Sharing the Spoil of Faithful Labor


Context: Chapters 10 and 11 give brief summaries of the conquest of southern Canaan and northern Canaan. At the end of this, the text says, “And the land had rest from war” (11:23). On the periphery some tribes of pagan inhabitants still lived (11:22; 13:1-6). These tribes would have to be dealt with after the conquered land was allotted and the people became settled. Chapter 12 lists the kings defeated by Moses east of the Jordan, including Sihon, king of the Amorites and all the land that he controlled, and Og, king of Bashan with all the land he controlled. This was given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh. The fighting men from those tribes, nevertheless, after they settled their families in their possession, went with their brothers to the west of the Jordan with Joshua and defeated thirty-one kings and took possession of their lands. The land then was allotted to the twelve tribes, six cities of refuge were set aside, three on each side of the Jordan, specific cities (48 in all) and designated pasturelands were given to the Levites throughout Israel. The text then concludes that part of the narrative with this statement showing how the initial promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:7) had been fulfilled. “Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21 43:-45). At this point, Joshua gave a parting admonition to the men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh as they went back to their land and families.

I. Joshua commended the covenant faithfulness of these men – Verse 1-4.

A. They had kept all the word that Moses had commanded them. The final words of Moses to them were resounding in their ears still with his command to “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” Deuteronomy 32:46, 47).

B. They had obeyed all that Joshua had commanded them. “All the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you” (Joshua 1:14, 15). The passing of Moses did not diminish the authority of God as manifest through his chosen leader. God had shown in demonstrable ways his choice of Joshua as the successor of Moses; the word of God lost none of its authority with the passing of a man. “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you’” (Joshua 3:7).

C. They had kept faith with their kinsmen in the other tribes. So they had promised (Numbers 32:28-32), and faithfully they accomplished it. Now according to the promise of God through Moses, having helped their brothers complete the obtaining of the land, they would go to their own possession (Numbers 32: 33-42). This was a test of a heart wed to the will of God rather than restrained to the pursuit of one’s own pleasure.

D. They had kept the charge of the Lord their God. Each of these areas of faithfulness and obedience is subservient to the greater duty of laboring at the task under the authority of the Lord himself. All of the actions and service to other people they had accomplished were expressions primarily of doing the will of God, for the advancement of his rule and cause in this fallen world, and for the eventual glory of Christ to whom every knee will bow.

E. With this task accomplished, they could now return to their possessions and family on the other side of Jordan. “Given you rest” is only temporary and not the final rest. Hebrews 4:1-13, referring to this event as adjudicated by Psalm 95, shows that this rest was typological of the perfect rest of God’s people yet to be initiated. When they have persevered through the testing of this life and finally enter before God himself, free from the opposition of the world and of Satan and perfectly sanctified from all the evil weakness and offensive sourness of the flesh, that rest shall be complete.

II. Joshua reminded them of the necessity of obedience to God’s commands and of the pivotal importance of loving God – verse 5. The Godward aspect of life was preeminent and every other relationship depended on this.

A. He asked them to take care not to be slovenly in regard to the commandments of God but to observe them carefully.

1. Their history was well-documented with judgment arising from disobedience. The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, had presumed upon their priestly office and offered before the Lord incense placed on fire not authorized by God for such offering (Leviticus 10:1-3). God sent fire upon them immediately and spoke to Aaron, their father, through Moses, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Aaron held his peace, for the necessity of obedience to God in honor and holy awe transcends all earthly relations and natural affection.

2. If these men had no eye-witness knowledge of that event some forty years before, certainly they were still moved by the judgment upon Achan and his family and possessions (Joshua 7:16-26) for his personal disobedience in the defeat of Jericho. His coveting of material things that led him to prefer his glory to that of God brought about this demonstration of Yahweh for his own glory.

3. When Moses saw God’s glory, he also heard the statement of God, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Deuteronomy 33:19).

  • Though he is filled with lovingkindness and forgives iniquities, because he is absolutely just, he will “by no means clear the guilty” (Deuteronomy 34:7). The destruction of the nations by God through Israel gives immediate manifestation of this. “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:19, 20).
  • Our sin, both dispositional in original sin and active in personal transgression, makes us, as it were, “condemned already” (John 3:18, 19, 36). As dead in trespasses and as by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3), each of us could be destroyed with no claim on the mercy of God.
  • Forgiveness absolutely is at the prerogative of God and comes in the display of sovereign mercy; but it comes only because his justice fell on his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in our stead—because he does not clear the guilty, they can be forgiven only if, upon another, fullness of justice is executed. “He spared not his own Son” (Romans 8:32).

4. The conflict that began to arise between the people west of the Jordan and those east of the Jordan concerned this very issue of obedience to the Lord (22:10-34; see verses 16, 20). It was a misunderstanding, but illustrates how clear in their minds stood the holy presence of God and the certainty of judgment for disobedience. Joshua was insistent on this in his charges to the leaders of Israel (23:6—“Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left.” See also 23:15, 16).

B. Fundamental to all the commandments is the first and greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5; Mark 12:29, 30). If we love we will obey his commandments; if we attempt obedience and have not love, it profits us nothing and is only a sham obedience (1 Corinthians 13:3). Though it is the moral impulse dismissed from the human heart earliest and easiest, love for God as the highest and most sublime, the most excellent, infinitely so, of all moral claims on the human soul is the most rationally demonstrable. It is pure, unmitigated perversion of heart to fail—no, refuse—to love that being who is the greatest and best, the most beautiful, the sole possessor of all spiritual and moral perfections. Love naturally should gravitate toward this perfect one but is maliciously pressed away from our consciences (Romans 1:18-23).

C. Obedience also means that our lifestyle not only is punctuated with individual acts of obedience but is characterized by a consistent pursuit of holiness and godliness as a style of life. We recognize that our life depends on him (“cling to him”) and has no meaning without an earnestness about seeing the restoration of the divine image in our will and affections (Ephesians 4:17-24).

III. Joshua reminded them of all the blessings and privileges that had come to them as the people of the Lord. Verses 7-9

A. Joshua pointed out that their faithfulness to help their brothers claim their land in Canaan had resulted in great material advantage to them. Though only newly settled in the land, they had the fruit of a mature culture at their disposal from the beginning.

1. God had given them homes in which to live, clothes to wear, precious metal as a medium of exchange to establish a stable economy, other materials to fashion into implements for agriculture, and livestock for a steady supply of food. They were ready to become a nation, privileged with the revelation of God, established as the people through whom God’s own Son would come to redeem a people for his own possession, gathered from all the nations of the earth. Out of Jacob this light would come; out of Israel salvation would arise. “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4, 5).

2. As the rest is typical of the later and greater rest, so these possessions are typical of the spiritual blessings given us in Christ Jesus in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3), the inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven (1 Peter 1:4), and of the Christian’s portion of the inheritance in the realm of light that is the peculiar possession of the saints (Colossians 1:12).

B. They were to share this spoil with their brothers. They went to war as representatives of the entirety of their respective tribes on the east of Jordan. The spoil, therefore, was for the well-being of all of them, not just for those who engaged the conflict. These men of war gained a spoil that they shared with their kinsmen according to the flesh; even so, Jesus Christ has spoiled all principalities and powers, and in his victory has obtained and given gifts to his people (Colossians 2:13-15; Ephesians 1:19-23).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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