Yet there shall be a distance between you and [the ark of the covenant], about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.
As God gives Joshua instructions for entering the land He was about to give them, He offers a visual reminder that speaks volumes. The ark of the covenant represented God’s presence with the people of Israel. Placing the ark in the front was a clear reminder that it is God who is and always has been leading His people.
There is something else communicated here about the character of God and the tendency of His people. 2,000 cubits was probably about 1,000 yards. God’s presence was clearly leading the people. In response, the people were to follow, keeping a distance of over a half mile between them and the ark. In addition to this being a reminder of God’s holiness–He deserves the awe and reverence of the people, it’s a protection against a tendency into which we all easily fall.
God tells Joshua that the reason for the distance was so that they would know the way to go. They didn’t know. They quite literally hadn’t been that way before. They needed God’s kind, knowing, exclusive leadership. Yep, exclusive. God used Joshua and the men carrying the ark, but He alone is calling the shots. The distance communicates this.
Think about it. If the people were right behind the ark or even shoulder to shoulder with it, how long before they look around and see a path that looks easier? “Let’s go this way. It’s smoother,” they say pointing in a direction that veers off the path God is leading them. Or, “Hey, I seek a quicker way over there!” In closing the distance, they wouldn’t need to fix their eyes on God to follow His leadership. Instead, their eyes would wander as they slipped into the role of co-pilot.
God doesn’t need a co-pilot. Assuming such a role communicates lack of trust and submission. Keeping the appropriate distance not only honored God’s character, it stressed the need to fix one’s eyes on Him to submit to His leadership. Are we following God at the appropriate distance? Too far and we’ll lose sight of Him. Too close and we’ll try to be His co-pilot. God calls for followers, not co-pilots.