Believers and their Doubts Joshua 17:14-18:10


Joshua 17:14-18:10

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We have said from the beginning of our studies in Joshua and as we are taught elsewhere in the Bible, the history of the conquest provides a pattern or a paradigm of salvation. Israel got Canaan the way sinners get to heaven. Israel’s experiences upon entering the Promised Land were like the experiences of every Christian seeking to obtain eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. We have learned, in this way, such lessons as the necessity of our practicing our faith in the promises of God, of our gaining strength by the practice of acknowledging God’s blessings, and of our duty to do life-long battle with our sins. This morning it is more of the same. Another lesson for the Christian life lies on the face of a text that narrates Israel’s on-going conquest of the land of Canaan.

Text Comment

After the lengthy account of Judah’s allotment in chapter 15, chapters 16 and 17 provide the detail of the allotment for Ephraim and Manasseh, the two tribes of Joseph. After the boundaries have been described, we pick up the narrative in v. 14 of chapter 17. But notice the previous two verses, 12-13, which report that Manasseh did not drive the Canaanites out of their territory. They subjected them to forced labor, but they did not dispossess their land. They had the power to do so, but they lacked the will. How much, brothers and sisters, is that the story of our lives? In Christ we have the power; but too often we lack the will.

v.14     The “people of Joseph” indicates that Ephraim and Manasseh are acting in concert. What they said to Joshua, however, was not a good sign. They use the fact of God’s blessing to complain that they were not given more! Something is amiss in the attitude of their heart. We detect a whine in the remark of the men of Ephraim and Manasseh. Instead of gratitude for a large section of beautiful country that Yahweh was giving them as a free gift, land they had not earned but was now theirs nevertheless, they are finding the flaws in the present that had been given to them.

v.15     Joshua exposes that attitude by telling them that there is land for the taking; all they have to do is take it. But it is natural for us to want life to be easier than it is. We tire of having to plod along in the spiritual warfare, day after day, year after year; never finding rest and ease.

v.16     The Canaanites had chariots aplenty at the waters of Merom in chapter 11 but they did them no good as we read in chapter 11. Israel destroyed the Canaanite coalition chariots and all in that battle. So why does this much smaller force of Canaanites seem so formidable still?

v.18     Joshua will have none of it. They have plenty of land if they will only possess it and they certainly have the power to do so. “Get off your duffs and do what the Lord has told you to do. Sure enough, there are obstacles. There are always obstacles. But we have been overcoming obstacles since we entered the land. The Lord will be with you and you have only to trust in him. Remember what he did to the Egyptians; to Sihon and Og; to the Canaanite forces gathered en masse to repel us. Remember that he promised to give us the land. Don’t stop now, for goodness sake!” So said Joshua.

Now it is important to notice that the first ten verses of chapter 18 are the center section of the allotment section of Joshua, the pivot in the middle of the third major section of the book. Five tribes have so far received their allotment; seven still have not. But the narrative of the tribal allotments is broken off for the account of Israel gathering at Shiloh, some fifteen miles to the northwest of Jericho, to set up the tabernacle there, moving it from Gilgal where it had been for some years apparently. Shiloh was in Ephraim’s territory and would remain an important religious center until the time of David. This center section identifies the primary themes of this section of the book.

v.3       The same problem we encountered in the last verses of chapter 17 reappears here. They have been lax in taking possession of the land. This is the time to do it. The military might of the Canaanites has been broken. Don’t let them recover their strength! Israel’s failure at this point will explain her spiritual decay that is the subject of the next book of the Bible, Judges.

v.6       The twenty-one men, therefore, three from each tribe, were in effect surveyors. [Howard, 360]

v.7       There is some realism here for our lives today. The tribes that had already received their inheritance were the most influential tribes, especially Judah and Ephraim, who would one day give their names to the two parts of a divided Israel. But in the kingdom of God everyone counts. We are always tempted to think ourselves better or more important than others, even in the church. Our group has better theology, or snazzier worship, or greater influence or whatever. But the Bible rebukes our elitism and our spiritual snobbery at every turn. Every member of the people of God is an heir. Joshua won’t be satisfied until all twelve tribes, even the least significant of them, have been settled in the land. [Davis, 145]

Now crucial to an appreciation of what we have read is the fact that the book teaches us to regard Israel in this generation as a believing people. We read at the end of the book:

“Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.” [24:31]

So, what we encounter in the hesitation of the tribes of Israel to possess their portion of Canaan is a phenomenon of believing life. Indeed, we encounter here another in a long list of phenomena of believing life that are revealed in the account of the conquest of the Promised Land. We could, I suppose, give any number of names to the state of mind that is exposed in these verses, but certainly one word that describes it is doubt. Doubt is a fact of believing life. Some struggle more with it than others, to be sure, but few Christians escape it altogether and many Christians through the ages have struggled with it throughout their lives. This is true even of men and women of whom we might not have expected any such thing.

Robert Bruce, one of the commanding figures of the Scottish Reformation, had a long struggle as a Christian with unbelief. He was speaking from his own experience when he said, as he often did, “It is a great thing to believe in God.”  In one of his famous sermons on the Lord’s Supper, preached in 1589, he says,

“…however sure and certain it is that the faith of the best children of God is subject to doubt, it is just as sure and certain that doubt is never wholly extinct.” [189]

Out of his own experience he even says,

“As there is a great difference between a drunk man and a dead man, so there is a great difference between the faith that lies hid for a while, but does not express itself, and the light that is utterly put out.” [192]

That was a man who struggled with doubt speaking! No one had a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ than Samuel Rutherford, but “in speaking of the atheistic doubts with which good men are sometimes assailed, [he added in a kind of] sympathetic parenthesis, “Expertus loquor.” [“I speak as an expert.”] [James Walker, Theology and Theologians of Scotland, 44]

Doubt is a problem for both new believers and for experienced Christians. If you remember, Bunyan’s Christian, who, of course, is throughout the Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan himself, telling us the story of his own Christian life, didn’t encounter the man named Atheist until near the very end of their journey.

His name was Atheist, and he asked them [i.e. Christian and Hopeful] whither they were going.

“We are going to Mount Zion,” said Christian.

Then Atheist fell into a very great laughter.

“What is the meaning of your laughter,” asked Christian.

“I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey, and yet are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains.”

And on the conversation goes: Christian saying that he believes there is a life to come and Atheist saying that he had been looking for it and had been unable to find it.

Rabbi Duncan, whose aphorisms I quote to you so often because he was such an expert at getting to the nub of issues in the Christian faith, struggled with doubt all his life, even to the end. His doubts concerned whether he himself were truly a Christian. He didn’t doubt that there was such a thing as salvation or that Jesus Christ was the Savior of sinners. But he often struggled to believe that Jesus Christ was his savior and that he had obtained salvation.

As you see doubts can be of various kinds. Some struggle in uncertainty was to whether Christianity is true; whether the message of the Bible can be believed. Others, like John Duncan, struggle to know whether they have obtained the salvation that is described in the Word of God. They don’t doubt the faith but they doubt whether they have faith. Others doubt not salvation itself so much as whether the other promises of God made to believers will ever come true for them. They doubt, in other words, whether they can count on the Lord being true to his word, in their case. And, as any pastor discovers over time, there are varieties of each of these types of doubt.

Now doubt is not all bad. There are doctrines in the Bible that seem designed to produce at least some measure and some experience of doubt: doctrines such as divine election and the new birth. Can any Christian say that he or she has never wondered whether he or she is among God’s chosen ones? Can any Christian with a conscience and some knowledge of the Bible say that he or she has never wondered whether he or she is really a new creation, has really been born again, when so much of the old life so obviously still remains? [Whitefield, Select Sermons, 57-58] Such doubts make us think harder about our faith and life, drive us to consider more carefully the teaching of the Word of God, and usually serve to humble us. As Augustine once put it, “I doubt, therefore truth exists.” [De Vera Religione; cited in Os Guiness, In Two Minds, 48] Think about it. Doubt makes no sense if truth does not exist. Doubt implies that there is something to know! Doubt often helps clarify and confirm the truth. It is certainly so with me. When doubts rise in my mind of one kind or another, it sets me to thinking and the thinking usually pretty quickly sets me straight.

The struggle of many Christians with doubt is relatively painless. I number myself among those who have never struggled deeply or at length with doubt. I have had my doubts — more fleeting than lasting — but they have never seriously shaken my faith. Cardinal Newman wrote in his autobiography, “From the time I became a Catholic…I never have had one doubt.” [Apologia pro sua vita, 247; cited in Os Guiness, In Two Minds, 43] But Newman was a very self-confident person and, of course, he was justifying his decision to leave the Anglican Church for Rome. There would be few Christians who could say what he said, no matter what church they belonged to. “I’ve had not one doubt.”

For others doubt is a much heavier burden and one they have carried many a long year. Sometimes this struggle seems to their friends genuinely irrational. They know the person, his or her faith, the strength of their spiritual convictions, they know their past, and so on. The doubt they chalk up, and no doubt in some cases rightly, to the person’s make-up, his or her tendency to depression, or lack of self-confidence.

Spurgeon, in one of his sermons, reminds us that in moments of depression and frustration Shakespeare doubted his gifts as a poet and playwright and Raphael doubted his ability to paint. But we think of doubts of that kind as more like hypochondria, a kind of irrational and morbid self-suspicion or insecurity. They’ll get over it, we think, because obviously Shakespeare could write a play and Raphael could paint a painting.

But in their case and even more so in the case of many others whose doubts cannot be explained simply as the curse of their personality, the struggle with unbelief is a struggle of epic proportion. It is no fun and it is very hard and wearying to live in two minds and to have those two minds at war in one’s own head! Doubts are subtle but powerful things. They creep up on us or they assault us head-on. They can result from outward experiences and circumstances or from inward impressions that come upon us we know not why.

Look at these two tribes here in Joshua 17 and the remaining seven in chapter 18. They did not doubt that Yahweh is real. They are far from being atheists. For that matter, there were hardly any atheists in the ancient world; and, to be frank, there aren’t that many in the modern world. It has always been a stretch to account for personal reality without a personal God. These men are more than mere theists, however. They have seen the Lord at work and powerfully. They do not doubt that they had taken the Promised Land. They have served in battle after battle and have conquered all their enemies. Their doubts are of another kind. They come from weariness, perhaps from some measure of resentment. (They had probably as we often do exaggerated in their minds the quality of the portion of the Promised Land that had been allotted to others and how many Canaanite there actually were standing in their way.) They’ve fought their fill of battles and just wanted peace and quiet. They wanted to get down to farming those beautiful farms that had been given to them And now they are being told that they must strap on the sword again to do battle with an enemy that, once again, is better equipped than they. One of these times, they think to themselves, we’re going to run into one too many chariots! Is it really worth it to do everything the Lord says? Whatever else that is, it is doubt: doubt in the Word of God, in his presence, in his promise to bless and keep and reward his people, and doubt in the seriousness of the consequences of disobedience.

It is the challenge of faith, after all — and doubt is simply another name for a weak faith — that one must act on convictions that he cannot see and for a reward which is often, if not usually, far from immediate. People can often speak as if faith were an easy thing. “All you have to do is believe.” It is not. It is the most difficult thing of all. Indeed, the Bible says faith is impossible for man. That is why it must be a gift of God. So here is the believing life once again in Joshua: it is one thing to believe in the Promised Land; it is another thing to risk your life for the umpteenth time to ensure your full and unfettered possession of it! Doubt can be caused by any number of things and we see several causes here.

  1. It can be caused by ingratitude and the men of Joseph seem alarmingly ungrateful here. Every thoughtful Christian knows how easily he or she takes the Lord’s goodness for granted and how little and how rarely we genuinely give thanks to God. Doubt is unhealthy ingratitude; real thanksgiving is a sign of spiritual health. These people were being handed a large chunk of the land of milk and honey and instead of saying, “Wow! Thank you so much, heavenly Father!” they complain that they would have preferred a larger territory located more conveniently. Doubt breeds in the swamp of ingratitude because ingratitude blinds us to what is actually happening and what our actual condition is in Christ before God. Instead of rejoicing in God’s love we start wondering why he has not done more, and once we have given ourselves to that thought, any doubt is possible.
  2. Doubt can be caused as well by superficial understanding. It should have been obvious to these men by now that each tribe would have its own work to do in taking full possession of the land and that the conquest would not be complete until all the Canaanites had been dispossessed. As often as the Lord had said that in Deuteronomy, that should have been clear. What is more, the Lord had never said that the Israelites had only to kick in the door and the Canaanites would scurry and run. There would be battles, years of battles, as it happened. And the work would not be done until the land was altogether theirs and the Canaanites were gone. These men somehow had allowed themselves the impression that the conquest, which we said is a picture of the Christian life, could be considered complete when the general victory had been won, not when the last Canaanite was seen scurrying out of the Promised Land. The difficulties they saw before them were the difficulties they were to expect before them, nothing more, nothing less. But if you expect it to be easier than it is, doubts will invariably rise in the mind. Why isn’t this working out the way it should? The difficulty of sanctification, the hard work of following the Lord in this world, is the breeding ground of doubt!
  3. Doubt can come from an insufficient attention to the promises of God. What God was going to do for Israel and how he was going to do it had been thoroughly explained beforehand. The promise that he would grant his people the victory over the Canaanites had been repeated again and again and had been fulfilled again and again. But the men of Joseph had either ignored that word or had let it slip from the mind. The Word of God does us no good lying on the page; it must be brought into the heart, again and again, and it must be considered in respect to our circumstances, past, present, and future. It is not as if these men could claim that God had not given Israel amazing victories; he had. It is not as if they couldn’t tell that the land was theirs; it was. The Canaanites’ military power was broken, shattered. But we often cower before enemies we imagine to be so much stronger than we are because we have forgotten what God has done in the past and what he has promised to do in the future.
  4. Doubt can arise from our looking for the wrong kind of evidence. We want total victory over our sins; we want that one thing that we have so longed for and prayed for and feel that because God has not given such things to us, he must not love us or be present in our lives. But the whole Bible contradicts that kind of thinking. Relying on a happy and untroubled life is to rely on what the Word of God has never promised to give the people of God. [cf. Hodge, Princeton Sermons, 160]
  5. Our emotions, unreliable as they so often are, can be the source of doubts as well. Fear, here in the case of the men of Joseph; jealously perhaps as well; but so often with us disappointment, frustration, loneliness, and so on. It doesn’t feel real to us — God’s presence, his promise, his power — and so we begin to doubt that such things are real. That is the challenge of faith: to believe what cannot be seen and to believe even in defiance of the evidence of our eyes.
  6. Certainly doubts can also be stoked by the devil, by our giving way to sin, to spiritual laziness, to the love of the world, and so on.

Doubt is, in one respect, sin. No one should doubt the Word of God. No one has the right to do so. No one can mount an argument that justifies doubt in the Word of God. But we are weak in so many ways and doubt is the symptom of our weakness. The fact that we all struggle to some degree with doubt — doubt of the faith, doubt about our faith, doubt about God’s love, doubt about the promises of God — I say the fact that we all doubt is some indication of how great and difficult a thing faith is. No wonder the Lord’s disciples in a moment of stunning clarity asked him to increase their faith. No wonder the man whose daughter was dying, answered the Lord, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” We believe, but we know how much more faith we require, how weak our faith so often is, how scarcely it sometimes seems to exist at all. We look at these men of Joseph, griping and cowering and see ourselves, do we not? I see myself! That is the ugly side of doubt. We can sympathize with the doubting. Jesus did. Remember how gently he dealt with Thomas. But when it is our own doubt, we need to be firm.

As C.S. Lewis observed in regard to his own doubts:

“I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address. Mind you I don’t think so — the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced; but I often feel so.” [Letters to Arthur Greeves, 398-399]

So what are we to do with these doubts that beset us? What should the men of Joseph have done with these doubts that afflict all of us some of us from time to time, some of us much of the time? Well remember and take to heart facts such as these.

  1. As Samuel Rutherford put it, “Your heart is not the compass Christ saileth by.” We do not rest our case on how we feel, or even how easily we believe, but upon what God has said and what Christ has done. Remember this: your faith may be weak, but it was not your faith that was crucified for you, but the Son of God.
  2. Doubt is a fact of believing life, as we learn even here in Joshua. We see believers doubting all the way through the Bible. Therefore, if we struggle with doubts we are doing what believers have always done. If our doubts sometimes confound us and concern us, this itself in a kind of reverse way, confirms our faith. Not least because we doubt as Christians: we are doubting in the way Christians doubt, worried about the things Christians are worried about, wishing we could believe more firmly as only Christians really do.
  3. And then remember this, you will not be able to craft an argument — no matter how smart you are, no matter how many books you read — you will not be able to craft an argument that proves your doubts to be justified or comes anywhere near proving your doubts to be justified. People have been trying to craft such arguments since the beginning of time, but no one has come up with one yet. And if you’re honest, you know that already. Evolution? The problem of evil? Come on; this world is no accident and neither are you; and without God there is no such thing as evil so there can’t be a problem of evil. Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners? Really? Where else is man going to find his salvation except in the heart of his Maker? Your personal failures? Everyone has those, more and worse than anyone knows. But the whole message of the Word of God is that it is precisely our moral failures, yours and mine, that brought the Son of God into the world for our salvation.

And for you who struggle with doubt more often and to a greater degree than most Christians; for you who lie awake at night wondering whether God loves you and whether he has really given himself for you and his Spirit to you, or whether he will keep the promises he made in his Word in your life, let me finish with this. It is found in the thirteenth century work of Jean Joinvile, his Life of St. Louis, the great Christian king of France. In this work he reports a conversation between a certain bishop and a nobleman who had come for spiritual counsel, consumed by his doubts as he was. He feared he was an apostate because he couldn’t overcome his doubts. The bishop gave the man some good advice about how to think about his doubts and how to work his way through them, but then he said this.

“You know the king of France is at war with the King of England; you also know that the castle nearest the boundary-line between their two domains is the castle of Rochelle… So I will ask you a question: Suppose the king had set you to guard the castle of Rochelle, and had put me in charge of the castle of Montlheri, which is in the very center of France, where the land is at peace… To which of us do you think the king would feel the most indebted at the end of the war — to the one who had guarded La Rochelle…or to me who had remained in safety at Montlheri? ‘Why, in God’s name, my Lord,’ [responded] the nobleman, ‘to me who had guarded La Rochelle, and not lost it to the enemy.’” [173-174]

You are in the thick of the fight. That is hardly proof that you are on the wrong side, still less that you’re not on the winning side! “The devil is a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” said John Knox. “Whom he has devoured he seeks no more.” [Reid, 80] And, if there are times when you feel completely defeated, remember the wise words of a man who struggled with doubt all his life, but gained the victory through it all, Rabbi Duncan: “A prisoner of war is not a deserter.” [Just a Talker, 3]

And then pray and pray and pray again Martin Luther’s prayer for doubters:

“Dear Lord, although I am sure of my position, I am unable to sustain it without you. Help me or I am lost.” [Cited in Guiness, 302]