Joshua was, no doubt, keyed up for battle.
As the book of Joshua opens, an entire generation of Israelites had died off. That generation had come to the brink of the promised land only to turn away from taking possession of it. Rather than moving forward in faith, they had shrunk back in fear and wandered for forty years. But this was a new day.
Joshua had risen to power in the place of Moses. God has commanded him over and over again to be strong and courageous, and the people were willing to follow him. Rather than turning back, they followed Joshua into the promised land this time. In fact, God miraculously paved the way for them because they had to cross a flooded Jordan River just to get into it. And as they stepped out into the flowing waters the Lord split the waters in front of them, just as He had done a generation earlier at the Red Sea.
So they were in. In the Promised Land. Let’s remember, too, that Joshua was a military tactician. And as such, he understood that the land he was going into was a hilly country, and the major passage through it was a connecting road that runs from south to north through the highest portions of the land. Joshua’s strategy was to drive hard westward from the Jordan Valley to that high road and by doing that he would divide the country. When he divided the country the forces of the enemy would also be divided and much easier to conquer. Joshua planned to go after the opposition to the south and then the opposition to the north. There was a big obstacle in the way though:
Jericho was a military fortress that was set up to defend the approach of an army to the east. Israel could have gone around it, but if they did, it would mean leaving a huge army behind them that could easily creep up on them. So the option was to attack. Jericho had to be dealt with if the people were going to make any progress into the land.
So in Joshua 5, this new leader was indeed keyed up. He knew battle was coming, and though he had not yet received instruction from the Lord as to the strange way this battle would be fought and won, he knew confrontation was inevitable. When his nerves were already on edge, he came upon a man:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Josh. 5:13).
A reasonable question, don’t you think? War was at hand. The sword was drawn. So Joshua wanted to know whose side this man was on.
A reasonable question based on the circumstances. And like Joshua, we might ask similar questions of God. We see obstacles in our path, be they relational or vocational or financial so we formulate our own plan. We do a SWOT analysis of the situation and start to move pieces into place. And then at some point, it occurs to us that perhaps things would work better if God blessed this plan we already made. So we ask Him a very reasonable question:
“Are You with me in this?”
Again, a reasonable question given our circumstances, but the wrong one entirely. And in Joshua’s case, the man with the drawn sword let him know:
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come” (v. 14).
Against the backdrop of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was once asked whether he thought God was on the side of the Union Army. Lincoln is said to have responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Yes. That’s right. It’s not to us to make our plans and then ask if God is on our side. But such is the presumptuousness and hubris of man. It is to us to pray. To trust. To wait. And to align ourselves with what we know to be true of God rather than hoping He will bend Himself to our designs and plans.
Joshua knew it immediately, and so he asked a second question. A better question:
Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (v. 14).
Like Joshua, like Lincoln, we must make sure we are asking the right question. And the right question is not, “Whose side are you on?” The right question, from the right posture of humility, is more like this: “What has God said?”