to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask, 'What do these stones mean to you?'
That this may be .... stones. The children's question.
That life is intended to be a school of instruction to us we see plainly from the many directions given to the people of Israel. For they were under the immediate government of God; He blessed them with special favours, was ready also to reprove their faults, and omitted no method of inculcating the lessons which the events of their lives were calculated to teach. Christians are "led by the Spirit of God;" their eyes should be open to see, and their ears uncovered to hear, the meaning of providential dispensations. In the instructions conveyed by God through Joshua, posterity was not forgotten. Provision was made for handing down to following ages a record of God's dealings with His people. With that provision our text is concerned.
I. THE INQUIRY. "What mean ye 'by these stones?"
1. By what suggested? A representative from each tribe selected a large stone from the bed of the river Jordan, and these twelve stones were set up in Gilgal, where the people spent the first night after the crossing. The importance of erecting this memorial is indicated by the number of times it is referred to in these chapters (Joshua 3:12; Joshua 4:5; and Joshua 4:20). A conspicuous heap of stones was the customary method of directing attention to a particular scene of some remarkable occurrence, and accordingly stones were also placed in the Jordan where the priests' feet had stood. But the memorial at Gilgal would be more enduring, and could not fail to excite attention each time that the national assembly was held there, as was frequently the case (See 1 Samuel 11:15, and 2 Samuel 19:15). It was contrary to the law to erect a carved image, for fear of idolatrous practices, but rude stones served the purpose. The "sensible" is more impressive than the abstract. Ignorant persons and children who had not yet learned to read, to whom writing would be useless, could appreciate the significance of such a memorial.
2. By whom asked? It is the question of children whose curiosity has been awakened. What child in Altorf but must have inquired respecting the statue of William Tell, or in Lucerne about the lion sculptured by Thorwaldsen to commemorate the deaths of the Swiss guards? Young people are not to be discouraged, but stimulated to put questions for information. The test of a good teacher is found in his ability to induce his pupils to make inquiries spontaneously. And the lesson may be of use to older people, not to be ashamed to confess ignorance, but to ask for enlightenment.
3. By whom answered? The fathers are to make the reply, explaining the intention of the "sign" to their interested children. Parents are the proper persons to satisfy the inquiries of their offspring. There is an implicit trust reposed in their statements which is not so readily accorded to strangers. The remarks of Joshua illustrate the necessity of parents attending to the religious training of their children. Can it be deemed sufficient merely to provide food and clothing for the body, and secular learning for the mind, and to allow the moral and spiritual faculties to be neglected? "Godliness is the best learning." Joshua knew that, the deepest impressions are often created in childhood. The clay is then easily moulded; the tree has not yet grown stubbornly crooked, and can be straightened; the white paper, if not quite a blank, has still much space left for godly teachings. A sculptor once engraved his own name at the base of a statue, and covering this with plaster, cut therein the Emperor's name and titles, knowing that as years went on the plaster would vanish, and the first inscription become legible. So does early piety become dimly observable sometimes in the rush of pleasure and the turmoil of business, and then the storms of life sweep away the overlaying strata, and the desires of childhood, the gospel learnt at a mother's knee, the prayer offered to the God of his fathers, these stand out in all their vividness as in the former days.
II. GENERAL LESSONS TO BE DERIVED.
1. The wondrous works of God are for all time. Their impressiveness and utility are not intended to terminate with their immediate effects. They exemplify His power, and teach all men reverence (ver. 24). Of no avail to plead absence, the recital to us is sufficient to move our hearts. The demand for a repetition of miracles in order to convince each generation in its turn is extravagant and unreasonable. These works of God exhibit also His favour to His people, and incite to trust and love, if we can declare, "This God is our God forever and ever."
2. The importance of studying Scripture history. Not that we would insist so strongly on the distinction between "sacred" and "profane" history. For all history is sacred, all events being under the control of the Almighty, and evincing His moral administration of the world. Yet Scripture is authoritative, presents us with inspired comments on character and actions, and in many places strips off the the veil and affords us clear and certain glimpses of the movements of Deity. As distinguished from mere declarations of the nature of God's attributes, history shows us God in operation, and the picture is helpful to true and definite conception. It furnishes us not merely with a statement, but with an illustrative proof.
3. God expects men to propagate His fame
4. The use of a memorial. The stones were for a "sign" to excite inquiry and to prevent past history from sinking into utter oblivion. Events the most illustrious are easily forgotten. There is need of enshrining their remembrance in some permanent form. Read the mournful tale of Israel's ungrateful want of recollection in Psalm 78. Again and again "they forgat his works and the wonders he had showed them." Writing has been the chief method of preserving the memory of famous deeds. When resorted to in time it forbids suspicion of legendary exaggerations, and there is not the temptation to relic worship which "signs" foster. The Jewish dispensation was emphatically the age of symbols, but the gospel has dispensed with them almost altogether. Of the miracles of Christ there are no genuine memorials, save the narratives of the Evangelists and the Christian Church itself. What has been the effect upon ourselves of a perusal of the Gospels? Are they merely "idle tales," or have they revealed to us the love of God, and His willingness to receive His erring children? - A.
Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord.
That is a bold challenge. That is a voice we need. Every age wants some Joshua, some mighty soldier of the Cross, to say, "Come, hear the upper music, the Divine melody, the holy revelation." Have we the hearing ear? If we could hear better we could hear more. "Come hither." Does that indicate a point in space, a place, a boundary, a sanctuary? If so, it would be quite in keeping with Oriental thought in general, and with Jewish habit in particular. Always religious exercise was associated with locality — with the mountain, with the city, with the temple, with the tabernacle, with the terebinth, with some place made sacred by historic communes and wrestlings with God. Christ said, "The time cometh and now is when neither in this mountain nor at Jerusalem (particularly and exclusively) shall men worship the Father," but wherever there is a human spirit desiring the upward way, the higher light, the noonday of thought, and hope, and peace, wherever there is such a soul God is there, and God is the Author of it. Yet Jesus Christ Himself went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day — one of the evangelists says, "as was His custom." Beware lest in supposing ourselves able to grasp the all we grasp nothing. The universe is too big really for any one of us to grasp; we had better, therefore, have a little place cornered off and call it the Church, the sanctuary, the little temporary hostelry and lodging-place. All the earth is the Lord's. Men are now in danger of worshipping totals, the Unspeakable All, the incognisable infinite, as the metaphysicians call it. We may believe in all that grandeur of immeasurableness, and yet at the same time we go home every evening. Home — but the earth is the Lord's: why do you not live out in the open air? What do you want with home? you are a worshipper of Humanity, all space: why do you go home? You cannot keep away from the old place: the loved ones are there, all the lives that make your life a possible joy are there; all the holy, shadowy, tender memories are there — the old seat, the old books, the old fire that talks as it crackles and blazes are there. "Come." Why, the mere coming does us good, the very walk to church reddens the blood. The hunter says the delight is in the chase; not in the death of the hunted animal, but in the flight, the leap, the bound, the dash. The coming, the act of locomotion and the act signified by locomotion, will do us good. For what purpose shall we come? "Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord your God." That is the purpose. Not to hear the words of men. We are now here before God to hear what He will say unto us — "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth." What shall we hear? Shall we hear the words of some strange deity? Nay, "hear the words of the Lord your God." It is a family meeting. These pronouns seem to bring us into sacred and general possession of things in common with God. Your God, our Father, my God, your fathers' God: these are the terms in which the greatness and the nearness of God are typified to our dull imagination. When you hear the words of the Lord your God they will not be strange, inarticulate, untranslatable thunder; they will be gospels, voices of music, voices of welcome, tender assurances, great offers of love, sublime propositions of pardon; you will know every word of the speech, being neither affrighted by its majesty nor rendered indifferent by its condescension. To be able to receive such words — is that an insignificant sign? To know God's voice — is not that an evidence of man's greatness?
Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you
Observe the form which the purpose of the miracle assumes there. It is the confirmation of the Divine presence, not with the leader, but with the people and their consequent victory. Joshua grasped the inmost meaning of God's word to himself, and showed noble self-suppression, when he thus turned the direction of the miracle. The true servant of God knows that God is with him, not for his personal glorification, but for the welfare of God's people, and cares little for the estimation in which men hold him, if they will only believe that the conquering God is with them. We too often make great leaders and teachers in the Church opaque barriers to hide God from us, instead of transparent windows through which He shines upon His people. We are a great deal more ready to say "God is with him," than to add, "and therefore God is with us, in our Joshuas, and without them," Observe the grand emphasis of that name, "the living God," tacitly contrasted with the dead idols of the enemies, and sealing the assurance of His swift and all-conquering might. Observe, too, the triumphant contempt in the enumeration of the many tribes of the foe with their barbarous names. Five of them had been enough, when named by the spies' trembling lips, to terrify the congregation, but here the list of the whole seven but strengthens confidence. Faith delights to look steadily at its enemies, knowing that the one Helper is more than they all. This catalogue breathes the same spirit as Paul's rapturous list of the foes impotent to separate from the love of God. Mark, too, the long-drawn-out designation of the ark, with its accumulation of nouns, which grammatical purists have found difficulty — "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth"; where it leads they need not fear to follow. It was the pledge of His presence, it contained the ten words on which His covenant was concluded. That covenant enlisted on their side Him who was Lord of the swollen river as of all the fierce clans beyond; and with His ark in front their victory was sure. Then follows the command to elect twelve representatives of the tribes, for a purpose not yet explained; and then, at the last moment, the manner of crossing is disclosed, to the silencing of wise doubters and the confirmation of ignorant faith. The brief anticipatory announcement of the miracle puts stress on the arrest of the waters at the instant when the priests' feet touched them, and tells what is to befall the arrested torrent above the point where the ark stood, saying nothing about the lower stretch of the river, and just hinting by one word, "heap," the parallel between this miracle and that of the passing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:8
The ark of
In the ark Israel saw God Himself, and yet lost none of their faith in the spiritual character of God. When the ark rested, Israel knew that God was among them; when the ark moved, then Israel believed that God was calling them to journey on again, and sang, "Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered," &c.; when, again, the ark rested, they ceased to move forward, and sang, "Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel." There was ever before the people of Israel the words of that commandment which forbade their ever thinking of God under any human, any material form, so that they had to content themselves with the ark of the covenant. But God, all this time, was preparing for a new manifestation of Himself in the Person of the Son, who was to take upon Him the form of His own highest creation, so that no longer should it be a sin to think of God under the likeness of a man. The man who depreciates the idea of a visible Church, and rejects externals in religion, has one side of the truth very clearly revealed to him; but I venture to think that not only is this one side insisted on to the exclusion of another equally true, but his position is maintained against certain unalterable facts, of which the first and foremost is, that our souls, through which alone, he argues, communion may be held with God, are imprisoned within material bodies, and cannot in this life, in the ordinary course, receive impressions of spiritual things except through the medium of those bodies. Israel in the wilderness was, no doubt, often very unworthy of the high calling which belonged to the chosen people; but they did succeed in living a life from which everything was removed except the prospect of the heavenly rewards. They knew they should not inherit temporal promises, and yet they patiently lived their lives in expectation of spiritual things. And during these lives they were guided by "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth," and by the system of worship provided for them by God. We are looking, or ought to be looking, for like heavenly promises, and while we are in the flesh we shall find help, comfort, encouragement, and strength from these outward ordinances, which God has given us in His holy Church.
As soon as the soles of the feet... shall rest in the waters of Jordan.The first step was to be taken in the waters. They were called upon not only to face the difficulties, but to enter them. They were not to ask God to prove His power first. They were to trust Him first, and then should they see as they followed on to know the Lord, "His giving forth" to be "prepared as the morning." How fatal had been a halt, although but one step short of the brim of the waters! Even the foot uplifted, ready to fall as soon as the path was ready, would have waited in vain. The promise was addressed only to the faith that, without seeing signs and wonders, could yet believe. That one step taken which proved their faith, and placed it in a position of entire receptivity — then God could prove His faithfulness and manifest His power. His wonders follow at once. The lesson which is here taught us is of the utmost importance, showing us the very essence of all true faith. Mature faith must be able to dare and to endure, with no other stay than seeing Him who is invisible. Our Father does, indeed, stretch out the hand of yearning tenderness to steady the tottering steps of a babe. In His pity and compassion He will not forbid the poor cripple his staff; but the faith of full years and of steady strength can never be developed by continued indulgence. It must be exercised by reason of use. Again, that God, instead of giving His people some visible aid for their crossing, set before them a most visible hindrance, doubling the danger and difficulty to the natural eye, is in perfect accord with our advanced experience. Only how often does the simplicity of our faith fail to equal theirs. It is the first instinctive impulse of unbelief to seek a sign — to have something to interpose between itself and the bare word of God. And so, how often is the question asked: "If God be really disposed to bring me into this glorious liberty, will there not be at least some token of it? Shall I find no evidence of it in my own altered feelings; and especially will not the Lord prepare the way by lowering the opposing tide of temptation?" The word of our God needs neither sign nor surety. Be it a promise, or be it a command, it matters not; for every command has a promise for its kernel. We are to go forward to obey His commands — forward to receive His promises — forward in faith — forward though difficulties double. Again, the foot dipped in the brimming waters declares emphatically that faith is to precede feeling. Nothing that we discover in heart or life need hinder us in coming to Christ to seek deliverance from it. We may even use our worst discoveries as our plea in coming; "For the whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick." Nor will my sickness make the Physician displeased with me in my first application to Him. But if after He has healed me, and taught me the conditions of sustaining health, I find myself again unloving, cold, perturbed, fretted, moody, I have not the least right to say that all is well, and that, disregarding all this, I am to believe myself fully accepted through Christ. Unless I bring this disturbance to Him for confession, forgiveness, and healing, I am utterly at fault. Our feelings are of importance. The same Creator who set the faithful nerves as sentinels along all the lines of the senses, to give due warning of danger and disease, gave a corresponding sensitiveness to our souls. Faith is not to discharge this as unnecessary, but to retain it in her service. If it be well with our faith, it will also be well with our feelings.
()When we, actually going forth in duty as He has told us, according to the directions He has given, laying hold by faith upon His promise, come to the limit of our strength — when thus our feet are dipped in the brim of the waters of our Jordan, His great help does come.
1. Such Divine help comes in difficult duty. Though duty be difficult, when we go forth toward it, as God has ordered, and in faith in His promise, we may be certain somehow His help will meet us.
2. Such Divine help comes scattering foreboded inability, e.g., the women going to the sepulchre, asking, anxiously, "Who shall roll away the stone?" but going on and finding it rolled away (Mark 16:1-4).
3. Such Divine help will come in death. See what Mr. Greatheart says of Mr. Fearing in the second part of "Pilgrim's Progress." The whole passage is most exquisite.
4. Such Divine help will also come in conversion. There is that Jordan of belief in Jesus — of the absolute commitment of the self to Him which we must pass before we can enter the Canaan of forgiveness, and God's favour, and the noble life. Now go on toward it. Cross it. But you have no feeling, you say; that is not to the matter. But you do not know such feeling as other people say they have; that is not to the matter. But you do not understand how it can be; you need not; that is not to the matter. But you are not fit to make the crossing; you never will be fitter; that is not to the matter. This is enough. God tells you to go forth, along His way in faith of His promise; and when your feet but touch the brim of a perfect self-surrender, you are His, you are Christian. His forgiveness falls, you have passed into the Canaan of the new life.
()It is worth noticing the use which in the passage of the river they made of the ark of the covenant. The pillar of fire had ceased to go before them. They had grown into the ability to appreciate a better and more spiritual symbolism. Fire meant more to the eye than a little box of acacia-wood, but the acacia box, considered as the casket of the Divine autograph of the two tables, denoted more to the mind and heart; and so it marks a growth that not the pillar, but the ark, guided them across the river. They treated the ark on this occasion reverently, but not superstitiously. They used it not as a "charm," but as a symbol. The Israelites on a later occasion used it as a charm in one of their battles with the Philistines, when after one defeat they said (1 Samuel 4:3). To the men standing on the brink of the swollen Jordan, however, the ark was not a charm, a power, but only the representative of a power. Their own faith earned them miraculous passage, and not the little acacia chest; and they felt it so. There is danger of our coming to use the holy things of our religion more as the Israelites used the ark at Ebenezer than as they used it at the river. We easily fall into a way of attributing Divine potency to rites and ceremonies, prayers, sanctuaries, and ordinances, forgetting that these things are only types, significant as types, but not as forces — that the power of Christianity is not in the rites, but in the faith only that uses them. A symbol is a dangerous thing: the Hebrews learned that lesson at Ebenezer. A symbol is a precious thing: the Hebrews learned that lesson at the Jordan-crossing.