One of my favourite Sunday school songs is the Obedience Song. The first verse goes like this:
Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe:
Doing exactly what the Lord commands, doing in happily.
Action is the key—do it immediately—joy you will receive;
Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.
This song highlights the importance of immediate obedience to the Lord. The English word “obedience” is derived from the Latin oboedire, which literally means “to listen in the direction of.” The implication is that the listener responds to what he or she hears. As we use the term, it speaks of the submissive hearing of a greater authority.
We associate obedience with the willing submission of a subordinate to a superior, of a person to an authority figure. Children obey their parents because parents have authority. Citizens obey government leaders because those leaders are in a position of authority. Employees obey employers because of the appropriate authority structure. Wives obey their husbands because God has given the husband authority in the home. Church members obey their elders because he has given the elders authority to lead the church.
We understand these concepts. It would be strange to speak of obedience in the other direction: of parents obeying their children, of government leaders obeying their citizens, of employers obeying their employees, of husbands obeying their wives, and of elders obeying church members. Obedience only works one way. We know this.
How strange it is, then, to read in Joshua 10 of God obeying a man. The text in question, as it stands in the ESV, reads: “There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded the voice of a man” (Joshua 10:14). The word translated “heeded” is the same Hebrew word that is often translated “obey” in the Old Testament (see Exodus 5:2; 19:5; 23:21–22; Deuteronomy 13:4; etc.).
Now, to be fair, the title of this post is somewhat sensational. The Hebrew word can be translated in a great variety of ways. It can speak of hearing, considering, consenting or understanding. But the idea nevertheless is of hearing something and responding appropriately.
The context of Joshua 10 is particularly striking. Joshua was leading an attack against a Canaanite confederation and needed either a time of extended light or extended darkness to finish the task at hand.1
The text makes it clear that Joshua prayed: “Joshua spoke to the LORD” (v. 12). But, unlike many instances in the Bible, particularly when it relates to miracles, it is instructive that his prayer here did not stem from any divine revelation. Moses was often instructed by the Lord to perform miracles, but here there is no indication that the Lord instructed Joshua to pray this prayer. Instead, Joshua simply prayed in faith: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” And the Lord answered: “The sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies” (Joshua 10:12–13).
The author of Joshua adds his own commentary: “There has been no day like it before or since.” We might immediately think that he is talking of the extended period of light/darkness, but he isn’t. The day was unique, not because the sun and moon stood still, but because it was the only day “when the LORD heeded the voice of a man.”
This was some prayer, of course. The sun and moon are under God’s direct control. No human has control over these bodies. What Joshua asked was unprecedented. Yet he prayed because he evidently had faith that God would hear his prayer. And the Lord honoured his faith with a miracle.
It strikes me that this view of prayer should really inform our prayers. Here, “the LORD heeded the voice of a man” in a quite unique way, but the fact is, God still hears and answers prayer. I don’t think that we have any promise that he will answer us if we ask for extended daylight or darkness, because there was clearly a unique divine purpose at play here, which the miracle served. Nevertheless, God cares enough to hear our prayers and is powerful enough to answer them.
Dale Ralph Davis says it well:
Isn’t it still amazing that God listens to the voice of a man or woman who comes to him? Doesn’t this view of prayer rebuke both the flippancy and the tedium with which we often approach the Great King? Ought we not to catch our breath to think that the God who is seated on high (Ps. 113:5) stoops down and bends his ear to lips of dust and ashes?2
The psalmist, under inspiration, quoted God: “When he calls to me, I will answer him” (Psalm 91:15). In fact, Isaiah tells us that God so delights to hear and answer our prayer that he does so before we even pray! “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24). What a gracious God we serve!
If we believe the Scriptures in this regard, surely we will be drive to pray in faith, knowing that we serve a sovereign God who is often pleased to glorify himself by answering the prayers of his needy people.
- English translations of the Bible typically speak of the sun standing still, and give the impression that the Lord granted an extension of daylight. An argument can be made, however, for the extension being an extension of darkness rather than light. ↩
- Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2003), 86. ↩