Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest said to the descendants of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, "Today we know that the LORD is among us, because you have not committed this breach of faith against Him. Consequently, you have delivered the Israelites from the hand of the LORD."
I. GOD IS PRESENT IN THE MIDST OF HIS FAITHFUL PEOPLE. By the nature of things, God is present everywhere (Psalm 139:7-10). Yet there is a more intimate and revealed presence of God which is not universal, but which is the peculiar privilege of some, while to others it is denied. This consists in the outflow of sympathy, the exercise of special grace, the nearness of spiritual communion. Two persons can be locally near, and yet in thought and sympathy very distant from one another. Spiritual presence is conditioned not by space but by sympathy. When we are out of sympathy with God He is far from us. When we are one with Him in sympathy He is near. This is a real presence. God does not simply send blessings and breathe benedictions from a distance. He makes the bodies of His people a temple (1 Corinthians 6:9), and their hearts the home of His Spirit (John 14:23).
II. GOD'S PRESENCE IS A FACT OF GREAT INTEREST TO HIS PEOPLE. Phinehas expresses satisfaction in the recognition of God's presence.
(1) God's presence should be a source of blessing, since
(a) He is our father, and we are homeless without Him;
(b) He is the Almighty One, and we are full of need;
(c) He is the light and life of all things, and without Him we are in darkness and death, like a planet without its sun.
(2) God's presence is proved by experience to be a source of blessing, bestowing
The possession of all the treasures of the world without God would leave the soul poor indeed. His presence is a pearl of great price.
III. GOD'S PRESENCE CAN BE RECOGNISED BY THE CONDUCT OF HIS PEOPLE.
(1) God's presence is discernible. It is not for ever secret and hidden. Phinehas perceives the presence of the Lord. We do not always perceive it, but there are events which make it strikingly apparent. If we know how to recognise it, we need not be always asking, "Is the Lord among us or no?" but, like Hagar (Genesis 16:13) and Jacob (Genesis 28:16), we shall be surprised and satisfied with the manifestation of God in our midst.
(2) God's presence is manifested in the conduct of His people.
(a) It is not proved by our opinions: we may have very correct ideas about the nature and character of God while we are far from Him.
(b) It is not made manifest by our feelings: emotions are deceptive, and very strong religious feelings may be found in a very godless life.
(c) It is seen in conduct.
IV. THE CONDUCT WHICH PROVES THE PRESENCE OF GOD IS FAITHFULNESS IN HIS SERVICE. Phinehas perceives "that the Lord is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the Lord." Faithfulness in the service of God, and a consequent spirit of brotherly kindness and sympathy, such as that now manifested among the tribes of Israel, are good signs of the presence of God in a Church.
(1) His presence is the cause of fidelity. Our fidelity reveals His presence, but it does not secure it. He is present first, and inspires devotion, and binds His people together in united affection through their common devotion to Him.
(2) He must need depart from His people when they become unfaithful. No past enjoyment of God will secure His abiding presence. If God depart, though wealth and ease and numbers testify to apparent prosperity, we may exclaim, "Ichabod - the glory has departed." - W.F.A.
The Lord God of gods, He knoweth.
It is a great satisfaction when we feel that there is one Being who knows everything. After some great perplexity, some dark hour, or some mysterious visitation, when there seemed to be no clue to an event, no interpretation arching it, and not a spark of illumination about it, it is a blessed relief, both to mind and soul, when we feel that somebody can understand it, can thoroughly sift it, and will in good time bring out its illuminated side, and reveal the spiritual diamonds so long concealed in darkness, sorrow, and grief. God knows — what? The uses of things — why the world was made, why we were made, the meaning of the events that greet us, what lessons they convey, what benedictions they unfold, what promises they hold out, and how much culture we shall gain by them. Can anything be more cheering than this fact, and is there anything strange about it? Strange that the Maker should be familiar with what He has made, wonderful that the Architect should understand all about His building, peculiar that the Creator of the world should comprehend what He has produced? How is it in everyday affairs? Would it not be wonderful if Mozart and Beethoven did not understand their own music, stood apart from it as strangers, and were unable to comprehend the science of its melody? or if Powers stood before one of his statues dumb as an idiot, and unable to give an account of how it was shaped into its wondrous beauty? or if Rubens stared at one of his own pictures with a vacant gaze, and with a total inability to trace out the preparatory steps that led to its execution? Then is it not very natural that the Great Musician of earth and heaven should be able to explain all the grand chorus of the ages, that the Holy Sculptor of all time should be able to describe every particular of His work, or that the Great Painter of both worlds should, with a keen wisdom, delight in His own magnificent paintings? I come now to my second proposition, that grows out of the first — we do not know. Here we find two parties in the Church. One says, "We do not know anything, and never can know anything," and the other says, "We do know something, but that something will not amount to much until God reveals more knowledge." I confess, I do not think that, in order to exalt God, we must utterly extinguish ourselves. If I say that a human being is utterly incapable of ever being enlightened, has no power, and is bound irrevocably to sin, with no chance to escape, you may very properly ask me, "Who could have made such a being as that?" But, because we can do something — aye, many things — and because we are something — aye, much — it does not follow that we can do everything or that we are Self-sufficient. No, never. God made us, and therefore we are not failures; and let us not for a moment suppose that God has made a mistake in our creation, but, because we are made, we are dependent, frail, and we must often and always look to our Creator for aid and blessing. We are engirdled by mysteries. Yet is it not something that we can, by the grace of God, think, talk, write, walk, live? and can we speak meanly of one who can do all these things? Forbid it, Father! Make us humble, but do not let us be ungrateful. As we look at history and at historical results, it becomes very evident that all through the past ages there has been a providential plan. If we made ourselves Romans, Grecians, or Hebrews, and if we threw ourselves back thousands of years, we should hardly understand that some of our greatest trials were to prove such a vast benediction to after-ages. We could hardly believe that our decay would prove to others life, and that every pang we suffered, both as nations and as individuals, was in accordance with the great, glorious, and holy scheme of Providence. What would be called in ancient days subjugation, invasion, and a despotism, has since proved emancipation, while the baptism of blood then offered has resulted in the salvation of the future. Time explains a great many things that we do not understand to-day; and events always prove that He who rules the heavens and the earth is never bewildered, nor mistaken, nor vanquished. Let each one of us take our own personal experience and trace it back, and see what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go when God would not let us do it, and when God held us back, and when God seemed to be working against us, and how does the retrospect look with our present experience? Did not God know best? and has not everything come out right, and was it not well for us that years ago a restraining hand was placed upon our pleasures, appetites, and desires? And is it not better that we were turned aside from the road that we desired to travel? I think one of the bewitching attractions of biography rests in the fact that we often detect what appear to be very slight and trivial matters, changing the whole course of a person's life. Washington gave up going into the navy in order to please his mother; and thus a hero was secured for America and a splendid monument of goodness and greatness for all the world. Franklin started on a journey to Philadelphia as a mere pauper, and went under false promises to London; and thus a philosopher was educated for all time. The eyesight of a Prescott was suddenly eclipsed, but out of that darkness an historian was born, whose sweet rhetoric will always prove a fascination and a culture. Yes, the slightest incidents that we call disappointments are often the turning-points in our experience, and prove the very moment when Heaven interposes, and shapes us for ends more consistent with the will of God.
I am old and stricken in age: and ye have seen all that the Lord your God hath done.
As in the snowy realms of the Alps lovely flowers open their cheerful petals to the sky, so, notwithstanding the weight of years and cares, many a sweet flower of hope, and trust, and love, and disinterested friendship, and faith may continue to blossom in the aged heart, and to send out an attractive fragrance for the happiness of others.
The last two chapters of Joshua are very like each other. Each professes to be a report of the aged leader's farewell meeting with the heads of the people. In our judgment, both reports bear on the same occasion; and if so, all that needs to be said as to their origin is, that the author of the book, having obtained two reports from trustworthy sources, did not adopt the plan of weaving them into one, but gave them separately, just as he had received them. The circumstance is a proof of the trustworthiness of the narrative; had the writer put on record merely what Joshua might be supposed to have said, he would not have adopted this twofold form of narrative. What was the burden of Joshua's address? You have it in the words — "The Lord your God is He that fighteth for you"; therefore "cleave unto the Lord your God." You owe everything to the Lord; therefore render to Him all His due. God is expressly set forth as the champion of Israel, fighting for him against the Canaanites, and driving them out. He is here the God of battles; and the terrible desolation that followed the track of Israel is here ascribed to the championship of the Most High. There are some expositors who explain these sayings in a general sense. There are great laws of conquest, they say, roughly sanctioned by Providence, whereby one race advances upon another. Nations enervated through luxury and idleness are usually supplanted by more vigorous races. We cannot vindicate all the rule of the British in India; greed, insolence, and lust have left behind them many a stain. Still, the result on the whole has been for good. The English have a higher conception of human life than the Hindus. They have a higher sense of order, of justice, of family life, of national well-being. There is a vigour about them that will not tolerate the policy of drifting; that cannot stand still or lie still and see everything going wrong; that strives to remedy injustice, to reform abuse, to correct what is vicious and disorderly, and foster organisation and progress. In these respects British rule has been a benefit to India. There may have been deeds of oppression and wrong that curdle the blood, or habits of self-indulgence may have been practised at the expense of the natives that shock our sense of humanity, as if the inferior race could have no rights against the superior; but these are but the eddies or by-play of a great beneficent current, and in the summing up of the long account they hold but an insignificant place. When you survey the grand result; when you see a great continent like India peaceable and orderly that used to be distracted on every side by domestic warfare; when you see justice carefully administered, life and property protected, education and civilisation advanced, to say nothing of the spirit of Christianity introduced, you are unable to resist the conclusion that the influence of its new masters has been a gain to India, and therefore that the British rule has had the sanction of Heaven. Now, in this case, as in the conquest of India by Britain, a process went on which was a great benefit on a large scale. It was not designed to be of benefit to the original inhabitants, as was the British occupation of India, for they were a doomed race, as we shall immediately see. But the settlement of the people of Israel in Canaan was designed and was fitted to be a great benefit to the world. Explain it as we may, Israel had higher ideas of life than the other nations, richer gifts of head and heart, more capacity of governing, and a far purer religious sentiment. On the principle that a race like this must necessarily prevail over such tribes as had occupied Palestine before, the conquest of Joshua might well be said to have Divine approval. God might truly be said to go forth with the armies of Israel, and to scatter their enemies as smoke is scattered by the wind. But this was not all. There was already a judicial sentence against the seven nations of which Israel was appointed to be the executioner. Loathsome vice consecrated by the seal of religion; unnatural lust, turning human beings into worse than beasts; natural affection converted into an instrument of the most horrid cruelty — could any practices show more powerfully the hopeless degradation of these nations in a moral and religious sense, or their ripeness for judgment? Israel was the appointed executioner of God's justice against them, and in order that Israel might fulfil that function, God went before him in his battles and delivered his enemies into his hands. And what Israel did in this way was done under a solemn sense that he was inflicting Divine retribution. We cannot suppose that the people uniformly acted with the moderation and self-restraint becoming God's executioners. No doubt there were many instances of unwarrantable and inhuman violence. To charge these on God is not fair. They were the spots and stains that ever indicate the hand of man, even when doing the work of God. If it be said that the language of the historian seems sometimes to ascribe to God what really arose from the passions of the people, it is to be observed that we are not told in what form the Lord communicated His commands. No doubt the Hebrews were disposed to claim Divine authority for what they did to the very fullest extent. There may have been times when they imagined that they were fulfilling the requirements of God, when they were only giving effect to feelings of their own. And generally they may have been prone to suppose that modes of slaughter that seemed to them quite proper were well pleasing in the sight of God. For God often accomplishes His holy purposes by leaving His instruments to act in their own way. But we have wandered from Joshua, and the assembly of Israel. What we have been trying is to show the soundness of Joshua's fundamental position-that God fought for Israel. The same thing might be shown by a negative process. If God had not been actively and supernaturally with Israel, Israel could never have become what he was. Moses and his bevy of slaves, Joshua and his army of shepherds — what could have made such soldiers of these men if the Lord had not fought on their side? The getting possession of Canaan, as Joshua reminded the people, was a threefold process: God fighting for them had subdued their enemies; Joshua had divided the land; and now God was prepared to expel the remaining people, but only through their instrumentality. Emphasis is laid on "expelling" and "driving out" (ver. 5), from which we gather that further massacre was not to take place, but that the remainder of the Canaanites must seek settlements elsewhere. A sufficient retribution had fallen on them for their sins, in the virtual destruction of their people and the loss of their country; the miserable remnant might have a chance of escape, in some ill-filled country where they would never rise to influence and where terror would restrain them from their former wickedness. Joshua was very emphatic in forbidding intermarriage and friendly social intercourse with Canaanites. He knew that between the realm of holiness and the realm of sin there is a kind of neutral territory, which belongs strictly to neither, but which slopes towards the realm of sin, and in point of fact most commonly furnishes recruits not a few to the army of evil. Alas, how true is this still! Marriages between believers and unbelievers; friendly social fellowship, on equal terms, between the Church and the world; partnership in business between the godly and the ungodly — who does not know the usual result? In a few solitary cases, it may be, the child of the world is brought into the kingdom; but in how many instances do we find the buds of Christian promise nipped, and lukewarmness and backsliding, if not apostasy, coming in their room!
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