Bible Commentaries
Joshua 21

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

Verses 1-45

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

"Cities to dwellin." Joshua 21:2 .

This chapter deals with the distribution of the Levitical cities. They were given to priests, to Kohathites, to Gershonites, and to Merarites. We are told that in the camp of Israel there were two squares surrounding the tabernacle: an inner square of priests and Levites, an outer square of the tribes of Israel, three on each side. Our point, however, is that every tribe had a city. The distribution was so made as to involve each and all in some responsibility or trust. The Kohathites carried the sacred vessels, the Gershonites the curtains and various fabrics of the tent and tabernacle, and the Merarites were entrusted with the bars and boards. Wherever we find distribution in Scripture we find it so meted out that every man has his own particular vocation or trust. The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man who took his journey into a far country, and distributed his goods to his servants, giving every one a portion to profit withal. We have nothing to do with the amount of the distribution, but we have a distinct responsibility in relation to its fact. Let every man ask himself, What have I, what am I expected to do, what burden have I to carry, and what is the strength wherewith I am endowed? No one man has all the talents: the greatest cannot do without the least. Greatness is often misunderstood in this matter; the probability is that there is nothing so dreary as the solitude of greatness when it is deprived of popular recognition and sympathy. The mountains may be very great, but they are often very barren. The valley can do better without the mountain than the mountain can do without the valley. Though the talents be few in number they can be applied to great purposes. The reward is not in the dowry but in the industry. It is not humility to deny the possession of talents; it may be simple dishonesty and unfaithfulness

Verses 43-44

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"And the Lord gave unto Israel all the land... and the Lord gave them rest." Jos 21:43-44

The Lord is always giving. He lives to give. "God so loved the world, that he gave..." Trace the word "give" in connection with God throughout the whole of the Bible, and it will be found that the extent of his gifts is simply infinite. The point to be observed here is in the contrast between the one gift and the other. How much is implied in the word, "gave unto Israel all the land," when it is contrasted with the expression, "the Lord gave them rest!" Was there no rest in obtaining the land? No, not so much as one day. Although the land was given it must be fought for. This is the great law concerning all the gifts of Heaven; they are gifts only in a certain sense or in a limited degree, or are meant as provocatives to human energy or prizes for human patience. The word "give" must thus be enlarged so as to represent its whole meaning: the Lord gives life, but man must train the life that is given: the Lord gives opportunity, but man must embrace the opportunity and fill it with all its significance: the Lord gives society, but society must enter upon a process of self-development and self-protection. The thing that is given may be but the first seed, the germ, the protoplasm: all the rest may come of time, the succession of events, and the adaptations of educative influences and ministries. In a larger sense the Lord gives rest. He never gives rest until he has prepared men for it. When men are not prepared for rest, they do not understand it as a blessing. The six days' labour make the Sabbath what it is; but for the six days' labour the Sabbath would be a mere institution, a religious ordinance, an arbitrary distribution of time; but after the six days' toil it comes as a benediction the very beginning and pledge of Heaven. The true rest is the rest of the soul. "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest;" "There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God;" "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord... that they may rest;" "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it."

Verse 45

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass." Jos 21:45

Personal testimony is better than literary argument. Of this testimony Biblical religion can always avail itself. Of this testimony Christianity can still more pointedly make account It is no mean indication of the power of Christianity, that it constrains its disciples to bear witness to the power of Christ in the soul. The Bible writers are always particular to maintain that the word of the Lord never failed. Failure there would have been fatal to the whole idea of divine providence as disclosed in the Bible. The ancient writers are, if possible, more particular to notice that the good things promised of God were assuredly given rather than that his threatenings were realised. There seems to be a subtle willingness to overlook the infliction of punishment in view of the daily and abundant manifestation of divine goodness. We soon forget the darkness when the light shines. The day whose wind and rain gives us discomfort is speedily forgotten when the summer broods over the land and turns it into one garden of flowers. A very marvellous thing it is, that in health we soon forget our sickness; there may be in this some indication of that which will take place in higher states of being; in heaven we shall forget every trouble of earth. A text of this kind seems to challenge the reader to contradict it. If it were a mere question of argument, one disputant might be outwitted by another; but where it is a question of direct personal witness, the character of the witness must be taken as equivalent to an argument. The good things of God seem to grow in number and in magnitude in proportion as we look upon them from the point of advancing age. We do not see them in their true magnitude at first, or at the moment of their introduction; we are then too near them to see exactly their bearing and colour; a man at fifty knows more of the riches and blessedness of life than it was possible for him to know when but half that age. The testimony in this case is most precise and inclusive. It is not a general commendation of the faithfulness of God, but a critical declaration that not one thing failed of all which God had spoken. The argument of history is one of the most solid arguments in theology. Doctrine is attested by providence. We judge men by the manner in which they have kept their word to us, and where the word has been faithfully realised, honour is accorded and trust is increased. It should be so in our relations to the Creator and Ruler of life.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Joshua 21". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.