Another momentous change for Israel as they prepared to cross the Jordan River and enter the Land of Promise was their new way of navigating this unknown territory. When God told the leaders to declare "...you have not passed this way before" (Joshua 3:4, ESV) he was making it abundantly clear that they were entering unknown territory in just about every possible human consideration. One was their guidance system as they traveled. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness of Sinai God had sent a pillar of cloud to guide them by day and a pillar of fire to give them direction by night (see Exodus 13:14-17, ESV). Now, they were entering land that had been occupied by other nations while they were captives in Egypt for 430 years. The pillars of cloud and fire would signal the opposing nations as Israel made their way into the land. So, God gave them a new guidance system that the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (see Deuteronomy 7:1) wouldn't comprehend and use for strategic advantage. Joshua recorded it like this---
At the end of three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the
people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried
by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. Yet there
shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near
it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way
Joshua 3:2-4, ESV
The priestly caste was to carry the ark of the covenant in front of their advancing nation. Simply speaking the ark of the covenant was the elaborate box God had designed and commanded the Levites to build as a symbol of his presence with them. It contained the tablets of the law God had given Moses and the staff Moses had used to guide the nation in battle. Of particular note here was the manner in which the ark of the covenant was to precede the nation. God declared, "Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length" (Joshua 3: 4, ESV). The people were to follow 2,000 cubits behind the ark, or around 3,000 feet. They were to follow from a distance of around one half mile. Interesting!
Bible teachers and scholars have debated the size of the Israelite nation after their forty years in Sinai. Critics have analyzed the Bible census numbers with skepticism. Exodus 12:37-38 estimated the number of Israelite men at 600,000. Numbers 1:46 gives the total as 603,550 men aged 20 and above. Factoring in children and women many have estimated the nation to total 2 million to 2.5 million. Who knows? But, with such a large number of pilgrims traveling to the Promised Land the instruction about keeping the ark of the covenant 2,000 cubits in front of the throng makes clear sense. If humans surrounded the ark closely and engulfed those transporting it their guidance system could have been easily hidden from their view. Then, they truly would not have known which direction to take.
So, here I am in the unknown of 2018. God has given me clear direction with the promise of his presence and the confidence of his direction in the Bible. But, like most other humans, I have a tendency to surround myself with activity, passions, favorites, and life in general to the point that his guidance systems are often eclipsed by the buzz of what is happening around me. And, that may be truer in 2018 than any of my previous New Year unknowns. Life today is faster, more congested, and more complex that ever before. How easy it will be for the busy-ness and activity of the New Year to overshadow God's guidance for our lives.
A word from the practical Epistle of James challenges me in these first days of the New Year, these first steps into the 2018 unknown. James wrote, "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8, ESV). God's guidance systems---his presence, and his word---are close at hand to provide direction in this unknown territory. There is the threat, however, of his guidance becoming distant because of my preoccupations, preferences, and life choices. James' counsel is to keep myself near to God so that I can sense his direction and guidance in the unknowns of another New year.
The anonymous author of Hebrews provides additional counsel as the unknown of 2018 stretches before me right now. This author wrote, "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). I don't know about you, but I need all the mercy and grace God can provide as I deal with the uncertainties of these unknowns.
Drawing near to him is akin, in my book, to the Israelites keeping the ark of the covenant within view. They needed his mercy and grace as they finally crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. So, do we.
Happy New Year! Welcome to the unknown.
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