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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 20

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-9

After Rest

Joshua 20-24

THE twentieth chapter deals with the Cities of Refuge. A very beautiful expression is that "City of Refuge." Very suggestive, too. But there is a great black shadow in the middle of it: for why should men want refuge? The term is noble in itself, but what is it in its suggestion? Surely it means that there is a pursuing storm. We have heard travellers say that by making haste they will just be in time to escape the impending tempest; so they quicken their steps, and when they gain the threshold of the sanctuary they were aiming at, they breathe a sigh of relief and thankfulness. The sanctuary is doubly dear to them. Home is always sweet, or ought to be; but how sweeter than the honeycomb when it is reached under circumstances which try the spirit, exasperate the sensibilities, and weigh heavily on the soul! In this case there is a pursuing storm, but not of weather a social storm. The man who is running has killed a man, and the one who is following him is "the avenger of blood." Who will be first in the city? God will help the first runner, if it be but by one step he will be in before the pursuer can lay hold of him. There is a wondrous ministry of helpfulness operating in the world. We are helped in a thousand ways, not always in the one way in which we want to be helped, but in some other way; yet the help always comes. Was the refuge then for the murderer? No; there was no refuge for the murderer. But is it not said that the man who is fleeing to the city of refuge has killed some person? Yes, it is so said; but a definition is given which clears up all the moral side of the mystery:

"The slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither" ( Jos 20:3 ).

"And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah. And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth any person at unawares might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation." ( Jos 20:7-9 )

Now Joshua proceeds with his valedictory speech. Here and there he records a sentence which belongs to all time. The twenty-first chapter has little or nothing to say except to the people to whom it specially related; but in summing up the twenty-first chapter Joshua says,

"There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel" ( Jos 21:45 ).

A noble testimony this, too, borne by the old man. It is not youth that anticipates, it is age that reviews. Old men never become infidels. We say sometimes that seldom is an old man converted to Christianity. How far that may be true we cannot tell; but did ever an old pilgrim who had once seen heaven opened, turn round and say, in his wrinkled old age, that he was going to the city of Negation, or to the wilderness of Atheism? Old men ought to be heard upon these subjects; they have lived a lifetime; they have fought upon a thousand battlefields; they know all the darkness of the night, all the sharpness of winter, all the heat of summer, and they have a right to be heard upon his question; and their testimony on the side of the Bible is united, distinct, emphatic, and unanswerable.

Another point is found in chapter Joshua 22:5 :

"But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord charged you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul." ( Jos 20:5 )

"Return ye, and get you unto your tents, and unto the land of your possession.... But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law" ( Jos 22:4-5 ).

It would seem as if some interviews in life could not be satisfactorily closed but with the language of benediction. An ordinary word would be wholly out of place. There is a fitness of things in human communication as in all other affairs and concerns of life. It is fitting, too, that the benediction should be spoken by the old man. Joshua was "old and stricken in years," and he concluded the audience fitly by blessing the children of Israel:

"So Joshua blessed them, and sent them away; and they went unto their tents" ( Jos 22:6 ).

Now the children of Israel go to their tents: They are to be at peace. Ceasing war they are to be students of war. We shall hear no more of controversy; every man having received the blessing is a good man, and there is an end of a tumult which at one time threatened never to cease. So we should imagine, but our imagining is wrong:

"Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given possession in Bashan: but unto the other half thereof gave Joshua among their brethren on this side Jordan westward. And when Joshua sent them away also unto their tents, then he blessed them. And he spake unto them, saying, Return with much riches unto your tents, and with very much cattle, with silver, and with gold, and with brass, and with iron, and with very much raiment: divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren. And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel out of Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go unto the country of Gilead, to the land of their possession, whereof they were possessed, according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses" ( Jos 22:7-9 ).

"And the children of Israel sent unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and with him ten princes, of each chief house a prince throughout all the tribes of Israel; and each one was an head of the house of their fathers among the thousands of Israel" ( Jos 22:13-14 ).

"Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice: but that it may be a witness" ( Jos 22:26-27 ).

This being settled, a very tender scene occurs. Joshua gathers all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, calls for the children of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and talks to them historically and grandly. He called the people themselves to witness what God had done for them:

"And ye have seen all that the Lord your God hath done unto all these nations because of you" ( Jos 23:3 ).

Not only so, but he uses a very searching expression:

"And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof" ( Jos 23:14 ).

"Be ye therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that ye turn not aside therefrom to the right hand or to the left;... But cleave unto the Lord your God, as ye have done unto this day" ( Jos 23:6-8 ).

What is the call of these verses? It is a call to moral courage. The people were soldiers; when they saw that an altar had been reared to heaven which they did not like, and which they misunderstood, instantly they sped from their tents and challenged the builders to battle. That is the rudest courage; there is nothing in it. Many men can fight who cannot suffer; many are brave in activity who are cowards in waiting. Joshua calls the people now to thought, study, quiet and consistent and continuous obedience namely, "Cleave unto the Lord." Without this, growth would be impossible. Men cannot grow in the midst of continual or unbroken excitement. We grow when we are at rest; we grow not a little when we are in the shade; we advance when the burden is crushing us, and we are not uttering one complaining word because of its fatal weight. When the history of the land is written as it ought to be written, many a battle which now fills pages and chapters will be dismissed with a contemptuous sentence; and sufferings at home, quiet endurances, Christian manifestations of patience, will be magnified as indicative of the real dauntlessness, the heavenly bravery, the lasting courage. Let every man examine himself herein. To say "No" to a tempting offer is to win a battle: to receive a blow from an enemy and not return it, is to reach the point of coronation in Christ's great kingdom; to hear a rough speech and make a gentle reply is to evince what is meant by growing in grace. So the history rolls on, from battle to battle, from mistake to mistake, from point to point, until at last the moral displaces the material, questions of the soul put into their right place questions of rank; and moral courage simple, loving, unquestioning obedience is set at the head of all the virtues; and the quiet, meek, submissive, patient soul is crowned and throned, and stablished amid the hierarchy of heaven. We cannot dazzle the world by our greatness, but we can please God by our goodness; we cannot harness the winds and make them bear our names far and wide, but we can so live, so suffer, so speak, as to constrain the enemy to say, Verily, this man is a prophet; verily, this man has been with Jesus and learned of him; verily, there is in this supposed weakness a wonderful and enduring strength.

We cannot but be struck by the equality of the divine way as it is marked by the venerable leader. The fifteenth verse is very expressive upon this point:

"Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the Lord your God promised you; so shall the Lord bring upon you all evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the Lord your God hath given you" ( Jos 23:15 ).

"When ye have transgressed the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed yourselves to them; then shall the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and ye shall perish quickly from off the good land which he hath given unto you" ( Jos 23:16 ).

Joshua having gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and delivered unto them his final speech. Again we are thrown upon the grand truth that men must bring all their history into one view at certain periods, that thereby they may renew their covenant and revive their best hope. The work of the Lord is not of yesterday; it goes back through all the generations; and he is the wise scribe, well instructed in holy things, who brings into one view all the course of the divine education of the world. This is what Joshua did in brief in the twenty-fourth chapter. Having given the historical outline, the old man began to exhort the people, saying:

"Now, therefore, fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth" ( Jos 24:14 ).

" but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" ( Jos 24:15 ).

"God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods' ( Jos 24:16 ).

Then they review and repeat the solemn history and say that all Joshua has said is true in fact. Then Joshua says unto the people "What you have now said amounts to little more than mere words; you forget that God is a holy God and a jealous God, and you are speaking from impulse rather than from settled conviction." Then the people reply that Joshua himself is mistaken, and they have really made up their minds once for all to serve the Lord. So be it, then, said Joshua "Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the Lord, to serve him." The people answered That is even so; "We are witnesses." Then said Joshua, There is one final word to be spoken. If you have made up your minds to this course, you must put away the strange gods which are among you; no taint of idolatry must remain behind; not the very smallest image must be taken with you one day longer or one inch further; the expurgation must be immediate, complete, and final. The people answered unanimously: "The Lord our God will we serve, and his voice will we obey." It was indeed a solemn day; a day of covenant, a day of memorial, a day which condensed into its throbbing hours generations of history and strong and ardent pulsings of devotion and prophetic service. A covenant was made, and a statute and an ordinance were set in Shechem. To make, if possible, the matter inviolably permanent, "Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord" ( Jos 24:26 ). Then a very solemn scene occurs:

"And Joshua said unto all the people, Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us; for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which he spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest ye deny your God" ( Jos 24:27 ).

Then the assembly broke up. It broke up never to meet again under the same wise and valiant leadership. All pathetic occasions should be treasured in the memory; the last interview, the last sermon, the last prayer, the last fond lingering look; all these things may be frivolously treated as sentimental, but he who treats them so is a fool in his heart: whatever can subdue the spirit, chasten the sensibilities, and enlarge the charity of the soul should be encouraged as a ministry from God. Now Joshua dies, at the age of one hundred and ten. He was buried in the border of his inheritance in Timnath-serah, which is in Mount Ephraim, on the north side of the hill of Gaash.

"And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord, that he had done for Israel" ( Jos 24:31 ).

Now the history is done. The bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, were buried in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem. Then men died quickly:

"And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him in a hill that pertained to Phinehas his son, which was given him in mount Ephraim" ( Jos 24:33 ).

Death, death, death! The great man dies, and yet the work goes on. The minister ceases, but the ministry proceeds. The individual sermon closes, but the everlasting gospel never ceases its sweet and redeeming proclamations. Book after book is finished, but literature itself is hardly begun. Amidst all mutation there remains one everlasting quantity: "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever." All the new generations acknowledge it. They come up in great pride and strength, as if they themselves were to outlive God, and behold in a few years their pith is exhausted, their hope dies, and they know themselves to be no better than their fathers. When we are touched by the death of those whom we have known best, and wonder how light can ever shine again upon the circle in which we move, we should give the mind free scope to range over all the noble and marvellous history of the world, so shall we see that how great soever have been the men who have led us, the world could do without them; God knew how to supply their places, and amidst all change and fear and dismay the purpose of Heaven went steadily forward in all the grandeur of its strength and all the tenderness of its beneficence.

In coming thus far in our Bible studies let us pause a moment to consider how many illustrious men with whom we have companied have passed away. Truly the dead are quickly becoming the majority. Adam died, but, though his years were many, how few are the deeds which are recorded of him! He stands in history as the very Gate of Death. "By one man came death." We feel as if we might say "But for thee, O Adam, all men would now have been alive; no grave would ever have been dug; no farewell would ever have been breathed." That is an overwhelming reflection. Consider the possibility of Adam himself now entertaining it, or following it out in all its infinite melancholy! Think of him saying "By my sin I ruined God's fair earth; to me ascribe all iniquity, all shame, all heartbreak; by my presumption and disobedience I did it all: I slew the Son of God; but for me there would have been no Bethlehem, no Gethsemane, no Calvary, no Cross: lay the blame at the right door, O ages of time, ye burdened and groaning centuries, curse my name in all your woe." On such thoughts we may not dwell, for the mind reels in moral amazement, and the heart cannot quench the passion of scepticism. Enough is known to make us solemn. Count the graves until arithmetic gives up the reckoning in despair. Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, all gone! Just as we had come to know them in the breaking of bread they vanished out of our sight. It was as if rocks had been uprooted, or as if planets had ceased to shine: nay more, for we have not only lost strength and majesty, we have lost guidance, stimulus, friendship, and the subtle ministry of eloquent example. Can history repeat such men? Does our story now lie all down-hill, from steep to steep until we reach the valley of commonplace or the plain of mediocrity? Jesus Christ has taught us how to regard great men, saying "Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Here we have at once recognition of greatness and hope of greater history. What if we may know more than Adam, see farther than Enoch, embark in greater adventures than Abram, offer greater sacrifices than the priests, and see a deeper law than was ever revealed to Moses? In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom, yea riches unsearchable, promises exceeding great and precious. My soul, bestir thyself, go out in the early morning, remain in the field until the stars come out, for every hour brings its own spoil, every moment its own vision. O my Lord, Father in heaven, Blessed One, made known to me in the Cross of salvation, inspire me, lift me up, and make me gladly accept thy yoke and do all thy bidding; give me the aspiration that is untainted by vanity, and the consecration that is undefiled by selfishness, then shall I be willing to be baptised for the dead, and to stand steadfastly where princes and veterans have fallen by the hand of Time.

Verse 2

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Appoint out for you cities of refuge." Jos 20:2

The law in Numbers xxxv. appointed that the Levites should have six cities of refuge and forty-two others. The law of the cities of refuge is given in full in Numbers 35:0 and Deuteronomy 19:0 All cities should be cities of refuge. How great the number of the inhabitants, and how well-organised the institutions; how fitting, then, that the young and the inexperienced should find refuge in such highly-civilised asylums. The city is an aggregation of homes, and should surely bring the home feeling into wandering and aching hearts. Is not the city crowded with churches? And are there not in them men of God appointed to preach the great Gospel which was meant to heal the dying life of man? All these reflections suggest the gracious thought of refuge. Where men are few it would appear as if the soul were more exposed to assault. Solitude has dangers peculiar to itself. When the young life is hidden amongst ten thousand times ten thousand others, surely it ought to feel a sense of security, because in such a number the spirit and genius of brotherhood should be developed and crowned. Consider what libraries there are in the city; how rich in literary treasure; how impossible is solitude in the midst of such eloquent silence. Is not a library itself a city of refuge? May not wandering thoughts be stayed amid all its treasures of learning and language? Who can be lonely in any sense of desolateness who has access to a library? Whilst all this is pictorially true, consider how different is the melancholy fact. The city is full of trapdoors opening upon perdition. Count the number of its inns, places of harmful amusement, people devoted to what has now become the fine art of knavery, sharp practice, and all manner of delusion. Consider how the net is spread even in the sight of the bird, and the snare is laid on the open ground. Compare a city as it might be with a city as it is, and see how steady and tremendous has been the process of degradation and corruption. It has pleased God to represent his Church and kingdom under the image of a city. We read in the Psalms of "the city of God." Heaven is represented as a city whose walls are jasper and whose streets are gold. This would seem to be a restoration of the ideal city. It is a mistake to suppose that a city is bad simply because it is a city. Association, companionship, interchange of opinion, the commingling of trusts and stewardships, ought all to combine to constitute an idea of commonwealth, brotherhood, and home. In proportion as the city is really bad, the Church should take care to provide refuges from all its malicious pursuers and an answer to all its seductive appeals. Let there be a city within a city, the city of God within the city of destruction.

Verse 5

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"The avenger of blood." Jos 20:5

The text of course is limited by a local reference, but its suggestions spread themselves over the whole area of life and society. Recognise the fact that there is in all civilisation an avenger of blood. This indeed is necessary to the complete idea of civilisation. If blood could be shed with impunity, civilisation itself would be a continual prey to passion. God has set a high price upon blood; its quality would seem to be kindred to his own; it is full of fire, vitality; it is the very alphabet of immortality. Every human creature is of inexpressible consequence to God. Given a globe consisting of twelve hundred millions of human beings, and who can assign the exact importance to any one of them? What is he but as a fleck of snow upon a landscape, a drop in the Atlantic, an insect hardly visible in the sunbeam in which it dances for a moment? Not such is the divine view; the very hairs of your head are all numbered; the providence of God is minute, personal, critical, exacting the uttermost farthing, and ruling all things with the severest economy. Civilised society takes in its degree the same view of human life, for not a single child may be touched without society instantly arising as an avenger of blood. Surely there can be no great offence in destroying an unconscious life, in putting an end to an infancy which has barely begun, what can be the loss? Yet even society itself instantly demands an answer to the accusation of child-murder: no excuse would be tolerated: no fine theory of limiting the population would be admitted for one moment: organised society instantly becomes as it were the parent of the child, and demands an account of its life and recompense for its loss. This being so with regard to the body, are we not entitled to lift the argument to a higher level, and to contend that there should be an avenger of mind, thought, purpose, as well as an avenger of blood? They that kill the body can do but little; they are indeed hardly to be feared in comparison with those who can sow the seed of wickedness in the opening heart, and suggest evil thoughts to the awakening mind. If we slay him who slays the body, what should be done to him who takes away the life of the soul, who perverts the operation of motive and purpose, and who drags down the whole life to shame and infamy? All this anxiety about the body, its protection and its prerogatives, is but the beginning of an infinitely higher argument, if we are just to its logic. He would be accounted a fool who cared for the child's clothing, but paid no attention to the child's health: how much greater a fool is he who pays attention to the child's health of body and utterly neglects the child's health of mind! Consider how the avenger steadily proceeds in his task: men cannot sin with impunity: they are made to feel the result of their wickedness in their health, in their property, in their whole outlook of life; their fellow men shrink from them; they are distrusted, and handed over to reprobation, if not always openly, and as it were by public demonstration, yet more or less secretly, silently, but surely: whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. There is an avenger of blood upon the track of every bad man; as to when he shall be discovered and punished no man can tell the exact time, but God fixes it, and by the decree of Heaven, though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished.

Verse 7

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Skechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah." Joshua 20:7 .

The mountains of the Bible form an interesting subject of study as to their moral suggestiveness. A beautiful thought is it that the cities of refuge should be upon the mountain-top, or should nestle in the sides of the mountain. Two ideas of strength seem to combine here, the mountain itself being strong and the city built upon it inviolable. Thus the works of God and the works of man unite in a holy effort to secure human life. Are not all the works of God intended to save and educate and complete manhood? Whenever the works of God fight against manhood we may be sure that sin is operating with deadly effect in some direction. The whole world-house seems to have been built for the accommodation of the tenant; for him the sun shines, the rivers flow, the earth grows her harvests, and the sea yields its population. Man should add nothing to the works of God that is not in their own nature and according to the direction of their own purpose. To build a home upon the fair landscape is to add to its beauty; to build a church on the noblest elevation on the surface of the earth is to lift the mountain to a higher altitude. The earth is sanctified or desecrated by what is put upon it. The schoolhouse ennobles the district in which it is placed. Every benevolent institution is as a tree of the Lord's own planting, though it be set in the midst of a garden, or made the crowning point of a lofty summit. On the other hand, how much has the earth been desecrated by the presence of buildings upon it devoted to evil purposes. The public-house may be a blot upon the landscape; the building in which evil arts are practised and evil professions are taught is as the presence of perdition in the very sanctuary of nature. We should find more upon the mountains if we looked for more. God has put cities of refuge upon every one of them. The mountains themselves may be cities of refuge; there the weary reap new strength; there the over-driven and fevered brain cools itself and receives a tonic, enabling it to resume the battle of life and carry it on to conquest. Not one thing in all nature has had its full meaning yet disclosed. God burns in every bush; his house is by the seashore; his tabernacle is in the stars; his temple is in the tiniest flower that blooms. The day is coming when the whole earth shall be the mountain of God;-"no lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there:... and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." To bring about that day we are not called upon to be ideal, to dream away our time, to slumber in selfish contemplation; we are rather summoned to activity, to discipline, to suffering; every man should feel as if the dawning of that day depended upon his individual exertions

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Joshua 20". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/joshua-20.html. 1885-95.
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