That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean you by these stones?
That this may be .... stones. The children's question. That life is intended to be a school of instruction to us we see plainly from the many directions given to the people of Israel. For they were under the immediate government of God; He blessed them with special favours, was ready also to reprove their faults, and omitted no method of inculcating the lessons which the events of their lives were calculated to teach. Christians are "led by the Spirit of God;" their eyes should be open to see, and their ears uncovered to hear, the meaning of providential dispensations. In the instructions conveyed by God through Joshua, posterity was not forgotten. Provision was made for handing down to following ages a record of God's dealings with His people. With that provision our text is concerned.
I. THE INQUIRY. "What mean ye 'by these stones?"
1. By what suggested? A representative from each tribe selected a large stone from the bed of the river Jordan, and these twelve stones were set up in Gilgal, where the people spent the first night after the crossing. The importance of erecting this memorial is indicated by the number of times it is referred to in these chapters (Joshua 3:12; Joshua 4:5; and Joshua 4:20). A conspicuous heap of stones was the customary method of directing attention to a particular scene of some remarkable occurrence, and accordingly stones were also placed in the Jordan where the priests' feet had stood. But the memorial at Gilgal would be more enduring, and could not fail to excite attention each time that the national assembly was held there, as was frequently the case (See 1 Samuel 11:15, and 2 Samuel 19:15). It was contrary to the law to erect a carved image, for fear of idolatrous practices, but rude stones served the purpose. The "sensible" is more impressive than the abstract. Ignorant persons and children who had not yet learned to read, to whom writing would be useless, could appreciate the significance of such a memorial.
2. By whom asked? It is the question of children whose curiosity has been awakened. What child in Altorf but must have inquired respecting the statue of William Tell, or in Lucerne about the lion sculptured by Thorwaldsen to commemorate the deaths of the Swiss guards? Young people are not to be discouraged, but stimulated to put questions for information. The test of a good teacher is found in his ability to induce his pupils to make inquiries spontaneously. And the lesson may be of use to older people, not to be ashamed to confess ignorance, but to ask for enlightenment.
3. By whom answered? The fathers are to make the reply, explaining the intention of the "sign" to their interested children. Parents are the proper persons to satisfy the inquiries of their offspring. There is an implicit trust reposed in their statements which is not so readily accorded to strangers. The remarks of Joshua illustrate the necessity of parents attending to the religious training of their children. Can it be deemed sufficient merely to provide food and clothing for the body, and secular learning for the mind, and to allow the moral and spiritual faculties to be neglected? "Godliness is the best learning." Joshua knew that, the deepest impressions are often created in childhood. The clay is then easily moulded; the tree has not yet grown stubbornly crooked, and can be straightened; the white paper, if not quite a blank, has still much space left for godly teachings. A sculptor once engraved his own name at the base of a statue, and covering this with plaster, cut therein the Emperor's name and titles, knowing that as years went on the plaster would vanish, and the first inscription become legible. So does early piety become dimly observable sometimes in the rush of pleasure and the turmoil of business, and then the storms of life sweep away the overlaying strata, and the desires of childhood, the gospel learnt at a mother's knee, the prayer offered to the God of his fathers, these stand out in all their vividness as in the former days.
II. GENERAL LESSONS TO BE DERIVED.
1. The wondrous works of God are for all time. Their impressiveness and utility are not intended to terminate with their immediate effects. They exemplify His power, and teach all men reverence (ver. 24). Of no avail to plead absence, the recital to us is sufficient to move our hearts. The demand for a repetition of miracles in order to convince each generation in its turn is extravagant and unreasonable. These works of God exhibit also His favour to His people, and incite to trust and love, if we can declare, "This God is our God forever and ever."
2. The importance of studying Scripture history. Not that we would insist so strongly on the distinction between "sacred" and "profane" history. For all history is sacred, all events being under the control of the Almighty, and evincing His moral administration of the world. Yet Scripture is authoritative, presents us with inspired comments on character and actions, and in many places strips off the the veil and affords us clear and certain glimpses of the movements of Deity. As distinguished from mere declarations of the nature of God's attributes, history shows us God in operation, and the picture is helpful to true and definite conception. It furnishes us not merely with a statement, but with an illustrative proof.
3. God expects men to propagate His fame
4. The use of a memorial. The stones were for a "sign" to excite inquiry and to prevent past history from sinking into utter oblivion. Events the most illustrious are easily forgotten. There is need of enshrining their remembrance in some permanent form. Read the mournful tale of Israel's ungrateful want of recollection in Psalm 78. Again and again "they forgat his works and the wonders he had showed them." Writing has been the chief method of preserving the memory of famous deeds. When resorted to in time it forbids suspicion of legendary exaggerations, and there is not the temptation to relic worship which "signs" foster. The Jewish dispensation was emphatically the age of symbols, but the gospel has dispensed with them almost altogether. Of the miracles of Christ there are no genuine memorials, save the narratives of the Evangelists and the Christian Church itself. What has been the effect upon ourselves of a perusal of the Gospels? Are they merely "idle tales," or have they revealed to us the love of God, and His willingness to receive His erring children? - A.
Parallel VersesKJV: That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones?