Then Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal,…
We come on this scene unexpectedly. War, with its stratagems, its carnage, its inversion of ancient order, was filling our mind. But suddenly, instead of the camp, there is the religious assembly; sacrifice instead of slaughter; instead of the destruction of heathen cities, the erection of monumental inscriptions of the law. The mustering of the whole people to learn and accept afresh God's great law. It was not a casual gathering, but one prescribed by Moses in 27th chapter of Deuteronomy; what tribes have to stand on the slopes of Gerizim, to respond to all the benedictions of the law, and what tribes are to stand on Ebal to respond to its curses, are all detailed. The ark in the valley between; an altar reared on one of the heights; the law, solemnly read, and greeted with the responses not of a congregation, but of a gathered nation; covenant sacrifices offered; the inscription on memorial stones of the leading precepts of the law - these all constitute a scene of utmost impressiveness. A nation accepting a solemn league and covenant, hallowing their conquest, taking formal possession of the country for their God, in the heart of the land hallowing a mountain for His throne - this is not an everyday occurrence, but one full of moral meaning. Consider some of its lessons.
I. SACRED RESTS SHOULD BE MIXED WITH ALL WORLDLY WORK. Not many would have gathered a nation at such a time for such a work. At most only the conquest of the middle of the land had been achieved. The kings of the south and the north were forming their leagues to crush the terrible invaders. A saint less heroic or a hero less saintly would have postponed all such solemn assemblies till the conquest was complete. But Joshua "sets the Lord alway before him;" and at the very outset he seeks to hallow their fighting and their victories. As in Gilgal, he tarried to observe the sacraments of the law, so here in Shechem he tarries to build an altar and rehearse the law. That time is not lost which we spend in calm communion with God. And in the degree in, which, like the occupations of these invaders, our dally work is absorbing and worldly, in that degree it is well to arrest our activities, and turn ear and eye and heart to God. In Israel's case, such a halt would tend to prevent the coarsening of their feelings in their bloody work; would put them in the position of executors of God's judgment; would help to make them abhor the sins of those they extirpated; would suggest that "they should be holy who carried the " sword "of God." Our daily tasks are not so absorbing nor so rough as theirs; but, like Israel, it will always be well that we should take time or make time to keep in Gilgal the ordinances, and take time or make it to learn in Shechem the law of God. "Prayer and meals stop no man's work." Israel went from Shechem with more unity, faith, and gravity - that is, with all its elements of strength invigorated. Keep your Sabbaths well. Have a sacred closet and enter it. Take time regularly to get calm and to listen to the voice of God. Joshua mixes sacred rest with worldly activity.
II. Observe secondly: WITH NEW POSSESSIONS, THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES SHOULD BE RECOGNISED. Is the centre of the land won, it is not theirs to do with as they like. There is a law whose blessings they should aspire to, whose curse they should avoid. Their new possessions are not theirs to do with what they like. Masters of the Canaanites, they are only servants before God. With all possession of wealth, and all consciousness of strength, there is apt to rise a certain degree of wilfulness and self assertion. Men think that wealth is a sort of holy orders, giving a power of absolution from every unpleasant duty. It is well whenever we have attained what we desired, or come into the enjoyment of any sort of wealth, that we should take the position of servants, and listen to God's law. Otherwise the mercies that should bind us closer to our God separate us from Him, and blessings which should leave us more free for gracious work secularise all our moods and motives. "The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul," but it is only helpful when in Shechem we listen to God's law. How much wiser would some have been if gaining wealth, or power, or whatever their hearts' desire, they had hallowed some spot like Shechem and distinctly realised their duty in connection with it - the blessings of discharging it, the curses of neglecting it; and then low at God's altar had hallowed all. Our own is not ours to do with as we please. Property has duties as well as rights, and all mercies should be hallowed by cherishing a lively sense of the responsibilities attendant on them. Have you gained a footing in any Canaan of your hopes? Build your altar and listen to God's law.
III. Observe: JOSHUA'S FIRST BUILDING IS AN ALTAR, NOT A FORTRESS. You would not have been surprised to find him taking Shechem and fortifying it, raising thus a central fortress in the land. But he builds not a fortress, but an altar; and raises not the storied monument of his victories, but a register of God's law. It is a striking and characteristic thing, this altar rearing in such circumstances. And yet the altar, by its inspiration, contributes more to the power of the people than any fortress could by its security. The soul is the seat of power, in the individual, the army, the nation; and Joshua takes the directest means to increase and perpetuate the nation's strength when he builds an altar, and links at once the old land and the new people to God. No people will lack country, safety, freedom, that rears altars to the living God. Let religion die out in any people and liberty will not very long survive. What we want for strength and joy in life is some great interest, a grave duty, a sublime hope. When Joshua raised this altar, and thereby quickened the religious life of the people, he was doing far more than if he had raised walls or gathered chariots. God is a nation's only fortress. To have Him in us is to be secure.
IV. Lastly observe: THE WISE MAN SEEKS TO MAKE RELIGION INTELLIGENT. The priestly instinct would have been satisfied with the sacraments of Gilgal; but Joshua adds instruction at Shechem. All the people, the aged, the children, warriors, and women, the true Israelite and the hangers on, have the entire law read to them; and to increase the intelligent knowledge of God's will, the law is painted like frescoes on tablets raised on the mountain. God wants intelligent service. Ignorance is the mother of superstition, not of devotion. "God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him not only in spirit" - that is - in sincerity; but in truth - that is, with intelligence, understanding Him - giving Him the sort of homage which is His due. To my judgment, there is a savour of sound Protestanism in this gathering at Shechem. The people taught, the law imparted to all This is a sort of prelude of the reign of the open Bible - a religion addressed to the minds and hearts and consciences of men, All true religion has its Shechem as well as its Gilgal, its teachings of truth and duty as well as its observance of the sacraments. We should all seek light; reverent, but still self respectful; too serious to "make believe," too truthful to shut our eyes. The higher our reason, the heartier will be our religion. Joshua taught the people the law, and when printing was impossible, published it on the frescoes of Gerizim. We only do well when we do our best to make "all the congregation of Israel, with the women and the little ones, and the strangers that are conversant among them," familiar with the law and the gospel of the grace of God. - G.
Parallel VersesKJV: Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal,