The book of Joshua sets the tone for the whole of the prophets with regard to the major theme of worship. The prophets confront us with the living God in all of His glory. The prophets confront us with the glory of God such that the common response is fear. The prophets confront us with a Holy God, who is high and lifted up, who is exalted above all things in heaven and on earth. The prophets confront us with the true God and rebuke us for our idolatry.Thus the theme of Joshua throughout is worship. Worship was how the people of Israel prepared for battle. Even engaging in battle was a worship exercise. This means that when a battle is described it is dismissed with a verse. There is never much focus on the blood and gore of the battles because the real battle is the one being fought in the heavenly places. The reason that Joshua would not make a very good movie is not only that it does not give us the details we would need for a motion picture but that a movie cannot picture the invisible dimension that is at the heart of the story. This is the task of the prophet — to remind Israel of the dimension that they cannot see with their eyes — to show Israel the exalted Lord in His glory and the heavenly host around Him.
It is because of these things that the most common way in the Old Testament to describe our relationship with God from our perspective is “the fear of the Lord.” The most common way in the New Testament is to use the word faith. Faith and the fear of the Lord are overlapping concepts. But when we hear the word “fear” we usually think of being afraid. While that may be part of the first reaction of the prophet when he sees the invisible glory revealed, the kind of fear that is the fear of the Lord is more of a worship term — a term of reverence and awe. Joshua 2 shows us the difference between these two kinds of fear.
Rahab tells the spies, “the fear of you has fallen upon us, and…all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you for we have heard how YHWH dried up the water of the Sea of Reeds before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction and as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you” (Josh 2:9-11). News of an impending final judgment, a picture of which awaited Jericho, can lead to these two kinds of fear in response. To lessen the confusion, we will call being afraid “fear” and we will call the fear of the Lord “faith.” Rahab then is a picture of a Gentile coming to faith. This is prophetic of the gospel going to the Gentiles after the final judgment for Jesus. And these two kinds of fear are what we should expect as normal responses to the news of the coming judgment as we proclaim it today.
In the passage, the king of Jericho and those who choose to be identified with him all display the wrong kind of fear where Rahab shows us the right kind. Two New Testament books, Hebrews and James, use her faith as an example of what saving faith is. This is not surprising given what we have said. True Israel does not consist in those who descend by the flesh from Abraham but those who have the faith of Abraham. Thus Rahab will become part of Israel. And she professes a complete statement of faith — one that declares, your God will be my God and your people will be my people. We see this as she says, “YHWH your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” and then she makes the spies swear to be faithful to her just as she has been and will be faithful to them and all the people of God. The battle is already being fought at this point. And Rahab has surrendered to the Lord God, the exalted God ruling in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, and committed herself to corporate worship with His people.
Rahab knew that she could not trust in her own righteousness for salvation – she was a prostitute. When she saw the army of Israel would be her judgment day, her heart melted (as did the heart of all Jericho) but in a different way – her heart became softened and she repented. She was not going to trust in her own strength or the strength of the king of Jericho. It is no surprise that many of the first converts to saving faith in the ministry of the new Joshua, Jesus Christ, were also prostitutes. Rahab’s faith led her to lie to the king of Jericho and hide the spies. I cannot count the number of times people have used this against her and become her accuser. But she did this out of faith and it was the morally correct thing to do. If you are hiding Jewish people from the Nazis, you better lie about hiding them in your walls and attics. The Nazis had no legitimate right to know and wanted that knowledge to do evil. Rather than obey men, Rahab was going to obey God. Rahab showed hospitality to the spies like Lot did to the angels at the gate of Sodom. Hospitality and faith go together. Faith is welcoming the message and the messengers of the Lord. And in faith she tied the scarlet cord in the window as a sign that her father’s household belonged to the Lord. This highlights the household saving nature of faith – if anyone left her household they would need the protection of the king of Jericho and find it wanting, but anyone who stayed in the house would be under the protection of God. The chapter is about true faith which leads to worship.
You can probably tell that I am using the term worship more broadly than to refer to what we would call today the “church service.” Worship is an all of life term. And in all of life with each and every situation we will either be bowing down before altars or worshiping the true God. Engaging in battle was, just as engaging in evangelism is, a worship exercise. It is a battle where we point people to the exalted Christ and we demand submission to Him in all the details of life. But there is a sense in which the church worship service is our preparation for battle, where we rest from the war and repair our armor and are surrounded not by enemies but by our fellow comrades in arms. And so it is not surprising that before Israel will go into battle the nation will stop to worship.
The first thing that we see happen next is the memorial stones. Not everything is in purely chronological order — there are not two stacks of 12 stones. But each stone represents a tribe of Israel and they were set up as a memorial. One of the most basic purposes of public worship is to be a memorial — to remember. And in chapters 3-4 the Hebrew language itself as well as the way the story is told repetitively forces the reader to slow down to worship. They will need to remember crossing the Jordan in worship. It is an important baptism described in terms of the exodus event with the waters parting. And it is no surprise that the sacraments of circumcision and Passover would be celebrated in the very next chapter.
The text also begins to establish Joshua as God’s prophet with the people. We have seen this in the Torah for Moses and now the text wants to show us that God will be with Joshua as He was with Moses. Joshua was a prophet and the words that he spoke were the very words of God. So the crossing of the Jordan would exalt Joshua in the eyes of the people of Israel. “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you’” (3:7). “On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they has stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (4:14). The text tells us that Joshua was doing “according to all that Moses had commanded” him (4:10b) and the trans-Jordan tribes did “as Moses had told them” (4:12). The crossing of the Jordan is a type of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
This was a sign that was given to help Israel believe. And it goes together with discipleship. The catechism question on the lips of the children is, “What do these stones mean?” And the parents were to teach them the answer: “For YHWH your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as YHWH your God to the Sea of Reeds, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear YHWH your God forever” (Joshua 4:23-24). This discipleship was to be done both in private family worship and in public worship, which is the setting envisioned here. Worship memorializes the great acts of the salvation of God. The Canaanites did not respond with this kind of fear but instead, “their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel” (5:1).
In chapter 5, we see circumcision and Passover. This too is a chapter about worship. Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gilbeath-haaraloth [hill of the foreskins.] We discover in the text that this is necessary because the first generation had not circumcised the second generation born in the wilderness. When the text says that he was to circumcise Israel a second time this does not mean anyone would be re-circumcised. It means this would be the second time there was a large number of the sons of Israel circumcised. Since that first generation had not believed, it would actually have been inappropriate for them to circumcise their children. The text tells us that circumcision would roll away the reproach of Egypt from the people thus the place is named Gilgal (which sounds like the Hebrew verb meaning “to roll away”). Reproach means disgrace or shame, so God has rolled away their shame of living as slaves in Egypt. If any of the men refused to be circumcised, then they would be cut off from the people of God. Circumcision has been replaced for us by baptism.
Then the people kept Passover. It was required by the Torah that one be circumcised before you could observe Passover. God had them arrive at just the right time to observe the other chief sacrament in the Old Testament (this one replaced by the Lord’s Supper for us) to lead them to greater faith and give them more grace. This brings us back to relive the original Passover when the firstborn of Egypt died in the tenth plague before Israel went through the Sea of Reeds. And now they would no longer have manna from the sky to eat as they did during the time in the wilderness.
The third scene of the chapter is also about worship. It is the one that you should be prepared for given what we have said already. Here Joshua meets the commander of the army of YHWH. It is YHWH Himself, because if it were simply an angel then he would refuse the worship offered as in other texts of Scripture. The commander tells Joshua, like Moses at the burning bush, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” (5:15). Throughout this passage Joshua is being the new Moses as he is leading them through a new Exodus as a picture of the new Joshua who will do the same in the NT.
So then the Prophets will be full of the theme of not relying on horses and chariots but in trusting in the exalted commander of the army of YHWH. YHWH of Hosts — the leader of an invisible army in the heavens — He will be called. And the answer the commander gives to Joshua’s question is instructive: “‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ … ‘No, but I am the commander of the army of YHWH. Now I have come.'” The OT prophets will show us the commander of the army of YHWH fighting for Israel and against Israel. But one point of the scene is to remind Israel that there is more to the battle than meets the eyes.