A few years ago I was struck by the reality that the life I now live is often harder than the one I lived before God saved me. I didn’t get saved until early adulthood, so I have vivid memories of life before Christ. My life was certainly empty, but it was very different, and in many ways easier. Life after Christ became richer, but harder. It became hopeful, but filled with greater difficulty. I had joy, but not necessarily unending happiness. My sins were forgiven, but sometimes there wasn’t much else to rejoice in. The more I grew, the more I realized that I’m not alone. I even started seeing that the pattern of scripture is pain now, relief later (Rom. 8:22-24). God’s people must walk through a lot before they get the promised land, before they get glory (Acts 14:22).
The other day I read Joshua 24:3-5:
Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac. And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in the midst of it, and afterward I brought you out.
Did you notice the middle of these verses? “And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.”
God gave Esau the land, but sent Jacob down to Egypt. Jacob was part of God’s chosen people. Jacob was the one God picked. Jacob was the one God used to grow his people. Jacob was the one who blessed the nations through his family line. But instead of the land, he went down to Egypt. And we all know what happened there.
Esau got his land right then, Jacob never got it in his lifetime. At first glance, it can seem like Esau is the favored one, the blessed one. It looks like he wins. He isn’t sent into slavery. He doesn’t wander in the desert. He doesn’t face enemies on every side (as far as we know). He gets the land immediately. He gets his best life now.
By all accounts, Jacob’s life was harder. But as Joshua goes on to recount all that God has done in the rest of Joshua 24, we see that just because the land evaded Jacob for all those years, there are better things to possess than the land. Verse after verse, story after story, Joshua reminds the people that God was with them and delivered them repeatedly. God might not have given them the land right then, but the land wasn’t his only card to play with them. He was faithful every step of the way. He was with them.
The New Testament gives us a different story for Esau. God wasn’t just far from Esau, he actually “hated” him. He had no dealings with him. He wasn’t under his protection, his care, or his saving love. There are worse things in life than not getting everything you want right then, and we see it right here in Romans 9. “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated” (Rom. 9:13).
The worst thing that can happen to a person is not suffering, or wilderness wandering, or even the lack of any tangible earthly possessions. The worst thing that can happen to a person is separation from God, unbelief in his goodness and his saving power. Israel wandered for years. Israel went down to Egypt and was held captive. Israel waited a long time for the land. But God kept them and revealed himself to them. He did not do that with Esau. That is the tragedy of this verse. Esau got land, but no God. Jacob didn’t get the land in his lifetime, but he got God forever. God is always better than the land.
What Israel had to see in all this was the might and power of God. He was revealing himself to them then, in the wandering. He didn’t do this with Esau. His ways aren’t our ways and his ways are often harder than we expect. But for the believer, we get God. We might not get anything else in this life, but God is better than that.
At the end of the day, we have to be able to say “what is eighty years of prosperity if God is not in it?” Can we say that? I want to say it.
There are worse things than not getting the land, Joshua 24 tells us. The land looks better at first glance, but it’s not, because God is the better portion. He is the one we should want more than any earthly comfort. To be loved, chosen, and protected by him is paramount. The land is passing away. The God of all creation is not. He’s always better than the land.