Israel had now won two overwhelming victories in Canaan. Perhaps they were aware that a consortium of kings was gathering to attempt to drive them out of the Promised Land, but, whether or not they were aware of those plans, they paused to take care of a spiritual obligation that Moses had placed them under before his death.
We are now some twenty miles north of the likely location of Ai and, as we will read at the end of the chapter, the entire nation had gathered: men, women, and children.
The location where this covenant renewal ceremony was conducted was not chosen willy-nilly. Shechem, as any Israelite knew, lay nearby in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim where this ceremony took place, as we will be told in v. 33. Shechem was where Abraham first received the promise of the Holy Land some six hundred years before (Gen. 12:6-7); it was to Shechem that Jacob had returned safely from his long exile from the Promised Land (Gen. 33:18-20); and Shechem eventually became Jacob’s family home (37:12-14). Joseph was buried there. The place had a long association with the Lord’s promise to give Canaan to Israel for its inheritance. It was a place closely associated with God’s covenant. [Davis, 74; Howard, 212-213] Shechem’s historical significance will be reaffirmed at the end of the book when, after the land had been taken, another covenant-renewal ceremony was conducted there. [24:1] Before Shiloh became the location of the tabernacle and the ark and Jerusalem became the capital of the nation, Shechem was the city that meant “Promised Land” to any Israelite.
The instructions that Moses left for this ceremony can be found in Deut. 27:1-8. Comparing those instructions with this narrative the reader can see that Joshua saw to it that everything was done precisely as Moses had commanded. Moses had also commanded Israel to conduct this ceremony with half the people standing on the side of Mount Gerizim, to the south, and the other half on the side of Mount Ebal, to the north (Deut. 11:29; 27:13). There is a natural amphitheater in that valley. The human voice can be heard at a great distance. [Schaeffer, 120]
The burnt offering, as you may remember, was the offering in which the sacrificial animal was entirely consumed on the altar. It produced an aroma that was “pleasing to the Lord,” a way of indicating that effective atonement had been made for the people’s sins. So one of the purposes of this ceremony near Shechem was to atone for Israel’s sins. The burnt offering was for atonement.
The peace or fellowship offering, on the other hand, was a sacrifice in which a portion of the animal, after the meat was cooked, was eaten as part of a feast. It conveyed to Israel a sense of joy and well-being in their relationship with God. In the instructions that Moses had left for this ceremony, he made a point of telling the people that they were to eat there as part of the ceremony and “rejoice before the Lord your God.” [Deut. 27:7] It is the peace offering, by the way, that is the most immediate precursor of the NT Lord’s Supper. Jesus cited from the ritual of the peace offering at the institution of the Supper in the Upper Room the night of his betrayal. These two types of sacrifices were likewise offered at Mount Sinai when the law was first given and the covenant was renewed under Moses. [Woudstra, 147]
Why the uncut stones? It is not entirely clear; a variety of reasons have been proposed. Surely, in some way it conveyed the holiness of the altar. It may have been required simply to distinguish Israel’s altars from those of the people around them. [Hubbard, 254-255; Woudstra, 147]
As Moses had told him to do. Taking Moses’ instructions in Deut. 27 into account, these stones would have been some stones that had been covered with plaster so that they could have been written on. A monument was created in other words; one that could bear an inscription. What was written on that monument was not the entire Law of Moses, but its epitome or summary, the Ten Commandments.
Who were these aliens who were also present to renew the covenant? Well, since participation in such a service was restricted to the circumcised, these must have been converts to Israel’s faith, people such as Rahab. And there may have been a number of such folk by now: people who joined Israel on its route from Egypt and perhaps more than just Rahab since they had entered Canaan. In any case, it is devotion to Yahweh not one’s family line that made a person a true Israelite! [Hawk, 134]
Moses’ instructions were that the blessings of the covenant were to be read by those standing on the side of Mt. Gerizim and the curses of the covenant by those standing on the side of Mt. Ebal. No doubt this is what was done, either by Joshua himself — moving from one side to the other — or by those deputed to read for him. Or, perhaps Joshua read it out and the people, on one side or the other, repeated after him. [Howard, 217]
The accent falls on Israel’s strict obedience to the instructions that Moses had given her. There is also an emphasis on the unity of the nation as each of its constituent parts is explicitly mentioned. [Hawk, 134]
Many of you have heard of the Scottish covenanters, Presbyterians loyal to the Reformation who fought for the freedom of the church from royal control and for pure religion through much of the 18th century. They got the name “covenanters” from their practice of drafting and then signing solemn engagements to preserve the true faith against all comers and to do so to the death should such be required. The two most famous of these covenants or engagements were the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. Many Scottish noblemen signed these documents, some of them in their own blood.
But the idea of such a covenant, a binding agreement to which the people would give their solemn assent and pledge their undying loyalty was not a Scottish invention. It came right out of the Bible. Ceremonies of covenant making and covenant renewal dot Israel’s history from Abraham to Ezra and Nehemiah. We have one of them before us this morning. And it is full of consequence. Consider these features of this history.
- First, to arrange this ceremony at this time and this place was a very unmilitary thing to do. In that it is a powerful witness to the supremacy of spiritual interests in human life.
The narrative of this ceremony of covenant renewal represents a jarring interruption in the narrative of the military conquest. Israel had been in almost constant battle since entering Canaan. She bested Jericho, then took on and eventually conquered Ai. More battles were to follow as it was perfectly obvious that most of Canaan lay so far untouched by the Israelite advance and would be gathering to fight off the invaders. And what did Joshua do in this situation? Precisely the sort of thing that might have put his army in jeopardy. He broke off the fight to pause for a large celebration. It wasn’t as though Israel was pausing to refit, or to retrain the army, or to prepare for the next battle. The Canaanites might be forgiven for thinking that Joshua had made the classic mistake of counting his chickens before they hatched; declaring victory before the war was actually won.
The place is north of Ai some 20 miles. But for Joshua and Israel it represented twenty miles further into the heart of Canaan. They were moving with their entire population, women and children as well, and so were exposing themselves to attack on the march. It was always easier to attack an army that was spread out on the march rather than massed for attack or defense, all the more an army encumbered with civilians. What Joshua and Israel did made no military sense. Further the nation went to the vicinity of Shechem, a major city, but not to attack it but to conduct a ceremony nearby. Would the Shechemites leave them alone to offer their sacrifices and enjoy their feasts? Who was to say?
This moment in the conquest of Canaan, reminds me of that moment early in the account of the Lord’s ministry in the first chapter of Mark. The Lord had begun his conquest of Galilee by driving out evil spirits and by healing the sick. News of what he had done traveled like lightening through the nearby countryside and nearby villages and towns. The response was electric. People started gathering in numbers both to be healed and to watch him heal. A movement had begun in a single day. The Lord’s disciples were ecstatic. They could see the Lord carrying all before him if he kept this up. But the next morning the Lord was not to be found. He had left his bed early to find solitude for prayer. Peter eventually found him and told him to hot-foot it back to town. “Everyone is looking for you,” he told Jesus. A crowd was forming. “Carpe diem,” Peter said to him, “you need to seize the opportunity.” He fully expected the Lord to exploit the “signs and wonders” that had gathered such a large crowd so quickly. But the Lord replied that they needed to move on because he needed to preach to those who hadn’t heard. “That is why I’ve come,” he told his disciples. It was the gospel itself, the good news, the message of salvation that was his true calling. He could heal the sick and drive out demons and people remain unsaved. It was the soul that was all-important, not the condition of the body.
Well, a similar principle was at work here and the point is made in the same way. So what if Israel wins another battle and another after that; if she takes one Canaanite town after another? What matters is her relationship with Yahweh. That relationship had been threatened by the sin at Ai and needed refreshment and confirmation. She needed to offer sacrifices to atone for her sins and to renew her fellowship with the Lord. And she needed to recommit herself to the life to which Yahweh had summoned her. That came first. The principle on display here at the end of Joshua 8 is precisely that principle enshrined in the Lord’s famous warning, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Our relationship with God is what matters, no matter what else is going on in our lives, no matter what other crises, what other difficulty, what other trouble we may be facing; no matter that we are surrounded by enemies, no matter that other things might seem to be more important at the moment. Nothing can be more important!
This is a truth that we are always inclined to forget. I don’t care what is happening in your life or mine, what crisis you find yourself in, what urgent concern is pressing upon your heart and mind. No matter what it is, it is not as important as your own relationship with God, the state and the character of that relationship, because eternity is always more important than time and the Promised Land more important than this world. And, as we will soon see, any crisis is far better addressed by those with a sturdy and clear-headed faith who are practicing an active dependence upon the Lord.
- Second, our covenant, our relationship with God, can neither be made in the first place nor renewed later on our terms. It is God who both offers life to us and defines our obligations.
We noted, as we were reading the text through, that everything that was done in this ceremony of covenant renewal was done strictly in obedience to the instructions that the Lord had given the people through Moses before the great man’s death. The building of the altar, the offering of the two types of sacrifices, the writing of the law on the plastered stones, the reading of the law, all of that in the appointed place, and the presence of the entire people at the ceremony: none of this was done on the spur of the moment or according to a whim.
It was all obedience to commandments that had been given some time before. What is more, all that was done was in fact in keeping with the Law of Moses that had been revealed some forty years before at Sinai. The Lord had taught them how to offer sacrifices: what sacrifices to offer, how to offer them, and to what purpose. And what was written was none other than the Ten Commandments, the summary of the Law of Moses, and what was read was apparently the entire law, the law as we have it first in Exodus and Leviticus and as it was repeated in Deuteronomy. [Remember, the word Deuteronomy means “the second law” and refers to the fact that the Law of Moses is given again in that book. To have that whole law repeated in detail amounted to a massive demonstration of the Law’s importance for the life of God’s people.]
In other words, the truth is the same: the way men relate to God never changes, what is required of us never changes. Our responsibility is not to invent new ways of salvation or of pleasing God. Our need is to keep ourselves loyal to the one way, the only way, the way that God revealed at the beginning. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 26, the Israelite was taught that when he went to the tabernacle to worship, to bring the first fruits of his crop to the Lord, he was to tell the priest:
“My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down to sojourn there,” and so on, reciting the history of Israel in Egypt and of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from bondage there. [cf. D. Hillers, Covenant: History of a Biblical Idea, 77]
Well, it wasn’t exactly these Israelites’ father. Jacob was, at best, their distant ancestor. But, spiritually it didn’t matter because that history was the history of his own spiritual life, his own redemption, his own belonging to God, his own right to the Promised Land. He could call Yahweh his God and father, he could claim a right to the Promised Land because of promises the Lord had made centuries before and to which he had proved faithful through many generations and because of a divine work of redemption that lay even then in the past. And so it is with us.
In our day what we say every Lord’s Day when we come into this house for worship is, to be sure, not “My father was a wandering Aramean…,” (though if we really understood the Bible and understood all that that meant we could actually use those words with perfect meaning), but since salvation history was not complete when Deuteronomy was written, we’re not likely to say “My father was a wandering Aramean…” But in principle we speak similarly. We say when we come into this house of a Sunday, “Our elder brother entered this world and suffered and died for our sins, and rose to everlasting life, and he promises to bring us with him to heaven in due time.” We too are repeating the history of our redemption. We too are reading the law of God to acknowledge that it is the constitution of our common life. We too are rejoicing before the Lord as we eat together the meal of the peace offering.
The Christian church is not and cannot be innovative in its doctrine and life. It must be fundamentally a conservative institution because the truth has already been given; it lies behind us in one name, one person, one event, and one revelation. [A.A. van Ruler, Theologisch Werk, iv, 173]
We don’t come into this house, any more than Israel traveled to Shechem, to make a new covenant with the Lord on some different terms. We come to renew the old one, the ancient one, the eternal one, the one the Lord made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then fulfilled, validated, and guaranteed in the life and work, the death and resurrection of his son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our faith has been revealed by God, it concerns a work of God, and no human being, therefore, can alter it. Indeed the one who does is the worst enemy of God and man!
- And, finally, this relationship with God, this covenant must be renewed because it must be faithfully kept by us. It must remain a fresh and living power in our lives at all times.
It is not as if once we are in we can take the Lord for granted. It is not as if membership in the covenant community confers an inalienable right to the Promised Land no matter whether we prove ourselves loyal to the Lord.
It is precisely for this reason that the covenant was renewed again and again in Israel’s history. Her faith would flag, her obedience would fail, the Lord would punish her and then, by his Spirit, would call her back to himself. He would demand or she would offer to renew the covenant and the process would start again. Remember, for Israel as well as for us today, her regular worship was also a service of covenant renewal. The very things that she did here near Shechem she would do in her regular worship each week: hearing the law, offering sacrifices, and receive the Lord’s blessing. Her great annual feasts and the Christian liturgical calendar that developed quite quickly after Pentecost were likewise intended to serve the purpose of covenant renewal, a remembrance of the great acts of our salvation from Christmas, through Lent, Good Friday, and Easter, Ascension to Pentecost.
All of this can be done without the heart and with little engagement of the mind. We know this from both the sad history of the church and from our own personal experience. It is altogether too easy simply to go through the motions.
But we are reminded here that our lives, our actual daily lives, these lives that matter so much to you and me day by day are at stake in keeping current our covenant with God; our happiness and that of our children are at stake in keeping current our covenant with God. That point was made with particular power for the Israelites that day by the fact that a special point was made to read out the blessings and curses of the law that day. Most of you will have read those blessings and those curses from both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
Do you remember them: all the things God promises to do for us if we remain faithful to him and all the ways in which he promises to punish us if we betray him? Do you remember how comprehensive they are? They cover every aspect of life. They are wonderfully tangible and down to earth. They concern your life from birth to death. They cover your marriage, your family, your sexual life, your business. They concern food and drink, war and peace, childbearing, health, and finances. You read those two long chapters and there is but one conclusion that any honest person could possibly draw: I want, I need, I crave the blessing of God, and I must avoid his curse at all costs.
That is the real point here. Israel’s loyalty to the Lord had just been tested at Ai. She had at first failed the test, but recovered and passed it. The reading in her hearing of the blessings and curses that were part and parcel of Yahweh’s covenant with his people reminded them of what was at stake in their loyalty to the Lord, their active and willing obedience to his commandments, and their service in his name and cause. Everything they hoped for in life, everything you hope for in your life, he stands ready to give you if you are faithful to him; all that you fear in your life remains a living possibility if you should betray this covenant between the Lord and yourself.
It is these consequences that stand behind the emphasis placed on worship, both public and private, that we find in the Word of God. Worship renews our covenant with God: keeps it fresh and sustains its living power in our lives. The covenant is not something for us to make with the Lord once and never again, but to make and remake and remake again. It is in this way that the vital importance of our relationship with the Lord is kept in the forefront of our minds and hearts.
Thomas Boston was not technically a “covenanter,” as that period of Scottish history had concluded with the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Boston was born in 1676, so he was only twelve when the rights of the Scottish church were finally secured. But his father was a covenanter and as a boy he had spent some days and nights in prison with his father, when his father suffered for the cause. Covenanting was in his blood.
Boston was a great man and a great Christian. A faithful pastor and deep thinker about the Word of God, his published works exercised a great influence in Scotland for several hundred years, especially his classic, Human Nature in its Fourfold State. The always insightful Rabbi Duncan once said, “I would like to sit at Jonathan Edwards’ feet to learn what true religion is, and at Thomas Boston’s feet, to learn how I am to get it.” [Just a Talker, 176]
His autobiography was published after his death. It was entitled Memoirs of Mr. Thomas Boston, but was never intended for publication. Boston had written an account of his life for the sake of his children. But it became upon its publication a classic of Christian devotion and made Boston a hero to generations of Christians, especially Christian pastors like me! A few years before his death, Boston tells us, “I kept a secret fast, in order to my preparation for death.”  He wasn’t on the brink of death but he knew very well that he could not live too much longer and he wanted to be sure that he was ready to face the Lord. They took life and death seriously in those days!
How would you prepare for your death? If you knew it was coming and was conscious of the fact that it was coming relatively soon, what would you do? Well, this is how Boston did it. He read the Word of God. He read the Law of God. He read over some confessions of his sins that he had written in his own shorthand some years before. He acknowledged his failures to obey God’s laws as he should have, the sinfulness of his life. He begged God’s forgiveness. That is what Israel did with her burnt offerings. Then he renewed his covenant with the Lord.
“After [I made my confession], intending to renew my acceptance of God’s covenant of grace, to write it also, and subscribe with my hand, I viewed two former ones, the one dated August 14, 1699, the other March 25, 1700, and drew up a new one. [He had renewed his covenant with the Lord before.]
“These things being intermixed with prayer, being done, I went, and kneeling at my bedside, did, in prayer, then and there, solemnly, and in express words, according to what I had written with my hand, take hold of God’s covenant of grace for life and salvation to me, with my whole heart…; and rising up from prayer, I stood, and lifting up my eyes to the Lord, I silently read before him the acceptance I had written, and subscribed it with my hand.” 
What Israel did together, Boston did by himself. He went over the covenant part by part: what God had done for him, what God had promised him, what he asked of Thomas Boston in return, and Boston’s willingness to receive God’s gifts and to offer his faith, his love, his worship, his obedience, and his service in return. And then he signed his name to it all once again. It probably read much like earlier covenant he had made:
“I, Mr. Thomas Boston, preacher of the gospel of Christ, being by nature an apostate from God, an enemy to the great Jehovah and so an heir of hell and wrath, in myself utterly lost and undone, because of my original and actual sins…and being in some measure, made sensible of this my lost and undone state, and sensible of my need, my absolute need, of a Saviour…and believing that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the eternal God, is not only able to save me…both from my sins and from the load of wrath due to me for them…come to him for salvation, and cordially receive him in all his offices, consenting to the terms of the covenant therefore, as I have, at several opportunities before…
And on it goes.
“I do by this declare that I…do solemnly covenant and engage to be the Lord’s, and make a solemn resignation…of myself, my soul, my body, spiritual and temporal concerns, unto the Lord Jesus Christ, without any reservations whatsoever…
Until finally, at the end, we read
And this solemn covenant I make as in the presence of the ever-living, heart-searching God, and subscribe it with my hand, in my chamber at Dunse, about one o’clock in the afternoon, the fourteenth day of August, one thousand six hundred and ninety-nine years. T. Boston.” [In Andrew Thomson, Thomas Boston, 46-47]
That is what Israel did; that is what we do Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day in this house; Sunday by Sunday; and that is what every Christian ought to do for himself or herself from time to time. Wouldn’t it be grand for one of your loved ones to find such a covenant signed by you in your Bible or in your desk drawer after you are gone? Of all things in our lives, this is the thing that we must never take for granted or allow to slip to the back of our mind or from the center of our heart.