As his Israelite army prepared to attack what even then was the ancient city of Jericho, Joshua “looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’” (Joshua 5:13).
We understand Joshua’s query. Whether it’s a matter of war-time alliances, taking sides in political campaigns, or what sports team a person cheers, we want to know whether other people are on our side. If they do not side with us, we may ascribe evil motives, or at least poor judgment to them.
In the current American political culture, both parties advocate polices that make strong ethical or moral claims that are based in biblical values. As you read that previous sentence, did your blood pressure start to rise? Both parties? You may have wanted to protest that your party’s key issue (in your opinion) is the most important moral issue; the other party has forsaken morality and ethics. You may have difficulty conceding, or even imagining, that someone from the other party may having the same thoughts you are in reaction to that sentence. We all want God to be on our side.
Joshua wanted this warrior to be on his side. It quite likely seemed a matter of life or death at that moment. The warrior’s response startled Joshua:
“Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:14a).
Neither? But wasn’t Joshua’s people the Chosen People of God? How could God NOT be on their side? The warrior asserts that God’s purposes do not align necessarily with any nation or army. When Joshua hears the warrior’s retort, he reacts in a way that suggests to me that if God is not on his side, Joshua definitely wants to be on Gods side:
“Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b)
Joshua does not argue with the warrior. He does not protest this unexpected neutrality. Joshua recognizes truth and realizes he is in the presence of God. He seeks to learn what God’s priorities are. When we pray regarding the outcome of elections, or pray regarding candidates, we want to pray for specific outcomes. This episode in Joshua’s life warns us to approach such prayers in humility, with a spirit that seeks to learn and not to impose our own will. Several years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “When to Pray, When to Protest,” that you can read by clicking here. In that post I wrote, “Working for justice demands taking the time to learn what is right and what is true in the circumstance that arouses our anger.” Like Joshua, we should seek to learn what message the Lord has for us but studying what the Bible has to say about the issues that our party advocates and that the other party advocates. As we study, and pray as we reflect on what we have learned, we also must remember how Joshua’s interaction with the warrior continued:
“The commander of Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:15).
Let us act and speak with awareness that we are standing on holy ground. If we are to be rebuked or condemn, let it be because we have taken the time to discern what the will of the Lord is.
• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.
We bow before you, recognizing your reign and authority over us. Our pride enshrines our opinions as sacred. Awaken us when we are obtuse. Reveal to us when we teeter on the edge of idolatry, tempted to worship ideologies or economic theories, praising leaders without careful reflection that they are, like us, merely your creatures. Help us, as we read the Bible, to understand what we read and to discern rightly how the message applies in our own time. Teach us to value truth and integrity. Grant us the courage to pursue justice for those who cannot defend themselves. Help us to remember that you do not have to be on our side, but that we desperately need to be on your side. Forgive us for our arrogance. In Jesus’ name, amen.