Astral signs - Joshua 10:1-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You know, there are those who think that education is somewhat overrated. Homer Simpson for instance who said, ‘How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?’ Well, the Bible makes it very clear that Christians need to be educated in the things of God and one of the best ways to ensure that happens is by reading the Old Testament. This is what the apostle Paul writes in Romans 15:4, ‘Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of Scriptures we might have hope.’ Now that means that Joshua chapter 10 was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with a view to teaching us here at St John’s something about God and his ways which will encourage us and give us hope. And there are three lessons in particular which arise out of this fascinating episode which we would do well to grasp: respond to the covenant, readjust your view and remember the man.
First, respond to the covenant, vv 1-6. Now we need to put these events into some sort of perspective. Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, is now on the West Bank of the Jordan in ‘Indian territory’, this is the land of their enemies. Two key strongholds had been destroyed, Jericho around ten miles north east of Jerusalem and Ai, 15 miles to the north. What is more a treaty now exists with the Gibeonites 30 miles to the north west and so strategically Joshua has pulled off a military masterstroke for he has cut a great swathe through the middle of the promised land cutting it in half. And understandably the pagan king of Jerusalem is getting worried as he sees his city being next on the hit list. So what he does is form a coalition to attack Joshua and thus in principle putting Joshua on the defensive. So the question raised is this: what are you to do when you are in the presence of your enemies? What should God’s people be doing today as we face the coalition forces of the world, the flesh and the devil? That, in part, is the lesson Joshua 10 wants to teaches us.
Now you will notice that the five king coalition does not decide to attack Joshua head on by going down to Gilgal by the Jordan river, but by first attacking the Gibeonites who, as we heard last week had deceived Israel into making a pact with them, a covenant, and so maybe this is payback time, as well as neutralising an enemy on your left flank- v5’Then the five kings of the Amorites--the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon--joined forces. They moved up with all their troops and took up positions against Gibeon and attacked it.’ So what do they do? Well, they take advantage of the covenant they have just made- v 6 ‘The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: "Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us." Do you see what they were doing? This must have been a very generous covenant not only, as we saw last week, sparing the lives of the Gibeonites but also making provision for them that if they were attacked then God’s people would come to their aid, and so in verse 7 Joshua makes good on that agreement. Now you may look down your noses at the way the sleazy Gibeonites extracted that covenant through stealth but you can’t fault them in knowing how to use that covenant- namely to plead for help. But you know, we Christians are sometimes not all that good at drawing on the privileges of our covenant as these Gibeonites were on drawing on theirs. We do have a covenant - it’s called the New Covenant or New Testament or simply, the Gospel. When circumstances throw us off balance, when facing temptation, when faced with a new set back, what do we do? So often we panic and try to sort things out ourselves as if God has made us no promises and given us no power- the promise that he will be with us always and that he will send another advocate, the Holy Spirit, to reside within us. ‘If God is for us’, says the apostle Paul, ‘Who can be against us?’ That is drawing on the covenant- thinking it through. So, we need to do what these Gibeonites did and draw on the privileges of the covenant. Here is some advice of a Puritan writer, Robert Leighton for Christians who feel tempted and who find themselves thinking thoughts which, to be frank, disturb them- ‘As a father pities his child when it is sick, and in the rage and reveries of a fever, though it even utter reproachful words against itself, shall not our dearest Father both forgive and pity those thoughts of any child of his, that arise not from any wilful hatred of him, but are kindled in hell within them? In the meantime, when these assaults come upon you, throw yourself down at his footstool and say, ‘O God, Father of mercies same me from this hell within me…Thus, in whatever frame your soul shall be carried to vent itself into his bosom, be sure your words, yes, your silent sighs and breathings shall not be lost, but shall have a most powerful voice and ascend into his ear and shall return to you with messages of peace and love in due time.’ Respond to the covenant- you pray on the basis of God’s promises.
Secondly, in the presence of your enemies readjust your view of God, vv 7-11: v7,‘So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his entire army, including all the best fighting men. 8The LORD said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you." 9After an all-night march from Gilgal, Joshua took them by surprise.’
Now the first thing to notice here is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Did you spot the reassurance God gave to Joshua in v 8? "Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you." And straight away in verse 9 Joshua mustered his army on a forced all night march which must have been exhausting because we are talking about moving a force of his crack troops on a 25 mile night march up an elevation of over 3,000 feet! And he did this so that he could launch a pre-emptive surprise attack on the coalition forces. Joshua was not a klutz. He was a military genius and used his brain. And that is how God’s sovereignty and our action are usually related. When God said to Joshua, ‘don’t be afraid I have given them into your hand,’ Joshua didn’t decide to take a holiday paddling in the Jordan, saying ‘Well, Let go and let God.’ No, he got off his backside and slogged it all the way up to Gibeon. Gospel work is hard work even though, as we shall see in a moment, it is ultimately God’s work. But it is God’s work through us. How does the apostle Paul put it in Colossians 1: 29, ‘To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works within me’? Do you see? God works 100% and so do we. Now is this something the present day church has forgotten? On the one hand we can be involved in a hive of activity, planning this, doing that, but carrying on as if God doesn’t really come into it, except as some after thought when we ask him to bless our plans, rather than his. On the other hand, there is the pietistic suspicion of anything that smacks of planning and careful thought- we just pray and wait for revival. No, there is that deep and profound recognition that unless the Lord builds the house its labourers work in vain, but also the realistic recognition that we nonetheless labour. The church is meant to be a working party on earth bringing God’s enemies down with the weapons of prayer and proclamation.
But just so we get the emphasis right and give the glory to where it is rightly due. And so the writer spells out exactly who did what in verses 10-11. Now the NIV is not helpful at this point in its translation. In the original all the verbs are in the singular, but the NIV for some reason pulls Israel into it. There is only one subject of all of these verbs and who is that do you think? It is the one who is mentioned right at the beginning of verse 10-‘The Lord’ – Yahweh. And so it should read something like this: ‘The LORD threw them into confusion before Israel, he (that is the Lord) struck them down with a great slaughter at Gibeon. He pursued them on the road going up to Beth Horon and he cut them down all the way ro Azekak and Makkedah. Then Yahweh (that is emphatic) threw down great stones from heaven.’ That is hail stones, and as we read more died from these than the sword of the Israelites. So now can you see who the victory belongs to, who the real warrior hero in this story is? It is the LORD and we had better not forget that.
But the truth is, we do and so we need to readjust our view of God from time to time. A few weeks ago I saw a wayside text on a church which read, ‘Give God a call, he is waiting for you.’ Which, when you think about it is a rather pathetic view of God, as if God is some lonely, sad character just waiting for us to make his day with a prayer. That is not the God of Joshua 10 who rides out in powerful majesty on behalf of his people. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘but this is Old Testament, this is a crude and primitive view of God which has yet to evolve into the tender peaceful loving God of the New Testament.’ Is that what you think? Then turn to Revelation 19 and here we have a description of the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron sceptre." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORD.’ That is Joshua 10 language applied to Christ-they are both the same God. And maybe one of the reasons why much of the church in the West is anything but ‘Christ’s church militant here on earth’ is because we have lost this aspect of God’s character and God has been reduced and trivialised to a shocking degree. A few years ago now, the Christian writer David Wells, wrote these prophetic words: ‘It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become so unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable… Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgement no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertiser’s sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness.’ And if God has become weightless in the world, it is only because he has become weightless in the church. But he was not weightless on Gibeon on this day as the five kings and their cronies discovered to their immense cost. We seriously need to readjust our view of God if we are going to see any significant impact of this city, let alone our country. You do not play with this God, you bow down and worship.
Thirdly, when we are in the presence of our enemies we are to remember the man- vv12-15. Now we have to understand that at this point the writer is giving us a flash back. I am sure you have seen those films where something is happening and the scene ends and then you go back again to the same event in order to focus on something of special significance. That is what is happening here because the writer wants to save the best to last. If you think hailstones from the sky is spectacular stuff, wait until you get a load of this! So at some point during the day of this great battle, maybe right at the beginning, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel: "O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon." 13 So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. 14There 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!’ And we want to add- ‘Yes, you bet!’
So what is that all about? Well, there are basically three views. First, there is the extended daylight view. The Canaanites coming up the slopes of the west of Gibeon would have been looking east into the blinding sun above Gibeon when the battle began and so to keep this obvious tactical advantage, Joshua prays to God to cause the sun to stay still until the Israelites had made mincemeat of their foes. And we read in verse 13 that that is what happened: The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.’ Does this mean that God performed a unique miracle for this to happen in terms of holding the solar system together while this occurred? Why not? Or it could be the language of appearance, how it would have seemed to the participants in the battle with a special refraction of the light or some such thing. But the idea is a long day with the sun blazing in the sky.
The second is the exact opposite- the extended darkness view. The word translated, ‘stand still’ is literally ‘silent’- stopping its normal activity, in other words- shining. And that may well have happened anyway given hailstones were falling from the sky which is usually accompanied by dark clouded conditions. So in this scenario Joshua is asking for a prolonging of the early morning subdued light. Why? Well because his troops were tired out that is why, and this gave them a bit of leeway to catch their breath. But this view doesn’t sit well with verse 13 which talks about the sun being delayed in going down.
A third view is what could be called the bad omen view. Remember that the enemies are Canaanites who worshipped the sun and the moon and they were very superstitious. One superstition was that when the sun and the moon appeared together on the 15th day that was a bad sign and maybe that is what Joshua was asking for so as to put the wind up the enemy- a bit of psych ops. Maybe. After all, for these people 7 was the unlucky number, and how many times did the Israelites march around Jericho with seven priests and seven trumpets on the seventh day? The answer- seven times. That certainly did prove unlucky for them- the whole place collapsed!
Well, whatever view you opt for the main point is in verse 14, ‘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!’ The God of the universe, the one who is infinite and holy beyond all imagining- listened to a man and did this. That is meant to make us go ‘Wow’. But who was this man? It was Joshua, the leader and representative of God’s people, the one whose name speak volumes- ‘Yahweh saves’. And now we know someone else who bears that name Joshua or -Jesus. For on the throne of the universe in the place of supreme and central significance of all creation there is a man, a member of and the head of the human race. You go to the place where angels bow who never fell and you will find a man. Go to the very centre of the manifestation of the invisible God and you will find a man-true human nature mediating the glory of God for all eternity-his name is Joshua- Jesus. And what is he doing? He is representing us. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus in these terms: ‘He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he is always lives to intercede for them.’ (Heb 7:25). That word ‘intercede’ literally means, ‘to be around on our behalf’. It is not that Jesus is standing before God’s throne pleading for us- and here the great hymn ‘Before the throne of God above’ has got it wrong. Rather, Jesus is seated, not standing, at God’s right hand ruling and his very presence is a perpetual reminder that he has prayed for us while one earth and more than that died for us, with the result that he has secured for us God’s loving attention all the time- he hears us for his Son’s names sake- Joshua. So when faced with trials and temptations remember the man, the God-man Jesus whose miraculous prayer has been heard, ‘Father forgive them’ and out of whose thoughts we are not absent for a single moment. Let us pray.
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