The first nine verses of chapter 1 consist of the Lord’s address to Joshua. The remainder of the chapter consists of Joshua’s address to the leaders of the people and their reply.
Joshua told the leaders what Yahweh had told him: viz. to prepare to cross the Jordan because the Lord was going to give Israel the land of Canaan. Like any good leader he made sure his leadership team and the people knew both the how and the why.
Actually Israel did not cross in 3 days; it took at least seven, as we will read in 2:22 and 3:2. The spies were delayed in their return from their intelligence gathering mission and perhaps that delayed the crossing. [cf. Howard, 91]
As you remember, when Israel conquered the lands east of the Jordan several tribes proposed settling there rather than in Canaan. Moses was willing to concede this but only on one condition: that the two and half tribes do their part to conquer Canaan before they returned to establish themselves in their own lands. This they agreed to do as we read in Numbers 32.
Vv. 13-15 are a virtual word for word citation of Deut. 3:18-20. So Joshua is telling them nothing but what Moses had told them before. There is clearly some ambivalence about this settlement east of the Jordan by some Israelites, as is indicated by the fact that we read that the Lord is giving Canaan to Israel, but Moses gave the land east of the Jordan to the two and a half tribes, though it is not denied that Yahweh also gave them those lands as we read in v. 13 and now again in v. 15. [Hawk, 15]
The text doesn’t specify who answered Joshua. It is more likely that it is not only the officers of the two and a half tribes but representatives of all the people, picking up the thread of v. 10. [Howard, 93]
The obvious question posed by the fact that some Israelites already have their inheritance is whether they will recognize Joshua’s authority when they have little to gain and much to lose by crossing the Jordan with their fellow Israelites. But their answer is emphatic. You can count on us! Of course, Israel had emphatically promised such obedience on previous occasions and had failed to deliver. Israel hadn’t obeyed Moses in all things as a matter of fact. The question is left hanging as the book begins: will Israel prove true to her word? Has she learned her lesson?
For the fourth time in the chapter we have the exhortation “to be strong and courageous,” the previous three were a statement of the Lord; here the people repeat the Lord’s exhortation.
We said, as we began our study of the book of Joshua, that the history of this book serves double duty. It gives us an account of what actually happened and how it was that Israel gained possession of the Promised Land; one of the most remarkable and influential events in all human history if you think about it. But it also reinforces a paradigm of understanding about salvation and the Christian life. Since the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, is in the Bible an embodied prophecy, or what is called a type, of heaven, and since pious Israelites themselves understood this, as we read in Hebrews 11, Israel’s entering the Promised Land became in the Bible a way of thinking about getting into heaven, about obtaining salvation. You have this way of thinking about this history in Hebrews 4. There too we hear of the “rest” that God will give his people, as here in vv. 13 and 15, a “rest” that the author of Hebrews explicitly identifies with heaven, with the final destination of believers. So, in short, Israel entering Canaan provides us with a picture of Christians entering heaven.
How does that happen? How do we enter the Promised Land? Well, we have already read that God must give us the Promised Land; that he has promised to give it, that he will defeat our enemies, that none of them can stand before him, and that he will be with us every step of our journey to the heavenly country. But at the same time, we read in the Lord’s opening speech to Joshua that there is also that which we must do, hence the emphasis on obeying the commandments of God and the thrice repeated: “Be strong and courageous.”
Now another part of the picture of how salvation happens is revealed. And in the later verses of chapter one the picture gets more complicated. We first hear the Lord tell us that he will give us the Promised Land, that he will fight our battles for us, defeat our enemies, and be with us all the way. Even with the emphasis on our obedience and the need to be strong and courageous we can be forgiven for thinking that gaining the Promised Land will be something of a cakewalk. The Lord will do what needs to be done and we will simply follow him up to and through the gates of the eternal city. Well, not so fast.
Only a few of you in the sanctuary today will remember a young man who came to us many years ago as a soldier at Fort Lewis. Pat Strubert, a Presbyterian fellow from St. Louis, was what used to be called a “soul-winner.” He hadn’t been at the fort for but a few weeks before he brought to church two young men from his unit. In due time both of those fellows made a profession of faith in Christ. In the language and imagery of Joshua, under Pat’s tutelage and with his encouragement, both of them decided to cross the Jordan with the people of God and enter the Promised Land. Both seemed genuinely excited about their new-found faith and began coming to church regularly, twice on Sunday and even Wednesday night.
But after a few months one of them began appearing less frequently. Pat told me that he was worried about him; that he didn’t seem as committed as he had been at first. He wondered if I might try to talk to him. I remember distinctly sitting in a Burger King on the fort having lunch with this fellow and talking about what it means to follow Christ and why it is so important to do so. But all he could see were the complications. He had begun reading the Bible but was struggling to make sense of it. He had friends who weren’t Christians who wanted him to participate with them in their weekend bar-hopping, something he had always enjoyed. And so on.
The other fellow who had made a profession of faith was going on from strength to strength. He was reading the Bible voraciously; he seemed to understand everything he read. We were noticing that after only a few weeks, he was praying on Wednesday nights like a Christian veteran, picking up the vocabulary, inserting the Bible into his prayers, and praying like he meant it. He later left the army and moved away, but through many years now he has remained a faithful Christian and I hear from him from time to time. He is today an officer in his church in Georgia. Some of you will remember Bill Bobb. But the other fellow gradually stopped coming altogether and soon we had lost track of him entirely. Sad to say, I cannot now remember his name.
To say that God will give us the Promised Land is absolutely true. He will give it to us; he must give it to us. But no one who has ever crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land did so without encountering complications along the way, complications serious enough to deter many from ever beginning the trip and deterring others from completing it. Our text, the second half of chapter one, identifies a variety of such complications, hardly all of them but a representative selection.
- There are, for example, the complications that arise because the instructions for our journey come from other people like ourselves; not from the Lord directly.
The Lord spoke directly to Joshua, but not to the people. They didn’t even hear what the Lord said to Joshua from Joshua, but from officers of the people who had heard it from Joshua. They were getting the Word of God third hand! And this was no ordinary word. It turned their lives upside down. They had to collect their belongings — or as much as they would take with them on the expedition –, they had to say farewell to their wives and children, in many cases unsure whether they would ever see them again (after all, they were heading for a series of battles, a war of conquest), and they had to summon up their own courage to face what lay before them. I’ve read enough of the history of war to know how men behave when about to go into battle, how nervous they become, how lost in thought, how determined to prepare their loved ones for the worst, and so on. Read a history of “D Day” and you will read about how many of these men going into battle for the first time spent time the day before preparing their insurance claim forms so that it would be clear who got the money in the event of their death. The Israelite army was not a professional army, of course; it was a host of amateurs as it readied to cross the Jordan River. All of those instructions came down the chain of command from Yahweh to Joshua to the officers to each individual soldier.
And like it or not, from that time to this, the Lord has chosen to speak through those delegated with the authority to speak on his behalf. He has, on purpose, inserted this human element in the direction of his people’s lives.
It is not our place to question the wisdom of God. No doubt he has perfectly good reasons for doing what he has done. Whether or not we fully understand those reasons is beside the point. But surely every thoughtful Christian has wondered from time to time if this were really the best way to do things!
We know very well that Israel had already by this time a long-standing problem with the exercise of divine authority by human beings. When God intervened and showed his hand, she cowered in fearful submission. But when Moses told her what the Lord demanded that she do, Israel found it easy to doubt that the Lord had demanded any such thing. Think of the times in the wilderness when the people rose up in rebellion against Moses but not explicitly against Yahweh. They wouldn’t do that; they couldn’t do that if God himself were speaking directly to them. But once Moses was inserted between they found it quite easy to believe that Moses might be mistaken or that his motives might be selfish or even that he might be lying to them about what the Lord actually said. It is harder to take difficult instructions from a mere man!
This phenomenon, as we know, would continue throughout Israel’s history. When the Lord revealed himself directly, immediately to his people they submitted immediately. But he did that rarely. For every demonstration of the Lord’s power and authority on the top of Mount Carmel, when he proved that Elijah was his prophet with lightning from the sky, there were thousands of times the Lord’s prophets were sent to tell the people the Word of the Lord. And we know how well that went; how often the people were unwilling to believe that the prophets were actually forwarding to them what Yahweh had said to the prophets. The OT history and the account of the ministry of the prophets that we have in their writings is the long, sad story of Israel refusing to believe that it was in fact the Word of God that was being proclaimed to them by Amos or Hosea or Isaiah or Jeremiah.
And the same has been true ever since. For long ages, of course, hardly anyone had his or her own copy of the Bible. They heard the Bible; they didn’t read it. And they heard it from preachers who then explained what it meant and what it required of them, as did the officers of the people here. They were like these Israelites who heard from their officers what the Lord intended for them to do and how they were to do it. But even after the Bible became available for every believer to read for himself or herself, still the Lord has continued to use the preaching and teaching of ministers and of other Christians as the primary means of communicating with his people. Preaching involves a mere man; an officer of the people as here. And what has come of that? Good preachers, bad preachers; faithful preachers, unfaithful ones; but all just men. Will God’s people hear his Word and obey it when it is delivered through ordinary human beings like themselves? That is precisely the unspoken question that looms over Israel’s future at the end of chapter 1!
Today it is no different. Still the Word of God is communicated by men, from human mouth to human ear, from human mind to human heart, sometimes well communicated, sometimes badly. And always the question is: will people heed that Word as from the Lord when it comes from a mere human being? Will they discern the difference between a true prophet and a false one? Will they heed the Word of God from the mouth of someone like themselves particularly when it contradicts the conventional thinking of their time and place or when it complicates their lives? The answer to these questions — fundamental as it would be to the conquest of the Promised Land and fundamental as it is today to the gaining of heaven — is at last the one real issue of human life. Will a mere human being be believed as speaking the Word of God: whether the preacher in the pulpit or the Christian bearing witness to an unsaved friend or the parent talking to his or her child?
Believe me, the world would be a different place if God spoke directly to everyone from heaven; if he eliminated the middle man. If God had been visibly present in that Burger King long ago, things would have gone differently! But he has not chosen to make this world such a place, nor has he chosen to guide his people to heaven by making himself visible to them or his voice audible to them. He has chosen to require faith of them and a large part of that faith is to heed his Word when it comes through another voice.
We tend to pass over this without much thought because we’re so used to it, but the great issue of faith and the greatest challenge of the Christian life lie in the difference between the first half of chapter 1 and the second half — between Joshua who heard Yahweh’s voice immediately and directly and the people who heard from others what Joshua said he had heard from Yahweh. The only way for us to live the Christian life is the way Israel had to live it as she crossed the Jordan, heeding the Word of God that had been repeated to her by others.
The genuinely amazing thing, one of the most amazing things in the world really, is that so many people recognize the voice of the Lord in the voice of another human being. Yahweh can cause his voice to be heard that way. I’ve heard him that way; you have too; indeed, it’s the only way we’ve ever heard his voice, is it not? But we have no doubt that it was his voice we heard. Still, this is very obviously a complication. Always has been; always will be. It makes being a Christian and living as a Christian more an act of pure faith, and that always makes it more difficult. That’s why there is so much attention to this as the opening chapter of Joshua closes. They promise obedience to Joshua as unto the Lord himself.
- Another complication is that on this journey we depend on others.
We are individualists in 21st century America. We don’t appreciate others telling us what to do. We feel strongly that each of us should be allowed to chart his or her own course. In some respects, fair enough. But the journey to heaven cannot be made alone. No one can get there without the help of others. This is a point that is taught everywhere in the Bible, but right here, at the beginning of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land it is made with great emphasis.
Not only must all the fighting men be mustered and readied for the invasion of Canaan, but all twelve tribes must be fully represented. Now put yourself in the place of one of those men from Reuben, Gad, or half of the tribe of Manasseh. Personalize the situation and apply it to yourself. You’ve got your piece of ground. Finally; you have a place to live, to raise your family, to build a life. You have waited forty years or, if younger, all your life, to acquire that piece of ground. You have all kinds of plans for your new farm. You are anxious to get going. In all likelihood it is already a farm, it has been taken from a conquered people, and it is now yours to build up and make prosperous. The land is fertile, productive. The future is bright for you and your family.
But now you are being required to leave it for who knows how long, even if you survive the battles to come. If you do not survive, your wife and children will have to go it alone and your farm may well end up the property of some other man and your wife may well become his wife and your children his children. How long will it be before you see them again? You have no idea. Canaan is a big place and it has to be conquered in its entirety. There are a number of fortified cities that will have to be taken. No simple task. The more battles to be fought the higher the odds become of injury or even death.
It isn’t as if there weren’t plenty of men in the other nine and a half tribes to carry the battle to the Canaanites. And if the Lord was going to give Israel the Promised Land and if none of her enemies would be able to stand against her, what do they need me for? You know human nature well enough from the experience of your own heart and the observation of others. Isn’t that the sort of thinking likely to be going through the heads of these men being called to war for the sake of others when they already have their inheritance? They were being asked to do more than the others — a common reality in the world of God’s grace — and it is not difficult for people to resent that, is it?
But no matter. Israel will take possession of the Promised Land together or she won’t take it at all. And so it continues throughout the history of the church ever since and so it has been for every individual pilgrimage to the heavenly country that has ever been made from Joshua’s day until our own. It is a trip made in the company of others because only with the help of others can it be done at all. That is how the Lord has organized salvation, like it or not.
Here too we find our complications. As someone has said, Christians are an acquired taste. But we are required not only to be and behave toward them all as brothers and sisters of the same family, but to help one another in all manner of specific ways, many of which ways require something in the way of a sacrifice of us. No one can fight alone the battles salvation requires. But how many times has it happened that our Christian life, our journey into the Promised Land if you will, has been complicated by the people we are making the journey with? We prefer to be alone; or we don’t like that much the particular Christians we know; or they don’t seem all that helpful to us; or they haven’t appreciated the help we have offered them. If you read the history of wars and battles you will find that a constant complication, an inevitable problem in obtaining victory is the difficulty soldiers on the same side have in getting along with one another, in working together, in trusting the chain of command, and so on. Internal disunity bedevils armies; always has, always will.
Had Yahweh been willing to go himself into Canaan, secure all the towns, pacify the countryside, eliminate the Amorite population, and then invite Israel to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land that would have made everything so much simpler. But that is not the Lord’s way. As Augustine put it long ago: “He who made us without us will not save us without us.” It is important to him not only that we participate in obtaining the Promised Land that he is giving to us, but that we do that together; helping, enabling one another. That is the Lord’s way of salvation.
We are going to find that this necessity of working together to take the Promised Land and of maintaining unity of purpose throughout the people of God will become an issue in Israel’s conquest of Canaan and, later, will become a constant problem and persistent complication in the fortunes of the people of God. Disunity will distract and weaken her again and again. Had the two and a half tribes refused to cross or grumbled the whole way across it would have demoralized the rest and weakened Israel as a fighting unit. And how many times has that happened! How many times have divisiveness and disunity distracted and demoralized the church and the Christians in the church; how many times has our internal squabbling, our inability to get along with one another, weakened the church’s testimony to the world? Our Savior said in John 17 that our loving unity would be the power of our witness; but how often has that not been the case! Voltaire in his day poured scorn on the Christian faith because there were so many warring churches, it was impossible to tell what Christianity actually was, though clearly it wasn’t a message of peace and love! But, like it or not, the Lord has made our togetherness, our unity, our sense of common purpose, and the help we give one another key to the obtaining of salvation, to finding our place in the Promised Land. We will never know how many have been lost because time and time again, as it were, the men of the two and a half tribes were, at the last, unwilling to cross the Jordan on behalf of the whole people.
There are, of course, many other complications that make our journey to the Promised Land more difficult than it might have appeared to be when first we became Christians. Some of them are at least hinted at here. There will be defections among us, as we are warned against in v.18. No one demoralizes an army more than the traitor in its midst. Further, there will be those among us who do not take heed to obey all the commandments of God. A bad example of half-heartedness or rebellion is a cancer that eats away at the morale of an army. Then there will be those who are not strong and courageous and whose cowardice or excessive caution weakens everyone’s resolve. We will encounter these complications and others as we read through Joshua.
The fact that there are complications that make the Christian faith and our efforts to take possession of the Promised Land more difficult can hardly be denied. As C.K. Chesterton observed long ago, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” And how many Christians have had occasion to observe, if in perhaps less arresting language than Samuel Rutherford used:
“I thought it had been an easy thing to be a Christian, and that to seek God had been at the next door; but, oh, the windings, the turnings, the ups and downs he hath led me through.” [Letter CIV, Bonar ed, 216]
It is these complications, is it not, that keep many from becoming Christians in the first place and keep many Christians from being and doing all they might for the kingdom of God? Why, after all, are we treated in the Bible to case after case in which a man, a real believer, finishes his Christian life at a lower level of spiritual life and achievement than that he had reached earlier on? Think of Isaac, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and others like them.
It was the complications, the difficulties, the challenges of the Christian life that wore them out; that distracted them; that discouraged them; that put them off their game. And what is the answer to that? How are we to avoid that? Well, we are to do and do again and again, what Israel did here. Say to the Lord:
“All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Only may the Lord be with us…then we will be strong and courageous.”
Don’t say that just once at the beginning of your Christian life and never again. Don’t say that once a year; say it again and again. “All that you have commanded us we will do. Wherever you send us we will go.” Say it to the Lord, say it to one another, and say it to yourself, again and again.
One of Napoleon’s marshals, his highest ranking generals, was asked by a citizen to justify the incredible generosity that Napoleon lavished on these senior commanders. They all became very wealthy men. This particular man, Francois-Joseph Lefebvre, had once been a sergeant in Louis XVI’s guard and had come up through the ranks; he had achieved his high rank by distinguishing himself in battle. He answered the peeved citizen’s question this way. “We shall go down into my garden, I shall fire at you sixty times, and, if you are still alive at the end, everything I have shall be yours.” [Cited in Paul Johnson, Napoleon, 112] We decorate soldiers precisely because bravery and heroism in battle is so necessary to obtain eventual victory.
Yahweh never said it would be easy. He never said sacrifices would never be required. He never said there wouldn’t be wounds taken in these battles. What he said was that he would give us the Promised Land and that none of our enemies would be able to stand before us! The complications may make the journey more difficult, but they also ensure that it is the more worth making, precisely because by rising to the challenge we honor the Lord who has given us such impossibly wonderful gifts.