Serve the Lord Joshua 24:14-28


Joshua 24:14-28

Download audio

We said last time that what we have in Joshua 24 is the account of a ceremony of covenant renewal. The chapter bears the marks of the literary form of the ancient near eastern treaties after which God’s covenant with Israel was described, especially in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In vv. 1-13 we found a typical preamble and historical prologue. In the rest of this section of chapter 24 we will find other typical features, including the threat of curses for disobedience, arrangement for the deposit of the covenant document, and the provision of witnesses. As this is the report of a ceremony, not the covenant document itself, such as we have in Deuteronomy, the text we are about to read does not perfectly resemble the typical covenant document of the period, but it indicates that were we to have the document that was produced on this occasion it would conform to the standard pattern.

Text Comment

v.15     There is no direct reference to Israelite idolatry in Egypt in the narrative of Exodus, but given what we read there about Israel in Egypt it hardly surprises us to learn that they worshipped other gods besides Yahweh. Indeed, we learn in Lev. 17:7 that Israel had worshipped goat gods in Egypt! [Howard, 435] The gods of the Amorites would be the gods of Canaan, whom, given her history, Joshua fears will prove a temptation to Israel.

The Lord has given his people many reasons to believe in him and to rely on his Word. That is as true for us today as it was for the Israelites in Joshua’s day. In the Gospel of John we read that “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples that are not recorded in this book.” They too had seen with their own eyes the power and faithfulness of God and knew that what Jesus had taught them was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Francis Schaeffer, commenting on this text, called such miraculous signs “space-time proofs” and draws our attention to the fact that the Bible claims that there are always sufficient reasons to believe in the Word of God. [203]

Joshua’s remark, “If you find it evil to serve the Lord” is obviously rhetorical. He is not suggesting that one choice is as good as another. His remark has bite because to worship any of these other gods would be to repudiate not only Abraham but their recent history from the exodus to the conquest. It certainly wasn’t the gods of Canaan who gave them the Promised Land! Fidelity to the Lord is “the only reasonable response to overwhelming waves of Yahweh’s mercies.” [Davis, 204]

But don’t miss the obvious contrast either. Only Israel had to make a choice like this one. Ancient near eastern peoples could worship as many gods as they liked. But Israel was forbidden to worship any but one.

One last thing to notice in this important 15th verse. “As for me and my house…” Joshua spoke not only for himself but for his family. The spiritual solidarity of the family is a fact both of biblical revelation and of the observation of life. God’s grace and his judgment run in the lines of generations, or should. The decisions we make as parents, the spiritual choices we make affect not only our own lives, but those of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

v.18     The people of Israel got the point. They knew their future lay with Yahweh because of what he had done for them in the past.

v.19     This is not what we expected to hear from Joshua. One scholar has called these words “perhaps the most shocking statement in the Old Testament.” [Butler in Howard, 437]

Yahweh is a holy and jealous God. That is he will not brook any division of loyalty on the part of his people. The gods of the ancient near east were jealous in a low sort of way. Like the Greco-Roman gods they were supposedly involved in all matter of petty rivalries and intrigues. But it is God’s very nature to require undivided loyalty on the part of his people. His jealousy is a mark of his reality and his holiness. One famous OT scholar says that this holy jealousy “is the basic element in the whole OT idea of God.” [W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT, vol. 1, 210 n.1]

Joshua’s stern reply was his way of saying, “Don’t speak blithely about how you are going to serve the Lord. A superficial commitment will not be enough. And if you fail to keep the promise you have made, the Lord will not forgive you.” It may also convey some concern on Joshua’s part for the future fidelity of Israel. He knew this people too well; he had heard them make promises before that they did not keep. But, in any case, here as in many places in the OT an absolute statement is made when it is in fact conditional. God will not forgive if you fail to remain faithful to him. The unconditional nature of the remark is a Hebraism.

v.22     In response to Joshua’s stern words the people reaffirmed their loyalty to Yahweh and Joshua reminded them that their solemn promise made publicly would come back to haunt them if they proved unfaithful in the end.

v.23     It is unclear whether Joshua’s demand implies that some Israelites were still harboring idols or only that he was making it clear that to be loyal to the Lord meant that they must absolutely repudiate any and every other so-called god. [Woudstra, 355]

v.25    As I said this is the report of the ceremony, not the actual treaty itself, in the typical structure of the ancient near eastern treaties this part of the chapter corresponds to the writing down of the stipulations of the treaty, the laws and commandments, to the deposit of a copy of the treaty in the sanctuary, to its public reading, and to the identification of those who are witnesses to it.

v.26     When a covenant or treaty was made in the ancient near east a document with its details was produced. That was done here. Then the stone of witness was placed under a large oak tree near where the tabernacle had been set up. Such a tree served as a landmark. Everyone would know where the stone was.

v.28     So ends the central narrative of the book. “There were no more lands to be taken, no more territorial distributions to be made, no more speeches to be given, no more covenants to be entered into. Everyone was able to return to his inheritance, which was the goal from the beginning of the book.” [Howard, 442]

One of the longstanding and one of the most difficult tasks of biblical theology is sorting out the interplay between an absolute divine sovereignty, taught and emphasized so many times and in so many ways in the Bible, and a genuine human freedom and accountability. Some Christian theological systems simply affirm the one emphasis and do their best to minimize or ignore the other. Some Christian theologians have attempted to harmonize the two by attempting to explain precisely how it is possible that everything that happens — everything! — was foreordained by an absolute predestination — from the affairs of men and nations to the salvation of human beings to the number of hairs on your head at this moment — on the one hand, and yet, on the other, that the free choices we make change the outcome of things in this world; that is, if people choose to do one thing one thing will happen, if they choose to do another something else will come to pass. Joshua very obviously was asserting the latter truth here. You must choose one or the other — Yahweh or the gods of Canaan — and the choice you make will determine everything.

I have often told you that one of the strengths of our Reformed tradition is that it has thought it best simply to do what the Bible does and affirm both truths, making no attempt to harmonize them or explain the interplay between them. In the same way that we do not attempt to explain how God can be both one and three or how Christ can be both God and man, so we do not attempt to explain how everything can come to pass according to the divine will and at the same time the choices we make as human beings have both temporal and eternal consequences.

Here all the emphasis falls on what Israel must do if she wishes to retain the Lord’s favor. There is, as you know, a great deal of “if you do this…God will do this” in the Bible. And there is a great deal of it in the book of Joshua. Indeed, the element of personal choice and its consequence may even be said to be a particular theme of this book. Rahab made a choice none of the rest of the citizens of Jericho made and she was saved while they were lost. Achan made a choice that the other Israelites did not make at Jericho and he was destroyed while the rest of the nation inherited the land. The Gibeonites, alone among the Canaanites, made a choice to seek peace with Israel and they lived when their fellow countrymen were destroyed in battle. And Joshua throughout the book chose to follow the Lord and obey his commandments, as he had been instructed to do at the beginning and now, as a result, Israel is settled in Canaan. [cf. Schaeffer, 211-212]

As I said, chapter 24 is the record of a ceremony of covenant renewal. The covenant in the Bible, a very important theme in the Bible as you know, is the “human freedom”, the “human responsibility”, the “human accountability” side of the Bible’s revelation of salvation. A covenant, both in the ancient near east and in the Bible, is a relationship of mutual responsibilities. God will keep his promises if we fulfill our obligations. In the covenant everything depends upon what we do and what we do not do. In the covenant the Lord responds, as he has said he would, to the choices that we make, rewarding some and punishing others. Now, we Presbyterians know very well that in other respects salvation depends solely on what God does and not in any respect, to any degree on what we do. But here the emphasis falls on our choice and the actions that stem from it. How to reconcile these very different emphases I do not know and no one else does either. That they lie side by side on virtually every page of the Bible who can deny? But then there is no need to reconcile friends and obviously these two truths of an absolute divine sovereignty and an absolute human freedom and accountability are friends not enemies in the Bible. That is why the Bible talks endlessly about both but never seems to display any concern to make them agree with one another. Reality is often mysterious like that; divine reality all the more so!

Of course the Lord does what pleases him in heaven on earth. Of course we know that our salvation is his gift, his work in our hearts and lives, and Christ’s work for us while we were still his enemies. Of course he rules the world. Of course all things happen according to the counsel of his will. But with just as much certainty we all know that our choices matter. Our life is not some illusion. God is not playing games with us. We live every day making choices that have consequences. To choose and to reap the consequences of the choices we have made is what it means to be a human being. Human life, in its dignity and its supreme importance, in every respect rests upon the connection between choice and consequence, between what we do and the outcome of our acts in things both great and small. In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeological Review there is a full page advertisement that bears the headline “Choose life.” I saw those words, “Choose life,” at the top of the page and was expecting to find, as you do some times in that magazine, some form of Christian evangelism on the page. We read those very words — “Choose life” — in Deuteronomy and that is in effect what Joshua is urging Israel to do here: “Choose life.” But the ad is for a health supplement, described as “The reverse aging miracle.” We are being told that if we buy and use this supplement we will enjoy all manner of happy consequences. And it must be so because there is a money back guarantee! [July/August 2014, 7] People are urging us to make choices all the time precisely because we all agree that our choices can make all the difference in the world. Scam artists trade on our understanding of that fact!

But very often human beings do not reckon with the consequences of the choices they make. The person who over-indulges his enjoyment of tasty food does not set out to become obese; the alcoholic does not set out to be arrested for drunken driving or to ruin his liver; the accountant working his fiddle on the company books does not set out to be arrested for embezzlement; the lazy student does not think that he or she is materially diminishing his or her opportunities for life by playing on the computer or watching TV instead of doing homework; And here that is very much Joshua’s point. “You cannot escape the consequences of your choices,” he told Israel,  “so choose wisely!”

Israel might very well have been tempted; indeed we know she was often tempted to believe that she could have Yahweh and the other gods as well. There is little evidence to suggest that Israel ever abandoned her belief in Yahweh. But she often worshipped other gods. She thought she could have it both ways; she thought she could enjoy the best of both worlds as it were. She often thought she could be both an Israelite and a Canaanite. But Joshua will have none of it. No, like it or not, Israel must choose one of the actual alternatives: Yahweh or the false gods of Mesopotamia or Canaan. If they chose Yahweh, they could not have the other gods or the easier life those other gods supposedly permitted. And if they chose the other gods they couldn’t have Yahweh because he wouldn’t tolerate their dabbling in theological illusion.

Here is where so many people go fatally wrong and all of us go wrong to some degree some of the time. We make choices without an honest weighing of the consequences, without facing the inevitable outcome. And in the spiritual realm, in the realm of man’s relationship with God, it is precisely at this point, the point Joshua emphasizes in his farewell address, that people most often go wrong. As Joshua puts it here: “If you choose the Lord, Yahweh, the living and true God, then you must be his servant.” You will have his favor both in this world and the next, but you must be his servant, exclusively his servant. That is the choice: become a servant of the Lord and live, or serve instead these gods whose service is so much easier; but then what? The word “to serve” occurs seven times in just vv. 14-15. You must choose whom you will serve; the living God or the idols of the world. But don’t kid yourself: either choice has momentous consequences.

Putting it in terms we can understand today, Ralph Davis, a fine commentator on Joshua and a retired PCA minister, writes:

“The conservatives who were fond of tradition, of what had stood the test of time, who yearned for the ‘faith of our fathers’, might vote for Mesopotamia. The liberals with their yen for relevance, for being in step with the times, might prefer to identify…with the current social milieu and enter into dialogue and worship with the Amorites. But you must choose; if not Yahweh, then take your pick from [what Matthew Henry calls] ‘these dunghill deities.’” [205]

It was altogether easier to serve the gods of the ancient world, as it is altogether easier today to serve the gods of the modern western world (ease, comfort, pleasure, money, fame, and power). They do not require your heart or your holiness. Any thoughtful observer of American life can see that Americans are inclined to choose the easy path with little regard for ultimate consequences. It was Woody Allen who quipped that “to be an American is to take God and carpet with equal seriousness.” That, perhaps, is why Joshua startles us as he does in v. 15 — as if he were really offering Israel a choice of gods. His point is precisely that we must serve something or someone. We human beings are born servants. We always worship someone or something; every human being does and must. It may be utterly foolish and deeply perverse for an Israelite ever to serve an idol, but everyone else was doing it; it was so much easier to worship the way everyone else worshipped and so much more fun. Israel would do it soon that enough precisely because it was so much easier.

So Joshua hurried on to make the next point. Whatever choice you make, whomever you choose to serve, there will be consequences. If you don’t serve the Lord, you will have to answer to him eventually. That is the Bible’s assertion from beginning to end. That is, make no mistake, the reason all of us are sitting here this morning. There is a sternness to Holy Scripture, an inflexible seriousness precisely because the stakes of human life are so high. Throughout this chapter we cannot even once detect a smile on Joshua’s face. The issue of human life is too appalling. But people don’t face this fact; they don’t simply neglect to think about the consequences; they resent having to think about them. They are offended that they should be put upon in this way. Peter Hitchens, the late Christopher Hitchens’ brother, refers in his book The Rage Against God to the Anglican catechism that he was made to learn at school.

“What is thy duty towards God? To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: to order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters…to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.”

He goes on to say:

“This passage well expresses the thing that the confident, ambitious young person dislikes about religion: its call for submission — submission! — to established authority, and its disturbing implication that others can and will decide what I must be and do.” [28]

Well, Joshua uses the term “serve” here, not “submit,” (though, to be sure, the word submit is used often enough in the Bible!) but the point is the same with all of its obvious implications. It is not for nothing that throughout the Bible, in the OT and the NT, the Christian is described as a “servant” of God and Christ, even a bond slave of Christ. We instinctively recoil from the very idea until we consider the alternative.

At the end of every life lies this single alternative: either forgiveness and the favor and blessing of God forever or his condemnation and punishment: the absence of God and with him all that is good and happy and noble and satisfying and fulfilling in human life. That is the supreme fact of human life. That is, as I said, ultimately why you and I are here in this church this morning. The problem, of course, is that one cannot see this immediately with the eye. How different life would be if we could look up and glimpse into heaven and hell from afar; but we cannot. There are, to be sure, many anticipations of both destinies in this world, more than enough to leave us without excuse, but the Canaanites prospered for years serving their so-called gods. It wasn’t until the Israelites arrived on their doorstep that they learned that their gods were nothings and could not protect them against the judgments of the Lord. But, of course, for most of them, by then it was too late.

“Too late” is writ large over this world and over the life of mankind. “The saddest things of tongue and pen to tell the things that might have been.” Only too late will they learn that they were serving gods that were no gods and that now they must face and give answer to the God who is! Wise human beings, who see people all around them constantly making choices without regard to the consequences, and who have themselves made so many such poor choices because it was easier to do that thing at that moment than to reckon with its likely consequence down the road; I say, people who look around themselves and see otherwise smart people making so many foolish choices should examine themselves to see if they have not made such a foolish choice in regard to the very foundation and future of their lives

But now I want you to notice one more thing. In this entire passage Joshua was speaking to believers. To put it in modern terms, Joshua was not delivering an evangelistic sermon; he was preaching to the choir.

This is not the generation that perished in the wilderness. This is the generation that defeated Sihon and Og, that laid waste the Canaanites in battle after battle, and of whom we will read at the very end of the book, “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua.” It is to this people who had themselves seen with their own eyes the punishment of unfaithful Israel and witnessed the Lord’s power exercised on their behalf — from the crossing of the Jordan River on dry ground, to the defeat of Jericho, to the conclusion of the conquest — I say, it was to believers that Joshua spoke these stern words and from whom he asked for this commitment. They had followed the Lord as their fathers had not done, but Joshua still thought it necessary to put the question to them once again.

And so the Bible does throughout. Believers are never taught that a single commitment is sufficient, but that our commitment to the Lord must be renewed again and again. That’s what we do Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day in this house. We renew our covenant with God again and again. We’ve done it, some of us, thousands of times, as we should. We are constantly being asked to do again what we did at first: to trust the Lord, to pledge our lives to him, and to serve him, just as Joshua asked Israel to do here. (That, after all, is what we do every Sunday in this house.) Joshua had already encouraged Israel to commit herself again in a previous farewell address, our chapter 23, and here in chapter 24 he does it again. The Christian life is composed of ever new beginnings. I love this from Alexander Whyte:

“We are always returning home from the far country and we are always saying, ‘Father, I have again sinned.’ And our heavenly Father is always saying over us, ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him.’ Every morning you rise [put on that robe and] go out to your day’s work always wearing it. And every returning night [put on that robe to] lie down again in it. Make it your morning coat and your evening dress. [Put it on to be] married in it, if you would be married in the Lord; and [put it on again to] make it your winding sheet, if you would die in the Lord. Die in it and awake in it and go up to the Judgment in it. [Put it on to] stand at the right hand of the great white throne in it, and enter heaven shining like the sun in it.” [Thomas Shepard, 161-162]

Put it on the robe of Christ’s righteousness again and again. You get the point. What Christians did to make themselves Christians they must do until their life’s end. Nothing is once for all in the Christian life and experience so far as our actions are concerned. Faith, repentance, obedience are everyday things; repeated things, things to be renewed constantly and to the very end. If you remember, this was the point of the very first of Luther’s 95 Theses, the document that provoked the Protestant Reformation. “When our Lord and Master said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That is we are to be making a new turn every day: a turn away from sin and a turn to the Lord and his righteousness.

Now, let me sum up. Only Yahweh, the living God, the God who actually is, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, only Yahweh ever made a covenant with particular human beings! Only the God of Abraham tells those who trust in him precisely who he is and what he is like and, therefore, what he requires of them. And he makes that covenant with anyone willing to believe in him. Only he demands true loyalty; only he tells them precisely what the consequences will be of both living faith and unbelief. Only he extends himself in love toward people — unworthy and unreliable as they were — offering forgiveness, eternal life, and himself in return for faith, love, loyalty and obedience.

He is the only God who makes and keeps promises. The God of Islam doesn’t promise anything to any particular worshipper. No Muslim knows what will happen to him when he dies. The gods of the modern west make no promises and keep none. Only the Lord draws his people into a covenant in which he binds himself in loving promise to his people and demands their love in return.

And in conclusion, did you notice Joshua’s this day in v. 15. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Yesterday’s choices lie in the past. Tomorrow may or may not come. And who knows what you will be thinking tomorrow. Today is the day to choose the Lord. It is always today, never tomorrow in the Bible. Today is the only day that touches eternity. We are always inclined to live in the past or the future, but the Bible summons us to live, to love, and to choose today, today when it matters.

And so it is ours, yours and mine, to choose again and to choose again today. Whom will you serve: the Lord or the gods of this world? Make your choice and say it to yourself, no matter how many times you may have said it before: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”