Joshua 4:1-24

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The first section of the book of Joshua is taken up with Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. But there is more to that history than simply the act of crossing the river. We have already read of preparations made beforehand; now we are to read of actions taken during the cross and subsequent to it.

Text Comment


This repeats the command we read in 3:12 and ties the history reported in chapter 4 to what has already been related of the crossing in chapter 3.


The ESV’s “lay them down” is literally “cause them to rest.” “Rest,” remember, is an important idea in Joshua. We read in 1:13 that the Lord was to give “rest” to Israel by giving them the land. In Hebrews 3 and 4 the concept of rest recurs and Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land under Joshua is said to pre-figure the saints’ entrance into their heavenly rest. There is a great deal of unrest in this world and in our lives. “Rest,” true rest, is what we are all looking for!


There are two quite different ways to read v. 9. It is taken by some to indicate that there was a second set of stones, set up as a cairn in the middle of the river, at the place where the priests and the ark had stood while the nation crossed. This cairn would not serve as a monument to remind the people of what had happened because no one would be likely ever to see it. Or, perhaps its top would become visible when the river was running low. There is a stone in the bed of Lake Geneva that reads, “When you read this, weep.” The point was that when the water got that low the country was in drought. This would be the opposite: when Israel saw the top of that cairn in the middle of the river, she would rejoice because she would remember what had happened there. [Schaeffer, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History, 86]

Or, as is perhaps more likely, this reference to twelve stones is to be taken as a parenthetical aside reminding us how it was those stones got to the western bank of the river. Since it is hard to imagine the point of a cairn that remains under water, the sense would be that the twelve stones were put first in a pile where the priests were standing in the middle of the river, which may be the idea of v. 3, and were subsequently taken from there to make the cairn on the western bank of the river. The fact that those stones are said to be “there to this day” suggests that we are talking about visible not invisible stones. [Howard, 136]


A point had been made that there was to be in the memorial cairn a stone for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, so it was important to note that all twelve tribes were represented, including the tribes that were to settle on the eastern side of the river.


We have not been told whether in fact the entire nation crossed the river or only the army, as might seem more likely. Here the number may be the entire number of people who crossed, or the number of fighting men in the population. We will consider the size of the numbers we are given in the biblical account of the exodus, the wilderness, and the conquest another time. It bears noting here that this number is smaller than the number of fighting men available in Israel according to the census figures that are reported in Numbers. For example, the number of available soldiers in Israel according to Numbers 1:46 was 603,550. There are a number of possible explanations; we’ll survey them in a later sermon. At this point we can simply mention that, as we have learned, numbers are often symbolic in the Bible and the ancient world. This and many other numbers are round numbers, as you see. After all, they did not have the same concern for precision as in our day of statistics and calculators. Forty thousand appears often in the OT as the size of an army that was considered very large. It may be that forty thousand should be taken to mean “a very large army” rather than the literal number of soldiers present. [Hubbard, 159]


The perfect timing of the event, that the water stopped at the moment the priests put their feet in the river and began to flow again as soon as they stepped out of the river — or better stopped as soon as the ark entered the riverbed and restarted as soon as the ark left it — is proof that this was of the Lord, a demonstration of his power and his faithfulness to his people. There is such a thing as coincidence, indeed, and the river has been stopped since on at least three occasions by landslides to the north and the flow of the river cut off for hours at a time; but anyone can tell the difference between coincidence and the almighty hand of God!


The date is significant. Forty years before on that same tenth day of the first month Israel began making her preparations for the Passover, the Passover by which she would make her escape from Egypt. [Exodus 12:2-3] We might say that in the typology of Scripture, its enacted drama of salvation, its prophecy of eternal salvation woven into Israel’s history, the first date marked the beginning of redemption; the last its completion. [Davis, 41]


A point is made of the fact that the miracle was not simply to get Israel safely across the last barrier that separated her from the Promised Land. Like all biblical miracles it was a sign. It served to reveal something about God that was going to be crucial for his people to remember.

In the mid-west and the inter-mountain west, which parts of the country I have traveled a great deal in my life, one encounters from time to time what are variously called “historical markers” or “memorials” or “historic landmarks.” Nowadays, you sometimes find them at interstate highway rest stops. They tell the interested tourist that at this point in such and such a year such and such a thing happened, or such and such a person established a settlement or discovered gold or led a group of settlers along this route or fought a battle with the Indians on that distant ridge, or whatever it might be. The point is that someone thought that it was worth remembering what happened on that spot long ago and thought that later generations would be interested in learning or would be benefitted from knowing about it.

If your father was anything like mine, you tended to whiz by those historical landmarks at 70 miles per hour. Seeing one coming up through the backseat window, I would try to read something of the inscription as we hurtled by, but almost never could. I know much less about the history of my country because my father couldn’t be bothered to slow down so his son could read the landmark! I don’t hold that against him as, now that I am a father myself, I tend to do the same thing. I figure that whatever my children really needed to know about American history, Mr. Hannula would teach them. I needn’t be bothered to interrupt our progress along the highway again and again. Still, I’ve read a good many such monuments over the years. Indeed, you find them all over the world. There is a human instinct to remember important events and people and an almost universal recognition that unless they are memorialized they will be forgotten.

There are perhaps some people who do not need the assistance of “aids” to memory. Abraham Lincoln, Charles Spurgeon, and C.S. Lewis by all accounts had phenomenal powers of recall; they never seemed to forget anything that they saw or read or learned or anyone they met. But most of us have memories more like sieves than steel traps. And that is particularly true in regard to matters that bear on our life with God.

We may never forget a slight — real or imagined — we can hold a grudge for years; which is simply another way of saying that we can remember some offense for years, but we forget our own sins very quickly and often completely. I’ve never forgotten Alexander Whyte’s observation:

“Lucifer himself would be a humble angel with his wings over his face if he had a past like yours and would often enough return to look at it.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 211ff.]

And, similarly, how easily we forget the great things God has done for us. How many times have we found ourselves worrying about this or that while forgetting altogether how the Lord has wonderfully met our needs in the past! It is this fact that has led untold numbers of Christians to keep diaries, records of their walk with God, of the lessons learned and the blessings received. So, I take it as a given that we need such aids to memory like those we find so often employed in Holy Scripture.

The Hebrews were masters of fixing things in memory. Of course they hadn’t access to paper notebooks, so they couldn’t keep a diary. Still less could they add notes to a journal on an I-pad or some other device. So they did other things. They were masters of memorization. They knew so much more of the Bible than any of us does today. Here they set up a landmark, a memorial in the form of a cairn, a pile of stones. We shouldn’t think of it as an unprepossessing pile of little rocks, but rather something impressive, made to stand as a memorial with mortar put between very large rocks and so on. Whether it was graced with some inscription we cannot say, but everyone would know that it had been put there on purpose and why. And every time anyone came to that popular ford of the Jordan they would see that cairn and remember what had happened there. How many generations of Israelites, do you suppose, stood by that cairn at Gilgal, overlooking the river, and felt chills in their spine as they imagined the scene as a procession of Israelites several miles long crossed the river on dry land, passing the ark as the priests stood with it in the middle of the riverbed?

Such stone monuments were set up at the foot of Mt. Sinai at the time of the giving of the law and at Mizpah to commemorate a great victory the Lord had given Israel over the Philistines. That monument, you remember, was given a name: Ebenezer, stone of help. But they did other things as well to fix the Lord’s acts and mercies in mind and memory. I have always been particularly intrigued by their habit of giving names to people and places as a way of commemorating God’s blessing. There was the place Abraham called Yahweh Jireh, where the Lord provided a ram for sacrifice in place of his son Isaac. Or think of Bethel, where Jacob was given a vision of a stairway to heaven and when he awoke he thought, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God…” Bethel means “House of God.” Or Peniel where Jacob wrestled with God and Jacob was amazed to find that he had seen God face to face and yet his life had been spared. Peniel means “face of God.” But they didn’t give such significant names only to places.

Joseph, you remember, had two sons with his Egyptian wife, Asenath. His firstborn he named Manasseh and the second Ephraim. Manasseh means “forget” and got that name because, as Joseph said, “God has made me forget all my trouble.” Ephraim means “twice-fruitful” and got that name because, as Joseph explained, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

Now imagine a summer’s evening in Joseph’s large and comfortable Egyptian home. The boys are playing in the back yard and Joseph comes home from his day at the palace. Asenath, in some frustration, tells her husband that Manasseh still hasn’t made his bed or straightened up his room. And so Joseph, a bit irked as fathers can be when just home from work, leans out the kitchen door and yells to his son, “Forget,” get in here and make your bed! And then, of course, he would catch himself and rebuke himself. He couldn’t be sharp with his son when God had been so gentle with him! Joseph couldn’t even yell at his son without remembering what God had done for him.

Or imagine an evening when Joseph and Asenath had dinner guests, some Egyptian movers and shakers. The boys haven’t yet gone to bed and Joseph, as good parents will, introduced them to his guests. Forget and Twice-fruitful would have been taught to look a person in the eye, to put out his hand, give it a firm shake, and say, “Hello, it is nice to meet you.” “I’d like you to meet my boys,” Joseph would say to this cabinet minister and his wife. “This is Forget and this is Twice-fruitful.” “Those are interesting names,” the guests would say, and Joseph would reply, “Well, come into the living room, have a glass of iced tea, and while we wait for dinner to be served, I’ll tell you how they came to be given those names.” And beginning with the account of how he found himself in Egypt Joseph would lead his guests through the Evangelism Explosion or the Romans Road explanation of the gospel.

In the Bible forgetting and remembering are not simply the consequences of a good or bad memory. They are spiritual acts, sinful or righteous. In Psalm 78 we read that Israel turned away from the Lord because “they forgot what he had done and the wonders he had shown them.” And in the same way, remembering is an act of faith and of Christian obedience. The believer is to remember on purpose. As David put it in Psalm 143:5:

“I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.”

And in the midst of creeping doubt, the wise author of Psalm 77 knew to take counsel of his memories.

“To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes I will remember your miracles of long ago.”

And lest we forget, the Lord’s Supper itself, the central act of Christian worship every Lord’s Day, is an act of purposeful, intentional remembering. “Do this in remembrance of me,” our Savior commanded us. And the bread and the wine are, in the same way the twelve stones were to become, a memorial to an impossibly important event that happened a long time ago but which must never be forgotten.

In other words, remembering on purpose what God has done is an exercise of faith and an important means of strengthening faith and the fear of God (as we are reminded here at the end of chapter 4); that is, remembering fosters holiness of life. Forgetting what the Lord has done is a form of unbelief. The great event itself is narrated in detail here in chapters 3 and 4 — the miracle of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan on dry land — but as much attention is paid to the necessity of remembering what had happened as to the event itself. And not simply for that generation. But, as we read in v. 7 and then again in vv. 21 and 22, future generations must remember as well, generations that will have no actual recollection of the event itself. They too must remember what happened.

Most of you have read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and early on in that great allegory of salvation we read of the desperate battle between Christian and Appolyon in the Valley of Humiliation. But it is only in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress, the account of the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, that we learn that the life and death struggle in which Christian just barely prevailed, took place just beyond Forgetful Green, which Bunyan says “was the most dangerous place in all these parts.”

The fact is the emphasis we find here on fixing the memory of this event in Israel’s mind is some proof of the fact that great events like these are rare. If mighty works such as this one were happening frequently in the life of God’s people, there would be no great need to be sure that any one such work was remembered. There would be no need for a monument. But the Lord’s ordinary way of retaining his people’s loyalty and trust is not by frequent and dazzling displays of power but by faithful witness to and the remembering of those particular acts by which he already revealed himself, his faithfulness to his promises, his love for his people, his power, and so on. [Davis, 39-40]

This is true preeminently of the great works of God throughout the history of redemption: from the exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai through the cross, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We are to remember those events all the time: intentionally, and with thoughtful reflection on what they mean for us today. It is an entirely biblical instinct that led the church after Pentecost to replace Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (three feasts that commemorated the great events of Israel’s redemption), with Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Every week we remember the mighty works of God in our Sunday worship services, in our hymns, our prayers, our reading of the Word of God, and the Lord’s Supper. And through the year we add to that weekly remembrance special seasons devoted to great events in the history of our salvation, the great works of God for us and for the world.

Just imagine if you were Joshua, or, better, if you were one of the apostles who had witnessed the crucifixion, and the resurrection, and had received the Holy Spirit with power on Pentecost and had preached the gospel in a language you had never learned. Do you think there would have been a day of your life thereafter on which you did not recollect those stunning, thrilling, exhilarating, life-changing experiences and events? And when times were hard — and they were hard for the apostles for some reasons unique to themselves but also for the same reasons your lives and mine can be hard — do you not think that it was virtually automatic for them to go back in their minds to those days when God revealed his power in such extraordinary ways. The memory of the Lord’s miracles, of the Lord’s suffering on the cross, of Jesus alive again in the Upper Room, of the vast crowd in Jerusalem cut to the quick in repentance, I say no matter their present difficulty or trial, those memories would sustain them. They would realize afresh what their lives were all about, why they were suffering, that Christ was no doubt sympathizing with them in their hardship, and that he had great power so that if they were going through such a trial it must not be because he couldn’t prevent it but because it was his will.

It is not as easy for us, to be sure. We weren’t there. We can’t recollect for ourselves what we saw and heard. We must remember in a different way. But the fact that the Bible is true allows us to remember the events ourselves that we never personally witnessed and to draw strength from those memories. You remember how in Deuteronomy Moses addressed Israel, that very generation of Israel that was crossing the Jordan in chapters 3 and 4, as if she had been at Mt. Sinai to see what happened when the Lord descended to give his law, the thunder, the lightning, the cloud covering the summit and all the rest. But, of course, most of the people he was talking to had not been there or would have been babies or very young children at the time. It had been forty years since that event. But Moses spoke as if that next generation had been there themselves. “The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain,” Moses reminded them. Well hardly anyone could personally recollect that! But that is the viewpoint of the Bible. By faith and intentional recollection, later generations of Christians can participate in the great events of the history of redemption as if they had been there themselves.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus did not say, concerning the Lord’s Supper, “Do this because you have read in the Bible what happened on the cross.” He said, “Do this in memory of me.” And Paul repeats that instruction to a congregation of Christians in Corinth who had not been in the Upper Room or at the cross and who had not seen the risen Christ. “Do this is memory of me.” We can remember things we never experienced ourselves as if we had! This is memory empowered by informed and believing imagination.

Every family has its store of memories that are handed down from generation to generation. I know that my grandfather, who died when I was two years of age, was a teetotaler in some large part because as a young Presbyterian home missions worker in Montana in the early years of the 20th century the only place to get breakfast in the town on a Sunday morning was the local saloon and in order to make his way to the food he had to step over men lying here and there in a drunken stupor. He also had an almost pathological aversion to debt because he had spent much of his adult life paying off his father’s debts. He and my grandmother were very, very proper people and my grandmother was a bit of a sourpuss. Grandfather came home early from an evangelistic campaign and arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night and since my grandmother had switched places with the maid so that she could be nearer to a sick child, grandfather unwittingly crawled into bed with the maid. I wasn’t there. I never met the maid and have no recollection of my grandfather, but I’ve heard that story time and time again. Neither grandfather or grandmother thought it was funny, but everybody else in the family thought it was hilarious. It is part of our family lore. And I could go on and on: funny stories, sad stories, stories of the Lord’s work in one life or another. And so could you.

It is, much more than we realize, shared memory that defines a family, that creates a sense of belonging and identity. Well so it is in the life of faith. We belong to the great community in this world that remembers the great events of their salvation, that remembers them as part of their own family history and so their own personal history.

But it is also true of our own individual spiritual lives. The Lord has done great things for each and every Christian. He has for me and he has for you.  The Lord has thrilled us, and cast us down; he has provided for us and carried us through trials; he has kept his promises and made us feel the force of the truth of his Word time and time again. How differently we would live if we were always remembering those things; if we were always conscious of those experiences in our past that meant so much to us at the time, that proved the Lord’s faithfulness to us, or that proved sin’s bitterness to us.

That time it was made as plain to you that Christ was with you as clearly as if you could have seen him standing right beside you; that time you were overcome by the joy of your salvation; that time your prayers were heard and answered so immediately, so strikingly that it seemed that you and the Lord were speaking to one another directly and face to face; that time you fell into some sin and realized how ugly and foolish and unworthy sin actually is; and that time God’s forgiveness came flooding into your soul like a wave of pure, fresh water to wash it clean of the filth that was there.

It is easy to see how our lives would be empowered by memory if memories such as those were kept fresh in mind! I don’t care how you do it. It can be done in many ways.

John Newton almost lost his soul through his failure to remember. His spiritual autobiography was sprinkled with the story of his failure to remember. “I forgot….” “I soon forgot….” “This too I totally forgot!” The words occur repeatedly. And so it was that when he learned his lesson and realized that there were certain things he could not forget, he had printed and hung over the mantel of the fireplace in his study — where he would see it every day — Deuteronomy 15:15:

“Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

I don’t care how you do it, besides being faithful at worship on the Lord’s Day: whether with the names you give your children or your pets, whether you keep a diary and often re-read it, whether you hang a text over your mantel, or whether, as one man I read about did, you actually have a neat pile of stones in your living room. However you do it, the point is we must remember what the Lord has done for us; what he has done for all of us and what he has done for each of us. It should be the business of every day of our lives to look back and remember what God has done.