Can you think back and remember a day you waited for a long time with great anticipation and excitement? Most of us can. As a child, Christmas and birthdays were such days. Later it may have been graduation day, your wedding day, or maybe earning the right to compete in some great competition like the Olympics.
Depending on the nature of the day and what it might hold, such a time might also bring about a certain amount of anxiety because of the challenge you might face. For months, weeks, and days you waited, and then finally, the day arrived. Can you imagine the anticipation and excitement the children of Israel faced as they stood before the River Jordan the evening before they were to cross over into the land?
The earlier generation had failed to enter because of unbelief and the new generation had waited a long time, for some it was close to forty years. Joshua and Caleb, who were now about eighty years old, had waited even longer. According to the promise to the Patriarchs, Jewish anticipation went back some five hundred years. But now, Joshua tells the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (3:5).
But if there was excitement, there must also have been some anxiety as they beheld the swollen river and thought about the fortified cities that lay on the other side. Life is like that. Often, with our hopes at their highest, there are accompanying challenges and problems that we face at the very same time.
After hearing a message at a Bible conference on how to cope with discouragement, three people greeted the speaker: a young mother who had not slept the previous night because her husband had come home at 10:30 p.m. and announced he was divorcing her; a pastor whose teenage daughter was rebelling against God; and a Christian worker whose husband had entered the hospital for treatment of a brain tumor.
Stated a pastor, “The trouble is that we are facing problems that we cannot solve: this customer I must sell, that exam I must take, this debt I must pay, those in-laws I must endure, that habit I must break, this marriage I must save.”16
But that is life in a fallen world. Along with our hopes and joys there are always problems for which we simply have neither the strength nor the wisdom to meet the challenge. We need strength from above. The battle is really the Lord’s and this is what Israel was being taught in this chapter. Donald Campbell titles chapter 3, “Fording Uncrossable Rivers.”
1 Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and he and all the sons of Israel set out from Shittim and came to the Jordan, and they lodged there before they crossed. 2 And it came about at the end of three days that the officers went through the midst of the camp; 3 and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God with the Levitical priests carrying it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. 4 However, there shall be between you and it a distance of about 2,000 cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.”
5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” 6 And Joshua spoke to the priests, saying, “Take up the ark of the covenant and cross over ahead of the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went ahead of the people.
Aside from the miraculous way the river was crossed, the most important feature of this chapter is the Ark of the Covenant. Its prominence is stressed in the number of times it is mentioned in chapters 3 and 4 (nine times in chapter 3 and seven times in chapter 4) and by the nature of the commands and statements given in its regard.
What’s so important about the Ark? It represented the person and promises of God. It pointed to the fact that as the people of Israel set out to cross the Jordan, invade, and possess the land, they must do so not in their own strength, but in God’s for it was God Himself who was going before them as their source of victory.
And such is the case with all of life. As Paul cried out when contemplating the challenges and trials of ministry, “And who is adequate for these things?” But he then answered his own question with these words: “And such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:4-5).
In verse 5, Joshua commands the people to consecrate themselves in view of the wonders God would work among them on the next day. But what does the word “consecrate” mean? This is not exactly what we might expect from a military standpoint. Today, the military leader would have said, “Sharpen your swords and spears and polish your shields!” But God’s ways are not our ways. For God’s people, spiritual preparation is the vital element for it is being rightly related to God that brings the power of God on our work and ministry.
“Consecrate” is the Hebrew qadash and it may mean, “be hallowed, set apart, consecrated” or “consecrate, set apart, prepare, dedicate.” But here it is in the hithpael stem which is reflexive and means, “consecrate yourselves, set yourselves apart, prepare yourselves.” This stem points out personal responsibility.
In the Old Testament this word is often used (particularly in Exodus and Leviticus) in connection with the Old Testament sacrifices, priesthood, washings, and with regard to the children of Israel as God’s people. In this regard, it was especially used in connection with confession or cleansing through the use of Old Testament sacrifices, washings, and offerings (Ex. 19:10, 22; 40:13). It portrays the need to deal with sin in the life. It was used of setting something apart for use by the Lord and His purposes in the sense of cleansing, preparing, and dedicating it to the Lord (e.g., consecration of Mt. Sinai) (Ex. 19:22); preparing Aaron via the priestly garments and anointing for ministry (Ex. 28:3, 41); and setting apart for God’s use through sacrifice, and anointing (Ex. 29:1, 36, 37; 29:44; 40:13).
Application: Note Joshua 3:5b, “for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” When there is a lack of consecration through confession for the defilement of sin along with a commitment to God’s purpose for our lives in service or ministry, we hinder the power of God. But there is more included here in this call for consecration. “The people of Israel were to expect God to work a miracle. They were to be eager, gripped by a sense of wonder. Israel was not to lose sight of their God who can do the incredible and the humanly impossible.”17
Two key ideas are involved here—Preparation and Dedication:
(1) It reminds us of God’s holiness. God is absolute holiness, completely set apart from sin. He is a holy God who cannot have fellowship with sinful man or allow sin in His presence without a solution to the sin problem.
(2) It shows the necessity of sacrifice for sin or the cross of Christ. Without faith in the cross and its cleansing, no man can be set apart for God’s use or blessing.
(3) God does not use unclean vessels. For believers, those saved and cleansed by the work of Christ, this command for consecration demonstrates the necessity for cleansing through confession or getting right with God and with men in order to be used of God and to experience His deliverance. To experience God’s power, protection, and deliverance, we need to prepare our hearts and deal with the known sin in our lives through confession (cf. Josh. 7:13; with Ex. 19:10, 22).
(4) Keeping in mind the idea of dedication associated with this word, this command reminds us of the necessity of understanding our purpose as God’s people along with a commitment to God and His purpose. It meant they were to set themselves apart to Yahweh to cross the Jordan so they could enter the land, defeat the enemies, and become a testimony to the nations (Ex. 19:4-6).
(5) The command, especially in New Testament theology, suggests the need of the ministry of the Holy Spirit and His control for consecrated living. This command suggests this because of the prevalence of anointing mentioned in connection with consecration of the priests, etc. (cf. Ex. 40 also). It stresses the need of the filling of the Holy Spirit as God’s enabling agent for dealing with the forces arrayed against us—the flesh, the devil, and the world (Acts 1:8; Eph. 3:16; 5:18; Gal. 5:16f and 6:1).
7 Now the LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you. 8 You shall, moreover, command the priests who are carrying the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” 9 Then Joshua said to the sons of Israel, “Come here, and hear the words of the LORD your God.” 10 And Joshua said, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will assuredly dispossess from before you the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Hivite, the Perizzite, the Girgashite, the Amorite, and the Jebusite. 11 Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over ahead of you into the Jordan. 12 Now then, take for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one man for each tribe. 13 And it shall come about when the soles of the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, and the waters which are flowing down from above shall stand in one heap.”
These verses in essence reinforce the concept of grace. They show that crossing the Jordan and dispossessing the enemies (as in all aspects of our salvation and sanctification) is the work of God. The things we do in consecration are not works of righteousness that merit God’s favor or overcome the enemies. Rather, the acts of consecration, like confession, remove the barriers to God’s power, to fellowship, and so prepare our hearts to receive God’s grace: they build our faith so we will put our feet in the water, cross over, and go up against the enemy.
To be effective, leaders need the right credentials, namely, solid biblical training under men of God who truly know God and His word and the obvious hand of God on a leader’s life. So it was time that God establish Joshua as His representative to guide the nation.
Note Joshua 4:14. It is significant that it was God who did the exalting. Our tendency is to exalt ourselves, but Joshua, in reporting God’s communication to him, said nothing about this promise of being exalted. Rather, when reporting the words of God to Israel, he focused their attention on the fact that it was the living God who was among them and that it was He and He alone who would dispossess the enemies of the land (vs. 10).
Since it was the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant, and since it was the ark that represented God’s person and power, they alone were to take the Ark to the edge of the water and stand still in the water. What do we gather from this? It reminds us of our part in the plan of God. We must learn to step out in faith and obedience to the principles and promises of Scripture. It reminds us of the need to rest in God’s promises. They were not to run down into the waters. This is just like the words of Moses in Exodus 14:13-14 when they were hemmed in with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh and his chariots behind them.
But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by18 and see the salvation (Hebrew, yeshua) of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent” (Exodus 14:13-14).
I am reminded of Isaiah 30:15: “For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you shall be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength.’ But you were not willing, …”
The focus in verse 9 is on hearing the “words of the Lord your God.” In this we see the concept of Romans 10:17, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” What can we learn from this for leadership? The authority of leaders among God’s people needs to be the Scripture rather than their personality, charisma, or whatever happens to appeal to people.
To what do the words, “By this” in verse 10 refer? To the Ark of the Covenant. Note verse 11. This focused them on the truth that “the battle is the Lord’s,” or, as Joshua said, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will assuredly dispossess from before you the Canaanite, …” (3:10). It is God’s presence as the one and only living God that sustains believers regardless of what life might bring. The key is staying focused on His presence and resting in Him.
During the Civil War, the town of Moresfield, West Virginia was on the dividing line, and seesawed back and forth between Federal and Confederate troops. In one old house which still stands today, an elderly woman lived alone. One morning Yankee troops stomped up on her porch. Though at their mercy, she remained calm and invited them to be seated at her table.
When breakfast was set before them, she said, “It is a custom of long standing in this house to have prayers before meals. I hope you won’t mind.” With that, she picked up the Bible, opened it at random and began to read from Psalm 27 (KJV):
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. 3 Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident. … 13 I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. 14 Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.”
When she finished, she murmured quietly, “Let us pray.” As she prayed, she heard stealthy sounds of shuffling shoes. When she ended with “Amen,” she opened her eyes. The soldiers were gone! Her lack of fear had made them fearful of lingering any longer!19
14 So it came about when the people set out from their tents to cross the Jordan with the priests carrying the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and when those who carried the ark came into the Jordan, and the feet of the priests carrying the ark were dipped in the edge of the water for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the days of harvest, 16 that the waters which were flowing down from above stood and rose up in one heap, a great distance away at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those which were flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. So the people crossed opposite Jericho. 17 And the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan.
After breaking camp, as instructed, the priests, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, led the way and walked to the Jordan which was swollen over its banks. This must have been a fearful sight, but resting in the presence of the living God they stepped into the waters. Immediately, a miracle occurred.
In the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Campbell writes:
Though the place named “Adam” is found only here it is usually identified with Tell ed-Damiyeh, about 16 miles north of the ford opposite Jericho. A wide stretch of riverbed therefore was dried up, allowing the people with their animals and baggage to hurry across (cf. Josh. 4:10).
How could this sensational event occur? Many insist that this was no miracle since the event can be explained as a natural phenomenon. They point out that on December 8,1267 an earthquake caused the high banks of the Jordan to collapse near Tell ed-Damiyeh, damming the river for about 10 hours. On July 11,1927 another earthquake near the same location blocked the river for 21 hours. Of course these stoppages did not occur during flood season. Admittedly God could have employed natural causes such as an earthquake and a landslide and the timing would have still made it a miraculous intervention. But does the biblical text allow for such an interpretation of this event?
Considering all the factors involved it seems best to view this occurrence as a special act of God brought about in a way unknown to man. Many supernatural elements were brought together: (1) The event came to pass as predicted (3:13, 15). (2) The timing was exact (v. 15). (3) The event took place when the river was at flood stage (v. 15). (4) The wall of water was held in place for many hours, possibly an entire day (v. 16). (5) The soft, wet river bottom became dry at once (v. 17). (6) The water returned immediately as soon as the people had crossed over and the priests came up out of the river (4:18).20
As one studies this third chapter and marvels at the miraculous work of God displayed here, there is an important principle that should not be missed. Crossing the Jordan at flood stage with two million people had several immediate results: God was magnified, Joshua was exalted (3:5), the people were surely energized and motivated, and the people of the land, the Canaanites, were terrorized (cf. 1:9; 5:1). God was giving them the land. Indeed, He had already done so, providentially speaking (1:2-6; 2:9), but the people of the land were not going to simply lie down. The inhabitants of the land would resist with all the resources at their disposal. Crossing the Jordan and possessing their possession was not going to be a piece of cake. It would entail battle after battle. Crossing the Jordan, then, meant two things for Israel. First, they must be totally committed to going against armies, chariots, and fortified cities. But then, if they were to be successful, they must also be committed to a focused walk of faith in Yahweh, the only true and living God rather than, as they had done in the wilderness, a walk according to the flesh and their own resources.
For believers today, crossing the Jordan represents passing from one level of the Christian life to another. (It is not a picture of a believer dying and entering heaven. For the Israelites Canaan was hardly heaven!) It is a picture of entering into spiritual warfare to claim what God has promised. This should mean the end of a life lived by human effort and the beginning of a life of faith and obedience.21
1 Now it came about when all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan, that the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, 2 “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you, and lay them down in the lodging place where you will lodge tonight.’” 4 So Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the sons of Israel, one man from each tribe; 5 and Joshua said to them, “Cross again to the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel. 6 Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”
8 And thus the sons of Israel did, as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, just as the LORD spoke to Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel; and they carried them over with them to the lodging place, and put them down there. 9 Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan at the place where the feet of the priests who carried the ark of the covenant were standing, and they are there to this day. 10 For the priests who carried the ark were standing in the middle of the Jordan until everything was completed that the LORD had commanded Joshua to speak to the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua. And the people hurried and crossed; 11 and it came about when all the people had finished crossing, that the ark of the LORD and the priests crossed before the people. 12 And the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed over in battle array before the sons of Israel, just as Moses had spoken to them; 13 about 40,000, equipped for war, crossed for battle before the LORD to the desert plains of Jericho. 14 On that day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; so that they revered him, just as they had revered Moses all the days of his life.
15 Now the LORD said to Joshua, 16 “Command the priests who carry the ark of the testimony that they come up from the Jordan.” 17 So Joshua commanded the priests, saying, “Come up from the Jordan.” 18 And it came about when the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD had come up from the middle of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up to the dry ground, that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place, and went over all its banks as before.
19 Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth of the first month and camped at Gilgal on the eastern edge of Jericho. 20 And those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21 And he said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ 22 then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; 24 that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.”
Another title for this chapter might be, “Lest We Forget.” The concern found in the Bible over our proneness to forget the Lord, His works of salvation and sanctification and what this means to us by way of our calling, is one of the important concerns of Scripture.
Let’s begin by an illustration in the life of Israel as recorded for us in Exodus 15:
1 Then Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and said, “I will sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea. 2 The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation; This is my God, and I will praise Him; My father’s God, and I will extol Him. 3 The LORD is a warrior; The LORD is His name. 4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; And the choicest of his officers are drowned in the Red Sea. 5 The deeps cover them; They went down into the depths like a stone. 6 Thy right hand, O LORD, is majestic in power, Thy right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. 7 And in the greatness of Thine excellence Thou dost overthrow those who rise up against Thee; Thou dost send forth Thy burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff. 8 And at the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were piled up, The flowing waters stood up like a heap; The deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea. 9 The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be gratified against them; I will draw out my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’ 10 Thou didst blow with Thy wind, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the mighty waters. 11 Who is like Thee among the gods, O LORD? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? 12 Thou didst stretch out Thy right hand, The earth swallowed them. 13 In Thy lovingkindness Thou hast led the people whom Thou hast redeemed; In Thy strength Thou hast guided them to Thy holy habitation. 14 The peoples have heard, they tremble; Anguish has gripped the inhabitants of Philistia. 15 Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; The leaders of Moab, trembling grips them; All the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. 16 Terror and dread fall upon them; By the greatness of Thine arm they are motionless as stone; Until Thy people pass over, O LORD, Until the people pass over whom Thou hast purchased. 17 Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, The place, O LORD, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established. 18 The LORD shall reign forever and ever.”
19 For the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, and the LORD brought back the waters of the sea on them; but the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea. 20 And Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. 21 And Miriam answered them, “Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.”
22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. 24 So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. 26 And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer.”
27 Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.
In only three days this people who had seen and sung of the mighty works of God suddenly seemed to have developed a serious case of amnesia. Rather than complaining over the absence of water and then over the bitter waters of Marah, we might have expected them to say, “Lord, we remember the way you delivered us out of our slavery in Egypt and how you rolled back the waters of the Red Sea, and how you destroyed Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen in the sea, and now, O Lord, we know that you have brought us here in keeping with your purposes, so we are trusting you to …”
But instead we read, “So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exo. 15:24).
Let’s note some admonitions in the Old Testament about remembering:
Lest We Forget
That We Might Remember
Ex. 12-51-13:8; Deut. 4:9-10, 23, 31.
Positive commands to remember: Deut. 6:12; Deut. 7:18, Deut. 8:2
Deut. 5:15; 15:15—remembering the negative, the life God redeemed us from as a motivation against remembering the grace of God.
Negative illustrations of remembering: Num. 11:5 which cause us to forget the positive.
Deut. 8:11, 14, 18-19;
Deut. 9:7; 16:3; 32:7
These verses comprise only a partial list of warnings and commands to remember rather than forget because of our natural tendencies. The memorial of commemoration of stones falls into three objectives:
(1) A Memorial Sign to promote encouragement and reverence in all Israel and for all time (4:6a, 7b, 24b). The name Gilgal comes from a word which means “a wheel,” which in turns comes from a word, galal, which means “to roll some object on, upon, away, against, from, unto.” Gilgal means either “a rolling” or “a circle of stones.” So, every time Israel would return to Gilgal they would see the circles of stones and remember what God had done to role away the reproach of Egypt (note Josh. 5:9 which uses the verb galal). The very site of the stones was to be an encouragement, but also a reminder of the sovereign power of the Lord over nations and creation so they might fear the Lord forever and remain faithful to their purpose in the plan of God. (Compare Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 4:1-9.)
(2) A Memorial Sign to promote instruction to future generations (4:6b-7, 21-23). In two places in the chapter, covering five verses, parents are reminded of their responsibility for the communication of God’s Word and His calling on their children, generation to generation. Parents dare not and cannot abdicate this to others. God charges parents with this privilege and responsibility. (Compare: Deut. 4:9; 6:6f; and Judges 2:1f; 3:1-7; 8:34; 21:25.)
(3) A Memorial Sign of testimony to other nations (4:24a). Here God was again reminding Israel of her purpose as a nation of priests (Ex. 19:4-6; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9-11). The application to us should be obvious. Christians are living stones of a holy temple, living memorials of the power of God. But we too face the threat of forgetting the Lord by forgetting our pilgrim character through preoccupation with the world.
By way of application, what are some of the things we regularly do and are called to do that form memorials of the saving grace of God and our calling as believers in Christ?
18 The Hebrew word here, yasab, “set, station oneself, take one's stand,” but it is used “esp. of standing quiet and passive, to see the mighty deliverance of Yahweh.” (Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford University Press, London, 1907, p. 426).