34. The Return of the Forty Thousand Warriors.
"Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." — Gal. 6:7.
In considering the story of the return of the forty thousand warriors belonging to the two and a half tribes, the Lord's first exhortation to Israel, "Arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them," must be borne in mind. It must also be remembered that on "this side" Jordan were the twelve memorial stones of the passage of the river, the strength of Gilgal, the camp, the prostrate walls of Jericho, the stones whereon the law was written at Ebal, the tabernacle, and the cloud.
"Bring us not over Jordan" had been the settled determination of the two and a half tribes, whom God had so greatly enriched upon their way to the promised land. They preferred sitting down and enjoying their riches to pressing forward to the inheritance. Expediency rather than faith guided them. The cities of Gilead had greater attractions for them than the soldiers' tents over Jordan. Settling down, let it assume what form it may, is a sorrowful thing. Faith inherits "yonder and forwards," in nearness to God.
"Bring us not over Jordan" had been the cry of these tribes; "we will not inherit with them" — i.e., with the mass of Israel, their determination; hence the sorrowful day came for the backward journey of their warriors. However much the zeal of the forty thousand, who for their brethren's sake fought on the Lord's side of Jordan, may be admired — and surely they had their reward — it cannot be denied that the two and a half tribes sent them "forwards" to fight the Lord's battles, in order to compromise matters. "We will pass over armed before the Lord into the land of Canaan, that the possession of our inheritance on this side of Jordan may be ours."
The Lord having now given rest to Israel, as He had promised, Joshua said to these warriors "Return ye." He commended their faithfulness and obedience, and earnestly enjoined upon them wholeheartedness for the Lord. He entreated them to love the Lord, to walk in all His ways, to keep His commandments, to cleave to Him, and to serve Him with all the heart and all the soul; and he blessed them, and sent them away. "Return with much riches unto your tents, and with very much cattle, with silver, and with gold, and with brass, and with iron, and with very much raiment: divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren." There is a blessing for any child of God who follows the Lord with a true heart, even if he do so only for one day, and there is ever spoil for such to divide with those who stay at home and keep the stuff; but "Return ye" is a solemn sentence.
"Return ye" from the scene of hardship and of victory to the pastoral tent! "Return ye" from Canaan to Gilead! "Return ye" from the promised possession to the inheritance of your choice! Departure from any degree of zeal for God, or nearness to God, is grievous; and this the forty thousand discovered returning from the battlefields and forsaking Shiloh, the place of worship. In a sense, it may be, the Lord accepted them in the position which they had chosen (see end of ver. 9), for He acts towards His people according to His own standard of faithfulness, even when they are in a false position. "He remains faithful."
As these men of war, who had fought and endured hardness with their brethren, journeyed to their inheritance, they came to Jordan, and there they made a halt and questioned among themselves. The sight of the river recalled grand memories of God's ways for Israel. They had entered Canaan by the dry bed of the stream which they were about to ford on their homeward way; they had helped to erect the memorial in Gilgal of the passage of the river by all Israel. Were they then indeed going to leave the promised land? Were their own feet about to put the river between them and the twelve stones of Gilgal and the tabernacle of Shiloh Their hearts smote them. In that crisis did faith suggest, or did compromise reason? They did not adopt the course which the nine and a half tribes afterwards proposed — "Pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the Lord, wherein the Lord's tabernacle dwells"! No! "They built a great altar."
Their great altar was not the Lord's altar — it was a memorial, a remembrance merely. Its chief value consisted in its evidencing that they who erected it had been once at Shiloh! Such a necessity demonstrated the untenableness of the position on the "other side of Jordan."
What a poor thing was their altar of Ed! It was not for worship; they did not mean that "burnt-offering, or meat-offering, or peace-offering," should ever be placed upon it. No sweet savour was to arise from it, nor were gladdened hearts to surround it. What then was this great altar for? "To see to!" To see to — to recall the brilliant past! To witness that, in days gone by, those who had built it were soldiers in Canaan and worshippers at Shiloh! Alas! how often the Christian builds his altar of Ed; altars of "witness," altars to see to are in many hearts and in many associations, where once there was real devotedness to Christ. "Great" altars are these. Great our hands like to build them, but the altar of the Lord is never said to be great. People talk of what they used to be, how they served God, how they enjoyed seasons of heartfelt worship, and by the sign of the past, would prove the soundness of their present condition. Traditions and memories, not the living energy of the present, possess such souls. No man on a field of battle builds his monument; monuments are built when the soldiers have returned home. The twelve stones at Gilgal were a monument to what God had wrought for Israel; the altar of the forty thousand was a monument to the memory of what they themselves had been; our conflict must not end until life be spent; let our daily life, not an altar to see, witness for us. In Canaan, across the Jordan, was the place God had ordained for Israel's home, there was Israel's place of blessing. In Christ in the heavenly places, is our only true position as the soldiers of our Joshua; may our souls never return from that place of blessing to one of our own choice.
The deceitfulness of sin, and the treachery of our hearts harden the soul. There is no real prosperity save in nearness to God, and in living in the blessings wherewith He has blessed us in Christ. The spirit of expediency is utterly contrary to God; yet who has not listened to his heart bidding him choose some easy place, and to excuses for abiding where he ought not to be? We have to learn that we must go up to the position of faith, whatever it may be, which God sets before us, and to refuse the invitations of our own lusts, which bid us endeavour to bring God into our self-chosen land of sight. The Christian must ever be "on the alert"; the moment he turns his back upon faith's battlefield he fails, and is in danger of falling.
They could not have "the Lord's tabernacle," except by going over into "the land of the possession of the Lord"; but their affections, their wives and little ones, and their riches were on the other side Jordan, and thither they returned.
They reasoned thus — Perhaps in time to come the children of the nine and a half tribes may say, "What have ye to do with the Lord God of Israel? For the Lord has made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no part in the Lord so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the Lord." Certainly Jordan was a border. It was plain to them that crossing it appeared like leaving the Lord, with His holy tabernacle and its blessings, and that their doing so was fraught with danger; upon considering this danger, most unworthily did they place the burden of their children's forsaking the Lord upon those who remained near His tabernacle.
Their brethren had never suggested divisions among the Israel of Jehovah, nor that the Jordan was a separation between them, nor that their children should cease fearing the Lord; but so it is: the believer who leaves his more devoted companions for some worldly association invariably lays the blame of the consequences upon those who abide with God. Blaming godly people is a common salve for an uneasy conscience; finding fault with one's brother is a universal remedy for covering one's own shame.
When the tidings of the altar of Ed reached Israel, the whole congregation assembled itself at Shiloh, at the one altar of Jehovah. They beheld in the erection of a second altar nothing less than rebellion against the Lord of the twelve tribes. The zeal of Israel was stirred, and when the heart is zealous for God in the contemplation of the failings of others, it remembers with a chastened spirit its own sins; so "the iniquity of Peor," "the trespass of Achan," with all those bitter fruits, were present before them. Israel, moreover, judged themselves before attempting to judge the wrong-doers; they felt that the seeds of the very evils they mourned over in the two and a half tribes, and which they were assembled to root out, were among themselves. Such is the spirit in which the believer, when in communion with God, laments the desertion of his fellow-soldier, and deals with evil. Judgment must begin at home, and who is guiltless And where the sin is a controversy, as was this in the mind of Israel, between Jehovah and their brethren, great will be the contrition and brokenness of spirit in those who have grace given to them, to be zealous for God's glory. Any other spirit is but the zeal of mere nature.
The sword of human vengeance may be drawn in the name of holiness, and pharisees and scribes may stone the offender, and yet because of their own hardness of heart be more guilty than those they judge. But from Rome downwards the fire has been a common cure for disorder in the church.
The nine and a half tribes acknowledged the sin of the two and a half tribes as transgression involving all Israel. "Ye rebel today against the Lord . . . tomorrow He will be wroth with the whole congregation" (Joshua 22:18). How little do Christians realize the solemn truth of the sin of one affecting the prosperity of the whole (see ver. 20). There would be less indifference one to another, and less desire to heap up blame one on another were this truth realized. The Christian is not a mere unit, he is one with all saints; his behaviour affects others, and the behaviour of others affects him. The rebellion, the self-will, say, of a company of God's saints tells its painful tale in the displeasure of God falling upon His people. This argument of the nine and a half tribes was most powerful to the hearts of the two and a half tribes, as well as a most emphatic warning based upon the principles of the government of God.
The clean and the unclean (see ver. 19), regarding the land where they dwelt, were determined by the presence of the Tabernacle among them; not by human notions, or questions, but by the cloud of glory and the ark. Well might they invite their brethren to such a holy centre. Only where God is, can His people dwell in purity and peace. Were Christ Himself more truly the centre of His people, His holy presence would rebuke sin and chase away bitterness and pride.
Nothing proves the true godly spirit of the nine and a half tribes more forcibly than their patience in listening to the arguments of the forty thousand warriors, or rather of the two and a half tribes (Joshua 22:21). These were accepted by their brethren, and peace was maintained. Their words were good in the eyes of Israel, and they rejoiced that the Lord was among them, keeping them from open departure from Him, and saving them from the consuming hand of His judgment, and from the bitter necessity of fighting against their brethren. The act of the forty thousand looked as dark as Israel feared, but God, who knows the motives of our hearts, gave Israel grace to learn by patient enquiry what the motive of the act really was, and so saved the nation from destruction, a principle which, if observed by Christians in controversy, might often save them from division and bitterness, which is, to say the least, as keen if not as deadly as the edge of the sword.
After the lapse of some years the prosperity of Israel was changed for Bochim (weeping) (Judges 2:1). The sorrowful time of national declension came. Jehovah, filled with pity, raised up judges to deliver His erring people; and at that time we read of a day of testing (Judges 5). Where were the two and a half tribes then? Did the great altar of sight inspire them to devote their lives to the cause of the promised land "Gilead abode beyond Jordan," remained at home at ease. "For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings:" thoughts of heart — great resolutions were made by the men of war, but nothing was done! "Why abodest thou among the sheep-folds to hear the bleating of the flocks?" Because the piping of the shepherds was preferred to the trumpet of war? Hard, indeed, must be the necessity which rouses an ease-seeking believer into action. Daily nearness to Christ alone preserves the soul from spiritual declension. Zeal, riches, spoils, blessings of former days, having once trodden the land of the Lord's inheritance, will not avail.
In a time when many turn aside, thrice happy are they who inherit "forwards," and who endure hardness as good soldiers of Christ.
Later in Israel's history we find the two and a half tribes in captivity, and the land of Gilead lost beyond recovery. (1 Kings 22.)