Joshua 11: Lessons on Spiritual Warfare from the Jews’ Conquest of Northern Israel

God led the Jews to conquer Northern Israel1

Introduction: Joshua 11 recounts the Jews’ conquest of northern Israel. God had promised these lands to the Jews. Thus, like the southern campaign, the outcome of the northern campaign was never in doubt. Yet, although the outcomes of the two campaigns were the same, the types of battles fought and the lessons from these battles were different. While the southern campaign involved a series of battles against different cities, the northern campaign involved one massive battle against an enemy as numerous as the “sand that is on the seashore.” (Josh. 11:4). The enemy that the Jews faced was also more sophisticated with military chariots. God also did not intervene with supernatural hail as He did during the southern battles. Both campaigns reveal lessons about the battles that will be found during the end times. But the northern campaign also reveals several lessons regarding the types of spiritual warfare that you will face today.

First, the Jews faced their most difficult enemy only after they prevailed in smaller battles. From this, God reveals that He will test you in small spiritual battles before He calls upon you to face larger ones. Second, from Joshua’s zeal in fighting a battle against a more massive and technologically advanced enemy, He reveals that He also wants you to trust Him no matter what kind of spiritual conflict that you might face. Third, from Joshua’s destruction of the enemy’s chariots following the battle, He reveals that He never wants you to resort to the devil’s tools when you fight for Him. These include any of the deeds of the flesh, like lying, rumors, theft, and deceit. Fourth, the people of Canaan symbolized the flesh, and the Jews symbolized the Spirit. Just as the Canaanites waged war against the Jews, your flesh wages war with the Spirit. From Joshua’s execution of the Canaanite kings and their soldiers, He reveals that you should make no provision for your flesh. Fifth, God had previously promised the Jews territory stretching as far as southern Lebanon. Joshua showed his eagerness to claim the Jews’ spiritual inheritance by seizing these lands. God also wants you to eagerly claim your spiritual inheritance and use it for His glory. This includes developing and utilizing your spiritual gifts. Sixth, He hardened the hearts of the Jews’ enemies to prompt them to fight and then lose in battle. From this, He wants you to have faith that He is sovereign over all, even evil. Sometimes, He allows evil to happen or embolden the heart of someone who is already evil to demonstrate His power. Finally, Joshua defeated all but three of the Anakim tribes in Israel. These tribes would later grow into a nation of Canaanites that would threaten Israel in the future. From this, He reveals that sin that is not fully dealt with will grow and cause future torment.

1. To Prevail in Large Spiritual Battles, First be Faithful in the Small Ones. Josh. 11:1-5.

  • The northern alliance against Israel. After God led the Jews to defeat the kingdoms of southern Israel, the Jews faced an even bigger test in northern Israel. Instead of facing each kingdom or tribe one at a time, all of the nations gathered together to face Israel in one massive battle. The enemy also had a technological advantage with horse-drawn chariots: “1 Then it came about, when Jabin king of Hazor heard of it, that he sent to Jobab king of Madon and to the king of Shimron and to the king of Achshaph, 2 and to the kings who were of the north in the hill country, and in the Arabah—south of Chinneroth and in the lowland and on the heights of Dor on the west— 3 to the Canaanite on the east and on the west, and the Amorite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Jebusite in the hill country, and the Hivite at the foot of Hermon in the land of Mizpeh. 4 They came out, they and all their armies with them, as many people as the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. 5 So all of these kings having agreed to meet, came and encamped together at the waters of Merom, to fight against Israel.” (Josh. 11:1-5). This gathering of enemy forces foreshadows the future battle at the valley of Armageddon (Rev. 16:12-21). In both battles, God defeated the enemies assembled against His people. These battles also provide important lessons in spiritual warfare.

The alliance against Israel (1350-1375)2

  • God showed us His miracles to help us have faith when His hand is invisible. God first showed His hand with visible miracles against the Egyptians and against southern Israel. As the Jews showed that they were faithful to trust Him, He gradually changed His role to using an invisible hand to guide and defend the Jews. In a similar way, God showed believers Christ’s miracles in the New Testament. He now expects believers to act in faith to trust His invisible hand to guide and protect you: “The wonders God wrought for the Israelites were to encourage them to act vigorously themselves. Thus the war against Satan’s kingdom, carried on by preaching the gospel, was at first forwarded by miracles; but being fully proved to be of God, we are now left to the Divine grace in the usual course, in the use of the sword of the Spirit.” (Matthew Henry on Joshua chapter 11).3 Like the Jews, God will never give you a situation that you cannot handle. He will test you with smaller battles to prepare you for larger battles against your spiritual enemies. Like the Jews, if you prove yourself faithful in situations where it should be easy to trust Him, He will give you more challenging battles where He will call upon you to help others who feel tested in their faith. Are you being faithful in the small things so that He can use you for the larger battles? Are you trusting in His invisible hand at all times?

2. To Prevail in Spiritual Warfare, Always Trust God. Josh. 11:6-7.

  • Joshua’s trust in God to prevail in the battle. As He had done previously, God encouraged Joshua by reminding him that He had already won the battle. Joshua showed his trust for God by immediately sending his forces to confront the massive army with superior weapons that awaited him: “6 Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow at this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel; you shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.’ 7 So Joshua and all the people of war with him came upon them suddenly by the waters of Merom, and attacked them.” (Josh. 11:6-7). God had told Joshua not to fear many times before (Josh. 1:9; 8:1; 10:8, 25). This larger and more superior army would have caused many to become fearful. But God had previously promised the Jews that they would defeat these “seven nations greater and stronger than you,” (Dt. 7:1; 9:1). He describes these battles for your instruction: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor. 10:11). He wants you to have the same trust when you face your spiritual enemies.

Trust God’s Word and not worldly advice4

  • Trust God and not your own understanding. Like Joshua, believers frequently face the problem of doubt. Yet, like Joshua, believers must face these challenges by trusting God and not relying upon their own understanding: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5; 28:26; Ps. 62:8). “Trust in the LORD forever, for in GOD the LORD, we have an everlasting Rock.” (Is. 26:4). When you are facing a doubt in yourself, are you trusting in God by giving Him your burdens?

3. To Prevail in Spiritual Warfare, Don’t Engage in the Devil’s Tactics. Josh. 11:8-9.

  • Joshua’s destruction of the enemy’s weapons. God showed that He was faithful to keep His promises by defeating the armies of northern Israel in battle. Joshua in turn showed his obedience by maiming the enemy’s horses and destroying their chariots: “8 The Lord delivered them into the hand of Israel, so that they defeated them, and pursued them as far as Great Sidon and Misrephoth-maim and the valley of Mizpeh to the east; and they struck them until no survivor was left to them. 9 Joshua did to them as the Lord had told him; he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire.” (Josh. 11:8-9). Joshua could have used the horses and chariots in other battles. Indeed, the existence of these weapons would continue to cause the Jews to fear the Canaanites in future battles (e.g., Josh. 17:16-18; Jdgs. 1:19; 4:13). But God prohibited His people from using the weapons of the world in battle: “Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.”’ (Dt. 17:16). The Messiah would one day show the way by leading peacefully on a donkey (Zech. 9:9). Joshua showed his obedience and his faith in God to protect the Jews by destroying these weapons.

  • Don’t use the enemy’s tools in spiritual warfare. The Jews did not prevail because of their weapons. Instead, they prevailed because God was with them: “For by their own sword they did not possess the land, and their own arm did not save them, but Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence, for You favored them.” (Ps. 44:3). As one commentator explains, “Here is a lesson in the matter of ‘taking the devil’s tools.’ Many Christians do not hesitate to use the ‘horses and chariots’ of their spiritual enemy. Perhaps they should believe that God may want them to fight the battle on a different level - a level of complete trust in Him.” (David Guzik on Joshua Chapter 11).5 Thus, we must never delude ourselves into believing that we are doing God’s work when we might be using the tools of the enemy. These include any of the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19- 21). We see many examples of this in the body of Christ today. People who feel wronged by another frequently resort to the devil’s tools of rumors, gossip, lies, or deceit to get back at someone instead of practicing God’s weapons of love, prayer, and forgiveness. Are you employing any of these tools of the devil in your walk with God?

4. To Prevail in Spiritual Warfare, Make No Provision for the Flesh. Josh. 11:10-15.

  • Joshua’s execution of the enemy kings and soldiers. After defeating the armies of northern Israel, Joshua captured their cities and executed both the kings and the men of fighting age: “10 Then Joshua turned back at that time, and captured Hazor and struck its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was the head of all these kingdoms. 11 They struck every person who was in it with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed. And he burned Hazor with fire. 12 Joshua captured all the cities of these kings, and all their kings, and he struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed them; just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. 13 However, Israel did not burn any cities that stood on their mounds, except Hazor alone, which Joshua burned. 14 All the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the sons of Israel took as their plunder; but they struck every man with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them. They left no one who breathed. 15 Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Josh. 11:10-15). By killing the captured men of fighting age, Joshua fulfilled God’s command to destroy these tribes: “and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.” (Dt. 7:2; 7:16). “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.” (Dt. 20:16). Only the women and children were allowed to live (Dt. 20:14). These verses do not condone alleged holy wars or ethnic or religious cleansing in His name. These were one-time commands that were given to the Jews when they invaded the Promised Land. These battles, however, still have relevance in your spiritual warfare.

  • Your flesh is also at war with the Spirit. Like the people who waged war against the Jews, your flesh is also at war with the Spirit for control of your body. Like Joshua, you must make no provision for the flesh: “. . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Ro. 13:14). “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God . . .” (Rom. 8:7). The lusts of the flesh can also defile you (Mk. 7:20). When you give into the lusts of the flesh, you let the ruler of this world control you: “[T]he lust of the flesh . .. is not from the Father, but is from the world.” (1 Jo. 2:16; Ro. 8:8). Moreover, without Jesus, “. . . flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 15:50; Ro. 8:6, 13). You must hold your unclean thoughts captive or you may act upon them and become corrupted: “one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption . . .” (Gal. 6:8). Have you made any provision for the evil desires of the flesh in your life? When you do sin, are you seeking the Lord each day to renew your mind and repent of any evil thoughts? (Ro. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 6:15).

5. Engage in Spiritual Warfare to Seize Your Spiritual Inheritance. Josh. 11:16-19.

  • Joshua’s conquest into southern Lebanon. God had previously promised that He would give Israel lands that stretched into southern Lebanon. In faith, Joshua seized the Jews’ inheritance by invading all the lands from southern Israel to Mount Hermon in southern Lebanon: “16 Thus Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negev, all that land of Goshen, the lowland, the Arabah, the hill country of Israel and its lowland 17 from Mount Halak, that rises toward Seir, even as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon at the foot of Mount Hermon. And he captured all their kings and struck them down and put them to death. 18 Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings. 19 There was not a city which made peace with the sons of Israel except the Hivites living in Gibeon; they took them all in battle.” (Josh. 11:16-19). This land, along with lands that the Jews never claimed, were part of the Jews’ spiritual inheritance that God promised more than 400 years earlier: “When He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land as an inheritance-- all of which took about four hundred and fifty years.” (Acts 13:19). “He also drove out the nations before them and apportioned them for an inheritance by measurement, and made the tribes of Israel dwell in their tents.” (Ps. 78:55; 105:11; 135:12). Joshua, however, did not seize all the Promised Land.

God led the Jews to conquer Northern Israel6

  • Joshua’s failure to claim the lands in Syria. God previously made a covenant with Abraham to give his descendants a territory stretching all the way to the fertile crescent, spanning from Egypt to parts of modern day Syria: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said,To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites [Syria], Canaanites [Israel], Girgashites and Jebusites.’” (Gen. 15:18-21). “Every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness, and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even to the western sea shall be your border.” (Dt. 11:24). Although Joshua showed great faith in invading southern Lebanon, he failed to seize all that God had promised. God’s promise was contingent upon Joshua’s obedience in invading these lands: ‘“Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and as far as the Great Sea toward the setting of the sun will be your territory.’” (Josh. 1:3-4). It may be hard to imagine Israel today stretching into Syria. But the world will be radically reorganized during the Millennial Reign of the Messiah. Both Jews and Christians await the return of the Messiah to rule Israel. Christians differ only in identifying Jesus as the Messiah. God wants you to have faith in His promises, even if they presently seem impossible. “For without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Heb. 11:6). When He restores the land, He will remake Israel into a country many times its size. The limits of Joshua’s faith in seizing all the inheritance that God promised provides important lessons for all believers.

  • Seize your spiritual inheritance. Like the Jews, God has also promised you a spiritual inheritance. This includes the promise of eternal salvation. This also includes the Holy Spirit, who is the down payment or “pledge” on your salvation (Eph. 1:14). As part of your spiritual inheritance, the Holy Spirit will guide you (Jo. 14:26; 16:13). He will convict you with Jesus’ Word when you sin (Jo. 15:26). He will help you and advocate for you (Jo. 14:16). He will give you wisdom (Jam. 1:5). He also gives you talents or gifts to serve the kingdom (1 Cor. 12; Is. 11:2-3). This might include wealth. It might include the gift of intercessory prayer. It might include the gift of teaching or preaching. It might include healing. Or, it might include the gift of hospitality. Are you acting with eagerness to develop your gifts and use them to serve the kingdom?

6. Have Faith in God’s Sovereignty over All, Including Evil. Josh. 11:20.

  • God hardened the hearts of the Canaanites. After the Jews’ defeated the kingdoms of northern Israel, God revealed that He had hardened the hearts of the enemy’s leaders so that they would not tempt the Jews with peace treaties that would have allowed them to stay in the Promised Land: “20 For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Josh. 11:20). God hardened the hearts of the people of northern Israel the same way that He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Exactly 20 times in the book of Exodus, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (Ex. 4:21; 7:3, 13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 12, 34, 35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 5, 8, 17). This represented a confirmation of his guilt under God’s Law. Two is the number of confirmation, and the ten is the number of the Ten Commandments. The first seven times, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Including Aaron’s staff that turned into a serpent and the first six plagues, God gave Pharaoh seven signs before He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God only hardened his heart further to demonstrate His power and sovereignty over all. Likewise, He gave the people of Canaan more than 400 years to repent before He hardened their hearts in order to demonstrate His power over all.

God is sovereign and in control7

  • God can also harden the hearts of any nation that rejects Him. When a nation becomes filled with evil, He can also harden its people’s hearts: “Why, O LORD, do You cause us to stray from Your ways and harden our heart from fearing You? Return for the sake of Your servants, the tribes of Your heritage.” (Is. 63:17). He eventually hands unrepentant sinners over to their evil desires (Ro. 1:24). Because He is sovereign over all, He can harden any heart to accomplish His will: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” (Ro. 9:8; Jo. 10:40). Are you praying for the nation to repent so that God will not judge it and harden the people’s hearts?

7. Sin that You Fail to Remove in Your Life May Later Torment You. Josh. 11:21-23.

  • The three Anakim tribes who escaped Joshua’s judgment. At the end of the campaign, Joshua defeated Anakim. These were among the peoples that had previously caused the Jews to be filled with fear. Yet, unlike the other people of Canaan, Joshua spared or failed to kill three Anakim tribes: “21 Then Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab and from all the hill country of Judah and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua utterly destroyed them with their cities. 22 There were no Anakim left in the land of the sons of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod some remained. 23 So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. Thus the land had rest from war.” (Josh. 11:21-23). The final conquest of the Promised Land symbolized the peace that Jesus will one day provide when He returns and reclaims the title to the Earth: “The LORD will give strength to His people; the LORD will bless His people with peace.” (Ps. 29:11). Is your hope in the peace of the world to come or in this world?

  • The reemergence of the Anakim. The Anakim were amongst the people whom the Jews feared too much to invade the Promised Land 38 years earlier (Nu. 13:27-33). The Jews’ failure to blot out these three Anakim tribes contradicted God’s command to completely destroy all the Canaanite men of fighting age (Dt. 7:2, 16; 20:16). The Bible makes no reference to Joshua’s thoughts or motives in this matter. The responsibility for this oversight might have been shared with the 12 tribes. There were many smaller Canaanite villages that were not included within the southern and northern campaigns. The 12 tribes would have been responsible for clearing out these remaining Canaanite men after Joshua divided up the land. But many tribes failed to fulfill their responsibility in this area. The Jews’ sin in this area later grew into a much larger problem that almost overwhelmed them. Hundreds of years later, the Jews faced armies of Canaanites from these peoples that Joshua left behind. Among them was the giant Goliath who terrorized the Jews in battle (1 Sam. 17:4). God later used the Canaanites to judge the Jews for the sins of their fathers (Jer. 32:23; Neh. 9:26; Ps. 78:10). Like Joshua, Jesus has already defeated the devil. But He leaves many battles for believers. The lesson is that sin that is left unchecked will grow into something worse. Is there any sin in your life that may fester into something worse?

  1. Image credit: Joshua 11 Commentary | Old Testament | Matthew Henry | (Chronicle of the World: Weltchronik (Manuscript, Rudolf von Ems) (1350-1375)↩︎