Learning Obedience

(Originally published November 3, 2016)

In chapter 8 of Joshua the Israelites return to the field of battle against the town of Ai, but this time they are following the command and lead of the LORD.  Right off the bat, verse 1 opens with the LORD saying to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed.  Take all the fighting men with you and arise, go up to Ai.  See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.”  (Joshua 8:1) God then proceeds to give Joshua a rather detailed battle plan.

The first question of our study wonders why the LORD would begin by telling Joshua not to be afraid or discouraged?  We must conclude that the recent defeat and the consequences of the sin of Achan had left Joshua and his men afraid and dismayed.  This was the first defeat in battle which they had suffered and it resulted in the death by stoning—carried out by the people of Israel—of an entire family.  We don’t want to speculate beyond what we are told in Scripture, but surely this would have left him hesitant, to say the least, to send men into battle.  What if they lose again?  What if another man sins and brings down further punishment from God?

This time, however, we see that the LORD is not only commanding the troops and giving the strategy, but he is reassuring Joshua at the outset that he has given them the victory before they even begin.  The differences between the first campaign and this are clear.  This time they are following not the plan of men, but the plan of God, and to help their confidence (as John Calvin suggests) the entire army is sent to the battle, rather than a small contingent as before.  A major difference for the army of Israel is also evident in that they will participate in the fighting, rather than watching as God miraculously overthrows the town as at Jericho.  John Calvin helpfully comments on this passage.

“It is true, indeed, that he now used their own exertion, partly that they might not always keep looking for miracles, and so give themselves up to laziness, and partly that in different and unequal modes of acting they might nevertheless recognize that his power is the same. But care must be taken not to omit the special reason, namely, that not having yet recovered from their terror, they could scarcely have been induced to engage in an open conflict, had they not seen stratagem employed as a subsidiary aid. The first place, however, is due to the promise, Fear not, for I have delivered it into thy hands: for although it is verbally directed to Joshua, it belongs in common to the whole people, as it was most necessary that all to a man should be freed from anxiety and furnished with new confidence.”  [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]

The Israelites needed to know that whether by outright miracles or using their own efforts, God was working to fulfill his promise to them and was behind every victory.  When they go into battle they can know that God is fighting for them, and so be courageous.  Yet they must also be ever aware that the credit for the victories belong to the LORD, and not assume their own strength and cunning have won their battles.  For as long as they follow him, they may be free of fear.

We next looked closely at the strategy the LORD gave the Israelites for taking the town of Ai, with the placement of troops in ambush and the bluff to lure the enemy into the open to be surrounded, thus giving the Israelites complete victory.  In considering the strategy, Calvin remarks on the protection the LORD gave to the troops who were sent behind the town for the ambush, as the noise of so many ought to have been heard by the occupants of Ai.

“The Lord meanwhile displays the greatest indulgence to his people in delivering up an enemy that was to be so easily conquered. His wonderful favor especially appears in blinding all of them, so that they have no suspicion of the ambuscade. I have no doubt that when it is said they knew not of it, the writer of the history means to draw attention to the rare and extraordinary kindness of God in so covering, as it were, with the shadow of his hand, first, the thirty thousand who accompanied Joshua, and then the five thousand, that they all escaped the notice of the enemy.”  (John Calvin)

We looked again at several verses in Joshua 8 to find the reason for the Israelites’ confidence.

“And (the LORD) commanded them….” V. 4a

“You shall do according to the word of the LORD.  “See, I have commanded you.”” V. 8b

“Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the LORD that he commanded Joshua.” V. 27

In each of these verses we see that the LORD was commanding his troops for the battle, and his troops followed him.  Unlike Achan, every one of the warriors obeyed the word of the LORD.  This leads us directly to the question of the role of obedience today in our lives as Christians.  To help us understand we were sent to several passages in the New Testament.

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”  John 14:21

‘Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you.  But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”’ John 14:23-26

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15: 10-14

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:  whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 John 2:1-6

 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.  And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.  Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.  1 John 3:21-24

By these verses we clearly see that obedience to the Lord is still crucial in our lives as Christians.  It is, in fact, a mark of our love for Christ, just as his obedience was a mark of his love for the Father.  Our obedience cannot be perfect, as we do still sin.  But we have recourse to repentance which restores our relationship with Christ and with the Father, provided by our Savior’s death and resurrection.  Jesus laid down his life for us, how then can we not joyfully and gratefully obey him?  And in obeying him our home is made with him and the Father, we abide in his love, are counted as his friends, and have fullness of joy!

Now, this all sounds very “mountain-top-ish” and full of sunshine and rainbows, but as you well know, while we yet live in this world it will be a battle every bit as real as the battles fought by the Israelites that we are studying in the book of Joshua.  Even amid our Christian community sin is crouching at our doors.  This week another highly visible Christian has fallen prey to compromise and soft-pedaling the clear commands of God, mishandling Scripture in a manner to make it more appetizing to the world.  This new—and yet, very old and oft-repeated—controversy brings to light once again that our battle is not only with the devil and the world outside, but also with our own flesh and our weakness in standing against the influences which wage war against our souls.

This is not the place to delve into this issue, but I will direct you to those who have spoken to the issue far better than I ever could.  Justin Taylor, who writes for The Gospel Coalition, curated four excellent responses into his article, The Only Four Things You Need to Read in Response to the Hatmakers.”  I encourage you to read these because of one comment I saw on his post in which the commenter declared something to the effect that we don’t need to read these articles, we just need to read the Bible.  Friends, we are reading the Bible, Jen Hatmaker and her husband were reading the Bible, many people who misunderstand many issues are reading the Bible.  We need the help of wise teachers as we read the Bible, and I thank God for those who are lovingly weighing in now, to help us untangle the confusion and see where true obedience lies in controversial areas of our lives and culture.

Getting back to Joshua, we reviewed the reasons why God had placed Ai, and all of Canaan, under a ban of destruction.  The wickedness of the Canaanites had reached its full and God had brought the Israelites into their inheritance at this time to bring his judgement upon the Canaanites.  The Israelites were to worship the Lord God Almighty alone, and the idol worship of Canaan would be an enticement to sin, and therefore must be eliminated entirely from the land.

Our next question brings us to the execution of the king of Ai, who was hung (or impaled) on a tree for all to see.  To find the meaning for this punishment we are sent to Deuteronomy.

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.”  Deuteronomy 21:22-23

According to this, a man who is put to death by hanging is cursed by God.  John Calvin expands upon this for us in his commentary on this passage:

“God wished particularly to show how greatly he detested the wickedness which he had so long tolerated. For while all were doomed to destruction, the divine vengeance justly displayed itself with greater sternness and severity on the leaders, with whom the cause of destruction originated.

We may add, that the ignominious punishment inflicted on the king rendered it still less necessary to deal leniently with the common people, and thus prevented the Israelites from indulging an unseasonable mercy, which might have made them more sluggish or careless in executing the work of universal extermination.

God purposely delivered the king alive into the hand of Joshua, that his punishment might be more marked and thus better adapted for an example. Had he fallen in the conflict promiscuously with others, he would have been exempted from this special mark of infamy; but now even after his death, the divine vengeance pursues his corpse. Nay, after being hung, he is thrown forth at the gate of the city where he had sat on his throne in judgment, and a monument is erected for the purpose of perpetuating his ignominy to posterity. His burial, however, is mentioned to let us know that nothing was done through tumultuous impetuosity, as Joshua carefully observed what Moses had prescribed in the Law….. Therefore, that the people might not be accustomed to barbarity, God allowed criminals to be hung, provided they did not hang unburied for more than one day. And that the people might be more attentive to this duty, which otherwise might readily have been neglected, Moses declares that every one who hangs on a tree is accursed; as if he had said, that the earth is contaminated by that kind of death, if the offensive object be not immediately taken away.”  (John Calvin)

This leads us directly to another Who was executed upon a tree, our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Galatians 3:13-14

In my reading this week on the Doctrine of Christ, and specifically the atonement as the provision of the Father’s love, I came across this gem, which begins by making the point that love and wrath are not contradictory:

“… the essence of the judgement of God against sin is his wrath, his holy recoil against what is the contradiction of himself (Rom. 1:18) …. The atonement is the provision of the Father’s love.

Calvary and its curse are the supreme expression of the Father’s love….

Because of the compatibility of love and wrath as co-existing, the wrath-bearing of the Son of God, pre-eminently upon the accursed tree, the vicarious infliction of the wrath of God against those whom the Father invincibly loved, is not only comprehensible, but belongs to the essence of the doctrine that Christ bore our sins in his own body upon the tree as the supreme manifestation of the Father’s love.

What love for men that the Father should execute upon his own Son the full toll of holy wrath, so that we should never taste it!  This was John’s amazement when he wrote, “This is love, not that we loved him, but that he loved us and sent his Son (to be) the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10).”  John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, volume 2: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977.  (parentheses mine)

We were cursed by God because of sin.  Jesus not only took that curse from us, he became a curse for us!  He was hung on that accursed tree in our place so that in him we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.  He did this because of the Father’s love for us.  These words are easy to read, yes, but comprehending their depth is beyond our ability.  We are invincibly loved by our God, and that is why Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath which our sins justifiably deserved.  And just so we could begin to grasp the meaning of it all, God wrote it into the Scriptures one piece at a time, gradually building to the crescendo in Christ and the cross.

To finish chapter 8 of Joshua we now looked at the ceremony described in verses 30-35 with the building of an altar of uncut stones, the reading and the permanent display of the law between the mountains Gerazim and Ebal.  Why was this important?

According to Keil & Delitzsch:

“After the capture of Ai, Israel had gained so firm a footing in Canaan that Joshua was able to carry out the instructions of Moses in Deu. 27, that, after crossing the Jordan, he was to build an altar upon Mount Ebal for the setting up the covenant. The fulfilment of these instructions, according to the meaning of this solemn act, as a symbolical setting up of the law of the Lord to be the invariable rule of life to the people of Israel in the land of Canaan (see at Deu. 27), was not only a practical expression of thanksgiving on the part of the covenant nation for its entrance into this land through the almighty assistance of its God, but also a practical acknowledgement, that in the overthrow of the Canaanites thus far it had received a strong pledge of the conquest of the foes that still remained and the capture of the whole of the promised land, provided only it persevered in covenant faithfulness towards the Lord its God.

The words “the blessing and the curse” are in apposition to “all the words of the law,” which they serve to define, and are not to be understood as relating to the blessings in Deu. 28: 1-14, and the curses in Deu. 27:15-26 and 28:15-68. The whole law is called “the blessing and the curse” with special reference to its contents, inasmuch as the fulfilment of it brings eo ipso a blessing, and the transgression of it eo ipso a curse.”  [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2 by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]

We are to understand that now that the land belonged to Israel, as promised by the LORD, they were setting up the “Law of the Land” in obedience to him.  They anticipated full possession of Canaan, even though they had yet to finish driving out the Canaanites, because of the covenant faithfulness of the God who was leading them.

Our study directs us to focus on the emphatic inclusion of the foreigners living among them in this ceremony, and we are asked who this includes.  The texts to which we are directed make it clear that Rahab (of course) is indicated, but also there must have still been some of the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with them in the Exodus (Ex. 12:38).  To answer why they are included we are directed to the law of God.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19: 33-34

“You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 24:22

I can’t help but see how this intersects with the gospel on this side of the cross, as Paul wrote to the Gentile believers in Ephesus:

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:19

And again:

“This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  Ephesians 3:6

To close our lesson, we are asked to notice how many altars the Israelites have already constructed in the promised land and consider what future generations are meant to remember when they see them.  It seems clear that the faithfulness of God to keep his covenant promises to his people is in view.  Where they are standing for this ceremony in chapter 8 is the very place where God gave the first promise of the land and a nation to their father Abraham.  Now, some 500 years later, they are standing on the same ground and acknowledging that the Lord has indeed been faithful to keep his promise.  And as they see the law written on the stones of the monument they are to remember the conditions under which they have pledged to live in obedience to him in order that they may continue to dwell in the land in peace and safety.  They have bound themselves to a faithful God.  If they are undone it will be by their own failure.

Praise be to God that because of his great love for us, even when we were his enemies, he sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, so that we might abide in him, stumbling though our obedience may be, and yet even still, full of joy.  We who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ, who is himself our peace.

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