Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you.” He did not say, “Ask and it will be given to you immediately.” He also did not say, “Ask and it will be given you exactly as you envision it.” When we ask and seem not to receive, it’s easy to fall into some kind of crisis of faith.
Ordinarily, Bible teachers deal with the questions of unanswered prayer by looking at the text in detail in order to point out conditions or the various ways we sabotage our own faith. Instead, let’s look at Joshua.
The 11th chapter of Joshua might not make the most fascinating reading, but it does summarize the accomplishments and answered prayers of one of the Old Testament’s most successful leaders. I also want to look at it in the context of two larger stories.
The background to Joshua’s conquests
First, in the Garden of Eden, God promised that he would destroy the devil and his works. In order to fulfill that promise, God needed a people to work through and land to serve as their base of operations.
Moses led God’s chosen people out of Egypt. They captured the land under Joshua’s leadership.
Ultimately, God kept his promise when Jesus was crucified. Ever since then, the world has been a battle zone in which the devil’s defeated army has been mounting a guerilla war and taking human shields in order to avoid capture. But read Revelation. God wins.
Second, God promised Abraham land for his offspring. He himself never owned any of it. God even told him that his descendants would be in Egypt for 400 years because the sin of the people living in the land was not yet complete.
Moses, the chosen man to lead Israel out of Egypt, managed to make his own time of training longer than it would have been by taking matters into his own hands and committing murder.
Then, just on the verge of entering the Promised Land, the people chickened out and refused to believe that God was strong enough to help them defeat the militarily powerful Canaanites. God swore that not a one of them, except the two faithful spies Joshua and Caleb, would ever live to see it. It took 40 years for all of them to die.
The conquest of Canaan
Joshua 11 summarizes what Joshua had accomplished. He had defeated 31 powerful Canaanite kings, all militarily superior to his rag tag army. He had conquered a significantly large base of operations. Jericho, the first town conquered, is just north of the Dead Sea.
Ai, the second, is west and a little north of Jericho, and about a quarter of the way between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Other early battles were in the same general vicinity.
From there Israel defeated first a coalition of kings to the south as far as a line between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. Then they defeated a northern coalition and gained territory as far as what is today the southern part of Lebanon. The Israelites had already conquered much of what is now modern Jordan under Moses.
They destroyed all of the kings and major cities, but there were still pockets of Canaanites in the land capable of offering resistance. The next generation was expected to continue to drive out Canaanites until the whole of the Promised Land was their undisputed possession. As the book of Judges shows, they didn’t bother—with disastrous consequences.
I hope this hasn’t made the book of Joshua sound like a boring history lesson, just a dreary account of battles. There is no militarily good reason why Israel should have won a single one of them.
The ten spies that Moses sent out and returned with a bad report described what they saw very accurately. The Canaanite people were well organized, well armed, well fortified, and individually taller and stronger than the Israelites.
There was no way in the world for a ragtag, poorly armed and militarily inexperienced people could have defeated them.
And that’s the point. Joshua won not because of his strength or tactical skills, or ingenuity. He won because he waited until he found out what God wanted him to do, and then he did it.
That, right there, is the whole secret to answered prayer. Through the Holy Spirit, God can talk to any of us individually, and he does. The entire problem of unanswered prayer results from our problems with staying still long enough to listen, listening long enough to understand what we hear, and then humbly doing that instead of something else that seems to make more sense.
In fact, Joshua suffered from two lapses of prayer. First, he assumed that taking Ai would be easy. After the victory at Jericho, for which he deserved no credit, Joshua rather casually sent a small group of fighters there. If he had prayed first, God would have warned him of Achan’s sin.
Second, when a bunch of dusty looking men told Joshua that they had heard about his fame and come from a distant land to make a treaty, he believed them without praying. As it turns out, they were from the nearby town of Gibeon, which he was supposed to have destroyed.
Now it’s important to recognize that answered prayer is not something we earn or deserve by obeying God. God never owes us anything. We all sin, and so the only thing we ever earn is death. Eternal life and any other promise we seek after is possible only because God in his grace has chosen to give us what we don’t deserve.