“Be strong and courageous” is a theme that echoes through the first chapter of Joshua and resounds throughout his life as recorded in the Pentateuch. As the new leader of Israel, Joshua needed to understand God’s promise to be with Him and to deliver on what He had promised to the nation about entering the land of Canaan.
What Courage Looks Like
“Be strong and courageous, for you will cause this people to inherit the land that I swore (promised) to their fathers to give them” (Joshua 1:6).
The phrase “be strong” in the Septuagint means to be forceful and refers to the force of God in a person. The first time Joshua hears this phrase, it is followed by a reason why: God has a plan that He is going to implement. The phrase is then repeated a second time before an outline of what being strong and courageous will look like: Joshua must conform his mind to the truth of God revealed in the law. He had to become aligned with the purposes of the kingdom of heaven in order to achieve the impossible objective. God had a goal and Joshua was commanded to forcefully pursue becoming (“BE strong and courageous”) the kind of person through whom it could come.
This pursuit of becoming could not take place apart from a deep relationship with what God had already spoken. The promise of God does not find its fulfilment apart of the law of God. If Joshua wanted to be strong and courageous in the way that is meant here, it required an alignment with what was already revealed in the word of God. The extra emphasis on courage in verse seven seems to indicate the great difficulty of this challenge.
“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go” (Joshua 1:7).
This is not something that Joshua has to try to figure out on his own, though. In addition to the admonition toward courage, God gives instructions in verse 8 on how Joshua is going to become the kind of person that is needed to lead the people into their promise.
“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8).
It is through repeated exposure to the word of God that Joshua will renew his mind and become the kind of person who follows what it says. This is reminiscent of Psalm 1, which describes the blessed man as the one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, whose leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers” (Psalm 1:2-3).
By the time God gives the command to Joshua, it is apparent that he is a man prepared to succeed in whatever he does. As the servant of Moses, he ascended the mountain of God, which everyone else was warned not to even approach (Exodus 19:12; 32:17). He was the one who stayed behind at the tent of meeting to speak with God even after Moses had gone home for the night (Exodus 33:11). Every time we see him before the book of Joshua, this man gives evidence that he has applied his heart to the law and aligned his life to what it says. By the time we hear the command to strength and courage in the book of Joshua, it is simply a reminder of what has already been done.
Why Courage is Hard
In Deuteronomy 31:3 Joshua is given charge of the people of Israel when Moses is about to depart. The final instructions of Moses are that Joshua is to pass over at the head of the nation to lead them into the promised land. Moses further instructed, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8).
In the public commission that follows Joshua receives a repeat of these instructions from the voice of God saying “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23).
Courage and strength from God is not a recent promise, but rather a reflection of an earlier promise made to the whole nation of Israel in Exodus 23 when God promised to send his angel before the people of Israel: “If you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (v. 22).
Joshua remembered this promise when he first came back from spying out the land of Canaan. In those younger days he had said “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us…Only do not rebel agains the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them” (Numbers 14:7-9).
Unfortunately, the people responded to this admonition of Joshua by picking up stones to kill him and his brave friend, Caleb (Numbers 14:10). The two only escaped from this unfortunate end by the appearance of the glory of the LORD in the camp of Israel. Thus, it is easy to understand why Joshua might hesitate to suggest the same thing twice.
Perhaps this is why the book of Joshua opens with God encouraging this man to step up and begin to be the man who he already is – only now with the strength of God flowing through him (remember the definition from earlier…). The courage he needs is the courage to do what God has commanded him. We may consider the opening chapter of the book to be a gentle reminder to Joshua of all the things that have already been spoken over his life.
In Joshua 1:9 God asks a rhetorical question: “Have I not commanded you?” and then repeats the entire promise from Deuteronomy when Joshua was commissioned as leader of the people: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be dismayed for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
I think Joshua had gotten comfortable being in charge as long as he was on the side of the river that had already been conquered. This, however, was not to be his destiny. He was called to lead the people Israel across the Jordan River to inherit the promises of God…the same people whose parents had tried to stone him the last time he suggested such a thing.
The Importance of Humility
For this reason, I think Joshua chooses his words carefully in verse 10 when he tells the people “get ready, because in three days we are crossing the Jordan River ‘to go in and take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.’” This is a subtle contrast to his previous language when he suggests that God is giving the promised land to “us” to possess. In some sense, it appears that he has learned to distance himself from the people and place himself as simply a mouthpiece of God. He might have learned some of this from Moses who had often faced a similar struggle in his leadership. Maybe the courage to which he was called required him to let go of faith in his ability as a leader and simply trust the plan of God.
Joshua recognizes that He is not the one who will make the promise come true for everyone. It is not his noble courage and strength as a leader that will result in their victory, but rather his dependence upon the strength of the LORD at work through him to deliver the crazy promise. He is just working alongside as a means through which the voice of God can speak to the people (a mediator of sorts) to direct them to where they are meant to go.
How can he successfully do this? Only by thinking back to what God said in verses seven and eight. He must immerse himself in the truth of what God has commanded and promised. It is in this way that the power of God will flow through his life. It is not in his pursuit of leadership or his bold stand for the truth, but his conformity to what God is doing that will make him a successful leader.
The Outcome of Courage
In the present day, God still has a plan He is implementing for His kingdom on earth (Matthew 6:10). He calls His people to be a part of this plan, not because we are needed to move it forward, but because He wants His strength to flow through us. This requires that we have the courage to pursue the renewal of our minds through consistent exposure to the truth of what has been written in the Bible. More than this, however, it is the courage to follow it that leads to our success wherever we go.
Those who wish to be great in the kingdom of heaven are those who do and teach the law, not those who let go of the commands of God in order to pursue His promises (Matthew 5:19). We have already seen what happened when the nation of Israel decided to go into the promised land on their own without the power of God. They were destroyed by their enemies (Numbers 14:40-45). The opportunity to follow God into the promise had been lost and when they tried to achieve it on their own, their efforts failed.
I think that the memory of this sad event was part of the reason it would take courage for Joshua to regain faith in the promises of God and to follow his leading to bring the people across the river into a place of danger. If Joshua was not ready to trust himself to the strength of the LORD, his leadership would put the entire nation at risk of a similar catastrophe. What if he had been unable to convince the priests to step into a flooded river in Chapter 3 or tried another method besides marching in circles around the walls of Jericho in Chapter 5…?
That is not how the story goes, however.
When the voice of the LORD came to Joshua with the instructions to be strong and courageous, he turned a second time to the people and asked them to follow God’s promises across the river and into the land. Unlike the previous occasion when they tried to kill him, the people were now ready to follow and believe the word of the LORD. Even when Joshua asked those who had already received their inheritance to leave behind their homes and families to enter a war on behalf of the others, they responded by saying: “All that you have commanded us, we will do…only be strong and courageous!” (Joshua 1:16-18).
I think, in his own story, Joshua had finally figured out what it looked like to be strong and courageous. In my own life, it is still a struggle to remember that the way I prepare to enter the promises of God is not by pursuing them on my own, but by embracing the courage needed to immerse myself in the truth of His word until I am aligned with the vision of what He is going to do. The courage to be strong is the courage to pursue living out the commands and promises of God by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in my life. That is, after all, in the life of Joshua, how great things began to happen!
 Thanks to Elsa at Ellerslie for sharing her insights on the meaning of this term.