1:1-2 After the death of Joshua, the Israelites got off to a good start. They inquired of the Lord regarding their next military steps. Joshua had led them into the promised land and brought about the general defeat of the Canaanites (1:1). Now it was up to the people to carry out the mopping-up operations. They wisely asked the Lord for direction, since the man who had given them direction was no longer with them. This was the right way to begin their season of transition. And it reminds me of an important truth: when we have uncertainty, we must inquire of the Lord. As the people did in this case, approach him with specific prayers—if you want specific answers.
If God promises something, you can count on it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to exert faith and effort to obtain it. Jesus said that God feeds the birds (Matt 6:26), but you don’t see birds on branches with their mouths open toward heaven. They know they’ve got to leave the branch and obtain what God has provided. God promises us spiritual victory—provided we fight in the power of the Spirit with the Word of God as our sword.
1:19-20 The Lord was with Judah in their battles and enabled them to take possession of the hill country, but they could not drive out the people who were living in the valley because those people had iron chariots (1:19). Why wasn’t Judah fully victorious? Some time later, God would defeat iron chariots easily (4:12-16), so apparently that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the Israelites’ faith on the hill outmatched their faith in the valley (1:19). God was with them in both places, but they allowed what seemed to them an insurmountable problem in the valley to limit their faith in God.
When you’re following the will of God, don’t despair when circumstances are daunting. The God on the hill is the same God in the valley. Remember what Caleb said earlier when the Israelites feared entering Canaan altogether. He kept his eyes on God’s promise and declared, “We can certainly conquer it!” (Num 13:30). Don’t let the size of your problem become bigger than the size of your God.
1:21-36 These verses record a sad shift in Israel’s victory record that would lead to problems for years to come. The Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites (1:21). Then Manasseh failed to take possession of Beth-shean. . . . they made the Canaanites serve as forced labor but never drove them out completely (1:27-28). Then Ephraim failed to drive out the Canaanites who were living in Gezer (1:29). And so it continued: Zebulun failed to drive out the residents of Kitron (1:30). Asher and Naphtali failed to drive out the residents of the land (1:31, 33). Get the picture?
All of this marks the beginning of a cycle of compromise, a cycle of partial obedience. Perhaps they excused their failure with thoughts like: “Hey, the Canaanites could be beneficial to us. There’s no need to get rid of all of them.” But in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 God had commanded them to fully remove the Canaanites and destroy their idols because he knows that “a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor 5:6). Just as sure as a small cancer will metastasize, leaving pockets of Canaanites within the promised land would grow into a major problem. Though the Israelites may have thought that doing so would be in their best interest, it would turn into their worst nightmare.