right hand, the Lord of promise and the Lord of power!