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What mean ye by these stones?
The first act in Canaan
These stones proclaimed certain realities. Taken from the dry bed of the river, they declared God’s power in cutting off the waters before the ark of His covenant; twelve in number, one stone for each tribe, they declared how that all Israel had entered into Canaan; set up together in Canaan, they witnessed to Israel’s unity in that land. Moreover, they became a memorial to the nation of Jehovah’s work for them. First, these stones declared Jehovah’s great work for His people; even Jordan emptied of its waters before the ark of His covenant, and His people brought thereby into the fulness of their blessing. Now as we truly recognise that we are brought, in Christ, into the heavenly places, our first action in spirit will resemble that of Israel: we shall extol God for His power and might in accomplishing His purpose in bringing us into such blessing. Christ, our ark, went down into death for us, exhausted its power, stripped it of its might; and God has given us, who were dead in sins, life “together with” Christ risen from among the dead, and has set us in Him in the fulness of blessing, so that as truly as Israel through the passage of the Jordan were in Canaan, saints now are in Christ in the heavenly places. To enter into this grace, it is necessary to keep before our hearts, in faith, the measure of God’s Divine power exercised towards us, the exceeding greatness of which is according to that energy and might of His “which He wrought,” &c. (Ephesians 1:20). And speaking in the language of the type under our consideration as “clean passed over” Jordan, the Christian’s first act should be the heart recognition of what God has done. We are across the river; to God through Christ be the praise. Next, the stones, twelve in number, “according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel” (Joshua 4:5; Joshua 4:8), spoke of the whole of Israel. Christians occupy themselves practically with spiritual, not national, unity; therefore with the truth that all saints of every nation are one in God’s sight and according to His purpose. Saints are seated together in the heavenly places in Christ, the one common place of blessing for all who believe. One association and one privilege mark all saints, and all equally have the highest and the best place. Even as each individual believer has life for himself “together” with Christ risen (Ephesians 2:5), so have all believers the highest privileges in common; they are by God made “to sit together” (Ephesians 2:6). The pillar of twelve stones, set up in Gilgal, became a memorial to the nation of Jehovah’s work for them. The question, “What mean ye by these stones?” which the children would ask their fathers was to be answered by a relation of the Lord’s doings. And well indeed may Christians recount to their children what God has wrought. Our little ones should be grounded in the great truths of God’s Word. Redemption, resurrection, and ascension facts should be implanted in their minds and memories. (H. F. Witherby.)
The pile of stones speaking
It is an outrage to build a house like this, occupying so much room in a crowded thoroughfare, and with such vast toil and outlay, unless there be some tremendous reasons for doing it; and so I demand of all who have assisted in the building of this structure: “What mean ye by these stones?”
1. We mean that they shall be an earthly residence for Christ. Jesus did not have much of a home when He was here. Oh, Jesus! is it not time that Thou hadst a house? We give Thee this. Thou didst give it to us first, but we give it back to Thee. It is too good for us, but not half good enough for Thee.
2. We mean the communion of saints.
3. We mean by these stones the salvation of the people. We did not build this church for mere worldly reforms, or for an educational institution, or as a platform on which to read essays and philosophical disquisitions; but a place for the tremendous work of soul-saving. Do not make the blunder of the ship carpenters in Noah’s time, who helped to build the ark, but did not get into it. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Stones buried and raised
I. These stones were most emphatically A monument of great might. The hand of man is capable of great achievements. How stupendous, how unparalleled, was the work of carrying Israel across Jordan in this fashion; yet how easily, how quickly, how quietly, was it all done!
II. Yet these stones formed a monument that might be despised. Simple and rude it was; it had no beauty or architectural comeliness, to be desired; it was nothing more than a rough pyramid of twelve muddy stones. With what contempt would an Egyptian look down upon it. But, after all, ostentation is human, simplicity is Divine; for though, from a human point of view, the wonder commemorated here was very great, what was it from the Divine? Nothing. What, after all, was the opening up of this passage to Him who upholds all things by the word of His power, who gathers the waters in the hollow of His hand, who taketh up the isles as a very little thing? Nothing, and less than nothing. It was easy for the men of Israel to raise such a monument. Yes; yet it was harder for them to heap up these stones than for God to heap up these waters; and all the might that reared the pyramids could never have congealed these depths.
III. Again, this monument had a worldwide reference and a special application. Most monuments have a very restricted reference. They speak to a political or a religious community; to the inhabitants of a city or the natives of a country, or to the members of a common faith; but this simple monument on Jordan’s bank has a voice for all mankind. It gives a declaration of God’s mighty power, so clear and emphatic that if men do not hear its testimony it is because they have stopped their ears. And if it had, for the human race as a whole, a great lesson to teach, it was fraught with special instruction to the Israel of God. To all men it cried, “God is mighty”; to Israel it testified, “This God abides thy God for evermore.” He is your refuge and strength. Therefore this monument was set up that they might remember and fear the Lord for ever and walk in His ways, and do His commandments.
IV. Other lessons are taught by these stones. They were twelve in number, arranged in their places by twelve warriors, one from each tribe; therefore it is plain that the whole people are represented by these stones. Also there were two sets of twelve stones: one set in the bed of the river, buried by its waters; another raised from the bed of the river, and piled upon its bank. Therefore we have here the whole people represented in two different aspects. The twelve buried stones speak of Israel in one relation; the twelve raised in another. Think of the buried. What mean ye by these stones? They lie on the bottom of the river, covered by its muddy waters. They represent God’s chosen people, for they are twelve. The strange place, therefore, in which they lie, must be a representation of some spiritual and important truth concerning Israel. What is it? “By grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” The death of those who came out of Egypt made this very plain. Now the children have arisen in place of the fathers, and they are about to enter in. What is their title to the inheritance? Is it better than that of their fathers? Is it true that they are worthy; that they have clean hands and a pure heart, and have not lifted up their souls unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully? Is it true that they are righteous? Can they claim entrance because of their obedience to the law? Nay, by the law shall no man be justified; and this burying of the twelve stones most solemnly emphasises this declaration. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” The sinner must leave the old man behind; the body of sin must be destroyed; we must be born again ere ever we see or enter into the kingdom of God. Do we ask, where is the old man, the body of sin? The Cross and grave of Christ give answer: it is gone, clean gone for ever; lost sight of, as these stones in the bed of Jordan. They are buried, to know no resurrection; yea, God tells us He has cast them behind His back, into the depths of the sea, a far deeper grave than Jordan. Through Alaric I. the Goths first learned the way to Rome. He and his rugged hosts were everywhere invincible. All Italy, luxurious and effeminate, lay at his feet. He extended his conquest as far south as Sicily. But at Cosenza in Calabria he was seized with a deadly malady. When he died, his followers had to face a great difficulty. What were they to do with the dead body of their great leader? It was impossible to carry it back over Italian plain and snowy Alp to the dark forests of his fatherland. It dare not be left to the mockery and desecration of the caitiffs he had conquered. Therefore they determined to bury it in the bed of the river Busento. They set their captives to the task of diverting the stream from its channel, and there in its dry bed they dug the grave of Alaric. Then, when he was buried deep in his rocky tomb, and the waters rolled once more in their wonted channel, to hide for ever the secret of this strange sepulchre, all the captives were put to death. These Goths wished to give their king a grave which no hand could reach. Even such a grave has God given our sins, and here in these stones we behold a picture of what He has done. We are buried with Christ. Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin but alive unto God by Christ Jesus our Lord. But there were twelve stones raised upon the bank as well as twelve buried in the bed of Jordan, and we may well ask, “What mean ye by these stones?” This is the positive side of the same truth we have been considering. As the buried stones speak of death, so the raised speak of resurrection. We are not only buried with Christ, but are also quickened with Him, raised with Him, and seated with Him in heavenly places. The twelve buried stones picture our place on account of sin; the twelve raised declare our place on account of righteousness. The first speak of weakness; the second of might. The one declares all “old things are passed away”; the other, “all things are become new.” These twelve stones set on Jordan’s bank were raised from Jordan’s bed. That river, as it were, begot them. They were of it, from it, out of it. Even so the Church of Christ is begotten and brought forth from His death. The agonies of Christ crucified were the travail pangs of the new creation. As His people are buried with Him, so are they quickened, “begotten again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.” Yes, it is a “lively hope.” The great pyramid of Egypt was after all a monument of despair, “the eternal abode” of the dead. This little pyramid of Canaan is a pyramid of hope, placed in the goodly land conspicuously and permanently; reminding those that believe that we are not only raised with Christ, but seated with Him in heavenly places--that we are henceforth a constituent part of His inheritance. (A. B. Mackay.)
This primitive form of a memorial is common to almost all nations. Of this character are the Egyptian obelisks and the cairns and the Druidical circles in England and Scotland. The text is the question of the children. The sight of the cairn would awaken curiosity. It has been well asked, “What child in Altorf but must have inquired respecting the statue of William Tell, or in Lucerne about the lion sculptured by Thorwaldsen to commemorate the deaths of the Swiss Guard? “These memorial stones would remind the tribes of God’s greatness and goodness. But the stones must have tongues in order that their testimony may be more complete. They were not simply to be memorial; they were also to be declaratory . . . Occupying to-day for the first time this place of worship, it is fitting that we should ask and answer the old question, “What mean ye by these stones?” The form which the stones have taken partly answers the question. Turret, tower, and spire point heavenward. In its symmetry and sincerity the whole structure preaches the need of truth in the heart and life.
1. These stones express our conviction of the world’s need of Christ’s gospel. Sin is the terrible fact in human existence. It is the absence of wholeness and of happiness; of Godlikeness here, and of heaven hereafter. It has separated man from God, and man from man. It is the prolific parent of all our woes. In the fulness of time the Christ was born. One element, the negative element, in that fulness was the world’s fruitless effort to help itself. Mighty Rome, in her abject helplessness, was calling for a deliverer. Beautiful Greece was stretching out her hands for a healer. Christ was both to both so far as they received Him. The experience of the world must be that of each individual. God says, and experience echoes the saying, “Thou hast destroyed thyself.” Thank God He speaks this other word: “But in Me is thy help.”
2. These stones express our faith in Christ’s gospel to meet the world’s need. To each man, guilty and condemned, it offers, through the death and mediation of Christ, a full and free pardon. It makes the redeemed here have foretastes of heaven. It harmonises all the conflicting interests of human society.
3. These stones declare our faith in and our duty toward the aggressive, the missionary side of Christ’s gospel. It means to conquer the world. It will do it. This is its lofty ambition and its Divine destiny. In this respect it stands unique among the religions of the world. We are not to satisfy ourselves by singing, “Hold the fort!” we must shout, “Storm the fort!” Our anti-mission Church is an anti-Christian Church.
4. These stones declare our faith in our distinctive organic order as a body of Christians, as being in harmony with Christ’s gospel. (R. S. MacArthur.)
Stones of memorial
I. The memory of god’s goodness is honouring to god himself. To receive favours from an earthly friend, and then to forget them, and to act as if they had never been bestowed; this is ingratitude, base and contemptible. How much worse is the conduct of those who are insensible to and negligent of the favours shown by God to man! Especially should redemption wrought by the Son of God be kept in everlasting remembrance. The least we can do is to praise and glorify the God of grace.
II. The memory of god’s goodness is a stimulus to piety. Remembrance feeds the flame of devotion, of love, of trust. To think of God’s favours and to be thankful is “a good thing,” is profitable to the spiritual life, and conducive to fellowship with God, and to true happiness and contentment.
III. The memory of god’s goodness is an encouragement in time of trial, danger, and fear. The distressed and harassed may well call to mind the Divine interpositions of the past, which will lead them to exclaim: “The Lord hath been mindful of us: He will help us.” (Family Churchman.)
The memorial stones
I. What was God’s purpose?
1. The memorial was to be an aid to faith.
2. It had the purpose of cherishing gratitude.
3. It was a reminder of the need of unity.
II. What are the prophetic aspects of this memorial?
1. The two piles of stones, according to St. Augustine, represent the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles; the new Israel on the bank of the old river, the old in the midst of the stream, as the “buried” past. Thus the “memorial” is the Church of Christ, built upon the apostles, the one Divine Society, which is founded on a Rock, and against which the gates of hell may beat, but cannot prevail; for it is a memorial “for ever.”
2. As the passage of the Bed Sea represents baptism--God “safely led the children of Israel Thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby Thy holy baptism” (Prayer Book)--so some writers have seen in the crossing of Jordan a figure of the pardon for sins committed after baptism; in other words, an image of repentance. Further, as after passing Jordan, the Passover was kept, so after repentance the Holy Communion is received. In fact, the memorial as to its purposes may be compared to the Holy Eucharist; that is, a “memorial” of the death and passion of Christ: “Do this, for My memorial”; it is the great service of thanksgiving for redemption, as its name announces; and it is a pledge of unity, for “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one Bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
3. Further, as through Jordan the Hebrews entered the land of promise, the “Holy Land,” so penitence must be introductory to a holy life, which leads to heaven.
4. It may be noticed that by some modern writers Jordan is regarded as the river of death, and the words, “How wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5) to be applicable to the fears which surround death, through which all must pass before they can “see the kingdom of God.”
1. To sustain our faith by the use of those “outward and visible” signs--the Sacraments, which our Lord has appointed as the memorials of what He has wrought for us.
2. To make our lives more lives of thanksgiving, and especially by receiving the Holy Eucharist, which is the “thanksgiving” which Christ ordained to be offered up to the end of time, “till He come” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
3. Further, let the twelve stones remind us of the union which should exist between the members of Christ; for whilst we are bidden to “honour all men,” the apostle says further, “love the brotherhood.”
4. The cairn of stones at Gilgal should teach us that we “as lively stones are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood,” &c. (1 Peter 2:5). The truest witness to Christ is to be found in the lives of His members, those who make Him visible. To such, the power which made a way for Israel through Jordan will not fail them, and the promise will be fulfilled by the Saviour (Isaiah 43:2). (Canon Hutchings.)
I. That the spiritual life should be one of continued memorials. Is it not one continued course of mercies? And as these mercies, these proofs of love and care telling sweetly of the provision of a Father, the grace of a Saviour, the presence of a Comforter, are manifested day by day and hour by hour, what cry so fitting as that of the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits”? How delightful to look back and trace the dealings of God with your soul; or, not confining the mind to spiritual things, to see how, at times, especial providences have fallen out, telling of unceasing watchfulness on the part of the Lord, and calling for devout acknowledgment on yours. How delightful to find that you have not overlooked these signs of goodness, but that they still live fresh in loving recollection, and that here on earth those things are not forgotten which assuredly will furnish themes of praise hereafter in heaven. It has been so all along. Observe Abraham on mount Moriah; Jacob on the plain by Luz; Moses after Israel’s defeat of Amalek at Rephidim; Samuel when the Philistines had fled before him; look at the children of Israel here at Gilgal; the same Spirit moves them all.
II. It is useful to consider what we should commemorate, and the manner in which such commemoration should be observed. We might speak of national mercies, and mercies to our Church; of signal benefits, such as our pure creed, our heritage of the Word of God, the opening of wide fields for Christian enterprise, the revival of the spirit of religion, which, a century ago, made England see a wondrous resurrection from spiritual death, and which is still manifesting itself in a thousand forms for the good of man. Such things as these call for deep thankfulness. The Christian community which can recount them may appropriate the language (Psalms 78:1-7). But just in proportion as thankfulness fills the individual heart will the general mind of the community feel its expanding power. The revival of God’s work in this, as in other respects, must begin in the individual, and the community will take its tone from the majority. And if we learn to value for ourselves, by personal participation, the blessings of the gospel of Christ Jesus, we are prepared to appreciate the benefit which those blessings confer on the community: if we really set up our memorials for saving mercy conferred on ourselves, the Divine goodness shown to our nation and our Church will not readily be overlooked.
III. Why it is desirable to act in the way that has been pointed out. We are prone to look rather at our sorrows than at our joys; to brood over trouble rather than to be grateful for prosperity. Poor complaining souls, take heed lest you rebuke God. Look on the other side. Try to count your mercies. “My mercies.” Yes! The help God has given you over and over again; the difference which you may find between your trials, which are so great, and those of your neighbour, which are even greater; the patience and long-suffering with which God has borne all your repining, your murmuring, your forgetfulness of Him, your doubts and fears and unbelief; the grace which has spared you instead of cutting you off in sin and casting you down to hell; the rich privileges and means of spiritual good brought to your very door and placed within your reach, set by your side from time to time, with merciful perseverance and consideration for your soul. Let us be well assured that if we kept these things more in remembrance the spiritual life of the people of God would flourish and abound to an extent as yet not generally seen.
1. There would be more gratitude. Fresh exercises of praise would spring from hearts whose thankfulness would be from time to time more specially revived.
2. There would be more hope. As desires after mercies might arise, they would not be vague, but accompanied by well-grounded expectations based on the past experience of so many mercies remembered.
3. There would be more faith. When dark clouds gather we should see the light streak where they would ere long break, the golden fringe to show that the sun is still there. We should feel that these shadows shall be dissipated as others have been.
4. There would be more happiness. Where gratitude and hope and faith abide, repining and doubt can find no room. (C. D. Marston, M. A.)
Memorials! What are they? For what do they stand, and what do they teach? They are special signs of Divine interposition in human lives, and commemorate some event or circumstance claiming special remembrance and study.
I. This memorial was commemorative and suggestive.
1. It commemorated a new departure. They had not been this way before, they had never stood so near the fulfilment of hope as they did now. This is typical of every life. We all have our new departures, times of marked and decisive change, when some sudden bend in the road completely changes the track, leads us into new scenes of activity or rest, giving us new revelations and new experiences, and are truly periods of deep interest, epochs, red-letter days in our lives; we cannot forget them, and have raised memorials marking them as points to be remembered and studied.
2. It commemorated a signal mercy. Every Christian life has its seasons of peculiar need, which are often made special means of grace. And should he not raise memorials to mark both the trial and the mercy?
3. It commemorated a remarkable deliverance. What a sublime spectacle! When all human aid is unavailing, and nothing can save but direct Divine intervention, then Jehovah commands the waters to stand up upon a heap, again showing His salvation to His people. Some such memorial you have in your life. Some time of pressing need, when human help failed, and God came to your deliverance by opening up a path through the deep waters for you. And have you made no mark, no sign, put up no lasting reminder?
II. The value of such memorials.
1. They witness for God. They stand at different points on the ways of life, bearing silent but telling testimony to the power and grace of the Infinite Father in some time of sore and pressing need, confirming our faith in the doctrine of the conscious, abiding, personal presence of God in the lives of His people.
2. They remind us of mercies received in the past. We are consciously faulty in memory, are apt to forget the blessings already received, and to grow impatient and fretful when things are a little contrary; then it is of service to us to go back a little in our history to some of these times of God’s special nearness to us, when He gave us such unmistakable proof of His presence and grace by some marked deliverance, some special blessing, or some signal answer to prayer; when we can refresh our faulty memories by putting our hand upon some place, or time, or event in our life that we had marked by a stone of memorial, as a record of faith in God and gratitude to Him.
3. They inspire confidence and hope for the future. Much was before them to perplex.
4. They check despondency and gloom.
5. They supply precious lessons of Divine faithfulness. God would have us raise these memorials by the way to remind us of His covenant engagements. The past shall repeat itself in our future.
6. These memorials are of service to others. The pillar at Gilgal was not only to be a memento of the sovereign mercy of God to those who had actually witnessed the cutting off of the waters of Jordan, blot it was to supply to posterity some precious lessons of Divine majesty and love. Much so it is with the memorials of Christian lives--they exert a helping influence on other lives.
7. These memorials supply incentives to increased devotion, and stimulate to loftier praise. In this day of scepticism, coldness, indifference, and practical infidelity, when the actual presence of God in individual lives is more or less ignored, it is both refreshing and reassuring to take up Christian biography and hear how the holy men and women who have passed into the Father’s house accounted for similar events in their lives. I have sometimes seen family Bibles marked with peculiar hieroglyphics which a stranger could not read or understand; but ask the husband or wife to tell you what these marks mean, and you will find that each has a history precious and sweet to the marker. They are pillars that have been raised to remind them of some special answer to prayer, when they pleaded that promise; or When some extraordinary light broke upon the mind, on a certain day, as they pondered and prayed over that verse; or perhaps it was a literal fulfilment of another promise on which they had rested in a time of distressing calamity, and they have placed these memorials there to call to mind the signal mercy of God in their time of urgent need, and they would as soon doubt the need as they would the source of supply. “God did it for us,” they say, “as surely as He divided Jordan for Israel to pass over to Canaan.” I have also heard matured Christian men converse together on God’s dealings with them, and have felt a strange thrill pass through me as one of them has put his hand upon some pillar in his life and said, “Here God met me, and I communed with Him. It was a time of bitter pain and need, and I was bowed down to earth with the burden, and was fainting by the wayside, but the Lord drew very near, and I seemed to hear His voice speaking to me, and asking me to tell Him about the pain, and I was drawn out to tell Him all, and He blessed me there, by giving in a way marvellous to me just what I needed; I rose up a strong man, and the grace was so like a miracle that I put up this memorial, and this spot is very dear to me, for here I saw God face to face and my life is preserved.” (J. Higgins.)
The stones buried in the Jordan
As a memorial of this wonderful passage, twelve stones were selected from the rocky bed of the river, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel; and these were borne across before them on the shoulders of twelve men, and planted on the upper terrace of the valley beyond the reach of the annual inundation. In this manner was formed the first sanctuary of the Holy Land, which was a circle of upright stones--like one of the so-called Druidical circles in which our pagan ancestors worshipped in our own country. But besides this memorial which was set up on the western bank of the Jordan, there was another set up in the bed of the river itself. In the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood, in the centre of the channel, twelve stones like those which had been carried across to the opposite bank were arranged probably in the same manner; and when the river, which had been temporarily driven back wards to allow the Israelites to cross, returned to its forsaken bed, its dark, muddy waters flowed over the buried stones and hid them for ever from view. Thus there were two monuments of the miraculous passage of the Jordan taken from the materials of its own bed; one that gave rise to the sacred shrine of Gilgal, which was for a long time the appointed place of worship in the land; and another that was buried out of sight for ever in the muddy ooze of the deep rushing river. The sacred narrative tells us what were the purpose and meaning of the monument that stood on the dry land and was visible to every eye; but we have to find out what were the purpose and meaning of the monument that was invisible beneath the waters of the river. The place where they entered the Holy Land is unique. There is no other place like it in the world. It is the deepest chasm on the surface of the earth--at a great depth below the level of the sea. Do we not see in this circumstance a symbol of the deep repentance and self-abasement which a people so sensual, so ignorant, required before they could be fitted to occupy the heights of worship in God’s holy heritage? Then look further at the fact that the time when the Israelites crossed the Jordan was the spring-time, which in Palestine is the commencement of the barley-harvest. We are told elsewhere in Scripture that the harvest is emblematical of the judgment. It was therefore a time of judgment when the Israelites crossed the river; their past sins, their numerous rebellions, and outbursts of unbelief, deserved condemnation and punishment; their iniquities rose up against them, and demanded their exclusion from the land of promise as unworthy. But God in His great mercy held back the waters of the Jordan, the waters of judgment and death, which would otherwise have overwhelmed them, whilst His holy ark stood in the midst of the stream, and Israel crossed in safety; a token surely that though He was angry with them, His anger had passed away, and He was about to give them double for all their sins. Look further still at the significant fact that when the Israelites had erected their first sanctuary on the other side of Jordan, on the soil of the Holy Land, which by this solemn act became their own inheritance, they were immediately circumcised, and thus consecrated anew to the Lord, made new creatures, as it were, from their birth to Him. So that we see in this incident, as well as in the circumstance that the older generation which had left Egypt all perished in the wilderness, and only their children entered the Holy Land, what we may regard as the origin and illustration of our Lord’s saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Seeing, then, that all the incidents and circumstances of the passage of the Israelites across the Jordan form a very focus of symbolism, we are surely warranted in looking for a spiritual significance in the burying of the memorial stones in the bed of the river. The Jordan was a boundary river, separating between the wilderness and the promised land. It flowed down to the dreary, lifeless solitude of the Dead Sea. Its waters, laden with mud, were dark and drumly, and concealed their bed and whatever they flowed over completely. Its course also was very rapid and impetuous. In all these respects it was a most expressive symbol to the Israelites. The transition from the wilderness to Canaan was not made over continuous dry land; a water-boundary was interposed, through which they had to pass. And did not this teach them that in the passage from the wandering life of the desert to a settled home in the land of promise they were not to continue the same persons in the new circumstances that they had been in the old; but, on the contrary, were to undergo a moral change, a spiritual reformation. They were to be made a holy nation, in order to be fit occupants of the Holy Land. Their passage of the Jordan was therefore a baptism of repentance; the river at the entrance of the Holy Land, like the laver at the entrance of the tabernacle, afforded a bath of purification; and the memorial stones laid in the bed of the river, over which the waters, when they had safely crossed on dry land, returned, burying them for ever from sight, represented the fate which should have been theirs had God dealt with them according to their sins. And just as the scape-goat carried away the sins of the people, confessed on its head, into the wilderness, into a land of forgetfulness, so the dark, muddy waters of the Jordan carried away the stones which represented the sins of the Israelites into the Dead Sea, there to be engulphed for ever. All baptism is in a spiritual sense the crossing of a boundary. When a child is baptized it crosses a boundary between nature and grace--between ignorance and knowledge. And when in later life we are baptized with a spiritual baptism, born again of water and the Spirit, we cross the boundary between spiritual death and life--from the kingdom of Satan to that kingdom which is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Now the river of baptism is a river of death. In crossing it we die to sin and live to righteousness. In entering into the new life the old life perishes. Through the death of the old man there is the resurrection of the new man. All that is connected with the old life of sin and unbelief is taken from us and carried down to the Dead Sea. The body of sin is drowned in the waters of forgiveness, and shall no more rise up against us. Like the stones in the bed of the Jordan, there is no resurrection for that which was connected with our former dead sinful selves. And how precious is the significance of the buried stones when looked at in this light! It is not a truth that pleases the intelligence by its ingenuity only; it is a truth that Satisfies the heart by its suitableness to its wants. How comforting and reassuring is the thought that when, through faith in Christ, we have crossed from a state of nature to a state of grace, all our sins are cast into the sea of God’s mercy. They are as completely buried out of sight as the stones in the ooze of the Jordan. The peace that is like a river and the righteousness that is like the waves of the sea flow over them,(H. Macmillan, D. D.)
The witness of the stones
1. They were stones of witness, for in after-years they powerfully proclaimed that the miracle of dividing the water of the Jordan was true, since they were raised at the very time; they were erected publicly in the sight of the people, and no one would have dared to make such a monument, and to declare that it commemorated such an event, had the miracle never taken place. Scripture miracles are attested by witnesses, which attestation distinguishes them from the so-called miracles of the heathen world.
2. And the stones of Gilgal were stones of encouragement, for when Israel looked on them, and recollected that they recalled God’s power, no doubt could be felt that God was able to make their enterprise a success. When the great cities, vast wealth, and mighty armies of the Canaanites were considered, many a Hebrew might feel his heart sink within him as he looked on the rude and undisciplined host which Joshua had led across the Jordan. But a glance at the stones of the circle of Gilgal would dispel all such fears, and he would think--“The mighty Jehovah who divided the waters of Jordan is on our side; and against the power that cleft asunder the waves of that river what can the might of the Amorites avail? Jehovah is with us, and against Him whose word divided Jordan vain is the power of the Canaanite, and our victory is absolutely sure.”
3. But while these stones gave encouragement to Israel, they bore witness in a different manner to their enemies, for to the Canaanites they were stones of warning. How could Amorite or Hittite withstand invaders whose God possessed the power of dividing the waters of Jordan? They had run riot in sin; they had stifled conscience: they had despised warning; and now the day of mercy was past, and the avengers were upon them, and who could hope to resist their power and to escape their swords, when their God made the waters of Jordan to stand as a heap in the day when His people passed over? Sin will not go for ever unpunished; God’s Spirit shall not always strive with man, and corruption shall not with impunity defile the fairest portions of a groaning creation: but when the day of grace has passed, the day of vengeance shall certainly follow. The stones in Gilgal are gone, the circle is destroyed, and the stony witness of encouragement and warning is no longer borne; but there are stones around us now which give their witness, and our ears must be heavy if we do not hear, and our minds dull if we do not understand, the testimony that they deliver. “What mean these stones?”
1. They show God’s power; for who could make such mighty foundation rocks, and after their formation could heave them up into their present lofty heights, but a Being possessed of almighty power?
2. What wisdom, too, is exhibited in their formation! What a wonderful skill is shown in the selection of their constituent elements, and in their combination according to a fixed design!
3. And what goodness also do these stones of the hills manifest? for how useful they are to man, and how it stimulates his inventive faculty to quarry, shape, and erect them as monuments to beautify the creations of his genius! Man puts up milestones to measure the length of his journey, and God also erects milestones to mark how man himself is advancing on that journey which we are all travelling. What is our life but a journey? ever advancing and ceaselessly progressing day by day, month by month, and year by year. Life’s journey is to many painful and wearisome. The morning of life, with its freshness, is gone; the noonday sun beats fiercely on our heads; the novelty of changing experiences has passed away; and as we slowly advance along the highway of daily life, our hearts begin to get weary, and we too become discouraged “because of the way.” God puts up His milestones to mark our progress on life’s journey, and as we pass them successively, it is solemn to notice their witness and their character. The eyesight begins to grow dim: slowly, indeed, but surely; and we treat the fact almost with indifference. It is a mere common event, but it is another milestone on the road of life, to show that the end will before long draw near. The hearing is dulled. Pleasant sounds can no more be enjoyed, and the harmonies of nature’s and of human music gratify us no longer. We quietly accept the inevitable, perhaps with sigh, but at all events with resignation, knowing that it must be so; and in the heavy ear we recognise another of God’s milestones. Memory now begins to fail. We cannot trust it as formerly, and do not attempt to tax its power for fear that it should prove treacherous. Failing, capricious memory! what is it but another milestone placed by God by the side of the road of life to tell us that we have passed over the greater part of our journey and are drawing near to home? The milestones of the way, how differently they affect different people! Here is a man going away from his country, seeking his place of abode in a distant land, and leaving behind him all he holds dear in this world: his lands, his treasures, and his friends. Milestones are sad things to him, for they tell him that his time in the land in which all his pleasure is found is rapidly passing away. But here is another man, returning to his home. He has been in a foreign land; has made his fortune: has landed on his return at the well-known port, and is journeying rapidly along the highroad to his loved and long-expected home. He knows a welcome is there: dear ones are all looking out for his arrival, and his greeting will be joyous, while he will not merely meet them, but will never leave them again. How quickly he walks! How slowly the milestones seem to pass! The heat of the sun, the length of the way, the ups and downs of the road, are all nothing to him, for the thought of the home ever drawing nearer and nearer makes him take no notice of them whatever. So it should be with us. We have had, perhaps, our morning of life, and it may be that the journey is beginning to grow wearisome; but let us think less of the road and more of the home. (D. G. Whitley.)
The priests . . . stood . . . until everything was finished.
The way of difficulty
I. Remembrance of God is the only encouragement through which some parts of life’s way become bearable and passable.
II. God’s regard to the greater trials of our life does not call off his attention from details. He not only parted the waters, but He waited in the river, both in power and presence, “until everything was finished.”
III. the general commandments of the bible are meant to regulate and control the specific acts of our life. “According to all that Moses,” &c. But Moses had never given any commands touching the actual passage of the Jordan. Yet Moses had commanded an implicit reliance on Divine guidance and a careful obedience to Divine requirements. Such general words covered all the particulars of the case. There are many things in the family, in business, in the Church, and in the world, which no specific precept may touch; there is absolutely no place which we can occupy in our daily life which in principle and in spirit is not covered by the Scriptures.
IV. While divine patience never wearies in giving us necessary help, when God goes before we should promptly follow. “The people hasted and passed over.” Whatever motive actuated their haste, haste was the right thing for the time. God does not work that we may idly look on. His manifest energy is a call for our marked diligence (2 Samuel 5:24).
V. God, who makes way in the van of our difficulties, is no less necessary to secure our rear (Joshua 4:11; Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Not only that He may see His people, but that He may save them, He besets them “behind and before.” (F. G. Marchant.)
The people hasted
Probably the majority of the people were moved by fear, but some feelings may have led some of the host to hasten, and other considerations others.
I. The haste of fear. This also leads to Canaan.
II. The haste of diligence. With so much to be done, each had need to remember, “the night cometh.”
III. The haste of reverent obedience. God does not work mightily and command urgently that men may move slothfully.
IV. The haste of compassion. While the people tarried, the priests must wait. No man ever idles without expense and inconvenience to some one else.
V. The haste of unconscious influence. The quick movement of a few would communicate itself to all. Our pace times that of our companion, and his that of others. (D. G. Whitley.)
Quick use of opportunity
They made the best use of the golden opportunity afforded them, and with the utmost alacrity and diligence hastened across the river while thus laid bare for them. The torrent was restrained by the mighty power of God to afford the people an opportunity to pass over dry-shod. But there was no time for presumptuous delays, as though they could count upon an indefinite prolongation of this favoured season, and might postpone crossing until it suited their pleasure, in the confidence that God’s grace would wait upon their dilatory movements. There was no disposition on the part of any to remain as long as they could on the wilderness side, with any chance of getting into Canaan before the waters should rush back again into their accustomed channel. (W. H. Green, D. D.)
The people’s haste
The priests and the ark stood still; but “the people hasted and passed over.” Many commentators assume that they hastened from fear. Such haste would have been both utterly unseemly, and an evil omen for the conquest. There were other reasons for making all possible haste. Were they not keeping the priests of God with their arms outstretched, to bear up their holy burden? And moreover, there, distinct before them, beautiful in the soft, rich light of the early morning, lay the homes, and vineyards, and fields, which they were to possess. A few steps, and their feet would be in Canaan; a few moments, and the weary waiting of years would end. As the tired labourer hastes at the first glimpse of his home, so must they have hastened. There may have been, also, some innocent rivalry to be among the first to touch the further shore. All these motives, indeed, might easily combine as they hastened and passed over. And shall not the thought that Jesus waits till all be gathered in--waits, without coming yet “in His power and great glory”--shall not this thought stir up His Church, not only to be looking for, but hastening His coming? The love of Christ constraining us, will urge us onward. And who that has had “the eyes of the understanding opened” to behold what are “the riches of glory” of this inheritance in Christ Jesus would not fain “to his speed add wings,” that he might enter it and at once possess it? (S. F. Smiley.)
Come ye up out of Jordan.--
Firm in duty
We can fancy how the people who had reached the western shore lined the bank, gazing on the group in the channel, who stood still waiting God’s command to relieve them at their post. The word comes at last, and is immediately obeyed. May we not learn the lesson to stand fixed and patient wherever God sets us, as long as He does not call us thence? God’s priests should be like the legionary on guard in Pompeii, who stuck to his post while the ashes were falling thick, and was smothered by them, rather than leave his charge without his commander’s orders. One graphic word pictures the priests lifting, or, as it might be translated, “plucking,” the soles of their feet from the slimy bottom into which they had settled down in their long standing still. They reach the bank, marching as steadily with their sacred burden as might be over so rough and slippery a road. The first to enter were the last to leave the river’s bed. God’s ark “goes before us,” and “is our rearward.” He besets us behind and before, and all dangerous service is safe if begun and ended in Him. The one point made prominent is the instantaneous rush back of the impatient torrent as soon as the curb was taken off. Like some horse rejoicing to be free, the tawny flood pours down, and soon everything looks “as aforetime,” except for the new rock, piled by human hands, round which the waters chafed. The dullest would understand what had wrought the miracle when they saw the immediate consequence of the ark’s leaving its place. Cause and effect seldom come thus close together in God’s dealings; but sometimes He lets us see them as near each other as the lightning and the thunder, that we may learn to trace them in faith, when centuries part them. How the people would gaze as the hurrying stream covered up their path, and would look across to the further shore, almost doubting if they had really stood there that morning! They were indeed “Hebrews”--men from the other side--now, and would set themselves to the dangerous task before them with courage. Well begun is half done; “and God would not divide the river for them to thrust them into a tiger’s den, where they would be torn to pieces. Retreat was impossible now. A new page in their history was turned. The desert was as unreachable as Egypt. The passage of the Jordan rounded off the epoch which the passage of the Red Sea introduced, and began a new era. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Life a journey
I. That human life in this world is a journey.
1. Change of scenery.
2. Approach to an end.
3. Unsettledness of feeling. Life’s journey is--
II. That human life in this world is a journey which will have an end.
1. Our end is certain.
2. It is solemn.
III. Human life in this world will have an end which may be glorious.
1. It may be glorious in the courage of the traveller.
2. It may’ be glorious in the destination reached. (Homilist.)
Those twelve stones.., did Joshua pitch in Gilgal.--
The double monument of the passage of the Lord’s host across the Jordan
Many fine allegories have been reared upon the foundation of the twenty-four stones that were placed, twelve in the river-bed, and twelve at the encampment in Gilgal. Some have spiritualised them as types of death and the resurrection; others have seen in them a representation of the prophets and apostles of the Old and New Testament dispensations. They mean that the passage of the Israelites over Jordan is--
I. A real event. The history that records it is not an oriental poem or a patriotic legend. It is not a fine conception of an impassioned imagination. It is not an exaggeration. We have before us a plain matter of actual history.
II. A significant event.
1. God was glorified. He was herein exhibited as “the living God” (Joshua 3:10), and “the Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:11).
2. Joshua, moreover, was magnified, and shown to be Moses’ divinely-sanctioned successor (Joshua 3:7).
3. The Israelites, moreover, were assured. With the remembrance of the naked channel of Jordan, what cause of trepidation can remain?
4. By this miracle their enemies were appalled--namely, the inland Amorites, the immediate spectators; and the Canaanites, or coast tribes (Numbers 13:30) in the distance, who heard the report (Joshua 5:1). The passage took place “right against Jericho” (Joshua 3:16). Oh, portentous sight for the inhabitants of that fortress!
III. A pattern event. It was with apparent reference to this event that God promised His people by the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, “When thou passest through the waters,” &c. Let us, then, claim the promise, and embrace the consolation that this history declares to us for ourselves. And what can we do in these “swellings of Jordan”? Here is an answer to our misgivings, “The Lord will do wonders among you!”
IV. A symbolical event.
1. On the one hand, we may regard the passage of the Jordan as a glorious and “abundant entrance” into the promised inheritance.
2. On the other hand, we may regard it as illustrating, not only the triumphant close, but also the hopeful beginning of the believer’s course, and conversion, not death, will be the aspect of Christian experience that we shall recognise.
1. Are you yet in your sins? and do you long to experience the saving change of the new birth? But does a very torrent of difficulties seem to roll at their fullest height between you and the peace and pardon you long to enjoy? Go forward, and fear not. Jesus Himself calls you. He Himself accompanies you. Every hindrance will vanish if you obey His word.
2. Are you already amongst God’s people? Have you anxieties, difficulties, obstructions, in your course of life? He who opened a highway through the Jordan is also your helper.
3. Is Jesus your hope, and do you nevertheless quail when you think of the hour of your departure hence, when you must leave all you love here below? (Isaiah 43:1-8). (G. W. Butler, M. A.)
The stones of memorial
I. Great events deserve commemoration. In them God is the teacher. Men have always been ready to perpetuate the memory of their own great deeds. By memorial structures, memorial days, memorial observances, they have sought to keep alive the knowledge of their achievements and to foster a regard for the sentiments which lived in them. It has been common for all men in every age to act upon the principle which Daniel Webster stated when the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill Monument was laid: “Human beings are composed not of reason only, but of imagination also, and sentiment, and that is neither wasted nor misapplied which is appropriated to the purpose of giving right direction to sentiments, and opening proper springs of feeling in the heart.” But no memorial structure elaborately reared to perpetuate right feeling and sentiment could subserve this end as fitly and fully as did the rude circle of stones set up at Gilgal. It nursed no pride of ancestry. It declared God’s “mighty acts.” Reminded by this rude memorial, one generation praised His works to another. They were led to speak of the glory of His kingdom, and to talk of His power.
II. God expects the children to become interested in great events of the past. It was for the children’s sake that the circle of stones was set up at Gilgal. It was to awaken their curiosity. God wishes the children to ask a great many questions. In this way He would have them learn what He has been doing for His people in past ages.
III. God expects the fathers to be ready to answer the children’s questions. The stones of Gilgal could be of little use to those children whose parents did not keep freshly in mind the events commemorated. They would become a monument whose inscription had faded away. No doubt the word “fathers” means parents, but it is worthy of remark that it does not mean mothers only or especially. The father who gives over to the mother the religious training of the child fails in the special duty which fatherhood imposes. He shirks the greatest responsibility of life. The father who answers his child’s questions by evasion acts unworthily. “My wife takes care of the religion of the family,” a busy man said. But this is not God’s plan. This father’s life, in many respects admirable, failed miserably in a central, essential duty. For this failure no other well-doing could compensate.
IV. The stones erected at Gilgal suggest more lasting memorials which God has set up.
1. A memorial book. Concerning this book He would have the children question and the fathers give answer. How has this book been made, and by what providence has it been preserved?
2. A Church with memorial rites. What do baptism and the Lord’s Supper have to tell us about God’s ways with men?
3. A memorial day. Sunday is God’s commemoration day. It stands a lasting memorial of the greatest event in human history. (W. G. Sperry.)
The memorial stones
Gilgal, the first encampment, lay defenceless in the open plain, and the first thing to be done would be to throw up some earthwork round the camp. It seems to have been the resting-place of the ark, and probably of the non-combatants, during the conquest, and to have derived thence a sacredness which long clung to it, and finally led, singularly enough, to its becoming a centre of idolatrous worship. The rude circle of unhewn stones without inscription was, no doubt, exactly like the many pre historic monuments found all over the world which forgotten races have raised to keep in everlasting remembrance forgotten fights and heroes. It was a comparatively small thing; for each stone was but a load for one man, and it would seem mean enough by the side of Stonehenge or Carnac, just as Israel’s history is on a small scale as compared with the world-embracing empires of old. Size is not greatness; and Joshua’s little circle told a more wonderful story than its taller kindred, or Egyptian obelisks or colossi.
1. These grey stones preached at once the duty of remembering and the danger of forgetting the past mercies of God. When they were reared they would seem needless; but the deepest impressions get filled up by degrees, as the river of time deposits its sands on them. We do not forget pain so quickly as joy, and most men have a longer and keener remembrance of their injurers than of their benefactors, human or Divine. The stones were set up because Israel remembered, but also lest Israel should forget. We often think of the Jews as monsters of ingratitude; but we should more truly learn the lesson of their history if we regarded them as fair, average men, and asked ourselves whether our recollection of God’s goodness to us is much more vivid than theirs. Unless we make distinct and frequent efforts to recall, we shall certainly forget God’s goodness. The cultivation of thankful remembrance is a very large part of practical religion; and it is not by accident that the psalmist puts it in the middle, between hope and obedience (Psalms 78:7).
2. The memorial stones further proclaimed the duty of parental instruction in God’s mercies. They speak of a time when tradition was the vehicle of history; when books were rare, and monuments were relied upon to awaken curiosity which a father’s words would satisfy. Notwithstanding all differences in means of obtaining knowledge, the old law remains in full force, that the parent is the natural and most powerful instructor in the ways of God. The decay of parental religious teaching is working enormous mischief in Christian households; and the happiest results would follow if Joshua’s homely advice were attended to, “Ye shall let your children know.”
3. The same principle which led to the erection of this simple monument reaches its highest and sacredest instance in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus, with wonderful lowliness, condescends to avail Himself of material symbols in order to secure a firmer place in treacherous memories. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The Lord your God dried up the . . . Jordan.--
That is true. We saw it. We were there. It is happening every day. Take out the mere detail and put in the great picture, and what is it? It is Divine interposition in the affairs of life. It is God taking away all hindrances to the progress which He Himself has purposed and defined; not the hindrances to your progress, but the hindrances to His own progress as shown through your life. He will not take any stones out of our way if they lie between us and ruin. He will rather embed those stones a little more firmly. God be praised for His hindrances! We wanted to make that contract, and could not. We had the pen in hand to sign it, but the ink would not flow, or the light suddenly gave out, and we dropped the pen. What did it? We see now we were going to sign away our birthright, our liberty, our honour, our conscience, and we were doing this more or less unconsciously, and God said “No.” Blessed be God for His denials! Sometimes we are able to say, “Blessed be God for His bereavements!” Let God alone. Let us put our lives lust into His hands and say, “Lord, they are Thy lives more than ours. Thou hast only lent them to us. We would not spoil one moment of these trembling frailties which we call our lives. Undertake everything for us and use us. We will run Thine errands, we will obey Thy will, we will do what Thou dost bid us do. Lord, undertake for us. Then if there is a river in the way Thou wilt dry it up, if there is a Red Sea in the way Thou wilt command it to stand back, and we shall walk through the beds of rivers as if they were beds of roses,” you would be greatly comforted, as I have been in a thousand instances, by reasoning from the river to the sea. This is the right method of inference, by induction and by deduction. What has God done for us in the past? Hear David. He said: “The God that delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from this uncircumcised Philistine. I will strike him in the name of the Eternal.” Was it a rash act? It was reasoned piety. Why did the young man’s blood boil for one moment and then subside? It was all the piety of the past gathered up into one supreme stroke. Sometimes one act of faith condenses a lifetime of study, experience, and prayer. “Wondrously doth life bring its own power, and marvellously doth yesterday contribute its quota to the forces of to-day. When a great man advises you upon a certain course, he does not speak for the moment. For a quarter of a century and more he has been buried in the study of law, and when he gives you advice that could be written down in a line he puts a lifetime into that line. When the hoary physician touches your pulse half a century touches it. So we should thus see God moving, as in contemplation and in faith, from the Jordan to the Red Sea. He says to us, as we near the sea: “What about the Jordan? Was there one drop of water on the sole of your feet?” No, Lord, there was not. “Then,” saith He in reply, “as with the Jordan, so with the Red Sea. It shall be dried up as if it had never been.” When the disciples said, “How can we feed this multitude?” He said, “Did I not feed a multitude once. What lack was there then?” None. “Had the people barely enough to eat?” Nay. “How many baskets took you up?” Twelve. And He helped them to carry out that reasoning, that He who was able to do it once was able to do it twice; and if He could do it twice, He could do it for ever. Here is the historical lesson He teaches us, that what He did yesterday He is going to do to-morrow. If you have no faith in to-morrow, surely you have faith in your own recollection of yesterday. There are timid souls who never dare look at to-morrow. The Lord says to these, “Then think about yesterday; that is over. Now what was done to you yesterday? You thought your heart was going to burst. Did your heart break yesterday?” No. “You thought all things were against you yesternight. Did one star fall out of its place?” No, Lord, they are all there. “Then,” saith God, “as yesterday, so to-morrow; as the Jordan, so the Red Sea.” What is your experience? How have you been treated in straits and perplexities and difficulties? Who cooled your fever? Who brought light when all was darkness? Bacon saith, “A little learning inclineth to atheism”; but much learning, great wisdom, makes a man pray. Whenever you doubt God, think that you are but feebly or superficially instructed. When you can lean upon Him four-square, know that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. How true it is that all things in life are done by an unseen power in so far as they are either good or bad. The devil is as invisible as God. How wonderful a thing it is that-life becomes shaped into palaces and temples without any handling of our own. The Jordan was dried up not with hands; the Red Sea was dried up--not with hands. Hands, poor hands, what can hands make? “The hand can make and break” is a little proverb, I would suggest. Whatever can be made by the hand can be unmade by the hand. God Himself takes all primary ministry unto His own power and employs us, even when we are going about our own errands, simply as His messengers. All life as it grows wisely and well turns and tends to service. Blessed be God, there is a bondage of love, there is a slavery of joy! Are you dreading the Jordan? He will dry it up for you if you put your trust in Him. Are you dreading the Red Sea? He will blow it away with the wind of His mouth. You may go within a step of it, nay, you may touch it, but the moment the foot of faith touches that sea, the sea is gone. (J. Parker, D. D.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Joshua 4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30