Following God from a Distance

When I was young, I remember hearing a preacher ask the congregation, “Are you following closely to God?” He meant that we should all follow as closely as we can at all times. But Israel was given different instructions. Joshua 3:1-4 says,

Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and they set out from the Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they crossed over. So it was, after three days, that the officers went through the camp; and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way before.

God’s people were about to enter the Promised Land and begin their conquest. First, they had to conquer a natural enemy, the river Jordan. It was flood season, which heightened the already perilous difficulty of crossing a river on foot. That’s when God gives them the command (through the mouth of the leaders) that they follow the Ark of the Covenant but from a distance. The Ark was the moveable throne of God, the item, carried by the Levites (Yahweh’s footmen), that represented God to them. It bore the stone tables on which the Ten Commandments had been written, manna, and Aaron’s rod the budded. As long as Israel kept their eyes on the Ark and followed it, they would be safe. When you read on, you’ll see that the waters of the Jordan were stopped, and Israel again traveled through a body of water on dry ground to the other side. God fought this small, natural battle; they followed in faith.

The lesson seems obvious: follow God and He will take care of you. But let’s dig a bit deeper. When you go back to Joshua 1, you see Joshua, the new leader of God’s people, had to be reminded multiple times to be strong and courageous. You get the idea that he probably battled fear. Amid these calls to courage, God says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe 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). Joshua not only needed courage; he needed supernatural wisdom and guidance. Where would he get it? From meditating on God’s word.

Meditation is a lost art for many of us. We think of Eastern meditation as something like Yoga without the painful stretching, where we’re told to empty our minds. But God commands Joshua to do no such thing. There is an object on which to meditate: the law. This is not only the individual laws themselves but the Torah, the books Moses recorded of Israel’s history from Adam to the cusp of the Promised Land. By immersing himself in God’s wisdom and obeying it in faith, he is promised a prosperous way and good success. What does this have to do with the Ark?

One of the items held in the Ark was God’s law. Israel following the Ark is a picture of our call to contemplate and obey God’s word. When we meditate on God’s law, purposing to do what it says, we are not just obeying the individual laws. As He did with Israel, when we meditate on and follow Him, God promises to make our path successful. Learning to follow Him becomes more than avoiding the landmines of sin; it turns into a joyful journey of faith. Israel’s prosperous journey included crossing a treacherous river, battling giants, and dealing with internal sin. Despite setbacks and hold-ups, in the end they were successful; they followed Yahweh and were able to accomplish what their fathers, even Moses himself, could not. 

Our call to follow Christ doesn’t always mean we see precisely what to do in every case. Sometimes the way gets thorny, the path leads through deep water. Obeying seems like something beyond our ability. Don’t get distracted by the afflictions, encumbered with the trials, or impatient by how long you’re having to wait. Like Israel, trust that God is going before you; meditate on His Word, and purpose to follow wherever His wisdom leads. Keep your eyes fastened on Him and follow. He will prepare your path.

Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing.