The second of three prescriptions God has for Joshua in a time of momentous change is as straightforward as the first:
being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go (Jos 1.7b).
God began by asking for Joshua’s trust; now he asks for his obedience.
As commentator David M. Howard writes, “It is striking that God’s instructions here to Joshua are not about military matters, given that Joshua and the Israelites faced many battles ahead. However, the keys to his success were spiritual, directly related to the degree of his obedience to God. The keys to Joshua’s success were the same as those for a king: being rooted in God’s word rather than depending upon military might (Deut 17:14–20, esp. vv. 16, 18–19)” (Joshua, New American Commentary, 85).
Obedience is a major theme in the book of Joshua. We shouldn’t be surprised that God peppers the book with reminders of the importance of obedience, given that the Israelites had just spent 40 years in the wilderness in response to their faithless refusal to enter the Land from Kadesh-Barnea (Num 14), and that before that, from the beginning of their time in the wilderness, they had complained of their circumstances and expressed doubt over the Lord’s character and motives (Ex 16.1-3). At the close of Moses’ ministry, God had predicted that this well-established pattern of disobedience would continue under the leadership of Moses’ successor (Dt 31.16).
As indeed it did. Immediately after the initial miraculous victory at Jericho, the disobedience of Achan led to death and defeat at Ai.
God’s plan was for them to do the hard work of taking the land. He would intervene spectacularly on their behalf as they crossed the Jordan (by parting it before them, Jos 3), surrounded Jericho (by collapsing the walls, Jos 6), and battled the southern Canaanite confederacy (by causing the sun to stand still, Jos 10), but He begins with their obedience.
And in turn, there’s a reason that he has asked for their faith before asking for their obedience. They wouldn’t step into the raging Jordan unless they believed that he would part the waters; they wouldn’t march in military aggression against the walled city of Jericho unless they believed that he would collapse the walls; they wouldn’t go into a days-long battle against the southern Canaanite confederacy unless they believed that he would make it possible for them to mop up the scene while there was still daylight.
Trust, then obey.
What of us?
We don’t have a land to conquer; we have other, different commands to obey. We are called to be ambassadors, representing him faithfully in the midst of unbelief, taking the Good News to a sometimes unwilling, even aggressively hostile audience, with weapons that are spiritual, not carnal, and with the very confidence and grace of the Son.
But we have advantages Israel didn’t have. “Christians under the new covenant have the two-fold advantage that Christ satisfied the law’s demands and promises (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 3:21–26) and through the Spirit has written the law upon their hearts (2 Cor. 3:3–6; Heb. 8:7–13; 10:15–18)” (Gordon McConville, New Bible Commentary, 237). Our obedience to the Great Commission is spiritually empowered by the Commissioner himself. He has rendered us fit for the task and inclined to obey—in even the hard things. “Like Joshua, Christians do not succeed spiritually because they obey God’s Law. Instead, God through Christ enables them to have victory over sin” (Richard Hess, The Tyndale OT Commentary).
So it turns out that the old children’s chorus expresses just exactly what’s called for from us adults: “trust, and obey.”
And we can do it.