We have been away from Joshua for three weeks, so let me remind you where we are. With chapter 13 we began the third of the four major sections of the book. This is the section devoted to the distribution or allotment of the land. Israel had conquered Canaan; now it was time to take possession of it. But there would be no rush to claim the best spots as with the Oklahoma land rush in 1889. The land was instead to be distributed by lot among the various tribes with their clans and families. The report of the allotment began with the land in the Trans-Jordan that had to be divided up among the two and a half tribes that were to settle there. Chapter 14 begins the report of the allotment of land to the remaining nine and a half tribes whose inheritance was in Canaan itself.
v.1 The fact that Eleazar, the high priest, was instrumental in the distribution of the land indicates that the inheritance of the land was fraught with religious and spiritual significance. This is not simply a business transaction or a legal procedure; this is, as we said last time, virtually a reading of God’s will. The land was coming to the Israelites as their inheritance of their heavenly Father. No wonder a minister should be in charge. Ministers act and speak for God!
v.2 The fact that it was by lot did not mean that it was by chance. This indicated that each particular clan or family’s portion or allotment was by the will of God himself who, of course, was in control of the process.
v.3 The fact that the tribe of Levi was not to be given an inheritance of land is stated repeatedly in this material. It is obviously a point of some importance and we will return to it subsequently.
v.4 It this way it is explained why, though the Levites received no inheritance, the land was nevertheless divided among twelve tribes, Levi, after all, being one of the original twelve tribes. Joseph had become two tribes, the descendants of his two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim. In this way the tribal territories still numbered twelve though the number of tribes, by actual count, was now thirteen. [Howard, 325]
v.5 Since Judah’s wonderful spiritual rebirth and the promise that the coming king would be a descendant of Judah — all of that history recounted in the last part of Genesis — Judah was Israel’s first tribe, first among equals if you will. It is not surprising, therefore, that the account of Judah’s allotment is first even though he was not the firstborn of the twelve sons, that the amount of land given to Judah was the largest of any of the tribe’s, and that the account of Judah’s allotment takes the longest space, extending from 14:6 to 15:63.
v.6 Caleb is reminding Joshua of history that Joshua was well acquainted with. It is an interesting question to wonder how much Joshua and Caleb had to do with one another in the years that had elapsed from the events at Kadesh Barnea to these days. Were they friends; did their families get together for Christmas; did they have some sort of connection as the two faithful spies out of the twelve who had been sent by Moses into Canaan to reconnoiter the land those many years ago? But Caleb begins by telling Joshua, “You know what I am about to tell you.” They shared some history.
v.9 Verses 7-9 review the events reported in Numbers 13 and 14. The ten spies had been overawed by the size and fortification of Canaan’s cities and their reputation for military prowess, but Joshua and Caleb had urged Israel — to no avail as it turned out — to trust the Lord and invade the land. Moses’ promise to Caleb is found in Numbers 14:24 and, important as it was, it is found again in Deut. 1:36.
v.10 This is the first indication that it had taken Israel some five years to subdue the land of Canaan, a longer period of time than we might have gathered from the account of the battles by which Canaan was conquered reported in the chapters of Joshua so far. But it now has been forty-five years since at Kadesh Barnea Israel refused to enter the land and it was forty years that Israel was in the wilderness. So five of those years were spent after Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land or it might have been seven years depending on whether or not the first two years of Israel’s time in the wilderness are to be counted in the forty years they spent in the wilderness or whether in fact the total years from the Passover to the entrance into the Promised Land were forty-two. [Howard, 329]
v.12 That is, Caleb wanted the very land whose inhabitants had so intimidated his fellow spies and Israel forty-five years before. He would drive out the Anakites as he had urged Israel to do 45 years before.
v.15 Kiriath Arba, literally, City of Arba or Arbatown, was where Abraham’s wife Sarah had died some centuries earlier (Gen. 23:2). So it was a town with some significance to a loyal Israelite.
There is a feature of human experience that is discussed at length by the masters of the spiritual life, but, surprisingly, is not directly addressed in the Bible. Believe me, I have looked hard to find it taught, but so far I have come up empty, unless we might find a reference to this phenomenon in Hebrews 12:1 where we read of “the sins that easily beset us” or “the sins which cling so closely.” But perhaps that statement is a reference to our sins in general. I know this is a universal feature of Christian experience both because those who through the ages have written most helpfully on the Christian life almost invariably refer to it, but also because I have found it to be the case in my own life and also in yours.
I am speaking of what is typically referred to as the besetting sin. The Puritans also called it the bosom sin or the predominant sin. In every Christian life — as in its own way in every human life — there is a certain sin, or a certain few sins in particular that bedevil one’s life, that trouble the conscience, that stand in the way of the proper development of one’s character and behavior, and that are the focus of the spiritual warfare. In different lives they will be different sins, but every life has its besetting sin or two besetting sins.
In one life it might be anger; in another fear; in another sexual lust of whatever kind; in another greed; in another drink or drugs; in another food; in another raging pride — that is, pride above the ordinary measure of pride that besets us all –; in another laziness or the love of ease; in another the love of money; in another an almost pathological indifference to others; in still another a peevish thin skin; and so on. I am quite sure that as I read out this list of sins, virtually all of you have already identified yours, whether it is on my list or not. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t fully aware of many sins in our hearts and lives, but still there is that one sin that rises above them all.
Samuel Rutherford, saintly as he was, admirable a life as he lived, struggled with a flaming temper all his life. So did John Calvin. On his deathbed Calvin was constrained to confess that he had never really tamed what he called “the wild beast of his wrath,” and again asked forgiveness for this chronic failure. Besetting sins can change over time, but I’ve never met a Christian without one. An old man may no longer struggle with lust, but may find that now he is constantly and powerfully tempted to be a tiresome crab to those around him.
But whatever the particular sin in any person’s life, it is a fact that has very often been noted, that when Christians read the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25, when they read that great Christian man say that the very thing he wants to do he does not do and the thing he knows he ought not to do, that is the very thing he does; I say when Christians read Paul speaking of his depressing and discouraging struggle, that they do not think of sin in general; they invariably think of a particular sin. They know precisely what Paul is talking about. They know from personal experience the very same frustration he expresses when he describes himself as a bond slave of sin because they have experienced the same measure of defeat and of that depression and f that frustration in a the long struggle with a particular sin.
This is not, by the way, a problem peculiar to Christians. Unbelievers likewise have their besetting sins. There are things, morally considered, that they do better at. And there are ways in which they behave poorly over and over again. Indeed, Charles Simeon supposed that in the case of converts, people who became Christians in the middle of life, a Christian’s besetting sin will often, if not usually, be the same besetting sin that he had before he became a Christian. [Hopkins, 100] Besetting sins are sins rooted in the make-up, the personality, and the early experience of a person and are the more intractable for that reason.
I have thought a great deal about besetting sins over the course of my ministry not least because of the struggle with my own, but as well because of your struggles with yours. And, as a result, my antennae have been up to pick up this theme in spiritual writers as I have read them through the years. Here is James Fraser of Brea, the Scottish covenanter:
“I find it with me as with the Israelites…that there were some nations that they could not drive out; so I may say that there are some strong evils that I cannot get mastered at all, and which continually afflict me, and discourage me.” [Memoir, 155]
The ever practical English Puritan, Thomas Brooks, speaking of what he called these darling sins, wrote that they are a principal reason why Christians struggle with the assurance of their salvation. If we read in Revelation that those who overcome will inherit eternal life and we are regularly being defeated in this one particular area of our lives, does that mean we are not genuine Christians at all, but only some pale imitation of the real thing? So in his great work Heaven on Earth Brooks provides his readers with six motives and five means by which to put their besetting sins to death. Brooks reminds us that for most of us our battle with our besetting sin is the spiritual warfare in our lives; it is where the real conflict is being waged to the extent that it is being waged at all. We all know that if we are defeated there, we have not prevailed and if we are victorious there we have prevailed indeed. As Brooks reminds us, “When Goliath was slain, the rest of the Philistines fled.” [Works, ii, 391-397]
I mentioned Charles Simeon earlier. He was a great man who exercised a mighty and wonderful influence on the entire world through his fifty year-long ministry at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. So many of the great pioneer missionaries of the early nineteenth century sat at Simeon’s feet during their studies at Cambridge. But he had a besetting sin that he struggled against all his life. He was insecure, for a variety of reasons perhaps. He was a bit of an odd duck; his shape was long and angular, easy to make fun of. He wasn’t a handsome man. And he was aware of all of this and became hyper-sensitive and, like many overly sensitive people, was far too often easily angered, put on the defensive, and made critical toward others. He craved acceptance and so he took notice of every real or imagined slight and, believe me, if you take note of every real or imagined slight, you’re going to find lots of slights to take note of. He could be a prickly man and it was not hard to offend him. He was, in that way, English evangelicalism’s Jerome, though he never matched Jerome’s prickliness. That would be hard to do! It was a failing he battled all his life. [Hopkins, 104; Moule, 146-147] One piece of great wisdom that Simeon shared out of his struggle with his besetting sin was the need to “lean on the side opposite to your constitutional bias.” [Hopkins, 121] If by dint of personality you incline a certain way, push hard in the opposite direction. So in his diary we find him instructing himself: “Talk not about myself.”  He needed to forget himself and concentrate on others, something he was not inclined to do. Simeon reminds us that some of the most important lessons we ever learn are the lessons taught us by our besetting sins, the sins that simply won’t go away; the sins that defeat us repeatedly. Here is John Flavel, another practical Puritan.
“The Lord makes excellent uses of even your infirmities and failings to do you good, and makes them turn to your unexpected advantage; for by these defects he hides pride from your eyes, he beats you off from self-dependence, he makes you to admire the riches of free grace, he makes you to long more ardently for heaven and entertain sweeter thoughts of death; and doth not the Lord then make blessed fruit to spring up from such a bitter root? Oh the blessed chemistry of heaven to extract such mercies out of such miseries.”
Well, if sin can teach us such lessons in general, it is our besetting sin that drives them home to the heart and inscribes them on the wall of the soul! A fundamental rule of the instruction of the heart in spiritual things is that generalia non pungunt. “Generalities don’t penetrate.” It isn’t the idea of sin or sin in general that penetrates the conscience; it is a sin, that sin, that thing we said or did or failed to say or do again and again that frightens us, that casts us into despair of our spiritual lives; that makes us wonder if we are Christians at all; and that makes us long for a pure heart and a clean life more than for life itself.
Perhaps the most poignant account of a Christian life troubled by a besetting sin is provided by Thomas Boston the great eighteenth century Scot divine in his immortal Memoir. He mentions the sin repeatedly throughout his narrative while never specifically identifying it. He refers to “his trial,”  “the temptation that had often worsted me,”  he speaks of “my cross,”  “that particular sin,”  the “certain temptation which often has been ruining to me,”  and so on. At the end of his that holy man’s life, as he is looking back over it, it is this besetting sin that is the one thing that threatens to shake his evidences for heaven.
“Lastly, as to that particular matter which it has pleased my god to make the special continued trial of the most part of my life, which has been the most exquisite one to me, and has often threatened to baffle all my evidences for heaven as being the one thing lacking; I can say, 1. I desire to be a weaned child in it, to get above it, and to quit it for the Lord, and to take Christ in its room and stead; 2. I have sometimes got above it, from spiritual principles, motives, and ends; 3. Whereas it has often got the mastery over me, and held me down, like a giant on a little child, or a mountain on a worm, I am heartily ashamed thereof before the Lord. And that is one of the main things which have made the course of my past life so notably loathsome unto me… And thus it hath contributed to empty me, shake me out of myself and drive me to Christ; 4. Notwithstanding all my unbecoming quarreling with my Lord upon that head, I would lie against my own soul, if I should deny that I would rather have a cross of his choosing for me, than a crown of my own choosing for myself. And, lastly, 5. I love God in Christ above it, being content to quit it for him…and could be satisfied in the enjoyment of God without it, but by no means with it without him…”
If a man like Thomas Boston struggled with a besetting sin his entire life, a godlier man than whom you will not find, who are you and I to imagine that we will not! If God used it to teach a man such as Boston to make war on his sins, to see his life as perpetual spiritual combat, to trust all the more in divine grace and the righteousness of Christ, and to long for heaven and a sinless heart, then surely you and I will not learn those great lessons in some simpler, more painless way.
Indeed, the more I have thought about besetting sins, this feature of the Christian life, the more I have come to see how merciful and kind the Lord is to concentrate the spiritual warfare for us in this way. After all, we are comprehensively sinners. We break all the commandments of God all the time, by failures of commission and, still much more, by failures of omission. We are utter moral failures when judged by the standards of God’s holiness, his revealed will, and the example of Jesus Christ. He could, if he chose to, reveal to us the full measure of our sin. He could show us every day how far short we fall in each and every moral respect. But if he did, we would be so devastated, so demoralized, and so depressed we would feel so hopeless and helpless that we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning much less live any semblance of a Christian life. We could not bear it if we saw clearly what God sees all the time when he looks into our hearts and observes our lives.
And so, in fatherly compassion and wisdom, he bleeds out to us slowly and in only a small measure a sense of our sinfulness. Besetting sins concentrate the lessons of sin and grace in just one spot, in respect to one dimension of our lives. They enable us to face the reality of sin in our lives without being overwhelmed by it. It is bad enough that there is one or two, but with one we are still able to function, still able to live and grow as Christians. If there were ten or twelve, I’m not sure that we would be able to carry on the life of faith, hope, and love. So there you have it: the reality of the besetting sin: the fact of it and perhaps one reason why God has ordered our lives in this way.
But what does all of this have to do with Caleb? Just this: when Caleb came to Joshua to request his portion of the land — he and Joshua were the only two who were allowed to choose a specific piece of real estate — he was eighty-five years of age. He was an old man. Clearly the narrator regards Caleb as the embodiment of the faithful and obedient life to which all Israel ought to aspire. One scholar refers to him as the “poster-boy,” the exemplar of covenantal faith and life. [Hawk, 195] In other words, the account of Caleb’s inheritance is not simply a detail of the allotment of the tribe of Judah, not simply to demonstrate that that particular promise that had been made to Caleb was eventually fulfilled. He is set before us as a lesson for every Israelite and every Christian, as a man we ought to emulate. Three times in this short passage we read that Caleb “wholly followed the Lord.” Caleb was a sinner like all the rest of us our sinners, yet he “wholly followed the Lord.” Caleb himself says it, Moses said it, and the narrator himself also says it at the end of the chapter. When something is repeated like that, it is being emphasized, called to our attention.
And what is the particular way in which Caleb wholly followed the Lord? Well, among other things that might be mentioned, here the point is clearly his perseverance in faith and in spiritual warfare. He was forty at Kadesh Barnea, when the spies brought back their report. He was ready to take on the Canaanites then no matter their fierce some reputation. He is eighty-five now, and is ready to take on the Canaanites still. He had enemies that he had been ready to confront throughout his adult life and now, an old man, he was as ready to confront them as he had been when much younger.
The significance of Caleb as an exemplar of faith is further emphasized by the fact that the account of the allotment of the land of Canaan is contained within an inclusio: Caleb’s inheritance here and Joshua’s at the end of chapter 19. The inheritance of the two faithful spies begins and ends the entire section. A point is being made. Both men exemplify the spiritual mettle that will now be required of all Israelites. They believed the word of the Lord, they acted on that word with courage and with conviction, and they remained faithful to that word year after year in spite of keen disappointments and frustrations and, in some respects, in spite of defeats. And here at the end of their lives Caleb is found ready to act on that Word of God still once again.
Now we have made a point many times of the fact that we are taught in the Bible to regard the narrative of the conquest of Canaan as instruction in the way of faith and believing life. Canaan is heaven and getting to heaven is what the Christian life is all about; getting there ourselves and helping others to get there as well.
Caleb had fought the good fight forty-five years before at Kadesh Barnea. He, virtually alone, had argued for Israel’s invasion of Canaan then and there. He was ready to do battle with the Canaanites, no matter their fearsome reputation. He had, in some respects been defeated there and had to wait forty more years before the opportunity came to take Canaan again, this time by storm. He had twiddled his thumbs for forty years, waiting for his opportunity. No doubt he had proved his mettle, his faithfulness in battle against Sihon and Og, the two kings that Israel had defeated east of the Jordan. He had strapped on his sword when Israel finally crossed into the Promised Land and no doubt had been in some position of command during the many battles that had taken place over the past five or seven years as Israel reduced Canaan’s military strength to the small pockets of ineffective resistance that still remained.
When Christians take on their sins, when they strive to put them to death, particularly the sins that trouble them the most, when they refuse to allow repeated setbacks to unnerve them or unman them, they are taking Canaan. Caleb was a man who had been taking Canaan his entire life and here he is at the very end still wanting to take that last piece of it that was going to belong to him and to his family. He was as ready to do battle at the end as he had been at the beginning. He had never given up.He was as confident in the Word of God and the faithfulness of God and the power of God at 85 as he had been at 40 and as ready to act on that confidence. Five times in this short passage Caleb refers to what the Lord had promised him. [Davis, 121] His was a faith that would not be deterred by the long years of battle. In fact, it seems as if Caleb were intentionally asking for the land occupied by the most powerful enemy, for the portion of Canaan that would seem to others to be the most difficult to subdue and possess. It was his choice to ask for Hebron. He had the pick of Judah’s land and he chose the place where what was left of the Anakim lived.
“It is as if Caleb says to Joshua: ‘You remember the sneers you and I heard that day when the other ten spies brought the majority report? Remember all that whimpering about large, fortified cities and large, swaggering Anakim? And how all they could say for days was “We are not able”? Well that’s exactly why I want this inheritance — there are fortified cities and real, live Anakim.’ Precisely what caused Israel to shrink from this task in Numbers 13 gave Caleb the passion to assume it.” [Davis, 123]
What is it that causes you to cower in your Christian life? What is your Anakim? Where is found the most impregnable fortress of worldly power in your heart and life? Well, I think we all know the answer to that question: it is your besetting sin. It is the besetting sin that has reduced so many Christian lives, especially the lives of those who have been Christians for a long time, to so much less than they ought to be. It is our besetting sin that so often defeated us, wearied us in the spiritual battle, and sent us to the sidelines. We’re living, but we’re not doing much fighting. We’re still confessing our faith, and meaningfully, sincerely, but we are not taking new ground. We’re not possessing new territory. We’re not volunteering to do battle with the enemies that are left in our lives. We’ve lost heart; we’ve grown tired; and things are largely today as they were some years ago, or at least they are not nearly as different as they ought to be and might have been.
But heaven is not taken that way, at least it should not be taken that way. As Israel will learn to its shame and heartbreak, a generation that took the land will be followed by another generation that will bravely defend it against all enemies only if that first generation fights to the end of the day and sets an example for its children of Caleb-like perseverance in the spiritual warfare.
Alas all of Israel did not follow Caleb’s example, which makes this text even more strikingly important for us to hear; just as they had not followed his advice forty years before, they will not follow his example now. Judges will tell the sad story of the lethal influence upon Israel’s spiritual life exercised by the Canaanites who were never dislodged and dispossessed, as Caleb dispossessed those who were left in the vicinity of Hebron. Caleb had the warrior spirit. We will read in chapter 17 of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, that after receiving their allotment they first complained that they didn’t get enough land allotted to them and didn’t want to live in hill country, they wanted more of the valley. When Joshua told them to take more from the Canaanites who still inhabited the plains nearby, they complained about the military strength of the Canaanite people who lived on the flat. These were men who had fought in the battles by which Israel had conquered Canaan, but they hadn’t Caleb’s indomitable faith in the promise of God and hadn’t his warlike spirit, his readiness to take on the enemy once again. And Judges will tell us what became of Ephraim and Manasseh who felt that they had fought long enough.
Here’s the question that the text before us poses: are you and I going to possess our possessions. We have an enemy standing in the way. It is the same enemy we have been fighting for a long time. He will not be easily beaten, we’ll probably be dealing with him to the end of our lives; his spirit is not broken, he’s not wearied. Will we do battle again and again or will we be content with what territory we have so far gained?
You and I are not Caleb in the sense that we don’t have a particular piece of real estate to capture. But we are Caleb in the sense that an old enemy is yet to be subdued and eliminated and dispossessed in our hearts and lives. You and I know what that enemy is. We know it very well. We cannot claim that we don’t know where Hebron is in our life. May we have the spirit of Caleb to the end of our lives, his confidence in the promise of God, in the blessing of God, and his determination to wholly follow the Lord. More than you know it is this question — whether you will be a Caleb still at 85 years of age — that will tell the tale of your Christian life, and perhaps that of your children as well. There is only one way to be a Caleb: to be one all your life; never give up; never give in, no matter the discouragement. You will prevail!