Joshua 8
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Frequently does Scripture describe the Christian life as a warfare. We are to war against the evil in ourselves and around us. In the management of our forces for the conflict we may derive comfort and rules of action from the narrative before us. It was not unintentionally recorded. It shows how God fulfils His word, going forth with His people conquering and to conquer; His presence makes the feeble strong, and lends wisdom to the simple.


1. The putting away of known sin may lead us to expect the favour of God. Whilst Achan's theft defiled the Israelites there was no hope of winning the fight. The soldiers of the cross must not entangle themselves with the affairs of this life (2 Timothy 2:4). Those must be clean who are to bear the vessels of the Lord. Sin purged, the light of God's countenance again shone upon His people, and His encouragement - "Fear not" - sounded in their ears. We need be afraid only when doing wrong. Without God we are "without hope," helpless and undone; but when He is our light and salvation whom shall we fear? Advance to the strife courageously!

2. All our strength must be brought to bear upon the contest. So confident had the Israelites been that they deemed 3,000 men sufficient to capture the place. This time no foolish security must be displayed; a second defeat would be disastrous. "All" the people must attack Ai; that is to say, a fully representative force, in contrast with the few who previously made the assault. The help of the Almighty does not release us from the necessity of "bestirring" ourselves (see 2 Samuel 5:24). And what we do we must do with our might. He who is always reserving his power for some future occasion will grow feeble, and when he at length essays a strenuous effort will discover his weakness. Nor must we underrate the strength of the enemy. "We wrestle against principalities, powers, rulers, spiritual wickedness in high places;" wherefore let us take to ourselves "the whole armour of God."

3. Prudence an ingredient in the Christian warfare. A detachment was appointed to lie in ambush. (Several reasons render it probable that vers. 9 and 12 refer to the same ambuscade, composed of 5,000 men; the larger number in ver. 3 being a copyist's error. The same position is assigned in each case; in the account of the battle only one party of men ambushed is mentioned; and 30,000 would be too large a force to remain concealed near the city, even in a valley.) The lawfulness of stratagem in war cannot be disputed, nor does the Bible know anything of that excessive refinement which will hide nothing but requires the blunt truth to be always stated. See 1 Samuel 16:2, where the adoption of a fair pretext to prevent bloodshed is sanctioned - yea, proposed - by the Lord. There must be no falsehood or deception practised; but it is allowable to be "wise as serpents," and to try to win men to the truth by innocent devices. Christian tactics are permissible without pleading the goodness of the end as sanctifying the means employed. Our Captain demands the use of our discretion as well as of our valour.


1. Temporary success blinds the workers of evil. Joshua well knew that the enemy would exultingly exclaim, "They flee before us as at the first," and rush to their doom. Misplaced assurance is the bane of God's enemies. For a season they may flourish and swell with hope and pride, but consider their end! "How are they brought into desolation as in a moment!" What terms can set forth the delusion of those who fight against God?

2. Fidelity to commandment ensures the Christian's triumph. The emphatic assertion, "See, I have commanded you," reminded the troops of their duty, and of obedience as essential to success. All orders were faithfully executed and victory crowned their arms. If we pretend to greater wisdom than our Captain, or think fragmentary adherence to precept will suffice, the battle may be the Lord's, but it will not be ours. Constant study of our war manual and a resolute determination to observe its instructions can alone secure us the victory. Our ears must be attentive to the notes of the clarion, and whither we are sent we must go. Romans 13:11-13 and Ephesians 6:10-18 must be pondered and put into practice.

3. Diversity of position not incompatible with union. In the occupation by the two forces of Israel of separate posts an illustration is afforded of a truth sometimes overlooked. There are different regiments in the Christian army, and to a soldier in the ranks it may appear as if there was a want of connection with any other division. But there is real working unanimity perceptible to the chief, and when the signal is given the enemy shall be attacked on many sides. The end desired is one and the same, the extermination of the empire of evil.

4. No reason for discouragement if at first the battle goes against us. It may be part of the plan that the enemy should be demented by success prior to his overthrow. However distressed, we may, like David, encourage ourselves in the Lord our God.


1. Prophetic of the final overthrow of Satan and his host. Jesus, "the Son of God, was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil." "Death, the last enemy, is being destroyed."

2. Indicative of the Divine hatred of sin. The men and women of Ai were slain and their city set on fire; their king hanged, and a heap of stones his sepulchre. Thus would the Divine wrath extirpate idolatrous abominations. All His judgments were not purifying, this sentence was penal. What a warning to the Israelites! Dull consciences must be aroused by flashes of fire. Granite hearts must have the inscription cut with toil and pains. Inattentive or forgetful scholars must have the teaching imprinted on their minds by irresistible examples, The preceding chapter proves how needful to Israel was the ocular demonstration of the hatefulness of sin. Conclusion, "Who is on the Lord's side?" If this is our position, secure and blissful, diligent and courageous we may be. May we "endure hardness as good soldiers." But if numbered amongst those hostile to God, what terms can describe the dread future that awaits us, unless we repent betimes and seek forgiveness, and receive change of heart and state through Jesus Christ? - A.

A Jewish proverb says there are three men who get no pity - an unsecured creditor, a henpecked husband, and a man that does not try again. This faculty of trying again is one of the qualities of noble natures. Napoleon at once blamed and praised the English for never knowing when they were beaten. Here Joshua exhibits the same kind of quality. He gathers from his defeat humility, purity, prudence, but never thinks of gathering from it despair. If they have been defeated before this once, they must try again with purer hands and in stronger force. And, trying again thus, they succeed grandly. Let me say a little on "trying again." In the spiritual as in the carnal warfare - indeed, in all parts of our manifold life - we need to learn this lesson. I therefore ask you to consider one or two reasons why we should always try again.

I. Because NO FAILURE IS ALTOGETHER LOSS, AND ESPECIALLY NO FAILURE OF FIRST EFFORTS. If you ask why a first effort is so often a failure, you will find one great reason is, that in it we are trying to learn too many things at once. If it is a first effort to make a toy for a child, how many things are to be learned while making it; the qualities of the material with which we work, the use of our tools, an eye for form and size, the way to combine effectively the various parts. Now, if in the making of it we had only to learn one thing instead of four, we might manage; but to learn simultaneously all of them is beyond our power, and so we fail. But the failure does not mean total loss of time and material; for though we have not learned all we need in order to effect our object, we may have learned half, and learning the other half the second trial we then succeed. So here; there were some things Joshua and Israel had to learn: e.g., not to despise an enemy; to conquer brave foes as well as timorous ones; not to act on the suggestion even of the wisest captains without first inquiring of God; that victory without purity was impossible. Here, elate with their success at Jericho, Joshua does not ask the counsel of God, which would have forbidden movement till the stain of Achan was removed, and sends only a "few thousands" to perform a task for which a much stronger force was requisite. And God mercifully lets him make a failure on a scale easily retrieved, and so prevents a failure through similar mistakes, which, from its magnitude might have been irretrievable. In almost every case of failure, the great cause of it is that there were some things the learning of which was essential but had not been attained. We had not the measure of the obstacles to be overcome - a knowledge of our own weakness, an acquaintance with the methods by which the result desired could be alone effected. And the art of life consists very much simply in turning such failures to good account. It is all but impossible to avoid making them. A child cannot learn to walk without some fails; and we are but children of a larger growth, who learn through improving our failures. And the wisest man is not he who makes fewest failures, but he who turns the failures that he makes to best account, addresses himself to learn their lessons. A failure is a schoolmaster, who can teach the art of succeeding better than any one else can do it. Do not yield, then, because you fail once, or even many times. Failures are never entirely losses. Secondly, observe -

II. THOSE WHO USE WELL THEIR FAILURES FIND THEM FOLLOWED BY GRAND SUCCESS. Joshua, learning from the first failure to hallow the people, to consult God, to take His way, to send a larger force, when he tried again took Ai without the slightest difficulty. Moses failed on his first attempt to raise Israel against their oppressors. He was going to do it in the strength of his youthful enthusiasm, and expected to find they would hail him as a judge and a deliverer. He failed, was rejected of Israel, and had to become a fugitive from Pharaoh. But in his second effort, going at God's command, in His way and with His backing, he succeeded in the grand emancipation. Israel failed in its first attempt to enter the promised land through their fear and faithlessness; repairing these faults, their second was successful The disciples failed to cast out the devil from the child; learning the need of deeper sympathy (prayer and fasting), their next efforts were crowned with complete success. Mark broke down in his first missionary effort, leaving Paul and Silas to pursue it alone. But prayer and gracious shame so retrieved the failure that he was Paul's truest comrade in the pains and dangers of his last imprisonment. Peter failed in his first effort to confess his Master among his foes; but learning lowliness and prayer from failure, he lived to retrieve it grandly. It is so in all departments of life. Alfred the Great and Bruce, for instance, both learned the art of victory from the experience of defeat. Great inventors have rarely hit on their great secrets the first time they have attempted to achieve their purpose, The story of almost all great inventions has been failure well improved. The first efforts of poets do not always give the promise of their later powers. So is it in all directions of Christian life. If in your effort to confess Christ you fail, try again, and success will come with the greater earnestness and humility of your second effort. If you make a resolution and break it, try again with more of prayer, and the second effort will succeed. If you make some effort to do good, but your "'prentice hand" bungles, and shame covers you, the next effort you make on a smaller scale, perhaps more wisely, modestly, and earnestly, will be a blessed success. And if it is not one but many efforts have failed, and life itself seems one long mishap and unsuccessful effort still, do not despair.

"Deem not the irrevocable past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain;
For, rising on its wrecks, at last
To nobler greatness we attain."

Longfellow's 'Ladder of St. Augustine.' Therefore let us always "try again." - G.

Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord.... And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses .... And he read all the words of the law. There is always danger in the moment after victory. We remember how Hannibal lost, amid the enervating luxuries of Capua, the fruit of the battle of Cannae. The most seductive Capua to the people of God is spiritual pride, which seeks to take to itself the glory which belongs to God alone. Woe to those who sleep upon the laurels of spiritual success, or who are intoxicated with self complacency. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). Joshua shows us by his example how the people of God should conduct themselves after a victory.

I. HE GIVES ALL THE GLORY TO GOD. He builds an altar to offer thereon a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Let us do the same, and render, as he did, all glory to God.

II. HE SUMMONED THE PEOPLE TO A YET STRICTER OBEDIENCE TO THE DIVINE LAW by placing it afresh before their eyes. He knows well that never are men more prone to forget the sacred obligation of obedience than in the hour of religious success. Without obedience sacrifice is but external and vain. The true sacrifice is that of the will. Let every new blessing, every fresh victory only bring our mind and heart into more complete subjection to the will of God!

We come on this scene unexpectedly. War, with its stratagems, its carnage, its inversion of ancient order, was filling our mind. But suddenly, instead of the camp, there is the religious assembly; sacrifice instead of slaughter; instead of the destruction of heathen cities, the erection of monumental inscriptions of the law. The mustering of the whole people to learn and accept afresh God's great law. It was not a casual gathering, but one prescribed by Moses in 27th chapter of Deuteronomy; what tribes have to stand on the slopes of Gerizim, to respond to all the benedictions of the law, and what tribes are to stand on Ebal to respond to its curses, are all detailed. The ark in the valley between; an altar reared on one of the heights; the law, solemnly read, and greeted with the responses not of a congregation, but of a gathered nation; covenant sacrifices offered; the inscription on memorial stones of the leading precepts of the law - these all constitute a scene of utmost impressiveness. A nation accepting a solemn league and covenant, hallowing their conquest, taking formal possession of the country for their God, in the heart of the land hallowing a mountain for His throne - this is not an everyday occurrence, but one full of moral meaning. Consider some of its lessons.

I. SACRED RESTS SHOULD BE MIXED WITH ALL WORLDLY WORK. Not many would have gathered a nation at such a time for such a work. At most only the conquest of the middle of the land had been achieved. The kings of the south and the north were forming their leagues to crush the terrible invaders. A saint less heroic or a hero less saintly would have postponed all such solemn assemblies till the conquest was complete. But Joshua "sets the Lord alway before him;" and at the very outset he seeks to hallow their fighting and their victories. As in Gilgal, he tarried to observe the sacraments of the law, so here in Shechem he tarries to build an altar and rehearse the law. That time is not lost which we spend in calm communion with God. And in the degree in, which, like the occupations of these invaders, our dally work is absorbing and worldly, in that degree it is well to arrest our activities, and turn ear and eye and heart to God. In Israel's case, such a halt would tend to prevent the coarsening of their feelings in their bloody work; would put them in the position of executors of God's judgment; would help to make them abhor the sins of those they extirpated; would suggest that "they should be holy who carried the " sword "of God." Our daily tasks are not so absorbing nor so rough as theirs; but, like Israel, it will always be well that we should take time or make time to keep in Gilgal the ordinances, and take time or make it to learn in Shechem the law of God. "Prayer and meals stop no man's work." Israel went from Shechem with more unity, faith, and gravity - that is, with all its elements of strength invigorated. Keep your Sabbaths well. Have a sacred closet and enter it. Take time regularly to get calm and to listen to the voice of God. Joshua mixes sacred rest with worldly activity.

II. Observe secondly: WITH NEW POSSESSIONS, THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES SHOULD BE RECOGNISED. Is the centre of the land won, it is not theirs to do with as they like. There is a law whose blessings they should aspire to, whose curse they should avoid. Their new possessions are not theirs to do with what they like. Masters of the Canaanites, they are only servants before God. With all possession of wealth, and all consciousness of strength, there is apt to rise a certain degree of wilfulness and self assertion. Men think that wealth is a sort of holy orders, giving a power of absolution from every unpleasant duty. It is well whenever we have attained what we desired, or come into the enjoyment of any sort of wealth, that we should take the position of servants, and listen to God's law. Otherwise the mercies that should bind us closer to our God separate us from Him, and blessings which should leave us more free for gracious work secularise all our moods and motives. "The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul," but it is only helpful when in Shechem we listen to God's law. How much wiser would some have been if gaining wealth, or power, or whatever their hearts' desire, they had hallowed some spot like Shechem and distinctly realised their duty in connection with it - the blessings of discharging it, the curses of neglecting it; and then low at God's altar had hallowed all. Our own is not ours to do with as we please. Property has duties as well as rights, and all mercies should be hallowed by cherishing a lively sense of the responsibilities attendant on them. Have you gained a footing in any Canaan of your hopes? Build your altar and listen to God's law.

III. Observe: JOSHUA'S FIRST BUILDING IS AN ALTAR, NOT A FORTRESS. You would not have been surprised to find him taking Shechem and fortifying it, raising thus a central fortress in the land. But he builds not a fortress, but an altar; and raises not the storied monument of his victories, but a register of God's law. It is a striking and characteristic thing, this altar rearing in such circumstances. And yet the altar, by its inspiration, contributes more to the power of the people than any fortress could by its security. The soul is the seat of power, in the individual, the army, the nation; and Joshua takes the directest means to increase and perpetuate the nation's strength when he builds an altar, and links at once the old land and the new people to God. No people will lack country, safety, freedom, that rears altars to the living God. Let religion die out in any people and liberty will not very long survive. What we want for strength and joy in life is some great interest, a grave duty, a sublime hope. When Joshua raised this altar, and thereby quickened the religious life of the people, he was doing far more than if he had raised walls or gathered chariots. God is a nation's only fortress. To have Him in us is to be secure.

IV. Lastly observe: THE WISE MAN SEEKS TO MAKE RELIGION INTELLIGENT. The priestly instinct would have been satisfied with the sacraments of Gilgal; but Joshua adds instruction at Shechem. All the people, the aged, the children, warriors, and women, the true Israelite and the hangers on, have the entire law read to them; and to increase the intelligent knowledge of God's will, the law is painted like frescoes on tablets raised on the mountain. God wants intelligent service. Ignorance is the mother of superstition, not of devotion. "God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him not only in spirit" - that is - in sincerity; but in truth - that is, with intelligence, understanding Him - giving Him the sort of homage which is His due. To my judgment, there is a savour of sound Protestanism in this gathering at Shechem. The people taught, the law imparted to all This is a sort of prelude of the reign of the open Bible - a religion addressed to the minds and hearts and consciences of men, All true religion has its Shechem as well as its Gilgal, its teachings of truth and duty as well as its observance of the sacraments. We should all seek light; reverent, but still self respectful; too serious to "make believe," too truthful to shut our eyes. The higher our reason, the heartier will be our religion. Joshua taught the people the law, and when printing was impossible, published it on the frescoes of Gerizim. We only do well when we do our best to make "all the congregation of Israel, with the women and the little ones, and the strangers that are conversant among them," familiar with the law and the gospel of the grace of God. - G.

This religious solemnity is a fulfilment of the command given by Moses in Deuteronomy 27. It is expressive of the fidelity of Joshua to the sacred traditions of the past, and his loyalty to the Divine order and the Divine authority. The time is appropriate for such public homage to be paid to the God of Israel. It is the "right hand of the Lord" that has done so valiantly in the recent victories; to Him be all the glory. The land has been taken possession of in His name; let it be consecrated henceforth to Him by this solemn act of worship. The solemnity consists of two parts -

(1) the building of an altar and offering of sacrifice,

(2) the inscription and proclamation of the law.

I. SACRIFICE. This was at once an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God, and a renewal of the covenant by which the people and their inheritance were devoted to Him. There were two kinds of sacrifice, "burnt offerings" and "peace offerings." It is doubtful how far the distinction between these can, in this case, be clearly defined. But we at least discern in them a double element,

(1) eucharistic,

(2) propitiatory.

1. Eucharistic. There was thanksgiving for victories and deliverances thus far vouchsafed. Well might the hearts of the people rise to God with the smoke of their sacrifices, after such proofs as He had given them of His favour. Every fresh manifestation of Divine goodness demands a fresh ascription of praise; the providence that "redeems our life from destruction and crowns us with loving kindness" calls for daily acknowledgment. Gratitude is a perpetual obligation, because God's love is ever assuming some new phase of benediction. Let every stage in our career, every vantage ground gained, every difficulty surmounted, every peril passed, every victory won, be signalised by some new expression of personal devotion. To the devout spirit life will be a continual thank, offering, a ceaseless hymn of praise.

"If oh our daily course our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasure still of countless price
God will provide for sacrifice."

2. Propitiatory. These oft-repeated sacrifices kept the grand truth of atonement by expiation continually before the minds of the people. We need to keep it continually before our minds, inasmuch as we live by the mercy of God through the self immolation of a sinless victim. Every revelation of God is fitted to awaken the sense of our own sinfulness, and so prompts a constant reference, in penitence and faith, to the "Great Propitiation." Daily life should be a perpetual presentation in spirit before the mercy seat of the sacrifice of Him by whom we "receive the atonement? But such trust in the sacrifice of Christ is of no avail unless coupled with a personal surrender that draws its inspiration from His. The "burnt offering" and the "peace offering" must go together. "Ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price: therefore," etc. (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).

II. THE PROCLAMATION OF THE LAW. There was a peculiar fitness in this, inasmuch as the people had now gained a firm footing in the land which was to be the scene of their organised national life. They are made to understand the fundamental moral conditions of that life. Observe -

1. The supremacy of the law of God over all human law. The commonwealth of Israel was emphatically a theocracy. But every commonwealth is a theocracy in the sense that harmony with the Divine will is the secret of its order and prosperity. As righteousness alone "exalteth a nation," so the public assertion and vindication of God's law is essential to the well being of any land and people. Human law has enduring authority in proportion as it accords with the Divine (Proverbs 8:15, 16).

2. The breadth of the law of God as embracing all relations of life, all classes and conditions of men. "The whole congregation of Israel" heard the law, with the "elders, officers, and judges," the "women, little ones, and strangers." All social relations, all official functions, all periods and conditions of life are amenable to this supreme authority, this impartial Judge.

3. The weal or woe of every man depends on his relation to the law of God. Here lies the alternative of blessing or cursing, life or death (Deuteronomy 30:19). What was read may have been only that summary of the law contained in Deuteronomy 27, and 28. But of the whole law, in its essential principles, this is true: moral and practical harmony with it is the condition of blessedness.

4. Men are brought into their true relation to the law only by the gospel of Christ. "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness," etc. (Romans 10:4). Faith in Him disdains the law of its terrors. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law," etc. (Galatians 3:13). In Him the blessing overcomes the curse, the voice of Gerizim prevails over that of Ebal, "mercy rejoieeth against judgment." Christ engraves the law not on tables of stone, but on the living hearts of men (Jeremiah 31:31, 84; Hebrews 8:19, 12). In Him the law is not, as in Moses, literal, local, adapted to special circumstances and the moral needs of a particular people, but spiritual and universal. Not that Christianity has less to do in shaping the relative duties of human life, or enters less minutely into its details, but rather has so much to do with everything that, like the all-pervading atmosphere and the gladdened sunshine, it is the very vital air of every social problem, and the guiding light in the determination of every question between man and man. - W.

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