The book of Joshua relates one of the most exciting, victorious, and fruitful times in the history of the nation of Israel.
Under the leadership of Joshua, who himself “wholly followed the Lord” (Numbers 32:12), the people of Israel crossed over the river Jordan on dry land, miraculously overcame the great walls of Jericho, and proceeded to conquer and inhabit the entire Promised Land in a period of only about six years.
Perhaps even more miraculously, and again under Joshua’s wise leadership, Israel equitably divided and settled the new land and lived there in peace for many years.
What is the secret to Israel’s great success as a nation and Joshua’s great success as a leader?
It seems a key passage for the entire book is found in Joshua 1:7-9, in God’s charge to Joshua and, by extension, to all of God’s people:
“Observe to do according to all the law… and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
Truly, as Joshua’s own name suggests, the Lord was their help and their savior. And in this way, Joshua is a very clear type, or symbol, of the coming Christ. First of all, in that they share the same name (the Greek form of the name Joshua is Jesus) and, secondly, Joshua successfully brought the people into the possession of the Promised Land, just as Jesus safely delivers every one of his people to the heavenly Canaan.
However, the only mistake (of which we are told in Scripture) that Joshua made in leading the people of Israel was when the Gibeonites, whom God had commanded that Joshua kill, came to the Israelites in disguise; without consulting with God first, Joshua made a pact with them not to kill them. This pact proved to be a thorn in Israel’s side for many years afterwards.
When God called Joshua to “be strong and of a good courage” we—and in fact Joshua himself—might have mistaken this for an exhortation to personal strength and independence rather than true faith and dependence upon God.
But, as we see in this sad account of Joshua’s single mistake as a faithful leader, godly courage is the opposite of the kind of courage that the world applauds and extols.
Courage Has a Crimson Coat
We tend to think of “courage” as a virtue whereby a man or woman displays his or her own valor or mettle. In other words, it is in our minds a flashy and glorious exhibition of one’s own worth and quality.
But true and lasting courage comes, not in trusting in oneself, but in waiting on something (or some One) that is true and lasting!
It means having the patience to wait and follow rather than brashly or selfishly walk in one’s own way.
This connection between courage and patience is beautifully expressed in Nancy Byrd Turner’s poem:
Courage has a crimson coat
Trimmed with trappings bold,
Knowledge dons a dress of note,
Fame’s is cloth of gold.
Far they ride and far they roam,
Much they do and dare.
Gray-gowned Patience sits at home,
And weaves the stuff they wear.
Patience makes the clothes that courage wears. In biblical terms, “courage” means patiently waiting on the greater wisdom, the superior strength, and the lasting support of God and his Word. It means facing insurmountable odds by virtue of an unassailable faith in the sufficiency of God.
As we will see in Joshua’s interaction with the Gibeonites, the difference is crucial. Worldly courage rushes in where angels fear to tread; faithful courage fearlessly walks only where God leads.
True Courage Seeks God’s Counsel
Joshua’s one recorded mistake is mentioned in Joshua 9, that he and Israel “asked not counsel at the mouth of the LORD” (14). This is perhaps all the more unexpected because chapter 8 closed with the very encouraging and favorable comment that “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded” which Joshua did not read to the congregation of Israel (35).
Up to that point, Joshua had been a very faithful and obedient leader.
And, at first glance, we might be very sympathetic to Joshua and his plight. The Gibeonites, after all, did come up with a fairly clever, almost humorous, way of deceiving the Israelites. By wearing old clothes and shoes, and carrying old bags with old food and old wineskins, they purposefully gave the impression that they were not one of the nearby tribes that God had commanded Israel to destroy. And in case there was any doubt, they volunteered the information that they had taken this bread, which was now dry and moldy, hot out of the oven when they started their journey and the wineskins had been new when they filled them back home in “a far away country.”
Perhaps most impressive, however, was the fact that they pretended to have made this long journey from their far away home “because of the name of the LORD thy God: for we have heard the fame of him” (9). Well, Israel may have thought, that pretty much seals the deal! Not only are they obviously from a long way away, they also have come in order to get to know our God better!
The Gibeonites’ ruse is so thorough and effective, we might wonder how Joshua could have been expected to know any better, or to see through the lies. But the fault was not in their own inability, but in their failure to recognize their own limitations and weakness!
God did not expect them—and does not expect us—to be omniscient or all-wise; but that is why he tells us to seek counsel from him, because he is omniscient and all-wise!
True courage, then, does not ignore its own limitations or pretend they do not exist; rather, true courage seeks God’s counsel in order to boldly pursue the best path.
True Courage Is Dependent
It seems that a besetting danger for those who walk well, live holy lives, and are generally obedient — is to become too dependent on their own good record of success, rather than on God.
This very peril was inculcated in God’s original charge to Joshua, in which he specifically and only promised “good success” to those who are utterly dependent upon his Word (1:8). When you are speaking his words, meditating on his wisdom, and walking in his way, then God promises real and lasting success.
We fail utterly in our courageous quest for the kingdom of God if we forget where our strength and wisdom come from.
As Hudson Taylor wisely cautions, “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instrument afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.”
May we learn—both from Joshua’s many successes and from his singular failure—our constant need of direction, strength, and salvation from the Lord. And may we rest in the wonderful promise to those who do put their trust in the Lord for their every need: the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!