‘You are not able to serve the Lord’

Did ancient Israel know about reverse psychology? Exhibit A — Joshua’s farewell address to the people:

JOSHUA: fear the Lord and serve Him . . . put away the gods which your fathers served and serve the Lord (24:14) . . . choose for yourselves today whom you will serve (24:15).

PEOPLE: We will serve the Lord because He is our God (24:18).

JOSHUA: You will not be able to serve the Lord for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God… (24:19)

I’m no PSYOPs master (although I dabble from time to time with the kids) but this doesn’t sound like reverse psychology. No, what Joshua says is what he actually means; namely, Israel will not be able to follow through on her commitment to serve the Lord.

 

What we have here is a recurring paradox in the OT: God calls/commands his people to do  what he knows (and they prove) they cannot do. “You will not be able to serve the Lord.”

Now it would be tempting to launch into a withering discourse on man’s sin and depravity, but in this instance God’s word draws our minds not to human nature but to the divine nature. In other words, it is God’s nature that makes it impossible for his people to serve him:

The nature of God himself prevents Israel from serving him. His holy purity and jealous love both tie him in total devotion to his people and tie them off from fulfilling his demands. This has drastic consequences. God will not forgive Israel’s sins (cf. Exod 23:21). His expectations of them are too high. His love for them is too great. He cannot easily ignore their wrongdoings, their casual flirtations with other gods. The gods of the neighbors would simply wait for the worshiper to come back. Yahweh goes out to discipline the errant lover until she returns. –Trent Butler, Joshua, 275.

Incidentally, I think Paul touches this in Romans 7. Left to ourselves, even when the wanting and willing is present, the doing is not. His holiness ties us off from fulfilling his demands.

But what if God himself fulfilled his own demands for his people (Rom 8:3-4; Heb 10:5-7)? And what if he then gave us a share in his divine nature (2Pet 1:4) so that through him we could serve him (Jn 3:21)?

Well, it would take someone far better than Joshua to make that happen.