And Joshua said to the people, You cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God…
If there be any one thing true in the Bible, it is that God welcomes the first approach which man makes to Him. Yet here Joshua offers a repulse to men who wish to avow themselves on the side of God. Are we to conclude, then, that the people were insincere? We have no evidence of this, but the reverse, in their subsequent conduct. There must be some reason for the manner in which they are met, and we shall try to discover it.
1. First, however, we shall seek to show that this procedure on the part of God is not so unusual. You may recollect how the band of Gideon was chosen. When the wise men from the East came seeking Christ the star seemed to desert them, and they met with disappointment and perplexity from all their inquiries in Jerusalem. When the Jews, stirred up to expect the coming Messiah, sent messengers to John, in the hope that they had found their desire, "he confessed and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ." We cannot forget the strange treatment of the woman of Canaan by the Lord Himself; how she cried after Him, and was not answered, and met at length what appeared a contemptuous rejection. In the same way He acted to the scribe who came to Him with such an unconditional offer of discipleship, "Master, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest." "This is no common pleasure-walk," was the reply; "the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head." There is another way of finding the same result in the Bible. Consider, for example, the view that is given of the character of God. He is presented to us not only as good, and ready to forgive, but as just and righteous — a God who cannot look on sin without displeasure. There are many terrible threatenings, many dreadful judgments against sin and sinners, which have all this language in them: "Ye cannot serve the Lord, for He is an holy God." When we leave Bible representations, and come to the experience of individuals, we meet with many similar illustrations. In regard to the general evidence of the divinity of the Bible, we can see that God has not constructed it on the plan of overpowering the conviction of any man at first sight. And even when a man has come to the entire conviction that the gospel is Divine, that there is "none other name given under heaven whereby we must be saved but the name of Jesus Christ," he is not assured thereby of perfect peace.
2. Having sought to show that this procedure, on the part of God, is not so unusual, we may now attempt to find some reasons for it.
(1) As a first reason we may assign this, that it sifts the true from the false seeker. The gospel comes into the world to be a touchstone of human nature — to be Ithuriel's spear among men. There is enough in it to attract and convince at last every man who has a sense of spiritual need and a desire of spiritual deliverance, but it is presented in such a form as to try whether the soul really possess this, and therefore we may have obstacles of various kinds at the very entrance. It may seem a strange and unworthy thing that such an obstacle should meet a man in the very commencement of such a journey; but, after all, let it be remembered that what makes it an obstacle is the state of heart of the man himself. This further may be said, that no one will be able to complain of any real wrong from such obstacles. The false seeker is not injured, because he never sincerely sought at all. There was no sense of sin's evil, no wish to be saved from it, and till this exists nothing can be sought, and nothing found. The true seeker is not injured, for never was such an one disappointed.
(2) Next, it leads the true seeker to examine himself more thoroughly. If a man is accepted, or thinks he is accepted, at once, he takes many things for granted which it would be well for him to inquire into. Very specially is this the case in regard to the nature of sin and the light in which God regards it. The easy complacency with which some talk of pardon and their assurance of it, often springs more from dulness of conscience than strength of faith. The natural result of such a defective view is, that when a man enlists with it in God's service, he does so without any distinct idea of what he is to aim at. He does not see that the gospel binds us to the service of a God of truth and purity, and that only in this way can its blessings be enjoyed.
(3) Further, it binds a man to his profession by a stronger sense of consistency. There is a paper of obligations put into our hands to sign, and, when we take the pen, we are bidden read it over again and ponder it, that we may subscribe with clear consciousness of the contents. God will beguile no man into His service by false pretences.
(4) Lastly, it educates us to a higher growth and greater capacity of happiness. When we see the wind shaking a young tree, and bending it to the very earth, it may seem to be retarding its rise, but it is furthering it. In the intellectual world a strong man thrives on difficulties. There is no falser method of education than to make all smooth and easy, and remove every stone before the foot touches it. God Himself has hidden the knowledge of His creation in the depths of the sky and the bosom of the earth. He has demanded toil and travail, keen and patient thought, till study has become. a weariness to the flesh, in order that man's intellect may rise to its proper stature. It would have been a strange thing if the spiritual world had been an exception. Read the manner in which such men as Paul and Luther and Pascal passed through the gate of life, not easily and complacently, but with fears within and fightings without, and you will see how God made them grow such men as they became. And, though we are far distant from that mark, very humble plants in the garden of God beside those great trees of righteousness, yet, if we are to rise to anything, it must be in the same way, not by soft indulgent nurture, but by endurance of hardship, and pressing on against repulse. If there be some who have been seeking God, as they think, in vain, and have given up the search as fruitless, what can we do but urge them to renew the application? Come, as these Israelites did, with the words, "Nay; but we will serve the Lord." I can suppose a twofold class who have ceased to seek. There are some, perhaps, with a feeling of wounded pride or petulance. They say they have done their best, and it is useless. They have gone through a course of inquiry and search and prayer, and they have found neither comfort nor hope. Would it not be worth the while of such to reconsider this part of it, and to see whether some of the blame may not lie with themselves? There may, however, be another class who have left off seeking God, from very different motives, not in petulance, but in despondency, who have not so much turned their back on search, as sat down, wearied and hopeless, in the midst of it. Let them consider that they have to do with One who will not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax; that the heart of God is with them; that the darkness and death of Christ, now changed to the strength of intercession, are on their side, and all those heavenly promises which are yea and amen in Him, and which, as bright and as many as the stars in their courses, all fight for them. Let them think of Jacob's wrestling, of David's tears, of Paul's threefold prayer, of the woman of Canaan, &c.
(John Ker, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.