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THE DISBANDING OF THE TROOPS OF ISRAEL
Joshua 22:4-5. Now return ye, and get you unto your tents, and unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side Jordan. But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord charged you, to lore the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.
THE duties of soldiers and of their commanders are well illustrated in this passage. The soldier’s chief excellence is a prompt, steady, persevering, uniform obedience to the commands of his superiors, without regarding any difficulties, any dangers, any sacrifices: and amongst the chief excellencies of a commander is an attention to the spiritual and eternal interests of those who are under his authority.
The Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites, had received their portion on the other side of Jordan on the express condition, that a just proportion of their tribes should pass over Jordan to fight in concert with the other tribes, and not return unto their inheritance till the whole land should be subdued. This they had done; and now that they were about to be disbanded, Joshua acknowledges to their honour, that “they had kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded them, and had obeyed his voice also in all that he had commanded them.” But whilst he commends them for their fidelity to him, he endeavours to impress upon their minds a sense of duty and allegiance to God; and enjoins them to “take diligent heed to serve the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul.”
From this parting exhortation we are led to remark,
That a progress in holiness is above all things to be desired—
[Had Joshua merely judged it proper to insert an admonition relative to their religious duties, one or two expressions would have sufficed: but from the multitude of expressions used in the text, we see of what unspeakable importance he considered religion to be to every child of man. He not only mentions the subject first in general terms, that “they should do the commandment and the law,” but enters particularly into it: they must have, as the principle of their obedience, the love of God: the extent of it must be to all God’s ways: and, as to the manner of it, they must cleave to him with an unalterable determination of their wills, and the most ardent exercise of their affections — — — This is holiness; but nothing short of it will suffice. We do not say that the Christian must be perfect: for where should we then find a Christian? but he must aim at perfection, and be continually pressing forwards for the attainment of it. This was the great object of Joshua’s solicitude both for himself and his soldiers: this was the great end for which our Lord Jesus Christ died upon the cross, even “to purify to himself a peculiar people zealous of good works:” and this must be the one object for which we should desire to live.]
That, whatever progress any person may have made, he still needs to hear words of counsel and exhortation—
[The soldiers whom Joshua was disbanding had continued with unshaken fidelity to fulfil their engagements: and though they had been detained from their families and possessions for seven years, they never once murmured or repined at the delay: yet Joshua did not on that account think that his religious counsels to them were superfluous. Nor should the most established Christian imagine himself to be beyond the reach of danger, or to have attained such eminence as not to need every possible help for his furtherance in the divine life. St. Peter, writing to those to whom “the divine power had already given all things that pertained to life and godliness,” says, “I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth.” And indeed the counsel in our text intimates, that, in order to do the commandments, we must “take heed,” yea, “take diligent heed” to them; so many are our temptations to violate them, and so averse are we by nature to observe them — — — In a general way, the truth of these observations will be thought so obvious, as that they scarcely deserved a mention: but experience proves, that they need to be insisted on with all possible earnestness: for, whilst the professors of religion depart from open iniquity, there is in every one of them some besetting sin, which they are prone to cherish and indulge. Moreover, their blindness with respect to that sin is most astonishing: for, not only are they unconscious of its domination, but they are even ignorant of its existence in them; and not unfrequently do they give themselves credit for that as a virtue, which others see to be their greatest defect. How blind are men to their pride, their vanity, their worldliness! How often does an angry and bitter spirit habitually prevail in men, who never mourn over their unchristian tempers, or appear even to be aware of them! — — — We call upon all then to “be jealous over themselves with a godly jealousy;” and to hear the exhortations of the Gospel with an especial reference to themselves, searching out their own spirit, and striving to attain the full “mind that was in Christ Jesus.”]
That a state of peace and prosperity is a season of peculiar danger—
[Now the disbanded soldiers were returning to the bosom of their families, and the peaceful prosecution of their worldly business: and, as Moses had long since warned them, they were in danger, whilst enjoying “houses which they built not, wells which they digged not, and vineyards which they planted not; they were in danger, I say, of forgetting the Lord their God.” And who does not feel how apt the mind is to yield to the pleasures of sense, and to relax its ardour in the pursuit of heavenly things, when it has no trials or troubles to stimulate its exertions? Visit the chambers of sickness, and of health; and see how different the same persons are under the two different states! View persons under painful bereavements, and see them afterwards in the full enjoyment of all earthly comforts! Truly, if we regarded heavenly things only, we might rather congratulate men on troubles than on the absence of them, and account prosperity their greatest snare. To all then who are looking forward to any worldly acquisitions or comforts, or who are now living in the possession of them, we would urge with peculiar earnestness the necessity of vigilance, lest having “begun in the Spirit, they end in the flesh.” Hear the exhortation of an inspired Apostle: “Follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord; looking diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled [Note: Hebrews 12:14-15.]:” there you may see the hidden nature, the growing tendency, the baneful effects of sin; its effects in the heart, the Church, the World — — — O that we may be ever on our guard against its secret workings; and most of all on our guard, when ease and prosperity are administering opiates to our souls!]
“Suffer ye then, Brethren, a word of exhortation [Note: Hebrews 13:22. If this were on the occasion of disbanding troops, the commendation given by Joshua, as well as his exhortation, should, as far as was applicable, be insisted on.]”—
[When ye are released from your present warfare, and are dismissed to your eternal inheritance, ye will be beyond the reach of sin: in the bosom of your God your holiness and felicity will be complete. But, as long as you are in this world, you will need to have every word of Joshua’s injunctions repeatedly enforced. See then to it that you “love the Lord your God,” who has redeemed you from sin and Satan, death and hell — — — See that, from a sense of love to him, and his love to you, your obedience be carried to its utmost possible extent; and strive to “be perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” — — — And, since it is certain that you will find many things to draw you away from him, mind that you “cleave to him with full purpose of heart,” “abhorring that which is evil, and cleaving to that which is good” — — — Lastly, let all your affections centre in Him, and in his ways: let “your whole heart and your whole soul” be engaged in his service; and let the delight which you experience in fulfilling his will, be manifested, “not in word and in tongue, but in deed and in truth;” so that your bitterest enemy, or most watchful observer, may have no room to doubt either the excellence of your principles, or the reality of your attainments.]
THE ALTAR OF WITNESS
Joshua 22:11-12. And the children of Israel heard say, Behold, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh have built an altar over against the land of Canaan, in the borders of Jordan, at the passage of the children of Israel. And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them.
RELIGION has often been made a plea for ambitious and bloody projects: but it never was on any occasion so truly and properly the ground of war, as in the event that is here recorded. The tribes who had their portion on the east of Jordan, after having been disbanded, came to the land of their possession: and, apprehending that at some future period they might be disowned by their brethren on account of their not having their inheritance in the land of Canaan, they built a large altar on the borders of their own land near Jordan, to serve as a memorial to all future ages, that they belonged to the tribes of Israel, and were the worshippers of Israel’s God. The other tribes having no conception of an altar being erected but for sacrifice, regarded this as an act of rebellion against God, and determined instantly to go and punish the supposed apostates. But first they agreed to send an embassy, to see whether they could not prevail by milder methods to reclaim them from their wickedness. The ambassadors went; a convention met; an explanation took place; the misapprehensions were removed; and all was speedily and amicably settled.
Now this history will suggest many useful hints for the regulating of,
[The question was, in fact, of infinite importance to the whole nation. Repeated occasions had arisen wherein the sin of individuals had been visited upon the whole nation. The iniquity of Achan had not long since caused the defeat of Israel’s hosts, and the loss of six and thirty men: and, not very long before, the connexion of many with the Midianitish women in whoredom and idolatry, brought destruction on twenty-four thousand Israelites in one day. What then could he expected, but that, if these who had erected the altar should pass unpunished, God would punish all the other tribes as partners in their guilt? To avert so terrible an evil was their bounden duty; and therefore they acted right in determining to avenge the quarrel of their God. But, as it was possible they might prevail by gentler means, they sent delegates from every tribe, with Phinehas at their head, to expostulate with them on their conduct. These were met by other delegates from the supposed offenders, and every thing was cleared up to their satisfaction: and thus the controversy was terminated to the unspeakable joy of all parties.
Now in this we see how nations ought to act, whenever grounds of disagreement arise, and their mutual interests interfere. Their ambassadors should confer with each other in a conciliatory manner, anxious to prevent extremities, and, by mutual explanations and concessions, to adjust their differences. One thing in particular was worthy of applause in those who seemed disposed for war: they were intent only on the prevention of iniquity; and, imagining that the altar had been raised with a view to put the land of Gilead on a footing of equality with the land of Canaan, they offered to give up a proportionate share of their own land to those who had erected it, and thus to sacrifice their own interests for the preservation of peace. Alas! how different is this from what is usually found amongst contending nations! Modern embassies are most frequently characterized by duplicity and concealment, by chicanery and finesse, and by a wanton pertinacity about matters of inferior moment. Were all actuated by the spirit of Israel on this occasion, were frankness on the one side met by patience and conciliation on the other, the earth would be no more deluged with blood, but the “swords would be beaten into ploughshares,” and happiness would reign, where nothing but desolation and misery is seen.]
But this history will be further useful for the regulation of,
[This act was in reality an enforcing of the existing laws under the direction of the civil magistrate: for, though Joshua is not mentioned, we can have no doubt but that Phinehas and the ten princes had received his sanction at least, if they did not proceed by his express command. The law of God had plainly enjoined, that there should be only one place for God’s altar, and that all the tribes should offer their sacrifices there [Note: Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 12:7.]. It also commanded, that, if any attempt should be made by any part of Israel to establish idolatry among them, the remainder, after due inquiry, should cut them off with the sword [Note: Deuteronomy 13:12-15.]. This then was an interference of magistrates in support of the laws: and it was indispensably necessary that they should interfere, to prevent so fatal a schism as was likely to arise.
We would not be understood to say, that civil magistrates would be justified in using the sword for the prevention or punishment of schism now. The true Church is not so accurately defined now, as that any one body has a right to assume to itself the exclusive privilege of being called The Church of Christ: nor is there any commission given to magistrates to use carnal weapons in the support of any particular system, either of doctrines or of discipline, in the Church: but where, as in the instance before us, there appears to be a public renunciation of all religion, and a profane contempt of all laws, the magistrate is bound to interfere; and every Christian in the land is bound to give him his support. Opinions are not within the cognizance of the civil magistrate, except when they are manifested in actions, or are so promulged as to endanger the peace and welfare of society: but, when carried to that extent, they justly come under his control. This vigilance however, though sufficiently exercised in relation to the things which concern the State, is but little seen in the suppression of profaneness and iniquity. We have laws against every species of iniquity; but they are not carried into effect. The fear of divine judgments on the land scarcely ever enters into the bosoms either of magistrates or people: hence, if only there be no flagrant violation of the peace, iniquity may prevail almost to any extent, without any one to vindicate the honour of God, or to avert his displeasure from a guilty land. In this respect there is an awful difference between the Israelites and us: insomuch that we, with all our superior advantages, are not worthy to be compared with them. Yet we must remember, that whenever we put forth the arm of power for the suppression of vice, our first object must be, by expostulation, to reclaim; nor must we ever inflict punishment, till milder measures have failed of success.]
This history will be yet further useful to us in the regulation of,
“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing:” but our zeal should particularly exert itself,
To prevent apostasy from God—
[This was the real object of the persons who raised the altar: they, in a most reverential and solemn manner, called God to witness that they had been actuated only by a desire to transmit to their posterity an indelible assurance, that they were as truly the Lord’s people, as those who dwelt in Canaan; and that though their land was separated from that of their brethren, their interests and privileges were the same.
Here was a noble example of regard for posterity. It might have been better indeed to have consulted Joshua, or rather to have taken counsel of the Lord, respecting this measure, before they had carried it into execution: but holy zeal does not always pause to consider all possible effects and consequences; (though doubtless, the more tempered it is with wisdom, the more excellent it appears:) but God does not blame their conduct: and in this at least we shall do well to follow it, namely, by exerting ourselves in every possible way to transmit, and to perpetuate even to the remotest ages, the knowledge of God, as our God, our Father, and Redeemer.
The other tribes also manifested a noble zeal, in the same cause, though by different means. They were fearful that this altar would be the means of turning many of their brethren from the worship of the true God; and they went forth at the peril of their lives to prevent it. It may be said, that these two were less temperate than they should have been: but, convinced as they were in their own judgment, their zeal was not at all more ardent than the occasion required. Though they spoke roughly, they spoke with candour, and with a perfect openness to conviction, if any thing could be said to justify the act. And their offer to surrender a part of their own possessions, in order to remove the temptation to which, in their own minds, they had ascribed the act, shewed, that they were actuated solely by a regard for God’s honour and for Israel’s good.
Here then is proper scope for all our zeal. We should remove, as far as possible, both from ourselves and from our children, every temptation to apostasy from God. We should rebuke sin in others also, and set ourselves against it to the uttermost, We should shew ourselves on all occasions on the Lord’s side; and be willing to sacrifice, not only our property, but even life itself, in vindicating his honour, and maintaining his interest in the world.]
To preserve love and unity with man—
[If we find somewhat to blame in each of these opposite parties; in the one, an undue precipitation in building the altar; and, in the other, an undue hastiness in ascribing it to wrong intentions; we behold much, very much, to admire in both. When the accusers found themselves mistaken, they did not shift their ground, and condemn their brethren for imprudence: nor, when the accused had evinced their innocence, did they condemn their accusers on the ground of uncharitableness and injustice: the one were as glad to acquit as the others were to be acquitted; and both united in unfeigned thankfulness to God, that all ground of dissension was removed.
Now it will almost of necessity sometimes happen, that the well-meant actions of our brethren shall be misconstrued, through an ignorance of their precise views and intentions: it may also happen, that the well-meant reproofs of our brethren may be founded in misconception. Here then is ample room for the exercise of well-tempered zeal. To avoid, on the one hand, unnecessary accusations, and gladly to retract them if they have been unwittingly adduced; and, on the other side, to avoid vindictive recriminations, and with pious meekness to satisfy the minds of any whom we may have unintentionally grieved: this is the spirit which we should continually cultivate: it should be the labour of our lives to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”]
To avert the divine judgments from our guilty land—
[It is a memorable expression which is recorded on this occasion: “Now ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the Lord [Note: ver. 31.].” Sin delivers us into his hand for punishment. Of this, the history of Israel in all ages is a decisive proof [Note: If this be the subject of a Fast Sermon, the judgments inflicted on us may be adduced as an additional proof.]. On the other hand, repentance delivers us out if his hand; as was remarkably exemplified in the case of Nineveh: which, but for the intervention of their penitence, would have been overthrown in forty days. But we need not go further than to the history before us, where this very effect is ascribed to the pious zeal of the Reubenites and Gadites. Happy would it be for us, if we all considered the effect of our conduct on the public welfare! God has no pleasure in punishing his creatures: and he is ever ready to remove his judgments, when they have produced in us the desired humiliation. Let us then approve ourselves to him: and then, though our zeal be misinterpreted, and even our own brethren be for a time incensed against us, our righteousness shall be made to appear, and our labours be crowned with the approbation of our God.]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Joshua 22". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany