I was tempted to begin this morning by describing to you some boundary lines for a piece of rural farmland in Western Kentucky. It lies in the middle of Arlington, Bardwell, and Milburn, KY. There’s nothing impressive about the land. There’s a sunken, dried-up area where a pond used to be. It has been known to produce a decent crop of corn or wheat or soybeans over the years, and a good number of cattle have grazed the land as well. But that’s really all I can say about it. No one driving by would pay one second’s attention to it. And yet, as I said, I was tempted to start this morning by describing the property lines for that piece of land.
I decided not to simply because I didn’t want your eyes to glaze over too early in the sermon. But in one sense, that would have proven the point I wanted to make. Because, at one time in my life, having my dad point out the boundary lines of that rural piece of farmland in Western Kentucky was thrilling to me. It represented a few acres of land that I was getting from my grandfather, as he went to be with the Lord. Ultimately, my dad sold that land, and I used my income to buy a laptop computer in the mid-nineties when laptops were a good bit more expensive and a good bit less powerful than they are today, and that’s all I have to show for that land today. But that’s beside the point.
The point is, what would be the most boring thing in the world to you—a description of property lines—was thrilling to me because of one difference. It was my inheritance. I think that might also explain the difference in the excitement level between an ancient Israelite and one of us as we read these chapters in Joshua. For him, it was his inheritance. For us, it reads like a land survey—that covers nine chapters! This isn’t one of those sections most devotional Bibles focus on, and if you come to it in your Bible reading, my guess is that you try to skim over it in one setting. No need to come back to that topic again tomorrow, you might think.
In fact, I mentioned to you that a decade ago I preached through the book of Joshua in smaller chunks. And when I looked back at how I approached the book ten years ago it made me laugh. I preached seven sermons through the first twelve chapters of the book. I was averaging a little under two chapters per sermon. My eighth sermon? It covered chapters 13-21 in one chunk. It was a B-level outline that turned into an A-level outline real fast. Because I realized I was departing a bit from the level of outline through the book I’d taken to that point, I titled that sermon, “Much Land and Many Chapters.” I couldn’t bring myself to stay on track and preach four or five sermons over these chapters.
But is that where we leave things? Do we simply say, “Sure, these chapters would have been exciting for an ancient Israelite to read, but for us, we can dismiss them, or at best skim over them?” We might ask ourselves (to take one town listed in these chapters), “Why does the land of Beth-Pezzaz matter to us?” What do these chapters about land division teach us about God, us, and what we need to be about in life? Well, I want to mention a few things that I think these chapters were intended to show us.
For the past two weeks, as we’ve looked at Joshua 1-5 and then 6-12, I’ve paused at this point to give you a summary of each of the chapters we’re looking at so that you kind of get the lay of the land before diving in and making specific points for the sermon. That’s a bit challenging today. So, let me just read you one section of text. Joshua 15:1-4 reads, ““The allotment for the tribe of the people of Judah, according to their clans reached southward to the boundary of Edom, to the wilderness of Zin at the farthest south. And their south boundary ran from the end of the Salt Sea, from the bay that faces southward. It goes out southward of the ascent of Akrabbim, passes along to Zin, and goes up south of Kadesh-barnea, along by Hezron, up to Addar, turns about to Karka, passes along to Azmon, goes out by the Brook of Egypt, and comes to its end at the sea.” And that’s a pretty good summary of what you read over these nine chapters. There are some conversations individuals and tribes have with Joshua scattered in along the way, but that’s pretty much how these chapters read. So, what they do they teach us? Let me note a few things. The first being that:
God is faithful to his promises
The Israelites getting the land wasn’t just some kind of last-minute decision God came to after he delivered the Israelites from Egypt. He’d told Abraham years earlier in Genesis 12:7, “To your offspring I will give this land.” Now, we’re over 400 years later. And you can almost feel the urgency of the Lord in the commands he gives to Joshua in these opening verses. We read in verse 1, “Now Joshua was old and advance in years, and the LORD said to him, ‘You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess.’” Then, he picks up in verse 6, saying, “I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel. Only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance as I have told you.”
Israel had conquered all the major areas, but there was land on the edges of that land that needed to be conquered, and it needed to then be divided and given to each of the tribes. And God was saying to Joshua, “Let’s get on with it.” But why? Why would it matter? Because God is showing us in this text that nothing will stop him from being faithful to his promises. He had sworn to do this, and his word would not fail.
In fact, look at the last words in the section of text we’re looking at this morning. Joshua 21 ends with these words: “Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass” (vv. 43-45).
Now the reason God’s absolute, unshakeable faithfulness to fulfill every promise he makes (as he’s proving with the land) is important to us is because we obey God’s commands, trusting in the faithfulness of his character and word. And his Word is sure.
In other words, here’s why the land of Beth-Pezzaz matters to us. Because the Lord has promised, for example, that he’ll raise us from the dead to eternal life if our faith is in his crucified and risen Son, then you and I can be obedient even in areas where it may cost us our lives. His faithfulness is a foundation for radical obedience. You could see this in the life of an early believer named Polycarp. He was a friend and pupil of the Apostle John, and he was martyred in AD 155 at the age of eighty-six. What strengthened him in these last moments when he was faced with being burned? It was God’s faithfulness. He responded to his persecutors, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”i If God was faithful to him, how could he turn from him now?
And just consider this for a second. One of the reasons that the Lord pressed with such urgency for Joshua to get on with dividing the land as an inheritance is because he wanted you and me to know today that his word could be trusted so that we might find strength to obey. So, let us lay down our lives in light of his promise that we’ll take them up again, forsake the fleeting pleasures of sin in light of his promise that there are pleasures at his right hand forevermore, be willing to give of our goods and money for his purposes in light of the promise that he’ll give us treasure in heaven, rest in the midst of pain and tragedy in light of the promise that he’ll work all for our good, and on and on. He is faithful to his promises. So, let us trust and obey. And that brings us to our second point:
We need to be steadfast and persevere in obedience
Have you ever noticed that most love songs promise things that you’ll probably never actually have to do? They’re grandiose, dramatic promises. You get promises about going to the ends of the earth, climbing the highest mountain, and even dying. What you typically don’t get are love songs where the artists promises to pick up his dirty socks off the floor, get up in the middle of the night with the newborn, or even faithfully sit by her side as she suffers through Alzheimer’s. Obedience in the mundane can sometimes be more challenging than obedience in dramatic times.
That seems to be what we find with Israel in these chapters. They’d done the dramatic conquering of the kings and lands in chapters 6-12. But now they’re just not finishing the task. We read in 13:13, “Yet the people of Israel did not drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites, but Geshur and Maacath dwell in the midst of Israel to this day.” And you read that same thing about the Jubusites in 15:63, about the Canaanites who lived in Gezer in 16:10, and about others in 17:12-13. They’d been faithful in the initial, dramatic conquest, but they aren’t faithfully finishing the job. They aren’t persevering in obedience.
And I’m confident that this is the very detail that we’re supposed to notice because of the contrast the author gives us between Caleb and the people of Joseph. First, Caleb’s steadfast faith and persevering obedience are a model. The account of Caleb speaking to Joshua is moving and worth us reading in full. The text reads: “Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal. And Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the LORD said to Moses the man of God in Kadesh-barnea concerning you and me. I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart. But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the LORD my God. And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the LORD my God.’ And now, behold, the LORD has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said” (14:6-12).
This is a man who isn’t cruising in his old age. He’s steadfast and persevering in obedience to the Lord, even to the end. It’s as if the challenges only prod him on to greater faith and greater obedience. He mentions the Anakim, the giants in the land that had made the spies years earlier say that the land could not be conquered. And now it is those very people that attract him to the hill country. He’s eager to obey and walk in faith. Joshua is not pressing him to finish well. He’s the one begging Joshua to let him go and get on with it.
Look at the contrast, however, with the people of Joseph in 17:14-18. They come to Joshua, noting that they are a numerous people, telling him they need more land. So, Joshua tells them, “If you are a numerous people, go up by yourselves to the forest, and there clear ground for yourselves to the forest, and there clear ground for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you” (v. 15).
But they find a flaw in his plan, saying, “Yet all the Canaanites who dwell in the plain have chariots of Iron, both those in Beth-shean and its villages and those in the Valley of Jezreel” (v. 16). In other words, they’re saying, “We’re not sure we can conquer the Canaanites who are still living in the land you suggest.” What? They’d seen all that the Lord had done. They’d even acknowledged that the Lord had blessed them and made them a numerous and strong people. They’d even personally been through the initial battles and had been faithful. They just weren’t willing to persevere and be steadfast in obedience.
And this is a good reminder for us. Obedience in our seventies is as important as obedience in our twenties. Being a faithful 8-5 worker after you graduate college is as necessary as your faithfulness on that short-term mission trip you took your senior year. Don’t neglect long-term obedience or obedience in the small things. Jesus would tell the Pharisees in the New Testament that they need to obey in the weightier and smaller matters. Let us persevere and be steadfast in obedience.
But there’s also a reminder of the Lord’s grace to strengthen us in our steadfast obedience. We’re reminded, especially in chapters 20-21, that:
God pays attention to the details of our lives as he commands us to obey him
In other words, as you’re seeking to obey the Lord (perhaps in a difficult time), you might be tempted to ask, “But is he paying attention to the details of my life as I’m trying to obey the details of his commands? Is he accounting for all the areas of my life where it seems like his care for me will be difficult?” And these last couple of chapters of our text answer, “Yes, he is.”
Chapters 20-21 seem kind of odd at first. After the predictable description of land boundaries over seven chapters, we find that chapter 20 is a description of these cities of refuge. By that, we mean that this chapter is an account of God establishing cities where someone could flee for protection if they accidentally killed someone. So, for example, if two guys were cutting down a tree together and the ax head flew off as one of them swung it and killed the other, then that individual would be responsible for the other’s death, but it would have been a complete accident. Therefore, these cities were set up for men to go to so that they might be protected from revenge. You saw that as we read chapter 20 to begin this sermon.
Chapter 21 then is an account of the Levites being given cities to dwell in throughout the land. The Levites did not receive an inheritance because God had taken them to serve themselves. Throughout these chapters, we are told repeatedly that the Levites did not get an inheritance, for the Lord was their inheritance. However, in chapter 21 we are reminded that the Lord makes sure they have what they need, giving them a place to live throughout the land. In fact, in 21:41 we read, “The cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the people of Israel were in all forty-eight cities with their pasturelands.”
Now, we might read this and say, “So what?” But I think what we need to see is this: God is providing for the necessary details to live in the land. He did not miss the fact that they would need something like cities of refuge. He did not forget that even though the Levites were called to be servants of God that they would need a place to live just like everyone else. God was taking care of the details necessary for the people to serve him faithfully in the land. In fact, by placing Levites in every city, God was putting someone in each city who had the responsibility of teaching the people the law. O the wisdom of God!
And this is a good reminder to us that God is aware of the details in our lives. It’s not as if God has this grand scheme for our lives but somehow is forgetting to address important details. That’s not the kind of God he is. Whatever path you’re on, there’s nothing he’s missing. He’s not ignorant of your needs or difficulties or struggles. He’s a God who provides for the details.
So, putting this all together, we’re reminded that he is faithful, we need to be steadfast in obedience, and that he is paying attention and addressing even the minute details of our lives. And that brings us to our last point of hope:
We’ve got a glorious inheritance coming as well
Joshua becomes interesting as you work your way through the rest of the Bible. In Joshua 21 we read earlier that the Lord gave the Israelites rest. Ah, rest was achieved, right? Well, long after that day, the psalmist wrote in Psalm 95, encouraging the reader to enter the Lord’s rest. So, we might say, what’s going on here? Didn’t the Lord’s people already get rest under Joshua? What’s left to get?
And the New Testament provides an answer. The author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 4:8-9, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” In other words, what the author of Hebrews is affirming is that the rest that Israel experienced as they entered the land was just a type and shadow of something much more glorious. They had rest from their enemies, but they hadn’t tasted what it was like to be able to rest in the saving work of Christ, know we are his, and know what it was like to be in a world without sin, Satan, or death. Driving out the enemies was a shadow of that rest, but not the real thing.
And this is what Jesus is announcing when he comes into the world and says to all who are weary and heavy-laden that he will give rest. He wasn’t just noticing that everyone in the first century was tired. He was saying that he was the key to them knowing the rest that God was foreshadowing that he has for his people even back in the book of Joshua. Jesus was saying that this rest was found in being united with him by faith. And one day, for those of us who have trusted in the Lord who lived, died, and was raised for us, we’ll know that rest perfectly, as Jesus returns, Satan, sin, and death are no more, and we dwell with our God forever in perfect peace. That is the rest that God was giving us a glimpse of as he brought his people into the land.
So, as we look at God’s faithfulness, remember his care for the details of our lives, and understand the importance of persevering in steadfast obedience, let us keep our eyes on the joy that is set before us in the eternal inheritance that is ours in Christ. And, therefore, let us cry with all the saints, “Lord, come quickly!” Amen.