On the morning after the federal election, I found myself in a church where (in the providence of God) the passage set to be preached was the story of the fall of Jericho.
After a brief introduction about how to approach parts of the Bible like the book of Joshua, the preacher commenced his retelling of the story, ignoring the chapter divisions and beginning (wisely, I thought) with the mysterious episode in the final verses of Joshua 5:
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?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord[e] have for his servant?”
The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
(Josh. 5:13-15, NIV)
Joshua’s battle-eve encounter with the commander of the army of the LORD is crucial, in so many ways, for the way in which we understand the chapters that follow.
He is not under Joshua’s command; Joshua is under his. But there is more going on than that.
At one level the commander’s answer to Joshua’s question can be read as a simple correction to an obvious misunderstanding on Joshua’s part: the man he is standing before is neither an Israelite nor an Amorite, but an (or the) angel of the LORD. He is not under Joshua’s command; Joshua is under his. But there is more going on than that, as the events of the following chapters reveal.
Jericho and Ai, Rahab and Achan
It is true (as Joshua has just been reminded in 5:2–12) that the LORD is the covenant God of Israel, the God of Abraham and his descendants, the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and promised to bring them into the land. And it is true—as he goes on to tell Joshua in the following chapter—that he has given the city of Jericho into the Israelites’ hand and devoted it to destruction. It is true too, that this sentence of destruction has been a long time coming, waiting till the sin of the Amorites has “reached its full measure” (Gen 15:16). But none of this means that God is simply the enabler of Israelite ambition, providing religious sanction and supernatural power for whatever conquests and territorial expansions they want to embark on. His name must not be co-opted into their propaganda and his judgments must not be converted into an instrument for their own enrichment.
So when the walls crumble and the city falls, the first thing the narrator wants to tell us is about the sparing of the prostitute Rahab and all who were sheltering with her in her house. And when Achan, the head of one of the Israelite families, makes a secretive attempt to enrich himself with some of the spoils of the city, the anger of God burns against him and against the nation as a whole. So much so that in the first attempt that they make to attack the city of Ai the LORD withdraws his help from them and it is they, rather than the people of Ai, who become liable to destruction.
God, the Election and the Christian Cause
The story of the fall of Jericho is not, of course, a parable about Australian politics or Christian cultural engagement (nor did the preacher apply it as if it were). Our situation as Christians contending for the gospel of Christ is vastly different from the situation of the Israelites in Joshua’s generation. We have not been told to wield the sword in judgment on the sins of others. The people of God to which we belong is not a nation defined by birth and bloodline, promised a particular land as its possession. Nor do the dividing lines of political allegiance in modern Australia correspond even approximately to the line between the people who belong to Christ and those who do not yet know him. Nevertheless, as I sat in church on the morning after the election I felt a resonance in the words spoken by the commander of the LORD’s army to Joshua.
The God whom we have come to know in the Lord Jesus is not the patron deity of Labor or Liberal, the Greens or the Teals.
The God whom we have come to know in the Lord Jesus is not the patron deity of Labor or Liberal, the Greens or the Teals. There are good reasons for us as Christians to advocate publicly and passionately for a variety of political and social causes. There are good reasons, too, why we might be convinced that the success of one political party and the defeat of another would be (on balance, at a given point of time) the best of the available options for the common good and the protection of those who are most vulnerable. But the cause of God’s kingdom is not ultimately captive to the fortunes of any of them.
Nor is the God of the Bible simply the enabler of Christian ambition, the guarantor of Christian privileges or the protector of Christian institutions. If we ask him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”—expecting an answer that will guarantee us comfort and prosperity, immunity from criticism or preservation of privilege—then his answer to our question must surely be the same as the one he gave to Joshua: “Neither”.
“If God is for us . . .”
But there is a different and better sense in which God is, absolutely, for us. Through all the ups and downs of our own personal fortunes, and the collective fortunes of whatever Christian institutions we are associated with, God continues his work. He continues calling men and women to faith in Jesus; transforming them by his Spirit; reshaping them into the image of his Son. The final outcome of that work is certain and nothing can stand in its way.
As Paul writes:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.