The conquest of southern Canaan having been completed, Joshua looked to the north. But before he could embark on his own invasion, he was threatened by a second coalition of Canaanite kings, this one deploying a much larger army than Israel had yet faced.
A brief review of the geography of Palestine. Along the Mediterranean coast is a largely flat coastal plain. That plain rises to the east into foothills called the Shephelah. The hill country gives way to the central mountain spine of Palestine running north and south. Jerusalem is located in that mountainous center of the country. Further to the east the land falls away into the Jordan Valley, the deep rift in the earth’s surface that continues southward far into Africa. The Sea of Galilee, here called Chinneroth (which is fed from the waters coming off of Mount Herman to the north), the Jordan River (which both flows into the Sea of Galilee from the north and out of it to the south), and the Dead Sea are found from north to south in that great rift valley. Across the Jordan to the east is the Arabah, which rises again toward hills. The Canaanites that gathered to repel Israel, in other words, came from all parts of the country. That’s the point the narrator is making. Hazor, the most important of these northern cities, lay some eight miles to the north of the Sea of Galilee. It was a very large town by the standards of the day with a population estimated to be approximately 40,000. It was probably the largest city in Canaan in those days. It sat astride the Via Maris, the main highway leading from Egypt to Syria and Mesopotamia. As one modern study of the archaeology of Hazor put it: “Hazor is like a fat spider in a wide strung web.” [Hubbard, 324] In other words it was perfectly located for influence.
This particular hyperbole, a number like “the sand on the seashore,” occurs frequently in the Bible as you know. Israel had neither horses nor chariots.
Scholars locate the “waters of Merom” in various places, but always not far from Hazor.
Horses were hamstrung to render them useless for military purposes.
Once again, God’s promise of victory did not deter Joshua from using sound military strategy. He surprised the Canaanite force by attacking when and, perhaps, from a direction they were not expecting. It is quite likely that Joshua attacked in such a way as to mitigate the danger posed by the enemy’s chariots. Chariots are of little value in hill country. In fact we have records of ancient armies having to disassemble their chariots and carry them on the backs of donkeys and so on through the hill country. But in any case the sovereign God usually brings about the desired result not in some supernatural way but in and through his people’s own plans and efforts.
The Canaanite army broke apart and scattered under the force of the Israelite attack and so parts of the Israelite army had to chase the fleeing Canaanites in opposite directions. Sidon was to the west on the seacoast; the Valley of Mizpah was probably located to the northeast.
Hazor was burned but the other cities were not, understandably as Israel intended to occupy those cities. Why destroy what you intend to make your home? Yahweh had promised Israel, if you remember, “large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.” [Deut. 6:10-11] Only three Canaanite cities are said to have been burned: Jericho (6:24), Ai (8:28), and Hazor.
As further demonstration of the fact that this language is hyperbole and not to be taken literally in Judges 4:2 we read of another Jabin, king in Hazor, who again troubled the Israelites. Jabin is probably a dynastic name for the kings of Hazor, as Pharaoh was for the kings of Egypt or Ben-Hadad was for the kings of Syria. [Howard, 265] The population of Hazor was obviously not completely exterminated.
The particular commands that are referred to here are the commands to decimate or expel the native population of Canaan. As we have already argued, people nowadays imagine that such a thing should not have been done, that they are kinder and more just than God himself; but what they prove instead is that they haven’t a clue what real holiness is and know little of the sinfulness of sin. [Davis, 99] God had been very patient with the Canaanites, 450 years’ worth of patience, but theirs was a culture that deserved to be destroyed. They got what they deserved; nothing more or less.
The point here is that Joshua was scrupulously faithful to the Law of God. No one can obtain the Promised Land by his or her own effort, but those who follow the Lord into the Promised Land will have served him along the way! This is what Israel’s leaders and kings — as so many Christians since — so often forgot. What marks a faithful leader is “not the size of his chariot force, the number of females in his harem, or the presence of peacocks in the royal zoo, but an obedience to God’s commandments that leads God’s people to be faithful.” And so with the individual believer. Faithfulness and obedience to God is the mark of success in life, not the size of one’s bank account, or one’s fame, one’s influence. The Lord Jesus himself is the preeminent example of this: a poor man who spent his days and nights doing what pleased his father in heaven (John 8:29). [Davis, 99]
What follows in the remainder of the chapter is a summary of the conquest, both north and south.
That is from the southernmost to the northernmost part of Canaan.
In other words, while there was still some fighting to do, as we will learn in chapter 13, largely the mopping up pockets of resistance, the Canaanite military power had been broken and Israel was now in command of the land as a whole.
It was the Lord’s will to punish the Canaanites and that is what he did with the Israelite army as his instrument.
If you remember, the Anakim were also called the Anakites. Im is the plural masculine ending for Hebrew nouns. One seraph, two seraphim; one cherub, two cherubim. The Anakim were fierce warriors whose reputation had cowed the Israelites forty years before, unnerving them and making them unwilling to enter the Promised Land. Here their defeat is reported as a mere afterthought. With the Lord helping Israel, the Anakim weren’t so ferocious after all.
It had taken some time, as we read in v. 18, but the war had now drawn to a close. The fighting by large armies was over. What remained was mopping up the remaining pockets of resistance.
The great battle to determine the outcome of the Israelite invasion of Canaan was about to begin. The southern coalition had been a significant force, but nothing like the one gathered at the waters of Merom by the king of Hazor. That point is made explicit at the outset. The coalition that came against Joshua was immense. The term “much, many, or great” occurs three times in the Hebrew text of v. 4 and then the size of the Canaanite army is further emphasized by the phrase “like the sand on the seashore.” What is more, it was not only a huge force that came against Israel, it was well equipped. This was what today we would call a “modern” army. They had chariots, the ancient equivalent of tanks, which Israel did not have. This is the first mention of horses in the book and it reminds us of the command that Yahweh had given to Moses in Deut. 17:16. In anticipation of Israel’s someday having a king, we read that
“…he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses…”
The point was that neither Israel nor her leaders were to rely on military might or armament rather than on the Lord. Nor did they need to because, no matter the seeming might of the force arrayed before him, Joshua Israel swept aside the great Canaanite host and chased them as they fled in all directions. Indeed, the terse statement in v. 10 that Joshua captured Hazor and struck its king with the sword, given the size and importance of Hazor in those days, is a strikingly emphatic understatement. The greatest city of Canaan was summarily rendered a ruin. [Hubbard, 328]
Then the same point is made at the end of the chapter. In Numbers 13 we read of the report the twelve Hebrew spies after their return from a tour of the land of Canaan. It was the Anakites or Anakim who had particularly unnerved them. They were stronger and taller than the Israelites and in a day when combat was mostly hand to hand that was significant — “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Num. 13:33) — and their reputation as fierce warriors had gone before them. What is more they lived in cities with towering walls. “Deuteronomy 9:2 quotes a saying about the Anakites: ‘Who can stand up against the Anakites?’” [Howard, 275] It’s an adage; a rhetorical question.
The obvious lesson of the account of the battle of Merom, its aftermath, and the summary conclusion of the conquest of Canaan, is that the forward movement of the kingdom of God is irresistible and that the best the world can muster in defense of its own kingdom will be of little use to them when the Lord is in the battle. That being so, it is the calling of the Lord’s people to be confident, assured, and faithful and so to be fit to be useful in the onward march of the kingdom of God and the story of the world’s salvation.
As we have said now repeatedly, the history of Joshua provides a pattern for the history of the Christian church as it provides a pattern for the history of the life of any individual Christian man or woman. The people of God and each one of us obtains the Promised Land as Israel did, at least in principle and according to the pattern that is illustrated in the history of the conquest of Canaan. We are reminded of that once again at the end of the chapter with the narrator’s remark about the land finally being at rest. “Rest” is a term the author of Hebrews will take up when in his chapter 4 he likens to heaven to Israel’s rest in Canaan and teaches us that the only way to that rest is a life of persevering faith in Jesus Christ.
We too, after all, have overwhelming enemies, like the great horde assembled by Jabin, king of Hazor. Humanly speaking it has seemed to generations of Christians simply impossible that their church and faith would prevail against the opposition arrayed against it, but what we learn in Joshua 11 is that appearances are often deceiving and in nothing more so than in this! With God helping us, foot soldiers are better than tanks!
Think of our present situation in the western world today. Secularism is triumphant in our culture. No public figure invokes the Word of God or urges us as a people to seek his favor. All our social and political problems are discussed without reference to God or his Word or his will. Generation after generation of American young people, educated in an academy that is overtly hostile to the Christian faith, has either lost its faith or privatized it to avoid embarrassment or worse. Our popular culture, dominated by media that has made an idolatry of the autonomous self, is toxic to Christian faith. There is no fear of God before their eyes. Abortion and pornography have become our culture’s sacraments. The numbers of committed Christians are comparatively smaller than they once were. Many pundits have already written the obituary of evangelical Christianity in the western world. It has utterly lost its prestige. It is now commonly the object of open derision in the public square which it never would have been a generation ago. What chance has the individual believer? What chance has the Christian church against forces as powerful as those and as unrelenting as these? Who can stand against the Anakim?
But it is important for us to know and to remember how this has been repeatedly the story of the people of God and the gospel in the world. It has faced overwhelming odds but, by the power of God, it has triumphed and triumphs still. True enough, there have been setbacks, temporary failures, trials and tribulations — all necessary for the spiritual discipline of God’s people, for the judgment of the nations, and to fulfill the inscrutable purposes of the Almighty — but still the kingdom advances and the enemies of God are punished. It is the story of this world.
An important part of my work is continually to center your lives in the larger narrative of world history as the history of the kingdom of God. We must never forget that our relatively small and seemingly insignificant lives are part of a much larger story. We know little or nothing of the thousands of soldiers who made up Joshua’s army, who swung swords and who threw spears that day at Merom, but en masse they routed the Canaanites and, in doing so, changed the course of world history. Nothing is more certain than that the Lord will build his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and that he will use his people to accomplish that feat, as he did here. What happened at Merom has happened literally thousands upon thousands of times in events both large and small in the years that have passed since that day.
Think for a moment. Israel entered the history of the world a single ancient near-eastern family, a husband and his wife, Abraham and Sarah. He wasn’t a king or one of the world’s great men. Indeed, the descendants of Abraham were eventually enslaved in Egypt for several centuries. But, by the power of God, escaping their bondage there they took possession of Canaan from a population far more numerous than they. This was an utterly remarkable development, one of the most unlikely things that ever happened in the history of the world and who can deny that the conquest of Canaan, and all that happened as a result of it in the centuries that were to follow, would eventually turn the world upside down? The survival of the Jews as a distinct people through the three millennia and more from that time to this is certainly one of the most extraordinary facts of human history. Where are the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites today? Who, who does not have a Bible in his hand, has ever even heard of those peoples? We all have heard of Jerusalem, but does anyone know where Hazor used to be? And where is any other of the ancient peoples of the world? The Egyptians of today are now a mixture of peoples who washed back and forth over the territory of ancient Egypt in the centuries since. You can still hear Hebrew being spoken today, but the only place where even an echo of the ancient Egyptian language can still be heard is in the worship service of the Coptic Christian church.
After exile and subjugation, after centuries of anti-Semitism and violent persecution, still the Jews, the direct descendants of the people who defeated the Canaanites at Merom, exist as a distinct people and still, no matter their small numbers, they sit today in the center of world politics. No matter what one thinks of the modern Jewish state or the remarkable circumstances that brought it into being in 1948 — Paul Johnson says in Modern Times that “Israel slipped into existence through a crack in the time continuum” –, it is passing extraordinary that the Jews today have their own state in the same territory that Joshua occupied in the 14th century B.C.
Voltaire once asked: “Why should the world be made to rotate around the insignificant pimple of Jewry?” But in asking the question he was as much as acknowledging the remarkable and unique place the Jews have occupied and still today occupy in the world. Why indeed except because God himself has a special interest in that people and has kept them alive for the sake of that interest. Frederick the Great is supposed to have asked his court chaplain, “Herr Professor, give me a proof of the Bible, but briefly, for I have little time.” The chaplain replied, “Majesty, the Jews.”
I don’t mean to say that the Jews today as a people believe in the Lord as they did in Joshua’s day. Alas they do not. But Paul makes a point of saying that the Lord has not forgotten them and that they will remain to the end of history precisely because God has plans for their ultimate salvation. When God intends for a people to be preserved, they are preserved. Do you realize how remarkable all of this is and what an obvious lesson it teaches? Kings and peoples throughout the ages have attempted many times to exterminate the Jewish people and still they are here and important out of all proportion to their numbers.
And, of course, the history has been similarly remarkable and similarly unique in this same sense since Christianity continued the history of Israel as a spiritual commonwealth and people after Pentecost. When Paul called congregations of Gentile Christians, “spiritual Israel,” or “the true circumcision,” or “the Israel of God,” or when he spoke to Gentile Christians of the generation of Israel that came out of Egypt as their ancestors or forefathers, he was identifying the enlarged church of Jews and Gentiles together as the direct spiritual descendants of the nation of Israel that under Joshua took possession of the Promised Land. And the history of that Israel has repeated the pattern that we see in Joshua: the kingdom of God overcoming daunting opposition by the power of God.
We can think of any number of illustrations of the victory at Merom in the history of the church since. Think of the oppression and persecution that the apostles and the fledgling church suffered in the first years after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. It would have been the predictable outcome had the new movement come to nothing. They were few in number, they had no political influence or protection, they had no money, they were the object of bitter opposition by people in power, and they were saddled with a message that was ill-suited to the prejudices of their time, and yet, not only did their numbers grow steadily, but the Lord raised up for them out of the number of their bitter enemies a champion: a man who was to become perhaps the greatest man in the history of the world save one. Who the day before his encounter with the risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus could have or would ever have imagined that Saul of Tarsus would become himself a follower of Jesus Christ, much less that through his influence, the true faith of the Jews would become the faith of the entire world?
I remind you of this from time to time because it is something we must never forget: that a small movement of a few hundred Jews, a despised people in that day, should in a century be commanding the attention of the entire Roman world, that in another century should be dramatically re-shaping Greco-Roman life, and in still another century should have taken possession of that world is, humanly speaking, one of, if not the, most remarkable thing that has ever happened in the history of mankind. Every now and then one reads a scholar who steps back, who sees this history and wonders how in the world it ever happened. How extraordinary that the faith of a few Jews should come to dominate the world as it has.
And through the ages it has been the same. In 1948, when the missionaries were ejected from China after the communist revolution — an event that the entire western world of Christendom thought an unmitigated disaster, that Christianity was going to be stamped out in China — it was though that in 1948 there were 750,000 Christians in China. In the generation and a half since and in the teeth of ferocious opposition and persecution, 750,000 have become, by the Chinese government’s own reckoning 110,000,000, one-tenth of the population, and their number continues to grow as the rest of China’s population begins to decrease. What is that but Israel at the waters of Merom once again?
And after a century of missionary work in Africa, there were small Christian churches here and there, but nothing to suggest the tremendous surge in the Christian population of Africa over the past generation. According to every estimate, African Christianity is growing at utterly unprecedented rates. According to one Muslim cleric, some six million Muslims convert to Christianity ever year in Africa. [Goldman, How Civilizations Die, 224] That is Christian Africa’s battle of Merom. Do you know that it is predicted that by the end of this century there will be more Pentecostals than there will be Chinese in the world?
And we could go on and on. Whenever and wherever forces conspire to oppose the progress of God’s kingdom, to render the gospel of Jesus Christ a spent force in the world, to, as it were, drive the people of God from the Promised Land — remember Thomas Jefferson’s boast that there was not a young man living in the United States of his day that would not die a Unitarian — the Lord himself takes matters in hand to prove that he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Certainly not Thomas Jefferson and certainly not the Unitarians. There are still a few Unitarians here and there — mostly in New England, three little old ladies in a great big church — but what Christians worry that they will win the day?
What is true on the larger scale of lands and peoples, of the advancement of the kingdom, in the teeth of the opposition of the world and the Devil, is also true of the life of the individual Christian. Think about your own life. Perhaps you haven’t looked carefully at it in this light. Every Christian, if only he or she is honest, will think that his or her own salvation is the most remarkable victory that was ever won, a victory gained against terrible odds, a victory only God could win. You too were facing enemies that seemed utterly too much for you.
Think of your own black heart. You are all too familiar with it by now: how easily it runs to thoughts that are unworthy of your God and how hard pressed you are to keep it thinking thoughts that are worthy of him. Full of ingratitude, impurity, unkindness, selfishness; how boorish you can be inside; how stupid. Even knowing better hardly helps so much of the time! Think of how much you have taken God’s love for granted and how little it moves you as you know it ought to move you. Think of how little you have done with the gifts the Lord has lavished on you. Think of what your life ought to be in comparison with what it is. Loving God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself? Who are you kidding? With your heart? Have you had that much love for God or others even for ten minutes of your entire life?
Consider all the things that followers of Jesus Christ ought to do and ought to be. How often and to what extent are you such a person doing such things with anything like the commitment and the zeal and the courage with which they ought to be done? The enemy is not only encamped around you, he has a powerful, sizeable force encamped inside of you! Anakim indeed! Who can stand against them?
And yet, day after day, your sins are swept away by the grace and forgiveness of God because of the cross of Jesus Christ. Again and again the Spirit of God summons you to confess your faults, to face and acknowledge the universe of your shortcomings, and to renew your obedience. Still, after all that you haven’t done and didn’t become, you find yourself convinced of the truth of the Word of God, the beauty of the gospel, the supremacy of the person of Jesus Christ, and the goodness of that way of life to which you have been called. The ranks of the Canaanite chariots spread out before you, but still you plow ahead and they at last not only do you no serious harm, but must at last they must turn and flee. A foot soldier frightening a tank: the story of the Christian life.
There is a world of people out there who never confess their sins to God, never aspire to submit their lives to God’s law, and never think to judge their lives in terms of the service that they have or have not rendered the kingdom of the Lord Christ. But you do and you still do after all this while, after the worst the world, the flesh, and the Devil have been able to do to you. You are Christ’s and you will never be anything else but Christ’s. Indeed, there is still nothing in the world you desire more, sitting here this morning, than to be more completely his and to live more faithfully and usefully for his sake. You have served him, there are other lives that he has blessed through you, and together with your own hope of eternal life nothing gives you more satisfaction in your life than that. After all the great enemies of your soul have done, and they’ve done a lot, your life in Christ is untouched, as safe and sound. Triumph indeed! Every Christian at the Waters of Merom.
And all of that is true no matter that so many in your culture today scorn your faith or find it silly or even disgusting or evil. You remain a confident Christian no matter their scorn; no matter that television producers find your view of the world more than faintly preposterous. They batter your faith from every side, all day long and late into the night, and still you advance at Merom. The opposition is impressive, but at the last, it is all bluster. It cannot stop you and has not stopped you. It will kill itself before it kills you as it is already beginning to do.
If God is for us, who can be against us? That is the message of Joshua for every Christian today. It is a message that should nerve and steel us in our hostile environment, but it is also a message that should remind us how extraordinary a privilege it is to find ourselves Israelites when the Canaanites all around us have nothing with which to do battle against us except chariots in the hill country! This history is meant to put hair on our chests, to stiffen our backs, to put a spring in our step, and to strengthen our resolve to fight the Lord’s battles with courage and confidence.
Every Christian will be more than a conqueror through him who loved us. We are going to carry the day, you and I and the vast company of our brethren in this world. So let’s act like it. And to the unbelieving world let us say, kindly and compassionately, but as firmly as we can, “Take a look around you, survey the history of this world, you haven’t a hope of prevailing. Look around you. Be wise like the Gibeonites and join us.”