Gaining Ground: Like Joshua, Be a Warrior (Part 1)

What To Do When You’re Ambushed By Life

Lessons from the Stories of Joshua

“Boy, I didn’t see that coming!” 

Ever said that? The art of the ambush is an old military tactic; and it must have been invented by Satan, because he certainly knows how to ambush us. He ambushed Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he’s been doing it ever since. He hits us with things we never saw coming. So does the world, and so does our own flesh. Just when we think we’re over a rough spot, here comes another. Just when we think we’ve kicked a bad habit, something happens and we fall right back into it. 

We didn’t see it coming.

I want to talk about that in today’s message, and I begin a series of Bible studies to introduce one of the Bible’s greatest heroes—Joshua, the first great military general of Israel. To set it up, I want to take you on a little tour of Old Testament book of Exodus. If you’re where you can open your Bible with me, let’s just walk through the opening chapters.

  • In Exodus 1, the Children of Israel multiply in Egypt and are enslaved by the Pharaoh and by the Egyptian government.
  • In Exodus 2, Moses is born and grows up, but his attempt to free the Israelites backfires and he flees the country when he is forty years old.
  • In Exodus 3 and 4, God appears to Moses at the Burning Bush and sends him back to deliver the people of Israel.
  • Exodus 5 through 11 describe a series of devastating plagues God wrought against Egypt as He judges the Egyptians and forces them to release the Israelites.
  • Exodus 12 describes the actual exodus, the glorious moment when Israel exits Egypt.
  • The Israelites get to the Red Sea in Exodus 13.
  • And in Exodus 14, the Lord split open the ocean and let His people pass through on dry ground.
  • Exodus 15 contains the first recorded song in the Bible, a hymn of praise.
  • And in Exodus 16, God provides manna for the Israelites as they make their way to Mount Sinai.

Now we come to Exodus 17. In the first part of this chapter God provides water from a rock to satisfy the thirst of His people. But the second part of the chapter is what I’m interested in for this message. For the first time in their history, Israel was attacked. They faced military conflict. They were ambushed by a group known as the Amalekites. So let’s pick up the story there, at Exodus 17:8: The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. 

This is the passage of Scripture I want to study with you, but bear with me. I want to pause to look at two cross-references.

Turn to Numbers 24. This is the story of the pseudo-prophet Balaam. Look at verse 20: Then Balaam saw Amalek [or the Amalekites] and spoke his message: “Amalek was the first among the nations, but their end will be utter destruction.”

Balaam said the Amalekites were first among the nations. In what way were they first? They weren’t the first nation to exist on the planet, but they were the first nation to do what? There is some distinction that causes them to be the first. They are the first to attack Israel. It’s true the Egyptians had enslaved Israel and that Pharoah had come after them. But the Egyptian army never attacked Israel. They never got near them. God drowned the enemy warriors in the Red Sea. 

No, it was the Amalekites who had the distinction of being the first nation in the history of the people of Israel to ambush them, to attack them, to wage war against them. Think about that! 

No nation in the history of humanity has been more battered and beaten for more centuries and for more millennia than Israel. This story in Exodus 17 took place about 1400 years before Christ. Israel was attacked in battle here for the first time. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was under siege again and again. In the New Testament times, Israel was occupied by Rome and finally destroyed by the Roman Army. Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people have been attacked in waves of anti-Semitism. As soon as the nation of Israel was reborn in 1948, she was attacked by every nation around her. In our own lifetime, Israel has faced one war after another for her very existence. At this moment, there are 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel from Southern Lebanon by Hezbollah. 

For over 3,000 years, Israel and the Jewish people have been attacked wherever they have been. And it all started with this ambush by the Amalekites. They were the first nation to attack Israel.

How did they do it? How did this battle begin?

Let’s turn to another passage. In Deuteronomy 25, Moses was writing his memoirs, as it were, and he was looking back over the forty years during which he had led the Children of Israel. He recalled this battle with the Amalekites very clearly. Look at verses 17-19:

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not wait!

The Amalekites staged an ambush on the rear flanks of Israel. We would say today, they shot them in the back. They circled to the rearward sections of the procession, to those who were weakest, to those who were lagging behind, and they attacked them. They did it when Israel was weary and worn out.

That’s when the devil loves to attack us—when we are weary and worn out. Sometimes we have worked ourselves to the bone. Sometimes we’ve carried heavy burdens. Sometimes we are lagging behind. I don’t know about you, but I often feel that way. That’s when the Amalekites attack. That’s when our enemies pounce. That’s when the devil ambushes us.

Now with all that as context, let’s go back to our primary paragraph in Exodus 17, beginning again with verse 8:

8While the people of Israel were still at Rephidim, the warriors of Amalek attacked them. 

Who were these Amalekites? According to Genesis 36, the founder of the Amalekites was Amalek, who was the son of Eliphaz, who was the son of Esau, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. 

So follow the family line: Abraham, Isaac, Esau, and Eliphaz. Eliphaz had relations with a woman named Timna, who was not his wife. She was a Horite. Biblical scholar Michael Heiser postulates that the Horites had a bloodline that included the giants who were produced in Genesis 6 and again later, when the sons of God had relations with the daughters of men. This evil line of humanity was fierce and fiercely evil. They were supernaturally evil. So if Eliphaz inherited this bloodline from his mother, the Amalekites would have been large, fierce, and deeply antagonistic to God’s program and to God’s people. They would have attacked them with supernatural energy.

If so, this is no mere human ambush. There were powerful spiritual forces of evil attacking God’s people at their weakest point, trying to keep them from getting to Mount Sinai, where God was waiting for them.

I know this is all a lot to take in, but let me make it simple and relevant. Satan wanted to destroy God’s people from the outset, and this was his opening shot. There was spiritual warfare going on that was satanic in nature.

The same is true for us. When you feel ambushed in life, when you are weary and worn out, when you are lagging behind, that’s when the devil will try to hit you with supernatural force. When something comes at from you from out of the blue, when you feel threatened or endangered, when life ambushes you at the very moment you are having trouble keeping up, remember Exodus 17. And recall what the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 6:12:

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.

Remember, too, the opening chapters of Job. That godly man was ambushed on every side, and Satan was behind it. I don’t want to be speculative. But I’m sure of one thing. When we get to Heaven and learn the true history of the things that have happened to us during the course of our lives—the struggles we’ve faced—I believe we’ll find that the devil and the spiritual forces of evil had more to do with it all than we realize. 

Now let’s get back to our primary passage in Exodus 17. Now we come to a positive note. I’m happy to tell you we’re about to meet someone for the very first time. Here in this passage we have the biblical debut of the Old Testament hero, Joshua. Verse 9 says:

Moses commanded Joshua, “Choose some men to go out and fight the army of Amalek for us. Tomorrow, I will stand at the top of the hill, holding the staff of God in my hand.”

Who was this Joshua? He appears here rather abruptly. We’ve not met him before in the Scripture. This was a man, probably about 45 years old, who had been born in slavery. His father’s name was Nun. 

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible speculates about Joshua’s background before he became a biblical hero, and it suggests he had a military background. The entry on Joshua began by telling us something interesting about Moses. According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, Moses was an Egyptian military commander before he was banished from Egypt. Remember, Moses was the adopted son of Pharaoh, and he had been educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. At the time, Egypt was the most powerful nation on earth. Moses undoubtedly had military training during his forty years in the household of Pharaoh.

Josephus claims that Moses, after his education and because of his high standing, became a military commander in the Egyptian army and actually led an Egyptian army against the Ethiopians. 

About the time Moses was driven into exile, Joshua was born. He was a slave, born to slaves. But gifted slaves in Egyptian society could train with and fight in the military. The Egyptian military command weren’t against using slaves as soldiers, and those who were among the best could rise in the ranks. So here’s what the Zondervan Encyclopedia suggests:

“As Josephus imagines that Moses led an Egyptian army against the Ethiopians, it is likely that Joshua had served in Pharaoh’s army before the Exodus. Foreigners were common in the army of Egypt. Moses considered him sufficiently battle tested to appoint him leader of the Israelite defense against the attack of the Amalekites at Rephidim. Since Joshua was apparently known to Moses, he may already been in charge of organizing the undisciplined crowd of salves who had escaped Egypt into orderly marching columns.” 

In other words, when Moses, at age 80, returned to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery, he quickly learned about a gifted 40-something-year-old Israeli military man who had achieved rank in the Egyptian army, and Moses would have tapped him to help organize the nation of slaves as they made their hasty retreat from Egypt. 

That’s all speculation, but it fits nicely into the way Joshua is introduced in the Bible. The first time we actually see him—his first appearance in the Bible—is when Moses quickly put him in charge of figuring out a way to defend the Israelites against this evil tribe that had attacked their rear flanks and were threatening to destroy them all before they even got to Mount Sinai. 

So let’s go back to our passage in Exodus 17:

Moses commanded Joshua, “Choose some men to go out and fight the army of Amalek for us. Tomorrow, I will stand at the top of the hill, holding the staff of God in my hand.”

Moses wasn’t telling Joshua to choose some men out of the Israeli army to fight this desert tribe. The Israelites had no army. They were a bunch of ex-slaves who were limping through the desert, complaining, eating manna and drinking water that flowed from a rock. What Moses told Joshua was this: “We’ve just been attacked! You have until tomorrow morning to create an army. We’ve been ambushed in our rear flanks, and we’ve got to defend ourselves. Put together the best excuse for an army that you can, and do it overnight.”

The passage goes on to say:

10 So Joshua did what Moses had commanded and fought the army of Amalek. 

Joshua is the first and original general in the history of the Israeli Army, and this was the first battle. The passage goes on to say:

Meanwhile, Moses, Aaron, and Hur climbed to the top of a nearby hill. 11 As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. 12 Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset. 13 As a result, Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle.

This is almost always seen as an illustration of intercessory prayer, but there’s nothing explicitly here about praying. We can assume Moses and his brother Aaron and their friend Hur were praying. But something more is going on here. The Amalekites clearly had the advantage, because whenever Moses’ arms wavered, they started winning. They were almost guaranteed victory. These were fierce desert warriors, who literally stood between Israel and Mount Sinai. The New American Commentary suggested they had camels as military vehicles, which could run at 45 miles an hour—faster than a horse. They had weapons. They had experience. Israel’s army—such as it was—had only been in existence 24 hours. Not even that.

But things were not as they seemed. We run into a very interesting phrase as the passage continues. Look at verses 14 and following:

14 After the victory, the Lord instructed Moses, “Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 Moses built an altar there and named it Yahweh-Nissi (which means “the Lord is my banner”). 16 He said, “They have raised their fist against the Lord’s throne, so now the Lord will be at war with Amalek generation after generation.”

The great question in my mind is who were the “they” in verse 16. Who had raised their fist against the Lord’s throne? Obviously it was the Amalekites, but who was energizing the Amalekites? Is it any coincidence they stood between Israel and Mount Sinai? Were these superhuman warriors empowered by supernatural agents who were raising their first against the throne of God?

Yes, I believe so. This is not explicated stated, but the wording is curious. These Amalekites were not raising their fists against the tribes of Israel. They were raising their fists against the heavenly throne of Almighty God.

 So it’s very possible there were forces of spiritual evil—demonic forces, satanic forces—trying to keep Israel from approaching the holy ground of Mount Sinai and meeting with Yahweh. There’s one other clue. Just a little later, when the Israelites were at Mount Sinai, Moses and the elders of Israel ascended the mountain and what did they see? They saw a platform or a sea of glass, as sky-blue as a jewel, and they saw God. This was the throne. God and the very throne on which He resides came down to Mount Sinai.

So in Exodus 17, the Amalekites ambush Israel and raise their fists against the throne of God. But Moses prevails using the rod of God, which was a symbol of the power of God, and Israel is able to press on to meet that very throne at Mount Sinai.

The staff represented the power of the almighty God who was on His throne. This was spiritual warfare. The forces of darkness were trying to thwart God’s plan and defeat His people. They were raising their fists against the throne of Heaven. And as long as Moses held that rod of God aloft—the rod that represented the power that emanated from the throne—the people of God prevailed. 

Now, all of that seems clear to me from the various Scriptures we’ve referenced. What I’m going to say now is application. I’m the last person in the world who would want to take liberties with the text and create an analogy when is isn’t justified by the Scripture. So I’m not saying the following application was intended by the biblical authors.

But this image is in my mind and I can’t shake it off.

Just as Moses stood above the battle holding a piece of timber over the battle below, so we have one Greater-than-Moses above us. His power is in another piece of timber. It’s the cross. And while we are engaged in spiritual warfare on earth, He is watching from above, holding out over us, as it were, the power of the cross. The victory of the cross. 

Now, the Bible doesn’t directly make that connection, so I want to be careful. You can push back if you want to. I’m not making an interpretation here, but an application. And it’s an application I can visualize. 

And the altar Moses built to commemorate the victory was called Yahweh-Nissi: The Lord is my Banner. What is our banner?

The Bible says:

  • For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God—1 Corinthians 1:18
  • And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross—Colossians 2:15

So let me summarize all of this. As the Children of Israel were leaving the Red Sea and travailing through the desert to Mount Sinai to meet with Almighty God, they were ambushed. It was the first military conflict in this long history of Israel. This is where it started. They were ambushed when they were weary and worn out, and the attack came at their weakest point, in the rear flanks.  They were attacked by the Amalekites, who may have had supernatural evil flowing in their bloodstream. Joshua pulled together an army, but he was badly outmatched. Moses took his rod to the top of the mountain, and with the help of his friends, held it high. All the Israelite warriors could look up and see Moses silhouetted against the sky, holding aloft the rod of God. The forces of evil raised their fists against the throne of God, and they were defeated, which allowed Israel to proceed on to Mount Sinai to worship under the actual presence of that almighty throne, which descended to Mount Sinai.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Whenever we’re ambushed by life, we can look up and say, “Jesus, You won every victory when You died on the cross and rose from the grave. You gave Your all for me and for victory. No enemy can withstand that. No threat can imperil that. No problem can impede that. No foe can deter that. These battles may be tough, and sometimes I may not see it coming. But thanks be to God! He gives me the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Just imagine Jesus in Heaven, our advocate, our intercessor, knowing and seeing the battles we’re facing. And imagine Him lifting His hand of blessing, suspended the power of the cross over our lives, and pouring into our lives the power of that was accomplished on that banner of the ages.

When something happens that makes you say: “I didn’t see that coming,” just turn and gaze at the cross, and look up for you have an advocate above you lifting high His hands.

When I was growing up we sang a song inspired, I think, by this very story:

There’s a royal banner given for display

To the soldiers of the King;

As an ensign fair we lift it up today,

While as ransomed ones we sing:

Marching on, Marching on,

For Christ count everything but loss!

And to crown Him King,

We’ll toil and sing

Beneath the banner of the cross.