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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
Joshua 3

 

 

Verse 1

1.And Joshua rose early, etc We must remember, as I formerly explained, that Joshua did not move his camp till the day after the spies had returned, but that after hearing their report, he gave orders by the prefects that they should collect their vessels, as three days after they were to cross the Jordan. (43) His rising in the morning, therefore, does not refer simply to their return, but rather to the issuing of his proclamation. When the three days were completed, the prefects were again sent through the camp to acquaint the people with the mode of passage. Although these things are mentioned separately, it is easy to take up the thread of the narrative. But before it was publicly intimated, by what means he was to open a way for the people, the multitude spread out on the bank of the river were exposed to some degree of confusion.

It is true, there were fords by which the Jordan could be passed. But the waters were then swollen, and had overflowed, so that they might easily prevent even men altogether without baggage from passing. There was therefore no hope, that women and children, with the animals, and the rest of the baggage, could be transported to the further bank. That, in such apparently desperate circumstances, they calmly wait the issue, though doubtful, and to them incomprehensible, is an example of faithful obedience, proving how unlike they were to their fathers, who, on the slightest occasions, gave way to turbulence, and inveighed against the Lord and against Moses. This change was not produced without the special agency of the Holy Spirit.

The Jordan, then, by far the most important river of Palestine, is formed, near its northern frontiers, by several streams which descend from the mountains of Lebanon, and after flowing nearly due south, for a direct distance of about 175 miles, discharges its waters into the north side of the Dead Sea. In the upper part of its course, before it reaches the late of Tiberius, more familiarly known by its usual scriptural name of the Sea of Galilee, it has much of the character of an impetuous torrent, and is hemmed closely in on both sides by loftly mountains, but on issuing from the south side of the lake, it begins to flow in a valley, the most remarkable circumstance connected with which, is its great depth beneath the level of the ocean. Even the Sea of Galilee is 84 feet, and the Dead Sea, where the Jordan falls into it is 1337 feet beneath this level. The intervening space between the two seas, forms what is properly called the valley of the Jordan, and consists of a plain, about six miles across in its northern, but much wider in its southern half, where it spreads out, on its east or left bank, into the plains of Moab, and on its west or right bank, into the plains of Jericho. This valley, throughout its whole length, is terminated on either side by a mountain chain, which in many parts rises so rapidly as soon to attain a height exceeding 2500. Within the valley thus terminated, a minor valley is enclosed. It is about three quarters of a mile in breadth, and consists, for the most part, of a low flat, bounded by sandy slopes, and covered by trees or brushwood. Nearly in the center of this flat the river, almost concealed beneath its overhanging banks, pursues its course, with few large windings, but with such a multiplicity of minute tortuosities, that though the direct distance is not more than sixty-five, the indirect distance or total length of the stream is estimated at not less than two hundred miles. The river, in its ordinary state, within its banks, has a width of from twenty to thirty yards, and a depth, varying from nine to fifteen feet. The banks are there from twelve to fourteen feet high, and immediately beyond them, the flat bears evident marks of being frequently inundated. These inundation’s take place in spring, and are caused by the melted snow brought down, partly by the three principal tributaries of the Jordan, the Jarmuch, or Shurat-el-Mandour, the Jabbok, or Zerka, and the Arnon, or Wady Modjet, which all join it from the east, but chiefly by the main stream, which is then copiously supplied from the snowy heights of Lebanon. This rising of the waters, of course, begins as soon as the thawing influence of the returning heat begins to be felt, but does not attain its maximum till the impression has been fully made, or, in the first weeks of April. Such was the state of the stream as the Israelites now safely assumed to have been from seven to Twelve miles north of the Dead Sea, and not far from the Bethabarah, where our Savior, after condescending to receive baptism at the hands of his forerunner, went up from the banks, while the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and lighted upon him. — Ed.


Verse 2

2.And it came to pass after three days, etc That is, three days after their departure had been intimated. For they did not halt at the bank longer than one night. But as the period of three days had previously been fixed for crossing, and they had no hope of being able to accomplish it, Joshua now exhorts them to pay no more regard to obstacles and difficulties, and to attend to the power of God. For although the form of the miracle is not yet explained, yet when the ark of the covenant is brought forward like a banner to guide the way, it was natural to infer that the Lord was preparing something unusual. And while they are kept in suspense, their faith is again proved by a serious trial; for it was an example of rare virtue to give implicit obedience to the command, and thus follow the ark, while they were obviously uninformed as to the result. This, indeed, is the special characteristic of faith, not to inquire curiously what the Lord is to do, nor to dispute subtlety as to how that which he declares can possibly be done, but to cast all our anxious cares upon his providence, and knowing that his power, on which we may rest, is boundless, to raise our thoughts above the world, and embrace by faith that which we cannot comprehend by reason.


Verse 4

4.Yet there shall be a space, etc As the younger Levites, whose province it was to carry the ark, (Numbers 4:15) were strictly forbidden to touch it, or even to look at it, when uncovered, it is not wonderful that the common people were not allowed to approach within a considerable distance of it. The dignity of the ark, therefore, is declared, when the people are ordered to attest their veneration by leaving a long interval between themselves and it. And we know what happened to Uzzah, (2 Samuel 6:0) when seeing it shaken by restive oxen, he with inconsiderate zeal put forth his hand to support it. For although God invites us familiarly to himself, yet faithful trust so far from begetting security and boldness, is, on the contrary, always coupled with fear. In this way the ark of the covenant was, indeed, a strong and pleasant pledge of the divine favor, but, at the same time, had an awful majesty, well fitted to subdue carnal pride. This humility and modesty, moreover, had the effect of exercising their faith by preventing them from confining the grace of God within too narrow limits, and reminding them, that though they were far distant from the ark, the divine power was ever near.

In the end of the verse it is shown how necessary it was for them to be divinely guided by an unknown way; that anxiety and fear might keep them under the protection of the ark.


Verse 5

5.And Joshua said, etc Some unwonted manifestation of divine power in bringing assistance behooved to be held forth, lest the backwardness arising from hesitancy might produce delay; and yet, in order that the Israelites might depend on the mere counsel of God, Joshua does not yet plainly point out the special nature of the miracle, unless, indeed, we choose to read what follows shortly after, as forming part of one context. Herein lies the true test of faith, to lean so on the counsel of God, as not to keep inquiring too anxiously concerning the mode of action or the event. As the word קדש means sometimes to prepare, and sometimes to sanctify, and either meaning is not inappropriate, I thought it best to leave a free choice. For faith prepares us to perceive the operation of God; and in those times, when God manifested himself to men more nearly, they consecrated themselves by a solemn rite; thus we see how Moses, on the promulgation of the Law, sanctified the people as God had commanded. The view taken by some expositors, that the people were thus commanded to purge themselves from defilement’s, merely in order that nothing might impede the passage of the Jordan, seems to be too confined.


Verse 6

6.And Joshua spoke unto the priests, etc It is probable that the priests were informed why God wished the ark to precede, that they might be more ready to execute the command, for the whole people are immediately after made acquainted with the intended division of the waters. As the prefects had formerly published in the camp, that the people were to follow the ark of the covenant, the priests could not possibly be ignorant as to the office which they were to perform. For it had been distinctly declared that they were to be leaders or standard-bearers. But when all were in readiness, Joshua publicly unfolded the divine message which he had received. For it would have been incongruous to make the divine favor more clearly manifest to the common people than to them. It is added, however, immediately after, that the people were made acquainted with the miracle.

I conclude, therefore, that after the priests had for some time been kept in suspense, along with the multitude, the Lord, on ascertaining the obedience of all, publicly declared what he was to do. First, then, it is related that the priests were enjoined by Joshua to bear the ark before the people; and secondly, lest any one might think that he was making the attempt at random, or at his own hand, mention is at the same time made of the promise with which he had been furnished as a means of ensuring his command. But although it is not then distinctly said that the course of the Jordan would be interrupted, yet, from the language which Joshua used to the people, we may infer that the Lord spoke more in detail, and explained more distinctly what he had determined to do. For Joshua did not mention anything which he had not previously learned from the mouth of God himself. Nay, before he makes any mention of the matter at all, he tells them to hear the words of the Lord, and thus premises that he has the authority of God for what he is about to say.


Verse 10

10.Hereby you shall know, etc He makes the power of the miracle extend further than to the entrance of the land, and deservedly; for merely to open up a passage into a hostile territory, from which there was afterwards no retreat, would have been nothing else than exposure to death. For either entangled among straits, and in an unknown region, they would easily have been destroyed, or they would have perished, worn out by hunger and the absolute want of all things. Joshua therefore declares before hand, that when God would restore the river to its course, it would just be as if he were stretching forth his hand to rout all the inhabitants of the land; and that the manifestation of his power given in the passage of the Jordan, would be a sure presage of the victory which they would obtain over all the nations.

He says, Hence shall you know that the Lord is present with you; to what end? Not only to plant your feet in the land of Canaan, but also to give you full possession of it. For surely when mention is made of the overthrow of the nations, an ultimate, free, and peaceful possession is implied. Therefore, as the Lord by dividing the river clearly showed that his power resided with the Israelites, so the people must on their part have conceived hopes of perpetual assistance, as much as if they had already seen their enemies worsted and lying prostrate before them.

For God does not abandon the work of his hands midway, leaving it maimed and unfinished. (Psalms 138:8) When he leads his people unto the promised inheritance, he makes a dry passage for them by cutting off the course of the Jordan. How perverse then would it have been for the Israelites to stop short at that momentary act, instead of feeling confident in all time to come, until quiet possession of the land were actually obtained! Let us learn then from this example, prudently to combine the different acts of divine goodness relating to our final salvation, so that a happy commencement may cherish and keep alive in our minds the hope of an equally happy termination.

When Joshua says that the people will know the presence of God from the miracle, he indirectly upbraids them with their distrust, as the mere promise of God ought to have sufficed for a full assurance, and our faith, unless founded solely on this promise, must be continually wavering. But although faith ought properly to recline on the truth of God alone, it does not follow that experimental knowledge may not act as a secondary support to its weakness, and give subsidiary aid to its confirmation. For that which God promises to us in word he seals by act, and as often as he exhibits to us manifestations of his grace and might, he intends them to be so many confirmations of what he has spoken, and so many helps tending to suppress all our doubts.


Verse 11

11.Behold the ark of the covenant, etc First he says that the ark of God will go before; and secondly, he explains for what purpose, namely, that Jordan may retire from its place, trembling, so to speak, at the presence of the Lord, as is said in the Psalms. (Psalms 114:0.) The narrative introduced concerning the twelve men is parenthetical, as it only briefly alludes to what it will afterwards deliver more fully and clearly. At present let us merely understand, that while the ark went before, God displayed his power in guiding the people. And in this way there was a confirmation of the sanctity of the worship appointed by the Law, when the Israelites perceived that it was no empty symbol of his presence that God had deposited with them. For Jordan was compelled to yield obedience to God just as if it had beheld his majesty.

Let us however remember, that the only reason which induced the Lord to display his grace in the ark was because he had placed the tables of his covenant within it. Moreover, as the thing could not be easily credited, Joshua directs the mind of the people to the contemplation of the divine power, which surmounts all difficulties. The title of Ruler of the whole earth here applied to God is not insignificant, but extols his power above all the elements of nature, in order that the Israelites, considering how seas and rivers are subject to his dominion, might have no doubt that the waters, though naturally liquid, would become stable in obedience to his word.


Verse 15

15.And as they that bare the ark, etc The valor of the priests in proceeding boldly beyond the bed into the water itself, was deserving of no mean praise, since they might have been afraid of being instantly drowned. For what could they expect on putting in their feet, but immediately to find a deep pool in which they would be engulfed? In not being afraid on reaching the stream, and in continuing to move firmly forward to the appointed place, they gave a specimen of rare alacrity, founded on confidence.

To the general danger was added the special one, that the Jordan had then overflowed its banks, as it is wont to do at the commencement of every summer. As the plain was covered, it was impossible to observe the line of the banks or the ford, and the slime spread far and wide, increased their fear and anxiety. (44) God was pleased that his people, and especially the priests, should contend with these obstacles, in order that the victory of their faith and constancy might be more illustrious. At the same time, the difficulty thus presented tended to magnify the glory of the miracle when the waters, which had overflowed their banks, retired at the divine command, and were gathered together into a solid heap. First, Joshua explains the nature of the miracle for the purpose of removing doubt, and preventing profane men from denying the divine interposition by a subtle searching for other causes. It is not, indeed, impossible that the flowing of the water might have been restrained for a short time, and that some portion of the channel might thus have appeared dry, or that the course might have changed and taken some other direction. But it was certainly neither a natural nor fortuitous event, when the waters stood gathered up into a heap. It is therefore said that the waters which previously flowed from the higher ground, seeking in their descent a continuous outlet, stood still.

There cannot be a doubt that this wonderful sight must have been received with feelings of fear, leading the Israelites more distinctly to acknowledge that they were saved in the midst of death. For what was that collected heap but a grave in which the whole multitude would have been buried, had the waters resumed their naturally liquid state? (45) Had they walked upon the waters their faith might have served them as a kind of bridge. But now, while mountains of water hung over their heads, it is just as if they had found an open and level path beneath them. The locality is marked out as situated between two cities, (46) that the remembrance of it might never be lost; and, in like manner, God ordered stones to be set up as a perpetual memorial, that this distinguished mercy might be celebrated by posterity in all ages.

 


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/joshua-3.html. 1840-57.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, October 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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