Deuteronomy 31:1-8,23 – Leaders Change, God Doesn’t

Israel as a nation has been around since the birth of Isaac over 500 years ago, but only one man has ever officially been its leader.  Moses has led the nation for the last 40 years and has been the channel through which the people have received their laws, their structure of governance, and their knowledge of God’s will.  He has been the head statesman of the country through two generations and the people now preparing to enter and conquer the Promised Land do not know a time when Moses was not around.  All of that, however, is about to change.

The people know Moses will not lead them into the land and they know his death is near.  He has told them numerous times that God will not allow him to cross over because of his sin at Meribah.  Thus it is time to commission his successor.  For the first time in its history Israel will go through a leadership transition.

It is not a stretch to assume the people are anxious.  For all their disobedience and all their testing of him, Moses has been a security blanket for them.  Their sin at Sinai with the golden calf was at least partly because of their fear that Moses had died after being gone so long on the mountain.  No matter what happened over the last four decades, he was the one constant.  He has lost patience with them on several occasions and has prescribed drastic punishments for their periodic rebellions, but he has always been there. 

More than simply being a leader, however, Moses is God’s mouthpiece.  When God speaks it is Moses who carries His message.  God instructs the people through Moses.  God disciplines through Moses.  God explains Himself through Moses.  God blesses them through Moses.  The only man who has ever spoken face to face with God and then brought His words to Israel is Moses.

Moses is leader, general, judge and prophet.  He is highly educated because of his time at Pharaoh’s court (Acts 7:22).  He knows the wilderness because of his 40 years as a shepherd there (Ex 3:12).  He came back to Egypt for the sole purpose of delivering Israel from centuries of slavery.  He took on Pharaoh and called down the plagues.  He led the people through the Red Sea.  He is the one through whom God delivered water and meat in the wilderness.  The nation has an identity because Moses came back to deliver them, and nothing significant has happened since that has not included him. 

Moses says when to travel.  Moses says when to camp.  Moses says when to fight and when to avoid fighting.  Moses decides disputes that are too difficult for lower judges.  Moses performs miracles that allow the people to survive.  Moses writes – prodigiously – and has documented the origins of mankind and all the Law and the whole the history of Israel.  And he is so close to God that anyone who has challenged his authority over the last 40 years has been struck dead or struck with leprosy or swallowed by the earth.  Moses has big shoes and a long shadow.

The people certainly know Joshua – the man who will succeed Moses.  He, along with Moses and Caleb, is an elder statesman known for standing with God when all the other leaders rebelled at Kadesh-barnea (Num 14:30).  He has led the nation into battle (Ex 17:9) and has been by Moses’ side since he was a youth (Ex 24:13, Num 11:28). He has received the best training and has witnessed firsthand how God has worked through Moses.  But he has never been the leader.  He has never brought back the words of God – and he will not interact with God in the same way as Moses (Num 27:20-21) – and has never been the instrument of God’s miraculous works.

The timing of the leadership change is also concerning.  If they were simply continuing the status quo and the geography was not changing and the daily routine was not changing it would be one thing.  But that is not the case in any way.  They are about to cross the Jordan and take on some of the most powerful nations on earth.  They are about to enter the same land that so scared the previous generation they refused to go.  They are going to fight giants and take on fortified cities and dislodge entire people groups from a land they have never seen.  They are about to do something that is outside of the experience of any of them and they are going to do it without the only leader they have ever known.

Having been with Moses since he was a youth, no one knows better than Joshua how big a job it will be to replace him.  He has forty years of on-the-job training and is battle-tested and filled with the Spirit (Num 27:18), but he likely faces the future with his own anxiety as he anticipates leading the people into Canaan alone.  It is not hard to imagine that both Joshua and the people approach his commissioning with equal parts anticipation and fear.

It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you
Moses has concluded his final address to the people and so moves on to commission his successor.  He begins by reminding the people that God has told him he will not lead them into Canaan.  He mentions his age – 120 years old – and says, “I am no longer able to come and go.”  This at first sounds like he means he cannot get around like he used to when he was younger.  This would be perfectly understandable for someone 120 years old (even though 120 is really the new 110).  However, after his death the author of his eulogy will say the following about him – although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated (34:7).  If this is the case, what Moses means is that he cannot lead the nation like he used to.  God will not let him do the job any longer.  It is why he finishes the sentence with, “…and the Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’

What is interesting is how he phrases the next sentence.  He does not say, “…and so Joshua will be your leader.”  He instead says, “It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them.”  Here is the answer to the people’s anxiety.  Yes, Moses is going to die and they are going into the land without him.  But what matters is that they are not going into the land without God.  God is staying with them and HE will go before them just as He always has.  The leadership is changing but God is not.  And that is the crucial truth the people must hold on to.

Moses is a powerful leader because God has worked through him.  The Moses God called out of Midian was tentative and unwilling (Ex 3,5).  But God has worked in him and made him into the incredible man of God he is today.  And God is the one deciding that Moses will lead no more.  Consequently, the people have nothing to fear.  God is in control – God is overseeing the leadership change – and God is going with them into Canaan.  Their representative leader is going away but their real Leader is still here.  Leaders change but God does not.

Only after making the point that God will lead them does Moses mention Joshua.  He says, “Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken.”  Here again he reassures them with God’s control.  God has chosen Joshua; therefore the people can trust his leadership and trust that God will be with him as He was with Moses.  Joshua is not the leader because he is the most popular or because he was appointed by the elders – he is the leader because God selected him.  And if God is in control of who leads then the people can rest in his leadership.

In verse 4 Moses encourages them with reminders of their recent victories over the Amorites.  They defeated and utterly destroyed two kings of the Amorites, and this is what they will do to the inhabitants of Canaan after they cross over.  They will do this because God will go before them.  Note that he says, “And the Lord will do to them just as He did to Sihon and Og…when He destroyed them.”  God will make them victorious and will destroy the Canaanites just as He destroyed the Amorites.  The people should be encouraged that God will fight for them with Joshua at the lead just as He did with Moses.  It does not ultimately matter what man leads them as long as God goes with him.  Their success depends on God – not human leaders – and God promises to stay with them and fight for them.

Be strong and courageous
In verse 6 Moses directly encourages the people.  He tells them, “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you.  He will not fail you or forsake you.”  Moses knows they need encouragement and knows they are fearful as they anticipate going into the land without him.  So he tells them to be strong and courageous because God goes with them.  They can be strong because God’s strength is with them and they can be courageous because God fights for them.  And they can be confident because God will absolutely not fail them or forsake them.  “You have nothing to fear because God goes with you and He will not leave you on your own.”

It would be meaningless to simply tell the people, “Be strong and courageous!  It is going to be OK – you will do great!  I have confidence in you!” if God were not involved.  Encouragement in the midst of danger apart from God is either hollow or foolish.  The reason Moses can encourage them is because God goes with them.  They have nothing to fear because nothing depends on them.  It is not their power or the ability of their leaders that matter – it is God’s power working through them that will ensure their success.

In verse 7 Moses addresses Joshua for the first time and tells him the same thing he told the people.  Joshua is also to be strong and courageous because God will go before him personally.  God will not only lead the people generally, He will lead Joshua specifically.  Joshua does not have to feel the weight of the people alone – he will have God in front of him.  And just like with the people, God will absolutely not fail him or forsake him.

Joshua also can trust the promises of God.  God promised the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and promised the land to the people.  Since God cannot go back on His promises Joshua does not have to worry that they will not be successful.  He can have confidence that God goes before him and confidence in God’s word – he has reasons for strength and courage.

Notice how Moses ends his charge to Joshua.  “Do not fear, or be dismayed.”  He knows what Joshua faces.  He knows it has to be scary to take over right as they are about to enter the land.  He knows Joshua faces a huge task and faces a future filled with unknowns.  But he confidently encourages him not to be afraid and not to worry because it is ultimately not about him.  Joshua simply has to follow – God will lead and God will NOT leave him alone.  Just like with the people – he need not worry because nothing depends on him.  If he faithfully follows, God will provide the victories and God will lead the people through him.

In verse 23, God addresses Joshua and commissions him personally.  He essentially repeats what Moses said.  “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the sons of Israel into the land which I swore to them, and I will be with you.”  God keeps it very simple and gives Joshua two reasons for strength and courage.  First, he will be successful because God promised to give the land to the people.  And second, God will be with him. God does not list any contingencies and says nothing about Joshua’s actions at all.  It is ALL about God.  Joshua can be free from worry and fear and be strong and courageous because it is not about him.  Notice also the tone of God’s charge – “You WILL be successful” – no ifs, ands, or buts.  God leaves no room for the possibility of failure.

Something not to miss in the charges to the people and to Joshua is God’s desire to encourage and reassure.  He knows how they feel.  He knows their anxiety over losing Moses just as they are about to cross into Canaan.  He understands their fear of the unknown.  He knows what Joshua must be thinking.  And He ministers to all of them.  He speaks through Moses and then speaks to Joshua Himself.  He completely understands the emotions of the moment and far from condemning anyone He ministers to them and encourages them.  And the way He encourages them is to remind them that it is all about Him.

Summary and Thoughts

The lessons for Israel in this passage are as follows:

  • Leaders change but God does not.
  • God ultimately controls who leads.
  • If God chooses the leader there is nothing to fear.
  • God’s faithfulness in the past shows He will be faithful in the future.
  • The success of the people does not depend on them – it is all about God.
  • The success of Joshua does not depend on him – it is all about God.
  • Joshua and the people can be strong and courageous because nothing depends on them.
  • God will not leave them or forsake them.
  • God understands fear and loves to encourage His people.

How do we apply these truths to our lives?  We are not about to cross into an unknown land and destroy every living thing in it.  We are not about to fight for our new homes and inherit the land promised to our forbears.  Is there anything here for us?

We must be careful not to take promises out of context, but certain truths in this passage apply to God’s people in any age.  We may not have been commissioned to lead a nation, but we have been commissioned to be and make disciples.  Thus the promises that God goes with us and provides us the power to be successful in our discipleship apply.  And like Israel our lives are not about us – we are to faithfully follow and enjoy freedom from worry and anxiety since God is in control.  God also will never leave us or forsake us – Jesus stated as much in His last words (Matt 28:20).

It also is very reassuring that regardless of the leadership we serve under – whether a spouse, boss, pastor, governor, or president – God is in control and God does not change.  Leaders come and go and some are bad and some are good – but God never changes and God never goes away.  And ultimately God controls who leads – and we can take great solace in that.

Finally – it is HUGELY encouraging that God loves us enough to encourage us.  What other purpose would there be to record in detail the words of Joshua’s commissioning?  Moses – through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – makes sure that readers throughout the generations see how God ministers to His people and meets them directly where they live.  There is nothing in this text criticizing the people for not having faith.  It is simply filled with encouragement and reminders of God’s faithfulness.  God knows how difficult it is for humans to face a future of unknowns.  He understands the anxious thoughts of His children.  He created us with emotions and knows exactly what sets us off and how best to minister to us.  God LOVES us and loves to reassure us and encourage us.  He does not tire of our weaknesses.

And the LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed

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