Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 12. Joshua (2)
Josh 24:15 if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Nearing the end of the book of Joshua there is this famous declaration. In chapter 24 we find, “Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God.” (Josh 24:1) This is a nationwide ‘presentation’ or at least to all the leaders of the nation. Quite remarkably he is aware that the day of his death is not far off (Josh 23:14) and so, rather like his master, Moses, he does what he can to leave the people in a good place before the Lord. Having gathered the leaders together he reminds them of their history, going right back to Abraham and then right up to the present (24:2-13), reminding them of all that the Lord had done for them.
Having presented them with their history he then brings the challenge for the present and the future: “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness.” (v.14a) i.e. always maintain a right attitude of respect towards the Lord and ensure in everything you do, you remain true to Him and to His Law. Now he next makes a very specific way that they can do this: “Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” (v.14b) This is quite remarkable really, that after all they had all been through with the Lord, they were still holding on to idols they first picked up in Egypt.
This is the second generation, forty years on, so they must be holding on to the things their parents brought out. The Lord speaking through Ezekiel centuries later challenged them on their behaviour in Egypt: “And I said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” `But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.” (Ezek 20:7,8) They had never completely set themselves free of bondage to idols.
What is it about idols that Joshua has to speak as he does now and Ezekiel had to centuries later? Possibly it is the desire to have something visible to worship. Was it the same sort of feeling that was behind the people’s demand of Samuel: “appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have”? (1 Sam 8:5) Is it the same sort of thing that has caused certain parts of the Christian Church to use icons, fancy robes and extol great buildings? Was it that, in the attitude of the disciples when, leaving the Temple, Jesus’ disciples drew “his attention to the buildings” (Mt 24:1). Herod had built up the old temple to be something quite spectacular. People like the visible, like creating great buildings, ostensibly to honour God, people like putting on great pomp and ceremony, and yet so often it is utterly empty of reality.
This is at the heart of Joshua’s words that follow, that are so critical to the life of Israel: “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.” (v.15a) We often focus on the latter part of this verse that we’ll come to shortly but the first part of it is vital. He is saying, ‘Think about the alternatives. If you are unhappy with serving the invisible God, consider the alternatives – the gods your forefathers had in the past or the gods of the pagans who are still in this land. That is your option – wooden idols that are lifeless. Be quite clear on that.’
Then comes his own declaration of faithfulness: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (v.15b) i.e. whatever you do, me and my family will stick with the Lord. Now in more general terms what do these verses teach us?
First, they remind us of spiritual reality. There is a living God, the Creator of all things. If you reject Him you are left pretending there are ‘other gods’ (and the Romans and Greeks didn’t do very well in this field). We all have a propensity to worship something, to acknowledge our smallness and the greatness of something else. We may worship fame or wealth and they can become ‘gods’ just as much as anything else. Whatever becomes more important to us than God, becomes a god, something we rely upon other than Him. That is the reality of existence.
Second, there is a challenge to face this reality and choose which reality you will live by. Many people will say they believe in a God but their lives show they live by other things. You either worship whole-heartedly the One True God, or you half-heartedly give token allegiance to Him while sharing it with other things, or you reject any concept of Him and make your own things that will dominate your life.
Third, I believe there is a challenge in the things we have been considering to counter the tendency to want to ‘see’ or touch something solid when it comes to God. We are a Spirit people and we need to reject methods, ideals or activities that put ‘visible religion’ on the pedestal of our spiritual lives. In this materialistic world in which we live, I believe this is possibly the most important issue here for the Church today. Our God is invisible but real and we need to fully accept that and live within it. Only then will we truly operate in faith and only then will we see the Lord moving in our midst.
For these reasons, Joshua’s call to Israel was vital. He challenged them with their history, reminding them of the works of God in their midst, but also of the failings of the past generations. There was the opportunity for the present generation to put this all right and establish a good foundation to move into the future. Sadly, although they affirmed his call at the present and the record declares, “Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel,” (Josh 24:31 & Judg 2:7) it wasn’t long before we read, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them.” (Jud 2:10-12).
We might therefore add, fourth, the best we can do is call the present generation to faith, prepare the next generation the best we can, and then leave the future in the Lord’s hands.