This is the sort of passage in the Word of God that isn’t very often preached by ministers nowadays, but I hope I can show you how wonderfully relevant it is to our daily lives.
The first great battle against the southern states of Canaan was a divine triumph, as the Lord fought for Israel and routed the five city confederation that had attacked Gibeon. The remainder of chapter 10 narrates the immediate aftermath of the battle of Beth-horon and then the conquest of the rest of southern Canaan.
Joshua did not want the rout of his enemies to be left incomplete because the army had stopped its pursuit to deal with the five kings. The kings could wait.
The idiom, “no one sharpened his tongue” is a way of saying that there was no one left in this part of Canaan who dared oppose Israel. [Howard, 253] It is possible, however, that the idiom should be read, “No Israelite suffered so much as a scratch in the fighting.” [Hubbard, 299]
What Joshua had his commanders do was neither an act of barbarism nor machismo. Joshua knew Israel all too well. He had accompanied this people from Egypt to the Promised Land. He had personally witnessed Moses’ struggle to buck the people up when virtually every obstacle caused their faith to sag. He was reminding them, in a very memorable way, of the certainty of victory so long as they continued to trust in the Lord. One commentator calls the act of putting their feet on the necks of these captured kings a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of the total victory to come. We might suppose that three smashing victories in a row would have put that beyond doubt, but no reader of the Bible and no one seeking to live the Christian life in the Devil’s world thinks that three victories are enough, no matter how smashing. [Davis, 90-91] The encouragement that Joshua gave his men in v. 25 is the same encouragement the Lord had given him on several occasions to this point, including in v. 8, just before the Beth-horon battle.
You may remember that this same image of the foot on the neck of the enemy is used of the Messiah’s conquest of his enemies. In Psalm 110:1 the Lord says to “my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’”
As we pointed out in a previous sermon, this language of complete extermination is hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. There are various indications in the text itself that we are not to take this language literally and one of them is the statement earlier in the chapter, in v. 20 that the survivors of the battle with this five city confederation returned to their towns. Joshua will encounter those survivors in vv. 31-37. Indeed, the reference in v. 28 appears to be to soldiers, not to the population in general. Later in v. 40 we are going to read that Joshua devoted to destruction all that breathed in southern Canaan. But we are going to learn subsequently in Joshua and Judges that there were significant numbers of Canaanites still left in southern Canaan. [Provan et al (eds), Biblical History of Israel, 153] What Joshua had done and what he described in a typically ancient near eastern way, was to break the back of the military power of the Canaanite states and make them subservient to Israel.
The battle at Gibeon and Beth-horon is the last which is reported in any detail in the book of Joshua. The impression is that the rest of the cities of Canaan fell like dominoes and Israel swept aside what opposition the Canaanites could muster.
In the following verses we will read of seven Canaanite cities or towns that Joshua defeated to complete the conquest of the southern part of Canaan. The fact that there are seven cities named may mean that this account is a summary only and that that there were other battles as well. These seven, in other words, stood for the entire campaign. Later, in chapter 12, we will read of four other southern cities that Joshua had taken, but which are not mentioned here in chapter 10. [Howard, 256] They were hardly the only cities in that area, even the seven together with the four, but having defeated them all, he had broken the back of Canaanite resistance. Israel had not yet “possessed” this land, that is, she did not yet occupy these places, but she had “taken” the land. She had gained military mastery of it.
It is also interesting that two of the five cities that had come against Gibeon are not mentioned here: neither Jerusalem nor Jarmuth. We know that Jerusalem was a formidable fortress and Joshua apparently by-passed it to concentrate on easier targets. It would not be conquered until David did so centuries later. So Joshua’s campaign like other military campaigns was shaped in some part by strategic and tactical considerations.
An interesting historical detail. We do not read here that Joshua took the city of Gezer, only that he defeated its army. In 16:10 we will read that the Israelites had not dislodged the Canaanites living in Gezer and in Judges 1:29 that the Canaanites at Gezer continued to live among the Israelites.
One of the reasons for all of this repetition, of course, is that almost everyone until comparatively modern times heard the Bible, they did not read it themselves and this hearing was an impressive way of making an emphatic point.
Again, respect the hyperbole. In chapter 15 we will read of further efforts to subjugate Hebron and Debir, so these cities were not literally completely depopulated. But they were so defeated that smaller mopping up operations later would be sufficient to place Israelites in possession of these towns. It is the detail of Joshua itself that confirms this understanding of the book as historically accurate while written in the language common to accounts of conquest in the ancient near east.
Neither Kadesh Barnea nor Gaza had been mentioned in the previous account of the conquest of southern Canaan. Gaza was a Philistine city that was not conquered and did not come under Israelite domination until the days of David. [Howard, 261]
This Goshen is not the area of the Nile delta where Israel had lived during her sojourn in Egypt, but a town and area in southern Canaan. [cf. 15:51]
Israel had now won three battles with a minor setback in between. And she had not simply won the battles; she had destroyed her enemies with divine assistance obvious to everyone: the walls of Jericho had fallen, leaving the city open to Israelite attack and a hailstorm had destroyed the fleeing army of the confederation that had gathered to attack Gibeon. We wonder why any further battles were necessary. Why didn’t the Canaanite cities simply sue for peace and negotiate the best terms they could get from the conquerors? That’s what the Gibeonites did and after the battle at Beth-horon, one would have thought it obvious that such a treaty was the Canaanites only hope. In chapter 11:19-20 we read that no city but those of the Hivites — that is Gibeon and its three related towns (9:17) — made peace with the Israelites. The statement strongly suggests that such peace-making was a possibility, but no other Canaanite state sought safety by that means. No, as it happened, the conquest of Canaan took a great many battles; indeed so many battles that it would be better described as a war. It lasted for a long time and when it was effectively won and the issue had been settled there was still fighting that had to be done.
But, remember, the narrative of the conquest in Joshua is, at the same time, a narrative of salvation and of the Christian life. The rest of the Bible teaches us to think of it that way. It looks back to this history again and again to draw lessons for the life of faith. The principles on display in the conquest are the principles of Christian experience and the way of salvation. And the fact is no Christian has only to win a few battles before the world, the flesh, and the Devil capitulates. Far from it! It is battle after battle after battle. And they don’t necessarily get any easier as time passes.
Indeed, the Christian life is more like the conquest of Canaan than we may realize. The early battles were the easiest. The walls of Jericho tumbled of their own accord and the confederation of five cities suffered greater loss from the hailstorm God sent than from the Israelite army. And so it is for many Christians. J.I. Packer describes it this way, perhaps with an insight shaped by his own experience as a new Christian college student in England in the early 1940s.
“…God…is very gentle with very young Christians, just as mothers are with very young babies. Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy, striking providences, remarkable answers to prayer and immediate fruitfulness in their first acts of witness; thus God encourages them and establishes them in ‘the life.’
I have seen this myself in the life of young Christians. Walls tumble down before them, or so it seems, a miraculous hailstorm levels the obstacles in their path. Some of you, I know, remember such times early on in your Christian lives. But Dr. Packer continues,
“But as they grow stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school. He exposes them to as much testing as they are able to bear — not more…but equally not less… Thus he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to help others. … Thus he glorifies himself in our lives, making his strength perfect in our weakness.” [Knowing God, 246]
Some television preacher may take your money by convincing you that if you do this or if you give that all your problems will disappear and your Christian life will become a pleasant stroll instead of a difficult climb, but the Bible has a different message. It talks of the many tribulations through which we must pass to enter the kingdom of God and of the implacable enemies that we must face along the way, and of unending battles. The easiest part for Israel was at the first, when she marched into Canaan on dry land, and when Yahweh did much of her fighting for her. But then she was left to fight in the more normal fashion. No more tumbling walls; no more hailstorms. Just battle after battle; and battles, no doubt, with casualties. Even if we take the idiomatic statement in v. 21 to mean that no Israelite soldier suffered so much as a scratch — perhaps not the most likely interpretation — that statement would in all likelihood be the same hyperbole as the statement that nothing that breathed was left alive in southern Canaan. These were battles were fought the way battles were fought in the ancient near east — hand to hand combat — in which men were wounded and men were killed. Even if the casualties were vastly larger on the Canaanite side, even smashing victories have their casualties.
Take a lesson from the world and the life of mankind. Surely you notice this. We are ever searching for the solution to our problems on this planet and ever failing to find it. Things never really get better, do they?
The First World War led inexorably to the Second World War. The Second World War was not well and truly won before the allies fell out and the Cold War began. Violence continued to be a way of life all over the world as a host of smaller wars replaced the one big one: not only in Korea and Vietnam, but in many conflicts less well known but just as vicious. As soon as the Cold War was over the scourge of terrorism befell the world. Think of Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan today. Is the world getting safer? Happier? Who thinks so?
In the prosperity and relative peace of American life, we must remind ourselves of how many people in our world today live in fear of others. How many are desperately poor. How many are hungry. And what of us, who enjoy what for most people in the world today is unimagined plenty and comfort? Look what is becoming of Western Europe and the United States. These societies are committing suicide before our very eyes. Feckless politicians, a corrupt media, a pandering entertainment industry, a compromised academy and a decadent population that clamors only for bread and circuses have together produced a society that no longer can summon up the will to live or the wisdom to do so. Birth rates are plummeting. I read the other day that if fertility rates continue to be what they are, by 2050 (just 35 years from now) — there are people in this sanctuary who will still be young adults in 2050, if the fertility rates hold — two out of every three Italians and three out of every four Japanese will be elderly dependents. [David Goldman, How Civilizations Die, ix] There is precious little to suggest that those birth rates can be reversed. Governments have been trying everything they could think of to reverse them and nothing has worked. As Christianity has collapsed in Europe and as modern social life has transformed Japan, people have lost interest in the future. It no longer matters to them. And people with little or no hope for the future do not have babies. And it is hardly only Italians and Japanese. Their birthrates aren’t as bad as some other countries. All of Europe, parts of Asia, and soon North America will see steep population declines fundamentally alter our way of life and not for the better.
Does anyone, can any thoughtful observer of human life, observe our world and honestly say that we are on the cusp of a new day of peace, prosperity and social health? Such is human life. We stagger from one mess to the next, finding ever new ways to screw up our opportunities.
Well we Christians live in that world. And worse still, we have within ourselves sinful tendencies and affections that make living the Christian life a perpetual battle. And then there is the Devil. No wonder it is battle, after battle, after battle. No wonder the Christian life is described in the Bible as a war that must be fought to the death.
What we read in Joshua 10 is a description of the Christian life in this world: your life and mine. Put yourself in the shoes of one of those Israelite soldiers. He strode confidently into Canaan as he watched the waters of the Jordan River disappear before him. He witnessed the miracle at Jericho and then again at Beth-horon as Yahweh did much of his fighting for him. But then came the campaign in the south. Battle after battle, city after city; living off the land, eating what food could be found, watching some of his friends suffer wounds or die in battle. It got old very fast. Battle after battle took a lot out of a man. Not knowing if he would live or die, missing his loved ones, the realization that after this battle was finished there would be another tomorrow or the next day.
I’m sure you know that the stress of combat over time decreases the fighting efficiency of an army. Soldiers get physically and mentally tired. Their reactions slow. They have a harder time making decisions. In many cases there are more severe symptoms: sleeplessness, the shakes, and a paralysis of fear. The more missions bomber crews flew over Europe in in World War II or over targets in the Pacific the more likely they were to miss their targets. American air force commanders regularly spoke of their men as “war-weary,” or “punch-drunk.” One battle is one thing; but battle after battle, day after day, week after week, month after month is something else altogether.
I’m not sure there has ever been a Christian who has not at one time or another, and perhaps for certain periods of his or her life not been war-weary or punch-drunk. Those Israelite soldiers did not skip back into camp at Gilgal when the southern campaign was over. They were tired. They fell into their beds and slept for long hours straight. I suspect some of them were surly with their wives and short with their children as they only slowly relaxed and shed the stress of weeks if not months of constant combat.
The longer I have been a minister, the longer I have observed my own life and the life of others, the more convinced I have become that this is the principle problem we face in the Christian life. We can win a battle. We have won them. We have, most of us, if only we would realize it, won some great battles. But one battle, or two, or three, or four, or ten do not make a war. It is the long reach of the war that defeats us, or, at least, wearies us to the point of ineffectiveness.
It is this, I think, that explains the phenomenon, often illustrated in the Bible, of believers finishing their lives at a lower level of spiritual accomplishment and usefulness than they had once attained. Think of Isaac, or David, or Solomon, or Asa, or Hezekiah. But, more than they, you older Christians think of yourselves. Do you still have the zeal that you once had to serve the Lord, to bear witness in his name to the unsaved, to read his Word, to be faithful in prayer? I know that some of you do. But I know that not all of you do. You have, as Paul put it in 1 Cor. 15, grown weary in well-doing. Why? Because you’re tired! You are spiritually tired. The reservoir of your energy has been tapped and drained. The campaign of battle after battle has sapped your energy as a Christian. Sometimes you are just weary and find it easy to think much more about other things than the things of God and your calling to love and serve him. Other times you are punch-drunk and have a hard time concentrating on those very things that once were so important to you.
Tell me if this is not sometimes your situation. There are times in your life when you find yourself willing to do things you would never have done at other times. And there are times when you find yourself unwilling to do or uninterested in doing the very things that once were the things you lived to do.
You don’t deny that you shouldn’t do those things or that you should do those others, but the zeal isn’t there; the energy that you once had has been dissipated by the stress of life. If only those early battles had been the entire war; but they were not. And, the fact is, when we have finished with Joshua chapter 10 the entire northern part of Canaan is still yet to be subdued. Many more battles remained. This is the story of the Christian life, of every Christian’s life, told in the history of Israel and the conquest of the Promised Land. No more easy victories; no more sitting to watch while God himself wins the day. Now it’s your turn to fight battle after battle and when time for a short rest is found at Gilgal it is only to reequip and ready soldiers for the battles still to come.
Why must it be so? There has hardly ever been a Christian who did not at one time or another ask that question, often in tears. Why must the war go on so long; take up our entire lives in this world? Why are we never given time off? Why is there never an end to our enemies? Why don’t they just give up? Why is it that if I don’t fight and fight hard, so often I lose ground that has then to be made up in the next battle which carries me only as far as I once had reached? Who among those who love the Lord and has been a Christian for any length of time has not asked:
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
And who has not had to acknowledge the cowardice and the spiritual weariness that gave strength to the
sins that made thee mourn,
And drove them from my breast.
No one can say for sure, of course. God’s ways are a great deep and beyond our finding out. But it is clear enough in the Bible that it is in this constant battle that the Lord weans us from this world, strengthens our faith, and makes us more useful to his kingdom.
You know how it is. We love to make a baby laugh or to giggle. We love to see him that way, without a care in the world. And why not? All his needs are met by others with no real effort on his part required. He carries no burdens in his heart. He does not yet know how many responsibilities he will someday have to take up and discharge. He eats, he laughs, and then he sleeps. But we know it cannot last. And should not last. We want our babies to grow up. In fact we find it disgusting when adults act like babies.
So, whether we understand it or not this is our life. A life of constant battles, an entire life spent at war. It will be wearying. It will sap our strength. Our Savior was weary and even near to being punch-drunk from the constant battle of his life, the war he fought for your life and for mine. And the servant is not greater than his master. If they hated him — the world, the flesh, and the Devil — they will hate us also and make us fight even if their cause is hopeless. Indeed, some of the bitterest fighting in war regularly often comes near the end when the issue is no longer in doubt. Do you know that the Russian army suffered a million casualties in the battle for Berlin at the very end of the Second World War. If they can’t win, well, they might as well take as many as possible down with them when they go. As the Puritan Thomas Watson reminds us, there is no other way to take heaven but by storm.
Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair?
‘Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?’[You Christians have a rough life. Stop and smell the roses some time. Does it have to be that hard? ‘Always fast and vigil? Always watch and prayer?’]
Christian, answer boldly,
‘While I breathe I pray!’
Peace shall follow battle,
Night shall end in day.
Some instances of combat fatigue in your personal file are no cause for reproach or shame. It means you spent your life in the field and were in almost constant battle.
But now in blood and battles was my youth,
And full of blood and battles is my age,
And I shall never end this life of blood.
Matthew Arnold, Sohrab and Rustum
True enough. Not in this life. But, then, always remember: it is the Promised Land that is won with all those battles. The land of rest! And if we have to fight, as we do, let’s fight bravely and well, as they should whose God has promised that we will put our feet on the neck of all our enemies.
The greatest, the most disabling problem of human life, what cripples so much of human life and makes it so toxic to others, is that men and women are not conscious that they are going anywhere. It is a loss of the future that is sending birthrates plunging across the world. But not so for us who have faith in Jesus Christ. He has promised us a wonderful future, surpassingly wonderful. If a war must be fought to get there, so be it. No one will ever regret a single wound, a single scar once he or she is there!