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THE PASSAGE OF THE JORDAN
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 3:1-6.3.6
THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Joshua had received the evening before, through their officers, the reply of the people to the charge which he had given (chap. Joshua 1:16-6.1.18). Their unanimous and ardent fealty must have filled this fine-spirited man with thankfulness to God, and given him good hope in the people: “And Joshua rose early in the morning.”
1. God gives us encouragements, not merely for our joy, but for action. The Lord loves the praise of His people; He loves it best when the songs of their lips are set to harmony with the tread of feet that run in the way of His commandments, and with the noise of labour made by hands which hasten to do His will. Mere praise is like a tune in one part; it is only a theme, pleasant for the moment as a solo, but poor and thin and insufficient, unless followed by these harmonies of labour.
2. God gives His servants the confidence of men, that they may use it promptly for the good of men. Nothing sooner loses its beauty and fades than the unused confidence reposed in us by our fellows. Changing the figure, service is, at once the exercise and the bread of trust; and when a leader does not use the confidence given him by those about him, he is simply allowing it to stiffen and die. He who hears over-night, “All that thou commandest us we will do,” had better rise “early in the morning,” and begin to turn this spirit of obedience to good account. This, again, cannot be better done than by leading the people manifestly nearer, not simply to their leader’s, but also to their own inheritance.
3. God gives some men wisdom to see into the possibilities of the future, but he who can read events to come should be careful not to disappoint his auditors. (Chap. Joshua 1:11, with Joshua 3:2.)
Thus the first two verses of this paragraph lead up to the important subject of the Divine presence, on which much stress is laid in the four verses that follow.
I. The sign for the special movement of God’s people is God’s presence going before them.
1. It is noteworthy that in both the Old and New Testaments this is repeatedly made the sign for going forward. This was the case during the marches of the wilderness; the pillar of fire and cloud preceded the host. David at Baal-perazim was to know that the Lord went out before him when he heard “the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees;” not till then was he to go forward to the battle. What else was the waiting for Pentecost by the men who were to tarry in the city of Jerusalem for this preceding presence of God? It was of no avail for even apostles to go, till God went before them. They were men of good ordinary ability, they had recollections of the Saviour’s example to guide them, and glorious memories of His love to inspire them; yet they were to tarry, as though they were helpless as children, waiting for the promise, of the Father. The Saviour’s words, “Without me ye can do nothing,” are written not simply in the Gospel of John, but throughout the Bible.
2. The Pillar of Fire and Cloud, and the Ark of the Covenant, were the two and only visible guides, indicating God’s presence, that the Israelites had to accompany them in their journeys. There is one feature which is common to them both: in times of rest they were with the people, in times of marching the Cloud always and the Ark sometimes went before them. Resting, the Cloud stood over the camp; marching, it went before the people. The Ark, too, was set up in the middle of the camp, and in ordinary marches was carried in the midst of the Israelites; but in a great emergency like this the Ark leads the way. Surely all this is significant, and intended not merely for the Jews; read in the light of the tarrying for Pentecost, does it not seem “written for our admonition”? God’s presence with us should always lead to praise, worship, and work; there are, however, solemn seasons in the history of the Church when God seems manifestly to go before His people, and then both Testaments teach that His people must follow. There must be no resting then, nor are ordinary methods of worship and work sufficient for periods like these. Does not this comprehend all great revival movements in the history of the Church, not excepting that which has recently excited so much attention throughout England, and is now stirring the multitudes of London to new thought and intense feeling? Is God with this work? Are men being saved, and helped to turn to holiness? If so, energy of this kind does not come from beneath, neither is this the manner of man. There cannot be the least doubt that ordinary methods of teaching and training are good for ordinary times; but ought we not to be prepared for God to sometimes go altogether before us? And if it be God who goes before, we must follow,—follow gladly, heartily, and earnestly. The Ark of His presence may get quite out of the usual track, it may wander even into the bed of the river; timid Israelites may fear lest it should be swept away in the flood; yet, if it be His presence, they will do well to follow, for even this unusual way leads to a rich inheritance for the teeming thousands of the people, who till it is trodden only experience the bitterness of a grievous bondage, and the possession of a barren desert. Holy fear and holy caution may be well, and none should be angry or harsh with any who are moved thereto, for things are not so visible to sense now as on the banks of the Jordan; yet those who fear harm from the flood of unusual feeling may do well to remember that the Ark commands the waters, and not the waters the Ark.
II. Even when God is most manifestly present with His people, He ever leaves ample scope for faith.
1. The Pillar of Cloud was, at this time, probably withdrawn. The people had only the every-day Ark. That which for forty years had been a supernatural assurance that the Lord was with them, had probably vanished altogether. This could not but have been a trial to those who were weak in faith.
2. Although the passage was to take place on the morrow, it does not seem that the people at this time had any idea of the manner in which it was to be made.
3. When they arrived at the river, much firmness would be needed by them all. Think of the faith required by those who were the first to cross, and of the demand made by the accumulated body of water on the trust of those who crossed last. However much faith may be taxed when we see few signs of God’s presence, let none think that poor faith will suffice when God is manifestly with us. Faith is taxed then more than ever. True, it has blessed encouragements, but the encouragements are not given for nothing. Those whom the Lord most helps, have temptations to unbelief which His ordinary servants know little of, and from which the boldest might well shrink. He is but poorly taught, who thinks that any of God’s children on earth ever walk by sight.
III. The consciousness of God’s presence best goes with deep reverence and profound humility. The people were not to come near the Ark by a space of more than half a mile. With so much reason to love God for His mighty works on their behalf, it is just at the point where His goodness should provoke love, that His wisdom finds an occasion to teach them reverence. Glowing with thankfulness for Divine help, the very distance at which they are kept teaches them to walk “in awe, and sin not.” The advance of the Ark for nearly three quarters of a mile in front was calculated no less to teach them humility. There was the Ark, borne only by a few weak priests quite away from its armed guard, and right in the direction of the enemy. It should have been enough to make Israel say once for all, “We can do nothing to protect that. Our many thousands of armed men are not needed to guard the Ark, however much, as these rising waters teach us, they may need the Ark to defend them.” Thus we have an inter-working of several things: Mighty works are wrought, which tend to provoke love, love must not forget reverence, triumph must go with humility; and then we are taught incidentally by the distant Ark that the position of reverence and humility is after all the very best position in which to see God. Had the Ark been close to the people, few would have seen it; the distance that is favourable for right feelings is also best for clear perception.
1. The tendencies of love to familiarity. Flippant thoughts; flippant quotations of Divine words; flippant prayers.
2. The tendencies of reverence to a cold and stately formality. God loves this no better than irreverence. David is called the man after God’s own heart; seemingly this was most of all on account of his enthusiasm.
IV. Reverence is nothing, and humility is nothing, unless there be also holiness. “Sanctify yourselves.”
1. Holiness is to be the rule of God’s people in every-day life. Luther said, “Holiness consisteth not in a cowl or a garment of gray. When God purifies the heart by faith, the market is sacred as well as the sanctuary; neither remaineth there any work or place which is profane.”
“We need not bid, for cloister’d cell,
Our neighbour and our work farewell:
The trivial round, the common task,
Would furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God.”—Keble.
2. Yet there are solemn seasons in our lives, which demand our special consecration to God. The very work that we do, the journey that we take, the new period of life on which we enter, the special tokens which we have of God’s presence; these, in themselves, may urge on us this old commandment, “Sanctify yourselves.”
3. Remember that “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” It is said that an atheist, well known to the late Bp. Wilberforce, once contemptuously and flippantly accosted him by saying, “Good morning, sir: Can you kindly tell me the way to heaven?” With dignity and wisdom quite equal to the occasion, the Bishop is said to have immediately answered, “Turn to the RIGHT, and then go straight on.” Salvation is through Jesus Christ only; it is never by works, it is also never without works.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 3:1-6.3.2. THE PENALTIES OF GREATNESS
I. Great encouragements are to be followed by diligent service. The people gladly owned Joshua as their leader, and Joshua at once began to enter on his arduous service. He “rose early,” and set to work diligently. (See introduction to previous discourse.) It is said that when an ancient Roman was once accused of witchcraft, in drawing away the fertility of his neighbours’ lands into his own, because he had great crops and theirs were but small, he had brought with him to the place of trial his well-fed oxen, his industrious servants, and the instruments of his husbandry: pointing to them in the presence of his judge, he exclaimed, “These are the instruments of my witchcraft, which I diligently apply, and besides these I use none.” The idle find that nothing prospers; the diligent, that there is little which fails. God’s blessing comes to men through their efforts, not instead of them.
II. The avowal of the public confidence should be succeeded by prompt efforts for the public good.
1. No one will trust for long those who are slothful.
2. Self-seeking is even worse than idleness. Joshua, in his energy, sought not so much an inheritance for himself, as for all the people.
“Self-love thus pushed to social, to divine,
Gives thee to make thy neighbour’s blessing thine.
Is this too little for the boundless heart?
Extend it, let thy enemies have part.
Grasp the whole world of Reason, Life, and Sense,
In one close system of Benevolence:
Happier as kinder, in whate’er degree,
And height of Bliss but height of Charity.”
III. The utterances of a God-taught mind are to be sustained by the most scrupulous fidelity. It was in no mere enthusiasm that Joshua had promised that the Jordan should be crossed in three days; even if it were so, he here shews himself faithful to his word. Lavater wrote: “Words are the wings of actions;” with too many they are wings to nothing but the tongue. How much higher than the common estimate of the dignity of speech was that of the late Canon Kingsley, when he gave utterance to the following thoughts: “What is it which makes men different from all other living things we know of? Is it not speech—the power of words? The beasts may make each other understand many things, but they have no speech. These glorious things—words—are man’s right alone, part of the image of the Son of God—the Word of God, in which man was created. If men would but think what a noble thing it is to be able to speak in words, to think in words, to write in words! Without words we should know no more of each other’s hearts and thoughts than the dog knows of his fellow dog; without words to think in, for if you will consider, you always think to yourself in words, though you do not speak them aloud; and without them all our thoughts would be mere blind longings, feelings which we could not understand ourselves. Without words to write in we could not know what our forefathers did—we could not let our children after us know what we do.”
If such be the dignity of speech, how sacred our words ought to be. Think of the careless words, the deceitful words, the vain words, the malicious words, the slanderous words, in which men sin with their tongues. No wonder, when we think of the high dignity and distinctive privilege of speech, that Jesus Christ should say, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment.” When the Saviour speaks thus of men generally, what manner of persons ought His disciples to be in all holy conversation and godliness? And when God gives to men special light, and a prominent position, how carefully they should speak, and with what holy fidelity should they seek to let none of their words fall to the ground.
If preferred, the subject of these two verses might be thrown into some such form as the following: I. The responsibilities imposed by great encouragements. II. The responsibilities imposed by the confidence of our fellows. III The responsibilities imposed by words based on superior know edge.
Joshua 3:3-6.3.4. FOLLOWING AFTER GOD.
I. He who follows God in His covenant must follow Him at all times and everywhere. Of what use would it have been for Israel to have marched after the pillar of cloud in the wilderness, where there were no rivers and no enemies, if they had refused to follow the ark through Jordan?
1. Men select the paths of life, even when conscience points clearly to one, and no better reason than personal preference can be found for the other. Even Christian men are found doing this. Unlawful callings, questionable companions; forbidden pleasures. Bye-Path Meadow looks fairer to walk in than the King’s highway, and men choose the pleasant, irrespective of where it leads.
2. Men select the principles which guide and direct life. Political society is made up of parties; it would be very interesting, but perhaps not a little humiliating, could we know how far father, mother, friends, and family traditions have had to do with the formation of these distinctive associations of men, and how far each member of political society has been guided and ruled by principles. Religious society is made up of many denominations; how far are these the outcome of taste, preference, and love of ease? It is not a little strange to think how many Christian men inherit not only their bodies from their parents, but also their consciences and their creeds. It is fashionable in high life to think much of descent, and to trace it through as many generations as possible: think of the divine historian writing down for our perusal presently the ancestry of our individual conscience, and the genealogy of our personal faith. What a book it will be! What a holy satire on ecclesiastical polemics, and on the enthusiasm of our Christian (!) controversies!
3. Men select the duties of life. Some are ignored as inconvenient, while others are performed because they are not so particularly troublesome; and when the process is over, the performer lies down to sleep, softly murmuring to himself as a preliminary dream, “I am a Christian; I am a Christian too.”
4. Men carry this idea of selection even to the precepts of the Bible. As Dr. Bushnell has forcibly pointed out, we have “respectable sin” and sin unrespectable, where the Scriptures make no such distinction. Fancy any church gravely proposing to exclude a member for being covetous or a railer. Yet these are deliberately included by the apostle with the fornicators and idolaters, with whom, if called brethren, he told the Corinthians not even to eat. People are quite willing to think that some of the sins named in 1 Corinthians 6:9-46.6.10, are fatal to a Christian profession; judging by the love of money and the love of scandal current in many churches, they seem equally willing to forget that in these same verses it is said of extortioners, of the covetous, and of revilers, they “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” With ever so much indignation against Darwin and Spencer, Tyndal and Huxley, the Church also has not only its theory but its practice of “Natural Selection,” and the “survival of the fittest.” The inconvenient commandments of God are pushed out of life, and left to weakness and death, while such as are thought bearable, and at the same time helpful to respectability, are selected as the essentials of piety, and made, according to the doctrine that prevails, the sign of a living faith or a direct passport to eternal life. O for more grace that shall lead Christians everywhere to say from the heart, “Lord, I will follow Thee withersoever Thou goest.”
II. He who follows God fully must be prepared for much walking by faith. He who “commits his way unto the Lord” will often be led to wonder at the strangeness of the path. There is no saying where the next steps will take him; they may lead into darkness quite beyond the power of human ken, and into depths where the only voice that reaches the ear will be simply one that says, “Take no thought for to-morrow.” This is not by any means the only instance where those who follow the Lord have had to walk through the place of mighty waters, and where the only thing seen interposing between themselves and destruction has been the covenant which told of help from an omnipotent Arm, and of love and sympathy and care from a Father’s heart.
III. He who follows God need have no fear; for when men really follow, God Himself goes before. God asks us to go nowhere and do nothing in which He is not willing to be with us. If God be with us, that is salvation; the very rocks will have water for our thirst, the skies manna for our hunger, the torrent a path for our feet, and even the walled cities will fail to lend to our adversaries any sufficient defence.
IV. He who follows God will constantly find himself walking in new paths. “Ye have not passed this way heretofore.” There will be new service, new experiences, new prayers, and new songs, till he shall enter into the heavenly inheritance, and take his part with celestial hosts in singing the song of the Lamb. The way down to death is ever the way to obscurity and contractedness, till it ends in the darkness and narrowness of the grave; the way after God is incessant development and increasing light, till it leads into the broad expanse of heaven, and into the effulgent brightness of the Divine presence and glory.
Joshua 3:4, last clause. SERMON FOR A NEW YEAR
When the Israelites heard the evil report of the ten spies, and rebelled against Moses, God said of all of them under twenty, “Your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years.” During that long period the people must have become very familiar with the desert; its principal geographical features would be known by heart to men who frequently crossed old tracks and re-trod old paths. Crossing the Jordan, the way would be strange and altogether new; it would be new, moreover, not merely in a geographical sense, but altogether, to most of them, a totally fresh kind of experience. That they might know this way, which they had not passed heretofore, they were to follow the ark, and follow it in such a manner that each could see i for himself. Time has strange paths an new experiences as well as territory, and the teaching of God to keep the Ark of the Covenant in sight is important, not only in the one case, but equally so in the other. We who “know not what a day may bring forth” may well wonder into what strange and new paths we may be led by a whole year. Happy is he who can walk every step with his faith directed to a present God, and his eye looking into that covenant which is “A lamp unto the feet and a light unto the path.”
I. The year upon which we have entered may bring new perplexities; therefore we should seek afresh the Divine guidance. Financially, socially, spiritually, the days may form a very labyrinth and maze about us. How are we to walk where our own discernment is insufficient, and when the wisdom of men would be only as the blind leading the blind? It is said that when Philip of Maccdon was about to set out on his Persian expedition, he sent to consult the oracle of Delphi as to the issue of the war. The answer was given with the usual ambiguity, “The bull is crowned, everything is ready, and the sacrificer is at hand,” a reply which would do equally well to foreshadow the king’s victory or depict his death. Within a few days Philip was slain with the sword of the assassin Pausanias. These old oracular utterances form a grim satire on the advice of men, not a little of which is given more with a view of avoiding responsibility, than of affording genuine direction. Jonah was by no means the last of the race who think more of the prestige of the prophet than of the fate of the city. What with human selfishness and human blindness, we often need better guidance than that of our fellows. He is led well and wisely who makes the Scriptures the man of his counsel,—who prays, “Shew me Thy ways, O Lord, teach me Thy paths;” for “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will shew them His covenant.”
II. The year may bring new afflictions; therefore we should each cultivate a closer union with God. He who forms a lowly habit of depending on Divine help, gradually gets his life rooted and grounded into the life of God. “Growing up into Him” who is our strength in days which are calm, we are not likely to fail in the day of tempest and storm. How the ivy clings to the strong oak, just because when the last rough wind which had loosened it ceased to blow, it began afresh to knit fibre to fibre, and ivy-root to oak bark, so as to be prepared for the trial that should come next. Nature uses her calms in preparing for her storms. So should we use the peace and prosperity of the present to anticipate the possible strife and adversity of the future.
III. The year may bring new temptations, and therefore calls on us to “watch and pray.” As we get older we are apt to grow into a careless feeling of security. Men virtually say, “I have stood, I do stand; therefore I shall stand.” Christian history should rather teach us to put it, “I have stood, I do stand; therefore I may grow careless and fall.” It was just after the destruction of Sodom which threw Abraham’s fidelity into prominence, by disclosing the fall of Lot and the guilt of the cities of the plain, that the father of the faithful denied his wife. It was the long-tried Moses who sinned at Meribah. It was after David had so long behaved himself wisely before Saul; after he had danced before the ark, written many a sweet song for Israel, and volunteered to build the temple, that he turned adulterer and murderer. It was long after his noble confession, at the end of all the miracles, and when he had for years delighted in the teaching and love of the Saviour, that Peter said, “I know not the man.”
IV. The year will discover new duties, and thus requires our re-consecration to the service of Christ. There will be new demands for work, new opportunities, and new responsibilities. The ardour and zeal of the past will suffice but poorly for the labour of the future. It was on “the first day of the first month” that this Ark of the Covenant was set up; it was God’s new year’s gift to encourage His people to a year of fresh work and worship. When David was called from the sheepfold to be a king, Samuel anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord; the new sphere and the new duties were anticipated in this customary act of formal consecration. So we need stage by stage throughout our lives “an unction from the Holy One.”
V. The year may bring new privileges, which we should be prepared to embrace. The new way will have new scenery, new possessions, new joys, and should have new songs. As a traveller in classic Rome, or among the mountains of Switzerland, provides himself with a guide, that he may see as many things and points of interest as possible, so we should be careful to search out the mercies which are “new every morning,” and often place ourselves where broad views of Divine greatness and love shall gladden our spirits and renew our life.
VI. The year may reveal a new life and a fresh inheritance; therefore we should be prepared for death. Our cold river may also have to be crossed. Shall we find on the other side the New Jerusalem, and one of the many mansions ready for us? Shall we find again, waiting for us there, our loved ones, who have already departed to be with Christ; and with them, and the whole host of the redeemed, take our part in the New Song?
I. The Lord’s wonderful works demanding His people’s special sanctification. This is by no means a solitary instance in which God requires His great works to be received by man with peculiar holiness. (Cf. Exodus 19:10; Numbers 11:18; Joel 2:15-29.2.32.) If the more wonderful workings of God are not met on our part by increased holiness, they will assuredly do us harm. The Pentecost that blessed three thousand, probably left a multitude in Jerusalem harder in their hearts than ever.
II. The Lord’s wonderful works demanding His people’s devoutest reverence. The priests carried the ark only on very solemn occasions. They, and not the Kohathites, were the bearers here. It was the same in the march around Jericho, and in other important events where God was, or was supposed to be, specially present. The same feeling was taught to Moses; with God before him in the burning bush, he was to put his shoes from off his feet; with God passing by, he was to hide himself in the cleft of the rock; and when God met His servant on Sinai, we are told that it was amidst such manifestations of power and majesty, that Moses said, “I exceedingly fear and quake.” Faber’s beautiful hymn, beginning
“My God, how wonderful Thou art!”
is written throughout with exquisite feeling, beautifully expounding the awe that should go with love, and the rapture that may mingle with our lowliest adoration.
Joshua 3:1. In the morning] The morning after the addresses and reply recorded in chap. Joshua 1:10-6.1.18. From Shittim to Jordan] Josephus (v.
1. 1) gives the distance as sixty stadia, or furlongs, being nearly eight English miles. Lodged there] i.e., rested there till the return of the spies, and till the completion of the time named in chap. Joshua 1:11. There is nothing in the verse which requires the misleading conjecture that they lodged here only one night.
Joshua 3:2. After three days] According to chap. Joshua 4:19, the people crossed the Jordan on the tenth of Abib, which it may be well to remember is not called “Nisan” in the Scriptures till more than nine hundred years later (cf. Esther 3:7). “Three days” before crossing the river, i. e., on the seventh of Abib, the time of the passage was foretold (chap. Joshua 1:11). Early on the morning of the eighth, the preparations began for the movement of the camp from Shittim (chap. Joshua 3:1), the raising of the tents, the march of the vast host for eight miles, and their temporary re-encampment before Jordan, probably occupying them till the close of the eighth (Hebrew) day of the month. On the evening which introduced the ninth of Abib they would begin to lodge before Jordan, resting there over the following day, and throughout the night which commenced the tenth of the month. The spending of two nights and one clear day before Jordan seems in no may contradictory to chap. Joshua 3:1.
The spies probably left Shittim in the morning, or as early as mid-day on the sixth of Abib, walked eight miles to the Jordan, and about seven more from Jordan to Jericho, reaching the latter place considerably before sunset (chap. 5). Reckoning inclusively, they would be in the mountains “three days,” i. e., on nearly all the seventh, the whole of the eighth, and from sundown till say four o’clock on the morning of the ninth, when two hours’ walk in the darkness would bring them to the Jordan, swimming the overflowing waters of which they would rejoin the camp now pitched on the eastern side of the river. Thus understood, the spies left Shittim one day before the army; this agrees with the margin, “had sent,” of chap. Joshua 2:1, coincides with each of the four verses given in the three chapters, and is in harmony with the view of Josephus.
Joshua 3:3. The Priests the Levites bearing it] The duty of bearing the ark on ordinary occasions belonged to the sons of Kohath, who were Levites, but not priests (cf. Numbers 4:15); on solemn occasions it was customary for priests to undertake this duty.
Joshua 3:4. Come not near unto it] The distance of about one thousand yards was probably to be observed, not only in the short march to the river, but also when crossing; the people were to pass the Jordan at this distance below the ark.
Joshua 3:5. Sanctify yourselves] There seems no sufficient reason for the very general supposition that the formal rites of sanctification were dispensed with for want of time. The phrase “for to-morrow” shews that there would be as much time for washing the garments, etc., as in the instance given in chap. Joshua 7:13.
Joshua 3:10. Drive out] “One of several incidential confirmations of the view that many of the Canaanites were expelled, and not slain” (Groser).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 3:7-6.3.13
DIVINE AND CHRISTIAN HONOURS
Honour is one of the rewards of life which Christian men have sometimes failed to honour. In the ordinary conscience and judgment it has often been confused with petty pride and paltry ambition. The world has tried to dignify mere position or possessions by the name of “honourable,” till even good men are not quite certain that coming to honour does not mean, at least partially, coming to something wicked. Society tells us that “the king is the fountain of honour,” and that is supposed to hold good even when the fountain has no better repute than Richard III., Henry VIII., or one of the Charleses Stuart. A member of Parliament is always “The Honourable Member,” whether he has any honour or not, and if he happen to be in the Privy Council, then he is “Right Honourable,” though in mind and character he may be neither the one nor the other. Irrespective of what a lady may be, she has only to be attached to the household of the Queen to be a “Maid of Honour,” and even transactions so nefarious as the traffic through Penn for the liberty of the Taunton school girls has been supposed to leave the “honour” quite unimpaired. A man need only be the younger son of an earl, the son of a viscount or a baron, or possess some equally adventitious claim, and forthwith society dubs him “honourable.” Thus it has come to pass that we have had honourable outlaws and honourable debtors, whose only thought has been how to avoid payment of that which they owed; all sorts of honourable people, with hardly enough character to keep blushes out of the face of a respectable tramp or of a decent beggar. So perhaps it is not wonderful that Christian men have been found to think small things of honour, and to treat even the fame of a noble life with scant courtesy, as if it were only some more respectable rendering of worldliness and sin. Our great poet had other thoughts when he said—
“If it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.”
He tells us more distinctly what he means, when he writes—
“Mine Honour is my Life; both grow in one;
Take Honour from me, and my Life is done.”
Men have done themselves wrong—we cannot say how much wrong—by allowing themselves to be driven from the desire for a just fame before the eyes of their fellows. God, who also knows human weaknesses, has not dealt with them in a manner so indiscriminate. He says to Joshua, “I will magnify thee, I will magnify thee before the people; this day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel.”
I. The honour which God loves to put upon His servants. God would magnify Joshua as He had magnified Moses. He would give him a large place in the minds of the people; He would do this by a miracle. God tells His servant this before it comes to pass; He fills him with thought about it, and sets his mind and desire on this matter. Honour and desire for honour cannot all be sinful, when the Holy God does this. We are not altogether to shut ourselves out from the wish and hope that others may think well of us. There is a certain place in the public mind which we may earnestly desire to fill; we may yearn to shew men that God is with us, with us in our character and work, with us for the sake of others.
1. God’s delight in honouring His faithful servants is shewn throughout the Bible and all through human history. Take the case of Elijah; the long drought, the miracle on Carmel, the prayer and the answering rain, the fulfilment of the predictions concerning the death of Ahab. The preservation of Daniel in the den of lions was God’s distinguishing honour set upon the life of the man who was found faithful both in his business and his religion. Think of Paul foretelling the disaster in the Adriatic Sea, and of his being able to speak to those about him of the angel of God who had stood by him to reveal the future, an impression presently deepened by the marvellous incident at Malta, in which the bite of the viper from the fire brings no harm. God loved to exalt the man who had so exalted the Saviour. All through profane history it has been the same: there are great names which tower up above all other names, just because God has honoured the men who bore them. How human all this makes God seem; how human in His sympathies! This is how we feel about our children. Who would not see his son honoured? It seems to bring God so near, that He should think about His children as we so naturally and ardently think concerning ours. Do not, then, let us worship a great abstraction of omnipotence and majesty; this is a Father who waits to magnify His children, just as we might wish to worthily exalt ours. When we draw near to adore God, let us also learn to love.
2. How is it that more of His children are not magnified by God? He could honour us all, if He would; why are so few made prominent? Well, if God were to magnify everybody in this way, the world would all become pious in order to get its celestial decoration—a kind of blue ribbon from above—and thus religion would become the most selfish and vain and sinful condition of human life. But we need not contemplate the evil which would arise in this direction. There is another reason which intercepts that by a long way. So very few of us could bear to be magnified. Most men would shew their honours, and find in them an occasion for pride. Honour, such as Joshua’s, would ruin most of us; so God withholds this source of harm. By-and-by, when we can bear it, He is going to make us all kings—kings and priests unto Himself; but we cannot endure that till we become like Him, and see Him as He is. How human this is also; it is thus that we feel in our holiest longings for our children. If it were not for the temptation, and the mischief, and the curse, few would think any honour too great for his own son. Were we to consult only our hearts, where should we come to the limit at which we would stay the honour and the joy of our children? And if it were only a question of God’s heart how we, as His children, should be magnified even on earth, nothing would be too large for God’s love, only the honours would harm us, curse us, destroy us; so just as we should desire to place limits on our children, our heavenly Father limits us.
3. The life which God is prepared to honour is the life which is willing to give itself for God and for men. Joshua puts all his honour back again on God; he gives his life, and the influence which comes from his magnified name, not to win a possession for himself, but to bring his brethren into their inheritance. When all the fighting and labour are over, Joshua asks for himself only a poor and insignificant estate, which we only hear of as his own name makes it conspicuous (cf. chap. Joshua 19:49-6.19.50). Joshua sought to bless men, and desired to magnify the name of Jehovah. God is just as willing to magnify any one of us, if we were only able to bear it, for there are no prejudices with Him. But what about all our self-seeking, self-love, self-adoration? what of this constant turning of our thoughts to ourselves, as if the chief good of the universe began and ended there? When we are ready to give ourselves for others, God will be ready to set us on high before men. “If any man serve ME, him will My Father honour.”
II. The honour in which a true servant loves to proclaim his God.
1. The true servant refers all gracious words to their Author. “Hear the words of the Lord.” There is no spirit of plagiarism; all the grace is referred back at once to God. It reads like an early edition of Paul—“God forbid that I should glory, save,” etc. This anticipates the song of “Not unto us, not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy name be the glory.” Joshua says never a word about his own magnified name; he simply says, “Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord your God.”
2. The true servant thinks the words of his Lord worthy to be heard. Joshua is anxious to bless men and encourage them, and he knows that these Divine words will be helpful. Oh for a larger measure of enthusiasm in the Scriptures, and a faith which will believe that they are the power of God unto salvation!
3. The true servant, even in his incidental expressions, shews that he thinks there is none like unto God. “Hereby … the living God,” etc. The people had left a country of dead and polluted gods, and the gods of the Canaanites were no better than those of the Egyptians. The very manner in which this is said shews how incidentally the thought of the contrast came to the speaker’s lips. If we love God indeed, our love will make itself seen in a multitude of forms.
4. The true servant shews that he thinks nothing too hard for the Lord (Joshua 3:10). Our life also has to meet with opposition from men, and with natural obstacles, but through Jesus Christ we should feel and know that we may be “more than conquerors.”
5. The true servant confirms his proclamation of God by pointing his fellows to the visible link in which God is seen connecting Himself with the interests of men. “Behold the ark,” etc. The superstition around us is a great evil; we have need to be even more filled with concern at the way in which men seek to obliterate from the earth all visible tokens and traces of Deity. The materialist does this on principle, as a theory; the pleasure-seeker and the careless do it in practice; the true servant of Jehovah points to the tokens of Divine presence, and says, “God is there, and there, and there.” With which class do we take our position? Are we with the superstitious who obscure the Lord’s presence? with the men whose lives proclaim that they are “without God in the world”? or can we take our stand with this man, who, looking at to-morrow’s difficulties, says, with a holy faith, “Behold the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you”?
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 3:7. THE SPIRIT AND TENDENCIES OF WORLDLY AND DIVINE HONOURS.
I. Worldly honours often have no relation to character, while the honour which comes from God is usually more within a man than upon him. The dignity in one case is often accidental and foreign; in the other case it is through and because of nobility of spirit.
II. Worldly honours lead to pride, while the honour which is of God has humility. “As the lark that soars the highest, builds her nest the lowest; the nightingale that sings the sweetest, sings in the shade when all things rest; the branches that are most laden with ripe fruit, bend lowest; and the ship with the heaviest cargo sinks deepest in the water,—so the holiest Christians are the humblest” (Mason). It has frequently been pointed out that soon after his conversion Paul said he was “unworthy to be called an apostle.” Nearly thirty years later this experienced Christian of much grace and many works wrote to the Ephesians, speaking of himself as “less than the least of all saints.” Just before his martyrdom when his course was finished and his good fight fought, he wrote to Timothy, “sinners, of whom I am chief.” Thus, too, Joshua goes away to the Israelites, forgetting to say anything about his own magnified name. How often when worldly honours come to a worldly spirit, they soon get to be the only thing about the possessor for which even the world has any respect. The spirit which is really noble wears with increasing humility both the applause of men and the favours of God.
III. Worldly honours are unsatisfying, and tend to promote selfishness, while the honour which is from God is filled with peace and benevolence. Any man who gives himself up in a worldly spirit to delight in fame, even though it should be fame for fame’s sake coming through spiritual work, gets to live in a world which is daily narrowing down to himself; and when life comes to be bounded all round by his own small individuality, no wonder that life is soon found to be mean and insignificant. The man who wears his honours with a godly mind gets to live every day in a larger and more beautiful world, while the mere creature of fame is like a prisoner in the cell, the iron sides of which drew gradually closer each week, till the miserable victim was presently crushed to death.
IV. Worldly honours are temporary and perishing, while the honour which comes from God abides for ever. Time has done nothing to obscure the names of Abraham, and Moses, and Joshua, and Samuel, and Paul; they are as great before men to-day as when they were first magnified by the Lord. Even poor Byron, looking at the world’s glories, could only write,—
“Thy fanes, thy temples, to the surface bow,
Commingling slowly with heroic earth,
Broke by the share of every rustic plough:
So perish monuments of mortal birth,
So perish all in turn, save well-recorded Worth.”
Thus while all material honours, and everything which might be great, but which is made worldly by being received in a worldly spirit, perishes and vanishes away, the glory of the Lord, like His mercy, endureth for ever and ever.
It is thought by some that at the place where the Israelites crossed the river our Lord was afterwards baptized by John. The best MSS. call the place named in John 1:28, Bethany, not Bethabara. Origen, it is thought by Dr. Clarke and others, altered the reading to Bethabara, which means “the house of passage.” The name Bethabara seems to have given rise to the conjecture that the Saviour was baptized at the spot where the Israelites went over; some maintain that the baptism was administered at the very place where the priests supported the Ark in the midst of the river. If this were so, it is deeply interesting, nor could it be justly treated as any mere coincidence. It would be most significant to think that in the spot where Israel was baptized unto faith in Joshua (as their fathers, in the Red Sea, were said to have been baptized unto Moses), Christ, the Joshua of the New Covenant, was consecrated to the service in which He also sought the faith of a mighty multitude, that He might win for them an abiding inheritance. It would be temptingly suggestive for homiletical purposes if we could believe that God’s people entered into that Canaan which is a type of heaven at the very place where Jesus was afterwards set apart as a Saviour for His people. What a picture it would be of the Lord’s own word, “I am the way.” The evidence, however, for the fact is insufficient, and perhaps the very interest attaching to the idea should make us receive it cautiously. No amount of spiritual significance in teaching could possibly compensate for an untruth, or for carelessness respecting truth. Rahab might save the spies in her own way, and Rebekah might seek to make the covenant to Jacob sure by similar methods; God’s truth is never so much adorned by us as when we make it manifest that it has taught us truthfulness.
Joshua 3:8. “I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, FOR THOU ART WITH ME;” or, THE SWOLLEN RIVER, THE VISIBLE ARK, AND THE UNDISMAYED PILGRIMS.
This passage has no direct teaching about death, and it would seem a wrong use of Scripture to suggest that it has. Let it be granted freely that Canaan may be a type of heaven, and Jordan a symbol of death, still we have no authority to make the parables “stand on all-fours.” If this were otherwise, the heaped up waters, their back-flow to Adam, their on-flow to the Dead Sea, the double valley of the river; the very drops of the water, and the different trees of the land might, no doubt, all be found to be “instructive.” While, however, God does not here give us direct teaching about death, there is no reason why this beautiful illustration of a believer’s confidence during the passage of those last deep waters should be passed fruitlessly by.
I. We are reminded that death, like the Jordan, is sometimes calm and peaceful, and sometimes turbulent. Ordinarily the river was narrow, and easily fordable; but it was in the time of “the swellings of Jordan” that the Israelites had to cross over.
1. Death is always a trial. No man ever becomes familiar enough with death to do away with its ordeal and solemnity. We may have seen it often in others, but it will be new to us. Concerning some loved ones who have passed its cold waters before us, we may have only thoughts of gladness. We may think of them and sing in the soft and rich strains of T. K. Hervey—
“I know thou hast gone to the home of thy rest,
Then why should my soul be so sad?
I know thou hast gone where the weary are blest,
And the mourner looks up and is glad;
“Where Love has put off, in the land of its birth,
The stains it had gathered in this;
And Hope, the sweet singer that gladdened the earth,
Lies asleep on the bosom of Bliss.
“I know thou hast gone where thy forehead is starred
With the beauty that dwelt in thy soul;
Where the light of thy loveliness cannot be marred,
Nor the heart be flung back from its goal.
“I know thou hast drunk of the Lethe that flows
Through a land where they do not forget,
That sheds over memory only repose,
And takes from it only regret.”
So brightly and peacefully may we be able to think of some who have fathomed the depths before us. With all this to cheer us, death will still be new when we come to it for ourselves, and not without its solemnity. But those who can contemplate death like this, find that not even its strangeness and awe can destroy the calm given by its attendant hopes.
2. Sometimes death is made harder by physical suffering. Many, doubtless, suffer more severely in life than when passing from life, but with others these conditions may be reversed. Terrible accidents or fearful diseases may make death as the swellings of Jordan.
3. Great social trials sometimes make death a severer ordeal. For a father to die, and leave a family in poverty, or for a widow to pass into eternity, and leave several children unprovided for and orphans, must aggravate very terribly the pains of dying.
4. But the pain before which all others seem to sink to peace, must be that of dying “without hope.” May God deliver us from such turbulence as the river must shew to souls who come to it like this.
II. We are reminded here that even when the attendant circumstances of death are very aggravated, the believer may pass through fearing no evil. The priests in their faith could “stand still in Jordan,” and the believing hosts of the people could tread the bed of the river in confidence. Faith gives death also a very different appearance from that which it presents to men in unbelief.
1. The natural view of death has fear and even terror. (a) Look at the world’s literature. A modern writer tells us that the foremost men of Greece and Rome applied more than thirty epithets to death, “all indicative of the deepest dejection and dread.” To them death was an “iron sleep,” “an eternal night,” “gloomy,” “merciless,” and “inexorable.” Our great English poet, whom for many years the world has delighted to honour, wrote—
“Death is a fearful thing:
To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
‘Tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loaded worldly life,
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.”
This is a dull, hard strain, and these are but a few of many dreary lines which the brilliant mind that catered so long and ably for the world’s joy poured forth on this dread subject. Another wrote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” Byron said—
“How clay shrinks back from more quiescent clay!”
“O that I less could fear to lose this being,
Which, like a snowball in my coward hand,
The more ’tis grasped, the faster melts away.”
(b) What, too, are the world’s unwritten thoughts on death? Think of the myriad thoughts like these which no one ever sets down. Think of the stolen glances, and the quick turning away; of the deeper darkness which so often, to some, seems to lie hidden away within the folds of each returning night. If the speech be so sad, what are the feelings themselves?
2. The view of death given to faith is not like this. Look at Christian literature, and commune with the thoughts of the children of the cross, One says, “I am now ready to be offered,” etc.; “Having a desire to depart, and be with Christ, which is far better;” “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Nor is this spirit of triumph an exceptional heritage of apostles. The whole history of the Church is harmonious with the songs of its dying sons and daughters.
III. We are reminded that the only sufficient encouragement for faith to contemplate, when we come to death, will be the presence of God through the covenant. The Ark was at once the sign of safety and the occasion of confidence. If we are to lose the fear of death both now and when we come near to it, it must be through Him who came to deliver us from this “bondage.” The cross of Christ does not bridge the river, but it stands up well out of its cold waters, that we may keep it in sight; and seeing it we are to behold not merely a cross, but the covenant of His presence who is “able to save to the uttermost.” It is knowing this that we shall “stand firm in Jordan,” saying, “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
Joshua 3:9. THE INCOMPARABLE WORDS OF THE LORD.
I. Consider the words of the Lord in their claims. They are “the words of the Lord your God.” They come as such to every one in the multitude of the human race. No family privileges or adversities, no dignity, and no poverty, no dislike to them or disbelief of them can in any measure weaken their claims. To every living man, whether atheist, deist, idolater, worldling, or Christian, they come as the words of his Lord and his God.
1. God made us each, and our opinion about that cannot alter His claims upon us. Our view of the origin of the human race can never alter the fact itself.
2. God supports us and provides for us, and our disbelief can never affect the measure of our obligation. Fancy an intelligent Israelite saying, “I know that I had manna every morning, and sometimes quails; I know that I drank of water, which flowed out of a rock, just as I was perishing; I know when the hills were all about me, the Egyptians behind me, and the waters cold and threatening before me, that the sea opened and became as a defending wall on either side, and that while I escaped mine enemies perished from my sight; I know that I have lived for forty years in a desert which did not seem to have supplies enough to support me alone, and that two or three millions of my people have always had enough, and often more than enough; I know that the words of Moses, who professed to be God’s prophet, always came true—that the manna had a way of spoiling or failing when we gathered it contrary to instructions—that the brazen serpent healed me and my bitten children, just as he said it would, and that the man himself often had a moral majesty about him, which brought us back to obedience when we felt most rebellious; I remember feeling almost awed that morning when he came down from the eruption of Mount Sinai—for such, as an intelligent man, I prefer to call it—with his face shining in that strange brightness, and when he dashed down the tables of stone in front of our new calf, and made Aaron and all of us feel as if we had done something very wrong: I cannot forget all these things, but I am wiser than I once was, and now I see clearly that all the events which we used to call miracles were the working of natural causes, that Moses was a shrewd and far-seeing man, and as to his moral majesty, why he was born to command. True, the coincidences between our need and the development of these natural causes, which so often helped us just as we were perishing, leaves something to be explained; but I can understand so much, that I am sure this part may be passed over. Now when you talk to me of the claims of the word of the Lord, don’t you think I am fairly entitled to ask, How do you know that there is any Lord, much less that you have His words?” Oh, how devils might laugh, and how God, if He were less than God, might despair, when men reason like this!
II. Think of the words of the Lord in their purity. The tendencies of them are to make men holier and larger in heart. They stimulate no mean passions, such as vanity and selfishness. The ambition which heaven stirs within us is exaltation through a more exalted spirit. The Lord had told Joshua that the day of his honour was at hand; but Joshua was stirred by the words of the Lord, not to petty ideas of his personal greatness, but to efforts which should secure the inheritance of the land to the people. The tendencies of the Bible are to lead us to
(1) forgetfulness of ourselves,
(2) to a generous interest in men, and
(3) to ardent praise of God.
III. Reflect on the words of the Lord in their distinctiveness.
1. The words of the Lord are the only words which are ever addressed to man’s most serious difficulties. Only Divine words are heard as to the way of crossing into Canaan, and driving out the Canaanites. In man’s greatest necessities it is still the same; only the words of God ever propose to meet them. (a) Law has no suitable words. Think of listening to law in our bereavements, in our need of the pardon of sin, of sanctification, of hope beyond the grave. Law is pitiless, cold, and inexorable. Law never said, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people; speak ye comfortably unto men, and cry unto them that their warfare is accomplished, that their iniquity is pardoned.” Law never proposed for Israel a path through the sea, manna from heaven, water from rocks, or that the Jordan should stand up in a heap till the people had passed over. (b) Men have never had any suitable words for the deeper necessities of their race. The physician accompanies the sick within sight of the grave, but once seeing that open before them, he has nothing more to propose. He has no medicine for death, and not a single cordial is there in the whole of his pharmacopœia which he has ever thought it worth while to prescribe as a cure for bereavement. The engineer has opened no door for us on the other side of the grave, the chemist has failed to bring immortality to light, and the mechanician has never contrived anything to bear the burden of sin. The naturalist, the poet, and the philosopher, as the priests of this world must, have ever passed by, and left the world’s wounded on the other side; or if pity has drawn them to the side of distress, they have discovered no words but those of the old stoic, “You must bear up as bravely as you can.” It is only God who ever speaks to the subject of our keenest miseries and profoundest want. On questions like these, there are no words but the words of the Lord.
2. The words of the Lord, even on our deepest necessities, are not vain words. (a) They are practical. We can always use them. They are not mere theory, or poetry, or mysticism; they are never Utopian. Men can read them before any floods or any enemies, and know what to do next. (b) They are thorough and sufficient. They do not buoy men up for a season, and let them sink after all. It is something to say for Christianity, at least, that even its bitterest enemies have never been able to charge its words with being weak and comfortless. (c) They betray no effort. There is as much ease about words that propose to divide a river, to raise the dead, or to save men, as about words which simply give directions concerning our least important duties. The Saviour’s words in calming the sea, feeding the thousands, or raising Lazarus, are as free from hesitation or effort as any of the words in the sermon on the mount.
3. Thus it might be clear to all men that the words of the Lord are the only words of hope. No other words are addressed to our extreme wants; not even enemies can charge them with weakness. Those who lean on them most are most satisfied with them, and they never seem so dear as at the point of death, farther than which we cannot trace their effect. These were the solitary words of hope to Israel at the Jordan; in all our greater need they alone can afford hope and help to us. Let us receive these words, then, with enthusiasm, as did Joshua and the people of Israel. Wherever in our life we come to the words which belong to any present difficulty, let there be no doubt and no distrust till we are found safely on its other side. Let us tell these words to one another, as though there were little else worth telling, crying here and there in life’s way to our perplexed and helpless brethren, “Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord your God.”
Joshua 3:10. “By what do we also recognise the presence of a living God among us?
1. By His word which He still causes to be perpetually published among us.
2. By His deeds which He is still perpetually performing.”
“How should we think of God?
1. Not as a rigid order of nature
2. As the living God and ruler over all the earth—the mightiest Ruler, the best Ruler.” (Lange.)
Joshua 3:11; Joshua 3:13. “
I. We need new grace for new experiences. Some trial which we have never before endured is to be borne by us. Some duty which we have never before discharged is to be performed by us. Some relationship that is entirely new is to be formed by us, and we know not how we shall bear ourselves. Let us take courage. He who gave these minute directions to His ancient people will not fail us; and though He may not come to us with such specific guidance, He will yet by His providence and Spirit give us the help we need.
II. When we have to cross any river of difficulty, let us put the Ark of the Covenant into the middle of the stream. In simple phrase, when we come to a difficulty, let us see Christ in it, and then we shall be able to surmount it. He turns the water into dry land. He makes our difficulties stepping-stones to glory. We are never really in danger when we can see Him.
III. There are no degrees of difficulty with God. All things are equally easy to omnipotence. Let us not limit the Holy One of Israel by supposing that any of our emergencies are too great for Him to help us through them.” (Dr. William Taylor, New York.)
“The Ark was not a talisman that wrought wonders, as if by some magical charm; for in after years, when Israel’s warriors took it into the battlefield, they were defeated (cf. 1 Samuel 4:5-9.4.10). That which is a help to faith when God commands it, becomes a snare when He has not given His sanction to it. There is all the difference in the world between faith and presumption.” (Dr. Wm. Taylor.)
Joshua 3:13. “This seems to have been the first intimation given to the people as to the manner in which they were to cross the river.” (Bush.)
“Joshua telling the people of the miracle that God would now do upon Jordan, laboureth to confirm their faith about the expelling of the heathen before them. When marvellous things are done for us by the Lord, we are hereby taught to build our confidence on His promises touching things to come” (Dr. Mayer, A.D. 1647.)
Joshua 3:15. Jordan overfloweth] Owing to the melting of the snow on the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains. “The swellings of Jordan” seems to have driven the wild beasts from their usual lairs (cf. Jeremiah 49:19).
Joshua 3:16. The City Adam] The site is unknown; probably it was several miles to the north; the back-flow of the accumulated waters was apparent as far up the river as this city.
Joshua 3:17. All the people] All excepting the women and children of the two and a half tribes, with the 70,000 armed men left to guard them (chap. Joshua 4:12-6.4.13).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 3:14-6.3.17
MAN’S FIRM FAITH AND JEHOVAH’S MIGHTY WORKS
Three events, each of imposing magnitude, are recorded in Scripture history as having taken place within a few miles of each other in that reach of the river Jordan which is opposite to Jericho. First, here is the passage of the Israelites through the miraculously divided river, when, without counting the families of the eastern tribes, some two and a quarter millions of people went over into Canaan. Five hundred and fifty years later, near to this same place, Jordan was divided again. As if to throw into prominence the significant symbolism in which the crossing of this river illustrates death, and to re-affirm in a marked manner that dying has no actual death to the children of God, Elijah, just before his ascent to the heavenly inheritance, smites the waters with his mantle, when they again part, that this ransomed servant of the Lord may also pass over. Elijah is seen to cross Jordan immediately before going up into heaven, as though designedly to connect the river with death, and to throw over the latter, as is so vividly seen with the former, the beautiful assurance of the sufficiency of Divine love and power to bring the believing traveller safely into rest. Elisha returns from accompanying Elijah, and the waters part again; thus twice in one day is Jordan divided, not far from Jericho, over against which all Israel had crossed more than five centuries before. Somewhere in this neighbourhood the more important event of the Saviour’s baptism also took place. The Lord’s people had gone repeatedly into a river which through His power opened to make a way for their feet; the Lord Himself enters, and Him the waters overwhelm in a most significant baptism, the full meaning of which cannot be reached till the Saviour endures that other baptism, of which He cries, “How am I straitened till it be accomplished!” The waters of death overwhelm Deity, that redeemed humanity may pass through them, unharmed, into the richer life that lies beyond. Near the place where the typical people pass safely into the land, notwithstanding the roughest “swellings of the river,” there Christ is consecrated to a work which offers the only ford to death, and at which point all of us must pass into life, if such life is really to be ours. Thus here, too, does this greater JOSHUA “begin to be magnified” in a glory which shall endure for ever. Here, then, are three imposing events, each of which seems mysteriously connected with the other in the idea of death, which is common to them all; and each of which lies centuries apart from the others, as though, by the very breadth of the time which they cover, they were to lay stress on the unchanging and stately purpose of God to bring safely through the grave into life that great multitude which no man can number. While we might well shrink back even in pain from the irreverence of a merely fanciful exposition, it would be almost like “taking away from the things of this book” to resist the impressions which fairly come from so suggestive a sequence and method in the Divine working. Bearing these thoughts in mind, there are three principal features in the narrative which claim attention:—
I. Entrance into the Promised Land is through the wonderful working of God.
1. Think of the glory of God which is shewn in the salvation of His people. (a) It knows no dimness whatever. No physical difficulty throws the slightest shade upon the majesty of His power; no lack of patience, or forbearance, or forgiveness so much as suggests any imperfection in His grace and love. The many sins of the wilderness are all cast behind His back; now that His people are to be brought into their inheritance, He remembers their transgressions no more than as if they had never been. Even the recent guilt on the plains of Moab seems as far removed from His children as the east is from the west. But though the glory of Divine mercy is so beautiful in this passage of the Jordan, it is the perfection of God’s power which is forced most prominently on our attention. Think of the shock which throbs through the whole river the moment it is touched by the feet of the priests; of that half of the flood which hastes away, as if affrighted, from the presence of Jehovah; of the ever accumulating waters in which the other half of the “deep utters its voice, and lifts up its hands on high,” as in very awe, nor dares to pass the presence of its God. Oh what perfection of power is this, in which the fierce torrent of the flooded river is thus in its full sweep shocked in twain, and made to stand up in an heap till the ransomed of the Lord shall have passed over! And all this is done with no effort, and with no machinery, saving that of the ordinary ark, with which all Israel had become familiar. “Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty!” “Thou wentest forth for the salvation of Thy people, even for salvation with Thine anointed.” The stars are obscured by the glory of the day, even the sun has its spots, but no one has ever yet seen even the beginning of shade on the perfect and awful brightness of Divine majesty. Not even the mightiest obstacles ever shew so much as the beginnings of difficulty to Him who is “Lord of all the earth.” Shall we remember that when we are tempted, as many often are, to think salvation possible only in proportion as it seems free from hindrance? Some seem to want all the road paved, and the rivers bridged, in order to make their heaven accessible; they forget that nothing hinders God even for a moment. (b) God’s glory is never for mere display. Men speak of God sometimes as though He sought to make known His glory merely for the honour of His own name. God’s glory ever reveals itself in connection with His people’s good. It is when Israel is in need that the sea divides, the manna falls, the Jordan parts asunder. When we speak of an “economy of power” in the Saviour’s miracles, we are only saying in another form that God never does mighty works for the sake of Himself. Whenever, then, we behold any wonderful work of the Lord, let us look for its human occasion. (c) The same glory that encourages those who believe, is a terror to all who walk after “other gods.” All the men on one side of the parted waters find a song in the mighty work of the Lord, which even for centuries afterwards animates the hearts of their children; all the people on the other side are appalled,—fear and pain take hold on them. How do we feel amid the more manifest works of God? To answer that enquiry faithfully may give us a clue to the state of our own hearts. Divine power to the three men on the plains of Dura was a trust and a joy, to Nebuchadnezzar it became a terror; to Paul it was a never-failing theme for song, it made Herod the Sadducee fear lest John the Baptist was risen from the dead; to the jailor of Philippi the earthquake was a thing of terror, but Paul and Silas sang praises to God.
2. Think of the method of God in working for the salvation of His people. The incident lays much stress on one feature which we are all prone to overlook—in the salvation of men it is not so much God’s way to remove our hindrances as to help us to overcome them. The Israelites were brought to this river at the worst possible season of the year. The caverns of the mountains, filled by the latter rain, were emptying themselves, the snow was melting under the great heat by which those rains were followed, and thus Jordan overflowed “all his banks.” God, who overlooks nothing, and times carefully the ways of His providence, selects these very days of the flooded river for the passage. What is this but His more ancient way of saying, “Through much tribulation ye must enter into the kingdom”? What is it but a clear revelation of the fact that trial is not arbitrary, but an occasion for helping His children, and of bringing terror and discomfiture to their enemies? It stands back here in the nursery volume written for the infant Church like a pictorial rendering of God’s early and easy answer to man’s grave and troubled and ever-recurring complaint—“He hath fenced up my way, that I cannot pass, and He hath set darkness in my paths.” The fence is put about us, that we may learn to trust the love and power which will presently remove it; the darkness is in our paths, that we may learn to say in the moment when His presence appears through the departing gloom. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
II. Entrance into the Promised Land can only be through the faith of men. Even the mighty power of God would carry no man, woman, or child over the river, and none would walk over but those who believed that the mass of water which gathered above them would be held back from sweeping them to destruction.
1. The first steps of faith are often the most difficult to take. When the waters were cut off, it would be comparatively easy for the priests to go on; it would need more courage to dip their feet boldly into “the brim of the water” which only began to yield as they began to tread onward seemingly into the depths. (a) It is so in the first steps of an unsaved man towards his God. It is hard to resolve, hard to decide, hard for men to commit themselves before the eyes of some one else to any decidedly Christian act. It is hard for a young man to begin prayer before godless companions who share his chamber. It was a trial to the Prodigal Son to take the first steps homeward; it would be comparatively easy, after the Father’s embrace and kiss and welcome, to go onward in the new life. (b) Not less the first steps are the hardest to Christians who undertake special work for God. The first tract that is given; the first personal exhortation; the first effort to preach Jesus Christ to perishing men; Müller’s first orphan house.
2. Faith is salvation, even when it has fear. Those who walked tremblingly across would be as safe as those who went confidently; those who had just faith enough to commit their way unto the Lord, although terror accompanied every step, would also, and equally with their bolder companions, enter into Canaan. It was thus on the night of the passover; if the father of the family had only sufficient faith to kill the lamb, and sprinkle the door-posts as directed, he might tremble, and even cry out like the Egyptians, as the destroying angel passed by, but he would be as safe as though he sang praises to God. Salvation is not in our freedom from trembling, but in Christ; if our faith only lead us to Him, He is the life.
3. The faith of each is helped by the faith of all. Shrieking priests would have made shrieking people; one trembling Israelite would have inflicted his fear on his neighbour. The firmness of the priests is confidence to the host, and the boldness of each courageous individual in the host was help and strength to all around him. “No man liveth unto himself.” Our faith will help the faith of others; our doubt will not only dishonour God, but injure men. One of the difficulties at which infidels cavil in the doctrine of the resurrection is the distribution of the bodies of the dead into other life. Plants take up the elements of the bodies into vegetable life, and animal life takes up the same elements in consuming the plants. The same process is going on in the spiritual world; our personality overruns, and each man is taking up something of the being of his companions. Though God may not suffer our fear to destroy us, it may be ruinous to others.
4. Faith, though weak in many, might well be firm in us all. We look too much to the gathered heap of the waters, and at the time which it will take us to cross, and too little at the covenanted presence of God. McCheyne used to say, “For one lock at self, take ten looks at Christ.” We endure best, not as seeing ourselves, but “as seeing Him who is invisible,” and of whose presence the death of the Saviour should give us sufficient assurance. This sublime scene of an open way quite across the Jordan is a true picture of the results of the work of Christ: there are no obstacles to our entrance into heaven, but such as are in our own hearts.
III. Entrance into the Promised Land under the Old Covenant forcibly and perhaps designedly illustrates our entrance into that New Covenant life which is through and beyond death. (Cf. outline on Joshua 3:8.) Pulsford has said, “If the approach of Death awaken fear in you, tell Death that you are bringing the Lord Jesus along with you, and Death, like Jordan before the Ark, will put back, and a free passage will open before you into eternal life. ‘What ailest thou, O sea, that thou fleest; and thou Jordan, that thou art driven back?’ But hide Christ in thee indeed; for it will not serve to say, ‘Lord, Lord.’ The devils will leap upon thee, and prevail over thee, if the Lord Jesus be only on thy tongue, and not present, by His Holy Spirit, in thy soul. If He be in thee, who is the Light of Life, very Light and very Life, then, when the candle-light of thy body’s life goes out, the Sun-light of thy soul’s life shall be bright about thee.” Let no one fear, whose trust is in the Saviour; He who has been bread for us and water of life to us through the desert, who has given us “honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock,” will not suffer us at last to be overwhelmed in Jordan.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 3:14. DEVELOPMENTS IN DIVINE TEACHING.
The Pillar of Cloud had here given place to the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark becomes the one visible symbol of God’s presence for the next four hundred and fifty years, and excepting at the end of that time, when it once more appears, as if in holy blessing of the new arrangements, the Cloud is seen no more in the days of the Old Covenant. (Cf. 1 Kings 8:10-11.8.11, etc.) In the days of the New Covenant it most significantly reappears on the Mount of Transfiguration, and at this time, also, seems present to consecrate, or rather to recognise before men as consecrated, a fresh development in the Divine plan of teaching and guiding the Church of the living God. The Cloud overshadows Moses, and in him the Law; Elijah, and in him the prophets; and presently departing, leaves visible to the representatives of the Church “Jesus only.” Yet once again in the New Covenant, as if to put the Divine mark on that period in which men should see Him no more, it is the Cloud which receives the ascending Saviour out of sight, till that time when He shall reappear, still coming “in the clouds of heaven,” and coming then with power and great glory. Thus the Pillar of Cloud is seen as the first manifestation of God’s presence with His people, the Cloud gives place to the Ark, the Ark becomes absorbed in the Temple, of which Jesus said, “My Father’s house,” and the Temple, in its turn, makes way for the Church of the Cross. The Cloud which inaugurates all these forms of teaching reappears to bless them all, and receives the ascending Saviour up into glory; and although the Cloud now is not visible in its old form, Isaiah prophesied of these days of the Saviour’s kingdom, “The Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of Mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence.” These changes in the outward form of God’s plan of teaching or guiding His people, of which the removal of the Cloud is the first, naturally lead us to look for their reason and cause. Why should God reveal Himself differently to different ages, guiding some men by one form of manifestation, and some by another?
I. Developments in God’s plan of teaching are a necessary accompaniment of human growth. The books that are good for the boy of eight years of age are of little use to the youth of fifteen; yet it is with the elementary books that the child must begin.
1. The Divine plan never shews over-teaching. God has infinite pity for us in all the forms of our weakness, and His pity is not less when the weakness is in our understanding than when we are feeble in some other manner. The Divine gentleness begins with these liberated slaves, by shewing God in the imposing Pillar of Fire and Cloud, which is light in the darkness, and refreshing shade in the day; and when they are able to go on to something further, the same gentle care changes the form of communication. Jesus Christ shews us that the plan is still the same. He taught His apostles three years by mighty miracles, and by wonderful words from His own lips; then, as He was about to depart, He added, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot hear them now.” Christ taught men, not as keeping in view His power to impart knowledge, but as ever having regard to their power to learn. So God has ever taught the world; He begins with it in its weakness, and raises the measure of its after lessons into fitness with its increasing powers of acquirement.
2. The Divine plan, thus observed, shews wonderful patience and long suffering. Think of the centuries in which men have contemplated God in each of these several forms of manifestation, and how little they have seemed to learn. Yet God has waited patiently in each case, till men were ready to go on to the next new forms of truth. He has never grown weary, and closed the book of revelation altogether; it is still more glorious that, in His majestic self-control, He has never hurried His dull children from one form of communication till they were ready for the next.
II. The changes which occur in this development of God’s plan of teaching are always FROM THE SENSUOUS TO THE SPIRITUAL. The Ark had less of the supernatural about it than the Cloud. The Cloud was God-made and God-moved; men had made the Ark, and men carried it from place to place. In giving the Ark instead of the Cloud, God was withdrawing Himself gradually from the apprehension of the senses. The direction of this teaching was continually and unalterably the same till Christ came, saying to the woman of Samaria, “God is a Spirit,” and to the woman of Magdala, “Touch me not.” The fathers came “unto the mount that might be touched;” we are come “unto Mount Sion.”
1. All teaching or worship that gives undue prominence to the sensuous is reactionary. It is crossing God’s plan, it is turning back in the way of God’s purposes.
2. All personal trials of faith should be accepted as honours conferred by God, or at least with a devout regard to His patience in the training of men generally. God looks about in the family of His children to see who can best bear the next lessons in walking by faith, and where He selects us for trial He also selects us for honour. Abraham’s trial of faith was honourable, not simply because he proved faithful, but also because God chose him as the man who could best endure, and best lead his fellow-men a step onward in the Divine life. Even if we cannot welcome trial as an honour, we should remember God’s long patience in teaching His people, and willingly and cheerfully take our part in leading men into the knowledge of His ways.
3. The high aim of every Christian should be to trust in God. This is the Divine ideal for the Church: let it be ours personally.
III. No change in the outward form of God’s presence ever indicates less need of God, or shews less efficiency in His power to help His people.
1. The presence of the Lord did not become less actual as it became less manifest. The Cloud might give place to the Ark, the Ark to the Temple, and the Temple to the living Church, but God was not most present when He was most seen. The wilderness was not more blessed with the Divine presence than the Church of the New Testament. Is not this true, also, in the personal experience of Christians? God is not with us least when we least behold Him nigh.
2. The power of the Lord did not become less mighty to save and to help as His presence became less visible to the senses. The dividing of the Jordan seems even more miraculous than the dividing of the Sea; the falling of the walls of Jericho shews an arm as potent to help as the rending of the rock at Horeb; the mighty works of Christ are transcended by nothing in the Old Testament; while the glories of Pentecost, when Christ had ascended up on high, seem absolutely to surpass everything that had gone before. Do not let us think that to have to “worship in the Spirit” means worshipping or waiting in weakness. Help, in the desert, may be more gross and material in its forms; it is not more glorious. Looking on the weak men who were about to forsake Him and flee, Christ said, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do, because I go unto my Father.” To that prediction the first fulfilment came in Pentecost.
Joshua 3:14-6.3.15. The changes which God makes in His methods of teaching men are not because of any change in God; they are because of our altered circumstances, or different state of heart, or our fresh necessities. Thus is it that men find to guide them, now a Pillar of Cloud, and now an Ark.
The waters that roll between us and our possessions seldom shew signs of making way for us till our feet are “dipped in the brim.” It is not till the twelve apostles bear their few loaves to feed the thousands, that they find how much bread they carry. It is only when the withered arm tries to raise itself in obedience to the Saviour’s bidding, that it finds itself healed of its infirmity. In the kingdom of the Lord, he who never attempts to perform what he cannot do, seldom does that which he might and ought.
God loves to bring us to our difficulties when they are at flood-tide, that we may not attempt to cross them without His help. God delights to help His children in their absolute necessities, that the remembrance of His love and power may be more abiding. Those whom God would largely help He suffers to be much hindered: He brings Israel to Jordan in its heaviest swellings, that nothing may effectually hinder them in the conflicts which are to come.
Joshua 3:16. The passing over “right against Jericho” may teach us two things:—
1. God helps His people over their difficulties, not that they may be out of difficulty, but that they may turn again to Him when difficulty comes next. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” and no man need think his foes are all behind him till death also is in the rear.
2. God would have not only His children, but His enemies also, to behold His wonderful works. This is not that He wishes to destroy His enemies: He willeth not the death of any. He makes the hard heart to melt with fear, because fear alone can soften it. If out of fear His enemies will go on to faith, they too shall be received among and become His children, even as Rahab bears witness.
Joshua 3:17. He who trusts God with the beginning of his salvation, may well trust Him for the end. As Bp. Hall has said, “The same hand that hath made the way hard, hath made it sure. He that hath made the wilderness comfortable, will make Jordan dry.” The things which we most fear, our Father knows how to make most helpful. The mighty works of the Lord are not so much to excite our astonishment as to instruct our hearts; they are to teach us to know Him.
Joshua 3:17. THE PRIESTS IN THE MIDST OF JORDAN; OR, MORAL FIRMNESS.
If we look at the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness as illustrating the journey of human life, the narrative before us will supply three facts concerning it:—
1. The future difficulty in life’s journey. The Jews in their journey had surmounted many difficulties, but there was one before them yet—the overflowing Jordan. So it is with us. The Jordan of death is before us all. The passage through it, to us, as to the Jews, is strange, perilous, necessary; we cannot reach Canaan without it.
2. The true guide in life’s journey. God directed Joshua what the people were to do (Joshua 3:7-6.3.8). God guided them in two ways: (a) By the external symbol—the ark. (b) By human effort—“the priests.” What the ark and the priests were to these men then, Christianity and true teachers are to humanity now; they are God’s means of guiding us on our journey. A guide must know the way; God alone knows the winding and endless path of souls.
3. The final deliverance in life’s journey. “All the people were passed clean over,” etc. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But the point to which we would now draw particular attention is the sublime calmness of these priests; they stood firm in the midst of the waters till all passed over. The circumstances suggest two remarks about their firmness.
I. That it was rational in its foundation. What was its foundation? The answer to this question will enable us to see what moral firmness really is.
1. It was not stolid indifference. Some men are lauded for their composure, who ought to be denounced for their stoicism.
2. It was not confidence in their own power to keep back the mountain of water.
3. It was not, of course, faith in the laws of nature. All men have a fixed and practical faith in the laws of nature; the mariner, agriculturist, physician, etc., all trust these. But these men were firm in defiance of the laws of nature. It was the law of nature that the Jordan should roll on and whelm them in destruction. What, then, was the foundation of their firmness? The WORD OF GOD. God had told them, through Joshua, that they were thus to stand, and they would be safe (Joshua 3:8; Joshua 3:13). Now our position is, that it is more rational to trust the word of God than the laws of nature. First: Because His words bind Him to action, the lam of nature do net. He may continue to act according to what are called the “laws of nature,” or He may not.… But His word allows Him no such option. The absolute rectitude of His being binds Him to carry it out. Secondly: Because deviation from His word would be a far more serious thing to the universe, than deviation from the laws of nature. He may reverse every natural law, roll the wheels of nature backward, without infringing any moral principle, or injuring any sentient being. But were He to deviate from His word, what stupendous evils would ensue! Virtue would be at an end, moral government would be disobeyed, and the grand barrier between right and wrong, truth and error, heaven and hell, would be broken down, and anarchy and misery would deluge the moral creation. Thirdly: Because He has departed from the laws of nature, but has never swerved an iota from His word. The history of Moses, Elijah, Christ, furnishes numerous instances of deviation from the laws of nature, but the history of the universe, from its earliest dawn, supplies not a single instance of deviation from His word. “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” etc.
Two inferences necessarily flow from the foregoing considerations:
1. That it is more reasonable to walk by faith than by sight. Our senses and our reason deceive us; sense and reason have deceived millions, but the word of God is infallible.
2. That apparent impossibilities can never be pleaded against Divine predictions. There are, especially, two works predicted in the Bible, which sceptical men declare impossible—The entire evangelization of the world, and the resurrection of the dead. But the question is, has God predicted them? If so, the idea of impossibility is an absurdity. With Him “all things are possible.”
The other fact which the circumstances before us suggest in relation to the moral firmness of these priests, is—
II. That it was salutary in its influence. The firmness of these priests in the midst of Jordan, with the billows piled above them, inspired the thousands of Israel to follow. Had one of these priests displayed, in that terrible situation, the least excitement or fear, would it not have struck a panic through all the assembled tribes, so that they would not have ventured to the brink? But seeing the priests standing sublimely calm, they were braced with courage to step into the fearful channel and pursue their way (Joshua 3:17).
This incident suggests two thoughts:—First: The force of human influence. All Israel now follows these men. Men are made to follow their superior brethren. The millions of every age follow the few. Secondly: The philosophy of useful influence. The influence of these priests was useful, because they were following God. Fidelity to God is the spring of useful influence. Brother, the Jordan of death is before thee, cold, dark, and tumultuous. Take courage from the example of the brave men who, trusting in God, have stood firmly in its midst, and crossed it safely. Follow them who ‘through faith and patience inherit the promises.’ ” [Dr. Thomas: Homilist, vol. iii. 334.]
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Joshua 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany