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Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary

Joshua 3:4

However, there shall be between you and it a distance of about 2,000 cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you shall go, for you have not passed this way before."
New American Standard Version

Bible Study Resources

Nave's Topical Bible - Tabernacle;   Scofield Reference Index - Miracles;   Torrey's Topical Textbook - Jordan, the River;  
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary - Ark of the Covenant;   Easton Bible Dictionary - Sabbath Day's Journey;   Fausset Bible Dictionary - Sabbath;   Holman Bible Dictionary - Joshua, the Book of;   Presence of God;   Sabbath Day's Journey;   Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible - Jericho;   Joshua;   Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament - Sabbath ;   Travel (2);   Morrish Bible Dictionary - Ark of God;   People's Dictionary of the Bible - Ark;   Journeyings of israel from egypt to canaan;   Lachish;   Smith Bible Dictionary - Sabbath-Day's Journey;  
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Here;   Sabbath Day's Journey;   The Jewish Encyclopedia - Sabbath;  

Adam Clarke Commentary

Verse Joshua 3:4. About two thousand cubits — This distance they were to keep,

1. For the greater respect, because the presence of the ark was the symbol and pledge of the Divine presence.

2. That the ark, which was to be their pilot over these waters, might be the more conspicuous which it could not have been had the people crowded upon it.

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These files are public domain.
Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". 1832.

Bridgeway Bible Commentary

Crossing the Jordan River (3:1-5:1)

Israel’s conquest of Jericho was more than just a military exercise. It had religious meaning. The Israelites were to cleanse themselves before God, because he was the one who would lead them against their enemies. His presence was symbolized in the ark of the covenant (GNB: covenant box), which the priests carried ahead of the procession in full view of the people (3:1-6).
As God had worked through Moses, so he would work through Joshua. Just as the waters of the Red Sea had miraculously dried up to allow the former generation to escape from Egypt, so the waters of the Jordan would miraculously dry up to allow the new generation to enter Canaan (7-13).
It seems that the way God stopped the Jordan was by a collapse of its banks at the town of Adam (twenty-five kilometres upstream) that dammed the river. God was controlling events according to his perfectly timed plan, so that the waters at the river crossing dried up just as the priests arrived there. The priests then stood in the middle of the dry river bed until all the people crossed over (14-17).
Twelve men, one from each tribe, were then sent back to take twelve stones from the river bed, to be set up at the place where the people camped that night as a memorial of the great event (4:1-8). Joshua set up another memorial of twelve stones in the middle of the river itself, before the river broke through the earth dam upstream and returned to its normal flow. These remarkable events caused the people to give Joshua the same honour and respect as previously they had given Moses (9-18; cf. 3:7).
Once the people had established their camp at Gilgal, Joshua took the twelve stones that the men had brought from the river and set up the memorial (19-24). When the Canaanites heard about the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of the Jordan, they were filled with fear (5:1).

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Brideway Bible Commentary". 2005.

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

"Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go; for ye have not passed this way heretofore. And Joshua said unto the people, Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow Jehovah will do wonders among you. And Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people."

"Sanctify yourselves ..." Longacre described what is meant by this command thus: "It consisted in the washing of garments and bodies as well as abstaining from any act or object regarded as unclean."[17] The same author also gave as a good modern example of "sanctification," "The actions of a Mohammedan making his ceremonial ablutions before going into the mosque to pray."[18] Arthur Pink's comment on this is especially good, particularly as it is related to the great bulk of current-day preaching. He said:

"The hirelings harp continuously on God's grace, His promises, and naught but faith required by Him; and woefully fail to stress God's holiness, His precepts, obedience being indispensably necessary."[19]

Yes, God's grace took them over, all right, but note the part that Israel themselves played in this tremendous blessing. (See further comment on sanctification in this series, Vol. 2, Exodus, pp. 160,261.)

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Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

The ark, which was since the making of the covenant the special shrine and seat of God’s presence, went before to show the people that God, through its medium, was their leader. They were to follow at a distance that they might the better observe and mark how the miracle was accomplished. This they would do to the greatest advantage while coming down the heights, the ark going on before them into the ravine.

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These files are public domain.
Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

4. Yet there shall be a space, etc As the younger Levites, whose province it was to carry the ark, (Numbers 4:15) were strictly forbidden to touch it, or even to look at it, when uncovered, it is not wonderful that the common people were not allowed to approach within a considerable distance of it. The dignity of the ark, therefore, is declared, when the people are ordered to attest their veneration by leaving a long interval between themselves and it. And we know what happened to Uzzah, (2 Samuel 6:0) when seeing it shaken by restive oxen, he with inconsiderate zeal put forth his hand to support it. For although God invites us familiarly to himself, yet faithful trust so far from begetting security and boldness, is, on the contrary, always coupled with fear. In this way the ark of the covenant was, indeed, a strong and pleasant pledge of the divine favor, but, at the same time, had an awful majesty, well fitted to subdue carnal pride. This humility and modesty, moreover, had the effect of exercising their faith by preventing them from confining the grace of God within too narrow limits, and reminding them, that though they were far distant from the ark, the divine power was ever near.

In the end of the verse it is shown how necessary it was for them to be divinely guided by an unknown way; that anxiety and fear might keep them under the protection of the ark.

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These files are public domain.
Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.

Chuck Smith Bible Commentary

Chapter 3

As we get into chapter three,

Joshua rose early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and they came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and they lodged there before they passed over. And they commanded the people, and he said, Now when you see the ark of the covenant moving out, you stay behind it two thousand cubits: [Which is about a half mile that they were to stay behind the ark, maybe two-thirds of a mile back from the ark of the covenant.] and the Levites were to bear the ark of the covenant before the people. And then he said, Sanctify yourselves: for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you. And Joshua spoke to the priests, and he said, Take the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people. The Lord said unto Joshua, This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so will I be with thee. And thou shalt command the priests that bear the ark of the covenant, saying, When ye are come to the brink of the water of the Jordan, ye shall stand still in Jordan. And Joshua said to the children of Israel, Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord your God. And Joshua said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and he will without fail drive out from before you the inhabitants of the land. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes before you into Jordan. Now therefore take you twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, every tribe a man. And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap. And so it came to pass that the people removed their tents, to pass over Jordan, and the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people: And as thy bare the ark and they were come to Jordan, the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, (for Jordan at this time overflowed all its banks during the time of the harvest.) And the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon a heap very far from the city Adam, which is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho. And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all Israelites passed over ( Joshua 3:1-17 ).

So even as God parted the Red Sea, now God stopped the Jordan River in flood season so that they were able to pass over. Now the interesting thing to me about this is when they came to the Red Sea, Moses stretched forth his rod and the Red Sea was parted. They went through on dry land, but with the Jordan the Lord is now testing their faith and developing their faith. He let the priests get their feet wet. Walking right into the edge of the river, getting their feet in the water, stepping out now really in faith. That wasn't easy I'm sure. I imagine that even Joshua himself had some anxious moments, as he saw those guys starting to wade into the water. "Now, Lord that's what You said."

But this is coming into a new relationship with God, that relationship with faith, which is so very important for every one of us to really develop in that full relationship with God, it has to be that relationship of faith. God is bringing them now into a new relationship of faith. Before they sought, before they stepped in, they saw the sea parted, but now God is letting them take one step further and saying, "Go ahead and step out before you see any evidence, before you see any signs, go ahead and step out in faith. Get your feet wet." So here is a new relationship, an exciting relationship to be sure as they stepped into the water, and as they did God caused the waters to cease flowing. God threw up a dam, and the waters of Jordan ceased, and the people all passed over.

Now they were commanded to take these stones out of the bottom of the Jordan River, where the priests were standing holding the Ark of the Covenant. When they came up on the other side, they were to put these stones in a heap. And Joshua commands them there in chapter four,


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Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
Bibliographical Information
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Chuck Smith Bible Commentary". 2014.

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Joshua may have moved the nation from Shittim to the Jordan’s edge at approximately the same time he sent the spies on their mission (cf. Joshua 3:1-2; Joshua 1:11; Joshua 2:22). However, the sequence of events was probably as it appears in the text. Chapter 1 Joshua 3:11 describes one three-day period during which the spies were in Jericho and the hills. A second, overlapping three-day period began on the next day (day four) with the people’s arrival at Shittim (Joshua 3:1), and concluded two days later (on the sixth day) with the officers giving the people last-minute instructions about the crossing (Joshua 3:2-4). The people then crossed the Jordan on the next day (day seven). [Note: David M. Howard Jr., "’Three Days’ in Joshua 1-3 : Resolving a Chronological Conundrum," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:4 (December 1998):539-50.]

"Duty often calls us to take one step without knowing how we shall take the next; but if brought thus far by the leadings of Providence, and while engaged in his service, we may safely leave the event to him." [Note: Bush, p. 41.]

God continued to lead His people by means of the ark. Whereas in the wilderness the cloudy pillar over the ark was the focus of the Israelites’ attention, now the ark itself became the primary object of their interest. The writer mentioned the ark 17 times in chapters 3 and 4. It was the visible symbol that God Himself was leading His people into the land and against their enemies.

". . . the ark was carried in front of the people, not so much to show the road as to make a road by dividing the waters of the Jordan, and the people were to keep at a distance from it, that they might not lose sight of the ark, but keep their eyes fixed upon it, and know the road by looking at the ark of the covenant by which the road had been made, i.e., might know and observe how the Lord, through the medium of the ark, was leading them to Canaan by a way which they had never traversed before; i.e., by a miraculous way." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 41.]

Other frequently recurring words in chapters 3 and 4 are "cross" and "stand" used 22 and five times respectively. These words identify other emphases of the writer.

The people’s self-consecration (Joshua 3:5) consisted of their turning their hearts to God and getting their attitudes and actions right with Him (cf. Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17). God had previously promised to do wonders (Joshua 3:5, awesome miracles) when they would enter the land (cf. Exodus 34:10). Undoubtedly the people had been looking forward to seeing these miracles in view of what their parents had told them and what some of them remembered about the plagues in Egypt.

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

John Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible

Yet there shall be a space between you and it,.... The ark; the Keri or marginal reading is, "between you and them"; the priests that bear it: hence sprung a fiction among the Jews, that there were two arks, the ark of the Shechinah or divine Majesty, and the ark of Joseph, in which his bones were put, which went together q; which Jarchi, Kimchi, and Abarbinel take notice of, but has no foundation in the text:

about two thousand cubits by measure; by a certain well known measure, that of a common cubit; for the "caph" we render "about" is a note of truth, reality, and certainty, and designs the exact precise measure here given: this difference was to be observed, partly in reverence to the ark, the symbol of the divine Presence; Christ is to be reverenced by his people, and so his word and ordinances; and there is a reverence and respect due to his ministers and priests that bear the ark; as also that they might the better see the ark and go after it, as Ben Gersom; or the way in which they should go, as is suggested in the following clause; and likewise have the better view of the greatness of the miracle, as Abarbinel; the dividing of the waters of Jordan as soon as the ark came to it, and while it was in it: the Jews conclude from hence that this was the measure of ground they may go on a sabbath day, and no further, called a sabbath day's journey, Acts 1:12;

come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go; over Jordan into Canaan's land; for being at some distance from them they could better discern that and the way he directed them to walk in: Christ the antitype of the ark is the way to the heavenly Canaan, and his ministers point out the right way of salvation by him, in the ministration of the word, by attending to which the way is seen and known in which men must go:

for ye have not passed [this] way heretofore; a path indeed untrodden by any; neither they nor any other ever went into Canaan the way they were now going, through the river Jordan as on dry land: the way to heaven by Christ is only revealed in the Gospel, and only trodden by believers in him, and especially the way to glory through Jordan's river; or death is an untrodden path, which, though the way of all flesh, is a trackless path, and gone through, but once, and those who pass it have never before gone that way.

q T. Bab. Sotah, fol. 13. 1.

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The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible Modernised and adapted for the computer by Larry Pierce of Online Bible. All Rights Reserved, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario.
A printed copy of this work can be ordered from: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1 Iron Oaks Dr, Paris, AR, 72855
Bibliographical Information
Gill, John. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible". 1999.

Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary on the Bible

Preparation for Passing over the Jordan. B. C. 1451.

      1 And Joshua rose early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and came to Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over.   2 And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the host;   3 And they commanded the people, saying, When ye see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it.   4 Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way heretofore.   5 And Joshua said unto the people, Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the LORD will do wonders among you.   6 And Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people.

      Rahab, in mentioning to the spies the drying up of the Red Sea (Joshua 2:10; Joshua 2:10), the report of which terrified the Canaanites more than anything else, intimates that those on that side the water expected that Jordan, that great defence of their country, would in like manner give way to them. Whether the Israelites had any expectation of it does not appear. God often did things for them which they looked not for,Isaiah 64:3. Now here we are told,

      I. That they came to Jordan and lodged there,Joshua 3:1; Joshua 3:1. Though they were not yet told how they should pass the river, and were unprovided for the passing of it in any ordinary way, yet they went forward in faith, having been told (Joshua 1:11; Joshua 1:11) that they should pass it. We must go on in the way of our duty though we foresee difficulties, trusting God to help us through them when we come to them. Let us proceed as far as we can, and depend on divine sufficiency for that which we find ourselves not sufficient for. In this march Joshua led them, and particular notice is taken of his early rising as there is afterwards upon other occasions (Joshua 6:12; Joshua 7:16; Joshua 8:10), which intimates how little he loved his ease, how much he loved his business, and what care and pains he was willing to take in it. Those that would bring great things to pass must rise early. Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty. Joshua herein set a good example to the officers under him, and taught them to rise early, and to all that are in public stations especially to attend continually to the duty of their place.

      II. That the people were directed to follow the ark. Officers were appointed to go through the host to give these directions (Joshua 3:2; Joshua 3:2), that every Israelite might know both what to do and what to depend upon.

      1. They might depend upon the ark to lead them; that is, upon God himself, of whose presence the ark was an instituted sign and token. It seems, the pillar of cloud and fire was removed, else that would have led them, unless we suppose that it now hovered over the ark and so they had a double guide: honour was put upon the ark, and a defence upon that glory. It is called here the ark of the covenant of the Lord their God. What greater encouragement could they have than this, that the Lord was their God, a God in covenant with them? Here was the ark of the covenant; if God be ours, we need not fear any evil. He was nigh to them, present with them, went before them: what could come amiss to those that were thus guided, thus guarded? Formerly the ark was carried in the midst of the camp, but now it went before them to search out a resting-place for them (Numbers 10:33), and, as it were, to give them livery and seisin of the promised land, and put them in possession of it In the ark the tables of the law were, and over it the mercy-seat; for the divine law and grace reigning in the heart are the surest pledges of God's presence and favour, and those that would be led to the heavenly Canaan must take the law of God for their guide (if thou wilt enter into life keep the commandments) and have the great propitiation in their eye, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

      2. They might depend upon the priests and Levites, who were appointed for that purpose to carry the ark before them. The work of ministers is to hold forth the word of life, and to take care of the administration of those ordinances which are the tokens of God's presence and the instruments of his power and grace; and herein they must go before the people of God in their way to heaven.

      3. The people must follow the ark: Remove from your place and go after it, (1.) As those that are resolved never to forsake it. Wherever God's ordinances are, there we must be; if they flit, we must remove and go after them. (2.) As those that are entirely satisfied in its guidance, that it will lead in the best way to the best end; and therefore, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. This must be all their car, to attend the motions of the ark, and follow it with an implicit faith. Thus must we walk after the rule of the word and the direction of the Spirit in every thing, so shall peace be upon us, as it now was upon the Israel of God. They must follow the priests as far as they carried the ark, but no further; so we must follow our ministers only as they follow Christ.

      4. In following the ark, they must keep their distance,Joshua 3:4; Joshua 3:4. They must none of them come within a thousand yards of the ark. (1.) They must thus express their awful and reverent regard to that token of God's presence, lest its familiarity with them should breed contempt. This charge to them not to come near was agreeable to that dispensation of darkness, bondage, and terror: but we now through Christ have access with boldness. (2.) Thus it was made to appear that the ark was able to protect itself, and needed not to be guarded by the men of war, but was itself a guard to them. With what a noble defiance of the enemy did it leave all it its friends half a mile behind except the unarmed priests that carried it as perfectly sufficient for its own safety and theirs that followed it! (3.) Thus it was the better seen by those that were to be led by it: That you may know the way by which you must go, seeing it, as it were, chalked out or tracked by the ark. Had they been allowed to come near it, they would have surrounded it, and none would have had the sight of it but those that were close to it; but, as it was put at such a distance before them, they would all have the satisfaction of seeing it, and would be animated by the sight. And it was with good reason that this provision was made for their encouragement: For you have not passed this way heretofore. This had been the character of all their way through the wilderness, it was an untrodden path, but this especially through Jordan. While we are here we must expect and prepare for unusual events, to pass ways that we have not passed before, and much more when we go hence; our way through the valley of the shadow of death is a way we have not gone before, which makes it the more formidable. But, if we have the assurance of God's presence, we need not fear; that will furnish us with such strength as we never had when we come to do a work we never did.

      III. They were commanded to sanctify themselves, that they might be prepared to attend the ark; and with good reason: For to-morrow the Lord will do wonders among you,Joshua 3:5; Joshua 3:5. See how magnificently he speaks of God's works: he doeth wonders, and is therefore to be adored, admired, and trusted in. See how intimately acquainted Joshua was with the divine counsels: he could tell before-hand what god would do, and when. See what preparation we must make to receive the discoveries of God's glory and the communications of his grace: we must sanctify ourselves. This we must do when we are to attend the ark, and God by it is about to do wonders among us; we must separate ourselves from all other cares, devote ourselves to God's honour, and cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit. The people of Israel were now entering into the holy land, and therefore must sanctify themselves. God was about to give them uncommon instances of his favour, which by meditation and prayer they must compose their minds to a very careful observation of, that they might give God the glory, and take to themselves the comfort, of these appearances.

      IV. The priests were ordered to take up the ark and carry it before the people,Joshua 3:6; Joshua 3:6. It was the Levites' work ordinarily to carry the ark, Numbers 4:15. But on this great occasion the priests were ordered to do it. And they did as they were commanded, took up the ark, and did not think themselves disparaged, went before the people, and did not thing themselves exposed; the ark they carried was both their honour and their defence. And now we may suppose that prayer of Moses used, when the ark set forward (Numbers 10:35), Rise up, Lord and let they enemies be scattered. Magistrates are here instructed to stir up ministers to their work, and to make use of their authority for the furtherance of religion. Ministers must likewise learn to go before in the way of God, and not to shrink nor draw back when dangers are before them. They must expect to be most struck at, but they know whom they have trusted.

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These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
Bibliographical Information
Henry, Matthew. "Complete Commentary on Joshua 3:4". "Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible". 1706.