Joshua 5:14, NASB
Joshua chapter 5 opens up on a brand-new world. The Israelites have just crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land, after forty long years of wandering in the desert. They now faced the seemingly impregnable walls of Jericho in front, and behind them the waters of the Jordan were returned to full flood stage. There was no going back! As the newly appointed leader of this multitude, Joshua’s mind was probably filled with questions, such as “What now? What’s the plan, God? Tell me what to do…and quickly!” As he was out walking near Jericho, perhaps ruminating on these things, he had an unusual encounter. Try to imagine this scene in your mind as you read it:
“Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us or for our adversaries?’ He said ‘No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, ‘What has my lord to say to his servant?’” (Joshua 5:13-14).
This divine visitor identified himself as a messenger from God, the Commander of the Army of the Lord. Many commentators believe that this was an Old Testament appearance of Jesus, which explains Joshua’s immediate response. In a true picture of the act of worship, he falls facedown to the ground, placing his body in a position of complete humility and vulnerability. Only then does he ask the question, “What has my Lord to say to His servant?”
The Hebrew word used here for “to say” is “dabar,” and it can mean “to speak, declare, command, promise, warn, threaten, or sing.” In other words, pretty much every form that verbal communication can take! Sometimes I fall into the trap of wishing God would just tell me what to do so that I could follow the instructions and get busy about the Lord’s work. But Joshua is prepared to hear more than just the directions; he’s ready for anything and everything that the Lord wants to speak to him.
In verse 15, we see that the angel of the Lord answers Joshua by saying, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” This is probably not the answer Joshua expected! The details of God’s plan for the battle against Jericho came later, but God’s immediate answer is this interesting statement. It’s almost as if God was saying, “I am here; My Presence makes this very ground holy. Let nothing artificial or man-made come between you and Me; take off your shoes and feel the mystery of My Presence with all your senses.”
This is actually the third time that God spoke to Joshua since he crossed the Jordan River. The first time was earlier in the same chapter, in Joshua 5:2, where He said:
“Circumcise this second generation of Israelites…” (NLT)
The first generation of men who had come out of Egypt and had been circumcised by Moses had now all died in the wilderness. The uncircumcised status of this younger generation placed them in the same category as the pagan Egyptians, placing a barrier between them and God.
The second time God spoke to Joshua was in chapter 5, verse 9, after he had obeyed and circumcised all the men; then God said:
“Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.”
The NLT translates this as “the shame of slavery.” Shame and reproach separate us from God. Now that they had responded in obedience, that barrier was removed; and God responded by reaffirming His covenant relationship with them.
Finally, we come to Joshua’s unexpected encounter with a Stranger outside the camp, where he is given this third instruction:
“Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
Before the battle plan, before the list of instructions, God’s primary concern is His relationship with His people and their understanding of Who He is.
While most of us might desire a list of instructions or a concise yes/no answer from God, we must first heed Joshua’s example by simply and humbly asking,
“What has my Lord to say to His servant?”
Then experience His presence. Worship His holiness. Take off your shoes, bow before Him and listen for His voice.
Happy is the soul which holds itself ceaselessly in the hands of its Creator,
ready to do everything which He wishes;
which never stops saying to itself a hundred times a day,
“Lord, what would you have me to do?”