Through a word of promise and the miraculous parting of the Jordan River, the Lord brought Joshua and the Israelites into the promised land in such a way that proved He was giving them Canaan and would be with them as they conquered it (Josh. 1:1–5:12). However, before the Israelites captured the first piece of territory, they needed to learn one more lesson.
Shortly after coming into Canaan, Joshua “was by Jericho” (5:13). Jericho was not the largest city in Canaan, but it was the first settlement the Israelites encountered as they advanced into the promised land to take possession of it. It was a well-defended city, known for being difficult to capture, and conquering it would clear the path before Israel and ensure that the city could not send forces to attack God’s people from behind once they moved on.
Just outside of Jericho, Joshua had an extraordinary encounter with a “man” holding a sword in his hand. This individual was prepared for battle, and his appearance was threatening enough that Joshua asked him if he was on Israel’s side or Jericho’s side (v. 13). This was the wrong question to ask, since the man said he was on neither side; rather, he told Joshua that he was “the commander of the army of the Lord” (v. 14). He was there not to join Joshua’s forces but, in a very real sense, to lead them. He commanded the armies of God, which includes the angels (1 Kings 22:19; Ps. 103:20–21) but also the Israelites, for the Lord promised to go before His people and fight for them (Deut. 1:30).
But who was this commander? It could have been a high-ranking angel, but more likely it was God Himself, perhaps even the Son of God making an appearance before His incarnation. After all, the figure is likely the same one who appears a few verses later at the beginning of Joshua 6 and is referred to as “the Lord.” Moreover, Joshua worshiped the figure, so he saw him as deity. As John Calvin comments, “By asking, What command does my Lord give to his servant? [Joshua] attributes to him a power and authority which belong to God alone.”
So, what did this encounter teach Joshua and the Israelites? That although they would be fighting the upcoming battles in Canaan, ultimately, it was God Himself who would be waging the war. The important question was not whether He was on their side but whether they were on His side in the impending conflict.