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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 4

Verse 1

l. And it came to pass, etc The brief and obscure allusion previously made with regard to the twelve men he now explains more at length. He had said that they were chosen by the order of God, one each from his own tribe; but breaking off his discourse, he had not mentioned for what purpose. He now says, that by command of Joshua (47) they took up twelve stones and placed them in Gilgal, that a well marked memorial might exist among posterity. Moreover, as he only relates what was done after the passage of the people, what is interposed should be interpreted as in the pluperfect tense. (48) It is also very obvious that the copula is used instead of the rational particle. (49) The substance is, that before the priests moved their foot from the middle of the river where they stood, the stones at their feet were taken and placed in Gilgal, to be perpetual witnesses of the miracle, and that Joshua thus faithfully executed what God had commanded. Joshua, therefore, called the men whom he had previously chosen, but not without the command of God, that through it he might have a stronger attestation to his authority. For had Joshua raised up a trophy of that kind of his own accord, the piety which dictated it might indeed have been laudable, but the admonition founded only on the will of man might perhaps have been despised. But now when God himself raises the sign, it is impious to pass it carelessly by. He intimates, accordingly, that it was a monument deserving of the greatest attention when he introduces the children asking, what mean these stones?

(47) “Joshua.” Apparently a misprint for “Jehovah;” as the French says more accurately, “ Le commandment de Dieu;” “The command of God.” — Ed.

(48) French, “ Par un temps passe plus que parfait (comme parlent les Latins;) “ “By a past time more than perfect, (as the Latins speak.)” — Ed.

(49) French, “ Et quant a ce mot Et, on peut aisement juger qu’il se prend pour Car ;” And as to this word And, we may easily judge that it is taken for For. ” — Ed.

Verse 7

7. Then you shall answer them, etc Although the stones themselves cannot speak, yet the monument furnished the parents with materials for speaking, and for making the kindness of God known to their children. And here zealous endeavors to propagate piety are required of the aged, (50) and they are enjoined to exert themselves in instructing their children. For it was the will of God that this doctrine should be handed down through every age; that those who were not then born being afterwards instructed by their parents might become witnesses to it from hearing, though they had not seen it with their eyes.

The stones were placed according to the number of the tribes, that each might be incited to gratitude by its own symbol. It is true that two tribes and a half tribe who had obtained their inheritance beyond the Jordan, had not, when considered apart from the others, any occasion for making that passage. But as the land of Canaan was possessed by the others for the common good of the whole race of Abraham, so it behooved those who were all engaged in the same or a common cause not to be separated from each other. And although as yet mention had been made only of twelve men, it is obvious from a short clause, that the divine command had been declared to the whole people; for it is said that the children of Israel obeyed the words of Joshua. Nay, it is even probable that deputies were elected by suffrage to carry the stones in the name of the whole people.

(50) French, “ Or ce passage est pour monstrer, que les gens anciens doivent etre affectionnez a la piete;” “Now this passage is to show that the aged ought to be attached to piety.” — Ed.

Verse 9

9. And Joshua set up twelve stones, etc Apparently there was no use of stones under the water, and it may therefore seem to have been absurd to bury stones at a depth. The others which were placed in Gilgal being publicly visible, furnished occasion for inquiry; but stones hidden from the eyes of men at the bottom of the water could have no effect in inciting their minds. I admit that a monument altogether buried in silence would have been useless. (51) But when they talked among themselves of the evidence of the passage left there, the hearing even of what they did not see, strongly tended to confirm their faith. The ark of the covenant was shut up in the sanctuary and covered by a veil placed over against it, and yet its hidden splendor was not without benefit, when they learned from the Law that the covenant of God was deposited in it. It might also happen, that when the river was low, the tops of the heap would sometimes appear. But what I have already said is more probable, that though Joshua buried the stones in the middle of the stream, he did a useful act by establishing a testimony in presence of the people, which would afterwards become the subject of general conversation.

(51) French, “ Or je confesse bien que c’eust este un tesmoignage du tout inutile, si on l’eust laisse la comme enseveli sans en parler;” “Now, I confess, that it would have been an entirely useless testimony had they left it there, as it were, buried without speaking of it.” — Ed.

Verse 10

10. For the priests which bare, etc If we are ordered to halt while others are hastening, we know how easily a feeling of irksomeness is produced, because we seem to be occupying an inferior position. The priests, therefore, are justly praised for their patience in calmly remaining alone at their post, while the whole people were swiftly hurrying on to the further bank. For they might have begun to feel doubtful lest the heaps of water which were suspended over their heads might suddenly melt away and engulf them. They therefore evinced their piety no less by remaining there than by venturing to proceed into the opposing current. Thus, in the first place, they displayed their ready obedience, and in the second their constancy, making it manifest that they had not obeyed from mere impulse. For their firmness of purpose, which is praised, must have had its origin in a living principle. It was a proof of modesty that they attempted nothing rashly, but regulated their whole procedure as it were in strict conformity to the word of God.

Although it is probable that Joshua was instructed by a new message from heaven as to what was necessary to be done, he is, however, said to have followed what Moses had commanded. By this I understand that Moses had carefully enjoined him to hang on the lips of God, that he was thoroughly obedient to the injunction, and accordingly was always observant of what was pleasing to God. In short, the command of Moses here mentioned was general, but God gave special injunctions to Joshua as each circumstance arose.

Verse 12

12. And the children of Reuben, etc He makes mention of the expedition of the two tribes and half tribe, as they did not set out to engage in warfare on their own private account, but to assist their brethren, by whose valor their own possession had been obtained in seizing the land of Canaan. Moses had laid them under this obligation, and they had bound themselves by oath that they would accompany the rest of the people till all should have obtained a quiet settlement.

They again made the same promise when the camp was about to be moved as we saw in Joshua 1:0. But from the narrative here we gather that only a part was selected, for the number amounts only to forty thousand, that is, a third, or about a third of the number ascertained by the census taken shortly before. Now, as they are everywhere said to have performed their promise, it may be probably conjectured that it was not the intention of Moses strictly to insist that all who had assented should leave their wives and children, and do military service in the land of Canaan till it was wholly subdued. And certainly it would have been harsh and cruel to leave an unwarlike multitude unprotected in the midst of many hostile nations. Nor would the remains of the enemy, assisted by neighboring nations, have long failed to take advantage of such an opportunity to avenge themselves by massacring the women and children. It was necessary, therefore, in a country not yet sufficiently pacified, permanently to retain a force sufficient to prevent incursions. Moses was not of so stern a nature as not to consult for the helpless. Nay, his prudence and equity would never have allowed him to leave a territory lately seized by arms unoccupied by a body of troops.

We may add, that such an immense concourse would have impeded rather than assisted the acquisition of the land of Canaan. All which Moses required, therefore, was simply that the Reubenites and Gadites should not, while their brethren were engaged in carrying on the war, remain indolently at home and eat their food at ease without giving any assistance to those to whom they were indebted for having obtained the inheritance. And the good faith of the forty thousand was approved by their not declining the burdens, toils, and perils of warfare, while the remainder of their own tribes were enjoying quiet. They might readily have alleged that they were as well entitled as the others to exemption, but in proceeding with alacrity after the levy was made, to obey the orders given them, without envying the immunity given to their brethren, they show that they were voluntarily and heartily disposed to do their duty. At the same time, it is not doubtful that by accepting the flower of their tribes, the handle for complaint and quarrel was cut off. For it could not justly have been maintained that not even the aged and worn out, or the young and feeble, were to be spared. Some, perhaps, may be inclined to conjecture that the army was raised not by choice but by lot, though it rather seems to me that all who were most robust and best able to bear fatigue were enrolled.

Verse 14

14. On that day the Lord magnified, etc It was not indeed the principal end of the miracle to proclaim Joshua’s pre-eminence in power and authority, but as it greatly concerned the public interest, that the government of Joshua should be firmly established, it is justly set down as an additional instance of the divine favor, that he was, so to speak, adorned with sacred insignia to render him venerable in the eyes of the people, and prevent any one from presuming to despise him. For a promiscuous multitude, not ruled by a head, breaks up and falls away of its own accord. The Lord, therefore, to provide for the safety of his people, distinguished Joshua by a special mark declaratory of his vocation.

From this passage we may learn that God specially recommends to us all those through whose hands he displays his excellent working, and requires us to give them due honor and reverence. When it is said that the people feared Joshua as they had feared Moses, should any one object that the statement is refuted by the many sedition’s and tumults which they stirred up against him, not only wantonly but furiously, it is easy to answer, that it does not apply to the whole period from their departure out of Egypt, but only refers to that when subdued by plagues and softened down, they began to be duly obedient to Moses. For what is now described is a tranquil government, as if they had laid aside their ancient perverseness, more especially when the turbulent parents were dead and a better race had succeeded. Accordingly, we do not read that there was any difficulty in ruling and turning them. I now only briefly advert to what I have already explained. For when Joshua at the outset exhorted them to obedience, they said that they would be obedient as they had been to Moses.

Verse 16

16. Command the priests, etc Here it is shown more clearly how meekly and calmly the priests yielded implicit obedience to the divine command, for they did not move a foot until Joshua ordered the signal to retire. But as it was an instance of rare virtue to be thus modest and obedient, so the fatherly kindness of God is conspicuous in this, that he condescended to direct and govern almost every step in their progress by his own voice, lest any perplexity might occur to retard them.

Next follows a more conspicuous confirmation of the miracle; for as soon as they climbed the opposite bank, the Jordan began again to flow as usual. Had it not returned to its former state, and indeed, suddenly, many would have imagined the cause of the change to be hidden but fortuitous. But when God displays his power and favor at minute intervals of time all doubt is removed. The moment the feet of the priests were made wet the Jordan retired; now on their departure he recovers his free course, and that at the very instant when they reached the bank. For the term dry here means that part which was not covered by the overflow. (52) Thus the river, though dumb, (53) was the best of heralds, proclaiming with a loud voice that heaven and earth are subject to the God of Israel.

(52) Calvin, still adhering to the view that part of the plain beyond the immediate bank was overflowed, seems to think that the priests, after climbing up the steep bank, continued to walk for some time among the shallow water. The other view which supposes that the banks were only filled and not overflowed, besides being more in accordance with the original, as was formerly shown, appears to derive additional confirmation from the language here used. It is said the waters returned the moment the priests touched the dry ground with the soles of their feet; in other words, so long as they were climbing up the steep bank, and, of course, had no firm footing, the heap of waters continued, but it was immediately dissolved as soon as they could set down their foot firmly in consequence of having reached the flat. — Ed.

(53) “Dumb.” Latin, “ mutus.” French, “ une creature insensible et sans voix;” “An inanimate creature without voice.” — Ed.

Verse 19

19. And the people came up, etc Why the day on which they entered the land, and first encamped in it, is marked, we shall see in next chapter. But the name of Gilgal is given to the first station by anticipation, for this new name was afterwards given to it by Joshua on the renewal of circumcision; its etymology will be explained in its own place. Moreover, the thing here principally treated of is the monument of twelve stones; for though it was formerly mentioned, a kind of solemn dedication is now related, namely, that Joshua not only erected a mound, but called the attention of the people to its use in enabling fathers to keep the memory of the divine goodness alive among their children. From his introducing the children asking, What mean these stones? we infer that they were arranged so as to attract the notice of spectators. For had they been heaped together at random without any order, it would never have come into the mind of posterity to inquire concerning their meaning. There must therefore have been something so remarkable in their position as not to allow the sight to be overlooked.

Moreover, because the covenant by which God had adopted the race of Abraham was firm in an uninterrupted succession for a thousand generations, the benefit which God had bestowed on the deceased fathers is, on account of the unity of the body, transferred in common to their children who were born long after. And the continuation must have more strongly awakened their attention, inasmuch as posterity were in this way reminded that what had long ago been given to their ancestors belonged to them also. The answer of the parents would have been coldly listened to had the divine favor been confined to a single day. But when the sons’ sons hear that the waters of Jordan were dried up many ages before they were born, they acknowledge themselves to be the very people towards whom that wonderful act of divine favor had been manifested. The same account is to be given of the drying up of the Red Sea, though the event was not very ancient. It is certain that of those who had come out of Egypt, Caleb and Joshua were the only survivors, and yet he addresses the whole people as if they had been eye-witnesses of the miracle. God dried up the Red Sea before our face; in other words, it was done in virtue of the adoption which passed without interruption from the fathers to the children. Moreover, it was worth while to call the passage of the Red Sea to remembrance, not only that the similarity of the miracle might cause belief, but that on hearing the story of the Jordan, that former miracle might be at the same time renewed, although no visible symbol of it was present to the eye.

Verse 24

24. That all people of the earth might know, etc He states that God had put forth that manifestation of his power that it might not only be proclaimed among his own people, but that the form of it might spread far and wide among the nations. For although it pleased him that his praise should dwell in Zion, it pleased him also that his works should so far be made known to strangers that they might be forced to confess that he is the true God, and compelled unwillingly to fear him whom they had willingly contemned, as it is said in the song of Moses, (Deuteronomy 32:31) “Our enemies are judges.” For he means that unbelievers, whether they will or not, have this confession extorted from them by a knowledge of the works of God. But as it did not at all profit them to know how great the might of God was, Joshua distinguishes them from the Israelites, to whom he attributes a special knowledge, namely, that which begets serious fear of God. That the nations may know, he says; but that thou may fear thy God. Therefore while unbelievers extinguish the light by their darkness, let us learn from considering the works of God to advance in his fear. He says all days, because the favor here spoken of was diffused over several generations.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Joshua 4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.