Jos_4:20-24. Those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal. And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over: that all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the Lord your God for ever.
TO remember God’s mercies to us, and to transmit the remembrance of them to future generations, is a solemn duty imposed upon us, especially where the mercies are of such a nature as to involve the welfare of our posterity as well as our own [Note: Psa_78:4-8.]. On different occasions God appointed memorials for that express purpose; and ordered, that the children in all succeeding generations should make inquiries respecting them, and receive an answer from one duly qualified to give the desired instruction. This was the case with respect to the passover, which was instituted in order to perpetuate the remembrance of the deliverance of Israel from the sword of the destroying angel, when all the first-born of Egypt were slain [Note: Exo_12:24-27. So the unleavened bread, 13:7, 8.]. The passage of the Israelites through Jordan was also to be borne in everlasting remembrance. For this end twelve stones were erected in Gilgal; and an order was given, that when children, even to the remotest ages, should inquire what event these stones referred to, they should be informed of all the circumstances which took place when their forefathers first entered into the promised land. We propose to notice two things;
The mercy commemorated—
[Here we shall content ourselves with briefly relating the circumstances which preceded and accompanied the passage of the Israelites over the river Jordan. That they are deserving of our attention is evident from the injunction given by the prophet many hundred years afterwards; “O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal, that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord.” Shittim was the place from whence they last proceeded (perhaps about seven miles) to the banks of Jordan [Note: Jos_3:1.]. There all the people were ordered to sanctify themselves, in order that on the morrow they might be in a fit state to behold the wonders which the Lord was about to do for them [Note: Jos_3:5. A similar order was issued previous to the giving of the law, Exo_19:10-11; Exo_19:13-14.].
The time being arrived, the ark, which was wont to be carried in the midst of them, was borne before them, and they were to follow it at a respectful distance (about three quarters of a mile), that they might all be able to behold it, and that they might see, that, instead of their protecting it, they owed all their protection to it. And the respectful distance which they were to keep, gives us a most important hint in reference to the mode in which we should on all occasions follow divine providence: precipitancy must be avoided, as well as delay.
As soon as the priests who carried the ark touched the brim of the waters with their feet, (for at that season, the snows of Lebanon having begun to melt, the river, as was usual, had overflowed its banks,) the waters were arrested in their course, and formed a wall on their right hand; whilst those which had passed them ran down towards the Dead Sea, and left the channel dry for the space of several miles [Note: From the city Adam to the part opposite Jericho was eighteen or twenty miles, Jos_3:16.]. The priests then proceeded with the ark into the midst of the channel, and abode there whilst the whole nation of Israel, with their cattle and baggage, passed over: nor did they leave their position, till they were expressly ordered to do so by God himself: and then, as soon as ever their feet touched the opposite bank, the waters resumed their course, and flowed in their accustomed channel. What a proof was here, that the passage was opened not by any natural means, but by the immediate agency of God himself! The people “hasted over,” for, where so much was to be done in one day, there was no time to be lost; but we do not apprehend that their haste proceeded from any unbelieving fear of the impending flood; it rather indicated a fearless confidence in the divine protection, and an assurance that the enemies whom they were invading should not be permitted to prevail against them.]
Such was the mercy vouchsafed unto them. Let us now proceed more particularly to notice,
The means used to perpetuate the remembrance of it—
For this end two monuments were erected; one, of twelve stones, in Jordan, on the very spot where the priests who bore the ark had stood, which was probably visible at low water; and the other in Gilgal, where they immediately afterwards encamped.
In our text two reasons are assigned for the erection of them; they were to serve, both to Israel and to the world at large,
As evidences of God’s power—
[What could not God effect, who by a simple act of volition wrought such a miracle as this? The miracle could not be denied, because the stones which commemorated it were taken out of the midst of the river by persons selected for the purpose out of all the tribes. Who then, we may ask,
Who can ever oppose him with success?
It should seem that the Canaanites, if they had acted according to the rules of war, should have opposed the Israelites in their passage: but the destruction of Pharaoh at the Red Sea had spread such a panic through the land, that they did not dare to avail themselves of any supposed advantage, lest they should perish after his example. The event indeed shews how vain any attempt on their part would hare been. And does not this convince us, that, when the measure of any person’s iniquities is full, he shall in no wise escape the vengeance of his God? Whatever obstacles may appear to lie in the way, and whatever barrier an ungodly world may have, or think they have, for their defence, God will surely make a way for his indignation: opposing myriads shall be only as the stubble before the consuming fire: “though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished.” Let any one, dreaming of security, go and behold the stones in Gilgal: let him ask of Jordan, “What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? and thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?” and then let him add with the Psalmist, “Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob [Note: Psa_114:1-7.].” We may further ask,
Who can ever fail, that trusteth in him?
There might have been some hope of crossing the ford, as the spies had done, if the river had not overflowed its banks: but now it seemed to present an insurmountable obstacle to their passage, especially considering that their cattle and baggage were to be taken over with them. But this generation were not like those who had perished in the wilderness; they had learned to confide in God: and God interposed for them in a way which they do not appear to have at all expected. It had been promised indeed that they should pass over Jordan, and that no opposition should be made to them in their passage; for that their enemies, “through fear and dread, should be still as a stone” till all the people should have completely passed [Note: Exo_15:13-17.]: but they do not seem to have had any precise idea of the way in which the promises should be accomplished: nor, on the other hand, do they appear to have entertained any doubts but that they should be brought over in safety. Their confidence was well rewarded; and the very impediments which obstructed their progress served only to display and magnify the power of God.
Thus, whatever difficulties his people may have to surmount, they may at all times adopt the triumphant language of the prophet, “Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain:” and they may assuredly expect, that He who has “laid the foundation, will finish it, and will bring forth the head-stone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace, unto it [Note: Zec_4:7-9.]!”]
But these monuments were intended also,
As memorials of his love—
[The conduct of Israel in the wilderness abundantly shewed, that God had “never set his love upon them for their righteousness,” but solely from his own free and sovereign grace. When therefore they looked upon these stones, they could not but see how greatly he was to be loved, and honoured, and feared, and served, for all the mercy, the undeserved mercy, which he had shewn unto them. They would be ever ready to exclaim, “Who is like unto thee, O God, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?”
In like manner we may see in these stones how effectually God will interpose in our behalf, if only we fear and honour him as our God.]
We see what we may expect from him,
In the time of trouble—
[We are brought perhaps by God’s providence into great tribulation, so that “all his storms and billows go over us.” But we need not therefore suppose that he has forsaken and forgotten us: for his word to us is, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel thy Saviour [Note: Isa_43:2-3.].” The greater our trials are, the richer will be the manifestations of his love and mercy: his consolations will abound, not only according to, but far above, all our afflictions. This is the very improvement which the Prophet Habakkuk made of the history before us. He expatiates upon the event, as if he had himself been an eye-witness of it: “I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was the Lord displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea, that thou didst ride upon thine horses, and thy chariots of salvation? The mountains saw thee, and they trembled; the overflowing of the water passed by; the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high. Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed. Thou didst walk through the sea with thine horses, through the heap of great waters.” Then he adds, “Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation [Note: Hab_3:7-8; Hab_3:13; Hab_3:15; Hab_3:17-18.].”]
We see also what we may expect from him,
In the hour of death—
[The passage of the Israelites through Jordan is not improperly considered as an emblem of the Christian’s transition from the dreary wilderness of this world to the Canaan that is above. And when the time is arrived for passing by that unknown, untrodden path, we are apt to fear lest we should sink in the deep waters, and never attain the wished-for end. But God has promised to be with us, to “make the depths of the sea a war for the ransomed to pass over [Note: Isa_51:9-11.],” and to bring us in safety to the land that floweth with milk and honey. “When therefore we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need to fear no evil:” yea rather we may rest assured that “God will perfect that which concerneth us,” and “preserve us safely unto his heavenly kingdom.”]
Let us mark, and bear in remembrance, God’s mercies towards us—
[There is not any one who, if he had marked the dispensations of God towards himself, might not find many occasions for erecting monuments to his praise: nor is there any thing which will be more conducive to our comfort; since every past mercy may be considered as a pledge of future blessings. The Psalmist’s mode of arguing may safely be adopted by every child of God: “Thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before the Lord in the light of the living [Note: Psa_56:13.]?” Set up then within your own bosoms an Eben-ezer, whenever God vouchsafes to favour you with any peculiar deliverances [Note: 1Sa_7:12.]: then will you have within yourselves a never-failing source of comfort, and an irresistible incentive to “fear the Lord.”]
Let us endeavour to transmit the knowledge of his goodness to the latest generations—
[We should encourage young people to seek instruction, and should be glad of every thing may afford us an occasion of making known to them the wonders of redeeming love. The whole scene of God’s dispensations towards Israel, from their first deliverance out of Egypt to their final possession of the promised land, was figurative of our redemption by Christ Jesus: and it is worthy of observation, that this was strongly marked at the commencement and conclusion of their journey. The night before they set out from Egypt, they feasted on the paschal lamb: and they entered into Canaan, forty years afterwards, four days before the Passover, that is, precisely on the day when the law required them to set apart the paschal lamb for the approaching festival [Note: Compare Exo_12:3; Exo_12:6 with Jos_4:19; Jos_5:10.]. Thus was it intimated to them that our redemption from first to last is the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice: on that must we feed in order to obtain deliverance; and even in heaven itself must we ascribe the glory of our salvation “to Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.” Let us then labour to diffuse this saving knowledge, as opportunity shall offer, that our fellow-creatures may reap the benefits designed for them, and God may have the glory due unto his name.]