Commander of the Lord’s Army

In the Book of Joshua, we find that Moses is dead, and the Lord has tapped Joshua as successor. The son of Nun is to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Yahweh assures Joshua that his covenant promises remain intact. No one is able to stand against Joshua because the Lord is with him, just as he was with Moses. Three times in the opening verses of the Book of Joshua, the Lord urges Joshua to be strong and courageous. The key to the new leader’s success is to carefully observe every instruction the Lord has given the people through Moses. “Do not be afraid or discouraged,” says Yahweh, “for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9).

As Joshua prepares the people for their journey, he sends spies to Jericho. They come to the home of a prostitute, Rahab, who hides them from Jericho’s king and helps them escape. In return, the spies agree to spare Rahab and her family on the day the Israelites attack. Returning to camp, the spies report to Joshua, “The LORD has handed over the entire land to us. Everyone who lives in the land is also panicking because of us” (Josh. 2:24).

The Israelites advance to the banks of the Jordan River, where they stay for three days and receive instructions. Joshua sends Levitical priests, carrying the ark of the covenant, ahead of the people. When the priests reach the water’s edge, the Jordan River divides, and the entire nation crosses on dry ground. The Lord commands Joshua to build a memorial from stones taken from the river bed, one stone for each tribe. Finally, when Joshua calls the priests to come up out of the Jordan, the waters resume their normal course.

The people camp at Gilgal, about two miles from Jericho. There, they erect the twelve-stone memorial according to the Lord’s instructions. Joshua tells the people:

In the future, when your children ask their fathers, “What is the meaning of these stones?” you should tell your children, “Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.” For the LORD your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, just as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed over. This is so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD’s hand is mighty, and so that you may always fear the LORD your God.

Josh. 4:21-24

Yahweh then tells Joshua to make flint knives and circumcise the Israelite men – specifically, the men born to the generation of disobedient fathers who died in the desert. This marks a new era in God’s covenant relationship with his people: “Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you,” says the Lord (Josh. 5:9). Having renewed their fidelity to the covenant, the people observe Passover, eating unleavened bread and roasted grain taken from the land. The next day, the Lord stops sending manna; the abundance of the Promised Land sustains them.

Throughout these events, Yahweh has exalted Joshua in the sight of the Israelites. God has spoken numerous times to his appointed leader – commanding, instructing, encouraging. And now, on the cusp of the battle for Jericho, Joshua encounters a visitor who reminds him the battle belongs to the Lord. 

A Man and a Drawn Sword

Joshua 5:13-15

God’s role in the conquest of Canaan fulfills what he promised Moses. As you may recall, the Lord told Moses the same angel who guided the people through the wilderness would lead them into the Promised Land: “For my angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out” (Exod. 23:23). 

This divine messenger – “my angel” – now appears in human form in Joshua 5:13-15:

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 approached him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied. “I have now come as commander of the LORD’s army.” 

Then Joshua bowed with his face to the ground in worship and asked him, “What does my lord want to say to his servant?”

The commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did that.

Note the similarities between Joshua’s response to the commander of the Lord’s army in this passage and Moses’ response to the angel of the Lord in Exodus 3. While the angel appears as a flame in a burning bush to Moses, and as a warrior to Joshua, his command is the same: Remove your sandals, for you’re standing on holy ground. Both men immediately comply. Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look at God. Joshua bows with his face to the ground in worship. 

The Hebrew word for worship, shachah, means “to bow down,” to express homage to a higher authority. Sometimes in the Old Testament, the authority is a monarch (1 Kings 1:31; 2 Chron. 24:17) or some other superior figure (Gen. 27:29; 49:8). Often, the figure is God. When one comes into the presence of Yahweh, the natural response is worship. As one resource notes:

Above all, He is deserving of supreme reverence and humility. Greater homage than what is paid to an earthly ruler must not be denied the Lord. Thus, the image of bowing down, both physically and mentally, is used to convey worship and allegiance to God…. Since bowing down expressed special reverence and allegiance, it was reserved for the Lord alone. The Israelites were forbidden from ‘bowing down’ to any idol or false God.

The Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words, 214

In this worship experience, Joshua understands he is second in command. The Lord comes to Joshua, not just to help, but to lead. As Jesus later reminds his followers, “[Y]ou can do nothing without me” (John 15:5). The encounter reminded Joshua that it was the Lord who would lead the battle against Jericho and insure victory for the Israelites. The looming battle with Jericho required spiritual, not military, preparation.

Joshua prostrates himself on holy ground. But what makes the ground holy for Moses, or for Joshua? Certainly, it’s not the rocky land at the base of Mount Horeb, or the fertile soil on the plains of Jericho. Rather, it is the presence of Yahweh. 

Holy ground

Wherever the Lord appears, or chooses to place his name, is holy ground. We see this many times throughout the Old Testament. For example, Moses tells the Israelites that once they occupy the Promised Land, the Lord will choose a place to have his name dwell (Deut. 12:5, 11). In that place, the people are to observe Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Shelters (Deut. 16:2, 6, 11, 15). This place, of course, is Jerusalem, from which many kings of Judah reign (e.g., 1 Kings 14:21). 

Ultimately, however, Yahweh has chosen to place his name in the temple (e.g., 2 Kings 23:27; Ezra 6:12). There, the Holy of Holies – a cube-shaped room in the heart of the temple – is so sacred that no one but the high priest may enter it, and only on the Day of Atonement – and even then, only with blood sacrifices to clear the way. 

Name theology is significant in Scripture. Deuteronomy often refers to Israel’s worship of God at the place where Yahweh decides to “put his name” (Deut. 12:4, 21) or “have his name dwell” (Deut. 12:11; 14:23; 16:2, 6, 11). In other words, the day is coming when Yahweh himself, not just an inscription of his name, dwells in his temple (see 1 Kings 8). When we connect these passages with the angel of the LORD, in whom Yahweh’s name and presence reside (Exod. 23:20-23), we see that the angel is Yahweh embodied in human form. The angel of the Lord, Yahweh himself, and the “presence” of Yahweh are synonymous. The angel is Yahweh because Yahweh is inseparable from his name and his presence.

There’s also a sense in which the divine name resides in followers of Jesus. The same Shekinah glory that blazed between the cherubim in the Most Holy Place in Jerusalem now resides in our human spirits, making us spiritually alive, setting us apart, sealing us, baptizing us into the body of Christ, granting us spiritual gifts, empowering us to overcome temptation, and helping us understand the divine book he authored (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). And so it becomes apparent: Holy ground exists wherever Yahweh is present. 

A divine warrior, a drawn sword

Next, we should see the significance of the angel’s appearance to Joshua both in human form and as a warrior. His presence as a man follows a consistent pattern we see throughout the Old Testament. Further, as Donald Campbell notes:

Something occurred that convinced Joshua this was no mortal soldier. As with Abraham under the oak at Mamre, Jacob at Peniel, Moses at the burning bush, and the two disciples at Emmaus, there was a flash of revelation and Joshua knew he was in the presence of God. It seems clear that Joshua was indeed talking to the Angel of the Lord, another appearance in the Old Testament times of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. 

“Joshua,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 338-339

That the angel is depicted as wielding a “drawn sword in his hand” points us more directly to his identity as the preincarnate Christ. This phrase occurs only two other times in the Hebrew Bible:

When the donkey [upon which Balaam was riding] saw the angel of the LORD standing on the path with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the path.

Num. 22:23

When David looked up and saw the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem, David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell facedown.

1 Chronograph. 21:16

The connection between these three passages is unmistakable. “Given how the writer of Joshua 5:13 pointed his readers to the burning bush incident in Exodus 3, it is evident that the commander of Yahweh’s army is the angel of Yahweh,” notes Michael Heiser.

The bottom line in this encounter on the plains of Jericho is that the battle is not Joshua’s but the Lord’s. No doubt, Joshua bears a heavy burden. Despite his military experience, he has never led an attack on a fortified city hunkered down for a long siege. The Israelites have no battering rams, catapults, or moving towers. Arrows, spears, and slings are virtually useless against an impregnable fortress. Further, the Israelites could go neither forward nor back. To go around the city would be to expose the women and children to attack. To go back would be to reach the Jordan’s banks and pray for another miracle. So, the angel comes to Joshua as a mighty warrior, ensuring him that a greater, undefeated, and indefatigable commander is at the helm.

All of this beautifully prefigures Christ. He comes to Hagar as a comforter, to Abraham as a traveler, to Jacob as a wrestler, to Moses as a blazing fire, and to Joshua as a sword-wielding warrior. “Our Lord always comes to us when we need Him and in the way we need Him,” notes Warren Wiersbe. Centuries later, this same commander invades Satan’s kingdom and plunders his goods (Matt. 12:25-29). Then, as the exalted Lion of Judah, he comes roaring out of heaven with a sword protruding from his mouth (Rev. 19:11-16).

So, what is the army over which the angel serves as commander? The army of the Lord is not limited to the Israelites, although certainly they are included in the defeat of Jericho. More specifically, this is an angelic host, the same army that later surrounds Dothan when the Arameans seem to greatly outnumber Elisha and his servant (2 Kings 6:8-17). It’s the same army from which Christ could have called twelve legions to rush to his defense in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:53). It’s the same army serving as “ministering spirits sent out to serve those who are going to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). And it’s the same army Christ leads in his glorious return (Matt. 16:27; 24:31; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 2 Thess. 1:7; Jude 14; Rev. 19:14).

Divine footprints

While the angel of the Lord is not specifically mentioned in Joshua, we see his footprints in the miraculous works that follow. The walls of Jericho fall after the people obediently carry the ark of the covenant – a symbol of God’s presence – around the city. The people experience a devastating setback at Ai due to sin (Josh. 7), but when they repent and renew their commitment to the law, they are victorious (Josh. 8). In Joshua’s battle against Adoni-zedek and his allies, God throws the Israelites’ enemies into confusion, rains hailstones from heaven on their heads, and causes the sun to stand still. The Israelites are both awestruck and victorious because “the LORD fought for Israel” (Josh. 10:10-14).  

That’s not all. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh and the angel of the Lord carry on a united and uncompromising battle against wickedness. For example, God sends the angel of the Lord to strike down 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35-36; Isa. 37:36-37; see Chapter 8). He dispatches “the destroyer” to strike the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:23). He sends the angel of the Lord to inflict a punishing plague on Jerusalem (2 Sam. 24:15-17; 1 Chron. 21:9-17). The Lord figuratively puts on armor to fight for his people (Isa. 59:17). Yahweh is exalted as a “warrior” who defeated Pharaoh and his armies (Exod. 15:3, 6-12). Elsewhere, the Lord – or prophetically, Christ – battles on behalf of his people (Isa. 63:1-6; Hab. 3:8-15; Zeph. 3:17; Zech. 9:14-16; 14:1-21).

In these and other Old Testament warrior depictions, we see Yahweh take a decisive stand against Satan and his minions, and against wicked people. Often, we see a foreshadow of Christ, who comes in human flesh to fight demonic forces on our behalf, and who conquers Satan, sin, and death through his death, burial, and resurrection. When the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, Jesus rebukes them and sets the record straight: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). Of course, the ultimate triumph over evil takes place on a hill just outside Jerusalem: “Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31).

Looking back at Christ’s finished work, Paul rejoices in this victory: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15 NIV).

The writer of Hebrews pens a similar message: “Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

The apostle John foresees a climactic event in Yahweh’s long campaign against the evil one. It is the return of Christ in glory:

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with justice. His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on his head. He had a name written that no one knows except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God. The armies that were in heaven followed him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. A sharp sword came from his mouth, so that he might strike the nations with it. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. And he has a name written on his robe and on his thigh: KING OF KINGS ANDLORD OF LORDS.

Rev. 19:11-16

Followers of Jesus are urged to engage in battle against Satan and the forces of evil. We are embroiled in spiritual warfare now and, one day, return with Christ in the final conflict with evil. For now, we are to put on the whole armor of God, which includes “the sword of the Spirit – which is the word of God” (see Eph. 6:10-17). As Vern Poythress notes:

In this passage, the description of the armor is reminiscent of Isaiah 59:17, where God wears the armor himself in order to fight against evil. In Christ we receive the armor that Christ has worn. We fight not with our own power, but on the basis of Christ’s victory and with the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ. In a broad sense, our own spiritual warfare is a manifestation of God the warrior, fighting with and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Theophany, 78

Famous last words

Near the end of his life, Joshua reminds the Israelites of God’s purposes and power in the conquest (Josh. 23:1 – 24:13). He tells them, “[Y]ou have seen for yourselves everything the LORD your God did to all these nations on your account, because it was the LORD your God who was fighting for you” (Josh. 23:3). 

Joshua implores the people to remain faithful to the Lord; to be obedient, strong, and loving; to avoid the snare of intermarriage that leads to idolatry; and to understand the consequences of breaking their covenant with God:

If you break the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods, and bow in worship to them, the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly disappear from this good land he has given you.

Josh. 23:16

Finally, Joshua speaks a prophetic word from “the LORD, the God of Israel” (Josh. 24:2). He reminds them of all God’s works on their behalf, beginning in the days of Abraham and continuing through the conquest of Canaan. And he calls them to covenant renewal, placing a large stone under an oak tree at the sanctuary of Yahweh. “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘You see this stone ​— ​it will be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words the LORD said to us, and it will be a witness against you, so that you will not deny your God’” (Josh. 24:27).

Sadly, the people soon lapse into complacency, then into idolatry. The large stone as a symbol of Christ – the commander of the Lord’s army – is a recurring theme throughout Scripture. He stands as a firm foundation for those who trust in him, but a rock that grinds to powder those who reject him. 

Samuel’s Ebenezer – the stone of help – is our firm foundation because “the LORD has helped us to this point” (1 Sam. 7:12). The rock that gushed water in the wilderness (Exod. 17:6; Num. 20:10; Ps. 78:15-17; 105:41; 1 Cor. 10:4) became a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (1 Pet. 2:7-8). The stone the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone and is the only way of salvation (Acts 4:11-12). The stone that crushed the kingdoms of the world becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth (Dan. 2:34-35, 44-45). The rock upon which the church is built is the foundation of our faith (Matt. 16:18; 1 Cor. 3:11). 

How fitting that Joshua, who encounters the preincarnate Christ as commander of the Lord’s army at the beginning of his service, depicts him near the end of his life as the rock who reminds the people of his covenant faithfulness. 

Next: The Angel of the Lord in the Time of Israel’s Judges

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.