September 10th, 2018

God’s message in Joshua 1:2-9 is not directed to you or me.

Joshua 1:1-9


Dr. Althouse died!

It was Monday, December 14, 1992, and I was on a top secret mission. Except for my wife Linda, nobody in my church I was pastoring at the time, as far as I knew, knew where I was or what I was doing. Two days later I would preach my call sermon here in the sanctuary. 71% of the 250 in attendance would vote in favor of my call.

Corinth was a conflicted congregation. It had been almost 25 years since the glory days of Dr. Althouse, who served here from 1930-1969. Two pastors followed him, and for various reasons the congregation became increasingly divided and smaller. Two days before the vote, on that Monday, I had come to town for an open evening Q&A. People could also sign up for a personal or small group conversation earlier in the day. One who did was Helen Bisanar, an elderly widow with a long and active life in the church. Helen sat down across from me and at the table, gestured at the bust of Harry Althouse in the Althouse Room, and said to me, “Do you know what’s wrong with this church? Dr. Althouse died!”

Mrs. Bisanar’s quote comes to mind when we turn to the opening verses of the book of Joshua. Like Dr. Althouse, Moses was the leader of his people for forty years. In Dr. Althouse’s case, the powerful preacher and community leader had facilitated the move from downtown to a church building unique in western North Carolina.

With Moses, the story was even more dramatic. Moses was the only leader the Israelites had ever known – the founder of their fledgling nation. He had outlasted his adopted brother, Egypt’s pharaoh, in a duel of their respective gods. He and his legendary rod had led the exodus out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. He had met face to face with God on multiple occasions, and had delivered God’s law at Mt. Sinai.

As the people neared Canaan, Moses had sent twelve advance explorers into the promised land. All twelve returned with glowing reports about “the land of milk and honey,” but ten were terrified by giants in the land and fortified cities. Moses had urged God not to destroy the people when the overwhelming majority wanted to return to Egypt. He had been God’s presence through four decades in the desert.

Now as they drew near the second time, Moses gathered the people for a recitation of their history and a repetition of God’s laws, the book of Deuteronomy, (“second law”). He oversaw occupation of land east of the Jordan for three of the twelve tribes (Numbers 32). He would go no further. He disappeared into Mount Pisgah, northeast of the Dead Sea, where he died and was buried by the hand of God himself in a private ceremony (Deuteronomy 34). That story ends Deuteronomy. It ends the books of Moses. It ends the life of Moses.

Strong and courageous

The typical sermon on Joshua 1 goes something like this:  If you want to be successful like Joshua was, you need to follow God’s instructions to Joshua. Be strong and courageous, and constantly study and teach the Bible. Before we get to the question of how Joshua 1:1-9 applies to us, let’s look at the text verse by verse.

1 – After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide:

Moses’ legacy looms over the book of Joshua like Dr. Althouse’s bust at Corinth. Moses’ name appears 51 times in Joshua, more often than it does in Deuteronomy.

Two words for “servant” appear in this verse. The first means “slave” or “lowly servant,” the bottom of the pecking order. A commoner would address the king or another superior by saying, “Your servant.” Moses is the humble “servant of the LORD.”

Joshua, who only needs the description “son of Nun” to be sure you know he’s the same guy who led the fight against the Amalekites, who went with Moses up Mount Sinai, who was one of the two explorers with a good report, is “Moses’ aide.” That can also be translated “servant,” but this word is used of a lead servant. Joseph was “servant” in Potiphar’s house in Egypt. It’s a word used of cabinet officers in the service of the king. It’s used of priests and Levites in the temple. It can be translated “minister.” Joshua was Moses’ servant, but he was the servant with authority.

2 – Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites.

There’s the jolting announcement:  “Moses is dead, Joshua!” There are some words in the Hebrew that most translators have seen fit to omit or alter, probably for good reason. Here is the literal translation of the second sentence:  “Therefore now stand up (Joshua had apparently bowed to the ground), go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I gave to them, the sons of Israel.”

The Jordan River flows through the deepest valley on earth, down to its lowest point – the Dead Sea. At places the river is 100 feet deep as it cuts through a deep crevice. At other points it is more shallow and can easily be forded. On either side of much of the Jordan there are mountains. At the time God gave this command to Joshua, the river was swollen with flood waters (3:15). Imagine now God telling Joshua, “Get up and cross this river with this people.” The river was the first of many impossibilities.

God gave and will give this land. The verb tense can be read as either past or future. God promised the land to Abraham, but the promise will now be kept. The theme of God granting the land to the descendants of Israel (Jacob) is consistent not only here but all through the book of Joshua and the rest of the Old Testament. We will wrestle later in the book with the moral dilemma raised in Joshua from then until the present day – namely, what about the people already living there? – but for now let’s just focus on what this text says. God’s land grant has been at least four centuries from promise to delivery. This is the moment the promise will be fulfilled. Get ready.

3 – I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.

There’s Moses again. Joshua needs these words of assurance, and he needs them directly from God. Yes, Joshua is eighty years old, but Moses had demonstrated such confidence in hearing the voice of God. God reaffirms what Moses had said God told him. God is not done. His story continues. His plans will be fulfilled.

4 – Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – the Mediterranean Sea in the west.

Description of the boundaries starts in the south (desert) to the north (Lebanon), and then from the northeast (Euphrates River) to the west. I actually prefer the literal translation here, which instead of “the west” has “to the setting of the sun.” Seeing the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea was one of my favorite experiences in Israel. Joshua is on the east side of the Jordan and can’t see the Sea on the other side of the land the Israelites will possess. Most likely neither he nor anyone else in that mob of former slaves has ever seen an ocean sunset.

5 – No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.

Those are strong, absolute statements. “No one.” “All the days of your life.” “I will never leave you.” “I will never forsake you.”

“Stand” is a military word – “take your stand, defend your ground.” Joshua is going to encounter stiff resistance, but they will not stand. Once again, we have Moses’ name invoked. How often was God with Moses? Basket in the bulrushes. Burning bush. Confrontation with Pharaoh. The Red Sea. Crises of water and bread and meat. Threats from enemies. Thunder and fire on the mountain. Rebellions crushed. Tent of meeting. Joshua can know that God will be with him just as consistently and powerfully.

6 – Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.

The words “strong” and “courageous” are military words. Joshua is getting ready for real, physical warfare. “Strong” is about the body; it is brute physical power. That’s what hand-to-hand combat requires. “Courageous” is about the mind; it is boldness, alertness. Both are about toughness – physical and mental.

Joshua must be “strong and courageous.” Why? The key word in verse 6 is “inherit.” God had called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees to leave his ancestral home and go to a new place where there would be a great nation. A nation isn’t a nation without three ingredients:  people, land, and government. Abraham had been in the land, but his descendants went to Egypt. There they multiplied into as many as two million people. Government would come to full form centuries later, under David.

7 – Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.

Joshua must be “strong” and “very courageous.” How? By obedience to the Torah (Law). It’s not just about mental toughness in the battlefield.

Moses’ shadow again. Moses gave God’s law – the Ten Commandments and so much more at Sinai, then the repetition in Deuteronomy. Joshua is to “obey all the law.”  Joshua may be the military and political leader, but he can’t just win battles with swords. He must model total obedience to what God has commanded.

If he does, there’s a promise attached. God says, “You will be successful wherever you go.” This is going to work for him. But remember, it’s conditional. He will learn just how conditional in the stories ahead. It’s not automatic.

8 – Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

The instruction about the law is expanded. The key word here is “meditate.” It literally means to “mutter,” almost inaudibly. It can be translated “growl” or “moan.” I don’t know if when married couples get older we mumble more or we just lose our hearing. But the idea here is that low, barely inaudible sound. I’m going to tell Linda, “I’m not mumbling; I’m meditating.” It’s important to voice the words when Joshua ponders the Law. That’s how “this Book of the Law” is to be sealed into Joshua’s mind.

I prefer the older translations, which are more literal. “This book of the Law will not depart from your mouth.” When you understand what “meditate” is you realize what this means. Never let your mouth stop repeating this. When you see images or videos of Jewish men at the western wall or elsewhere rocking their heads and mouthing words, they are taking very literally this idea of “meditate.”

9 – Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Here’s a third repetition of “strong and courageous.” When? Especially when you’re intimidated or terrified. He won’t be able to avoid that in the midst of battles against overwhelming odds. So God adds, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Now we’re starting to wonder if Joshua isn’t human like the rest of us.

Have you ever noticed that this time no advance “explorers” were sent into the land? A new generation has arisen, and from childhood and adolescence every one of them has anticipated the day when they would gather their forces and take the land.

Remember, though:  Joshua was one of the original twelve. Of all the people in this throng, of all the soldiers who are going to fight the battle, only Joshua and Caleb have actually seen the giants in the land and the fortified cities! Maybe Joshua’s starting to have second thoughts. He’s going to be tough in front of the troops, but he’s had forty years to think about what these battles are going to be like.

Joshua needs this assurance from the Lord. “Don’t be afraid.” (Don’t tremble.) “Don’t be dismayed.” (Don’t be shattered/broken.) Wherever you go, whenever you are down or discouraged, know that the LORD your God is with you.

Clear and consistent principles

God’s message in Joshua 1:2-9 is not directed to you and me. It isn’t. It’s not even directed to all the Israelites on the verge of entering Canaan. It’s a personal word to Joshua. The promise of prosperity and success is for Joshua. It’s not even for all of his soldiers. Some will die in battle. The commands are also specific to Joshua. The “book of the Law” he is to mutter every day is probably the book of Deuteronomy – only one of 66 books in the Bible – and he’s probably the only one who has a copy to read.

If you make this passage about you, you are likely to undermine your own faith. If you “claim” God’s promise to Joshua for yourself, you will at some point think God has failed you. You will not necessarily be successful in your education, your job, your health, your marriage, your parenting, even your spiritual life, like Joshua was. Joshua’s story is not about you. It’s not even about Joshua. It’s about God doing something absolutely unique in history. This is your preview to how I’m going to handle the unique command God gave about occupying this land. He’s never done anything like it again.

So, then, does this passage have any relevance or application to our lives? Absolutely it does. What we have to discern is what part of this is situational; what applies directly to Joshua and his moment? What part of this is actually some very clear and consistent biblical principles that are applied to Joshua’s unique situation?

First, God will never leave you or forsake you. This is a direct word to Joshua, but it’s all through the Bible. In fact, that is the only line from this remarkable passage that is repeated in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews is talking about money, of all things, and says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5). Had he misapplied Joshua 1, on the subject of money he would have said, “Dream big. Earn all you can. Amass a fortune. You can be or do anything you want, because God has said, ‘I will make you prosperous and successful.’”

The consistent and pervasive biblical principle is that your greatest need is God, and he will be there whether you have much or little, whether your marriage is wonderful or your relationships are a mess, whether you set and achieve great goals or experience failure after failure. You are never alone, never forsaken, never abandoned.

Second, a successful spiritual life keeps the focus on God’s story, not yours. God’s in charge of success and failure. He is sovereign, and he is good. This pivotal moment in Joshua’s life and the people’s life is one stage in an overall biblical drama from Adam to Abraham to Moses to Joshua to David to Jesus to the ends of the earth. Joshua is just one tiny human being in a little corner of the world in one generation – same as you. God used him to turn a large corner in the story. You’re likely to be forgotten far sooner than Joshua, but let go of your need to be great. Your part is simply to be faithful, to persevere, to touch the life of that child, that spouse, that neighbor, those co-workers; to cross “this river” that’s in front of you, to lead “this people” that God gives you the privilege to influence. The breadth of your impact is not what you measure.

Third, never stop muttering the commands and promises of God. If you take Joshua too literally, all you need to study is the book of the Deuteronomy. We have been blessed with 66 books. That’s how I know not to take Joshua’s story and make it about me. It’s by studying “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). In my Sunday School class this fall, we’ll be learning about principles for studying and applying the Bible. Among the principles is “the progress of revelation.” We can expect greater and deeper understanding of God as the story of the Bible continues.

So no, Joshua’s story is not about you. But he models in this book some deep and rich principles that have everything to do with you. As Joshua unfolds, we see both timeless spiritual principles and some clear ways in which the way God works has changed. Let’s open our hearts and minds to seek him together. Amen.

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