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God fights for Israel

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua 10:1-12:24

Thesis: We must attack the enemy to win spiritual victory.

Goal: Identify a ministry initiative to attempt.

The scene is one of the most dramatic locations on earth. Standing 1150 feet above sea level, the massive rock outcropping is the largest I’ve ever seen, gray with streaks of metallic brown, flat and imposing. And towering above it is a gigantic cliff, dwarfing the valley below in every direction.

High up on that cliff our tour group could see a cave, the famous “Gates of Hades.” This cave leads to a shaft which bores down through the mountain and this plateau on which it stands, deep into the earth. That shaft is so deep that its bottom has never been found. Even the most sophisticated measuring devices have not been able to determine its absolute depth. I will never forget standing on that rock at Caesarea Philippi, looking up at the Gates of Hades.

As I stared in awe, my mind traveled back to a time when another man stood where I was this day. As he looked around himself he could feel the religious significance of the place.

Just a short distance away stood the brilliant white marble temple built by Herod the Great as an altar to the worship of Caesar, hence the name of the place, “Caesarea.” Beneath his feet was that cavern where the Greeks said Pan, their god of nature, was born. Scattered around the place were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, where the Syrians worshiped. Somewhere below was one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river in all the Jewish faith, the water Joshua and the people walked through to inherit the Promised Land. And he thought of his own Jewish traditions and worship.

On this gigantic rock, standing in the midst of temples to every kind of god known to his culture, this man hears a Galilean carpenter ask, “Who do you say that I am?” And this man, standing where I stood, declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And he hears the Galilean say, “I will build my church.” Then, pointing to the cave towering above them, dwarfing this small group of peasants gathered below, he claims, “Even the Gates of Hell will not withstand your assault” (Mt 16:13-18).

Many Christians miss the analogy. It is common to think of the church as an ark, built to withstand the floods which surround us. Or a fortress, erected to provide safe haven amidst the attacks of enemy armies from our fallen world. But it is not. The church is an army, created to attack Hell. Commissioned to take the gospel to the world. Called to assault the enemy, wherever we find him.

Retreat is not an option.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, he faced a nation mired in Great Depression, with world war clouds gathering on the horizon. The economy was in retreat; discouragement was epidemic; some were beginning to question the future of the American experiment with democracy. But the new president, himself crippled by polio, taught us a lesson we’ll remember so long as America lives: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Had America retreated from her challenges and opportunities, what would have happened to Europe? To us?

In war, initiative is everything. If Joshua and his people had waited at the Jordan River until there was no water to brave, they’d be waiting there still. If they had waited at Jericho and Ai until the residents gave them the keys to their cities, they’d be waiting still. We are called to attack, to initiate, to find ways to take the good news of God’s love to our fallen city and world. And retreat is not an option.

Sitting on a bedside in East Malaysia while on a summer missions tour in 1979, I was asked by veteran missionary Chuck Morris if I would consider a career in missions. My reply: “I’d go if God opened the door.” Chuck pointed his finger at me and said, “No, go unless God closes the door.” It was a prophetic moment.

What ministry will you initiate this week? What will your class do to help someone follow Jesus, because you have taught them the truths of this text? To win the battle, we must engage the enemy. And retreat is not an option.

Pay the price of victory (10:1-15)

The oath Joshua and the leaders of the nation made with the Gibeonites would soon be tested. Our word and integrity will always face adversity. The rain proves the foundation (Matthew 7.24-27). But God is ready to transform and redeem any situation trusted to his care (Romans 8.28).

The Amorite kings in the region learned of Gibeon’s treaty with Joshua, and likely feared that it would be the first of many dominoes to fall. If such a formidable city and army would choose slavery to Israel over armed assault, who might follow their example? Thus their combined strategy against Joshua and his army, a gambit born of desperation (vs. 1-4).

It is ironic that their assault was initiated by the king of “Jerusalem.” The name means “Foundation of Peace,” but it was given to the city centuries after Joshua by King David. In Joshua’s day the city was known as Jebus, “City of the Jebusites” (cf. 2 Samuel 5:6ff). The writer/editor of our text used the name by which the city was known to Jewish history. In time, the “city of peace” would welcome and then crucify the Prince of Peace, that he might bring peace on earth and goodwill to mankind.

When the Amorites united against Gibeon, these slaves of Joshua appealed to their master for help. And God’s general responded by taking immediate initiative, choosing the best men and summoning his entire army for response. The Lord again exhorted him to courage, and promised that their fate had already been determined. They marched the 30 miles from Gilgal west to Gibeon, climbing some 3,000 feet of elevation, completing in one night what had earlier been a three-day journey (9:17). And so they surprised their enemy (v. 9) and won the victory.

Joshua took the initiative. Our spiritual armor has no back side (Eph 6:13-17). In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian had just begun to wear his new spiritual armor when he saw the fiend Apollyon coming toward him: “The sight of him filled Christian with fear, and he began to wonder what he should do. Should he go back in haste, or stand his ground, going calmly on his way, as if he had no fears? Then it occurred to him that he had no armor for his back, and to turn his back to the enemy would give him the opportunity to pierce his back with darts. He decided to hold his ground and keep straight on his way; that would demonstrate his faith, uphold his principles, and be safer for his person than turning and running away.” Christian chose wisely.

So did Joshua. His drove their foes into the surrounding mountains, where their chariots could not be used. When we rely on our chariots, we fail. When we rely on our Lord and his call to attack, we succeed. As a result, the Israeli army pursued the mightiest foe they had yet faced, all the way back to their cities and homelands. Their enemy’s “confusion” (v. 10) is better translated “terror.” And God sent hailstones which killed more than the swords of the Israelites. The Canaanites, who worshiped deities of nature and the skies, must have thought that their gods were aiding the Israelites or being defeated by their god.

Then Joshua demonstrated a boldness of faith such as the world had never before seen (v. 12). Perhaps he prayed for the sun to “stand still” so his men could fight in extended daylight, or so that nightfall would not enable the enemy’s retreat. Whatever his motivation, God answered his prayer (vs. 13-14).

The Hebrew words can mean that the sun was “stopped in its path,” so that the earth’s rotation was halted. Or they can mean that the sun’s rays were stopped, so that the day was not longer but cooler. Many attempts have been made to reconcile this record of the stopped sun with known astrological data. Options suggested include a solar eclipse, divine reshaping of solar rays, or the darkness produced by the hailstorm mentioned just earlier. Some have noted that no other reference to this phenomenon is to be found in biblical or ancient histories, so that the event may have been optical in nature and confined to Joshua’s army and location.

But all such speculation is irrelevant. If God could stop the flooded Jordan and collapse the walls of Jericho, he could stop the sun as well. Whatever happened must have been miraculous, for “There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a man. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!” (v. 14).

This was the third and final great miracle recorded in the book of Joshua. It was “written in the Book of Jashar” as well (v. 13). “Jashar” means “upright” or “righteous,” so that this was the “book of the righteous.” It is referenced one other time in the Bible, when it records the lament of David for Saul and Jonathan upon their deaths (2 Samuel 1:18). Never included in Scripture, it was a source for the biblical writers, and may have been a song book or volume of praises and laments. The “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21.14-15) is another example of such historical records kept by the people.

Joshua marched his army all night, so they could surprise their enemy. He and his men paid an enormous price to initiate this battle, armed with the assurance and power of God. There will always be a price to pay in initiative, preparation, and sacrifice. But the results will be worth their cost.

William Barclay was right: we progress in life in proportion to the fare we are prepared to pay. John Wesley’s life motto is worth our adoption: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.”

Martin Luther preached several times each week, wrote books and taught the Scriptures. By his death, the Reformation he sparked had spread across Europe. He translated the entire Bible, creating the modern German language in so doing. He published more than 400 pamphlets and books, 37 hymns, and 2,300 sermons. He also organized a new church with revised liturgy and a new system of government. He often said, “If I rest, I rust.” And he commented, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without three hours daily in prayer.”

Victory will always come at a higher price than defeat. It is easy to lose, but hard to win. We must seize the initiative, and pay any price to win the day. If we will march all night, God will stop the sun all day.

Turn difficulty into destiny (10:16-42)

Standing before the 1936 Democratic National Convention on June 27, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Out of the hardships of the Great War and the Great Depression would come the Greatest Generation. All because they were led to turn difficulty into destiny.

In the same way, Israel did not begin this war but she would end it. And Joshua would turn the difficulties presented by the conflict into fulfillment of the nation’s destiny. How can we do the same?

Refuse distractions (vs. 16-19)

Joshua’s army trapped the five kings who had led the attack against the children of Israel. But they refused to be distracted from total victory, imprisoning them in the cave they had used for shelter, until they could deal with them later.

Keep the main thing the main thing. Keep your focus on the purpose before you. When Lee Iacocca was chairman of the Chrysler Corporation and attempting to lead the carmaker out of bankruptcy, he discovered that he had to remind his full-time employees of their vision and purpose every 28 days. Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing. Keep the “right thing” front and center.

Share the rewards (vs. 20-25)

After defeating the retreating armies of their enemy, Joshua’s men then returned to the kings they had imprisoned, and led them captive back to Gilgal and Joshua. This was a moment of remarkable success and significance for Israel’s general. Imagine Hitler and Emperor Hirohito dragged before President Roosevelt. The picture would be engraved on the nation’s imagination still.

This was a unique opportunity for Joshua to claim the glory of the victory he had courageously led his people to achieve. But he refused. Instead, he called the leaders of the various army legions forward. He ordered them to put their feet on the necks of their enemies, an ancient show of conquering power. He honored them. And they honored him.

A basic fact of leadership is that we can do anything in life if we don’t care who gets the credit. Lao-Tzu was right: the best leader is the one whose people say, “we did it.” When we lead those entrusted to our influence to spiritual victory, we must share the rewards, distribute the recognition, honor those who are deserving of gratitude. Keith Parks, former president of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, made this his basic rule for leadership: if something goes wrong, I did it. If something goes right, we did it.

One day Jesus will “reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15.25). Then we will share the rewards of our faithfulness for all eternity.

Set the example (vs. 26-27)

Joshua gave his men the privilege of sharing in the victory. But when the time came for the hardest work, the most gruesome task, he fulfilled it himself. By executing the enemy kings personally, he set an example of courage and conviction for his men to follow.

We cannot lead others further than we are willing to go. In leadership, example is not the main thing—it is the only thing. Effective leaders turn difficulty into destiny by doing the difficult thing first. And setting the example themselves.

Here we find a leadership paradox. The most effective time managers are those who do only that which only they can do. If another member of the team can fulfill a task, they should. Conversely, we must give those who follow us an example which inspires their support and mobilizes their commitment.

Finish strong (vs. 28-42)

The success of a military campaign, or a leadership strategy, cannot be determined until the last enemy is defeated. The side which begins well does not always end well. If World War II had ended as it began, I might be writing these words in German. Finishing strong is more than a life motto—it is essential to lasting legacy and success.

So it was with Joshua and the Southern Campaign. Joshua 10 lists the battles in order, each an unqualified success: Makkedah (28), Libnah (29-30), Lachish (whose king Horam was the most powerful in the region, as documented by archaeological discoveries in the area) and Gezer (31-33), Eglon (34-35), Hebron (36-37), and Debir (38-39). And so the entire southern region, from Kadesh Barnea in the south to Gaza in the north, was conquered because “the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel” (v. 42). A chapter which began with the greatest threat Israel had faced in Canaan, ended with the greatest string of consecutive successes in their history.

These words by Teddy Roosevelt are among my favorites:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Stay obedient to God (11:1-23)

C. S. Lewis once likened God’s work in our lives to a man remodeling your house. At first he fixes the things which obviously need fixing—the leaking gutters, the broken gate, the carpet stains. But then he begins work you hadn’t asked him to do—knocking out this wall and putting up that one, adding on a story above the garage, and so on. You don’t understand what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it. But the reason is simple: “You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Would you let an enemy live in even a single room of your house? Only when every room is under your control, is the house truly yours. So with the lives our Master Carpenter is building through us. He intends us to be the “body of Christ,” his incarnation and presence in our fallen world. Total obedience to his word and will are therefore essential. A single cancer cell can eventually kill us.

The key to the Northern Campaign described in Joshua 11 is found in verse 15: “As the Lord commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses.” His complete obedience to God’s will and leadership made possible the eventual result: “the land had rest from war” (v. 23).

To achieve such stunning success, Israel would face an even more dangerous military situation than in the battle over Gibeon. The kings in the northern territory combined their forces, led by Jabin, king of Hazor. His was the largest and most fortified city in the region. The walled city of Jericho proper occupied only five or six acres of land; excavations at Hazor show that the walled city covered some 30 acres, and the lower city measured 175 acres. The city was mentioned in early Egyptian inscriptions; its location was so strategic that it was later fortified by Solomon (1 Kings 9.15). Under the king of Hazor’s leadership, the area consolidated their forces, opposing Israel with “all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots—a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore” (v. 4).

Facing such overwhelming opposition, Joshua again needed the assurance of God’s power and provision. And his Lord gave it: this massive army would belong to Israel on the morrow (v. 6). When fear knocks at the door and faith answers, no one is there.

The battle turned at v. 7: “Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them.” The combined enemy forces had been camped at this location, eight miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. This was the same general area as Caesarea Philippi in the time of Jesus, where our Lord commanded his “troops” to assault the gates of Hades. Perhaps the first Joshua was in the mind of the second Joshua and his followers.

Jabin and his confederates were not expecting this battle. More likely, they assumed that their superior numbers would frighten Joshua into retreat. The last thing they expected was an attack from him against their encamped position. Such initiative and courage is typically the precursor to unexpected success.

For instance, remember the most famous military victory in Texas history. Near the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou, the Mexican general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, led a force of more than 1,200 men. The Texans, under General Sam Houston, had only about 910 soldiers. Following a long retreat, the Texans took the overconfident Mexicans by surprise on April 21, 1836, and won complete victory in just 18 minutes. Nearly every member of the Mexican army was killed or captured. Santa Anna was himself captured the next day. Nine Texans were killed and 30 wounded. A monument commemorating this battle stands today near Houston, to help us remember the place where our independence was won. All because an army staged an attack when their opponent least expected it.

The results at Merom were similar: “the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel” (v. 8). Joshua’s forces defeated and pursued their enemies. And they captured Hazor, their strongest military threat (10-11; archaeological work has discovered burnings of the city corresponding to Joshua’s time). This was Joshua’s greatest military victory.

And over time, his armies would defeat all their opposition in the northern territory (16-23). The battles in the area continued “for a long time” (v. 18). As NavPress and other commentaries point out, the entire conquest from Jericho to this point occupied some seven years. We know this by noting that Caleb was 78 years of age when the people entered the Promised Land (he was 40 when they began their 38 years of wandering in the wilderness, according to Deuteronomy 2:14 and Joshua 14:7), and had reached the age of 85 at the end of this period of warfare (Joshua 14:10).

After such steadfast obedience to the word and will of God, “Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions” (v. 23a). With this result: “Then the land had rest from war” (v. 23b). Only after Joshua and his men had seized the opportunity and initiative as given to them by God.

President George W. Bush is right: peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. By obeying fully the leadership of their God, Israel brought such justice and righteousness to the land.

Conclusion

The victories celebrated in this week’s study had their origin long before the days recorded in Joshua 10-11. Years earlier, Moses had led the people to defeat Sihon and Og (12:2-6). This first conquest gave the children of Israel a foothold in the region, a base for their military campaigns across the Jordan and into Canaan. Had they been defeated here, there would have been no more Jewish history.

Then Joshua continued the vision handed to him by Moses, bringing the northern and southern kings and region into Jewish hands. The rest of chapter 12 documents historically the results of these visionary and courageous campaigns.

The upshot is simple: we must seize the initiative in winning the spiritual war which is before us. God is calling each of our members to find our gifts and fulfill our ministry. We will fulfill the Great Commission only when every member becomes a minister. You and I are to lead those under our teaching to take the initiative in taking Christ to our community and beyond.

How?

•Pay the price of spiritual victory, “marching all night” to join the battle and bring glory to the Lord.

•Turn difficulty into destiny. See needs as opportunities. Find a need you can meet, a hurt which can be helped, a problem which can be turned to Christ. A shoe salesman sent to tribal Africa wrote back: “Business a failure. No one wears shoes.” The company sent a second salesman who wrote back instantly: “Send more shoes. No one here has them.”

•Refuse distractions; reward those who fight with you; set the example; finish strong.

•Stay obedient to the will of God, and you will know his victory.

With what lost person will you initiate evangelism this week? What need will you meet? What area of the city will you “attack” next?

I’m no expert on the Chinese alphabet, but I’ve read that the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are the same. I know more about the Greek language of the New Testament. Here we find two words for “time”: “chronis” and “kairos.” “Chronos” describes time as we usually envision it; we get “chronological” from this word and concept. This is time as a line, proceeding along into history.

“Kairos” is an entirely different approach to “time.” It is a “timely moment” or an “idea whose time has come.” It is the opportunity to be seized, the chance that will never return, the risk we must take. “Seize the day” comes from the encouragement of “kairos.” It is wisdom to know when a moment is merely chronos, and when it is kairos.

Are you standing before a kairos opportunity?

The most powerful statement of faith I have ever discovered is a confession written by a young pastor in Zimbabwe, a believer later martyred for his faith. I have quoted it often, and close with it as God’s challenge to us all:

I am part of the “Fellowship of the Unashamed.” I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I’ve stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I am finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by his presence, lean by faith, love by patience, live by prayer, and labor by power.

My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions few, my guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, diluted, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of adversity, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

I won’t give up, shut up, let up, or slow up ’til I’ve preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go ’til He comes, give ’til I drop, preach ’til all know, and work ’til He stops.

And when He comes to get His own, He’ll have no problems recognizing me—my colors will be clear.

Amen.