The World at His Command
Sometimes, when we’re studying God’s word, we need to go slow and look at little sections at a time. Sometimes a single verse. Sometimes a single word.
Other times, we need to step back and look at a big chunk of the Bible all at once in order to really understand what’s going on. And as we get further and further into the book of Joshua, that’s going to be true for us.
Today, in order for us to really get a good picture at what’s going on, we’re going to be looking at two chapters at the same time—chapters 10 and 11. I thought we could break these chapters up, but in my study this week I decided that we needed to take them together in order to really understand the crucial truth that they are communicating.
Because taken together, these two chapters give us a powerful and beautiful portrait of the sovereignty of God.
You’ve probably hear that phrase “the sovereignty of God” before. According to the dictionary on my computer, means “supreme power and authority.” It has to do with kingly power and authority. So when we speak of God’s sovereignty we are referring to His absolute power and authority whereby He rules over this world according to His will.
Scripture consistently presents God as a sovereign God. Like we heard in our call to worship passage this morning, He “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” He is in charge of whatever happens in the universe, making it all reflect His ultimate will. And these two chapters in Joshua today work together to give us a rich picture of this truth for our souls to feast on.
And so what we’re going to do is begin by just walking through the narrative of these two chapters, seeing the big story that they tell. And then we’ll circle back and consider the three ways that they reveal God’s sovereignty to us.
Walking Through the Story
The opening 5 verses of chapter 10 set this whole section up for us. The king of Jerusalem hears about what happened at Jericho and Ai, and how Israel has made peace with Gibeon, and verse 2 says that “he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors.”
I think we’d understand his fear even more if we understood the geography of the land. By conquering Jericho and Ai and now making peace with these five Gibeonite cities, Israel controls a significant swath of very strategic territory that cuts right through the middle of Canaan.
And so what does this king do? Does he try to make peace with Israel, too? No, he reaches out to four other kings in the south of the land and says, in verse 4, “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.” Verse 5: “Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it” (Joshua 10:5).
Now what we need to understand here is that these aren’t just five random kings. These five kings and their kingdoms essentially make up the power centres of the whole southern half of the land. And they’ve all come against Gibeon.
Gibeon is in trouble. But Gibeon has an ally now. They’ve made a covenant with Israel. And if you were in a covenant with another nation, and you got attacked, they needed to come and help you. And so, in verse 6, we read that “the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, ‘Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us’” (Joshua 10:6).
Now what a spot for Joshua to be in. Israel should not be in this covenant in the first place. And now they’re being asked to come to their defence and take on the whole southern half of the land all at once.
It would be easy to say “oops, we’re busy this weekend. Sorry guys. Hope it works out okay for you.” But instead Joshua and Israel to the right thing, which is keep their covenant commitments, even if that means going up against five kings at the same time. Verse 7: “So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valor.”
And you know who else is involved here, too? God. Verse 8: “And the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you’” (Joshua 10:8).
And we’ve already read together what happened. God throws the enemies into a panic (v. 10), he sends down hailstones from heaven (v. 11), and in response to Joshua’s prayer he causes the sun and moon to stand still so that Israel could continue the pursuit against their enemies (v. 12-14). As verse 14 finishes up, “the Lord fought for Israel.”
Verse 20 and 21 tell us, “When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities, then all the people returned safe to Joshua in the camp at Makkedah. Not a man moved his tongue against any of the people of Israel” (Joshua 10:20–21).
Nobody was talking smack about Israel now.
Verse 22 and following tell us what happened to those five kings themselves. They were captured and brought out and Joshua invites the military commanders to come put their feet on their necks as a symbol of their victory over them. Verse 25: “And Joshua said to them, ‘Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight’” (Joshua 10:25).
These kings are then executed just like the king of Ai, and their bodies are buried under a big pile of stones, the fifth such memorial now in the Promised Land.
But this story isn’t finished here. Because while the kings have been dealt with, there’s still all of the enemies in their cities to deal with. And so what we read in verse 28 down to the end of the chapter is a list of how Israel went and cleaned up each of those cities. Verse 42 sums it all up by saying, “And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel. Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal” (Joshua 10:42–43).
God fought for Israel. And what looked like impossible odds—fighting against five kings at once—turned into a rout, and by the end, Israel has completely conquered southern Canaan.
Time for a breather, right? Well, not much of one, because right away chapter 11 verse 1 tells us how the northern kings reacted to this huge victory. “When Jabin, king of Hazor, heard of this”—in other words, when this king who lived up north past the Sea of Galilee heard what had happened in south Canaan—“he sent to” and then there’s a huge list of basically all or most of the major players in the north of Canaan. And verse 4 says, “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces and came and encamped together at the waters of Merom to fight against Israel” (Joshua 11:4–5).
Gulp. Israel has done okay against one or two kings at a time, and then against five kings and their armies at one time. And now it’s a list so big that their armies can’t even be counted. How are they going to make it out of this one alive?
And I just love verse 6. “And the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will give over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.’ So Joshua and all his warriors came suddenly against them by the waters of Merom and fell upon them. And the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel, who struck them and chased them as far as Great Sidon and Misrephoth-maim, and eastward as far as the Valley of Mizpeh. And they struck them until he left none remaining. And Joshua did to them just as the Lord said to him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire.” (Joshua 11:6–9).
Once again, God gives His people the victory.
You might wonder about this business of “hamstringing their horses.” The background here is that horses and chariots were like the tanks and fighter jets of that day in terms of military technology. If you had them, you were powerful. And back in Deuteronomy 17:16, God had told His people not to gather lots of horses to themselves. He wanted His people to trust in Him, not in their military resources.
And so here and elsewhere, when Israel captured a number of horses, they cut a tendon on the back of their legs that meant that the horse would not be able to gallop. We don’t know for sure that this was the hamstring, but the idea is that the horse could live and keep doing stuff, just not charge into battle again.
Now just like in the south, verses 10 and following tell us that after this Israel went and cleaned up each of these cities that had attacked them. Particular attention here is given to the ways that Joshua obeyed God’s word perfectly in all of this. Verse 15: “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.”
And so verse 16 tells us that “Joshua took all that land,” and it goes on to describe all of the territory from south to north that they controlled.
It didn’t happen all at once. Verse 18 tells us that “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings.” But it did happen.
I love how, as chapter 11 finishes up, right at the end of these two big campaigns that left Israel in control of most of Canaan, it tells us in verse 21 that “Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel. Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain” (Joshua 11:21-22).
The Anakim were giants. Big people, like Goliath. And 40 or so years before, these giants had been a major reason for why God’s people had been afraid of entering the land. They said they felt like grasshoppers next to them , saying they felt like grasshoppers next to them (Numbers 13:33). And here at the end of this account of the conquest, and almost as an afterthought, we’re told how Joshua almost entirely wiped this great threat out with the help of the Lord.
What an incredible statement of God’s promises coming true. And so finally verse 23 tells us that “Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses. And Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war” (Joshua 11:21–23).
Now that’s the big picture here in these two chapters. We haven’t read every verse out loud, and I really encourage you to do so on your own this afternoon or this week. This is all important.
But what we have done here is stepped back from the individual trees a little bit to see the forest. And we did that so we should see the way that, taken together, these two chapters give us a powerful portrayal of God’s absolute, powerful, kingly sovereignty.
And we see this sovereignty in three main ways.
1. God is Sovereign Over Nature
First, we see His sovereign power over the forces of nature. And this shows up in the first battle with the southern kings.
Chapter 10:11 tells us that God fought for Israel by sending a hailstorm, so that “there were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.” God is sovereign over the weather, using it to accomplish His purposes.
It’s just like Psalm 135 tells us. “For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.”
And then, in verses 12 and following, we saw God being sovereign over the movement of the sun and moon. Now this one trips a lot of people up because it seems so unlikely to happen, but once again, that’s kind of the point.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen all of the time. In fact, verse 14 tells us that this only happened once. It’s recorded here because it’s a miracle.
And if we struggle with God doing a big, cosmic miracle like this, we need to remember that the laws of nature don’t just run by themselves. Our universe isn’t like a giant clock that God wound up and then let go. Rather, the so-called “laws of nature” work because God makes them work moment-by-moment. “He upholds the universe by the word of His power,” says Hebrews 1:3.
And if God wants to press “pause” on some of those natural processes for a few hours, then why can’t He do that? “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Jesus did miracles all of the time that defied the natural order of things. He calmed the storm and made the waves stop immediately. Is anything too difficult for Him?
God is sovereign and that means He has all power over the natural world.
2. God Sovereignly Works All Things for Good
The second big way that we see God’s sovereignty in this passage is the way that He sovereignly works all things, even sin, for good.
There’s a reason we needed to look at these chapters as one unit. Because when we do that it’s evident that the southern and northern campaigns, and the battles with all of those kings, were all triggered by one thing: Israel’s covenant with Gibeon. It was that covenant which provoked the five southern kings to attack, and it was Israel’s victory over those kings that provoked the northern kings into battle.
Just think about that. God used Israel’s covenant with Gibeon as the key to unlock the whole rest of the land. And not just that, but in the south, God specifically stepped in with those miracles we just talked about to help Israel as they upheld their covenant with Gibeon.
This is how God words. Remember Joseph saying to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20)?
Many of you are familiar with Romans 8:28, which says that “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). All things work together for good—including our sin.
And, of course, we see this truth most fully displayed in the death of Jesus. “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28). The wickedest act in history—the murder of Jesus—was a part of God’s plan to save us and pay for our sin.
And if we step back even further, we know that all of the evil in history—starting with the eating of the fruit in the garden—is all a part of God’s great plan to give everlasting joy to His people and bring glory to Himself, through Jesus. We would not see the manifold glory of Jesus, we would not be able to praise Him forever as the lamb who was slain, apart from all of the evil that has taken place.
Now knowing that God uses all things for good, even our sin, is not a permission to go sin as much as we want. Because we would never do that if we really loved God and were called according to His purpose.
We also need to know that God’s sovereignty doesn’t override our moral accountability. God uses evil, but that evil is still evil. God held Judas and Pilate and Herod responsible for their evil actions against Jesus, even as, in a mysterious way, their evil actions were a part of His plan to save sinners like you and I.
And so Israel should not have made that covenant with Gibeon. But God used that event to unlock His good promises to them. And looking back at our sins and our mistakes and our messes, we can be confident that God will likewise use them for good.
Be encouraged by seeing Him do this with Israel, and be encouraged to know that He will do the same for you if you love Him and are called according to His purpose.
3. God’s Sovereignty Over Human Hearts
There’s one final way in which we see God’s sovereignty in our passage, and it’s God’s sovereignty over human hearts. We see this truth most clearly in the summary statement in chapter 11 verses 19-20: “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:19–20).
This is one of those passages that can really get people worked up. What do you mean, God hardened their hearts so that they came out to fight against Israel so that they would be destroyed?
Well, let me explain to you very simply what this means. It means that God hardened the hearts of these cities so that they came out to fight against Israel so that they were destroyed. That’s what it says and that’s what it means.
God is sovereign. As the king of kings, He is sovereign over the nations. He threw these peoples into panic when Israel attacked (10:10). He fought for Israel (10:42) and gave them into Israel’s hand (11:8). And one of the ways he did this was by hardening the hearts of the kings so that they fought so that they were destroyed as judgement for their gross wickedness (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).
And once again, this is not the only time we see this in the Bible. God did this with Pharaoh again and again, hardening his heart throughout the ten plagues. And Romans 9:16, reflecting on this truth, says, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:16–18).’
That’s what the Bible says.
And many people have a problem with that. It’s not just a modern problem. It’s an ancient problem. Because the very next thing that Romans 9 says, in verse 19, is this:
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19–24).
The Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not apologize for God’s sovereignty. Rather He upholds him as the sovereign potter. We are the clay. That’s who He is and that’s who we are. And the potter has the freedom to make what He will out of His clay.
That is just what the Bible says. And I don’t want to apologize for or explain that away any more than Paul did.
But perhaps one word of explanation will be helpful. When Joshua 11:20 talks about God hardening the king’s hearts, just like He did with Pharaoh, we shouldn’t picture it as if they had these really soft hearts, just wanting to surrender to Israel, but God came along and hardened them so that they did what they didn’t want to do.
The word “harden” is connected to the idea of “strengthenimg” and the idea here is that, in hardening their hearts, God is judging them by strengthening their sinful hearts. He is reinforcing their natural desires.
We see this in Romans chapter 1, which talks about the wrath of God being revealed from heaven. And if you read that chapter, you’ll see that one of the main ways that God exercises His wrath is by giving people up to the very thing that they already want.
So once again, it’s not like the kings of Canaan, or the people alive today, are all basically good people just ready to repent and turn back to God. No, we’re all basically wicked people just ready to run off into the worst kind of wickedness we can get away with.
And according to Romans 9:18, God has mercy on those whom He chooses. He takes that hard heart and makes it soft. He takes that dead soul and makes it alive. It’s an act of sheer mercy that nobody deserves and God dispenses to “whomever He wills.”
But to others, whomever He wills, God hardens. He takes that hard and rebellious heart and He gives it over to its deepest, darkest desires. And so when God hardens a heart, He is not being unjust or unfair, because He’s just giving it exactly what it most deeply wants.
And so the real question for us is not, “Why does God harden people’s hearts?” The question for us is, “Why does God choose to soften anybody’s hearts?”
That’s what should take our breath away. Not God’s sovereign judgement, but God’s sovereign grace.
Because if you know and love Jesus, it’s because you are a recipient of sovereign grace. It’s because God preemptively did a miracle in your heart as unexpected and powerful as the first act of creation. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
If you know and love Jesus, it’s because God did a miracle in your heart as unexpected and powerful as Lazarus walking out of His grave. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,” (Colossians 2:13).
Dead people don’t make themselves alive. God did this and so we owe Him everything.
And that’s what our passage reveals for us today. A God who is sovereign over nature, a God who uses our sin for good, and a God who rules over our very hearts.
Now I know that when I teach on God’s sovereignty, people have questions. I’d really love to talk to you about those questions. I think that there are some really good answers to the questions that we have.
But as we end here today I want to encourage you that God’s sovereignty is not primarily a truth for us to question or debate. Rather, just like for Israel, it’s a truth for us to take up and put to work.
Joshua and Israel believed in a sovereign God, and that truth compelled them to pick up their swords and march through the night and pray big prayers to God. They did all of that because they knew God was powerful enough to do whatever He wanted.
And for you and I, believing in a sovereign God will not make us passive. It makes us active. It empowers us to pray, because God is powerful enough to do what He wants. It empowers us to share the gospel with people, even that person, because we know that God can resurrect their heart just as much as anybody else’s. We can go to unreached peoples, knowing that Jesus already died to buy people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).
We can obey Him even when His commandments are hard, because we know that He knew what He was doing when He told us that. And we can trust Him in the middle of painful suffering, knowing that His sovereign hand is going to work all things for good.
Think about your life. Think about what you’re going to face this week. If you go into this week thinking that you have to be in control, you’re just begging for a stream of disappointment and heartbreak and anger and frustration. But if you go into this week recognizing that your God is in control, you can walk in with peace and comfort and confidence. Like a child slipping their hand into the hand of their Father, and looking up into His face, knowing that someone big and strong and kind is with them and everything’s going to be okay.