Over my years of reading the Bible I have learned a lot of things, but one of the most important is this: When God repeats something several times, pay attention. He wants to make a point, and doesn’t want us to miss it. For example:
In giving the Ten Commandments, the Lord starts eight of them with “You shall not….” (Or, if you prefer KJV phraseology, “Thou shalt not….") It’s evident these are things He doesn’t want us to do. Also, reading the classic passage that conveys how God intended for us to relate to one another, we’re told repeatedly what love is – or at least what it’s supposed to be. “Love it patient, love is kind…always protects, always trusts always hopes, always perseveres…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-13). This repetition isn’t just for clever literary effect.
So recently as I read the conclusion of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and the start of the next one, Joshua, I took note when I saw one particular admonition being repeated: “Be strong and courageous.”
As Moses was preparing to pass the leadership to Joshua, he knew the current residents of the Promised Land – Canaan – didn’t figure to be sending out welcoming committees. No one was displaying “Can’t we all just get along” bumper stickers on their chariots. So Moses told his people, “The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you and you will take possession of their land” (Deuteronomy 31:3).
This ragtag horde of Israelites had gone through a lot, and God had come through for them in every crisis. But time and again they had proved themselves short on faith and long on disobedience. So crossing the Jordan River didn’t mean they’d be home free. What Moses did next was instructive, not only for the people of Israel but also for those who seek to follow the Lord today.
He exhorted them, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Moses hardly took a breath before repeating it to the man God had chosen as his successor: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them…. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged’” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8).
So what does this have to do with us? The ancient Israelites lived in a very different time, of course, but their circumstances were perilous and tumultuous, not unlike what we’re facing today. Joseph had the Egyptians to deal with, David had Goliath, and Daniel had the Babylonians. In the 21stcentury, we have our own “Egyptians,” Goliaths and “Babylonians.”
Violence seems to dominate the newscasts just about every night. The other night, I counted four rapid-fire news stories about local tragedies before the news anchors let the meteorologist give a brief weather report. Wars big and small rage around the globe. Protests and unrest are exploding on every continent. The foundations of our nation seem under siege. Beliefs and principles many of us hold dear are being assailed. These days it seems up has become down; down is up.
How should we react? We could take lessons from nature and, like an ostrich, stick our heads into the sand. Or retreat into our shells like a turtle and hope all the bad stuff goes away.
A better option would be to take our cues from the Scriptures, muster up our courage and face the hostile world around us in ways Jesus would. With love and compassion, but also with unwavering courage.
Long before He took on human form in the tiny town of Bethlehem, Jesus received this prophetic description: "He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3). Talk about not receiving a friendly welcome!
Then in Hebrews 4:15 we read, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin." Any time we want to complain, “But Lord, You just don’t understand,” He can reply, “Oh, yes, I definitely do.”
When terrifying circumstances of life press in on us, or we find ourselves perplexed by the chaos that threatens to overwhelm our society, we can do as Moses instructed his fellow Israelites, “be strong and courageous.” Because that’s exactly what Jesus did, and He promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).