The Commander of the Army of the Lord – Joshua 5:13-15
By: Northern Seminary
One of the most significant battles in Scotland’s history took place at Culloden on April 16, 1746. This was not a Scotland-England fight, but a battle between those who believed the Stuart kings should still be ruling and those who were loyal to the government formed under Hanoverian kings.
Those who supported the Stuart line of succession were called Jacobites, and many gave their loyalty to Charles Edward Stuart – better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie – when he sailed from France and landed in Scotland in 1745. Soon he had an effective army. The Jacobite Rising had begun.
The Jacobites won several early battles and ended most opposition in Scotland. Then the army marched south and got within 125 miles of London before confidence ran out and they retreated back to Scotland and deep into the Highlands. After a hard winter, it was time to fight again. The Jacobite army and government army came close. A decisive battle was ahead, and it would take place on Culloden Moor near Inverness.
What happened during that battle had everything to do with who took charge of the Jacobite army that day. It deeply affected the lives of those who fought at Culloden and the future of the whole of Great Britain. Exactly what took place we’ll get to at the end of this study!
Perhaps the most critical moment for the Israelites – who had just entered into their Promised Land – came in a meeting just outside Jericho between their leader, Joshua, and a mysterious stranger.
13 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?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
15 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.
There is no doubt that Joshua was a gifted and godly leader.
After Moses’ death he led the people. He brought them to the edge of the rain-swollen Jordan River, and with great courage and trust commanded the priests and the people to move forward. God dried up that flooded river and they crossed over on dry ground. Joshua was a man of faith!
Then, after the river was crossed, he ensured that all the men were circumcised and the Passover was celebrated. These were signs of God’s covenant with Israel, but they had been neglected during the years of wandering in the wilderness. Before they could move on they had to put right what had been wrong. Joshua was obedient!
Unquestionably Joshua was a great leader. The people knew it. Joshua knew it.
And there lay danger. When I was in my mid-twenties, I sat listening to an elderly pastor who had been greatly used as a parish minister. His work had influenced thousands of lives, and other pastors looked to him for leadership. But he was acutely aware of the dangers which went with public recognition, and that day he said this: “More young pastors are ruined by early success than by early failure.” Those words hit home, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Joshua was about to learn a powerful lesson like that about leadership. He’d gone out alone to scout out the challenge of conquering the great walled city of Jericho. He had to be asking himself: “How will my army overcome these massive defenses? Can I be a good enough commander?”
At that moment Joshua rounds a bend, and right in front of him is a fierce warrior with sword already drawn. Joshua could instantly have drawn his own sword, but he asks if the warrior is “for us or for our enemies.” In other words, whose side is he on?
The answer was one Joshua could never have expected!
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come” (v. 14). This warrior wasn’t about declaring ‘sides.’ He was there to command the army of the Lord.
Who was this person? Was this God? Or Christ? Or an angel? Scholars have suggested all of these. Certainly Joshua knew God was speaking to him. He was in God’s presence, and the commander of God’s army was before him. For Joshua, there was only one thing to do – he fell face down on the ground in reverence.
That encounter gave Joshua powerful lessons to learn.
1. The battle ahead was God’s, and would be won in God’s way and God’s strength.
God stood right before Joshua. He was there – right there. This was not a voice from the clouds.
And he was standing, with sword drawn – not reading the newspaper, not sitting around on a rock enjoying the evening air. This was God the warrior, ready to fight.
What was very clear to Joshua was the significance of both these points:
- God was there, right with him – not absent or distant.
- God was there to fight – not to watch how well Joshua did, but to win the battle for his people.
Those who would lead God’s church today need to know both of these.
I once saw a novel way for getting a car out of a very tight parking spot on a busy street. A driver had returned to his car and found it had been jammed in by other cars front and rear with literally less than six inches gap at either end. The driver had made futile little movements forward and back with his vehicle, but he had no chance of maneuvering out of that impossible situation.
That is, until two men stopped, saw the problem, and persuaded another eight strong men to help. Those ten men picked up that car, marched sideways with it out of the parking place, laid the car down gently out on the road, and off the grateful driver went!
But what if those ten men had only watched and done nothing? What if they’d laughed at the man’s predicament and then walked on? Obviously the car would have remained stuck. But those ten weren’t just spectators. They were involved. They were active. They changed the situation. They rescued the car and its driver.
God came to Joshua on exactly that basis, and God gets into the heart of our struggles as one who cares, one who gets involved, one who transforms situations.
Battles don’t just disappear, but God is with us every moment, in every struggle and every opportunity. But not just with us, but with us to fight and bring victory. God does not stand around, merely taking pity on our problems. God’s sword is drawn.
The work, the ministry, the mission of God’s church is God’s mission, and it will be won in God’s way and God’s strength.
2. The battle ahead would have an army greater than Joshua’s army.
The figure before Joshua said: “…as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
There are two ways to understand what Joshua was told:
1) Joshua was being substituted. In soccer, or football, or basketball and other sports, the coach can take one player off and put another player on. He’s replacing someone who is hurt or under-performing with someone fresh or who brings better skills for this stage of the game. So, is Joshua being substituted? Is he leaving the field of play and someone else taking over? That can’t be what this meeting is about, because Joshua continues to lead the Israelites. No new leader takes over Joshua’s role. There is another way of understanding the introduction of a new commander.
2) Joshua was meeting the commander of an army greater than his. Joshua stood before the “commander of the army of the Lord.” There was an army Joshua could not see – spiritual warriors fighting a battle against spiritual forces. Victory against Jericho would never be just about Jericho’s defenses and Joshua’s army. Something hidden from human eyes would decide that battle.
God’s people could not prosper with their own power. They would never have the skill or the strength to overcome the forces against them. But their situation was not hopeless, for God’s forces would fight and God’s forces were more than sufficient.
It was a lesson for Joshua and the Israelites, and a lesson for every Christian leader and every church today.
The Apostle Paul writes:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
How could we ever win that battle?
As a pastor I used to look out over my congregation and wonder how the mission of God could be done. Our team didn’t look promising:
- Mary could not sing in tune but insisted on singing.
- Joe, the maintenance guy, had only one tool, a hammer.
- Fred would go to sleep in the meetings he was chairing.
- Hilda’s welcome at the door would be anyone else’s interrogation.
- They voted for guest services but brought no one.
- Surviving the pot-luck supper was a triumph of faith over diarrhea.
- The coffee needed a health warning.
- The youth group were terrifying.
- The seniors were even more terrifying.
- The facilities committee voted to paint the entrance hall yellow.
- They argued over the smallest things. Which side of the platform should the piano be on? Should the church trash can have a metal lid or rubber lid?
They left me praying: “Lord, how can I win the world with these people?”
And yet people came to faith, and we baptized brand new Christians every few weeks. The numbers of those attending kept rising, so that in a little over two years we had to move to a much larger building to accommodate the crowds. We planted another congregation which took off spectacularly. People grew in faith, in knowledge and love for the Lord.
Then my prayer became: “Lord, how? How is this happening?” And God would whisper in my ear: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6). Victory would never be by the talents or strategies of anyone in that church including its pastor. His army and his power would be decisive.
There is an army of God around and ahead of all God’s people, fighting for the victory God wants to see. We have a role – certainly we do – but ‘success’ in God’s work is never all about us, our skills, our methods, or our effort.
3. The battle ahead would have an overall commander of the Lord’s army, and that commander would not be Joshua.
Until that moment Joshua had thought he was in charge of the army. He’d assumed that victory depended on the strength of his forces, that the battle would be decided by his strategies, and the glory for victory would be his.
But his third lesson is that he’s not in charge. Joshua is not the senior commander.
His forces and his tactics won’t be decisive.
His fame will not be built on what lies ahead.
Why not? Because Joshua is not the commander of the Lord’s army.
God did not meet with Joshua to whisper encouragement in his ear, or to give him a better strategy for the fight ahead, or to assure him he was the best commander this army could have. God met with Joshua so that he would fall face down on the ground before God’s messenger and accept he wasn’t the commander at all.
Joshua could have rebelled, refusing to submit. But, instead, he humbled himself. He accepted there was an overall commander, and that commander was not him.
I began studies for Christian ministry when I was twenty-one. I believed I had no ambition except to find and do God’s will. Then came the night when I prayed: “Lord if you send me to the remotest rural place where I will never be known, that’s fine with me….”
As soon as those words were out I stopped. I knew that prayer wasn’t true. I did not want to serve faithfully but invisibly in some backwater. I wanted to be where the action was, and become significant and prominent as a Christian leader.
Yet, that was very far from a godly thought! I wanted to pray again, right there and then, a prayer of submission to God’s will whatever it was. But I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be real or true because there was a more selfish ambition deep in my heart. Eventually I got there, but it was nearly a year until I could pray a prayer offering myself for wherever God wanted me and whatever it meant. In other words, until I surrendered to him as commander.
God insists on being number one. There can be no commander of our lives or of his church above him. Growth in his kingdom, achievements of eternal value, need us to recognize that he is commander of our lives and his church.
The ultimate lesson then is letting the right commander be in charge.
That brings us back to the sad story of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Jacobites had won several earlier battles, but Culloden was over in less than an hour and they were routed and butchered on the battle field and afterwards. It was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought in Europe in those centuries.
Why did the Jacobites lose the Battle of Culloden? There are many reasons, of course, but right at the heart was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s lust for personal glory. He had not commanded his army personally when they won most of their previous battles. But now – at Culloden – he took charge. That was disastrous. For example:
– His Jacobite army was exhausted. They’d marched out and back through the night in a fruitless attempt to mount a surprise attack on their enemies. They needed to rest, but Charles was determined to fight.
– Many of his troops had yet to arrive at Culloden. Others were away finding food. Some were sleeping in ditches. But Charles set up to fight with the forces he had.
– The Jacobite troops were required to stand their ground while cannon shot and mortar bombs devastated them. Their Prince had been moved back for safety. He was out of sight of his own forces, so he didn’t know what was happening. There the men had to stand under fire. No order to attack was given for over half an hour.
– Culloden Moor was a boggy, wet place. It was wholly unsuited for the Highland charge, which was the clansmen’s terrifying and effective technique. Fierce warriors with huge swords would run headlong at their enemy often causing their foes to flee in terror rather than be beheaded. At Culloden the Jacobite warriors could get no momentum on boggy ground.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s desire for glory ended in disaster. He fled across the Highlands, and escaped eventually to France. After a very short spell of being celebrated as a brave and romantic hero, his reputation collapsed. France expelled him and he died a little over thirty years later in Rome, an alcoholic who had been abandoned by his wife and his followers.
Probably the Jacobite Rising would never have succeeded in the long term, but many lost their lives at Culloden and later because of one prince’s foolish desire to be in charge and seek personal glory.
During our years of growing up, many of us have been told: ‘You have to be clever, careful, cunning, and committed, because success depends on your ability and your hard work.’
That’s not wrong. But also not right, certainly not wholly right.
Joshua could never have won against Jericho on his own – it would have been disaster if he’d tried – but he surrendered to the commander of the Lord’s army, and what followed was an amazing victory.
There are battles none of us can win, and our greatest need is to bow humbly before God, surrender our will to his, and accept him as our commander. To let go control and trust him is never easy. But it’s also the most important thing we may ever do.
 The names used are not those of actual church members, and situations mentioned come from more than one church and are adapted. But they reflect the hard reality that churches are not filled with super-stars, and that their priorities are sometimes not those of extending the kingdom of God around the world.