Call Others to Step Forward

The Point:  Leaders set the example and call others to follow God.

Covenant Affirmations: Joshua 24:14-28.

[14]  "Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. [15]  And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." [16]  Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, [17]  for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. [18]  And the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God." [19]  But Joshua said to the people, "You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. [20]  If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good." [21]  And the people said to Joshua, "No, but we will serve the LORD." [22]  Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." [23]  He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel." [24]  And the people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey." [25]  So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. [26]  And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. [27]  And Joshua said to all the people, "Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God." [28]  So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.  [ESV]

[14-15]  Previously in verses 2-13, Joshua functioned as the prophetic spokesman for the Lord where he reminded the people of all that God had done for them. Now, in verses 14-28, Joshua gives an exhortation to the people. The words Now therefore indicate the legal setting of covenant within which the exhortation is to be seen. Israel is to fear the Lord. Fearing the Lord sums up the religious attitude expected of the Old Testament believer. The term occurs frequently in Deuteronomy [4:10; 6:2,13,24]. Fear of the Lord is the attitude of awe and of filial reverence which befits the child of God before his Maker and Redeemer. This fear is desired and approved by God [Deut. 4:10]. It is not inconsistent with, but flows from, the experience of forgiveness [see Ps. 130:4]. This fear is to be rendered in sincerity and in faithfulness. It should be without hypocrisy, but should be expressed with simplicity and truth of heart. Service of the Lord is meant to be exclusive service. It involves putting away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt. The same demand is made at other points in Israel’s history [Gen. 35:2; 1 Sam. 7:4]. The worship of other deities is forbidden in much the same way that in ancient Near Eastern treaties the vassal was forbidden to have any other overlord except the lord to whom he was bound in treaty. This antithetical nature of Israel’s relationship to the Lord must also be kept in mind when reading the laws of the Pentateuch. Whatever resembled an alliance other than that with the Lord, be it in manner of dress, sacrificial practices, common mores, and the like, was forbidden. Some things prohibited by law were not necessarily immoral when viewed  by themselves, but their connection with the worship of foreign gods rendered them unusable for Israel. The gods to be put away were served not only beyond the Euphrates but also in Egypt. Israel is seen as having played the harlot while in Egypt. Worship of and service to any other god must be put away so that the people can faithfully serve the Lord. Joshua presents to the people a choice with eternal consequences. They are to choose this day whom you will serve. If the service of the Lord is evil in your eyes (i.e., does not look good to you), then they are to choose to serve the false gods of their ancestors or of their neighbors. Joshua himself, however, wants it to be known that as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. [16-18]  Responding to the basic covenant demand as laid down in the words of verse 14, the people vehemently deny any intention of disloyalty to the Lord. They will not forsake Him, so they solemnly and emphatically declare. The term forsake contrasts with the demand of clinging to the Lord made by Joshua at the earlier assembly ]23:8]. This forsaking of the Lord, so Israel knew, would bring about the curse of the covenant [Deut. 28:20]. In language reminiscent of the prologue to the Ten Commandments, the people recall their deliverance from Egypt. The prophetic survey presented to them by Joshua [2-13] has had its impact. It is the God of their deliverance and of their safekeeping in the desert that they wish to serve. Later in their history Israel would forget these great acts of the Lord [Jer. 2:4-8]. The people continue to recount the past blessings received. They reflect on the driving out of all the peoples ahead of them. Possibly this refers to various hostile encounters in the desert [Ex. 17:8; Num. 31:2], but the use of the term drove out for the defeat of desert dwellers is surprising. When Israel came to Canaan the Amorites were a threat, but these too the Lord drove out. In light of these manifest blessings in redemptive history the people state that they do not want to be any less loyal to the Lord than Joshua had vowed to be [15]. They too will serve the Lord, for he is our God [18]. [19]  You are not able to serve the Lord: it is evident from other parts of the book [23:8] as well as from this chapter [31] that these words, although their seriousness should not be minimized, should nevertheless not be taken in an absolute sense. Joshua simply wants to confront Israel with the seriousness of the solemn promise it has just uttered. Two things are said about God, both of which are meant to impress Israel with the weightiness of the moment. God is holy, and He is jealous. God’s holiness is that which makes Him incomparable [1 Sam. 2:2]. There is something of the unapproachable about the holy. Nevertheless, in later literature God is also the Holy One of Israel, who in spite of His holiness dwells with Israel. Here, however, the unapproachable sanctity of God is in the foreground. When that holiness is violated by sinful man it expresses itself in jealousy, God’s zeal for the maintenance of His honor. This zeal can be shown through acts of punishment upon evildoers or through acts of vindication on behalf of God’s people [cf. Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 5:9]. Stress upon the jealousy of God does not conflict with His status as the redeeming God. In the Decalogue both features occur side by side [Ex. 20:2,5]. Hence Joshua’s words must not be considered to be in conflict with the people’s earlier reference to the Exodus redemption [17]. Continuing his solemn words of warning, Joshua now tells the people in absolute terms that the Covenant God, once His jealousy is provoked, will not forgive your transgression of your sins. These words must be understood in their proper context, yet their force should not be diminished to the point of complete diminution. Forgiveness of sins is something on which a sinner cannot count. The fact that sins are forgiven at all is due to a miracle of grace, for always sin calls for punishment by a holy God. Thus the sin of idolatry, which was a rupture of the covenant bond, was to be punished severely. Two words are used here for sin. The second word used is the more common, designating the sinful act as the missing of a mark, the righteousness demanded by God’s law. The other word, rendered transgression, views sin from its willful side. Sin is rebellion, insurrection. [20-21]  Joshua tells the people that the covenant blessings that are promised to the obedient will turn into the covenant curses when disobedience is shown. Serving strange gods and forsaking the Lord will cause the Lord to turn and do you harm and consume you. The Pentateuch contains both the blessings and the curses of the covenant [cf. Deut. 28; Lev. 26]. The Bible speaks nonsystematically about God, hence it speaks freely of the “turning” of God in case of covenant breaking [cf. 23:15]. In order to arrive at a complete picture of what God is like, one also would have to take into account the passages where God is said to be unchangeable. Sometimes the two thoughts may occur in one and the same chapter [e.g., 1 Sam. 15:11,29]. The gods that Israel may want to serve instead of the Lord are called foreign gods. Evil and ultimate destruction will be Israel’s lot when it turns after these other gods. It is left to other parts of Scripture, which also contain the curses of the covenant, to speak of the possibility of Israel’s repentance and God’s turning again, this time in grace and forgiveness. At the present moment, however, Israel must be confronted with the full weight of its decision. For the second time in this dialogue setting, the people respond with a clear affirmation of loyalty to their covenant Lord. They will serve Him. The message of the book of Joshua is essentially very positive and hopeful. The seriousness of Joshua’s challenge only serves to enhance this positive aspect of the people’s response. The many accounts of covenant apostasy which Israel preserved for later generations to ponder upon should not obscure this affirmative and encouraging element. [22-24]  As in all judicial procedures so also here in this covenant context the need for witnesses arises. Joshua calls on the people to be witnesses against themselves. This means that they thereby will take upon themselves the curses of which he has been speaking, should they become unfaithful to their Lord. Again, the readiness of the people to enter into this solemn compact should be duly noted. It is this spirit of covenant adherence which also underlies some of the sentiments of the Psalms, where the believer knows himself to be on the Lord’s side. Pharisaism must not be attributed to this sentiment. By informing the reader of Israel’s undertaking of the covenant obligation the writer of this book makes it clear that Israel’s later calamities cannot be laid to God’s charge. The Lord Himself is beyond reproach. Again in verse 23 the demand to put away the strange gods is repeated. The people’s positive response to the covenant demands must find its counterpart in a negative putting away of the strange gods, although no merely negative attitude is expected. There also must be a turning of the heart to the Lord. For the involvement of the heart, including not only the emotions but also the mind and will, see Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:16. By using the expression the Lord, the God of Israel, this significant passage returns to its starting point in verse 2. Nothing is said about the execution of the demand to remove the idols. Some would hold that the idolatry meant here is only an inward one. Others believe that the putting away of idols refers not to those still found among Israel, but to those of the nations in whose midst Israel now lived. On the other hand, one need not insist on an explicit account of how this demand was actually put into effect. With another unambiguous statement of their willingness to serve the Lord their God and to listen to His voice [24] the people respond to this final call on Joshua’s part. They do so after they have undertaken to be witnesses against themselves [22], which is tantamount to taking an oath. Hence this solemn declaration forms a final attestation on the people’s part. [25-28]  Covenant Documentation. The ancient treaty pattern which one encounters in extrabiblical documents usually includes a clause concerning the deposition of the treaty text and the calling of witnesses. The latter element, the covenant witness, has received attention already in verse 22, and it recurs in these final verses. The covenant document is mentioned here for the first time. Although the entire transaction described in this chapter must be seen within the context of covenant renewal, the first explicit reference to covenant does not occur until verse 25. Joshua, so it is recorded, made a covenant with the people. Regardless of the one-sided imposition of a particular covenant, each covenant involves some form of mutuality. This is certainly clear from the present context. At this point, the covenant made by Joshua was tantamount to laying down for Israel statutes and rules. In the present verse the two terms are virtually synonymous. At any rate, the writer does not elaborate as to their precise nature. Essentially all of covenant law is held together by one underlying spiritual principle, that of the Lord’s redemption of His people, a redemption which obliges the people to serve and love their Lord with heart, mind, and soul. This principle pervaded all of Israel’s laws and was operative in the smallest minutiae of these laws. In summary, it may be said that the statutes and rules were the rule by which the covenanting parties were to live. Joshua then writes down these words in a Book of the Law of God [26]. Among Israel’s neighbors, a covenant document usually accompanied the making of a treaty. This provided for the treaty proceedings and allowed the document to be deposited at a safe place, often at the foot of some idol statue, indicating symbolically that the god would watch over the treaty. A similar recording of covenant proceedings is found in Deuteronomy 31:24-27. The book, or document, which Joshua wrote is solemnly called the Book of the Law of God. God had been the witness to all that had been said and done, and the people had presented themselves before Him [1]. The treaty document therefore could be properly called by His name. The word translated law has a wider meaning than the English word itself would suggest. It may also mean “direction,” or “teaching.” Joshua also erects a large stone. Ceremonies in the Old Testament world were often accompanied by the erection of such a stone. This stone was set up under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. One should not think of this holy place as a formal structure but rather as a sacred precinct within which a tree could be found. The sanctity of the place near Shechem goes back to Abraham’s time [Gen. 12:6; 35:2,4]. In both these instances in Genesis mention is made of a significant tree. The stone is to serve as a witness against us. Joshua here includes himself with the people as those who have entered into covenant and who must adhere to its statutes. However, he also distinguishes himself from them (against you). The stone has been a silent witness of the words the Lord spoke to Israel. The emphasis falls on what the Lord has said rather than on what the people have said. Through Joshua, the Lord had set the stage for the covenant ceremony by presenting to His people a summary of His great acts of deliverance [2-13]. This was done to motivate the people to show true covenant loyalty. Whatever Israel would do with the covenant would be done against the background of the record of God’s deeds in the past. When, therefore, this stone would witness against them, this would be tantamount to God’s redemptive acts witnessing against them.”  [Woudstra, pp. 350-358].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why does Joshua emphasize the importance of fearing and serving the Lord (note the repetition of the word serve in these verses)? What does it mean to fear the Lord? How can you cultivate this type of fear for God in your life?

2.         What attributes of God does Joshua stress? Why are these attributes important in this context? What impact do these attributes have on your relationship with God?

3.         What does Joshua tell the people about making a covenant with God [cf. 23:15-16]? Note the covenant relationship described here. What has God, as their covenant Lord, done for His people? What are the responsibilities of the people as faithful covenant members?


Joshua: An Expositional Commentary, James Boice, Baker (Kindle eBook).

The Book of Joshua, Marten Woudstra, Eerdmans.

Joshua, David Howard, Jr., NAC, B & H Publishing.

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