Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh,…
1. Notice the proper jealousy of the elders. When the chiefs of the tribes of Israel heard of this altar they arose in great alarm and went down to their brethren, the two and a half tribes, to demand an explanation. Their jealousy was hasty, it was ignorant and uncharitable, but it was not unnatural. It arose, indeed, from a misunderstanding. They imagined that the eastern men were wishful to do the exact opposite of that which was in their hearts; they took the altar to be a sign and a means of division, whereas it was intended to be a symbol and an influence for unity. Such misunderstandings often and naturally arise. Men look at what others are doing; they do not stay to inquire, they assume they know all about it; they read in what they see their own notions, and hence they come to unwise and uncharitable opinions. It is surely necessary that Christian men, in judging each other's work, should cultivate a spirit of candour, should be anxious to be clear in judgment, should assume the better motive until the worse is proved; and should remember that, within the limits of what is right, there is room for wide difference of taste, even where there is equal loyalty for the truth and equal anxiety for its maintenance.
2. Now notice the anxiety of the fathers. They were very anxious to have a symbol of unity. They themselves, who had borne a part in every conflict, could never forget the battle or the victory; but to their children those memories might become dim, and might even become to be thought mere myths, and so they desired a symbol, the existence of which could only be accounted for by the fact symbolised, and the sight of which, exciting curiosity and comment, should keep the glorious facts alive amongst them. And they were surely right. Symbols and monuments are useful, the human mind requires them, and men in all ages and lands have provided them erected on the sites of great battles, as Waterloo and Quebec; to commemorate great discoveries, such as chloroform; or great inventions, such as the steam engine; they have been executed to keep green the memory of great men. The busy world is only too apt to forget its benefactors and to lose trace of the events which have been mightiest in moulding its fortunes, so the instinct of men has led them to keep alive precious memories by monumental symbols. And the principle has been recognised by God Himself, and has been embodied in the institutions of the Church. The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper is a symbol, a memorial observance in which we do show forth the Lord's death till He comes. By its frequent observance the Church recalls to the mind of its members and the attention of the thoughtless world the supreme fact of human history. And surely never were becoming memorials of great and noble events more necessary than in our own time! These are days of rush and hurry unexampled. Events succeed each other so rapidly that one impression overlays, and perhaps effaces, its predecessors. Anything that will help us to keep in mind great deeds done for God and man, and their influence on subsequent events, will preserve the rich treasure of our spiritual heritage.
3. But, again, those fathers were anxious for a link with the past. They were unwilling that the continuity of their history should be broken. They, and their children after them, would be impoverished if the memories of the past should be lost. Some of them might be memories of shame, but even therein were precious lessons of warning; and many of them were memories of triumph invaluable for the inspirations to duty and to enterprise which they conveyed. Those old heroes were unwilling that the past with its lessons should fade away and disappear, and they were right. How much we owe to the past, though we are often unconscious of the debt! Our position, our mental quality, the balance of our faculties, our peculiar character, have come to us through the mingling of many strains and the influence of a thousand varying circumstances. Our mental conceptions arise out of the heritage of ideas which we find before us when we come into the world, possessed by all minds as a common endowment and embodied in a multitude of forms, literary, mechanical, social, religious. What magnificent possessions the past hands on to us!
4. And, especially, these people were anxious for their children; they were anxious that their share in the toils and risks of the campaigns of Israel should not be forgotten. They were fearful lest their children should lose their part in the original heritage of the covenant. Many causes would favour this: distance, which made it impossible for them to attend the great national festivals; difference of habits occasioned by the different surroundings of their life; the influence of neighbouring idolatry; intermarriage with the tribes hard by — all these things would make it only too likely that, after one or two generations, their children would fall away from the faith of Israel. If by the sight of this great altar overlooking the Jordan they could be reminded of God's claim upon them and God's covenant with them and God's dealing with their fathers, perhaps they might be preserved from the apostasy which would otherwise ruin them. Who does not sympathise with this anxiety of the fathers of the ancient days which has always been a marked characteristic of truly godly men, that they have been anxious for their children's salvation? "Oh, that Ishmael might live before Thee!" is a prayer which has often found echo in the hearts of men. Love itself becomes more true and tender when, with all the other passions, it is sanctified by the indwelling Spirit. Then, too, the successes or failures of life become properly discriminated. Men who see the invisible estimate the more correctly the things temporal and the things eternal. And the chief solicitude for their children comes to be, not that they should be rich or fashionable, but that they should be good.
(T. R. Stephenson, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh,