Joshua chapter four is a slightly confusing chapter at first glance. It’s confusing because of its repetition and it’s non-linier narrative fashion. The language is just sometimes confusing.
Did Israel pass over the Jordan at the end of chapter three? Or did they pass over in verse one of chapter four? Or did they pass over in verse ten of chapter four? The answer lies somewhere between the interpretation of the Hebrew language and the English language. And sometimes our English translations don’t do well with interpreting current events versus past tense narrative from the Hebrew language.
It’s fascinating to study these things on your own with a good set of commentaries. But at the end of the day, the big idea in all of the wandering narrative here is that God called Israel to trust him and God came through. In other words, we must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future.
Look at Joshua 4:1 – 5:1…
1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priest’s feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.”
8 And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the Lord told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. 9 And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. 10 For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua.
The people passed over in haste. 11 And when all the people had finished passing over, the ark of the Lord and the priests passed over before the people. 12 The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh passed over armed before the people of Israel, as Moses had told them. 13 About 40,000 ready for war passed over before the Lord for battle, to the plains of Jericho. 14 On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.
15 And the Lord said to Joshua, 16 “Command the priests bearing the ark of the testimony to come up out of the Jordan.” 17 So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.” 18 And when the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord came up from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up on dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks as before.
19 The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21 And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask there fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”5:1 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their spirits melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.
Many scholars deal with this text in two movements. Movement one would be Israel crossing the Jordan from an insider perspective (4:1 – 14) and then movement two would be Israel crossing the Jordan from an outsider perspective (4:15 – 5:1). This perspective of an insider/outsider visualization of the text is helpful. Let me touch on it briefly in this way. The story is told twice from two different perspectives. God says and does some things in and through his people. Those things are experienced internally and they are witnessed externally. In other words, what God is doing and has done inside of you is obvious to the watching world. God’s internal work is meant to be an externally witnessed work.
Alternatively, we can see four movements in the text. And this is the way I want to deal with it today. Four movements. In movement one, God speaks and Joshua speaks (vss. 1 – 7). And then, in movement two, Israel moves (vss. 8 – 14). In movement three, God speaks, Joshua speaks and Israel moves (vss. 15 – 24). And then finally, in movement four, God’s enemies respond (5:1).
But the questions will remain. What do we learn form these four movements? What do we learn about God? What do we learn about people such as Israel, her enemies and ourselves? And finally, what do we learn about how we should respond? Why does any of this matter? What difference does any of this make to the working person, the single person, the married person, the wounded person, the fearful person, or any person for that matter? Why does this text matter?
Well, here’s why this text matters. This text teaches us that when God speaks, God’s people must speak. When God moves, God’s people must move. When God speaks, and when God’s people speak, and when God’s people move, then the world knows that God is mightily on the move. When God’s enemies see and hear how he speaks and moves among his people, then his enemies will melt away. We must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future. Look at the text again in those four movements…
Movement One: God Speaks and Joshua Speaks (vss. 1 – 7)
Beginning in verse one, the author of the text tells us that after the Israelites had crossed over the Jordan, God spoke to Joshua and instructed him to select a good man representing every tribe of the nation of Israel. He then directs Joshua to tell those twelve men to grab twelve stones from the Jordan River where the priests had stood with the Ark of the Covenant as Israel was passing through. Those twelve stones are to be set up as a visual reminder of what God has done in and through and for his people.
And Joshua is faithful to pass along what God has spoken to the rest of Israel. He even explains that the monument of rocks is to be set up so that future generations can be reminded of God’s faithfulness. This is no different than the way we remember significant events in our nation’s history or in our families. The point here in this first movement, is that when God speaks, God’s people must speak. We must not forget this. We must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future.
Movement Two: Israel Moves (vss. 8 – 14)
Beginning in verse eight, we see Israel moving in obedience to the Word of the Lord. They pick up the twelve stones. They carry them to the camp and they set them up on the West side of the Jordan River. They build a big monument of remembrance to the Lord’s work. But if you have an eye for detail, you’ll notice something strange happening in verse nine where it appears that Joshua either made a second monument of stones in the middle of the river or he just simply made the monument in the river first and then the twelve men grabbed those twelve stones from the monument in the river and then rebuilt the monument back up on dry land as a reminder.
Either way, the outcome is still the same. There is a visual reminder of God’s powerful work in and through and for his people. And the thing we must not miss here is that when God moves, God’s people must also move. This is what we see in this section. Israel is obediently on the move. And they move with great haste (vs. 10). And on top of that, Israel is crossing over ready for war. They’re armed for battle. They aren’t merely crossing the river into the Promised Land to take a vacation although the Promised Land is referred to as the place of rest in other Scriptures. It might be good to note here that our best wartime posture (in the spiritual sense) is a wartime posture that is grounded in finding restful security in the faithfulness of our God. When God moves, God’s people must move. We must not forget this. We must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future.
Movement Three: God Speaks, Joshua Speaks and Israel Moves (vss. 15 – 24)
Beginning in verse fifteen, the Lord tells Joshua to get the priests out of the water. So Joshua turns around and tells the priests to get out of the water. What do the priests do? They get out of the water and the water that was stopped up by the hand of the Lord releases back down and floods the banks of the river again. What a powerful visual this must have been not only for Israel but for the inhabitants of the land that Israel was possessing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Verses 19 – 24 seem to be like a summarizing statement of the whole narrative. Israel and her priests get up out of the river, twelve stones are erected in a monument of remembrance, and Joshua gives some instructions for reminding future generations of God’s faithfulness in the past that is meant to cultivate trust in the present for the future. The bottom line here is that, when God speaks, and when God’s people speak, and when God’s people move, then the world knows that God is mighty. We must not forget this. We must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future.
Movement Four: God’s Enemies Respond (5:1)
Joshua 5:1 describes the response of God’s enemies to what God has just done in and through and for his people. All the kings of the Amorites and the Canaanites heard what the Lord did because someone on their teams saw it happen and then reported it to them. And the response according to the text is that “their spirits melted and there was no longer any spirit (courage) in them because of the people of Israel” (5:1). The bottom line here is that, when God’s enemies see and hear how he speaks and moves among his people, then his enemies will melt away. We must not forget this. We must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future.
Summary Of What We’ve Learned…
We’ve just learned that when God speaks, God’s people must speak. When God moves, God’s people must move. When God speaks, and when God’s people speak, and when God’s people move, then the world knows that God is mightily on the move. When God’s enemies see and hear how he speaks and moves among his people, then his enemies will melt away.
So why does all of this matter? What difference will this winding road of a story make in our lives? How are the principles of this text going to help people in this room who are at different places of life? College students, married couples, teenagers, empty nesters, single parents, working class folks, Americans… I could go on forever building out the categories of diversity in our church family. The question still remains: How does this text help? What difference will it make?
The difference this text makes is that it reminds us that God has a calling on our lives. The call of God on our lives from this text is to speak what he speaks, move where he moves and represent him to the watching world. The way that we do this is by remembering that Christ has defeated our enemies at the cross and the empty tomb.
There’s nothing standing in our way. All of the barriers have been removed. Satan, sin and the grave hold no power over us. In the cross and the empty tomb, Jesus has made a way forward. We can speak the words of God when we are called to and we can move in obedience when God moves because he has removed every barrier that would stand in our way.
So I don’t know what things you are struggling with today… sin you are dealing with, temptation you are facing, suffering you are enduring, rebellion you are up against, fear, doubt, shame, guilt, loneliness, brokenness, despair, unbelief, weariness… I don’t know what specific things you are facing today… but I do know this… God is calling you to speak what he speaks and move where he is moving and the way you do this, is by remembering the power of the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. We must never forget this. We must remember God’s faithfulness in the past, to trust him in the present, for the future. – Amen!