So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities that you did not build, and now you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.'
Your fathers... served other gods, is an incidental statement of the utmost value. It throws a light on Abraham's antecedents in which we do not always see them, and enhances the significance of his abandonment of home and country, and his clear faith in a living God, in a degree which nothing else does. Observe first of all -
I. THE FACT THAT ABRAHAM WAS ORIGINALLY A HEATHEN. He was not merely born and bred an idolater, as we might have gathered from the story of Bachel's teraphim, but was a pagan in exactly the same condition of belief as many in India or in China are today. Some, in later times especially, and indeed in all times, worshipped the true God, but employed an idol to assist their imagination of Him; that is, they simply sought ritualistic and sensuous aids to religious thought and feeling. But Abraham began life far lower down in the religious scale. His fathers served other gods; the deified powers of nature representing little more than the forces and tendencies of life. Primitive tradition had lost any brightness it ever had. The religious sentiment had lost that reverence and habit of attention which soon begins to perceive God and to feel that the God constantly appealing to it is one and the same. The worship of several deities is always a mark of a superstitious ingredient blending with faith. Terah's family were in this condition. They were not only idolaters but polytheists - without Bible or sacrament, promise, or law. Abraham was precisely in the same sort of spiritual circumstances, and had been taught the same sort of religious ideas, and trained in the same superstitions, as are found in all pagan lands today. Yet with advantages so slight, he became the spiritual father of the religious nation of antiquity - type of all saintliness, of everything bright in faith and unquestioning in obedience. There is some reason to suppose that a god of vengeance was one of those deities most reverently regarded by his people; and yet he finds and worships a God of love! He, like all of us, had Christ, the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He, unlike most of us, followed the Christ light within him. Following the Divine light, it grew ever clearer, and his vision became stronger to perceive and his heart to follow it. Amongst a multitude of silent deities, One spoke to him through his conscience, with more and more of frequency, and, in the devotee in which He was obeyed, with more and more of clearness, both in the comforts He whispered and the commands He enjoined, till gradually he felt there was but one great God, who governed all, and should receive the homage of all; who was the friendly refuge as well as the omnipotent Creator of men. Gradually his life began to revolve around this unseen Centre, and the outward aspect and inward purpose of his life stood out in palpable difference from that of his fellows. Doubtless he preached his deep conviction, gathered about him some kindred spirits; perhaps had to endure persecution; till at last he got a strong impression borne in upon his conscience that his path of duty and of spiritual wisdom was to leave his native land and seek a new home for what was a new faith amongst men. His coming to Ur of the Chaldees, and then to Canaan, may be compared with the expedition of the Pilgrim fathers. Like them he sought "freedom to worship God," and like them founded a great nation in doing so. In any view of his character, his decision, his devotion, the clearness of his faith, the promptness of his obedience, are marvellous. But they become much more so when we mark the fact that Joshua here brings out, that Abraham began his career in heathen darkness - that the father of the faithful began life as a mere pagan. Observe -
II. SOME LESSONS OF THIS FACT. For evidently it has many. We can only suggest them.
(1) A little grace and a little light go a long way when well used. How little had Abraham to begin with! But, using what he had, it grew more, and was enough to do more for him than light a thousand times as clear does for some of us today. A man who has light upon his next step of duty has really an "abundance of revelation." Do not go in for being omniscient, postponing all obedience until you get light on all truth. Use your little light well whatever it is, and so you will get more.
(2) Obedience is the mode of self enlightenment. "If any man will do God's will, he shall know God's doctrine." So says Christ. Doing duty is the way of discovering truth. Since the creation of the world there has been no other. Take this.
(3) All the sacraments are means of grace, not conditions of salvation. The Church has always been tempted to exaggerate the helpful into the essential, until it says, "Extra ecclesiam, nulia salus." Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, arguing with those who held the sacrament of circumcision essential to salvation, quotes Abraham as reaching all his spirituality and acceptance with God, "not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision," i.e, not by sacraments, but without them altogether. Sacraments are aids. The mercy that gave them to be such will, in the absence of them through error or inadvertence, use some other way of enriching and enlightening the obedient heart.
(4) However sunk in superstition the heathen may be, they are capable of religion. The difference between the Christian and the heathen in the matter of spiritual advantages is not a difference between having all and having nothing, but between having more and having less. They have the Christian inward light - movings of God's spirit, lessons of God's providence. God speaks to them, and "wakes their ear in the morning." They lack the testimony of God's saints, their examples, the revelation of God's highest law, a clear light on immortality; above all, the light which comes from the life and death of the Son of God - "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." This fuller light would multiply vastly the number of the devout amongst them, and give a higher character to their devotion. But they may be saved, as we are taught explicitly both by Peter and by Paul, by a Saviour they feel and follow, though they do not know the story of His love.
(5) The heathen being thus capable of religion, and our higher advantages being influential to produce it, we ought to extend to them the full light of the Saviour's glory. Our neglect of Christian missions grows from our despair of heathen men. We ought to think of the millions in heathen darkness as Abraham's brethren, and capable of appreciating and responding to all that is true and gracious. If we rightly reverence them, we should not eat our morsel of the bread of life alone, but should share it with them. Let us seek to extend the knowledge of the gospel of Christ, and we shall yet behold many an Abraham rising up in heathen lands. - G.
And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour.
The substance of these closing words of the old Hebrew chief amounted to this: they had had vastly more done for them than they had done or could have done for themselves. They were not the sole nor the chief architects of their own fortunes. At this stage in the fortunes of their national life the prescient eye of Joshua saw the resulting perils from the disposition among them to forget their past history and to magnify the personal element in their present gains and security. There is but one step between the temper of boastfulness and the decadence and demoralisation of a nation's life. Modesty, simplicity, self-knowledge, and a devout recognition of its profound indebtedness to the past — these are among the prime elements of national wealth and prosperity. And Joshua's was that warning voice whose authority and experience and disinterested patriotism, as with all similar men in all countries and times, served as the organ of the national conscience. It served to remind them that a nation is not the growth of a day, that the highest blessings of life are unattainable by our own unaided efforts, that manifold are the forces which are working in the world to produce the life of each one of us, and that it is as inaccurate as it is ungrateful and boastful to impute to ourselves the chief or the largest share in the production of all the good of life that we enjoy. "I have given you a land for which ye did not labour." To every age and period, as it reviews its successes and takes stock of its gains and advances, may be addressed these words of Joshua, with deep truth and significance. The conditions of life amid which we live to-day constitute veritably the promised land of the many generations of English and Scottish life that have preceded us. In whatever way we turn we have much to make us grateful for our progress, and to inspire us with a deep sense of that providence whose guiding spirit is a fact as real and sacred of British history as ever it was of Hebrew history. In regard to the political and social troubles of the present — and they are both many and serious — and in regard to the conditions of our human life to-day, whose frequent difficulty and harshness sometimes makes us fretful and discontented, I do not know anything which better tends to smooth out these wrinkles of impatient discontent, and to inspire us with a feeling of our large and solid improvement in life, than to take up, for example, the history of our own country, say some three or four centuries ago, and fixing your reading and your attention mainly upon the social condition of the people; upon the state of our commerce and all the peaceful arts; upon the measure of personal freedom in matters of State or of religion which was then possessed; upon the character of the public health and the amount of disease and the averages of mortality in all ranks; upon the degree of comfort which people had in their dwelling-houses; upon the general level of morality and decency which the habits of society evinced — to contrast all this with what requires no special course of reading, the public and private life of society to-day in our land, its means of intelligence, its measure of liberty, and all the other distinguishing qualities of our civilisation to-day. Civilisation, in which word is comprehended art and science and religion, and refinement of manner and speech, and the increase of material comfort, and the spread of intelligence, and all things which beautify or sanctify our human life and character, is no mere production of some one age or country to which now and then some little measure of improvement is added at irregular and incalculable intervals, but is the long, unbroken movement of ascensional life going right back in its origins, into the dim, impenetrable beginnings of human life and society. What is the utmost that we to-day have done or can do set against the mighty sum of the world's historical and prehistorical life! We find the sense of enormous indebtedness in regard, for example, to our religious possessions. The text reminds us of how that thousands of years ago an Eastern people were feeling their way to religious truths and ideas which, passing subsequently through the higher medium and expression of Christianity, absolutely rule a vast part of the world's life to-day. We are debtors both to the barbarian and the Greek, to the Gentile and to the Jew. In regard to the more restricted life of our own country and nation, we are the sum and product of a large variety and infusion of forces. And in the social order of our life there are few of us who need to be reminded of how much that controls our lives to-day dates back to the far and almost-forgotten past. Our constitutional liberties have been things of slow accretion. And again, m the shape and character of our strictly personal life it is no less true that we have entered upon possessions for which we did not labour. There is one inheritance at least which is every man's birthright, the accumulated experience of his race and ancestry. The life, the conduct, the temper, the traditions of our ancestry live in us. When we speak of a man as coming from a good stock or a bad stock the phrase is significant of how considerable is that element of character and tendency for which we did not labour. We are not altogether the children of a day. We have taken a good many centuries in making. Let me urge upon you the duty which these considerations bring before us of maintaining an intelligent sympathy with the past, as an essential condition of rightly understanding and controlling the present. It is by liberally using the vast stores of accunmlated experience that we have inherited; it is by tracking our social troubles to their roots in antecedent conditions; it is by following the line of dogmatic and Church history to the periods of germination and birth, that we shall be the most effectively armed to meet the difficulties and to discharge the duties which every generation has, in God's name, to manfully overcome or fulfil. Let us not shrink from them. Again, these considerations suggest to us the virtue and grace of humility. "I have given you a land for which ye did not labour." "We are not our own," wrote the apostle; "we have been bought with a price." We are ourselves but the last link in the interminable procession of the human race. The true lesson of history and of religion is to make us feel how slight and insignificant is our best work in comparison with the mighty whole. It is to inspire us with the salutary and humbling feeling that our life is being guided by an infinite power and wisdom, who can dispense with any one of us, but who is indispensable to us. And once more: these considerations should guide us in our duties as regards that unknown future which is ever lying in front of us. What we shall be is being determined by what we are to-day. What the national life will be a century hence is, in no small measure, dependent upon the quality and policy of the national life to-day. Labour, then, in modest, self-forgetting devotion to the will of God and His abiding truths, so that the future of the world's life may be happier and wiser and purer for our lives. Labour as men who, by the most absolute of necessities, will have to give an account of their stewardship of life. Finally, take stock of your own lives, of all that you have passed through, of all the blessings that have crowned your days, of the perils from which you have escaped, of the temptations you have resisted, of the vast stores of life in which you have found your noblest nutriment; and say how much of it originated in your own independent resources and volitions, and how much of it came from sources far above and beyond any power of yours.
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