The Inheritance of the Past
Joshua 24:13
And I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which you built not, and you dwell in them…

The substance of these closing words of the old Hebrew chief amounted to this: they had had vastly more done for them than they had done or could have done for themselves. They were not the sole nor the chief architects of their own fortunes. At this stage in the fortunes of their national life the prescient eye of Joshua saw the resulting perils from the disposition among them to forget their past history and to magnify the personal element in their present gains and security. There is but one step between the temper of boastfulness and the decadence and demoralisation of a nation's life. Modesty, simplicity, self-knowledge, and a devout recognition of its profound indebtedness to the past — these are among the prime elements of national wealth and prosperity. And Joshua's was that warning voice whose authority and experience and disinterested patriotism, as with all similar men in all countries and times, served as the organ of the national conscience. It served to remind them that a nation is not the growth of a day, that the highest blessings of life are unattainable by our own unaided efforts, that manifold are the forces which are working in the world to produce the life of each one of us, and that it is as inaccurate as it is ungrateful and boastful to impute to ourselves the chief or the largest share in the production of all the good of life that we enjoy. "I have given you a land for which ye did not labour." To every age and period, as it reviews its successes and takes stock of its gains and advances, may be addressed these words of Joshua, with deep truth and significance. The conditions of life amid which we live to-day constitute veritably the promised land of the many generations of English and Scottish life that have preceded us. In whatever way we turn we have much to make us grateful for our progress, and to inspire us with a deep sense of that providence whose guiding spirit is a fact as real and sacred of British history as ever it was of Hebrew history. In regard to the political and social troubles of the present — and they are both many and serious — and in regard to the conditions of our human life to-day, whose frequent difficulty and harshness sometimes makes us fretful and discontented, I do not know anything which better tends to smooth out these wrinkles of impatient discontent, and to inspire us with a feeling of our large and solid improvement in life, than to take up, for example, the history of our own country, say some three or four centuries ago, and fixing your reading and your attention mainly upon the social condition of the people; upon the state of our commerce and all the peaceful arts; upon the measure of personal freedom in matters of State or of religion which was then possessed; upon the character of the public health and the amount of disease and the averages of mortality in all ranks; upon the degree of comfort which people had in their dwelling-houses; upon the general level of morality and decency which the habits of society evinced — to contrast all this with what requires no special course of reading, the public and private life of society to-day in our land, its means of intelligence, its measure of liberty, and all the other distinguishing qualities of our civilisation to-day. Civilisation, in which word is comprehended art and science and religion, and refinement of manner and speech, and the increase of material comfort, and the spread of intelligence, and all things which beautify or sanctify our human life and character, is no mere production of some one age or country to which now and then some little measure of improvement is added at irregular and incalculable intervals, but is the long, unbroken movement of ascensional life going right back in its origins, into the dim, impenetrable beginnings of human life and society. What is the utmost that we to-day have done or can do set against the mighty sum of the world's historical and prehistorical life! We find the sense of enormous indebtedness in regard, for example, to our religious possessions. The text reminds us of how that thousands of years ago an Eastern people were feeling their way to religious truths and ideas which, passing subsequently through the higher medium and expression of Christianity, absolutely rule a vast part of the world's life to-day. We are debtors both to the barbarian and the Greek, to the Gentile and to the Jew. In regard to the more restricted life of our own country and nation, we are the sum and product of a large variety and infusion of forces. And in the social order of our life there are few of us who need to be reminded of how much that controls our lives to-day dates back to the far and almost-forgotten past. Our constitutional liberties have been things of slow accretion. And again, m the shape and character of our strictly personal life it is no less true that we have entered upon possessions for which we did not labour. There is one inheritance at least which is every man's birthright, the accumulated experience of his race and ancestry. The life, the conduct, the temper, the traditions of our ancestry live in us. When we speak of a man as coming from a good stock or a bad stock the phrase is significant of how considerable is that element of character and tendency for which we did not labour. We are not altogether the children of a day. We have taken a good many centuries in making. Let me urge upon you the duty which these considerations bring before us of maintaining an intelligent sympathy with the past, as an essential condition of rightly understanding and controlling the present. It is by liberally using the vast stores of accunmlated experience that we have inherited; it is by tracking our social troubles to their roots in antecedent conditions; it is by following the line of dogmatic and Church history to the periods of germination and birth, that we shall be the most effectively armed to meet the difficulties and to discharge the duties which every generation has, in God's name, to manfully overcome or fulfil. Let us not shrink from them. Again, these considerations suggest to us the virtue and grace of humility. "I have given you a land for which ye did not labour." "We are not our own," wrote the apostle; "we have been bought with a price." We are ourselves but the last link in the interminable procession of the human race. The true lesson of history and of religion is to make us feel how slight and insignificant is our best work in comparison with the mighty whole. It is to inspire us with the salutary and humbling feeling that our life is being guided by an infinite power and wisdom, who can dispense with any one of us, but who is indispensable to us. And once more: these considerations should guide us in our duties as regards that unknown future which is ever lying in front of us. What we shall be is being determined by what we are to-day. What the national life will be a century hence is, in no small measure, dependent upon the quality and policy of the national life to-day. Labour, then, in modest, self-forgetting devotion to the will of God and His abiding truths, so that the future of the world's life may be happier and wiser and purer for our lives. Labour as men who, by the most absolute of necessities, will have to give an account of their stewardship of life. Finally, take stock of your own lives, of all that you have passed through, of all the blessings that have crowned your days, of the perils from which you have escaped, of the temptations you have resisted, of the vast stores of life in which you have found your noblest nutriment; and say how much of it originated in your own independent resources and volitions, and how much of it came from sources far above and beyond any power of yours.

(J. Vickery.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat.

WEB: I gave you a land whereon you had not labored, and cities which you didn't build, and you live in them. You eat of vineyards and olive groves which you didn't plant.'

Not with Sword or Bow
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