Message: Holy War and the Righteousness of God (Part 1) | Scripture: Joshua 6:1-15 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
The text that we’re in today is a very familiar story to many, if not most, of us. It’s the story of Jericho, and Israel’s miraculous defeat of this Canaanite city. As a kid, I was brought up hearing about this incredible battle through semi-comical depictions, such as the one given to us by VeggieTales. In that sketch, we get a very clear picture of who the good guys and the bad guys are. According to Bob the Tomato, the Israelites were the ones who marched around the city in silence, obedient to the commands of the divine warrior, played by Archibald the Asparagus, while the boastful, annoying French grapes taunted them from above their high wall and threw slurpies down upon their heads. So, by the time the Israelites are done walking around the walls of the city and open their mouths to yell, I remember, as a kid, yelling with them and being excited for their victory.
But as I got older, and the more I engaged with people on the street about their convictions regarding the Christian God, the more I realized that people hadn’t been raised with VeggieTales. In fact, I realized that this particular passage on Israel’s defeat of Jericho was a stumbling block to a lot of people. This book as a whole has a lot of violence. It seems to condone a lot of things that make people very uncomfortable today while depicting God as if he’s some uncaring tyrant set out to have his way regardless of who he victimizes.
I remember one particular conversation with a gentleman in a mall, when I asked him whether or not he believed in the God of the Bible. And I remember him saying something like this back to me, “Why would I want to believe in a God who commits genocide upon an entirely innocent and helpless people?” I was 16 when I heard this question, and I remember being completely unable to answer. It had never occurred to me to ask a question like this. To me, Israel was the good guy. Jericho, the bad, but why was this the case? Why did I feel justified in my celebration of Israel and the complete destruction of Jericho, and why do I still feel justified in it now?
These are the questions that I want to try and answer today as we look at our passage in Josh 6:1-15. I want to give you a theological answer as to why this war, what many people have labelled “Holy War,” was not only justified, but why it is satisfying and fulfilling in the grand scheme of Scripture’s narrative, and why we can remain confident in a God who has commanded things like this.
Passages like this ought to stun us because of how they remind us of who he is, what he’s done, and why he’s done it. Passages like this are meant to call us to response as those who are knowledgeable both of the love of God and the justice of God—and because we know both of these things, and how they function simultaneously without contradiction in the persons of God, we, as the elect of God, are to do all that we can to ensure that we remain on the right side of God.
This is our proposition this morning: As the elect of God, make sure that you are on the right side of God. This is what we’ll be unpacking in our text today, but instead of reading to you the whole text at one time, because it’s a long one, I’m going to read it to you in sections as I walk through my outline, like I’ve done once before. And as I do this, make sure that you don’t forget the centralizing theme: make sure, dear Christian, that you are on the right side of God. Do not be far from him. Do not tarry in your pleading of him to redeem or restore you in the joy of your salvation. Do not shrink from your accountability to your brothers and sisters. Make sure of your calling. Do not delay, and as you consider this, let me show you that the author of Joshua is making the same plea to you from our text. Let’s look now at our first point:
1) The Reason for Holy War (a) the Sovereign Power of God
Read with me TWoL in Josh 6:1-5: Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. 2 And the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. 3 You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus, shall you do for six days. 4 Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. 5 And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.”
Before I deal with verse 1, let me make something very clear about verses 2-5. The way that the author of Joshua has included these verses in his book make these instructions sound like they’re a continuation from our previous passage where Joshua meets the divine warrior, falls on his face in worship, and removes his sandals as he stands upon holy ground. And whether or not these are the direct or immediate instructions given after that particular event, it’s important for us to read it this way as a continuation of events from chapter 5 into chapter 6 because this connection between these two chapters is pivotal to understanding and answering the questions that we’re dealing with today. Chapters 5 and 6 cannot be read in isolation—we like to do this—we like to emphasize the miracle of Jericho’s defeat, but apart from chapter 5, Jericho’s defeat in chapter 6 makes little sense.
And what we need to notice above everything else in this passage is the fact that all of it—every detail on these pages point us back to God. God is not only the character behind the scenes orchestrating the events and forthcoming procession of Joshua and his army around Jericho. He’s not just some deity being worshipped. He is centerstage. He is the main character of not just any story but of this story—of his story. Unlike many events in Scripture where human agency is employed as God’s normal instrument of accomplishing his will, in this story, and in acts of recreation, humans are often involved in the most limited of ways—they are primarily passive when it comes to their reception of the land, and this is intentional by God.
On the one hand, he wants to ensure that humans don’t mess it up, like we’re prone to do. But more than avoiding our mistakes, he wants to emphasize his grace, majesty, and sovereignty, which are, at all times, at work to simultaneously bring about his glory and facilitate our good. And he brings these things about at no cost to us! The gift is free. The rest brought about is a true rest because the one who’s been working is God, and his satisfaction in his work is sufficient enough for him to share it with us completely and pervasively.
There may be things that God requires for his people to do after-the-fact—after God’s active involvement. But our obligations to act are only as a result of his initiating work. We are, by nature, responders to all that we cannot initiate by our own power, creativity, or authority. What power we have is a result of a power given. What creativity we have is a result of a creativity given. What authority we have, as humans, is a result of an authority endowed by the Great Author. We are not the ones who initiate.
And this is what verses 2-5 are emphasizing. The language that is being used here is clear about that: “See, I have given Jericho into your hand. Seven priests (seven being the number representative of God’s perfect character—most notably emphasized in the seven days of creation) shall bear seven trumpets of rams horns before the ark (representative of God’s holy presence). On the seventh day, march around the city seven times . . .” In other words, what’s on display here for us is God’s singular discretion to give as he pleases as the one who is perfect in his initiating choice to give, and as the one who is present in the very giving of the gift.
God is actively, sovereignly, and omnipotently involved in the salvation, vindication, and provision of his people. Those whom he has intentionally chosen to save are, in fact, saved by the same one who has done the choosing! It’s not sufficient for God to choose who to save, without carrying out the actual salvation himself. What good would his choice be in that case? Why would we even want to trust him when the ultimate decision for our souls is up to ourselves? And it’s equally insufficient for God to pick certain individuals to save at random without truly knowing them, in an intimate sense, because then he wouldn’t be a loving God. He would be a pernicious, hateful, and totalitarian God.
No, God must both fully and intimately choose us in love, and he must fully and intimately save us in love because he, alone, is mighty to save. Only one who is mighty to save in all respects can do the work that he’s said he will do. One who is weak in power cannot do the work, even if he has the will to. And one who is weak of mind could not properly consider the work, even if he can, physically speaking, do it. God alone is both able and willing to accomplish all of it, and that is what he teaches us here to remind us that all that he gives, he alone has given apart from any human power.
1) The Reason for Holy War (b) A Tale of Two Cities
But we have to ask, “is God’s discretion—is his choosing and electing—unjust? When he acts, as he acts either for or against certain people, are his actions simply random and unpredictable?” And I hope that we know that they are not, but why aren’t they? Where in the text are we told that his actions aren’t simply random acts of unloving favouritism? Well, we see it in two places.
First, we see it in the events of chapter 5. The events in that chapter—circumcision, Passover, and Joshua’s meeting with the divine warrior—are meant, theologically, to directly precede the events of chapter 6 to help us make sense of all that’s about to take place. If chapter 6 existed on its own, it would seem like random genocide. If chapter 5 existed on its own, it would have served to give us an inflated sense of Israel’s importance. But together, they give us a balanced picture and a good understanding of what it means for God to be holy, and why he must wage war on all things that are unholy. See, chapter 5 tells us that only those who are righteous and in good standing with God can enter into the kingdom of God. There can be no compromise in this requirement. They must not only be ceremonially clean, but they must be circumcised and inducted into the covenant, they must be obedient to the law, and they must be holy in disposition, as God is holy. Chapter 5 is the depiction of a holy, righteous people—the people of God, dwelling in the place of God, under the rule and reign of God as he leads them.
But then, we find, secondly, in contrast to chapter 5, chapter 6, which begins in v. 1 with, “Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in.” Now, commentators really like to talk about how this statement in Josh 6:1 is meant to tell us about the impossibility of the situation—that Jericho was so well protected that a people like Israel, who had very little experience with tactical warfare, would have been completely out-of-their-depth and unable to accomplish anything apart from the work of God. And this is true. The work would have been impossible without the sovereign power of God electing and contending for his people.
But I believe many of the commentators miss something about Josh 6:1 that I don’t want us to miss. A lot of their emphasis seems to be on the fact that no one could go in, but the author is careful to note not only that none could go in, but also that none could go out. And the reason he wants us to know both about the impenetrability and the inescapability of this city is to bring our attention back to Josh 5:1, where it says, “As soon as all the kings . . . heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel . . . their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them.”
What I mean to say is that these Canaanites—these people in Jericho—they’d heard of everything God had done for Israel to get them out of Egypt, and they were already scared. Then they saw with their own eyes everything the God of Israel did to get them into the land of Canaan, and they become even more petrified. They’re too afraid to run. They’re too afraid to attack. They’re too afraid to do anything but hide.
And yet, it’s in their terror—in their shock over all that they’ve both heard and witnessed—that shows us why chapters 5 and 6 belong together. Chapter 5 is about a people who had seen all that God had done for them, and in their fear of him, they fled to him in righteousness. Chapter 6, on the other hand, is about a people who had heard and seen all the same things, and in their fear of God, they decided that the best thing to do wasn’t to flee to him, or to turn to righteousness, but to hide from him, to hold fast to their own idols and traditions, and to place their trust in their own, hand-made fortifications.
This is what we see in these chapters. God shows us his sovereign power by literally moving creation to suit the needs of his people. God reveals what is required of those who belong to his invincible kingdom, and still the people of Jericho will not and cannot submit to him. Why? Because they love what they have from themselves far too much. The idea of God’s approaching judgment is terrifying to them, but the thought of losing who they are and what they have in this world scares them even more, and so they shut themselves off from God. They live as those terrified to lose what they have rather than to find out all that they can gain.
In my saying this, I hope you see that there’s a warning here for us. God’s sovereign judgment and his election are not inexplicable. He is not unjust or unpredictable. He shows us exactly what’s required of us not only to escape his judgment but to live in the light of his infinite pleasure and inevitable victory over his enemies. And what’s required is that he be our first love. It’s not enough to simply be afraid of him. It’s not enough to know about him and his great acts of redemption. No, you’ve got to know and desire him as the only one who is trustworthy to save us, and we have to emphasize that fact: that he is trustworthy. But if we aren’t willing to do the work to see what’s on the other side of that wall, if we want to keep what we have on our terms, then, for now, he lets us be and have those things. But we ought not be surprised, complain, or feel victimized when God shows up to collect what he’s owed.
We must ask, is this the attitude of our hearts? Have we seen the omnipotent, sovereign, electing work of God only to say to ourselves, “I love the world more”? Are we simply waiting for judgment, like Jericho, or have we, like Israel in chapter 5, seen the work of God and been convicted of our faithlessness? Have you sought out the circumcision of your own heart? Have you repented of your sin by the blood of the spotless Lamb? And have you come to God, pleading for mercy upon your knees—because that’s all he’s requiring of you here! He wants to give you treasure. He wants to satisfy your life, but to have it all—to have him—you have to be willing to lay down those things that separate you from him. Don’t give him reason to wage holy war against you. Don’t give him reason to cast you out into the darkness, for the apostle John tells us, “whoever comes to me, I will never cast out.” Make sure you are doing everything you can to be on the right side of God, lay down your arms, and trust that he is enough to satisfy you.
2) The Character of Holy War
Read with me Josh 6:6-15: So Joshua the son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant and let seven priests bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the LORD.” 7And he said to the people, “Go forward. March around the city and let the armed men pass on before the ark of the LORD.” And just as Joshua had commanded the people, the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the LORD went forward, blowing the trumpets, with the ark of the covenant of the LORD following them. 9The armed men were walking before the priests who were blowing the trumpets, and the rear guard was walking after the ark, while the trumpets blew continually. 10But Joshua commanded the people, “You shall not shout or make your voice heard, neither shall any word go out of your mouth, until the day I tell you to shout. Then you shall shout.” 11So he caused the ark of the LORD to circle the city, going about it once. And they came into the camp and spent the night in the camp. Then Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the ark of the LORD. 13And the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the LORD walked on, and they blew the trumpets continually. And the armed men were walking before them, and the rear guard was walking after the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets blew continually. 14And the second day they marched around the city once and returned into the camp. So, they did for six days. On the seventh day, they rose early, at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times.
More than anything, these verses are meant to verify for us that the people of Israel are, indeed, those who stand in contrast to the Canaanites holed up behind their walls. They are, in fact, the elect people of God. Those changed and affected by all that God had done not only to bring them out of Egypt but into the Promised Land. Don’t forget, God remains on centerstage. He is the one who is doing all of these things on behalf of Israel, but what God has required of his people—what little they are supposed to do, they do zealously, meticulously, intentionally, and without fail because they are attuned to the fact that they are his people.
Now, the part of the text that I want to bring to your attention is the paragraph that starts in verse 12 with, “Then, Joshua rose early in the morning,” and ends in verse 14 with, “So, they did for six days.” What I want you to see here is the author’s intentionality to bring up the leader of Israel’s character as the example for all of God’s people on a day where his leadership was expected—on that first day, when they were to set out to march around Jericho and due battle with the enemies of God. The statement about Joshua’s rising early is a comment that the author makes in multiple parts of this book right when God is about to act (cf. Josh 3:1; 7:16) and do formidable things. What we’re to see is the disposition of God’s leader in those moments as he awaits God to do only that which God can do. Why does he rise early? It’s because he wants to be prepared, and because he’s eager to witness God’s work and God’s hand in the reformation of God’s kingdom for God’s people. He’s seen so much already, and this man—this man who has the fellowship of God and has been exalted by him—the one who possesses the awe of all of Israel—his attention, on this day, is not on himself, rather it’s on God—all he wants is more of God. All he desires to see is the hand of God at work.
Now, if you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the New Testament in the book of Mark, chapter 1, verses 35-39. And what is it that we read there? 35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39 And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Brothers and sisters, what we find here is Jesus Christ just beginning his ministry, and if you read the whole first chapter of Mark, what you find in the majority of its text is a Jesus of Nazareth that is going throughout Galilee doing two things: proclaiming the gospel of God and casting out demons. In other words, by his preaching he is establishing the kingdom of God—defining its character and revealing to whom it belongs, namely, the righteous ones of God, and by his casting out of demons, he is establishing the kingdom of God—showing us that those who do not belong are those who have chosen darkness, who have rejected the light, who have placed their hope and faith in their own wiles, cunning, and strength.
Let me say this one other way, where Joshua rose early preparing himself and waiting expectantly for the hand of God to do the work of God for the people of God to establish the kingdom of God—Simon Peter comes along, and he tells us exactly what we, the prophets, Moses, Elijah, and in our text this morning, Joshua—what we’ve all been waiting to hear, “Everyone is looking for you.”
Jesus reveals himself to be that greater Joshua as the one who goes out early not only in preparation and eager expectation for God to come and do his work, but he goes out early because he is God, and he does the work. He defines the people. He sets the parameters of the Kingdom. He is God come himself in incarnate flesh, so that we no longer have to prepare and wait expectantly. No, everything under heaven and on earth has been fulfilled in this God-man—In this second person of the Trinity—in this babe born of a virgin—in this spotless man that is the Lamb of God. All the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus Christ because he is the leader who not only leads us to God and directs us in his ways, but who is, himself, God. And this God-man came not to destroy his enemies—those of us who mocked him, reviled him, and set the walls of our hearts against him. No, this God-man comes to knock down our walls, leads us to repentance, and calls us to trust in him as the Saviour who has delivered us once-and-for-all not only from all the evil and enemies of darkness in the world, but he delivers us from ourselves.
In this story, we are not Joshua. We are not even Israel. No, we’re Canaan. We hid ourselves from our God in cowardice and sinfulness, but God has come to collect what he is owed, and the thing is, he finds our payment not in our blood or in our punishment, but in the blood and punishment of his own Son upon a cross for the sinful guilt and our deserved wrath.
And our application from this text is this: there may be a time of waiting. There may be a time of longing-expectation where you feel like you are languishing—that perhaps you are losing the Holy War of your life against the forces of darkness and your own sinfulness, but what our passage tells us is that like Joshua who longingly rose early in the morning to see the dawn of the King who promises light—that light has shone into the darkness of our hearts, and it is the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And because we have received this Christ, we are not like the Canaanites anymore who upon hearing the deliverance of the people of God over the Jordan River lost heart. No, we are those who belong to the kingdom. We are those who do not lose heart. So, don’t lose heart, dear brother or sister. The Son has risen. The dawn of the kingdom of God’s eternal people has been revealed, and if you confess with your mouth that Christ is Lord and that God raised him up from the dead, you are counted as one of those people.
Fret no longer. Strive after meaningless things no longer. Make a habit of trusting in the world no longer. No, as the elect of God, do all that you can to remind yourself that God has brought you to his own right side—that he has not forsaken you or cast you out. He has brought you into his fold. In his fortress, there is no faltering. In his arms, there is no falling.
He guides and protect you. He restores you. He leads you in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even when darkness and death surround you, it shall have no effect upon you because he is with you. And the character of one who knows his Shepherd-King in this Holy War is one who says with absolute confidence and expectation: surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.