Click here to join the effort!
VICTORY RESTORED AT AI, AND THE LAW PROCLAIMED AT EBAL
Joshua 8:1. Take all the people of war] The total number of men capable of bearing arms, omitting the seventy thousand left on the eastern side of Jordan, amounted to rather more than 531,000. It is not likely that all of these were taken up to make war on Ai. By “all the people of war” we may understand a body of chosen troops made up by selection from the various tribes; or, as the third verse suggests, “all the people of war” were mustered, and then thirty thousand were chosen from the assembled host.
Joshua 8:2. As thou didst unto Jericho and her king] This alludes in general terms to the devoting of the city and its inhabitants, the one by burning, and the other by death. At Jericho the spoil was made cherem; here it was given to the people. The king of Jericho seems to have been slain with the sword; the king of Ai was hanged, although it is likely that he was first put to death in some other way. Lay thee an ambush] “The question put by many with reference to the propriety of employing stratagem in order to deceive an enemy, indicates excessive ignorance. For it is certainly not physical force alone which determines the issue of war, but, on the contrary, those are pronounced the best generals, whose success is due less to force than to skilful manœuvres. Therefore, if war is lawful at all, it is indisputably right to avail oneself of those arts by which victory is usually obtained. It is of course understood that neither must treaties be violated, nor faith broken in any other way.” (Calvin.)
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 8:1-2
THE RAISING UP OF THE FALLEN
The Bible is the only book from which men have learned to encourage each other to sing, “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me.” Men tread down the fallen, and those who have suffered moral disgrace have little to hope from “the tender mercies of the wicked,” which are ever cruel in proportion to the wickedness of those who shew them. It is only from Divine lips that we hear the assurance, “To the poor the Gospel is preached.” For the outcast and the fallen the Pharisees had no good tidings; they made broad their phylacteries, and murmured of Him who came to give hope to such, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them;” and yet these Pharisees were the very men whose fathers had been taught to say, “He will turn again, He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Three things may be noticed in these two verses:—
I. The completeness of Divine pardon. No sooner had the people put away their sin than “the Lord said unto Joshua, Fear not.” The Divine manifestation of love was as full as though no sin had been committed. The encouragement given here is as free from restraint as the encouragement in chap. Joshua 1:9.
1. No man should postpone repentance on the ground of fear. How differently does God appear in these two chapters! in the seventh there was every cause for fear; in this there was every reason for trust. Blake, the painter, in his energetic lines addressed to the tiger, abruptly and with wonder asks the fierce beast,
“Did He that made the lamb make thee?”
The God of the tiger seems one God, and the God of the lamb appears almost as another God. All life shews God passing before us in what seem to us these conflicting manifestations of Himself. The God of spring and plenty and health seems one Being; the God of winter and of famine and of sickness appears as if another. The God of our children’s cradles is one to whom we lift our eyes in thankfulness and love; the God of their coflins, and of our other bereavements, is one to whom, if we are not well taught, we are tempted to look up with fear and dismay, and ask, Who art Thou, Thou Dreadful One, that Thou smitest thus severely? So, to Israel, the Lord must have seemed in the first attack on Ai, and in the subsequent inquisition and judgment, a God greatly to be feared; here, all Israel would have felt again, that He was a God to be adored and delighted in and loved. We misunderstand the Heart that always loves us, in whatever form it manifests itself; and we mistake the time for fear. When a ship is sailing in tropical regions, there will sometimes come over the ocean an unusual calm. The mere passenger might enjoy it, and mistake it for peace. Not so the captain: he hastens to his instruments, marks the rapid fall of the mercury, and turning again promptly to his crew, in tones that mark urgency and coming danger he bids them “Furl all.” In the intense stillness in which a landsman might admire the deep peace of the sea, the sailor beholds the hushed waves listening, as with bated breath, to the tread of the coming tempest, ere the wild cyclone rushes madly across the ocean. Men are at peace when they should fear, and fear when they should be at peace. “The Lord raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” It is not the contrite man, but the unrepentant, who has cause to fear that God will turn against him. The Pharisees may well cower before the indignant looks and words of Christ; the woman in tears at His feet may trust and not be afraid. The conflict of Paul with sin, recorded in the seventh chapter of the Romans, does but make way for the joy and confidence so soon after expressed in the eighth.
2. No man should think that a given amount of formal repentance will necessarily be followed by a given amount of spiritual peace. There seems a kind of intentional irregularity in God’s method of assuring men of the forgiveness of sin; just as, in the outward aspect, there is an intentional irregularity in the Divine method of answering prayer. No intelligent Christian thinks that God answers prayer by machinery which regulates the quantity of answer according to the quantity of utterance; He answers prayer by infinite love, and wisdom, and patience, and therefore with infinite variations. A given amount of prayer from a hungry Christian will not come out a given amount of bread, as though human supplications were so much corn, and the throne of grace were mill and bakehouse in one. If so many prayers resulted regularly in so many loaves, then farewell to honest industry and to the discipline of healthy labour: for men would turn into spiritual vagrants by the million; just as here, in London, the routine charity of foolish and indiscriminate givers, makes hundreds of beggars every year, and spreads an influence of easy indifference to pauperism, till it weakens and contaminates the minds of even the honest and manly poor. God loves us too much and too wisely to turn men into spiritual paupers thus; and therefore He answers prayer, as we call it, “by crosses,” or He keeps us waiting, or He seems not to answer at all. Intelligent Christians have always understood that so many words of prayer could never be equivalent to so many temporal gifts, to so many sins forgiven, or to so much assurance of grace from on high. There is, and for the same reason there must be, a similar irregularity in God’s method of assuring men of forgiveness. A given amount of pain and tears can have no exact and ascertained relation to the time when His sinful children shall hear Him say again, “Fear not, neither be thou dismayed.” If in all the future national sins of Israel the people had said, “The sacrifice of one family in the valley of Achor brought Divine forgiveness, and saved the nation when the nation had sinned then; therefore we will sacrifice another family, and save the nation now; and we will always sacrifice a family for the sake of the nation when we get into similar disfavour with God: if the Israelites had said that, or felt and acted like that, the valley of Achor, instead of being “a door of hope,” would have become a door through which would have entered into the national life and history a horrible system of alternating sin and sacrifices, of selfishness and cruelty. God may keep the penitent waiting ere He speaks the words, “Fear not,” so as to be heard; let it be enough for us to know that all the penitent are forgiven when they come to God in tears for sin, and with faith in the offering of Christ; and that ultimately, if not immediately, those who wait thus on the Lord will enter into the peace of manifest reconciliation.
3. When pardon is pronounced by God, every forgiven man should regard it as perfect, and wanting nothing. After the penitence of Israel, and the punishment of Achan, the way to victory was held to be as open and clear as before Achan had sinned. “As far as the east is from the west,” so far was this transgression put away. God had “cast it behind His back,” and it was no more in view as a reproach to the people, or as a hindrance to their triumph. Many a man has felt the purity of child-life contrasting so painfully with the sin-stained course of his maturer years, that he has responded with all his heart to the feeling of one similarly moved:—
“I could have turned
Into my yesterdays, and wandered back
To distant childhood, and gone out to God
By the gate of birth, not death.”
We cannot but be ashamed of our transgressions, yet we need not mourn that we cannot go forth to God thus; nor need we fear to meet Him in the way which is common unto men, for His forgiveness is complete, and His welcome of every pardoned child will be as though sin had never been committed.
II. The beauty of Divine gentleness. God said to Joshua, and through Joshua to all Israel, “Fear not, neither be thou dismayed.” “As one whom his mother comforteth,” so was Joshua gently assured and comforted by the Lord.
1. Divine gentleness should be considered in relation to Divine power. The gentleness of an infant surprises no one, but that of a strong warrior is imposing. A true representation of tenderness must have power for its background. It is in this aspect that the gentleness of Christ becomes so real and so attractive. It is He who stills the storm with a word, that blesses the little children; it is He who calls men calmly back from the grave, that tenderly concerns Himself lest the unfed thousands faint by the way; in a word, the Lion of the tribe of Judah is also the Lamb of God. Quite in harmony with this, He who says “Fear not” to Joshua, is also He who smote Pharaoh, who made a path through the sea, who sent the manna for forty years, and who gave Israel water from the rocks of the wilderness. The words “Fear not” could have given little comfort from the lips of a feeble child; it was another thing to hear them from Him who had so recently overthrown “famous kings,” divided the Jordan, and given the marvellous triumph at Jericho. It is the God of the sun and stars, and of all the universe, who stands by the cross of Jesus, and says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;” it is the Lord of all power and might who softly whispers to His troubled disciples through all time, “Fear not, little flock: it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
2. Divine gentleness to sinners should be considered in connection with Divine sensibility to sin. Men are gentle to transgressors from indifference to transgression. The life of Christ is full of incident and utterance, in which stern deeds and words of wrath against sin mingle with gentle assurances to the penitent and fearful. Almost in a breath the Saviour proclaims woe unto Chorazin, to Bethsaida, and to Capernaum, and then adds, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Similarly, Luke tells us, in a single paragraph, how Christ wept over Jerusalem, and then, with the tears hardly dried from His face, how He went into the temple and began to cast out them that sold therein and them that bought. So, in this page of the history of Israel, we see Jehovah, in one chapter, solemnly insisting on the death of Achan, and forth with, in this, tenderly assuring Joshua of coming victory. It is a God so sensitive to sin, and one hating it so severely, who proposes to say to every penitent believer in His Son, “Thy sins, which be many, are all forgiven thee: go in peace.”
III. The fulness of Divine encouragement. All that Joshua just now wanted to know was communicated to him by Jehovah.
1. We see God giving special promises for peculiar discouragement. Divine comfort has about it nothing vague: it does not end in mere generalities. The utterances of Scripture are definite, and meet us in our actual necessities.
2. God’s encouragement is corrective of former errors. “Take all the people of war with thee.” This is set over against the former mistake arising from the counsel of the spies. The words of the Lord deal not only with our need in the future, but with our errors in the past.
3. God’s encouragements have regard to the nature of His people’s dejection. The Israelites are suffered to take at least thirty thousand men to give battle to not more than three or four thousand of their foes. In the time of great weakness, God suffers us, somewhat more than in ordinary life, to take hope from things visible.
4. God’s encouragement is given in the form of a promise already proved. Compare the words, “Fear not, neither be thou dismayed,” with chap. Joshua 1:9 and Deuteronomy 31:6-8. The whole of the Church above has gone before us, proving for our use the words in which God asks us each for a little longer to trust and not be afraid.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 8:1.—FREEDOM FROM FEAR: ITS NECESSITY, GROUNDS, AND ENCOURAGEMENTS.
I. The necessity of freedom from fear and dismay.
1. Confidence is necessary for active warfare.
2. Confidence necessary for successful work.
3. Confidence is necessary for patient endurance.
4. Confidence is necessary for spiritual growth.
II. The ground of freedom from fear and dismay. “I have given into thine hand,” etc.
1. There is no other ground sufficiently philosophical. True wisdom is on the side of trusting God. The human brain unperverted by the allurements of the world, the pride of the heart, and the scorn of men, ever elects to “wait on the Lord.”
2. There is no other ground sufficiently pleasing. Imagination is on the side of trusting God. Music, painting, poetry, and everything which moves and delights the human fancy has found a sufficient theatre nowhere but in the faith of Him. Deity is infinite space in the beautiful, where holy imagination can rove at large, never wearied, and ever delighted.
3. There is no other ground sufficiently precious. Our hearts are on the side of trusting God. If the intellect and the fancy sometimes find a temporary resting place in men or things, the heart never can be satisfied excepting in the Lord. The being who has been made in the Divine image can find no sufficient and ultimate home for his love, saving in the heart of Him who is love.
4. There is no other ground sufficiently proved. History is on the side of trusting God. “Our fathers trusted in Thee, and were not confounded,” can only be said of one Helper. He who goes forth to meet the giant enemies of life with any other weapons than those furnished by the Lord of life, will, sooner or later, fear to meet his foes, and will cry with the shepherd youth of Israel, when dressed in the armour of his king, “I cannot go with these, for I have not proved them.”
III. The encouragements to freedom from fear and dismay.
1. There is error to be vanquished. The Israelites might rejoice in the overthrow of idolatry. They were not to delight in slaying men, but to exult over the fall of error which had brought such multitudes to the saddest form of death. Wellington’s grief at Waterloo.
2. There is honour to be won. In God’s battles, this is no empty thing tacked on from without; no medal, which can be cast in a die; no ribbon, which depends on texture and colour for its brightness. Every real victory in the way of truth brings to each triumphant soldier of Christ a holy sense of exaltation within himself. He may say: By God’s grace I have helped the cause of righteousness; I have removed some temptations; I have helped weak men about me now, and the weak of the ages to come. In the warfare of life, every damaged idol may stand for a delivered man.
3. There is reward to be gathered. The spoil of Ai was to be given to Israel. Spiritual victory has nobler and richer gains both here and hereafter.
“GOD’S RENEWED CALL TO JOSHUA. This is the same word indeed as before, but now of quite a different import, since God by it not only assures Joshua of His support, but also gives him to understand that He is again gracious to Him.”—[Lange.]
“Joshua needed the comforting exhortation after the bitter experiences through which he had just passed. Comp. Acts 18:9-10; Acts 27:23-24.”—[Crosby.]
“Although every victory comes from God, it is still in the order of our own fidelity and bravery.”—[Starke.]
“The fortune of war is changeable, but it turns as the Lord will have.”—[Bib. Tub.]
Joshua 8:2.—God will have the first fruits, in order to teach us whence all fruits come, and to whom they all belong.
God gives His people the subsequent fruits, to shew them that they can win nothing which is essential to Him, and to make manifest His love and care for them.
God thus makes both firstfruits and after-fruits to serve His people’s good.
“The way to have the comfort of what God allows us is to forbear what He forbids us. No man shall lose by his self-denial; let God have His dues first, and then all will be clean to us, and sure, 1 Kings 17:13.”—[Henry.]
Joshua 8:3. Thirty thousand … and sent them away] Probably 30,000 was the entire number chosen to operate against Ai, and of these 5000 were sent, as stated in Joshua 8:12, to form the ambush between Bethel and Ai. To suppose two ambushes, one of 30,000 on the south-west, and one of 5000 on the north-west of the city, requires the further supposition that Joshua would have led all the remaining men of war in the camp, nearly half a million, to the first assault. As the fighting men of Ai could not have amounted to more than two or three thousand, it is not likely that Joshua feigned to flee before this small band with an army of half a million soldiers. On whichever hypothesis the passage is interpreted, there are great difficulties to be explained; but the view suggested, taken with the inartistic repetitions and anticipations of the narrative, which are common also to the historian’s style in chap. 6, affords much the easier solution.
Joshua 8:5. As at the first] The first battle, when the Israelites fled in defeat (chap. Joshua 7:4).
Joshua 8:9. Sent them forth] The five thousand intended for the ambush. Joshua lodged that night among the people] Probably among the twenty-five thousand already in the neighbourhood of Ai. If Joshua lodged in the camp at Gilgal, which was about twenty-five miles from Ai, the ambush would have been compelled to lie in hiding, over one entire day, between the two cities. This could hardly be done without discovery, nor would it have served any purpose to incur such risk.
Joshua 8:10. Joshua rose up early] We may suppose the two divisions of the army to have started about seven o’clock in the evening, having before them a march of some eight hours. This would allow each division to arrive at its destination shortly after three in the morning. Both divisions would probably leave Gilgal in company (Joshua 8:3) and march for four or five hours together, along a common road. The main body would then bear away to the right, to take up its position on the north of the city, while the ambush would diverge to the left, pass Ai on the south, and gain its hiding-place on the west of the city; thus avoiding the danger of discovery from crossing the road between Bethel and Ai. Each division on arriving at its post, say about three o’clock, would proceed to take some rest; “but Joshua lodged that night among the people,” i.e., among the main body of the army. Sleeping for one or two hours, Joshua might rise by five (Joshua 8:10), silently call up, and once more review his army, send messengers across the main road between the two cities to communicate with the ambush, ascertaining their safe arrival, and giving them final instructions (Joshua 8:12); and then, still in “that night” (Joshua 8:13), or by six o’clock in the morning, march his 25,000 men from the temporary encampment on the north of Ai “into the midst of the valley,” and in open view of their enemies. Here they were almost immediately seen, and the men of Ai “hasted and rose up early” (Joshua 8:14), and forthwith the battle began.
Joshua 8:12. And he took] Translated by pluperfect—“He had taken; so Masius, C. a Lapide, and others. “This expresses the sense, but is not justifiable as a translation.” (Keil.) Probably the historian only intended to refer to the communication with the ambush, made in the early morning, from the northern side of the city.
Joshua 8:17. Not a man left in Ai] Not a soldier. It is evident, by Joshua 8:24. that the women, children, and others unable to bear arms remained within the city. Or Bethel] It is likely that Bethel was only one or two miles distant, and the two cities were evidently in league on this occasion. Probably Bethel shared the fate of Ai (cf. chap. Joshua 12:16).
Joshua 8:20. They had no power] Heb.=no hands: there was no direction in which they could flee: they were enclosed on all sides,—surrounded, as we say, “on every hand.”
Joshua 8:25. Twelve thousand] This number is given, not as the number of the soldiers of Ai, but as that of the entire population. In addition to these, it is likely that some of the inhabitants of Bethel were slain on this day.
Joshua 8:29. Hanged on a tree] Possibly he was first slain with the sword (cf. chap. Joshua 10:26). Until eventide] According to the instructions in Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 8:3-29
THE ULTIMATE VICTORY OF GOD AND OF TRUTH
I. The variable methods of God. (Joshua 8:3-13.) If we look at the two attacks on Ai, we see that in the first God was not there, while in the last He chose to be present: the first attack failed utterly; in the last, victory was complete. Comparing the overthrow of Jericho and that of Ai, we see that, by the deliberate choice of Jehovah, the attack on the former city lasted seven days, while that on Ai was accomplished in one; the assault on Jericho was without the slightest concealment, that on Ai was made apparently dependent on strategy. In view of these differences it may be remarked:—
1. The Divine method sometimes teaches us that the beginning of real victory is through stern defeat. When Israel suffered defeat, Joshua could not interpret the way of the Lord. He cried, in his anguish, “O Lord, wherefore hast Thou at all brought this people over Jordan?” Now Joshua could clearly see that but for the defeat graciously ordered by God, sin would have prevented victory in its highest form. It was manifest now, that for God to have made Israel triumphant then, would simply have been for Him to have chosen against one sinful people in favour of another. Learn the folly of habitually judging a whole by its parts. We cannot judge a watch by a wheel. We should know almost nothing of the beauty of Handel’s Messiah by taking two or three bars from any one of its choruses or solos. No man could form a good opinion of a poem from one or two lines, selected at random. It would be foolish to endeavour to pronounce on the merits of a painting by examining a small fraction cut from any part of the whole. When we attempt to interpret Divine providence, we can only do it in fragments. God’s plan is very vast: it has relation, not only to our present, but to all our life; it includes not only us, but ten thousand others who surround us. We must not expect to judge the heart of the Lord aright by a broken limb, by a heavy loss of property, by a severe sickness, or by the severity of some trying bereavement. He is wise who studies the love of God in His dealings with men generally, who contemplates “the image of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and who hears his Lord say, What thou knowest not now thou shalt know hereafter.
2. The Divine method sometimes shews that all real victory depends absolutely on God, and, at others, makes it clear that without the utmost efforts of man, everything will fail. Jericho shewed men that God must be all in all; Ai, that men must do all that human skill and power could devise and execute. Truth is very large, and we cannot learn or even survey it on all sides at once. Men teach their children sometimes reading, sometimes writing, sometimes arithmetic, sometimes poetry; but reading and writing are not adverse the one to the other, nor is arithmetic a contradiction of poetry. God teaches us now one thing, and now another, because our powers of perception are very limited, and our views of truth are necessarily partial, while He is sufficiently gentle and patient to endeavour to lead us into all truth.
3. The variableness of Divine methods has regard to the specific forms of human necessity. If the first experience at Ai had preceded the victory at Jericho, how great would have been the consternation in Israel! If the absolute victory at Jericho had been succeeded by a similar triumph at Ai, notwithstanding the sin of Achan, how sadly might the people have been demoralised! If the defeat which followed the first attack on Ai had been repeated now, how the hearts of the people would have “melted and become as water” indeed! God not only teaches us in separate lessons, but He never teaches us the wrong lesson first. At the entrance into Canaan, even as at the cross of Christ, we hear the Divine voice proclaiming to men: “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.”
II. The fatuity of the enemies of God. A recent author has said concerning the overthrow of Pharaoh: “It is written that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and this again and again; as well as, and we may be sure to all intents and purposes antecedently to, the fact that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh would have it so. Judicial blindness set in after a time; but first there had been cause shewn in Heaven’s chancery court. The infatuation was beyond remedy. The ossification of the heart involved, in its progress and development, paralysis of the brain. Dementation was now the precursor of perdition. ‘Quem Deus vult perdere prius dementat.’ ” Thus it ever proves with those who determinately set themselves against the Lord. Persistent sin works blindness, stupidity, madness; and madness needs only to be left to itself to accomplish destruction. God has ordained that blind folly shall be the outcome of persistent sin, and that destruction, in its turn, shall be the result of folly. Thus did Pharaoh foolishly pursue after Israel into the midst of the sea; and thus, with equal blindness, the three or four thousand men of Ai rushed out of their city against the overwhelming numbers of their foes. It was the forerunning madness of idolatrous men whom God had determined to destroy.
1. The enemies of the Lord are ignorant of the cause of their victories. These idolaters had put down their former triumph to the strength of Aiite arms, utterly unconscious that it was entirely owing to wickedness in Israelitish hearts. It is ever so. The wicked flourish, and do not know that their prosperity is but temporarily given them by God, that His people may be better enabled to discover and put away sin; or that some other equally important purpose is to be served by their brief period of exaltation.
2. The enemies of the Lord are ignorant of changes in God’s appointments. The men of Ai “wist not that there were liers in ambush.” God changes His plan of battle, and while the secret of the Lord is often with them that fear Him, the enemies of truth know nothing of His way: they have no access to His throne, and no acquaintance with His counsels.
3. The enemies of the Lord are absolutely powerless before those whom God guides and helps. “They had no power to flee this way or that way” (Joshua 8:20). (a) They had no way by which to flee (cf. Crit. Notes). They were surrounded on every hand. (b) They had no strength to flee. The hand is sometimes put for the symbol of power, as in Psalms 76:5. Probably the former is the more correct meaning, although it should not be forgotten that, practically taken, it involves the latter. Read in either sense, it is seen that when God makes bare His arm, His foes are utterly helpless; the ways of escape are closed up, and courage and strength fail together.
III. The ultimate triumph of God and of truth. As with the men of Ai, the triumphs of the wicked are but the forerunners of their fall.
1. The final victory of God will leave none to uphold error (Joshua 8:22-25). Not a Canaanite was left to perpetuate idolatry. The wicked live on Divine sufferance, even as others, although they exalt themselves against God: when their salvation has become hopeless, and God wills it, they are removed out of their place. The tares only grow till God’s harvest is ready; when that time comes, God will leave not a single seed to re-sow the “new earth” with sin.
2. The final victory of God will sink the greatest of His foes even lower than the least. “The king of Ai he hanged on a tree,” etc. The measure of a wicked man’s elevation here will be the measure of his degradation when God goes forth for his overthrow; then “the first shall be last.”
“Each minute of man’s safety he does walk
A bridge, no thicker than his frozen breath,
O’er a precipitous and craggy danger
Yawning to death.”
Every enemy of God and truth should feel that, but he who is as a king among the wicked should read in it the most dreadful meaning; beneath the lowest deep which remains for others, he should discover a lower still, yawning for himself. In human wars, officers who are taken prisoners receive superior treatment to that afforded to privates; their fare is better, their lodging superior, and their confinement is sometimes not so strict. This may be well among men, where each side generally represents at least some elements of right and truth. In this war of the Lord, truth and right are all with Him, and, as in cases of rebellion and treason among nations, those who are ringleaders are regarded as being worst.
3. The final victory of God will leave no memorials of error, excepting memorials of shame. Joshua made Ai “an heap for ever,” and over the dead and dishonoured body of its king he raised “a great heap of stones.” The righteous man, “being dead, yet speaketh;” so does the wicked, but every tongue which is left to proclaim his name declares also his disgrace.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 8:3-8.—THE ADDRESS TO THE SOLDIERS OF THE EXPEDITION.
This address marks with some emphasis and distinctness several features in the character of Israel’s leader.
I. Joshua’s obedience. As soon as he knew the Divine will he arose promptly, and at once selected the troops which were to be engaged (Joshua 8:3). The closing words of his address shew that his one concern was to perform the commandment of the Lord (Joshua 8:8). That command was uppermost in his own mind; he would have it stand before everything else in the minds of the people also. A godly man is anxious to do the will of the Lord himself; he is equally concerned to lead others into obedience.
II. Joshua’s prudence. He enters heartily into the details of God’s plan for secresy. The language is evidently that of a man who is in earnest to leave nothing undone to ensure success with as little loss as possible. The people are “sent away in the night.” The plan of the ambush is sufficiently explained to make it of interest to all. It is not enough to be zealous and prompt; God says of Jesus Christ, our pattern in work and conflict: “Behold, my servant shall deal prudently.”
III. Joshua’s courage. “I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city.” Joshua did not send others to do dangerous work, and abstain from it himself. Although, as the commander of the forces, he might not have been personally engaged in the conflict, yet he was present on the field of battle, and evidently shared the dangers of the day.
IV. Joshua’s faith. (Joshua 8:6-7.) If the former of these two verses shews confidence in the success of the stratagem, the latter proclaims that this confidence has its real ground in the promise of Jehovah. Joshua uses the means at his disposal with all the tact and energy possible, and then believes in the Lord. “The Lord your God will deliver it into your hand.” The Divine consolation had left no room for pain, and the Divine promise no room for doubt. The “fear not,” of Joshua 8:1, had banished all anxiety, and the “I have given” had imparted calm assurance. The trust of God’s forgiven children should be as perfect as though they had never fallen under their heavenly Father’s displeasure.
V. Joshua’s authority. (Joshua 8:8.) He made the people feel that his own commands were but the reiterated commands of the Lord.
1. The authority of all God-given words. We too often speak the Lord’s words as if they were our own. He who does this will assuredly weaken them. There are very few things, perhaps, in which we need concern ourselves to imitate men who, in the present day, claim to be priests over their fellows; many ministers might profitably learn from them to teach the Lord’s words as having the Lord’s authority. It is possible to be so intent on commending the truth by argument or anecdote, as to weaken the truth. Many who “beseech men in Christ’s stead,” lamentably need the tone of “ambassadors.”
2. The authority of obedience. “According to the commandment of the Lord shall ye do. See I have commanded you.” The leader who shews his own obedience can shew no better right to be obeyed.
Joshua 8:4.—THE LOCALITY OF AI: ITS SUITABILTITY FOR CONCEALING THE AMBUSH.
“No neighbourhood in Palestine is more crowded with interesting Biblical associations than this. I should like to spend a day wandering over the rough hills between Er Ram, Gibeah, Michmash, Rimmon, Bethel, and Beer. Perhaps we might stumble upon the site of Ai, which Joshua’s curse has hidden from all the world; for he ‘burned Ai, and made it a heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.’ It must be somewhere between Michmash and Rimmon, a region greatly cut up with gorges and ravines; and as I passed from Beit-în toward Michmash, I could easily understand how Joshua’s ambush of five thousand men could lie hid between Ai and Bethel. Some of our Jerusalem friends identify Ai with a conspicuous mound which I saw from a distance. It bears now no other name than Tell, which you may translate ‘heap;’ and as for ‘desolation,’ it remains complete unto this day. No doubt traces still remain, could we but find them, of that great heap of stones which Joshua raised over the carcass of Ai’s hapless king.”—[The Land and the Book.]
Joshua 8:14-17.—THE CONFLICT OF TRUTH AND ERROR.
It should be borne in mind that this was a religious war. The men who invaded Canaan were the soldiers of the God of truth, and their enemies were fighting, not only for their own territory and their homes, but in support of a cruel and debasing system of idolatry.
In the conflict between truth and error, if we would prove that we are contending on the side of truth:—
I. We need something more than zeal. The King of Ai could rise up early, as well as Joshua, and the men of the city were equally on the alert, to haste with their leader to the battle. One of the arguments, if it be worthy of the name, which we still hear urged on behalf of certain supporters of error is this plea of zeal: “See,” we are told, “how earnest these people are, and how cold and dead are the men who oppose them.” As if the men who made fires for the martyrs were not zealous! As if Bonner were not zealous in burning the Bible! As if he who “goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” went about idly, and was indifferent concerning his prey! No true soldier of the cross will be “cold and dead;” but he who relies on zeal as sufficient to prove that he is on the Lord’s side, must be prepared to adopt into his brotherhood at least Mahomet, the persecutors of the early Church, many of the worst of the popes, and not a few atheists.
II. We need something more than bravery. While we wonder to see these idolaters so infatuated and blind, we cannot but admire their courage. Though they were visibly outnumbered in the proportion of at least six to one, without counting the ambush of their enemies, they shewed no hesitation in commencing the attack, and in subsequently pursuing after the Israelites. For all that, they were idolaters.
III. We need something more than wise precaution. The expression, “at a time appointed” (Joshua 8:14), shews that the sortie of the idolaters was not wholly reckless. Keil is of opinion that the original word may be rendered in one of three ways: as in the text, “at the signal agreed upon,” or, “at the place appointed.” Of these three translations, he prefers the last as the most appropriate, and then adds: “Evidently before making the sally, the king had arranged with the army, upon what point the attack should be concentrated.” Error has often shewn much organisation and discipline in its attacks on truth. The words in which unbelief assaults faith are not all reckless rodomontade; but intelligence, and the systematic use of it, are not necessarily truth.
IV. We need something more than the general support of those who are about us. “There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel,” etc. (Joshua 8:17). After a long argument, John Wesley is reported to have said, with a view to terminate the discussion by the force of his dominating will: “You may say what you will, sister, the voice of the people is the voice of God.” “Yes, John,” she quietly replied, “it cried, Crucify Him, crucify Him.” Men contend against each other in parties, in families, clans, nations; and oftener than not sides are taken, utterly irrespective of truth and right. The accident of our cradles and our nurseries has more to do with our creeds than many suspect. It is very strange to think how many children of episcopalians grow up to believe in the Church of England, Wesleyans in Methodism. Baptists in immersion, Calvinists in Calvinism, Russians in the Greek Church, Arabs and Turks in Mahometanism, and so on, through endless divisions of our race, and almost every believer is prepared to contend earnestly for his own view of truth, as “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Baal and Ashtoreth against the living God; that was the state of the case in this war in Canaan and while each Canaanite found truth in his idolatry, each Israelite found it only in Jehovah. The line of religious faith was co-extensive and identical with the line dividing the nations. In deciding upon the true religion, it made all the difference whether a man was descended from Ham or Shem, from Canaan or Abram; whether he was left to grow up under the traditions which had accumulated upon a sinful people, or trained by the God of heaven and the pious care of His servants; whether he had a home and a country to defend, or a home and a country to win. When we rely on the unanimity of those about us to assure ourselves that we are on the side of truth, we forget the silent sarcasm of history. In a matter like this, we want light to guide us, not numbers, and light only comes to the obedient. “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.” No more arbitrary, and no less true, is that word of the former Testament, “I will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” One lifetime is not long enough to grow into the doctrine of truth; it is altogether too short to grow out of a creed that is erroneous.
V. We need something more than temporary success. The servants of truth may “make as if they are beaten,” or, for a season, they may be really beaten; no seeming or even actual prosperity, which is but for a little while, can sufficiently prove that they who pursue are fighting on the side of truth. We need some better guarantee than occasional and momentary triumphs. The same hour that finds us pursuing, may, ere it close, find us fleeing. Happy is that man whose God assures him that his last enemy shall be destroyed, and whose brethren in faith have by myriads quitted life crying, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Joshua 8:18-19; Joshua 8:25-26.—THE OUTSTRETCHED SPEAR.
1. The stretching out of human hands towards God is a recognised form of supplicating for mercy. (Cf. Psalms 44:20; Psalms 48:10; Psalms 88:9, etc.)
2. The stretching out of the hand of God towards men is indicative of His anger. (Cf. Proverbs 1:24; Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 9:21; Ezekiel 16:27.)
3. The stretching out of human hands towards things, or men, at the command of God, is also indicative of Divine anger. This, indeed, is the sign for the immediate exercise of Divine power in some judgment. Cf. Exodus 7:19, and repeatedly in the narrative of the ten plagues, in the chapters following. See, also, 1 Chronicles 21:16, where it is said that the sword of the angel was “stretched out over Jerusalem. Thus, the conclusion of several of the earlier commentators that there was “nothing figurative” in the outstretched spear of Joshua, appears to be against the evidence.
I. The Lord’s direct encouragement and help of His servants in the time of their most urgent necessity. In these days of calmer thought, and of determinate rejection of superstition, we are little able to estimate the depression and fear which, probably, at this time, distressed the army of Israel. True, their numbers were greatly augmented since their former defeat, but they could not forget they had been beaten. The Israelites had only been forty years away from the idolatrous superstitions of Egypt; they were even now in a country where the inhabitants believed that the gods who had, as they thought, controlled the issue in the first battle of Ai, would no less ordain a similar issue now. To this should be added a recollection of the natural impressibility of the oriental mind. We may measure the depression of the Israelites, at this time, by the absurd and exultant confidence of the Aiites: by so much as the latter were foolishly assured, by so much were the Israelites inclined to fear. We may measure the fear of the Israelites, not less, by the encouragement of Jehovah. The promise of Joshua 8:1 is here repeated, in the very midst of the engagement. God times His help and comfort to His servants’ wants, and makes the measure of it proportionate to His servants’ necessities. Scripture has many instances of such direct interposition. It was thus in the cases of Hagar, of Elijah, of Peter when in prison; of Paul and Silas in the jail at Philippi; of Paul in the castle of Antonia at Jerusalem (Acts 23:11), and of the same apostle on the sea of Adria (Acts 27:23-24). Is there anything to represent such help and encouragement of the Lord’s people now? Surely there is. These instances are not symbols of nothing; they tell us of a heart that never changes, and of a hand, which though it now remains invisible, can always find its own way to bring relief to such as fear God.
II. The Lord’s adoption of such of His servants’ methods as are not out of harmony with Divine principles. “The Lord said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear,” etc. And no sooner was Joshua’s spear thus stretched out towards Ai, and the signal transmitted, perhaps by watchers, to the ambush far away, than the ambush arose quickly, and entered the city, and set part of it on fire. The stretching out of the spear was evidently a prearranged signal; it was manifestly Joshua’s preconcerted sign to the ambush, and God does but adopt His servant’s plan, and make it His own way.
1. God’s methods for human service are not arbitrary. Much is left to the judgment of men, even in the exalted mission of doing His work. God never crosses our way for the sake of crossing it.
2. God frequently adopts human methods of service. He adopted the way of James in preaching against a faith which lacked works, and Paul’s manner of preaching against works which did not spring from faith. Peter, fastening his eyes on the lame man, lying at the gate Beautiful, said: “Look on us. In the name of Jesus Christ of of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” God adopted that method. Paul, looking upon the cripple of Lystra, did not use Peter’s formula at all; he “said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet.” And this cripple, also, “leaped and walked.” God honoured that method. At Ephesus Paul permitted “handkerchiefs or aprons” to be carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases departed from them. God made that way His own also. At Troas, Eutychus fell down, and was taken up dead. To him “Paul went down, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him.… And they brought the young man alive.” God adopted that method too. Peter, in a similar case, following, perhaps half unconsciously, the well-remembered example of the Saviour, put every one out of the room. His way, with the dead, was to work alone with his God. And so, being there in company with the corpse only, he “kneeled down and prayed; and turning him to the body, said, Tabitha, arise: and she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.” God recognised this way as a good way no less than the other, but not more than the other. His way is to give our individuality perfect liberty. So long as our hearts are right, He has little concern as to our particular manner of working. The Divine way is not to tie us down to set forms of service, but to honour always the work of those who are endeavouring to bless men, and who therein seek to exalt God.
3. God adopts human methods of serving Him only within certain limits. He never recognises by His help methods which traverse Divine principles, and which seek other ways than the way of holiness. The seven sons of Sceva had a great ambition. They wanted to cast out devils, and thus exalt themselves. So they found their man, and cried, “We adjure you by Jesus, whom Paul preacheth.” The formula was good enough, but the spirit was altogether wrong; and “they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” The devil is never driven out of another man by a devil in ourselves. That would be “dividing the house against itself.” He who would succeed against that which is devilish must work together with God. Simon Magus wished to purchase with money the power of conferring the Holy Ghost. To the apostles the idea was revolting, and the thought of the man’s heart was even more obnoxious to God. This was not the Divine method at all. When our way is in harmony with truth, it is ever in harmony with heaven. Within the circle of holiness our methods may take any form whatever, and God will approve them; without that circle, everything which we do is offensive in His sight.
III. The Lord’s encouragement of His servants supplemented by their remembrance of the Lord’s former mercies. “Joshua drew not his hand back” so long as an enemy remained (Joshua 8:26). The leader of Israel could not but have thought of that other battle, forty years before, when the tide of victory had ebbed and flowed in response to the falling and uplifted hands of Moses. It is of no account to say that the spear of Joshua had no such relation to success as the uplifted hands of his forerunner; no one can pronounce on that either way. It is enough to feel that Joshua must have recalled the scene at Rephidim, and then to observe that he kept his own hand persistently steady. On that occasion he had personally led in the conflict, and he would well enough remember how fitfully and sternly the battle had gone. Thinking of that, he keeps his spear steadily outstretched till the last enemy has fallen. God’s present encouragements were great; to the strength given by them, Joshua would add the memory of the mercies of bygone years. We need often special help from on high; God would ever have us use, also, every other aid which our experience affords. In every conflict of the present, we shall do well to recall His goodness in the past.
Joshua 8:20.—THE CRISIS OF THE WICKED.
Sooner or later, all those who oppose themselves against God must prepare to meet their God. When the Lord meets the wicked in conflict and judgment:—
I. The wicked will see all their earthly hopes destroyed. “The smoke of the city ascended up to heaven.” These idolaters saw:—
1. That their houses were destroyed.
2. That all their property and gains were lost.
3. That every earthly hope was cut off.
4. That they had no hope for the life to come.
II. The wicked will have no strength to resist. These men of Ai saw how completely they were at the mercy of their foes, and they became powerless.
III. The wicked will have no direction in which to flee. The idolaters “had no hand” on which they could escape. “The people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon their pursuers.” (Compare Luke 23:30, Revelation 6:16-17, with Isaiah 8:14-15; Isaiah 28:16-17; 1 Peter 2:6.)
Joshua 8:26-29.—VICTORY IN THE LORD’S WAR.
I. The way to victory is through persistent conflict. Our hand is not to be drawn back while a single enemy remains (Joshua 8:26).
II. The rewards of victory are a Divine gift. God took Jericho, as the firstfruits, to shew that all the spoils belonged to Himself; here, according to his word, He gives the earnest of the future possession as from Himself (Joshua 8:27).
III. The object of victory is to blot out sin from the earth. The very cities of this idolatrous land were to be purified by fire (Joshua 8:28).
IV. The doom which follows victory will be according to the desert. The king, who had ruled over these idolaters, and been a leader among transgressors, is singled out for the emphasis of the curse (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23), and is thus made cherem even beyond his brethren.
V. The memorials of victory should be suitable to its mercies. The heap of stones was the customary monument of the times, and, usually, one that long remained to bear its witness.
Joshua 8:30. Then Joshua built an altar] Those who regard this section of the chapter as misplaced in the book have surely not sufficiently considered the command given in Deuteronomy 27:2-8. The Israelites were there solemnly charged to seize the first available opportunity for this work, after crossing the Jordan.
Joshua 8:31. An altar of whole stones] Cf. Exodus 20:24-25. The reason for this command is not given, either here or elsewhere in Scripture.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 8:30-31
THE MARCH TO EBAL AND GERIZIM
Two omissions in the history of the events which must have immediately succeeded the fall of Ai make the introduction of the narrative which closes this chapter appear unusually abrupt. No account is given of the march of the people who captured Ai to the neighbourhood of Shechem, and nothing is said of the removal of the camp from the Gilgal near Jericho to that other Gilgal which was evidently situated near the mountains Ebal and Gerizim. (Cf. Deuteronomy 11:30; Genesis 12:6.) These omissions are not a sufficient reason for treating the passage before us as misplaced, much less for regarding it as an interpolation by a later hand. It would be as reasonable to treat the order of the first chapter of Genesis as incorrect, because of the long space of time and series of events probably passed over between its several paragraphs. Omissions are not, essentially, proofs of contradictions. Keil and Kitto have shewn with much care that the Gilgal mentioned in chapter Joshua 9:6, should be taken as identical with the Gilgal named in Deuteronomy 11:30. The author of Lange’s commentary on the text, after speaking much too flippantly on what he terms “Keil’s prejudiced opposition to all which is called criticism,” makes the somewhat reckless remark: If the Gilgal of chapter Joshua 9:6 were another place of that name in the region of Shechem, “the author would certainly in some way have given an intimation of the fact. As he omits this, the whole connection points to Gilgal near Jericho, and Joshua is in the southern part, not in central Palestine.” Keil, at least, has respected his readers sufficiently to give weighty reasons for his opinion, while his critic has done little more than give a vehement opinion for his reasons. With the passages referred to in Deuteronomy and Genesis before us, and with several other parts of Scripture, in the historical books, which suppose a second Gilgal somewhere in this locality, the omission notwithstanding, we can only conclude that the entire camp had, at this time, removed from Gilgal near Jericho to Gilgal, “beside the plains of Moreh,” near Shechem.
At the lowest estimate, two or three days must have intervened between the fall of Ai and the gathering at Ebal. Keil, who thinks that Ai must be sought as far north as where Turmus Aya now stands, makes the distance from Ai to Shechem only about thirteen miles; Hävernick states it at twenty miles; while others, who conclude that Ai was farther south, reckon that the thirty thousand men employed to destroy this city must have marched more than thirty miles ere they came to the place where Moses had commanded them to celebrate this solemn religious service. At least two or three days must have passed, then, ere even this part of the host of Israel could have arrived at their destination; nearly a week might have elapsed ere the entire camp was removed from the plains of Jericho, and pitched in the Gilgal which was not far from Shechem. Of these intervening days the history gives no account. The record does not claim to be a diary; it is merely the story of the more conspicuous events, and as such, an occasional abruptness of transition is no sufficient reason for impugning the correctness of the narrative. True manliness judges books as it judges men; it holds them to be innocent till they are proved guilty, and does not, under the plea of superior discernment, hasten to proclaim falsity merely on the ground of obscurity. The Bible, of all books, might be supposed to have established its claim to this fairness of criticism, especially at the hands of its avowedly Christian interpreters.
THE ALTAR ON MOUNT EBAL.—Joshua 8:30-31
The erection of this altar was the commencement of a service in which the covenant was once more renewed. This may be gathered from such passages as Deuteronomy 29:0, where the blessings and the curses to be pronounced at Shechem are repeatedly spoken of as words of the Divine covenant.
1. The renewal of the covenant by Israel was very varied inform. At Gilgal, near Jericho, it was renewed by the rite of circumcision, and also by the celebration of the passover; at Mount Ebal the ceremony of renewal was entirely different. In Exodus 31:16, the observance of the sabbath is spoken of as a perpetual covenant. Every act of sincere worship should be regarded as a renewal of covenant with God. Every true act of worship now is a fresh acceptance of Jesus Christ.
2. Whatever outward variation there might be in services designed to renew the covenant, sincerity was an absolute essential. Nothing short of a sincere heart would enable the Israelites to keep the terms of the covenant, and without keeping these, all rites would be useless. Circumcision and the passover might be observed, as at Gilgal, near Jericho; blessings and curses might be solemnly repeated, as at Shechem; all rites would be fruitless to prevent ruin, if obedience were wanting, and no man could be truly obedient who lacked sincerity.
In this erection of the altar unto the Lord God in Mount Ebal, four things invite consideration.
I. The time of building the altar. To offer this service to the Lord, the people had to break away from their military pursuits at a time which seemed to imperatively require their presence in the field. The lesson of waiting on the Lord, taught so significantly at Jericho, is even more significantly repeated here. Good generalship would have led Joshua to say, “Let us follow up our successes;” his piety helped him to determine that the duties owing to the Lord were of much more importance than the pursuit of his disheartened enemies.
1. The spirit of true worship places God before all else. Old Testament or New Testament, it matters not; he who serves God indeed is ever ready to say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all other things shall be added unto you.” A child, who has really a child’s heart, can place nothing on earth before his father and mother. He who is a child of God indeed, and who to filial love adds holy reverence, will need no teaching from without to enable him to exalt the name of the Lord above every other name which is named among men.
2. The spirit of true worship is also a spirit of obedience. Moses had commanded the elders of Israel to attend to this service on Ebal as soon as they should enter into the land (Deuteronomy 27:2). Moses had spoken in the name of Jehovah, and at the earliest possible moment Joshua hastens to perform the word of the Lord. True fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, does not consist in the use of irreverent and amatory phrases. One unctuous man may catch all these from another; he may even multiply the terms and sweeten the tones, and yet be little more than a kind of religious parrot. In some men, ardent love naturally chooses terms of endearment, even when approaching God; when it does so lawfully, it ever chooses them out of the heart, and not from the memory. Such a spirit is above criticism to every hearer who also loves God. Yet it should be remembered that only he who is devoutly obedient gives sufficient evidence of ardent love. Love that is really sincere is never so much in earnest as when it cries, “I will run in the way of Thy commandments, when Thou shalt enlarge my heart.” He whose fellowship with God was absolutely perfect, made that perfect communion manifest in the obedience which said, “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me, I delight to do Thy will, O my God: yea, Thy law is within my heart.”
3. The spirit of true worship has regard to the necessity of sacrifice. Breaking away from their warfare to worship God, these men began by building an altar, (a) He who worships in spirit and in truth must recognise both the need and the fact of forgiveness. (b) He who worships in spirit and in truth rejoices not only in the sacrifice through which he is forgiven, but in the self-sacrifice which proclaims his own love and gratitude. The Israelites in this act of worship seemed sacrificing their own worldly interest by not following up their victories promptly. The really devout will gladly forego and forget worldly gain, when called upon to render homage to the name of Him from whom they receive all that is worth possessing. Christ’s cross, seen aright, will provoke us to take up ours.
4. The spirit of true worship not only adores God, but trusts Him. There seemed some danger in advancing, like this, for twenty or thirty miles northward, into a part of the country which had not yet submitted, and in encamping there for some days to offer solemn religious service to Jehovah. But “The people that do know the Lord shall be strong, and do exploits.” The Israelites, during the last forty years, had learned to know that they had no reason to fear anything which God commanded. The way from the Red Sea to Ai was one continued reiteration of their absolute safety in doing the will of God. To follow the Divine leading even through the sea was to have a wall on either hand, standing sufficiently long to shield, them, and falling soon enough to destroy their enemies; to disobey the Divine command was to be in danger and to suffer defeat, even before the insignificant forces of the king of Ai. Thus, the spirit of trust must still enter into the spirit of worship. He only can praise aright who rests in the Lord.
II. The situation of the altar. Joshua built it “in Mount Ebal.” It was built there by the Divine commandment.
1. Geographically, the site of this altar was very significant. Crosby has said of Ebal and Gerizim: “If you draw a line from the latitude of Sidon to the latitude of the supposed Kadesh-barnea, these mountains are exactly at the half-way point. If you draw another line from the Mediterranean Sea to the top of the Gilead range, again these mountains are at the half-way point. Thus the spot taken for this grand ceremony was exactly in the centre of the new country of the tribes.” By God’s commandment, therefore, this altar was to be erected in the very centre of the land. As far as possible, it was to be accessible to all the people. This neighbourhood became a chief place for the worship of the people during several succeeding centuries. It was probably at the Gilgal near to Ebal, and subsequently at Shiloh, also in the neighbourhood, that the Ark of the covenant was so long deposited. Hosea and Amos make repeated references to the sacrifices offered at Gilgal, even after the nation had lapsed into a general idolatry. The woman of Samaria said, as late as the time of our Lord, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain.” The erection of this altar on Ebal, the inscription of the law on the stones there, and the subsequent religious history of the neighbourhood all point to these mountains in the middle of Palestine as the centre of worship during several centuries. In the minds of one section of the people, at least, even after the return from Babylon, the strength of the traditions which gathered about Gerizim successfully competed with the later glories of Jerusalem. Designedly, God made the centre of Israel’s early worship in the very midst of the land, (a) God has placed the cross within the reach of all men, It is accessible to the remotest of the nations. Christ said, “The hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.” This very altar of Ebal seems to suggest coming days, when, although the name of the Lord should be made known through all the earth, to draw near to Him should still be within the power of every worshipper. (b) The cross is equally within the reach of all classes. Sick or dying, rich or poor, with a character or without, somewhat moral or very sinful, the grace which built for men the world’s altar on Calvary built it well within reach of them all. (c) The one cross of Jesus Christ is enough for all the world. This one altar on Mount Ebal, for a long time, was deemed sufficient for the millions of Israel, and the anger of the home tribes when, six or seven years later, the two and a half tribes seemed to have erected a second altar for sacrifices (chap. 22) is not a little significant. Some people often talk of the sufficiency of the atonement in a very commercial way. Figures which the Holy Spirit has used to represent Christ’s work as precious, and the provisions of the Gospel as a rich banquet, are made to apply, not to intrinsic excellence, as they were intended, but to a definite purchasing or feasting power. Christ’s blood is “a price,” and forthwith we are given to understand that it will redeem a given number; or the Gospel is “a feast,” and its provisions are straightway contemplated as affording a sufficiency for believers. The Saviour’s death, in its extent, has, from the very nature of the case, absolutely no relation to numbers. A price may represent the preciousness of His shed blood, but not its definite purchasing power; a feast may faintly illustrate the richness of the provisions of the Gospel, but it is not meant to signify that the Gospel will feed so many, and no more. In a large and lofty room, lighted by what is termed a sunlight, placed near the ceiling, it would be foolish to say, “When the room is full, and two hundred men are seated within it, reading, the gas must be turned on full, but when only one person is so engaged in the room, the light may be reduced in the proportion of two hundred to one.” To see clearly, one man would need as much light as a room full. If fifty millions of people were suddenly to die, and pass away from the earth in one day, God would not turn the sun down to correspond with the world’s reduced number of inhabitants. Adam needed as much sunlight when he was on earth alone, as all the teeming millions of his descendants need now. Light which is not very local, is irrespective of numbers. The cross is not only light, it is light from heaven; and in order to see the way to heaven one sinner needs as much light as all the world. Men want to see clearly enough to be able to hope and to believe. They want light on God’s mercy, on His love, and on His willingness to pardon sin. In response to that want, Christ answers, “I am the light of the world.” Any single man needs all of Christ’s light in order to believe firmly, and all men together need no more. One sinner could have done with nothing less than Calvary; all the world combined would find this one altar sufficient for the wants of its thronging multitudes.
2. Historically, the site of this altar on Ebal was interesting and stimulating. It was here that Abraham received the first promise of Canaan, and just at the foot of the mountain he built his first altar in the land. Here the hope of possessing this inheritance had first dawned. It was well that the children who were taking possession should build their altar where their father Abraham had built his, and where he at first received and believed the promise. The cross of Christ should be dear to us in a similar light, (a) Our fathers were saved here, (b) Here hope first dawned on us. (c) When we go to take possession of the inheritance in which we now believe, we shall still, in spirit, gather round the cross.
3. Symbolically, the place where this altar was built was very suggestive. It was built on Ebal, not on Gerizim. On the place where the Israelites were bidden to put the curse, there God commanded them to erect the altar (cf. Deuteronomy 11:29). However strongly modern criticism may reject any spiritual meaning in this arrangement, such a meaning could hardly escape the attention of a people to whom God was revealing His will systematically through types and symbols. Where the curse was put on account of sin, there must the altar be placed in view of forgiveness.
III. The materials of the altar. These were to be “of whole stones,” over which no man hath lift up any iron (cf. Exodus 20:25). The leading idea in this command seems to be, not “that the altar might retain both the appearance and nature of earth,” but that men must not presume to attempt to finish God’s work, and to perfect for themselves a way of approach to His presence. The unhewn stones of the altar were to stand there as fashioned by nature, and were to “cry out against” every offerer who thought that he could do anything to make his own offering worthy of God, or that he could adorn by his own works anything which must, after all, depend entirely upon God’s grace.
IV. The offerings of the altar.
1. The burnt-offerings were offered on account of sin. Sin must be put away before any other service can be acceptable to God.
2. The peace-offerings were expressive of thanksgiving and fellowship. Keil says, “By the repast associated with the thank-offering (Deuteronomy 27:7), the communion of life with God, a communion both of house and table, was once more restored.” Thus does this ancient altar of the Old Testament teach us the same principles and truths as are set before us in the Gospel. “Coming events cast their shadows before,” said Campbell, and thus did this service at Mount Ebal project before men a spiritual outline of the coming cross.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 8:31.—THE ALTAR OF WHOLE STONES.
I. The materials connected with sacrifice to God were all prepared by God. Everything which had to do with offerings for sin, must be of Divine origin and formation. Men could only take of God’s own, and render it back to God again.
1. The stones of which the altar was built must be of Divine workmanship. The very altar on which the offerings were consumed, was to have its stones fashioned by the hand of Jehovah.
2. Not only the altar, but the sacrifices also, were to be of the workmanship of the Lord. Only that which had possessed life, could be presented as an offering for man’s transgression. “Without shedding of blood is no remission.” No man could create life; therefore, in part, living things were to be killed for sacrifices. Human hands must not hew into shape the stones of the altar, and they could not make the necessary offering. This is no accidental concurrence which thus points out mystically, and yet so clearly, that the way to the forgiveness of sins could be opened only by Jehovah. It is God’s Old Testament way of saying of Himself: “Neither is there salvation in any other.”
II. The altar of sacrifice, erected to the Lord, could not in anything be perfected or beautified by men. Any tool lifted up upon it, even by the most skilful artificer, would pollute it. We are not to presume to work after God, in order that the thing on which we labour shall be more acceptable in His sight. Ruskin, in his “Modern Painters,” has admirably expounded this, from the artist’s point of view. He says: “Our best finishing is but coarse and blundering work after all. We may smooth and soften and sharpen till we are sick at heart; but take a good magnifying glass to our miracle of skill, and the invisible edge is a jagged saw, and the silky thread a rugged cable, and the soft surface a granite desert. Let all the ingenuity and all the art of the human race be brought to bear upon the attainment of the utmost possible finish, and they could not do what is done in the foot of a fly, or the film of a bubble. God alone can finish; and the more intelligent the human mind becomes, the more the infiniteness of interval is felt between human and Divine work in this respect.… But more than this: the fact is, that in multitudes of instances, instead of gaining greater fineness of finish by our work, we are only destroying the fine finish of Nature, and substituting coarseness and imperfection. For instance, when a rock of any kind has lain for some time exposed to the weather, Nature finishes it in her own way; first, she takes wonderful pains about its forms, sculpturing it into exquisite variety of dint and dimple, and rounding or hollowing it into contours, which for fineness no human hand can follow; then she colours it; and every one of her touches of colour, instead of being a powder mixed with oil, is a minute forest of living trees, glorious in strength and beauty, and concealing wonders of structure, which in all probability are mysteries even to the eyes of angels. Man comes and digs up this finished and marvellous piece of work, which in his ignorance he calls a ‘rough stone.’ He proceeds to finish it in his fashion, that is to split it in two, rend it into ragged blocks, and, finally, to chisel its surface into a large number of lumps and knots, all equally shapeless, colourless, deathful, and frightful. And the block, thus disfigured, he calls ‘finished,’ and proceeds to build therewith, and thinks himself great, forsooth, and an intelligent animal. Whereas, all that he has really done is, to destroy with utter ravage a piece of Divine art, which, under the laws appointed by the Deity to regulate His work in this world, it must take good twenty years to produce the like again.… I do not say that stone must not be cut; it needs to be cut for certain uses; only I say that the catting is not ‘finishing,’ but unfinishing it; and that so far as the mere fact of chiselling goes, the stone is ruined by the human touch. It is with it as with the stones of the Jewish altar: ‘If thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.’ In like manner, a tree is a finished thing. But a plank, though ever so polished, is not. We need stones and planks as we need food; but we no more bestow an additional admirableness upon stone in hewing it, or upon a tree in sawing it, than upon an animal in killing it.” (Vol. iii., pp. 117–8.) The more educated a man’s sight becomes, to perceive artistic beauty, the more will he feel the truth of these statements. That truth must have infinitely more grace to Him who made the world, and who beholds clearly the most minute forms of beauty which His hand has fashioned, which lie utterly hidden from our grosser perception. To Him, indeed, our finishing must seem but poor rough work. But this is only half the truth, and the least valuable half, which God would have us read in His command touching the stones of the altar. If there were nothing more to be considered, God would bear to look upon our poor misshapen work in material things: in His fatherly pity He might even be interested in our uncouth forms, even as we are interested in the awkward letters in our child’s first copies, or in the result of his early attempts to fashion a toy. This command to the Jews was not merely to prevent uncouth material work, but to keep them from unsightly and harmful spiritual work. God would have men see, from the first, that the way of approach to His presence could never be through human working. The moral embellishments would fail even more grotesquely than the material. Even the perfect work of a heart and a life could only make an obedient servant, who had done that which it was his duty to do; to make a son, human work must give place to Divine work, to Divine gifts, and to Divine grace. If they were such, what, in the light of this commandment, are we to think of the so-called altars of some modern worshippers? What becomes of the ornate forms and the gaudy embellishments in the light of this Divine revelation of God’s will? Still worse, What is to be said of the principle which accepts all this as affording some easier access to His presence who said, “If thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it”? We have but one altar, and that is the cross; we have but one sacrifice, and that is Jesus Christ, who was offered once for all: henceforth, “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” To erect any other altar is to ignore Calvary; to bring any other sacrifice is to reject the Saviour as insufficient.
III. The altar which was so jealously guarded by God’s commandments, was thus guarded to preserve a pure conception of human worship. The Divine thought was not concerned with human architecture, but with men’s hearts. The stones were of small account to God, hewn or unhewn; it was of infinite importance that in coming to Him men should not be led astray. Jesus Christ, also, took this same care to preserve pure the way of human worship. Once at the beginning, and again at the end of His ministry, He swept from the temple the pollutions of men. He made a scourge of small cords, and with scathing words, and, it may be, sharp blows, He drove out the men who were corrupting the idea of worship in its fundamental principles. Christ was angry; and some weak-minded sceptics have sneered at the anger. Divine love had no alternative but to be divinely angry at a scene like that. What if some demon in human form, moved by the thought of gain, were to go about a large city, breaking fire escapes, or cutting holes in the hose of fire engines? What if he should secretly unnail boards in ships’ boats, damage anchor chains, file nearly through the wire rope holding the cage in which the miners descend to their work, and out of the death of many human victims seek to make his own fortune? Who with any manhood could be other than angry at work like this? Very degraded beings might contemplate with little feeling the purpose of the wretched man who lately proposed to blow a passenger ship to pieces with dynamite, which was to be exploded by clockwork when the vessel had been eight days at sea, in order that he might secure a sum of money on a false insurance; every one with common humanity was horrified and indignant at the tidings which revealed a brutality so dreadful and devilish. Goodness cannot but be moved to wrath at some things which this world shews. It was Christ’s dear pity which burst out into such blessed anger in the temple. He was indignant for us. Men were corrupting the streams of life. They were destroying the one way of salvation. They were polluting the idea of worship, and making the very temple of God an occasion for scorn and contempt. Similarly, the seething woes which are recorded in Matthew 23:0, were uttered by Christ against the Pharisees because they “shut up the kingdom of heaven against men.” So this altar, to these ancient people, was the divinely appointed way to the presence and mercy of God. God would have the way kept open. It was of little moment to Him what forms or finish might be presented by the stones of the altar; but the conception which His people had of worshipping Him was of profound importance. It was because of this that the Divine word laid so strong an emphasis on what, taken in an external sense, might seem comparatively trivial. The one way of salvation was by sacrifice, and men’s thoughts of that sacrifice must be kept free from pollution.
EBAL, GERIZIM, AND SHECHEM
“Mount Ebal, where Joshua erected the altar, was situated on the north of Sichem, opposite to Mount Gerizim, which was on the south side of the same town. These mountains rise with rocky cliffs almost perpendicularly to the height of about 800 feet on every side, from a broad valley of 3000 paces long, and from 500 to 1000 in width, in which the city of Sichem (Nabulus) is built. Most of the early travellers describe Gerizim as fruitful and picturesque, Ebal, on the contrary, as a rugged and barren mass of rock; but according to Robinson the sides of both, as seen from the valley, are equally bleak and barren, the only difference being that there is a small cleft in the side of Gerizim, towards the western end of the city of Nabulus, which is certainly full of springs and trees. With this exception the mountains are both barren, having only two or three olive trees scattered about.”—[Keil.]
Joshua 8:32. Wrote there upon the stones] Upon the plaster with which the stones were to be covered. These were not the stones of the altar itself, but rude pillars of stone reared near to the altar (cf. Deuteronomy 27:2-4). A copy of the law of Moses] Lit. = a double, or duplicate of the law. It seems natural to suppose that only the commandments which Moses commanded them on that day, i.e., the blessings and cursings ordered to be pronounced, were thus written. Compare Deuteronomy 27:3; Deuteronomy 27:8, with Joshua 8:1; Joshua 8:26 of the same chapter, and with Joshua 8:34.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 8:32-35
THE PROCLAMATION OF THE WORD OF GOD
No sooner had the altar been erected, than Joshua proceeded to set up other stones close by, plastering them over with cement, and then, ere the cement dried, “he wrote there” upon it, and thus “upon the stones, a copy of the law of Moses.” Judging by Joshua 8:34, by the natural meaning of Deuteronomy 27:3; Deuteronomy 27:8, and by the improbability that all of “the second law” would be written in this manner, it seems likely that only the blessings and the cursings were written on the plaster. The portion of Scripture which has been called the second law—Deuteronomy 4:44 to Deuteronomy 26:19 -contains no less than 538 verses, most of them being of unusual length. The law was to be written upon the stones “very plainly.” It is obvious that the preparation of a sufficient number of superficial feet of stone to receive a record of such length must in itself be a work of considerable time. It is not likely that many of the Israelites could take part in the work of inscription, which would be much more tedious. There is no evidence that this visit to Ebal was prolonged beyond a few days; indeed, the history supposes the contrary. We therefore conclude that the law written on the stones was simply that epitome of its principles and spirit contained in the blessings and curses.
I. The altar of the Lord and the word of the Lord go together. Neither is sufficient without the other.
1. The cross of Christ would be insufficient without the Scriptures. We need the Scriptures to assure us that He who died upon Calvary is indeed the Christ of God and the Saviour of the world. Some people speak lightly of doctrine. It has been said, “Give us facts; if the facts are against the doctrines, so much the worse for the doctrines; let the doctrines take care of themselves.” As if the facts of Scripture could be more than other facts without the doctrines which illuminate the facts, and which make them admissible. Take the fact of the three crosses on Calvary, and what is one cross more than another, without the doctrine which tells us that He who hangs between the thieves is none other than the Son of God? Faith in Him cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
2. The Scriptures would be insufficient without the cross. They would but reveal the surrounding darkness. They would but tell us of sin from which there would be no escape. The Bible, to be faithful, must still say, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight;” but without the sacrifice of Christ, it could never enable us to read, “There is therefore now no condemnation.”
3. Standing together, the cross and the Scriptures reveal salvation clearly. Taken separately, the one is incomprehensible, and the other a revelation which leads to despair; taken together, they blend to shed forth a light by which every repentant man and woman may see the King in His beauty, and behold, as his own ultimate home and country, the land which is very far off.
II. The word of the Lord is not only recorded, but recorded in a plain and an enduring manner.
1. These words were to be written so that there should be no difficulty in reading them. Moses commanded Joshua to write all the words “very plainly” (Deuteronomy 27:8). Such, also, was the command of the Lord to Habakkuk: “Write the vision, and make it plain upon the tables, that he may run that readeth it.” Such is the character of the Bible as a whole. Its message is so clear that he who reads, whether of wrath or mercy, may well run from the one and to the other.
2. These words were to be written in a manner which would preserve them for a long period. (Cf the quotation from ‘The Land and the Book,’ following this outline.) In a marvellous way, God has likewise preserved to us the records of the life of Christ and the epistles of the apostles. Owing to the long-continued dominance of the Greek power after the conquests of Alexander, the Greek language, at the time of Christ, was known almost throughout the civilised world. The Hebrew language had been the granary in which the seed of Divine truth had hitherto been carefully preserved; in the days of Christ, the Greek tongue became the machine by which the good seed was distributed, in many thousand furrows, to the very ends of the civilised earth. The Gospel for the Gentiles being ready, the language suited to spread it abroad was ready also. The Gospel for all nations was set down in a language so rich in literature that it would never die,—a language so necessary to the learned of all countries in the future, that the foremost men of every land throughout time would be certain to learn and know the tongue in which the truths of salvation were written. But while this language was so suitable for the spread of the Gospel, it was no less fitted to preserve the Gospel free from corruption. The Greek power had long ceased to be dominant. The Greek language was fast becoming what we call a “dead language.” If it had been a language spoken as widely as the Latin, and having as much vitality, the truths of the Gospel might have been varied by the changes which are always insensibly taking place in a living and spoken tongue. Thus Divine wisdom took this Greek language just where it was living and plastic enough to receive this great addition to its literature, and just where it was dead enough for the use and meaning of words not to be much changed. And what is the consequence? Like the rain-drift of ages ago, which stands written so plainly in the tablets of the stones, that we can tell even the direction of the shower; like the extinct animals, whose footprints, just as they left them, are set down in what is now hard rock; so these words of life from the lips of Jesus and His apostles became fossilised in a language just plastic enough to receive them, and just unused and dead enough to petrify into the unalterable word of truth. It was God’s way of lithographing the New Covenant, which no less than the Old was “written and engraven in stones.” In Old Testament times, God had the Scriptures laid up in the Ark, or written, as here at Ebal, on stones; in New Testament times, He laid up the Gospel unalterably in a widely known but dying language.
III. The word of the Lord is recorded not only in blessings, but also in cursings. The word ‘curse’ is not often used in the New Testament, but it is used; the threatenings of the New Testament, however, are certainly as severe as those of the first dispensation.
1. God’s promises of blessing are very precious. (Cf. Deuteronomy 28:3-14.) (a.) They cover our entire life. (b.) They are neither few nor small.
2. If the blessings are precious, the threatenings are not less necessary, (a.) The noblest motive for serving God is love of Him and of the things which He commands. Too few, it is to be feared, serve in this spirit, (b.) God, who “knoweth our frame,” permits us to serve Him in view of promised mercies. He plies us with the thought of reward to be gathered both here and hereafter, (c.) Divine wisdom has no less recognised the necessity of threatening. Those who will not serve Him in love, or from expectation of reward, His love seeks to awaken by fear. After knowing something of the blessedness of His truth, they may do His will from higher motives; but with many, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” How grateful we should be for this love which thus surrounds us on every side, and which prompts us in every possible manner to seek the way of life and joy.
IV. The word of the Lord is not only impartially written, but should be impartially proclaimed. When God Himself directs the public service in which the people are to approach Him, He will have the cursings uttered as well as the blessings.
1. The preaching and reading of God’s word is often partial, and one-sided. Chapters are read because they are pleasant and soothing. Themes are chosen which are inspiring and comforting. Thus, too often, the words of the Lord are subject to an irreverent selection. This is often done almost unconsciously. There may be no desire on the part of a minister to avoid any particular truths, and no consciousness of being unfaithful. Men get perverted by their sympathies. This evil is not merely the error of the pulpit, but also of the pew; for while it is true that a minister will do much to make a congregation what they are, the congregation will generally do much more to make a minister what he is. Time, and freedom from a public position in the service, are always on the side of the congregation. These perverted sympathies should be guarded against. Our strongest sympathies should always be in doing the will of our heavenly Father. Infinite love and wisdom have arranged, far better than we can, the desirable proportion of threatening and promise.
2. Experience shews that the threatenings of Divine truth have often awakened men to seek Christ, where words of mercy have failed. President Edwards never uttered kinder words than when he preached his truly awful discourse from the text, “Their feet shall slide in due time.” Many in glory now, know how to thank him, and God for him, because of the loving earnestness which moved him to risk even utterances like those, if by any means he might save some. It has been affirmed that this sermon has never been preached without conversions, although spoken several times by the author, and sometimes by others, on account of the remarkable blessing by which it had invariably been followed.
V. The word of the Lord thus written and proclaimed, was written and proclaimed for all the people. It was read “before all the congregation of Israel.” The women were there, for the Bible has no words of help for men, which are not addressed to them also. The little ones were there. They were not too young to hear the word of the Lord, and in the event of the fathers’ backsliding, their very children might rise up to reprove them. The strangers were there: proselytes, it may be, like Rahab and her family. How this proclamation of the word of the Lord to everybody rebukes the practice of the Romish Church in withholding, as far as possible, the Bible from the people. The elders and the little ones, the princes and the poor, the judges and the judged, were all to listen to, and might all read, these words of the Lord God.
VI. The word of the Lord to all the people was a word to which all the people bore witness, and which, if broken, would, in its turn, witness against them.
1. The people testified that this word must be either a blessing or a curse. Every word of God comes under this description. To the unfaithful God has said, “I will curse your blessings” (Malachi 2:2), while from all the obedient He removes the curse for ever. The word of the Lord to every hearer now is “a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death.”
2. The people gave their “Amen” to the threatenings as well as to the promises. Thus even the Old Testament reveals God as preparing to say, “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant.” No man who provokes the curse will find room to complain of its penalty as unjust. The heart of every hearer of God’s word now inwardly utters its “Amen” to the truth as it is in Jesus.
3. The people who thus accepted the word of God, necessarily made the acts of their after life a petition to God The “Amens” which they had so solemnly uttered were so many interpretations which they themselves agreed should be put to their daily deeds. Henceforth, when a man made or worshipped idols, he was virtually saying to God, “Let the curse be upon me.” When he removed his neighbour’s landmark, set light by his parents, misled the blind, or perverted judgment, he rendered himself liable to the curse pronounced on Ebal, and his guilty act, read in the light of his “Amen” then, still invoked the curse. The after generations who know what their fathers had done, and who could not but recognise the justice of the law to which their ancestors had given so solemn a consent, stood in exactly the same position. To know the covenant to which their fathers had agreed, was to become parties to its terms. Thus, all through the dispensation, the daily life of each Israelite was a prayer for blessing, or a prayer for the curse. It is equally so with men now. Every heart hearing the word of God acknowledges its purity, authority, and justice; and for a man to know the word and do it not, “to him it is sin.” and each sin invokes the penalty to which the conscience has given its solemn assent.
“The deed ye do is the prayer ye pray:
‘Lead us not into temptation, Lord;
Withhold the bread from our babes this day,
To evil we turn us, give evil’s reward.’
Over to-day to-morrow bends,
With an answer for each acted prayer;
And woe to him who makes not friends
With the pale hereafter hovering there!”
—G. S. Burleigh.
4. The people who solemnly assented to the word of the Lord, gave a no less solemn witness to its unfailing truth. The after history of the nation reads like an echo of these utterances on Ebal and Gerizim. That history is the seal and testimony of Time that the Scriptures are what they claim to be,—“a sure word of prophecy.”
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 8:30-35.—THE SOLEMN SERVICE AT MOUNT EBAL.
I. The erection of an altar to the Lord. “History repeats itself.” Abraham’s altar (Genesis 12:6). Jacob’s altar (Genesis 33:18-20).
II. The writing of the word of the Lord. This was:
1. By the altar.
2. On the stones.
3. In the centre of the land. The Scriptures are to be accessible to all the people.
III. The proclamation of the word of the Lord. This should be:
IV. The hearers of the word of the Lord. These should embrace men:
1. Irrespective of rank and occupation.
2. Irrespective of age.
3. Irrespective of nationality.
Joshua 8:33.—THE DIVINE IDEA OF PRECEDENCE AND HONOUR AMONG MEN.
The tribes were to stand “half of them over against Mount Gerizim, and half of them over against Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded.” In Deuteronomy 27:0, the arrangement of the tribes is specified, and is declared to be not merely the word of Moses, but the command of Jehovah. The enunciation of the blessings could hardly fail to be esteemed the more honourable work. The very selection of the tribes recognises the blessing as the more, and the cursing as the less honourable part of the service. In this Divine recognition of precedence and honour among men, certain principles of interest and importance are more or less clearly marked:—
1. Nothing preventing, the elder children are preferred before the younger. The list of the tribes chosen to bless begins with Simeon.
2. The youngest of the children take precedence of the man who has forfeited his character. Reuben, although the firstborn, gives place even to Joseph and Benjamin. His lost character was reckoned as a lost birthright (cf. Genesis 35:22; Genesis 49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1).
3. The children of the legitimate wives are placed before the children of Zilpha and Bilha. Reuben and Zebulun are the only two children of Jacob’s wives who are passed by; the former for the reason stated, and the latter as the youngest son of Leah. Dan and Naphtali are probably named before Zebulun, on the ground of seniority. Joseph and Benjamin seem to be chosen for the work of blessing, because, although they were younger than Zebulun, they were the first and second children of the second wife, whereas Zebulun was the sixth child of the first wife.
EBAL AND GERIZIM
“Imagine that the range of mountains running north and south was cleft open to its base by some tremendous convulsion of nature, at right angles to its own line of extension, and the broad fissure thus made is the vale of Nablûs as it appears to one coming up the plain of Mukhna from Jerusalem. Mount Ebal is on the north, Gerizim on the south, and the city between. Near the eastern end, the vale is not more than sixty rods wide; and just there, I suppose, the tribes assembled to hear the ‘blessings and cursings’ read by the Levites.… This was, beyond question or comparison, the most august assembly the sun has ever shone upon; and I never stand in the narrow plain, with Ebal and Gerizim rising on either hand to the sky, without involuntarily recalling and reproducing the scene. I have shouted to hear the echo, and then fancied how it must have been when the loud-voiced Levites proclaimed from the naked cliffs of Ebal,’Cursed be the man that maketh any graven image, an abomination unto Jehovah.’ And then the tremendous Amen! tenfold louder, from the mighty congregation, rising, and swelling, and re echoing from Ebal to Gerizim, and from Gerizim to Ebal. ‘Amen I even so let him be accursed.’ No, there never was an assembly to compare with this.…
“Moses did not order such a Herculean labour as to grave the whole law in marble, but simply to write it on or in properly prepared cement. In this hot climate, where there is no frost to dissolve the cement, it will continue hard and unbroken for thousands of years. The cement on Solomon’s Pools remains in admirable preservation, though exposed to all the vicissitudes of the climate, and with no protection. The cement in the tombs about Sidon is still perfect, and the writing on them entire, though acted upon by the moist, damp air always found in caverns, for perhaps two thousand years. What Joshua did, therefore, when he erected those great stones at Mount Ebal, was merely to write in the still soft cement, with a stile, or, more likely, on the polished surface, when dry, with red paint, as in ancient tombs. If properly sheltered, and not broken away by violence, they would have remained to this day.”—[The Land and the Book.]
THE PLACE AND USE OF DIVINE THREATENINGS.
A late writer, with some knowledge of mountain vegetation, has said: “While the trees and flowers that clothe the fields of nature are dispersed over the wide surface of the earth, there are mountain regions lying within the tropics, where, in the course of a single day, the traveller finds every vegetable form peculiar to every line of latitude between the equator and the poles. These are all laid out in regular arrangement. Leaving the palms which cover the mountain’s foot, the traveller ascends into the region of the olive; from thence he rises to a more temperate climate, where vines festoon the trees, or trail their limbs along the naked rock; still mounting, he reaches a belt of oaks and chestnuts; from that he passes to rugged heights, shaggy with the hardy pine; by-and-by the trees are dwarfed into bushes; rising higher, his foot presses a soft carpet of lowly mosses; till, climbing the rocks where only lichens live, he leaves all life below, and now, shivering in the cold, panting in the thin air for breath, he stands on those dreary elevations, where eternal winter sits on a throne of snow, and, waving her icy sceptre, says to vegetation, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.’ ”
In Bible scenery, to the anxious spiritual climber, the order of the landscape often lies the other way. His spiritual experience begins amid stern and severe threatenings. He endeavours to ascend to more fruitful regions, and comes now to warnings, and now to precepts which he seeks to embody in the duties of his daily life. These affording no peace, he climbs yet further, finding exceedingly great and precious promises, but feeling that he cannot, and must not, call them his own. Rising higher, the love of God breaks upon his view; would that he could find it God’s love to himself! Climbing still, he comes to the cross of a dying Saviour, from which Mercy pleads even for the murderers of the Son of God, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness which can compass and embrace such, can surely include him, and thus he passes into the peace of faith; and henceforth, from his high standpoint, he looks out with the joy of an heir of God, and of a joint-heir with Christ, on the spiritual territory around him. Thus do many, inverting the way of mercy as it is experienced by others, come into the knowledge of forgiveness by starting from the fear wrought by threatenings. Climb to the summit of Bible truth into the rest of faith how he may, that man will have a firmer peace and a broader outlook, who, discarding the sentimental and unintelligent idea that God is unmixed love to everything, finds a richer depth of mercy in contemplating the wrath which, in himself, he so fully merited, and which, through Christ, he has so completely escaped.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Joshua 8". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany