Drawing near to the end of the book of Joshua we come this morning to chapter 23 and we’re reading all sixteen verses of that chapter.
Near the end of his life Joshua delivered two farewell addresses to the nation of Israel, to the nation as represented by its leadership: the first apparently delivered at Shiloh that we have here in chapter 23; the second as we will read at the beginning of chapter 24 delivered at Shechem. It is the first of those two addresses we have before us this morning. Moses, if you remember, had likewise given a farewell address before his death, a further reminder that Joshua was, as it were, another Moses, a point often underscored in the book of Joshua. These final speeches very clearly sum up and recapitulate some of the main themes of the book.
v.1 In the latter chapters of Joshua we have already noticed emphasis falling on how long it had been since Israel first entered the Promised Land. By the time larger military operations were concluded five years had passed (14:10). Now it is still later, how much later we are not told.
v.3 Three times Joshua is going to remind Israel of what the Lord had done for them. Throughout the Bible this is the first and the chief motivation of believing Christian life: the Lord has been gracious to us, has given us fabulous gifts we did not deserve; what then is a faithful Christian life but our expression of gratitude to him in word and deed.
v.5 The Lord had already done so much for Israel, but he was prepared to do still more. Complete possession of the Promised Land was Israel’s to achieve. The Lord was prepared to help her.
v.8 In order to claim still more of God’s blessing, Israel was required to remain faithful to the Lord, a faithfulness demonstrated by obedience and by an active and living confidence in the Lord. The reference to pagan practices of worship reminds us that it was this temptation in particular that the Canaanites posed to Israel. Canaanite worship was tempting to Israel because of its radically sensual nature — orgy as worship — and because it conformed to the conventions of ancient near eastern thought. It did not require Israel to be different, to be unlike everyone else. Human beings crave acceptance but the Lord required Israel to be a counter-culture, a people apart, always a very hard thing for human beings. The temptations to be like everyone else and to seek sensual pleasures have undone a great many people in today’s world just as they did in the ancient world. This in fact would be Israel’s undoing again and again over the remainder of her history as it is recorded in the pages of the Old Testament. Joshua knew of what he spoke: Israel’s great peril was the temptation to conform to the world around her. And when she allowed that world to flourish in her very midst, ruin was not far away. When people invite the Devil to tempt them, he always obliges!
v.9 While the Lord had been with Israel and had given her the land of Canaan as he had promised, Joshua is realistic about the challenges that Israel still faced. He has already mentioned the nations that still remain in the land, the peoples that Israel had not yet dispossessed, and he will mention them again. Indeed the word for “nations” appears 7x in this chapter. The presence of pagan peoples nearby is clearly the great peril that Joshua sees looming on Israel’s horizon. Obviously these nations posed a threat to Israel’s spiritual welfare, a point made repeatedly in Deuteronomy and in the earlier chapters of Joshua, which is why Israel had been commanded to dispossess the Hivites, the Girgashites and so on, which, alas, to this point she had only partially done. [Howard, 417] The Book of Judges will relate the sad tale of Israel’s spiritual decline, a decline that happened in large part because the seeds of her spiritual corruption were allowed to remain in the land in which she now lived.
v.11 Here Israel’s faithfulness is defined not by her obedience or her trust in God, but by her love for him. Paul says the same thing at the end of 1 Corinthians when he defines the true Christian as the person who genuinely loves God. Love personalizes the Christian life, because love in its very nature requires two persons and a relationship between them.
v.14 Here we are reminded that Israel had progressed as far as she had because she had taken God at his word and he had proved faithful to his word. He always will prove faithful, so our faithfulness can be defined as living in the confidence that God’s word is true and can be relied on absolutely.
Over and over again I have pointed out to you how the history recounted in Joshua is paradigmatic. It reveals the pattern of human life and, especially, of believing life. I have reminded you many times that the rest of the Bible teaches us to look at this history in that way. Israel’s taking of the Promised Land is in some fundamental ways like the Christian obtaining salvation or gaining possession of heaven itself. And this continues to be the case here in chapter 23. And it is so in various ways.
For example, we might notice something here that is characteristic of the believer’s training in faith and godliness throughout the Bible. Joshua seeks to motivate Israel to a life of faith and godliness in two very different ways. We might say that he uses both the carrot and the stick. [Howard, 418-419] He reminds them of the Lord’s great faithfulness, of all that God has done for them, and all that he has promised to do for them. That’s the carrot. Everything is so positive and encouraging. But then the tone changes. Joshua also and very sternly reminds them of the consequences of faithlessness and disobedience. In vv. 11-13 and vv. 15-16 he threatens them with doom if they forget the kindness of the Lord and squander his gifts by breaking the covenant God had made with them. Gratitude is a powerful motive for right living; but so is fear. And throughout the Bible both motives are employed to keep our wayward feet firmly fixed on the straight and narrow way that leads to everlasting life.
But there is something more fundamental still here in Joshua 23. We have here fundamental perspectives on life, perspectives that are absolutely vital to a right understanding of life and salvation, but perspectives that have proved exceedingly difficult for human beings to grasp or, when grasped, to keep in mind for any length of time.
What we have, in other words, in Joshua 23 are some of the key elements of the biblical view of the world and of the life of mankind. If we mistake these, we must go fundamentally wrong in our view of life and, in particular, in our view of our own life. Indeed, it is precisely here, with respect to these fundamental facts of life, that most human beings go terribly wrong.
There are two such bottom facts or truths front and center in Joshua’s first farewell discourse and the first of them is this:
- Life, every human life, is poised on a knife-edge with God’s love and salvation on one side and his judgment on the other.
This is what Joshua will not let Israel forget; this is what he thinks it most necessary that she know and remember. So long as she is in this world, she has the prospect of God’s favor, of God’s love, of God’s approval and acceptance before her; but, at the same time, she is equally threatened by the looming reality of his judgment.
We might have thought otherwise. We might have supposed that Joshua in his farewell address would tell Israel, “Congratulations! You’ve arrived. The Promised Land is yours! Now enjoy the spoils of your victory. Go home, relax, and smell the roses!” But he doesn’t say that and the Bible never says that, not once. While we are still living in this world, the issue of life still hangs in the balance.
I don’t mean to say, of course, that no one can know that he or she is saved and going to heaven. Of course believers can know that. But we are taught a thousand times and in a thousand ways in Holy Scripture that knowledge of our salvation can never become an excuse to lower our guard, to take heaven for granted, or to consider ourselves to have arrived. When Israel took her place in the Promised Land for granted and then broke her covenant with the Lord she lost the Promised Land as a result. That is the brute fact of Old Testament history and of the typology that that history represents. If we take anything away from the paradigmatic nature of the history of Joshua, Judges, and the rest of the OT narrative it should be this: if we are not determined to keep the Promised Land, we will lose it.
As with so much else in the Christian life, this too is the problem of human life in general. Most people do not see the fundamental issue of their lives to be this single opportunity to avail themselves of God’s grace and salvation and to avert the threat of his judgment. No matter their religion, no matter their philosophy of life, no matter their circumstances, their temperament, or their personality, their understanding of life is usually entirely more prosaic and altogether less serious. They are interested in their own happiness, their own success in various ways, their own fulfillment in the present. They have little interest in the future and still less in the distant future where they will, like it or not, encounter the God who gave them life, who wrote his law and his will upon their hearts, and who has perfect and exhaustive knowledge of how they have lived their lives every moment of every day, knowledge of their thoughts, their words, and their deeds. Serious things, but most people do not take them seriously.
Fact is the issue that Joshua says here is of supreme importance — Israel’s faithfulness to God — is of little or no consequence to most people. That is why they live as they do. They hardly ever think about such things, if truth be told. And when they do they ordinarily comfort themselves with platitudes. The platitudinous nature of their thinking about God and his judgment is revealed by nothing so much as the fact that, in their minds, they typically divide the human race into three groups, not two. This is always the give-away.
They think, “Well, I’m not a Mother Theresa; I’m not that pious or devoted to others. Nobody is going to call me a saint. But, then, I’m not Adolf Hitler either. I’m a pretty good person. I’m loved in my family, I have friends, I get along well with others. No one gnashes his teeth at me. I’m in that large group of people in the middle, not really good, but then not evil either.” The fatal problem with that way of thinking, the problem that Joshua exposes here, is that there is no group in the middle. There is never a group in the middle! The Bible never divides the human race into three: the really bad, the really good, and the large group of partly good and partly bad in the middle. Never!
Here in Joshua 23 there are but the two groups: faithful Israel and the pagan nations; one or the other. You’ll notice that Joshua uses the same verb in both v. 8 and v. 12. One will either cling to the Lord, or he will cling to the nations. That is the alternative; the sole alternative. Everyone is doing either the one or the other. As that great American theologian, Bob Dylan, put it: “You’ve got to serve somebody!” And so throughout the Bible, there are only the righteous and the wicked, the saved and the lost, the friends of God and his enemies. The fatal mistakes that people make, that lead them to imagine themselves in some large middle group, are to imagine that how good you are is what matters rather than your relationship to God and that God is some avuncular character who doesn’t really care that you have taken the life he gave you and lived it for another reason entirely than that for which it was given. No sinful human being is good enough for God, holy, just, and righteous as he is. That is why the Bible’s central great message is that Christ has borne in our place the judgment of God for our sin. The question isn’t whether you’re good enough; the question is always and only whether you have come to God and received his salvation as the free gift it is and must be.
If there is one thing about your life in this world that the Bible relentlessly emphasizes, that Holy Scripture forces upon your attention, and will not let you forget, it is this: your time in this world however much you have, matters supremely for the simple reason that it is your sole opportunity to choose what sort of life you will have in the next, in that next world that lasts not for 70 or 80 or 90 years, but forever.
Human beings know this; down deep they know it. They know they are not some biological accident, a piece of cosmic scrap thrown up on the shore of eternity with no connections before or after. They know they were made to live and to live forever; they have eternity in their hearts. They know that there is a God to whom they owe their lives. They know that it matters to him how they live — how else can they explain the profoundly moral shape and character of all of their thinking and living. They’re passing judgments all the time about everybody and everything. This world rings with judgment. Why? Because we’ve been made in the image of God who is the Judge. They know all of this, however much they may suppress these truths for fear of looking them in the face. They know their life matters supremely; but still they live as if it did not; as if all that mattered was the here and the now; as if life really were about food and drink and sex and job, and nothing more. They are not raging against God, by and large; they are just dull, distracted, indifferent, committed to little things all the while ignoring the great thing looming at the edge of their active consciousness.
No; says Joshua in his parting words to Israel. It is not enough to have a new place to live, a new farm, new wealth and prosperity. What matters, because it matters forever, is your relationship to God. He matters. The rest — the family, the farm, the pleasant prospects — they may be yours to enjoy, but only if you know them to be his gifts to you and you are determined to demonstrate your gratitude to him for them.The second fundamental perspective on life, the second key element in this biblical view of life is that
- A true and living relationship to God is personal.
By that I mean, whether we are talking about faith — about trust and confidence in God — about obedience — the keeping of his commandments — or about love, all three of which Joshua mentions here in his farewell discourse, what is required, what God demands is you! Not something of yours, but you! Not some action on your part, but your heart, your life, and your commitment. All through the Bible, it is so. And of course it’s so. How could it be otherwise? Could we imagine that God would give himself for us — heart and soul, sacrifice and terrible suffering on our behalf — but want only in return some half-hearted, merely dutiful acknowledgement of him on our part?
That, of course, was Canaanite religion. Give your gifts at the temple or the high place, do your bit for God, and then live as you please. Their gods didn’t care how you lived. Alas, that has been altogether too often what has passed for Christian worship through the ages. But not here; not in the Word of God! Here and throughout the Bible it is always the same: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.”
Here Joshua makes the same point by saying that what God expects of us is obedience. He has given us his commandments, he is God, it is ours to obey, or, as Joshua puts it here in v. 6, to turn neither to the left nor to the right but doing all that is written in the law of God. Nothing is more personal than obedience to another; our directing our lives according to the will of someone else. But that same personal relationship may be described in another way.
Such a living relationship with God is also marked by faith, by confidence in him and in his Word, living in that confidence, living in the certainty that everything that God has told us is true, absolutely and eternally true. That is what the Bible means by faith and that is the idea of “clinging to the Lord” or “sticking to the Lord” as Joshua puts it here in v. 8. But still Joshua is not done. He wants Israel to love the Lord, as he says in v. 11. Love sums it all up. Love is gratitude, devotion, delight, commitment, desire and longing all compact and deep in the heart. Love is the mark of any and every really good relationship.
Love, faith, obedience: they can be distinguished, but in any authentic relationship with God they cannot be separated and each one of them is an intensely personal thing. Our love, our faith, and our obedience may be very imperfect, very defective; but they must be real. We must be able to say that, as the Lord is our witness, in the depths of our heart we want nothing so much as perfect faith in God, perfect love for him, and perfect obedience to all his commandments. Why? Because he is God, because he is our Maker, because he is our Savior and our heavenly Father and friend.
Here too we find a perspective, an outlook that is difficult for people to grasp and still more difficult for them to maintain. I was given an example of this recently. You have heard me mention before the name Robert Farrar Capon from time to time. Dawn Darby’s father, Bill McColley, was the first to put me on to Capon years ago. An Episcopalian priest and author of many books on subjects as diverse as theology and cooking. Capon had a knack of saying things in an interesting way and of putting his finger on the nub of an issue. I have recommended his book on marriage, Bed and Board, to many engaged couples through the years. Bill first recommended to me Capon’s book The Third Peacock. You will perhaps appreciate and remember what I am about to say about Robert Farrar Capon if I give you a sample of his work, this the opening paragraphs of The Third Peacock, Capon’s book on the problem of God and evil.
Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things — new ways of being and new kinds of being to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, ‘Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch?’ And God the Holy Spirit said, ‘Terrific, I’ll help you.’ So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wine glasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers — and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and he said, ‘Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!’ [The Hebrew word for “good” that you have in Genesis 1.] And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing, ‘Tov! Tov! Tov!’ So they shouted forever ‘Tov meod’ [Very good.] and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other [thing] we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.”
That is vintage Robert Farrar Capon: cute, perhaps a touch irreverent from time to time, very clever, but always forcing you to think about things in new ways. And he had a way with words as you can tell. He was particularly appreciated by some in our Reformed evangelical circles because of his powerful emphasis on salvation as nothing but the gift of God, in no way, shape, or form to any degree, in any measure, in any way our own achievement. When Capon died late last year, a well-known PCA minister wrote on his blog: “Some of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read on grace came from Capon.”
But Capon, for all his ability to write sometimes interesting and memorable things about the Bible and the Christian faith, for all his worthy and proper emphasis on salvation as God’s gift, as Christ’s achievement, and as something we have not and never could deserve, I say, for all that he was hardly an example of the faithfulness to God that Joshua is describing here. After twenty-seven years of marriage and six children, Capon almost lost his credentials as a priest — a very hard thing to do in the Episcopal Church — by announcing to his congregation one Sunday morning that he was leaving his wife for another woman. Perhaps that horrible betrayal of God, that failure to love God, that disobedience to God’s commandments, perhaps all of that had something to do with the fact that, by his own admission none of his children have followed him in the Christian faith.
I am in no position, of course, to judge another man’s heart or life. But what Capon did we must all be very clear, real believers are not to do. Real believers, can and do, of course, very wrong things. But it also must be said that what Capon did real believers are not to do. What Capon did Joshua said real believers must not do. What Capon did is the sort of thing the nations do, the very kind of thing that God condemns and punishes. The very sort of thing that people in America are doing all the time. That is what Joshua says to Israel here. Take care that you trust the Lord, that you love him, and that you obey his commandments. It must be so because disobedience and unbelief offends God as a person. And if we love God as a person we will strive to do what pleases him. All Capon could say was, “There were a lot of departments in which I was not a success, not to mention several in which I was, and still am, a failure…”
True faith in God is obedience to him. True faith in God is love for him. It is so and must be so because in the Bible all of this is so intensely personal. These are not sterile things like the religion of most people. These are not external things, these are not routine things. We do not obey because we think it will pay dividends down the road, though it surely will pay those dividends. We obey because these are God’s commandments, not somebody else’s, and because we trust him to direct our lives in the very best way. We love him because he has loved us. We trust him because his Word and promises are his Word and his promises.
This is the issue of your life, the main issue, the great issue whether you are not a Christian or already a Christian. Do you know God in this way or do you continue to know him in this way; are you related to God in that intensely personal way that leads to trust, obedience, and love? This is the great question that every human being must answer. And even those who have answered it by trusting God must continue to say their “yes” and their “amen” until the end of their lives. What the person does who comes to Christ is what that person must do for the rest of his or her life: trust, love, and obey God as a person. Compared to this question of your relationship to God there are no other questions of any consequence; which is why Joshua chose to say this to Israel in his farewell address. They key thing, he said, is to cling to God; never fail to do that. You do that and God will do the rest.God is a person, you are a person.
At last it will be, it must be person to person. You and Almighty God: you trusting, clinging, and obeying and God saving and blessing and keeping. So it must be, because as Joshua reminds us here, God must save or he must judge; one or the other. That is what makes human life so impossibly significant. And down deep every human being knows it and knows why it must be so. But take heart! Jesus Christ, and so God himself himself said, “He who comes to me, I will never drive away.” “The person who comes to me, I will never drive away!”