Joshua's Installation as Head of the Nation

Joshua 1:1-5

The Book of Joshua opens with his elevation to leadership after the death of Moses. Joshua has just seen how fervently the people admired and loved their deliverer from Egypt. Their mourning for him continued thirty days (Deut. 34:8). Although mourning in the Middle East is always expressed by wailing and weeping, their sorrow had an intensity beyond what was merely customary, because they keenly felt the loss. Most of the Israelites had been born in the wilderness and had known no other leader. Those who now resented him were few, since God had, through many judgments, purged out the rebels.

As soon as the mourning for Moses was finished, God spoke to Joshua and instructed him to lead the nation (Josh. 1:1-9). Joshua recognized that to step forward and take up the reins except under God’s immediate direction would have been presumptuous. Although he had long been the designated successor, it still remained God’s prerogative to guide the transition and formally confer authority upon Joshua. The speech we read in these verses is Joshua’s coronation, as it were—his formal installation as the new head of the nation.

Getting Practical

Parallels with Christian experience

In our preceding lesson we spoke at length about the spiritual meaning of Israel’s trek to Canaan. Their wandering in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses the law-giver represents our experience before salvation, when we were content with our own works and thought God should accept them. Their crossing of the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua, whose name in Hebrew is identical to the Hebrew form of the name Jesus, represents salvation. It follows that their conquering of the land represents the victorious Christian life.

God’s speech to Joshua in the opening verses of Joshua’s book contains many allusions to this typology. Specifically, it presents five parallels between the experience of Israel and the experience of a Christian.

  1. God gave the land to Israel (v. 3), yet Israel had to arise, cross the river, and take possession of the land (v. 2). So it is with salvation. It is a free gift, yet we cannot enjoy its benefits unless we accept it. We must exercise ourselves to reach out and take what God desires to give us.
  2. The path through the Jordan River did not usher them into an easy life. Their entrance into the land marked the beginning of a difficult military campaign. For a period of years they were constantly engaged in warfare against stubborn enemies. Likewise, in the Christian life we do not sit idle and bask in blessings shining down from heaven. No, the Christian life is also a battle, an unremitting struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is a battle against determined enemies that sometimes succeed in inflicting painful blows upon us, that sometimes force us to retreat, or bring us to our knees, or make us fall, and only by stalwart persistence in the fight can we prevail. Paul calls the Christian life a fight, the object of which is to "keep the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). Indeed, our chief defensive armor is the shield of faith (Eph. 6:16), the one piece of equipment that can turn aside every attack. Think of the greatest spiritual battle you have faced recently—some discouragement, temptation, or doubt perhaps. What is the remedy for discouragement? Faith that a loving God is in control. What is the remedy for temptation? Faith that the law of God is the prescription for true happiness. What is the remedy for doubt? Faith that God is real and good. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).
  3. God promised that He would give Israel victory over every foe (v. 5). The Christian can plant his feet on the same promise. Because we belong the Christ, we need never suffer defeat. No enemy can vanquish us, although in our flesh we are weak, although we are one against many in the world, although Satan is far stronger. In Christ we are invincible (Rom. 8:33-39). The issue being contested is our faith, and if our faith remains strong despite attacks and sufferings, we have triumphed over our enemies.
  4. Israel’s conquest of the land was not complete overnight, or even within a few weeks or months. It took years before Joshua was done leading the nation into battle. And even then, the Canaanites were still entrenched in various places, and to push them out required more hard fighting. Likewise in the Christian life, the battle against sin continues long after we are saved. While we live in this world, our enemies look for ways to overcome us, and we remain in a state of warfare.
  5. The Lord gave Israel all the land within wide boundaries, from Negev in the south to "this" (perhaps "this side of") Lebanon in the north, from the Mediterranean in the west to the Euphrates in the east (v. 4). It is significant that Israel never conquered all the territory that God intended it to occupy. During the reigns of David and Solomon, all the peoples living in the region reserved for Israel fell under its sway and paid tribute to it, but never did Israel displace them all. Here again is a picture of the Christian life. If we serve God faithfully, we accomplish much by God’s grace and for His glory. But we never accomplish as much as we might have done with more effort energized by more faith. In the last analysis, we are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10).
         It is instructive to compare promise with practice. What did Jesus promise (Matt. 17:20)? He promised that we could move mountains. All it would take is faith like a mustard seed. But what is our practice? Most of us get excited whenever we manage to move a few spadefuls.

Admonition to Be Courageous

Joshua 1:6-9

Three times in His commissioning of Joshua, God admonished him to have courage. The first time He was referring to the courage necessary to complete the task of conquering the land and dividing it among the tribes (v. 6). The second time He was referring to the courage required to keep the law of Moses, disregarding all the pressures to compromise (v. 7). He would have to maintain the law even when he saw advantages in sidestepping it—advantages in terms of his own convenience or popularity. The third time God spoke of courage, He was referring to it as the remedy for fear (v. 9), and He emphasized His command to be fearless by twice rewording and repeating it.

  1. "Be strong and of a good courage."
  2. "Be not afraid."
  3. "Neither be thou dismayed."

This, the conclusion of the whole speech, is also its summary, showing that God’s main purpose in speaking to Joshua was to allay all the fears natural to the heart of this new leader.

Joshua had always been a brave man. Why might he have succumbed to fears at this moment of taking power?

  1. He was succeeding a great man greatly mourned by his people. In the previous month, Joshua has seen just how much his predecessor was revered. He himself, after working as Moses’ assistant for almost forty years, regarded him almost as a father figure. An aura of awesome authority and holiness must have emanated from the person of Moses, making him larger than life in the eyes of his people. Once in the past God had encouraged a godly fear of Moses by making his face shine with the reflected glory of God (Exod. 34:29-35). Hence, Joshua felt incapable of filling Moses’ shoes. We detect here evidence of Joshua’s humility. To relieve his doubts about his ability to succeed Moses, God assured him, "As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee" (v. 5).
  2. Across the river he would encounter a formidable enemy. The ten spies had been right in reporting that the Canaanites were a strong people. Indeed, they were populous. Indeed they had chariots and walled cities, and among them were giants.
         Like the giants that existed before the Flood, these may have descended from unions between fallen angels and the daughters of men (Gen. 6:4-6). The mythologies of many ancient peoples are full of stories about superhuman male beings consorting with human women, giving rise to offspring of unusual prowess. The Greeks and Romans viewed such creatures as demigods, the most famous being the mythological figure named Hercules. Even in Jesus’ day, the report that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God brought fear to Pilate’s heart (John 19:7-9). Why? Probably because, as a Roman steeped in Roman religion, he thought it possible that Jesus was in fact a demigod fathered by a Roman deity.
         However the giants in Canaan originated, it is likely that Satan introduced them for the express purpose of preventing Israel from taking the land. There is no record of giants there in Abraham’s day.
         Joshua would have found the strength of the Canaanites intimidating for two reasons. First, because they threatened the safety and success of his armies. Second, because they put his counsel of many years ago to the test. He had urged Israel to enter the land, saying confidently that they would triumph over the Canaanites. Now, to demonstrate that his counsel had been the wiser, he must lead Israel to victory over them. To remove this cause of anxiety, God promised that no foe could stand against Joshua (v. 5).
  3. Joshua was now the supreme leader over a nation numbering perhaps two million people, a nation with a history of being extremely difficult to lead. God more than once had called them "a stiff-necked people" (Exod. 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deut. 9:6, 13; 10:16). No doubt Joshua sensed a real possibility that they might rebel against him as they had against Moses. Perhaps they might repeat the scene of years gone by when the whole multitude tried to slay him when he took an unpopular stand at Moses' side (Num. 14:6-10). How did God deal with this fear? In His assurances to Joshua, He told him the measures he could take to keep his followers from mutiny. God said, "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth" (v. 8), and also, "Observe to do according to all the law" (v. 7). In other words, he need not fear revolt if he faithfully schooled the Israelites in the law and if he himself set an example of keeping it fully. If the people walked in God’s law, they would not reject God’s leader.
  4. Joshua rightly felt dependent on God for success. Yet with this sense of his own need for God’s help, he doubtless also had a fear that God might abandon him. After all, God had once before threatened to remove His presence from the nation. While Moses was receiving the law on Mt. Sinai, the people made a golden calf and worshiped it with sensual rites after the manner of pagan religion. In His anger, God directed Moses to continue leading the people into Canaan, but He would not accompany them. Rather, He would send an angel to serve as their guide. He said, "I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way" (Exod. 33:3). When Moses pleaded with Him not to remove His presence, the Lord relented. Yet now, years later, Joshua was perhaps worried that the people might still become so wayward that the Lord would break fellowship with them. But the Lord relieved this fear by promising that He would never depart from Israel so long as Joshua stood as their leader. He assured Joshua, "I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (v. 5).

We must understand that God’s promises to Joshua were designed for his special circumstances. They do not necessarily apply to us. For example, God said to Joshua that if he would not deviate from the law, then he would prosper wherever he went (vv. 7–8). God meant primarily that the nation under Joshua's leadership would conquer their enemies in Canaan and take possession of all their wealth and territory. In other words, they would prosper in an earthly sense. But God does not make the same promise to Christians. He does not guarantee us prosperity as it is defined by most people in this world, who measure life only until the grave. For them, to prosper may under some circumstances refer to military victory, but normally it refers to material gain, or to enjoyment of good health and good fun. Can a Christian claim these things on the strength of Joshua 1:7-8?

You have probably heard the prosperity gospel that some televangelists and pastors preach today. They say that if you want something, whatever it may be—a bigger house or better job perhaps—you should just claim it by faith and God will give it to you. What is the fallacy here? The prosperity gospel misappropriates Old Testament promises by applying them to the Christian. A Christian should not be seeking earthly wealth and success (Matt. 6:33). God promises to meet all his real needs, not to satisfy all his selfish dreams.

Getting Practical

An unconditional promise

Yet not all of the promises to Joshua have limited application. The New Testament makes one of them in particular available to us all. The promise at the end of verse 5 is quoted again in Hebrews: "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Heb. 13:5). This is an unconditional promise to all of God’s children. Whatever we face, we know that we do not face it alone. This is our consolation if our path through this world takes us through real suffering or persecution.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that God will not enable believers like ourselves to prosper. Prosperity can be understood in a spiritual sense, not as worldly success but as growth in heavenly virtue. If the meaning is so restricted, we learn from verse 7 what we must do to obtain it. To prosper in the Christian life, we must heed God’s commands to Joshua: first, "Observe to do all according to the law"; second, "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night" (v. 8). Thus, to gain spiritual prosperity, we must meet three conditions. We must obey the law, teach it, and meditate upon it.


First, let us consider the command to obey the law. For Joshua, "this book of the law" comprised only the five books of Moses. But for us, it is the whole Bible.

Delving Deeper

The true way of salvation

We have said that Joshua is a type of Jesus—that the relationship between Moses and Joshua therefore illuminates the relationship between Jesus and the law, as well as between the law and the gospel. Notice that the record of Israel’s progress to Canaan does not show its two great leaders in opposition. On the contrary, they worked together to accomplish the ultimate goal. Moses could not take them across the Jordan, yet he brought them to the very brink. If crossing the Jordan represents salvation, the meaning of the allegory is plain. Just as Moses brought Israel to the threshold of Canaan, so the law is a "schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24). The purpose of the law is to teach us the sinfulness of our hearts so that we might know our need of a Savior (Rom. 7:7, 13). Only when we know the law in its supreme holiness do we understand why through our own efforts it is impossible to please God. We discover that these efforts never succeed in keeping the law perfectly (Rom. 7:18-19).

Once a man accepts salvation in Christ and escapes the penalty of sin, does he also escape an obligation to keep the law? Can he live as he pleases? Through typology, God’s command to Joshua gives us the answer. On the other side of Jordan as well as on this side, both Joshua and the people under him were to observe the law meticulously, with careful attention to every detail. Also in the Christian life, we have no warrant to neglect the law. We have been delivered from the law as an impossible means of saving ourselves. In that sense we are free from it (Rom. 8:2). But we have not been delivered from the obligation to pursue a manner of life that shines with goodness and holiness as defined by the law. Just as Joshua was an example to Israel, so Christ is an example to us, and He did all that the law required (Matt. 5:17; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; John 8:46).

But we have already said that to keep the law is humanly impossible. Yes, in our flesh we cannot keep it. But the goal is attainable once we are saved by grace through faith and indwelt by the Spirit of God. Now the impossible becomes possible (Rom. 8:2-4). From the Bible we learn what God desires of us, and to the extent that we put His will into practice—that is, to the extent that we follow "this book of the law"—we realize God's purpose for us, which is to attain the measure of Christ (Eph. 4:13). By conforming ourselves to Christ we attain true prosperity, the prosperity that is spiritual and not earthly.

Giving instruction

Second, let us consider the command to keep the law in our mouths. Throughout Scripture we learn of our obligation to teach each other God's truth. Parents should share godly wisdom with their children (Prov. 4:1–4; Eph.6:4). Believers should exhort each other to walk in the path of righteousness (Prov. 6:23; 12:15; Heb. 3:13). Mutual encouragement to shun the world and please God becomes ever more important as we approach the end of the age (Heb. 10:25). Mature believers especially must accept their duty to warn and redirect any brother who has fallen or who is near to falling into ruinous sin (Gal. 6:1). "Spiritual" in this context refers primarily to a believer who is qualified to give counsel because the same sin has not captured him (Matt. 7:1-5).


Third, let us consider the command to meditate upon the law. If we wish the Spirit to guide us into fuller obedience, we must accept God’s counsel to Joshua. God instructed him that the secret to keeping the law was to meditate upon it (v. 8), even to do so every day and night, with the same regularity the Psalmist recommends (Ps. 1:2). Like memorization, meditation is an obligation that every Christian recognizes, but few fulfill. The remedy is to understand that unceasing attention to the Word of God is important, indeed vital, to our spiritual well-being. For are we are not always thinking about the things we view as truly important? Meditation has a fourfold purpose:

  1. It is essential to gaining a thorough knowledge of God’s Word. Meditation resembles study. Just as a student who wants a good grade in a hard course must sacrifice large portions of time to poring over the notes and the textbook, so a Christian must constantly read and ponder the Bible if he wishes to know it well. Otherwise, his knowledge of it will consist of snatches imperfectly remembered and perhaps tainted with distortions. When we cannot quite recall what the Bible says, we try to reconstruct it in our own words. We come up with our own version of the Bible. But how foolish! God does not need an editor. We need to know exactly what He says. In my career as a Bible teacher, I have sometimes seen rather strange versions of the Bible in answers students give on Bible tests. They have made up words, teachings, even stories that are pure imagination. How much better to have the real Bible stored in our minds!
  2. Meditation is essential to understanding God’s Word. The Bible is full of truth that is not easily grasped. Much of the content is simple, but also much is difficult. The only way to penetrate the difficulties is to examine them thoughtfully, diligently trying with God’s help to find the answers. The fruit of this kind of meditation is a deeper familiarity with the ways of God than we could ever reach just by listening to lessons and sermons (Ps. 119:99).
  3. Only by meditation can we properly apply God’s Word. We may be reading the Bible daily, but if we are merely skimming over the surface, we will never see its relevance to our own lives. We must devote time to the solemn task of searching the Word for personal help. After reading a passage, we must remember it from time to time during the day and ask ourselves what it says about our present experience. Through meditation on the law, the Psalmist knew what to say when witnessing to others about God (Ps. 77:12), and he was able to find comfort when he was persecuted (Ps. 119:23, 78). These are merely two of the numberless ways we can apply God’s Word.
  4. Meditation keeps divine truth in the forefront of our minds, where we can easily find it in moments of great need. Temptation often gives us little time to prepare a defense. How much easier to defend ourselves if we can instantly recall those texts that define right and wrong and those that promise us divine assistance against the tempter.

Delving Deeper

Three kinds of courage

We have mentioned that three times God commanded Joshua to have courage (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9). Compared with many others facing great challenges, Joshua had much stronger reasons to be brave. He heard God’s own voice promising him complete success in all his endeavors as leader of the nation. We can identify three kinds of courage.

  1. The first kind is Joshua’s—the courage to press on toward a goal that God says we will attain and find fully satisfying. This is the easiest kind, because it is opposed by no greater fear than the possibility of failure, and God has eliminated that possibility.
  2. The hardest kind of courage was exhibited by Peter (John 21:15-19). The Lord told him that others would someday clothe him and carry him where he did not wish to go (John 21:18). He was evidently referring to the dressing of his corpse and its removal to a place of burial. John adds, "This spake he, signifying by what death he [Peter] should glorify God" (John 21:19). What in Jesus' words points to the manner of this disciple's death? Jesus implied that the arms of Peter’s corpse would be outstretched. Of the various modes of execution in Jesus’ day, which produced a corpse with arms disposed in this peculiar manner? Crucifixion. According to tradition, Peter was indeed crucified, and by his own choice he was crucified head down. Thus, after his talk with Jesus, he went through life with the knowledge of how it would come to an end. He would die in great agony because he served Christ. Yet he never shrank from his appointed destiny. He manfully fulfilled his role as church leader despite the price that would someday be exacted from him. His was the greatest kind of courage because the fear opposing it was the fear of something both dreadful and certain.
         We understand therefore why Jesus’ manner of dealing with Peter on this occasion, as they walked beside Galilee, was so gentle. He did not rebuke Peter for betraying Him. Rather, He elicited from Peter three affirmations of his love (together erasing his three denials), for He knew that only by loving Christ would Peter be able to accept and endure with faith the ordeal that would end his life.
         This ordeal would by no means be unjust. At Jesus’ trial, Peter acted the part of a despicable coward, denying all connection with Jesus just to save his own skin. By appointing Peter to a martyr’s death, the Lord was not only chastening him with a penalty suitable to the offense, but He was also giving him a chance to show that he was not a coward after all. Indeed, after Pentecost Peter was a new man. Time and again he showed rare courage. Before the rulers of his people, he boldly declared that he would serve God rather than man (Acts 5:29). After Herod Agrippa had killed James and arrested Peter, Peter sat in jail with the certain knowledge that Herod intended to kill him next. But he was so free from anxiety that when an angel came to deliver him, there he was fast asleep between two guards (Acts 12:6-7). Indeed, the angel had to thump him pretty hard to wake him up.
  3. The courage expected of us falls between the easiest and the hardest. Most of us have uncertain futures. We do not look forward to complete success, as did Joshua. Nor do we face certain martyrdom, as did Peter. We are rather like the three Hebrew children who were arrested for refusing to bow down before the great statue that King Nebuchadnezzar erected in the plain of Dura (Dan. 3:1-13). When they were brought before the king, he demanded that they worship the image and threatened that if they still refused, he would cast them into a fiery furnace (Dan. 3:14-15). But though the cost of being faithful to God was a horrible death, they said to Nebuchadnezzar, "We are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (Dan. 3:16-18).

Getting Practical

Certainties in the midst of trouble

In the Christian life, we must take a similar stance. Although we face no peril so dramatic perhaps as the peril that tested the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, we know that it is the lot of Christians to hear ridicule and false accusations (Matt. 5:11), to undergo ostracism by family and neighbors (Matt. 10:34-36), and to endure hardships of all kinds (2 Tim. 2:3). Therefore, to assure that we will meet trouble with a courageous heart, we must cling by faith to two certainties.

  1. God can deliver us (Ps. 91:9-16).
  2. If He does not, He has a good reason for withholding His deliverance (Rom. 8:28).

On the strength of these certainties, we look to God for help when trouble comes, and whatever happens, we accept the outcome as for our good.