THE PROMISES, PLANS, AND PRESENCE OF THE LORD
(1 of 4 in a series through Joshua)
Have you ever seen one of those shows or movies based around a legal case where everything looks like some man is guilty who claims he is innocent, and his lawyer is combing through files and all kinds of evidence when finally one piece of information turns up that sets everything right? The lawyer uncovers one truth that was hidden from everyone that when discovered all of the sudden makes sense of everything, completely wipes away the false narrative against the defendant, and sets all right in the world. I assume that real life legal trials rarely end in that fashion and even when they do don’t occur in nearly as dramatic fashion as they do in the movies. However, I think as we begin our study of Joshua this morning, that our text holds up some truths that are powerful enough to begin to help us rest and settle into a place of peace in life, even when things may seem to be spiraling out of control all around us.
This morning we begin a study through the book of Joshua at what I call an A-level outline, looking at the book from a higher altitude, if you will, and taking it in broad strokes. We will therefore work our way through this entire book in only four messages, beginning this morning with looking at chapters 1-5. But before we look at these powerful truths that we’re shown in these opening chapters of the book of Joshua, I want to give us a bit of an overview of the book itself and then the five chapters that we’re going to look at this morning.
Joshua picks up after the death of Moses, which is noted in the opening words of the book. As you’ll remember, under Moses Israel had refused to enter the promised land, unwilling to believe and act on the Lord’s promises. Therefore, the Lord judged that generation, letting them die off in the promised land. Now, even Moses himself has died, and the Lord has raised up Joshua to lead this next generation into the land. And that’s what happens in the book of Joshua. Many commentators note that you can divide the book roughly into two halves. In the first half (chs. 1-12) we have Israel conquering the land and driving out its inhabitants, while in the second half of the book (chs. 13-24), the land is divided and distributed among the tribes. Thus, the book of Joshua is about the conquest and division of the land.
In these first five chapters of the book (which we’re looking at this morning) we have all of the preparations before entrance into the land itself. So, let me walk us through these chapters quickly. In chapter 1 the Lord assures Joshua that he has given Israel the land, will be with Joshua that he will be with him on this mission to take the land, and, therefore, charges him to be strong and courageous. We see this, for example, as the Lord says to Joshua in 1:5-6, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.”
Chapter 2, then, tells the story of Joshua sending two spies into the land where they go into the house of a prostitute named Rahab, who is willing to hide the spies from the authorities in Jericho, deceive those authorities, and send the spies back to safety because she believes that Israel’s God is indeed the Lord and has given the land to Israel. In other words, she had the very faith that was lacking in an entire generation of Israelites. Thus, when Israel later conquers Jericho, Rahab and her family are spared, and Rahab ultimately becomes an ancestor of Jesus himself, as her line leads down to Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive earthly father.
In chapter 3, we read of the Lord miraculously bringing the Israelites across the Jordan River. He tells Joshua to have the priests carry the ark of the covenant (which represented the Lord’s presence among his people) and step into the river. Then, as soon as the soles of the feet of these priests rested in the water, the river would be cut off from flowing upstream, and the Israelites would pass through on dry ground. And that’s exactly what happened as we read in 3:17, “Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.”
Chapter 4 then records how the Lord instructed Joshua to have one man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel take a stone out of the river and construct a memorial that will forever be a reminder to the generations to come of the miracle the Lord did on that day as he dried up the Jordan River, even as he earlier had divided the Red Sea so that his people could escape Egyptian bondage.
And finally, chapter 5 tells us of this new generation of Israelites being circumcised, since they’d not been circumcised during the years of wilderness wondering, and of this figure arriving before Joshua as the commander of the Lord’s army, who seems to be the Lord himself because he both receives worship from Joshua and tells him that the place on which he was standing was holy ground, even as Moses had once been told from the Lord. Thus the last words of Joshua 5 are: “And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.” And that’s a summary of these opening chapters of Joshua as the people prepare to conquer the land. But as I noted, there are some life-altering, peace-giving truths that I want us to see from these chapters this morning, and the first is that:
The Lord our God is the main actor in our lives
This truth sets the stage for every other truth I want to note this morning. The Lord our God is the main actor in our lives. Now, I mentioned that commentators will note that the first half of Joshua is about Israel’s conquest of the land, driving out their enemies before them. But in some ways that’s misleading because one of the truths that is evident at the outset of this book is that it is the Lord who is giving the land, the Lord who is driving out the enemies of Israel, and the Lord who is simply the main actor at every step of this mission.
Throughout chapter 1 the land is continually spoken of as that which the Lord is giving to his people. The Lord tells Joshua, “Go over the Jordan . . . into the land that I am giving to them” (v. 2). He reiterates in verse 3 that everywhere his foot treads is land that God has “given to [him].” In verse 6, he tells Joshua that he will cause the people to inherit the land that, “I swore to their fathers to give them.” And this goes on and on and on (see, for example, vv. 11, 13, 15). Even Rahab says to the spies in 2:8, “I know that the LORD has given you the land,” and so the spies report back to Joshua, “Truly the LORD has given all the land into our hands” (2:24). Make no mistake about it, the taking of the land by Israel would really be the giving of the land to Israel by the Lord.
Even in the way they cross the Jordan, the Lord makes clear to send this message to the people. He has the priests carry the ark of the covenant (which, again, represents the Lord’s presence) 2,000 cubits in front of the people and enter the Jordan first, before the people, so that they might know “that the living God is among [them] and that he will without fail drive out” all the people of the land (3:10-11).
The Lord is making clear that he is the main actor in this drama of taking the land and that he is present at every step. That is what he had told Joshua in the first chapter, noting that he would be with him, would not leave him, and would not forsake him. That’s why Joshua could be courageous. The Lord was with him. In 1:9 the Lord reiterates, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” And finally (though we could note more), the Lord says to Joshua in 3:7, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.”
And we can certainly note that same reality in our own lives. After all, it is in the book of Hebrews that the author affirms to all believers that this promise of the Lord to Joshua, saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” is a promise to us as well (Heb. 13:5-6), which leads him to conclude that the Lord is our helper, so that we need not fear man.
So, this is the starting point I want us to recognize this morning in order to have some peace-giving truths settle into our hearts. The Lord is with you, and he is the main actor in the drama of your life. As Paul noted in Zephaniah 3:17, he is rejoicing over you right now in his gladness, loving you in his silence, and delighting over you with loud singing. But even within that, he is the one who is willing and working within you through his Spirit so that you both desire his will and are empowered to carry it out. Our God is not some distant Father who sits back and says, “Let’s see what you’re going to do with your life.” He is the God who is with you, acting, directing, and working all for our good. Now with that, let me provide two other truths that stem from this one that I think are extremely encouraging and comforting.
The Lord is doing more in your trying and difficult circumstances than you can see or imagine
Now, of course, I can say this simply based on Romans 8:28, where the Lord promises to work everything for our good, to conform us to the image of Christ. If that’s true, then we can affirm that the Lord is doing more in every trying and difficult circumstance than we can see or imagine. But we also see that truth reinforced in these chapters of Joshua. One of the reasons I wanted us to read from Exodus 14 earlier in the service was so that we might have in our minds the event of the Red Sea. And we remember the Lord dividing the sea, obviously. My guess is that if I were to mention the Red Sea, your first thought would be that the Lord divided it. And that’s true. But do you remember Israel’s first response to being backed up to the sea with Pharaoh’s army approaching? They saw it as their sure death. That is, prior to the Lord’s provision, for that moment, they saw their circumstances as being certain death. It was only a short moment, but nonetheless.
Then, later, as they were traveling toward the promised land, they sent word to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, “We just want to pass through the land. We won’t bother anything. Just let us pass through.” But he refused, and brought out his army. Israel defeated them, and went on to defeat King Og as well. But once more, life, though they were delivered, wasn’t exactly going as they anticipated. Trying circumstances seemingly presented themselves at every turn. In other words, the Lord was guiding them through trying circumstance after trying circumstance.
Now, we know how the Lord brought them through these trying circumstances. He miraculously divided the sea and empowered Israel to defeat Og and Sihon. But what I want us to recognize is that the Lord was doing more in that moment than Israel could see or imagine. In Joshua 2, as the spies come into Jericho, Rahab says to them that she is trusting in the God of Israel because she knows the Lord has given Israel the land. But why? What did the Lord use to bring her to faith? Listen to her words in 2:10-11, “For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.”
The Lord backed them up to the Red Sea, putting them, for a moment, in the most trying of circumstances. Why would go make it so hard, even if he was going to provide miraculously, why make it so hard? One reason is because he was sending a message ahead to a people in Canaan who felt they were safe from Israel because there was a river this people would have to cross if they were ever to attack them. And the Lord just parted the Red Sea. They knew they could fight, but the Lord had just led his people to conquer Kings Og and Sihon. It’s hard to rest in the protection of a river when you get word that the Lord has parted a sea.
Let this be a reminder to us as well. I don’t know why the Lord takes us through certain trying and difficult circumstances. I don’t know why we have cancer diagnoses, painful loss, struggles, financial heartaches, even if the Lord goes on to provide miraculously in these circumstances. But be sure of this, because the Lord is the main actor in your life, he is doing more in that trying circumstance than we can imagine. When he parted the Red Sea, amongst Israel’s groaning and panic, he was sending a message ahead to a prostitute in Jericho, “See, I’m the God of heaven and earth.” And not only did she believe, but she went on to marry an Israelite named Salmon, had a son named Boaz (who also married a Gentile convert named Ruth), who had a son named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David. He would one day become Israel’s king, but it was a son from his line named Jesus who would be the great King of heaven and earth. In fact, if Jesus isn’t David’s son, then God’s promises are null and void, and we aren’t saved. Therefore, one reason the Lord backed up Israel to the sea and let them feel the ache, and struggle, and confusion of being in this difficult circumstance is because he was putting things in place to bring about the salvation of all of his people, including us. Let us rest in the fact that the Lord is doing more in any one moment—even and especially every trying and difficult moment—of our lives than we can imagine. Third,
Because we know these truths, we don’t have to know God’s plans but can rest in his presence
In the fifth chapter of Joshua something interesting happens. We read in 5:13-15, “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”
What I find so interesting about this moment when the Lord shows up and manifests himself to Joshua, as he had promised all along these chapters to be with him, is how the Lord answers Joshua’s questions. Neither of them does he answer the way I (or I’d guess Joshua) anticipated. Joshua’s first question is focused on the coming battles. He wants to know if this man who is clearly a fighter is going to fight with the Israelites or against them. And the answer is simply the Lord identifying himself and saying, “Now I have come.” Likewise, when Joshua asks what this figure says to him, he’s probably looking for instructions for battle or the like, but the Lord simply reminds him that Joshua is in the Lord’s presence, and thus the ground has become holy. In other words, Joshua was really interested in knowing the details and plans of what would happen in the days to come, and the Lord was interested in simply affirming his presence.
And isn’t that a lesson for all of us. We can so easily convince ourselves that we could cast off anxiety and rest in a place of peace throughout life if only the Lord would let us know the details of how everything was going to go. But the Lord’s message is that we don’t always need to know the details of his plans. It is enough simply to know that he is present with us.
So, let me apply this to you right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen in your life. I don’t know if the disease will be cured, if you’ll get that job, if you’ll be married, or have children, or if that struggle will go away. I don’t know God’s plans. But I do know that the God who loves you enough that he rejoices over you and who sent his Son to live, die, and be raised for you, is with you. Let that be enough. You don’t need to know his plans; simply rest that he is present with you and loves you. And let that be enough.
Finally, let’s note a brief word about our responsibility before our great and good God.
Our call is to walk in faith and be faithful, remembering his grace toward us
Interestingly, the Lord’s instructions to Joshua, as they’re getting ready to go conquer the inhabitants of a land, is, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go” (1:7). In other words, as Joshua is getting ready to lead the people into a series of battles, the Lord’s instructions to Joshua is, “Make sure you meditate on and obey the Bible.”
And if we think about it, that makes complete sense, doesn’t it? The Lord wasn’t dependent upon Israel’s military prowess to take the land. He was going to give it to them. He simply desired them to trust and obey him. In chapter 5, we’re reminded that there was a generation of Israelites who wouldn’t trust and obey the Lord, and now he’d raised up another. He will fulfill his purposes. Our job is to walk in faith and be faithful.
But interestingly, one of the great enemies of our faith is forgetfulness. So in chapter 4 the Lord has them take twelve stones and stack them up as a memorial. He tells them that one day their children will ask about those stones, and they’ll remind them of the day the Lord dried up the Jordan and allowed them to pass through it. Then, in 5:10, we see that they celebrated the Passover meal, a meal that was to remind them of what God had done when he brought them out of Egypt.
Why had God made them create this memorial and keep celebrating this meal? It’s because our faith is fueled by remembering. And it’s no mistake that as the Lord was heading to the cross where he would die for our sins before being raised from the dead, he gave us a meal, telling us to remember him and what he’d done. And anyone who refers to these stones, or the Passover meal, or the Lord’s Supper that we’ll celebrate in a few moments as a mere memorial seems, in my mind, to be ignoring the fact that forgetfulness precedes faithlessness. So, let us this morning come to the table and remember. Remember that the God who is the main actor in our lives, doing more than we can imagine, and whose presence alone should give us peace, is the God who sent his Son for us so that we might be his children who trust and obey him. Let us come and remember. Amen.