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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Joshua 8". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tbi/ joshua-8.html. 1905-1909. New York.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Joshua 8". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
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Fear not . . . I have given into thy hand the king Of Ai.
The use of failure
“Fear not.” How much of our misery arises from fear! How many a beating heart, how many a shaking nerve, how many a sleepless night have come, not from evil experienced, but from evil apprehended! To save one from the apprehension of evil is sometimes more important, as it is usually far more difficult, than to save one from evil itself. An affectionate father finds that one of his most needed services to his children is to allay their fears. Never is he doing them a greater kindness than when he uses his larger experience of life to assure them, in some anxiety, that there is no cause for fear. Our heavenly Father finds much occasion for a similar course. Virtually the command to Joshua is to “try again.” Success, though denied to the first effort, often comes to the next, or at least to a subsequent one. Even apart from spiritual considerations, it is those who try oftenest who succeed best. There is little good in a man who abandons an undertaking simply because he has tried once and failed. Who does not recall in this connection the story of Alfred the Great? Or of Robert the Bruce watching the spider in the barn that at last reached the roof after sixteen failures? Or, looking to what has a more immediate bearing on the kingdom of God, who has not admired the perseverance of Livingstone, undaunted by fever and famine and the ferocity of savage chiefs; unmoved by his longings for home and dreams of plenty and comfort that mocked him when he awoke to physical wretchedness and want? Such perseverance gives a man the stamp of true nobility. To Christian men especially failure brings very valuable lessons. There is always something to be learned from it. In our first attempt we were too self-confident. We went too carelessly about the matter, and did not sufficiently realise the need of Divine support. In the case of Joshua and his people, one of the chief lessons derived from their failure before Ai was the evil of covering sin. Alas, this policy is the cause of failures innumerable in the spiritual life! In numberless ways it interrupts Divine fellowship, withdraws the Divine blessing, and grieves the Holy Spirit. Joshua is instructed to go up again against Ai, but in order to interest and encourage the people he resorts to a new plan of attack. A stratagem is to be put in operation. (W. G. Blaikie, D. D.)
The right policy
I. These words were spoken to give encouragment. God began His address with the exhortation, “Fear not.” This indeed constitutes the burden of comfort which it contains. God would renew Joshua’s confidence; for this is always essential to success in the work of the Lord. Without holy confidence there can be no good hopes, no wise plans, no buoyant energy, no patient endurance, no successful campaign. The fact that this was an old exhortation made it doubly dear. Israel’s sins had been confessed, acknowledged, judged, therefore God is faithful and just to forgive it, thoroughly, absolutely. These words of God also contain a promise. “Ai is thine”; this is the pledge given. It was sure, for God’s Word is never broken. And it was as sweet as it was sure. It was the encouragement of a perfect love that had long been experienced and enjoyed; a new outpouring of its glory most grateful and precious.
II. But God thus addressed Joshua in order to reprove an error. The spies had said, “Let not all the people go up,” &c. Here God says, “Take all the people with thee, and arise, go up to Ai.” Here God points out the error of division in His work, the error of thinking that part can do the work designed for the whole. The policy of the spies was a policy of pride. They were elated with their marvellous success at Jericho, with that brilliant victory so easily won; and therefore when they came to look at Ai their hearts were filled with contempt. And the feelings which influenced them still possess the human heart. How dangerous is success to the individual, to the congregation, to the Church I The policy of the spies was also one of ignorance and disobedience. It was opposed to the Divine design and command. So is it now. God has never said to any of His children, “Son, go to church, enjoy the services, criticise the sermons, bury yourself in business and pleasure from Monday till Saturday.” No, but He does say, “Son, go work.” And He says that to every son whom He acknowledges. No Christian can shake off his responsibility for personal service. And no one can buy himself off, for the conscription is universal. We must each put our hand to this work as we have opportunity, and if we do not, we show ourselves ignorant or prove ourselves disobedient. Moreover, this policy of the spies was a policy of inconsistency. In adopting it Joshua fell from his own model. He had begun in the spirit and was continuing in the flesh. The taking of Jericho was the pattern for faith to follow. What is the model set by God before His Church in the prosecution of the campaign of salvation? Without dispute, the Day of Pentecost. And what were the characteristics of that day? Unity of spirit, unity of labour. Likewise, this policy sprang from presumption. Joshua in listening to the advice of the spies acted according to the dictates of carnal wisdom. If all the people go against Ai they will tread on each other and be a hindrance rather than a help. If all the people quit the camp there will be a useless expenditure of energy. It is absurd to use 50,000 men when 5,000 are quite capable of doing the work. So they argued; and so the modern descendants of these wise spies say, “Not all the people.” If all are engaged in this work, many mistakes will be made, much energy will be wasted, much folly will be wrought, much injury to the good cause will be done. What! Has not God ordained that all are to take part in this campaign? Let us take heed, then, lest in our wisdom we perchance become guilty of presumptuously opposing God, who has ordained by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. Certainly it is delightful to see zeal well directed, but any zeal for the good of souls is better than lethargy, indifference, death. Still further, this policy of the spies was a policy of infatuation. That Joshua entertained this proposal and acted on it was a sign that for the while he was left to himself on account of that sin which had defiled all Israel. Its unanimous adoption by the people (for both those who went to Ai and those who stayed in the camp signified their approval of it) was a clear token of the Divine displeasure, and brought its own punishment in the universal disgrace which followed. Thus does God often deal with men when they will not hearken to His voice. He makes them eat of the fruit of their own ways. May we ever be saved from such infatuation. Let us fall every one into the ranks of this great army of salvation. Let us buckle on the sword of the Spirit. Let us march to the attack on Satan’s citadels with united front; and we also, like Israel, will divide the spoil and share the glory of the victory.
III. God gave this command to Joshua in order to teach a lesson. Jericho was taken in one way, Ai in another: therefore methods may vary; they are not stereotyped, cast-iron rules, which cannot be altered. There are essential and there are non-essential elements in the mode of conducting the Divine work. It is essential that all God’s people should take part in the work. All were employed at Jericho; all were to be employed at Ai. It is essential that there be organisation and arrangement. It was an army, not a rabble, which did the work at Jericho; so was it at Ai. But there are non-essentials also. There are great diversities of operation in this army of the Cross. God does not always act exactly in the same way. He has different modes of reaching the human heart and conscience in different ages, in different countries, and among different classes. What is suitable in one set of circumstances may be very unsuitable in another. (A. B. Mackay.)
The taking of Ai Spiritualised
1. It appears, in the first place, that in going out to battle with anything that is doomed we must have a right character and a right cause. The Lord would not allow a blow to be struck at the city by a wicked hand; He will have judgment executed by righteousness; He will have the law proclaimed by lips that have been circumcised and anointed. The first great inquiry of man is a moral inquiry, not an inquest about numbers, places: and possible issues--but, “Is this thing right? and am I right who attempt to do the work?” That being the case, go forward.
2. The next great lesson of this incident is that we must all advance upon the doomed institution. When the idea of taking Ai was first broached, there were clever men in Israel who said, “Let two or three thousand of us go up and take the city.” “I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city” (Joshua 8:5). That must be the rule of the Church in all its great moral wars. The battle is not to be handed over to a few persons, however skilful and zealous. The work of teaching the world and saving the world is a work committed to the whole Christian body. The living Church of the living God is one. When the Church realises its totality, when every man is part of an army and not an isolated warrior, then every Ai doomed of Heaven shall reel under the battering-ram which the Church will employ. There are to be no mere critics; there are to be thousands of active soldiers.
3. This being so, the incident brings before us in a very suggestive and picturesque manner the fact that we must excel the enemy in shrewdness. The Church is to be shrewder than the world, believers are to be keener of mind and more active in every energy than unbelievers. It is evident, moreover, that if we are to do any real work in the world in the name of God and in the cause of Christ we must be about our business night and day. In Joshua 8:10 we read, “And Joshua rose up early in the morning”; in verse 13 we read, “Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.” How useful some men might be if they had the spirit of consecration: what time they have on hand!
4. We should miss one great lesson of this story if we did not note that we are bound to set fire to every devoted abomination. Ai was burned. We are not called to compromise, to paltering, to arranging, to expediency where ignorance is concerned, or slavery, or vice, or wrong. Things must be so burned down that they can never grow again. And after destruction, what then? Positive religion comes next: “Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord God of Israel in Mount Ebal” (verse 30). It is no use building your altar until you have burned the abomination. A great destructive work is to be done first, and in the doing of it, there will be great outcry about change, and novelty, and reprisal, and revolution. If you have not been faithful in the work of destruction, you cannot be faithful in the work of construction. It is lying unto the Holy Ghost to build an altar upon the basis of a rotten life. So we are called to thoroughness of work. There is to be no superficial action here. And after the altar, what? The law--the law of righteousness, the law of God. Verse 32 reads, “And Joshua wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.” This is complete work-destruction, the erected altar, the inscribed law. This is healthy work. (J. Parker, D. D.)
So Joshua arose, and all the people of war.
All the people at work for Jesus
I. Consider the advice of the spies which led to such a shameful defeat (Joshua 7:3).
1. Here we shall have to deal with the error of supposing that a part only of the Church will be sufficient to perform the work of the whole.
2. In Joshua’s day this error sprang up among the Israelites because, on account of their sins, God was displeased with them. When God is in the midst of a Church He guides its counsels and directs the hearts of men to go about His work in the wisest manner. Even upon the Lord’s own people a measure of judicial blindness may come. You may depend upon it that when it becomes a doctrine that only special classes of men are to be expected to work in the Church there is some great wrong in the background.
3. Furthermore, this evil policy arose out of presumption engendered by success. The full sail needs much ballast, lest the boat be overset. We must be more sensible of weakness, more mindful that the conversion of souls is the work of Omnipotence, or we shall see but little done. We must ourselves believe more fully in the need of earnest work for God, and put forth all our strength, and strain every sinew for Him, knowing that it is His power that worketh in us mightily when we strive with all our hearts.
4. Let us not forget that these children of Israel were forgetting their commission and violating the command of God. As they all expected to have a dwelling-place in Canaan, so they were all expected to conquer the territory by their own exertions. They were all an enlisted host for God, and He never ordained that a part only should go forth in His great controversy with the condemned Canaanites. If we ever neglect to render universal service as a Church in the cause of Christ we shall depart from our trust and call, for the Lord has sent all His disciples to testify of Him and contend against sin.
5. These Israelites, in the new fashion which they were trying to set up, were departing from their own model. That model was, doubtless, the siege of Jericho. In that siege there was much dependence upon God, but there was no neglect of instrumentality; and, though all they did was to go round the city and shout, yet in so doing they were literally fulfilling orders, and doing all that was commanded. What, then, is our model as a Church? Is it not Pentecost? In that day did they not break bread from house to house, all of them? Did they not sell their lands and lay the price of them at the apostles’ feet? Was there not a burning enthusiasm throughout the entire company of disciples? I suppose there is not one person present who heard that famous sermon by Matthew Wilks upon the universal service rendered by idolaters to their false gods, from the text, “The children gathered wood, and the fathers kindled the fire, and the women kneaded their dough to make cakes to the queen of heaven.” The preacher’s argument on that occasion was that which I would now press upon you, that all should take part in the work of the Lord. Distinct offices but united aims; diverse operations but the same spirit; many and yet one--so let it be.
6. Again, this error which we are carefully to avoid was no doubt the dictate of carnal wisdom. Spies were norm” of much use to Israel--two only of the first twelve were faithful--what did Israel want with spies? Better far had it been to walk by faith. To Ai they must needs send spies instead of going up at once in the confidence of faith: evil came of it, for these spies counselled that only part of the people need labour up the hill. And the best ministers of Christ, worthy of all honour, would be the cause of great mischief if once their carnal wisdom should make them think that they can supersede primitive plans with wiser inventions.
7. These children of Israel, in sending to the war only part of the men were breaking in upon the Divine design. The Lord never intended to have two peoples, but one; and so we read that the Beubenites and the Gadites came over Jordan to the war, although their portion was already conquered. It was the Divine intent that they should be one army of the living God, each separate son of the seed of Abraham belonging Go that army and fighting in it; He meant that not some only, but all should see the mighty works of His hand, working with them to overthrow their adversaries. I am sure it is so with the Church of God to-day. Our Lord means to keep all His chosen ones as one army, and to instruct them a]l as one band. And when are we most manifestly one? When we get to work.
II. The command that all israel should go forth to the fight: “Take all the men of war with thee.” We must have all our Church members go to the war. We want to turn out the drones, and we need an increase of true working bees. How is it to be done?
1. We must be ourselves deeply impressed with the evil brought upon idle Christians by their idleness, and the evil which they bring upon the rest of the Church. Indolence is temptation. Certain of our Churches are suffering from unsound teaching, but they are suffering as much from want of work. The moss is growing upon them, the rust is eating them up; the gold becomes dim, the silver is losing its brightness, and all for want of use.
2. We need to be impressed with the mischief which idlers cause to others. One sickly sheep infects the flock; one member who does nothing lowers the tone of the whole body. The indolence of prominent professors is not merely the waste of their own labour, but of that of scores of others. Every man in an army who is not efficient and really serviceable is on the enemy’s side.
3. Moreover, we must hunt out the sin which leads to the evil against which we contend, and I believe it is want of vital godliness in many cases. It is often the sin which grows out of too much ease, self-indulgence, and luxurious living. It seems as if the more God gives a man the less return he is inclined to offer. Whatever the secret sin of the Church may be, let us try to discover it, and then by the aid of the Holy Spirit endeavour to educate all our members to work for the Lord.
4. There must be a continual insisting upon the personal obligations of Christians. “What art thou doing for Christ?” is a question to be asked of all. No one must appear before the Lord empty, but either by active or passive service must prove his gratitude to God. And then, while each is responsible, neglect by one is injurious to the common service of the whole. I saw a cart standing this morning on the roadside with one wheel chained; there was no fear of its moving with that one wheel fast. Sometimes one chained wheel in a Church will hinder all.
5. Dwell upon the importance of the enterprise in which we are engaged; and so act as to make others feel its importance. We must make men feel that to save a soul is better than to possess all knowledge, or even to gain the whole world! While others are making a new gospel let us labour to save souls by the old one.
6. Above all, let us pray for more grace. Napoleon used to say, “Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest must maintain me”; and it is so with Christians. You must advance; you must outdo the exploits of the past, and eclipse the deeds of your sires, or you will show yourselves unworthy of them. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
United effort needed
In the days of chivalry a certain band of knights had never known defeat. In all battles their name was terrible to the foe. On their banners was emblazoned a long list of victories; but in an evil hour the leaders of the knights summoned them in chapter, and he said: “My brethren, we cause ourselves too much toil. Let the champions go alone. Yonder knight with his sword can cleave a man in twain at a single stroke, and his comrade can break a bar of iron with his axe; others among us are equally powerful, each one being a host in himself. With the terror of our name behind them, the chosen champions can carry on the war while the rest divide the spoil.” The saying pleased the warriors well, but from that hour the knell of their fame was rung, and defeat defiled their standard. When they came together they complained of the champions because they had not sustained the honour of the order, and they bade them exert themselves more heroically. They did so, but with small success. Louder and louder were the notes of discontent and the demands for new champions. Then one of the oldest of the knights said: “Brethren, why do you blame us? The mistake lies here. In the old time, when the enemy assailed us, a thousand men were up in arms, and we who led the van knew that a gallant army followed at our heels. But now you have made us solitary champions, and the adversary takes heart to defy us, finding us unsustained. Come you all with us to the fray as aforetime, and none shall stand against us.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Work for God among the heathen
Let us each question his own heart as to the claims of the heathen: for my own part, I dare not sleep till I have honestly considered whether I ought to go or not. We tell our young men in the college that they must prove that they have not to go, or else their duty is clear. If some of the men of Israel had said to Joshua, “We cannot go to At,” Joshua would have replied, “You must prove that you cannot go or you may not be excused.” All other things being equal, ministers should take it for granted that it is their duty to invade new territory unless they can prove to the contrary. France is wanting the gospel. See what one beloved brother in Paris has been able to do--are there none who can do the like for other cities in that neigh bout-country? Here and there a good man can say, “I have made a competency”--why not live and employ it where you can lay it out personally for the spread of the Redeemer’s kingdom? Such a thing is being done by a few, it is not therefore impossible, and you who follow the grand example shall have your reward. See what Pastor Harms did in the village of Hermansburg, how he stirred up all the people until they gave themselves and their property to the Lord, and built a ship for the mission and went forth in it to Africa, company after company, to evangelise. Should it not be the ambition of a minister to feel that if he stays at home he will at least, by the Holy Spirit’s help, produce missionaries by scores in the village where he labours? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Ye shall lie in wait against the city.
Joshua’s address to the soldiers of the expedition
I. Joshua’s obedience.
II. Joshua’s prudence.
III. Joshua’s courage.
IV. Joshua’s faith.
V. Joshua’s authority.
1. The authority of all God-given words.
2. The authority of obedience. (F. G. Marchant.)
The victorious retreat
I. There is such a thing as victorious retreat. There are times in your life when the best thing you can do is to run. You were once the victim of strong drink. The glass and the decanter were your fierce foes. Your only safety is to get away from them. Your dissipating companions will come around you for your overthrow. Run for your life! Your retreat is your victory. Here is a converted infidel. He is so strong now in his faith in the gospel, he says he can read anything. What are you reading? Bolingbroke? Theodore Parker? Drop them and run. You will be an infidel before you die unless you quit that. Fly before they cut you with their swords and transfix you with their javelins. There are people who have been well-nigh ruined because they risked a foolhardy expedition in the presence of mighty and overwhelming temptations, and the men of Ai made a morning meal of them. So also there is such a thing as victorious defeat for the Church. Thousands of times the kingdom of Christ has seemed to fall back. When the Vaudois of France chose extermination rather than make an unchristian surrender, when on St. Bartholomew’s day mounted assassins rode through the streets of Paris, crying, “Kill! Blood-letting is good in August! Kill! Death to the Huguenots! Kill!” When John Bunyan lay rotting in Bedford Jail, saying, “If God will help me, and my physical life continues, I will stay here until the moss grows on my eyebrows rather than give up my faith,” the days of retreat for the Church were days of victory. But there is a more marked illustration of victorious retreat in the life of our Joshua, the Jesus of the ages. First falling back from an appalling height to an appalling depth, falling from celestial hills to terrestrial valleys, from throne to manger; yet that did not seem to suffice Him as a retreat. Falling back still further from Bethlehem to Nazareth, from Nazareth to Jerusalem, back from Jerusalem to Golgotha, back from Golgotha to the mausoleum in the rock, back down over the precipices of perdition, until He walked amid the caverns of the eternal captives and drank of the wine of the wrath of almighty God amid the Ahabs and the Jezebels and the Belshazzars. Oh, men of the pulpit and men of the pew, Christ’s descent from heaven to earth does not measure half the distance! It was from glory to perdition. He descended into hell. All the records of earthly retreat are as nothing compared with this falling back. Santa Anna with the fragments of his army flying over the plateau of Mexico, and Napoleon and his army retreating from Moscow into the awful snows of Russia, are not worthy to be mentioned with this retreat when all the powers of darkness seem to be pursuing Christ as He fell back, until the body of Him who came to do such wonderful things lay pulseless and stripped. But let not the powers of darkness rejoice quite so soon. Do you hear that disturbance in the tomb of Arimathea? I hear the sheet rending! What means that stone hurled down the side of the hill? Who is this coming out? Push Him back! The dead must not stalk in this open daylight. Oh, it is our Joshua! Let Him come out. He comes forth and starts for the city. He takes the spear of the Roman guard and points that way. Church militant marches up on one side and the Church triumphant marches down on the other side. And the powers of darkness being caught between these ranks of celestial and terrestrial valour, nothing is left of them save just enough to illustrate the direful overthrow of hell and our Joshua’s eternal victory.
II. The triumph of the wicked is short. Did you ever see an army in a panic? There is nothing so uncontrollable. If you had stood at Long Bridge, Washington, during the opening of our unfortunate war, you would know what it is to see an army run. And when those men of Ai looked out and saw those men of Joshua in a stampede, they expected easy work. They would scatter them as the equinox the leaves. Oh, the gleeful and jubilant descent of the men of Ai upon the men of Joshua! But their exhilaration was brief, for the tide of battle turned, and these quondam conquerors left their miserable bodies in the wilderness of Bethaven. So it always is. The triumph of the wicked is short. Call over the roll of bad men who prospered, and see how short was their prosperity.
III. How much may be accomplished by lying in ambush for opportunities. Are you hypercritical of Joshua’s manoeuvre? Do you say that it was cheating for him to take that city by ambuscade? Was it wrong for Washington to kindle camp-fires on New Jersey Heights, giving the impression to the opposing force that a great army was encamped there when there was none at all? I answer, if the war was right then Joshua was right in his stratagem. He violated no flag of truce. He broke no treaty, but by a lawful ambuscade captured the city of Ai. Oh, that we all knew how to lie in ambush for opportunities to serve God! The best opportunities do not lie on the surface, but are secreted; by fact, by stratagem, by Christian ambuscade, you may take almost any castle of sin for Christ. Come up towards men with a regular besiegement of argument, and you will be defeated; but just wait until the door of their hearts is set ajar, or they are off their guard, or their severe caution is away from home, and then drop in on them from a Christian ambuscade. There has been many a man up to his chin in scientific portfolios which proved there was no Christ and no Divine revelation, his pen a scimetar flung into the heart of the theological opponents, who, nevertheless, has been discomfited and captured for God by some little three-year-old child who has got up and put her snowy arms around his sinewy neck and said, “Papa, why don’t you love Jesus?” Oh, make a flank movement; steal a march on the devil; cheat that man into heaven! Do not rub a man’s disposition the wrong way. Do not take the imperative mood when the subjunctive mood will do just as well. You can take any man for Christ if you know how to get at him. Do not send word to him that to-morrow at ten o’clock you propose to open your batteries upon him, but come on him by a skilful, persevering, God-directed ambuscade.
IV. The importance of taking good aim. There must be some signal--a signal to stop the one division and to start the other. Joshua, with a spear on which were ordinarily hung the colours of battle, points towards the city. He stands in such a conspicuous position, and there is so much of the morning light dripping from that spear-tip, that all around the horizon they see it. It was as much as to say: “There is the city. Take it. Take it now. Roll down from the west side. Surge up from the north side. It is ours, the city of Ai.” God knows and we know that a great deal of Christian attack amounts to nothing simply because we do not take good aim. Nobody knows, and we do not know ourselves, which point we want to take, when we ought to make up our minds what God will have us to do, and point our spear in that direction, and then hurl our body, mind, soul, time, eternity, at that one target. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Variety of Divine means
Jericho was taken by the power of God; this was to be by the stratagem of His people. “Lay thee an ambush for the city behind it.” The designs of Jehovah engage a diversity of means and operation as may best promote the ends of His infinite wisdom. It had been equally as easy to have taken this city without hands, and to have caused its fenced walls to have yielded to invisible operation, as those of Jericho; but then the courage of faith had not been exercised in His people, nor had the conquest of their enemies, now exulting, been so striking and instructive. The achievements of the Lord’s people are all of Him, whether effected by the measures of force or of artifice. (W. Seaton.)
Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched Out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.--
The outstretched spear
A spear outstretched, outstretched by Divine command, outstretched till the doom of Ai was sealed--what means it?
I. It was the signal of prudence. Plans had been carefully prepared for the capture of Ai, and that spear, probably with a pennon hanging from its head like the weapon of the Lancers, was a pre-arranged signal for the carrying out of these plans. The outstretched spear would have been useless, meaningless, apart from the plans to which it referred. But it was most important when these are taken into consideration. In the great war we wage against evil within and without, God desires us to use all the appliances of wisdom and prudence. How wary is the fisher as he angles on the stream, taking advantage of every bush and tuft of grass, of every passing cloud and gentle ripple; and the more the waters are fished the more wary and ingenious is he. Oh, for a holy ingenuity, a sanctified sagacity in winning souls! Oh, that the dictates of prudence were more faithfully carried out in the sanctification of the scull
II. It was the sign of obedience. While much was left to human prudence, certain Divine principles clearly laid down must not be traversed. Joshua must not in every respect do as he pleased. There was a circle within which wisdom might have free and full play, but beyond that circle he dared not go at his peril. But not only was there a general obedience to this Divine command, there was also a very special and definite act of obedience in connection with the outstretched spear. Joshua did not do this when he pleased, but waited patiently till he got a clear intimation of the Divine will that the time had come for striking the decisive blow. Thus Joshua’s act in stretching out the spear was well-timed. We need the same patient and punctual obedience which Joshua manifested. We must not be like the horse, going before, or the mule lagging behind, and therefore requiring the bit and the bridle of God’s providences. We must not be like Moses, who when he was forty was too fast, and when he was eighty was too slow, to obey the Divine command. Let us be like Joshua here, led by the eye of God to a well-timed obedience.
III. It was also a signal of attack. Its waving pennon cried to those in ambush, “Up and at them!” It called to those who were retreating, “Turn and smite!” And it shouted to all of them, “Retrieve your lost honour, win back your laurels.” How many deeds of daring were the answer to that signal. Every common soldier in Israel was a hero that day, a noble brother of the man who waved that spear aloft. Oh, for like courage and energy in the wars of the Lord, for noble deeds done against deadly sins!
IV. It was also the mark of confidence. He did not think because he had once failed that he would fail again. He had no foreboding of defeat. Not with nervous, trembling, fearful hand did he hold it aloft, but with the firm, sure grasp of perfect confidence. From the vantage-ground on which he stood, he ordered the fight, as again an assured victor. Thus should we engage in the war to which we are called--with sublime confidence, sure of victory, aye, even after we have experienced defeat. So should it be in the inner fight, for He who has begun the good work will perfect that which concerns us to the praise of His glorious grace. And so should it be in the outer. Never let us dishearten ourselves or our neighbours with the thought that we are fighting a losing battle. The very idea is blasphemous; as if man or the devil, or both, were stronger than the Almighty.
V. It may be also looked upon as a memorial of mercy. As certainly as Amalek fled before the Lord’s hosts, so certainly will the men of Ai. Victory is sure. In the spiritual warfare how stimulating is it to bring to mind past victories; to remember how David and Paul, Luther, Calvin, and Knox, Wesley, Whitefield, and McCheyne, wrestled with evil and prevailed. But above all, the remembrance of hard-won victories in our own experience is pre-eminently fitted to encourage.
VI. It was the symbol of perseverance. No doubt Joshua remembered how the battle with Amalek swayed forward and backward as the rod of Moses was elevated or depressed; and this perhaps explains the fact that he never drew back the spear till the work was finished. As if his hand had been glued to that spear he held it aloft, and thus he urged his soldiers to look like himself to the God of Sabaoth, who alone giveth victory. We have seen the battle well begun, with prudence and obedience, courage and confidence. See it nobly continued and ended with stubborn perseverance. Oh, for such a spirit in the fight of faith! Alas! how few endure to the end.
VII. It was also the omen of doom. It hung over Ai like the great sword of the angel over Jerusalem. And it is worthy of notice that these men were not without resources. They showed great zeal and enthusiasm in defending their city, rising early to go out to fight. They also displayed far greater courage than the men of Jericho, for they marched against overwhelming odds. They also showed considerable wisdom in acting on the offensive, and not waiting to be attacked like their neighbours. It was also plain that they believed that union was strength, for they got the men of Bethel to unite their forces with theirs in the attack on Joshua. They also had great confidence in their success, emboldened as they were by their previous victory. They had all these qualities, good in themselves, but all useless because on the wrong side. The all-important question is, On which side are you? Are you on the wrong side? Then cast down your weapons of rebellion. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little.” Are you on the right side? Then “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.” (A. B. Mackay.)
Then Joshua built . . . an altar of whole stones.
The plastered altar
Let us behold in the story of Joshua’s altar in Mount Ebal the mirror of an honest Christian life.
1. It is well to recognise the fact that this world is under the curse, a true Mount Ebal. Is human existence hard? There is sunshine in life, it is true, but think of the shadows. Go into the houses of the rich, where luxury meets yon on every hand. In this mansion the servants go about with noiseless tread; the street in front is thickly strewn with tan bark; often at the door is seen the physician’s carriage. Is it a happy household? Enter the next mansion. Here, too, wealth is supreme, everything of the costliest, but the face of the father of the family is clouded with anger, and the mother’s eyes are red with weeping. What is the trouble? Shame, dishonour; a child has fouled a parent’s noble name, disgraceful deeds have made the son and heir of a great house a byword and a hissing. But thank God there is Mount Gerizim as well as Ebal; the blessings are as rich as the curses are deplorable, and the curses come first, only to give place to the blessings. We may not forget, however, that the great heart altar for God is to be set up in Ebal, in the consciousness of the power of the curse. The first thought we ought to have in our Christian life is that Christ hath redeemed us from the curse.
2. Well, then, Christian, saved by Christ’s blood from wrath to come, rear up to thy Lord and Master thine altar. Of what sort shall we make it? The altar in the heart must be of whole stones upon which no man hath lift up any iron. I suppose that no metal enters into our life to the extent that iron does in its myriad forms of using. Is its cold hardness not an appropriate symbol of human selfishness, the occasion of all strife and quarrelling, hatred, and crime? Is there any one who lives his life on earth unselfishly, who is not concerned more with his own interests than with those of his neighbours? If the secret of the worthy heart altar as towards God be humble acquiescence in the Divine ordering of things, the secret of it as towards men is genuine unselfishness. Towards God the “whole” stones, unfashioned by our wilfulness, towards man stones piled up with no help of iron, but erected in brotherly love, self-forgetting generosity.
3. When Joshua had set up the great cairn, he plastered it all over with plaster, that he might engrave thereon the words of the law. In this way the separate stones, without having been fashioned or fitted together by human hand and tool, were in a certain sort made one through human agency. There is a strange factor in our life which is indeed given more than its rightful share of importance in most earthly things, while in the Divine service it seems to be hardly enlisted at all. I mean the purpose or the will. As the plaster covered all those rough stones and gave them a smooth, well-compacted surface, so does a firm and well-set will, a steadfast heart-purpose, make the unhewn circumstances of our lives homogeneous, a shapely altar for the Lord’s use. God’s law has been revealed in order that we may obey it, and we have no other guide to duty. The end of the Christian life, in the world at least, is obedience. To believe not what we think reasonable, but what God has said; to do not what seems edifying, but what He has enjoined.
4. Thus are we, every one of us, if we be in earnest, raising up altars in our hearts, as we go on through this world; gathering up one by one the circumstances and opportunities of our lives. Great, rough, ill-shaped stones they seem, yet we may not think to trim and fashion them to our own notion, nor to hew them out with iron tools of selfishness and pride. Lay them up, O soul, in a cairn, as they come, plaster them all over with devout purpose and zealous will, then write on them the law of God, that it may be the guiding principle of all thy thoughts and words and deeds, His will not thine own. (Arthur Ritchie.)
Gerizim . . . Ebal.
Ebal and Gerizim
The valley between these two is one of the most beautiful in Palestine. Jacob’s well lies at its mouth, and all its luxuriant extent is covered with its verdant beauty of gardens, and orchards, and olive groves, rolling in waves of billowy beauty up to the walls of Shechem, whilst the murmur of brooks flowing in all directions fills the air. The width of the valley is about a third of a mile, though the summits of the two mountains, in the lap of which it lies, are two miles apart. It is remarkable that where the two mountains face each other and touch most closely, with a green valley of five hundred yards between, each is hollowed out, and the limestone stratum of each is broken into a succession of ledges, “so as to present the appearance of a series of regular benches.” Thus a natural amphitheatre is formed, capable of containing a vast audience of people; and the acoustic properties are so perfect in that dry and rainless air that Canon Tristram speaks of two of his party taking up positions on the opposite mountains, reciting the ten commandments antiphonally, and hearing each other perfectly.
I. The altar on Ebal. Ebal was stern and barren in its aspect. There was a congruity, therefore, between its appearance and the part it played in the solemn proceedings of the day. For far up its slopes gathered the dense masses of the six tribes, who, with thunderous amens, twelve times repeated, answered the voices of the band of white-robed Levites, as standing with Joshua, and the elders, and officers, and judges, in the green valley, they solemnly repeated the curses of the law. But that was not the first proceeding in that holy ceremonial. Before the people took up their assigned places on the mountain sides an altar was reared on the lower slopes of Ebal. As we pass into the land of promise we must be watchful that we do not leave behind the devout and loving consideration of that precious blood by which we have been redeemed and which is our life. Our highest and most rapturous experiences can never take the place of this. Constantly we must remind ourselves and others that we are redeemed sinners, and that all our hopes of salvation, our fellowship with God, our motives for service, are derived from what our Saviour did when He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. But because He died there, we need never stand there. Because He counted not His life dear to Himself, those gaunt and forbidding slopes have become the scene of blessed communion with God. We sit and feast with Him, and from peak to peak the joy chases the terrors of the curse, and smiles look out on us from the old rocks, whilst the torrents tinged with the light of the sun flash and sing.
II. The law in canaan. Around the altar strong men reared great stones, and plastered them with a facing of cement, composed of lime and gypsum, on which it was easy to write all the words of the law very plainly (Deuteronomy 27:8). In that dry air, where there is no frost to split and disintegrate, such inscriptions, written on the soft cement with a stencil, or on its polished surface, when dry, with ink or paint, as in the case of the monumental stones of Egypt, would remain for centuries. As the time could not have admitted of the inscription of the whole law, it is probable that the more salient points were alone committed to the custody of those great cromlechs to perpetuate to after generations the conditions of the tenure on which Israel held the lease of Palestine. They were a standing protest against the sins which had blighted those fertile valleys, and an incentive to the obedience on which so much of the future hinged. The case is this: when we yield ourselves entirely to the Spirit of life which is in Christ Jesus, and which passes freely through us, as the blood through artery and vein, He makes us very sensitive to the least commandment or desire of Him whom He has taught us to love; we dread to see the shadow of suffering pass over His face more than to feel the pang of remorse rend our hearts; we find our heaven in His smile of approval, and the “Well done!” that glistens in His eyes when we have done aught to the least of His; we are conscious of the pulse of a love which He has instilled, and which supplies us with the highest code for life--and so insensibly, whilst we yield ourselves to Him, we find ourselves keeping the law after a fashion which was foreign to us when it was a mere outward observance, and we cry with David, “Oh, how I love Thy law, it is my meditation all the day.”
III. The convocation. It is well worth our while to ponder the list of blessings appended to obedience in that memorable twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, that we may discover their spiritual counterparts, and, having found them, to claim them. Let us, first, be quite sure that we are right with God; next, that we are on His plan and doing His will; also, thirdly, that we are set upon His glory, altogether irrespective of our own interests; and we shall find ourselves able to claim blessings of which we little dreamt. The Lord will open His good treasury in heaven and make us plenteous for good, and establish us for an holy people unto Himself. (F. B. Meyer, M. A.)
Ebal and Gerizim
I. Where we go. We go to a distant place; about a week’s journey from Gilgal. Why do we go there? To take some strong fortress? To fight some great battle? No, but to worship Jehovah, and to take formal possession of the land in His name. But it is a for midable thing to move all the host of Israel so far as that. It is; but no trouble is too great that serves to show our loyalty to Jehovah. What a reproof is this to those whose religion costs them nothing! who seek to serve God with the miserable fag-ends of time--the odd intervals of a busy life, or the poor dregs of the evil days of nature’s decay. There is no fear of any man’s temporal interests suffering by due attention to the spiritual. Turning again to Israel, we notice that they went to a dangerous place. Why march a company of religious worshippers to that distant valley, instead of a mighty army to destroy every foe? Surely prompt action, preventing their enemies from amalgamating their forces, is their only policy. Nay, to wait on God is better. Man is only weak when he disobeys. And they go to an appointed place. This makes the march wise and profitable. This journey had a special bearing on the formal possession of the land in Jehovah’s name. From being defiled Canaan, resting under God’s curse, it is to become the inheritance of Jehovah, the holy land which He delights to bless. As Noah’s first act was to take possession of the new world in the name of God, so at the first opportunity Joshua took possession of Canaan in Jehovah’s name. Still further, this was an appropriate place to which Israel marched. It was appropriate, whether we consider its past associations or look at its position in the land. It was here that Abraham, the father of Israel, built his first altar in the land that God had promised. What more appropriate, then, than that his children should first come here, and as inheritors of his faith and piety, as well as of his promise, rear their altar and worship the unchanging Jehovah? It was here that Jacob bought ground and dug a well which remains to this day, leaving it in faith a heritage to his children’s children. And here they come, the possessors of all that was promised; their feet shall stand on this earnest of the inheritance; they and their little ones and their flocks shall drink of their father’s well. This rendezvous was also appropriate because it was so central and so beautiful. Mahomed called it the fairest spot on earth; and many have named it the paradise of the Holy Land. No greater contrast could be conceived than that presented by the scenery of Mount Sinai, where the law was first given, and that of Ebal and Gerizim, where it was repeated. The former is stern, still, and forbidding, without speck of green or sign of life. This is smiling and verdant, vocal with the songs of innumerable birds, laden with the fatness of the olive, the sweetness of the fig, the luscious richness of the vine--the most inviting spot the heart of man can conceive. Here the traveller, enchanted by the indescribable air of tranquillity and repose which hang over the scene, pitches his tent beside the purling and pellucid rills, and however anxious to renew his journey, feels he would gladly linger days and weeks in such a paradise. Such is it even now, as described by those whose eyes have rested on it- what must it have been in those days of Joshua?
II. What we see. First of all we behold the ark, as conspicuously prominent as on the day that Israel crossed the Jordan. The Holy Presence of which the ark speaks has never failed them, has never forsaken them. We also behold an altar here. The altar is for the ark. The blood of the one sprinkles the mercy-seat of the other, and thus sin is purged; God can dwell among the people, and say to the sinful, “There will I meet with thee.” This altar was constructed of rough stones, untouched by any instrument of iron, and therefore spoke of the work of Christ as divinely finished, requiring not any addition or improvement that man’s wisdom could suggest or man’s skill accomplish. This altar was pitched on Ebal, the loftier height, from which the curses came. There it was set to remove the curse; for apart from the sacrifice of the altar which God has provided all flesh are under the curse of the law. On this altar were offered up burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. The burnt-offerings spoke of Christ offered to God, a sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savour; yielding a perfect and glorious obedience to all that law which He thus magnified and made honourable. The peace-offering spoke of Christ as the centre and substance of rest, delight, and refreshment to God and man; the glorious means whereby communion is restored and maintained. God and man delight in the same sacrifice, are sharers in the same feast. Thus the ark and the altar, the Holy Presence and the Perfect Sacrifice, guarantee to Israel all the glory of God’s inheritance. Behold the imposing scene. The elders of the tribes stand with Joshua and Eleazar and the priests in the centre of the valley beside the ark. The tribes stretch outward, like two dark wings, on either side in compact masses. Then, when all were in their places and solemn silence reigned, the Levites read aloud the curses of the law, and the men on Ebal responded with a deep amen, like the sound of many waters. Again the clear notes of the Levites rise as they recite the blessings, and like the sound of harpers harping with their harps comes the joyous amen from the slopes of Gerizim. But there is still another object for our eyes to rest upon. As a lasting monument of that great event, Joshua put up great stones on Mount Ebal, plastered with plaster, and having written upon them “a copy of the law of Moses.” The altar spoke of what the Holy Presence in Israel bestowed. These stones spoke of what this Holy Presence demanded. The stones on Jordan’s bank spoke of Jehovah’s gracious power. The stones of Jericho declare His judgment. The stones of Achor speak of His discipline. The stones of Ai tell His faithfulness. The stones of Ebal are witnesses of His holiness. They tell what is becoming in the people whose God is the Lord. They hold up the standard whereby His people are to walk. Has this standard changed? Are its precepts binding still, or have they become antiquated? Are these ten words the Christian’s standard and rule of life? It is a vain morality, it is a false spirituality, which dreams that it can rise above obedience to the law. (A. B. Mackay.)
He read all the words of the law.
The reading of the law
I. The fitness of marking life’s changes by a special recognition of dependence upon God and obligation to him. With Israel it was a time of transition, involving triumph, gain, a new and long-desired possession. At such times, men of the world are apt to think only of themselves and their good fortune. It was not so with Israel. This is their first pause on entering the promised land. And they trust God to protect them, while they use it to own Him as having brought them thither. With solemn ceremony they put themselves afresh into covenant relations with Him. Supposing ourselves to be changing our residence or occupation, to be entering a new place or state of responsibility, to be keeping a birthday or other anniversary--how becoming it would be to make it a time of re-dedication to God! So of a youth passing from school to business, entering the marriage state, going out from the old home, and taking up for himself a life’s work. Our religious faith should make it natural to do this.
II. The value of special means to deepen the sense of obligation to God. There are such ordinary means as the daily reading of the Bible, attendance on the public ordinances of God’s house, Christian conversation, giving heed to the voices of conscience and the Divine Spirit. Many things remind us of duty and dependence. And yet it is easy to forget. Ordinary means lose a measure of their power, save as they are reinforced now and then by those that are special and extraordinary. It was once more common than we fear it now is for persons entering the Christian life to do it with a solemnly-written covenant, to be recalled and renewed in after months and years. Other occasions were signalised in a similar way. On the day of the birth of the late Dr. Bethune, his father solemnly dedicated him to God in writing--an act more than once repeated. Churches have had their times of renewing covenant vows by rising in a mutual pledge to each other, and a common re-dedication to God. I have seen the record of “an holy covenant entered into, and renewed with God, by ye Church of Christ in concord, upon a day of fasting and prayer, set apart for that purpose, July 11, 1776,” bearing the signature of Rev. William Emerson (then pastor) and sixty-one others. Religious revivals have been begun and prolonged by such means. Piety that is from the heart readily approves them. It makes glad use, not only of common, but of special, helps to fidelity and growth in godly living.
III. The wisdom of heeding all God has told us of our obligation to him, and of the peril of casting it off. Joshua “read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings.” Just what things were included in the inscription on the stones and in the reading we are not told. Doubtless, at least, the substance and sanctions of the law. It is clear that there was no self-pleasing discrimination in favour of the easy and agreeable commands, nor yet in the singling-out of the blessings and the rejection of the cursings.
IV. The mistake of withholding any part of God’s law from any age or class. “All Israel, and their elders and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark, and on that side.” None were so great and wise that they had no need to be present. And “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded which Joshua read not,” &c. It is sometimes thought that the great and sober things of God’s law are not to be taught to children. “Set before them only the bright things,” it is said. How strange that it is so much easier to be wise in earthly things than in the heavenly! In this world’s affairs, we teach the child to foresee that which is evil, that he may hide himself. We remember, too, that great souls are never nurtured on the ostrich plan. The ostrich thrusts his head into the sand, shuts his eyes, and, seeing no peril, says, “Now I am safe!” This is not God’s way. The “little ones” were to hear “all that Moses commanded.” They might comprehend little. They would feel much. Through the imagination, their souls would be filled with abiding, restraining, and uplifting awe.
V. The possibility of a serene contemplation of God’s law and remembrance of our past unfaithfulness to it. First of all, before he ventured to read the law, “Joshua built an altar,” &c. On this altar, burnt-offerings and peace-offerings were to be presented. The burnt-offering signified self-surrender, entire devotement to God; the peace-offering, joyful communion with Him. Thus the people came face to face with law and penalty, not as aliens, but as friends; their sins expiated and pardoned; their persons, powers, and possessions made over to Him to be wholly His; their hearts at rest in the gladdening sense of His favour. To such the law could be nothing other than a blessed, Divine rule. So it may be with us. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)