The Last Days of Joshua's Leadership
We may consider these closing chapters of the Book of Joshua in one address, as the matters with which they deal are all so intimately linked together. In chapter 21 we read of the separation of forty-eight cities from among the various tribes of Israel, which were allotted to the Levites. In chapter 22 we get the return of the warriors of the two and a half tribes to the homes which had already been given to them by Moses on the east of the Jordan. In chapters 23 and 24 we listen to Joshua as he seeks solemnly to impress upon the nation, which he had led into the possession of the land, the importance of cleaving closely to the Word of the Lord and not being turned aside through following any of the customs of the surrounding nations.
The Levites, as we know, were not to be numbeed among the people of Israel; therefore they did not inherit any special portion of the land of Palestine. They had been chosen by God instead of the first-born, who were dedicated to Him because of the deliverance wrought on the Passover night in Egypt and were set apart for special service in connection with the sanctuary and also ministering and teaching the Word of God among the people. The Lord Himself was their portion and their inheritance. So long as the people were obedient to Him, the Levites would be well cared for. In after years, when the nation drifted away from God, the Levites suffered greatly and in many instances were obliged to forsake the special service committed to them in order to care for their fields and vineyards, that they might properly provide for their families and themselves. Of old, God’s people were divided into three classes: priests, Levites and warriors. The priests were the worshippers and had to do with the way of approach to God. The Levites were the ministers of the Lord, serving, as we have seen, in various capacities. The warriors fought to take possession of the land and to hold it against their enemies in days to come. In the present dispensation of grace, the three groups are combined in each believer. All have been set apart of God as priests, holy and royal, to offer unto Go spiritual sacrifices and to make known the riches of His grace to a lost world. All are Levites, whose joy it should be to serve with gladness the One who had redeemed them. All, too, are warriors, responsible to contend earnestly for the faith once for all committed to the saints.
Cities, with their suburbs, were set apart for the possession of the Levites throughout the entire land, taken from the inheritances of the various tribes. Thus it was the privilege of all to share with the servants of the Lord that which He had given them and which they had appropriated in faith. This provision for the Levites was made after the Lord had given Israel all the land which He swore to give unto their fathers, and they possessed it and dwelt therein. God had fulfilled His word to the letter. It was now the responsibility of His people to hold by obedience that which they had inherited.
In chapter 22 (vs. 1-6) we learn that these warriors had done their part faithfully. Although they speak of those who prefer to settle down on the borders of the world rather than to enter in and possess in fullness all that God has for them, nevertheless, according to the light which they seemed to have, they were true and faithful to the promise they had given to Moses and so they were now entitled to return to Bashan and Gilead and adjoining districts east of the Jordan to settle down with their families and care for their flocks and herds.
On their way to their homes an incident occurred which is very suggestive and might well be kept in mind by us today—we who are so apt to misunderstand one another’s motives and to judge each other wrongly because we do not know what is going on in the heart. It is against this that our Lord warns us when He says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you.”
In verse 10 we read: “And when they came to the borders of Jordan, that are in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by Jordan, a great altar to see to.” When word got abroad regarding the building of this altar those who had their inheritances west of the Jordan, immediately jumped at the conclusion that their brethren were setting up some separate kind of worship and so were making a breach in Israel. Without sending messengers to make proper inquiry, word was sent to all the nine and one-half tribes that a rebellion against the Word of the Lord had begun and they were summoned together to quell it. Led by that devoted man Phineas, the son of Eleazar the priest, they charged their brethren with trespass against the Lord, and reminding them how judgment had fallen upon them because of previous iniquities, they warned them of what they might expect if they continued to rebel against God by setting up some other center of worship than that which He had already established at Shiloh. But when thus charged by their excited brethren, the two and one-half tribes, through their leader, made it clear that they had no such thought whatever. On the other hand, the altar they had built was in order to remind their children and the children of the nine and one-half tribes that they were one nation and that together they worshipped the one true and living God. When the facts of the case came out clearly, Phineas and the host following him were satisfied, and they thanked God that division was averted. The altar that the children of Reuben and of Gad had built was simply a replica of that which was set up at the tabernacle and was designed to keep in mind the unity of the nation rather than to foment division. Thus what might have been a very serious breach between brethren was avoided. How often through the centuries have Christians attacked one another and separated one from another on even less provocation, simply because they acted in haste and did not take time to acquaint themselves with one another’s motives.
As we turn to chapter 23 we read: “And it came to pass a long time after that the Lord had given rest unto Israel from all their enemies round about, that Joshua waxed old and stricken in age. And Joshua called for all Israel, and for their elders, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and said unto them, I am old and stricken in age: And ye have seen all that the Lord your God hath done unto all these nations because of you; for the Lord your God is He that hath fought for you.” Joshua then went on to remind them how he had divided the land by lot among them and how the Lord their God had expelled their enemies in the past, and if they continued to walk in obedience He could be depended on to drive out those that remained, in order that Israel might possess the land in peace and quietness, even as God had promised them. It was for them to be courageous and obedient and to seek to walk in all the commandments of the Lord, as set forth in the law of Moses. Then they could depend upon God to keep His word and act on their behalf. If, on the other hand, they failed in this and did not cleave to the Lord their God, but turned from His law to walk in the ways of the nations surrounding Palestine or of the remnant of those remaining in the land, then their own God would turn against them and they would learn in bitterness of soul the folly of disobedience to His truth.
“And behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof. Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the Lord your God promised you; so shall the Lord bring upon you all evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the Lord your God hath given you. When ye have transgressed the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed yourselves to them; then shall the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and ye shall perish quickly from off the good land which he hath given unto you.”
Following this, Joshua now an aged man, gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem to give them his last charge. He reminded them how God had called Abraham from Mesopotamia and set him apart, that through him all nations of the world might be blessed. It is evident from verse 2 that Abraham himself had been brought up in idolatry and belonged to an idolatrous family at the time that God revealed Himself to him, Joshua said, “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood,” that is, of the river, the river Euphrates, “even Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods” (v. 2). Abraham was not called out from the nations because he was inherently different from other people, but God in His sovereignty chose him from an idolatrous family and revealed Himself to him. They were His children. They knew how wonderfully the Lord had fulfilled His word to their fathers, and now they were responsible to yield implicit obedience to His word. Joshua recited briefly an account of God’s dealings with them under Moses in Egypt and in the wilderness, and then reminded them of recent events after they entered into the land. Everything Jehovah had promised was fulfilled. He had given them the land for which they had not labored and cities which they did not build. In these they dwelt securely with the vineyards and the olive yards which they had not planted and of which they ate. They were responsible, therefore, to fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in truth and put away the gods which their fathers had served on the other side of the flood and in Egypt and to serve the Lord alone (v. 14).
This is very illuminating and shows us that even in Egypt idolatry had a hold on some in Israel, even as we know was true in the wilderness, and now that they were settled in the land there were still idols to be brought out into the light and destroyed. So long as anything is given the place in our hearts that belongs to God Himself, there can never be the fullness of blessing that He would have us enjoy.
Responding to Joshua’s words, we are told in verses 16 to 18: “And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; For the Lord our God, he it is that brought us up and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and which did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way wherein we went, and among all the people through whom we passed: And the Lord drave out from before us all the people, and even the Amorites which dwelt in the land: therefore will we also serve the Lord; for He is our God.”
All this sounded very good and no doubt at the moment those who made such protestations of loyalty to Joshua meant every word they uttered. But time was to prove how untrustworthy the human heart is. Joshua realized it and warned the people accordingly, as we read in verses 19 and 20: “And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord: for He is an holy God; He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then He will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that He hath done you good.” However, the people replied, “Nay, but we will serve the Lord.” And God called Joshua to witness against them that they had thus confirmed their devotion to Him. Again the command came (v. 23): “Now therefore put away, said he, the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the Lord God of Israel”; and the people protested their full intention to be obedient. So we are told “Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said unto all the people, Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us; for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which he spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest ye deny your God. After such solemn adjuration the people departed to their homes.
The death of Joshua followed shortly after and he was buried in the borders of his inheritance in Timnath-Serah.
In verse 31 we learn that Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders which overlived Joshua and which had known all the works of the Lord that he had done for Israel. The history that follows in later books tells us how terribly the people failed to carry out their part of the covenant which the fathers had made.
One thing remains to be noticed ere we close our present study of this book. We read in verse 32: “And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought out of Egypt, buried them in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.” Before Joseph died, by faith he gave commandment concerning his bones, exhorting his brethren not to allow his embalmed body to remain in the land of Egypt, but to carry it with them to Canaan and bury it there. So when Moses led the people out of Egypt, we are told he took the bones of Joseph with him. All through the forty years in the wilderness when they were bearing about in the body the dying of Joseph, the memorial of death, the death of the one who had been used of God for their deliverance, who might be described as their saviour, was with them. Now that all had been fulfilled and they were settled in the land, they buried the bones of Joseph in the parcel of ground which he himself had indicated.
May we not learn from this the importance of always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be manifested in us until that day when, the wilderness journey ended, we shall enter into our final rest in the Paradise of God above.