36. Jehovah's Final Words by Joshua.
"I am the Lord, I change not." — Mal. 3:6.
The words spoken by Joshua at Shechem differ from those recorded in the last chapter, being a special message from Jehovah to the people. The nation — elders, heads, judges, officers — presented itself before God; and to this assembly, called together at Joshua's bidding, the last words which Jehovah uttered through that leader's lips were delivered.
In choosing Shechem for this solemn gathering of all Israel, God would remind His people of the beginning of His ways with them, and of their disposition of heart to Himself. To Shechem the nation had come at the commencement of the wars in Canaan; there, wives and little ones, warriors and old men, had all assembled; there, when the inhabitants of the land were in force about them, in the very midst of their enemies, the nation had reared their altar to the Lord God of Israel; and there, the Levites had read aloud the law of God, and all Israel had consented by responsive Amens to its requirements. In the narrow valley between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, where Israel now again assembled, the plaister-covered stones, inscribed with the words of the law, stood as witnesses before their eyes, and the sound of the Amens of the first great assembly were still ringing in the ears of many.
The thoughtful amongst the people would not merely recall Israel's first altar in Canaan, for at Shechem Jacob, their father, had built his altar, calling it El-elohe-Israel, connecting with God's great name the princely title his God had given him. The Lord's great name, and His favour to him, in that day, had aroused Jacob to purge his household, who there "gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem." (Gen. 33:18-20, and Gen. 35:2-5.) Jacob built his altar in Shechem, and "the terror of God was upon the cities" which were about his tents, when he there buried the idols. In like manner the nation assembled first in Shechem, and the surrounding cities had held their peace; and now, at this their last great assembly in Joshua's day, they were bid "put away the strange gods" that were among them. The great Name of Jehovah, and His great acts of favour for Israel, were Joshua's argument to the people, for the purging of themselves. He made a covenant with them, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem, wrote the words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone of witness and set it up there under an oak. (Joshua 24:25, 26.)
Shechem then, with its stones and its oak grove, was a sanctuary of hallowed memories and associations. The recalling of their past by the Lord, in that familiar spot, forced upon the nation the consideration that Jehovah's ways never change, and the practical issue that obedience to His word is the paramount duty of His people, and that in this alone can prosperity be their portion. As the Lord required thoroughness from Jacob in the day when He had saved his household by the strength of His arm, so He now required thoroughness of the children of Israel, for whom His grace and His strength had been wonderfully exercised. They, like their father Jacob, had to cleanse themselves, and to put away their idols — that is, if they would prosper and possess their land.
These last words from Jehovah to Israel through the lips of Joshua demand, therefore, the most earnest attention. From first to last (vers. 2-13) they recount Jehovah's sovereignty, power, and grace. His sovereignty in bringing their fathers out from idolatry; His power in delivering the people from their enemies; His grace in establishing them in their possessions. And, as we consider the sovereign favour, power, and grace of our God and Father, our response should be the purging ourselves from the evil thing which He hates.
"I have done this," is the burden of the words of the Lord to Israel. His people are blessed, solely because He will bless. The beginning of Israel's history was idolatry, — "they served other gods"; and when far off from God, He found them, even as He finds sinners today, afar from Him, dead in trespasses and sins. "I took," the Lord continues, "Abraham" out of the far-off land of idolatry, "and led him throughout all the land of Canaan;" and God takes His own out of their state of death in sin, and puts them in Christ in the heavenly places. For Abraham, as for God's saints now, there was no going back to "the other side of the flood," no return to the old state and home; he trod the land of promise; we are seated in Christ in the heavenly places. God's ways of grace are absolute, they know no change, no variableness.
The Lord further declares, "I gave unto Isaac, Jacob, and Esau. I gave unto Esau Mount Seir." He writes afresh upon the heart of His people, so wonderfully brought into and blessed in the land, His own absolute will of grace, and teaches them to say, "What has God wrought?" for of Him as, well as "through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36).
Then comes a lesson with which the saints, generally, are made familiar, since it is one wrought out in their histories. Esau entered into his possession; but when Edom's armed men held their strongholds, "Jacob and his children went down into Egypt." There for centuries they possessed but God's promise, for as a nation they were buried in the bondage of Egypt. This is a familiar experience of God's children, who have to learn to trust in God's word, and to walk by faith, and to wait in patience. But God's arm fails not, in due time the deliverance came. "I sent Moses also and Aaron, . . . I brought your fathers out of Egypt." The Lord "sent," and the Lord "brought out." All was of Him.
"When He makes bare His arm, who shall withstand His might?" The chariots and the horsemen of Egypt, and the waters of the Red Sea, were as nothing to the Lord. He "brought the sea upon them, and covered them." "Your eyes," said the Lord, "have seen what I have done in Egypt." Yes, cries the Christian, and our eye of faith has seen His power and His grace in delivering us from the present evil world, under the bondage of which we once sighed, almost despairing of freedom.
"Ye dwelt in the wilderness a long season," adds the Lord. And there they had seen His delivering arm, even as the Christian proves the strong arm of his God in bringing him on, stage by stage, through this wilderness world. "I brought you into the land of the Amorites," "I gave them into your hand," "I destroyed them from before you," the Lord further declares. And when weapons failed and the king hired the prophet to curse the nation, he adds, "I would not hearken unto Balaam; therefore he blessed you still: so I delivered you out of his hand." Whether opposed by force or by cunning, whether by open enmity in the battlefield on earth, or by accusations presented on high, in all these things "we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us."
In Canaan, in the promised land, still the same great story is told. Did the men of Jericho or the forces of the seven nations, each greater and mightier than Israel, come against them; Jehovah says, "I delivered them into your hands." Did Israel take the aggressive? it was not by sword or bow they won the day, but because "I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out from before you." In wars, defensive or offensive, in onslaughts of foes or onslaughts on foes, always, and alone, the Lord wrought the victory. Can the Christian fail to rejoice in like grace, yea, to make his boast in his God, who is the God of all grace and of all might? Such a portion of the word as the latter part of Romans 8 recounts God's ways for us, as does this last chapter of the book of Joshua tell Jehovah's ways for Israel.
Wars having ceased, and the blessings of peace being enjoyed, the sacred soil of Canaan being their portion, still the story but unfolds the goodness of their God. "I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat." We, too, who are seated in the heavenly places in Christ, and are eating of the trees we planted not, and enjoying the fruits of His grace, rejoice to own that all is of God. Every spiritual blessing, and the appetite also for its enjoyment, is of Him.
Now, therefore, says Joshua, having recounted the wonderful ways of the Lord to and for His people. "Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord." Departure from God and idolatry are sins that are a very part of man's fallen nature; and occupation of a position, though the most favoured, will not keep departure from God and idolatry out of the heart. It is vain to argue that no hidden household gods were in the houses of Israel, because the nation was in Canaan, and surrounding the tabernacle at Shiloh with its glory-cloud. The call to purge themselves was of God, who knew where the idols were hidden.
Then, as Jacob of old was aroused to vigorous action by God's grace and mercy, so Joshua declared, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Leader as he was, he could but appeal to others to follow his example and to be sincere, true, and thorough for God; for each man, and each house, must at all times deal separately with God. Joshua could but answer for himself and his own house, and this he did. Let us test ourselves, and try our ways by his words.
The people understood well that they were in Canaan solely by the will and work of Jehovah; He had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, He had wrought His great signs in their sight, He had preserved them in all the way they had gone in the wilderness, and He had driven out their enemies in Canaan, and therefore they said, "We will serve Jehovah, for He is our God." But Joshua, with an insight into their hearts, reminded them that it is no light thing to serve a holy and jealous God. Surely old memories and the history of the past added intensity to his warning! Self-confidence makes but a poor figure when arrayed before failures, and sin, and departure from God; but in spite of their history Israel replied "Nay; but we will serve the Lord."
Yet not one word did they utter as to the strange gods which they had been bidden put away from their midst. It is ever easier to say "We will serve the Lord" than it is to purge ourselves from idols; it is easier to resolve to serve the Lord, than to bury our household gods under some oak of Shechem. But God bids us first bury our idols, and then serve Him. Such is the order of His exhortation to us, as He says "Cease to do evil; learn to do well" (Isa. 1:16, 17).
Joshua told the people they were witnesses to their own promise as to serving the Lord, and they replied, "We are witnesses." Again he reminded them that first the idols must go, and that afterwards their hearts should be inclined to the Lord, saying, "Now, therefore, put away the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the Lord God of Israel."
Did they put away their idols? There is no answer, but Judges 2:19 would lead to the conviction that they did not do so. "And the people said unto Joshua, The Lord our God will we serve, and His voice will we obey."
The solemn service completed, Joshua set up a stone of memorial under an oak, to witness to the people what they had said and done; and he wrote the words of that day in the Book of the Law of God, so that the record might stand for ever before Him.
"So Joshua let the people depart, every man unto his inheritance," and upon Israel devolved the responsibility of maintaining their position in that inheritance by obedience to God. We can only read and read again the solemn words of this last day of Joshua's appeal to Israel, and consider the fact that they evaded the point of his exhortation — the putting away of their idols. As we apply the exhortation to ourselves, we may open the book of Judges and trace there the result of disobedience.
"And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being an hundred and ten years old." He was buried in the border of his inheritance in Mount Ephraim, where his dust rests until Jesus, of whom he is so striking a type, shall raise him from the dead.
So long as Joshua's personal influence prevailed, Israel served the Lord, and, indeed, while his spirit, still influenced the elders, who had been his companions, and who had known all the works of the Lord that He had done for Israel; but no longer, as the book of Judges demonstrates. And thus it is in all days and times, for men serve the Lord so long as the power of God in His servants turns their hearts to Himself, whether these be Judges or Kings — Moses, Joshua, or David. They serve the Lord while the light of His grace, through an inspired Paul, or an upraised Luther, shines upon them. The leader gone, the mass relapses into departure from the living God.
It is an utterly vain thing to dream that the letter of Christian truth will retain men's souls in God's presence. Even the letter of the Bible itself may become a dead letter in human hands. The doctrine of justification by faith may become but an article of a creed; the most sacred principles of the divine word may become but dead theories. The letter is retained and may be fought over, but the practice is gone — the living result in the soul is lacking. Outward formalism is characteristic of our day: therefore we do well to remember that "the word of God is quick" — "living," and that when truly believed, it produces living results.
It is impossible for saints to continue the heavenly course in the impetus of the faith of men who are now at rest with Christ. The true helpers of God's people are they who know practically in their own souls all the works of the Lord, who live out what they believe, who have not only the principles or the doctrines of Scripture in their minds, but who have also the power of the Spirit of God filling their hearts.
With the closing of the book of Joshua, the Spirit of God mentions the death and burial of Eleazar, the high priest, in the borders of Ephraim, and the fulfilment of Joseph's faith in the burial of his bones in Shechem. His sepulchre fell within the "inheritance of the children of Joseph." His dust reposes not in that Egypt which saw his glory, but in God's promised land, though weakness and failure are written upon its holy fields. Man's short history on earth is traced to the grave; but in a little while Christ will reward the faith of all who put their trust in Him. He is coming; He will cause the dead to awake and to arise; and Joshua, Eleazar, Joseph, together with the weakest and the least believer of His saints, shall obtain their everlasting portion in resurrection glory.