(Originally published February 22, 2017)
Joshua chapter 23 is Joshua’s “farewell address” to Israel. By some estimates there has been a twenty to twenty-three-year interval between the end of the previous chapter and this speech by Joshua. The conquest is long over and the people of Israel have settled into their new homes and lands. By now there are young adults living in Israel who were not alive, or at least old enough to participate, during the conquest. Joshua led them from before they crossed the Jordan river, throughout the battles of the conquest, and into the first years of peacetime occupation of the land of their inheritance. As he approaches the end of his life we see what is uppermost in his heart: exhorting the people of the Lord to continue to walk in obedience to their God.
Joshua’s exhortations to the Israelites are nothing new to them, they have heard all of this before. “Be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the book of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day (vs. 6-8).” He grounds his commands in the actions of God on their behalf: “For the LORD has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, just as he promised you (vs. 9,10).”
Our study asks, how do these exhortations apply to us today? In his commentary on Joshua, James Boice gives us insight to the connection between the Israelites of Joshua’s time and us today:
‘We separate ourselves from what God has done by making faith a matter of subjective feelings, as if what matters is how we feel about religion rather than knowing and acting on what God has done. We do not generally admit this, of course, and we believe that God has done great acts of redemption for us in the past. But often this becomes less important to us than how we feel now, and we begin to act on our feelings rather than upon what we know of God and God’s ways. Joshua did not want the people of Israel to do that. In time they would be attracted to the world and its ways, to the religious practices and morals of the surrounding pagan cultures. At that time, these ways would seem “good” to Israel, and the pleasures of sin would “feel” desirable. They were not to defect from a proper worship of God for that reason, because they knew certain things about God: he had acted for them powerfully in their deliverance from Egypt and in the conquest and had thereby shown himself to be the true God.
The people were to ground their feelings on this knowledge, rather than the other way around.
…The Bible knows nothing of (a blind) “leap of faith.” It says, “Look at what God has done for you in history. Remember his acts. Reason about these things, and build upon them.” The Bible does not abandon evidence. It builds faith on reason, and understanding on faith.’ [Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice, Published 1989 by Baker Books]
We must remember what God has done for us in the past. What he has done has not been to merely generate feelings of “warm fuzzies” for us. He has delivered us from bondage to sin and death and made us alive together with Christ! Know the truth and remember! Upon the ground of this knowledge build your reasonable faith, and stand against the ways of the world and the pleasures of sin which would entice you away from the Lord.
Throughout the book of Joshua there has been a great deal of emphasis on obedience to the law and God’s instructions for the conquest. What aspect of obedience now emerges at the end of the book?
‘Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the Law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”’ (Joshua 22:5)
‘Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.’ Joshua 23:11
We see that love for the Lord is the foundation of true obedience which will endure. Without love for the Lord we begin to seek ways to shortcut and compromise our obedience. It becomes easier to make excuses and become slothful in our observance of what we know to be right. Even to the point of doubting what the truth really is. As John Calvin teaches:
“At length he again exhorts them, as they value their life and safety, to be careful in maintaining love to God. From this source all true obedience springs; for if we do not cling to him with free and ardent affection, we shall study in vain to frame our lives in accordance with the external form of the Law.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]
As we were reminded last week, Jesus emphasized this when asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law:
‘And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”’ Matthew 22:37-40
In order for us to love anyone, love for God must come first. Once we love God, with ‘free and ardent affection,’ we are then able to love others well. If we love people before we love God, our loves will be out of whack and idolatrous, and nobody benefits from that kind of love.
Joshua reminded the Israelites of “everything the Lord your God has done to all these nations.” A quick review will set the context for the rest of our study:
Before they have even crossed the Jordan river into Canaan, Rahab told the spies who went into Jericho that, “… we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:10-11).
The Israelites then watched the walls of Jericho miraculously come tumbling down after an unconventional campaign of silently walking around the city for a week (chapter 6); The Israelites defeated the city of Ai after initially losing to them (chapter 8); they defeated the five gathered kings of the Amorites, with the Lord hurling hailstones and causing the sun to stand still in the sky (chapter 10); they swept through southern Canaan, conquering all they encountered, ‘And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel’ (Joshua 10:42); and finally they fought a successful campaign against the northern armies who were fortified with horses and chariots. What do all of these accounts have in common?
‘For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you.’ Josh 23:9-10
In every instance, the Israelites have been victorious because the Lord fought for them. As long as they obeyed his commands and followed his lead, they were successful in their battles. Why did the Lord do all of this? Joshua tells them at the beginning of his speech that,”… you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake,” (v. 3). The Lord defeated all the armies of Canaan for the sake of the Israelites. Ultimately, we know that it was for his own glory, and the Israelites enjoyed the benefits of God’s glorifying himself through blessing them with military success.
God’s view of “the nations” as presented in this chapter is unequivocal.
‘A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years,’ (v. 1)
“that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them,” (v. 7)
“know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.” (v. 13)
The nations around them, and those left undefeated in corners of the land, were enemies, obstacles to obedience and holiness, snares and traps, and potentially fatal handicaps to the people and nation of Israel.
Elsewhere the Old Testament gives another view of the nations:
“…seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Genesis 18:18)
“I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 26:4)
How are we to reconcile these two very different views? Why is it that in one direction curses flow, but in the opposite direction blessings? We can find the answer in both the Old and New Testaments, (and, I know it’s a lot, but read it slowly—it’s all good stuff):
‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10)
‘Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.’ (Ephesians 2:11-14)
‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,’ (Ephesians 2:19-20)
‘After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”’ (Revelation 7:9-10)
The short answer to our question is: Jesus! In Christ, who is the only way of salvation, the nations are reconciled to God. Jesus came through Israel to be the Savior for all mankind. The blessing of reconciliation only flows in one direction though. Even in Joshua’s day, as long as Israel influenced the nations, they all experienced God’s blessing. Yet, as Israel allowed themselves to be influenced by the nations, curses followed. We see this pattern holding true today.
As the godly influence the lost, blessings flow; as the godly conform to the world, no one is blessed.
The lesson is clear, as James Boice teaches,
‘This is the theme of Deuteronomy and of the ceremony enacted by Joshua on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim in obedience to Moses’s earlier command. If the people obey, there will be blessing. If they disobey, there will be judgement. They must choose. As far as the conditional promises are concerned, their response alone will make the difference.
But there are inducements, for God never presents a choice as if both sides of the alternative are equal.’
The reason why the opposing blessings and curses appear to be unequal is that they are. There is no neutral ground here, no equal balance to the scales. Obedience is always the superior choice and disobedience always wretched in the extreme. Especially for a people who have seen and experienced the miraculous deliverances of God as the Israelites have. As have we.
So, how do we, as people who have experienced the blessings of God, relate to “the nations” around us?
‘For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.’ 1 Cor. 9:19-20
‘Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.’ 1 Peter 2:11-12
We are to be the influencers of “the nations,” not the influenced. To win unbelievers to Christ, we must accurately represent him. In America, today, this means that, rather than being carried away by political agendas or conservative causes, we need to remember that we are strangers and aliens and our identity is anchored in our Savior. If we allow the passions of the day to dictate our message, they will carry us away and we will lose our unique voice to speak to the needs around us, needs which transcend political parties, economic situations, Supreme Court decisions, presidential decrees, race, gender, and sexual identity. Lost people need Jesus, but if we are too busy waving banners we can’t share the life-saving gospel. As K. A. Ellis straightforwardly puts it, “We shape society when we remember who we are first and foremost” (Christianity Without an Adjective, Christianity Today, December 30, 2016)
Returning to Joshua and the Israelites, we are asked to look closer at God’s instructions concerning the inhabitants of Canaan.
“You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
“But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
The Israelites were to destroy all the means by which the inhabitants of Canaan worshiped their false gods, and the inhabitants were to be devoted to complete destruction, lest they lead God’s people into idolatry. Now, if this seems extreme, keep in mind all that the Lord had done for Israel as you read slowly through these next passages of Scripture detailing what happened to the Israelites and how very far they fell after the passing of several generations. (I realize that it’s a lot to read, but, trust me, it makes the point better than my words ever will.)
‘Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it.
In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the Lord their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the Lord to anger, and they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, “You shall not do this.” (2 Kings 17:5-12)
‘And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.’ (2 Kings 17: 16-18)
‘Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.” And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. And the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to Solomon his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever… But they did not listen, and Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.’ (2 Kings 21:1-9)
“Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.” (2 Kings 21:12-15)
Are your ears tingling yet?
This is heartbreaking to read. They became more wicked than the nations which the Lord drove out before them. They were warned by Moses, by Joshua, and by countless prophets. As Joshua is trying to tell them, “as God had proved himself true by his favors and the fulfillment of his promises, so his threatening would not be empty or vain, and he would certainly avenge the profanation of his worship by their final destruction” (John Calvin).
God would keep his word to curse their disobedience, just as surely as he had kept his word to bless their obedience.
We are asked to consider how the Israelites listening to Joshua’s exhortations might be feeling. He has led them for possibly 30-ish years at this point. My own experience tells me that when an American president has finished two terms in office, 8 years, it feels like the end of an era. Joshua has been leading his people for more than three times that length of time, and leading them through some heady experiences. It’s been ‘never a dull moment’ as they have followed the Lord into the promised land of their inheritance and defeated so many enemies on the fields of battle. This truly is the end of an era for them.
This has also been an era of remarkable obedience to the Lord. The instances of disobedience were dealt with swiftly and decisively. Chances are, they are feeling rather confident, with some measure of fear and trembling, that they can continue to live obedient lives. They are first-hand witnesses to miraculous events, unquestionably the recipients of the blessings of God. I imagine they can’t imagine a day when they would dare to stray from the Law of the Lord.
Yet, as we have read, succeeding generations of Israelites failed to keep the covenant and were influenced by the surrounding nations far more than they were influencers. If I have the dates correct, there were approximately 560 years between the end of Joshua’s life and the depravity of Israel under Manasseh. There were high points along the way, and prophets sent by the Lord to warn them, nevertheless, they fell, and hard.
Knowing that our own hearts are prone to wander, why are we, as Christians, able to have hope?
‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ (Hebrews 4:15-16)
‘For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.’ (Romans 7:18-19)
‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Rom. 8:1-2)
‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.’ (Romans 8:26-34)
We have a Trinitarian hope, a cord of three strands which will not fail to keep us safely in the way of salvation. Our Great High Priest, Jesus, was victorious over every temptation to which we fall, and was therefore the sinless sacrifice which our sins require. Though nothing good dwells in us, if we are in Christ we are not condemned, and the Spirit helps us in our weakness, and Jesus himself intercedes for us to the Father who loved us enough to send his own Son to die in our place. Praise be to this God, from whom nothing in all creation can separate us, and who graciously gives us all things that we so desperately need in Christ!
Dear friend, in Christ we have the confidence to say with Joshua, “Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed” (v. 14).
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever, Amen.” (Jude 24,25)