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Not Heretofore

by Tim O'Hearn

Early in the book of Joshua, the people are preparing to cross into the promised land. Joshua’s officers give a warning to the people that in crossing the Jordan they must follow the Aron, the ark of the covenant. “And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the host; 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 remove 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 to it, that you may know the way by which you must go: for you have not passed this way heretofore.” (Josh 1:2-4)

On the surface, the final statement in this passage was clearly true. Only two among all those who were about to cross the river had actually set foot in the land to which they were going. With the exceptions of Caleb and Joshua, none of the people had passed this way heretofore. They needed a guide, and that guide was God, whose shekinah, visible glory, accompanied the ark, and in fact directed its bearers in the way they were to go, and even whether they were to go or stay.

In a deeper sense, we are all united with the nation of Israel at that time, because we constantly face territory we have not passed heretofore. Whether it be deciding on a college to attend, whether or whom to marry, one’s field of employment, or sometimes even a place to live, we are faced with decisions involving new territory. Even if the entire process, such as job hunting, is not new, the prospective employers are uncharted territory. In Fiddler on the Roof Tevye recounts to his longtime wife, Golde, how nervous he was on their wedding day, because he had never seen her before. In many ways and in many areas we are like Tevye. How do we deal with these unfamiliar situations of life? Joshua’s generals knew the answer: follow the ark.

We no longer have the physical Aron to follow. However, it is not unjust to equate that ark to the entire word of God. The ark contained the tablets on which were the ten commandments. These commandments were not the whole law, but they represented that law. In that sense, the ark was the law. This should not be difficult to understand. If I say “I ate an orange,” I am not saying I ate the rind and the pulp; I don’t generally eat the rind. But I use the entire orange to represent the inside part that I did eat. Likewise, I don’t need to explain how it tasted or its color or texture, because you have probably seen and tasted an orange yourself. The orange I ate is representative of all oranges, is the same in essence as all other oranges. So it is if I use the ark to represent the word of God, which it contained.

God’s Word is Our Guide

What is the longest chapter in the Bible? It is Psalm 119. What does Psalm 119 say? In five words: “God’s word is my guide.” Of course the psalmist used many more than five words; he was, after all, a psalmist. But perhaps no other chapter expresses better what Joshua’s generals were saying in the original passage quoted above. If I am about to blindly enter a new path, the psalm says “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105) If I face affliction, such as my own death or that of a loved one, “Remember the word unto your servant, upon which you have caused me to hope. This is my comfort in my affliction: for your word has quickened me. (Ps 119:49-50) Are you about to enter a romantic relationship? “I will keep your statutes: O forsake me not utterly. How shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed to it according to your word. (Ps 119:8-9)

What about business relationships? The word of God applies there, too. If you are about to enter a contract, such as a long-term purchase, remember Ps 119:106: “I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep your righteous judgments.” I have known people who were in a bad job situation. They were having problems with a particularly difficult boss, and the situation may even have developed long after they first took the job. Even facing this uncharted territory, God’s word will guide. “Deliver me from the oppression of man: so will I keep your precepts.” (Ps 119:134)

The Danger of Not Following

Why were the people to leave a space of a little over half a mile between them and the ark? Why not close up that gap so they wouldn’t lose sight of the ark? The passage says the gap is necessary “that you may know the way by which you must go.” Apparently the danger was that if some closed the gap, the rest of the camp would lose sight of the Aron and wander aimlessly. In a pitched battle, it is essential for the flanks not to lose contact with the middle; otherwise the enemy can get between and split the army. If the flanks of the Israelite camp lost sight of the ark, they could easily lose contact with the camp as a whole, endangering themselves and the entire nation. By allowing the ark to keep well ahead of the people, all could see it and follow.

We also need to guard lest we lose sight of God’s word. We need to maintain the half mile so that we, and others, keep the guide before us.

What happens when we close the gap? Sometimes we get so close to our pet portions of God’s word that we lose sight of the whole. In doing so, we can block other people’s ability to see God’s word. In doing so, we perhaps even lose our own perspective. Picture one of the people, we’ll call him Abidan, getting so close to the ark that he concentrates on following the right, rear ring for the carrying poles. He is following the ark very closely. Abidan is following that ring so closely that his feet get entangled with those of the right, rear bearer of the pole. He trips and falls, not because he was not following the word of God, but that he was following one detail to the exclusion of the whole. Maybe poor Abidan falls to the side, and just gets up, brushes himself off, and continues to follow (at a greater distance, it is to be hoped). But what if he falls the other way, bringing him up hard against the ark? Like Uzzah (2 Sam 6:6-7), Abidan would be destroyed. There is a danger in closing the gap, in not keeping God’s word well in the lead as we move through life.

On the other hand, what happens when we increase the gap? Perhaps this is where most of us go wrong. We follow God’s law in general, but we fall so far behind we lose contact with it. We no longer know where it is leading us. If our man Abidan, after his fall, moved to the back of the nation so he wouldn’t trip again, he endangers himself equally. He sprained something in his fall (probably just his ego), so he sits down to rest. He can’t see the ark, but he sees the back of the group. As he sits out of sight of God’s word, he falls asleep. Soon even the rear guard is out of sight, and Abidan is lost. In his wanderings to catch up, he falls in behind another group of people. He doesn’t know they also lost sight of the ark, but they sound like they know where they are going. Abidan thinks he is obedient, but is easily led astray, all because he increased the gap-he lost sight of the ark.

God says to follow His word. Stay where you can see it. Don’t obscure someone else’s view. But don’t lose sight of it and lead others astray. Remember, in the pathway of life you need a guide because “you have not passed this way heretofore.”