One of my friends found herself in unfamiliar territory when her husband died suddenly. They’d just put their house up for sale and signed papers with a contractor to build a new one. Now the major decisions associated with those plans fell on her. Her husband had always managed their family finances. Now that responsibility fell on her.
One day I phoned to ask how she was doing. She talked about facing so many unknowns, and then she said something I’ve always remembered: “I really don’t know what to expect about anything. I’ve never traveled this road before.”
Like my friend, the Israelites also came to unfamiliar territory. They’d already spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. Moses had passed away and God had appointed Joshua to take his place. Now they were camped on the banks of the Jordan River. After three days, the Israelite leaders told them it was time to move on and then gave them instructions for the trip ahead.
“When you see the Levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, move out from your positions and follow them. Since you have never traveled this way before, they will guide you. Stay about half a mile behind them, keeping a clear distance between you and the Ark. Make sure you don’t come any closer” (Joshua 3:3-4 NLT)
The Israelites’ Journey into Unfamiliar Territory
First, the Ark of the Covenant would become the Israelites’ primary focus. The writer mentions it seventeen times in Joshua chapters 3 and 4. It was God’s dwelling place and a visible reminder not only of His presence but also of His covenant relationship with them. He was their God and they were His special possession. They needn’t be afraid as they entered unfamiliar territory because He was fully committed to them and their well-being.
Second, the priests would carry the Ark of the Covenant and lead the way across the Jordan River. This made no sense by human standards. How could a dozen unarmed priests defend the people from enemies living on the opposite shore? They couldn’t, but God could.
God wanted His people to trust Him implicitly. He’d proven His power by rescuing them from Egypt, parting the Red Sea so they could escape the enemy, and caring for their needs in the wilderness for forty years. He proved His power again by stopping the Jordan River’s flow the moment the priests’ feet touched the water. Yes, the people would have to fight God-sized battles as they entered unfamiliar territory, but they could face those battles with courage because God promised to accomplish the victories.
Third, the people would walk a half mile behind the Ark of the Covenant. There were several reasons for this. First, the distance indicated the people’s need to respect God’s holiness. They were not allowed the same access to God that the priests were given, and the distance bore reminder that they could not come into His presence.
Next, the distance between the Ark and the people showed that it didn’t need anyone to protect it. Its position out front made it vulnerable, but God’s presence made it invincible.
Finally, the distance between the Ark and the people ensured its visibility to all. If people had been allowed to crowd around it, others further back would not have been able to see it. God wanted to ensure everyone could see it as a reminder of His presence and care for them as they began their journey into unfamiliar territory.
Crossing the Jordan River led the Israelites into unfamiliar territory. No doubt the journey with its countless unknowns felt unsettling and scary. But God was with them, committed to them, and fighting their battles for them.
Our Journey into Unfamiliar Territory
My friend discovered the same thing in the unfamiliar territory of widowhood. God was with her, He was committed to her, and He fought her battles for her.
Sooner or later, we all travel the road into unfamiliar territory. Suddenly we’re single again, or we’re faced with a medical diagnosis we didn’t expect. Our kids grow up, spread their wings and fly away, leaving an empty nest. We move to a different house down the street or in a different city or across an ocean. We start a new job, or we retire from the job we’ve had for forty years.
Traveling into unfamiliar territory can be unsettling or scary. But friend, we can face our journey with courage because God goes with us and before us. Let’s keep our focus on Him. And let’s move forward with this truth in mind: because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we don’t have to remain distant from God like the Israelites did. While we still give Him the reverence He’s due, we can draw near to Him unafraid. In fact, Hebrews 4:16 says, “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”
The Israelites received God’s mercy and help as they traveled into unfamiliar territory. My friend experienced the same. And so will we.
May I pray for you?
“God, thank You for the lessons You teach us through Your holy Word. We are grateful for accounts such as this, inspired and written for our benefit. When You lead us into unfamiliar territory, help us keep our eyes on You and follow You one step at a time. Give us faith to trust You to fight our battles, and fill us with the desire to draw near to You in bold confidence of Your glad welcome. We love You and are so grateful for Your mercy and care. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Enjoy this song by MercyMe. Imagine—God is with us! Let this truth fill your heart with courage and praise today.