No Failing Words
In his very helpful and very readable commentary on the book of Joshua, which we have back there in our church library, Dale Ralph Davis explains that the book of Joshua is broken up into four main parts: entering the land, in chapters 1-4, taking the land, in chapters 5-12, possessing the land, in chapters 13-21, and retaining the land, in chapters 22-24.1Dale Ralph Davis, “Joshua: No Falling Words,” p. 161.
Of these four sections, we know the first pretty well. It’s got some exciting material: Rahab and the spies, crossing the Jordan. We also know the second section pretty well, especially the battle with Jericho. The fourth section might be less familiar to us, but at least a few of us have childhood memories of seeing Joshua 24:15 cross-stitched on our grandma’s wall: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
It’s this third section of Joshua that we wish we could pretend away. These chapters are long and full of details that don’t seem all that interesting to us.
And like I said last week, some of you might be wondering how we’re going to make it through Sunday after Sunday of passages like Joshua 19:17-23: “The fourth lot came out for Issachar, for the people of Issachar, according to their clans. Their territory included Jezreel, Chesulloth, Shunem, Hapharaim, Shion, Anaharath, Rabbith, Kishion, Ebez, Remeth, En-gannim, En-haddah, Beth-pazzez. The boundary also touches Tabor, Shahazumah, and Beth-shemesh, and its boundary ends at the Jordan—sixteen cities with their villages. This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Issachar, according to their clans—the cities with their villages” (Joshua 19:17–23).
Exciting stuff, right? Actually it is really exciting if we understand what’s going on there. But like we saw last week, understanding what’s going on in a passage like that means understanding the big picture. We have to see the forest and not just the trees.
And that’s why today we’re going to be looking at 9 chapters all at once. No, not verse-by-verse. We’re not going to be here until supper time. We’re going to step back and see the message, the big idea, of these 9 chapters all at once. And it’s pretty simple to sum up: these chapters show us, in detail, what it looked like for God’s promises to actually be fulfilled in time and space and real life.
Just consider chapter 12, which closes off the section on the taking of the land. Back in chapter 1 verse 3, God told Joshua, “Every place that the sole of your foot will treat upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.” And in verse 5, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life.”
And chapter 12 gives us a post-mortem record of every single one of those kings who was not able to stand before Joshua. It begins with the two kings who fell before Israel on the east side of the Jordan and moves on to the 31 kings who they conquered on the west side. 31 kings who thought they could stand against the God of heaven and were wrong. 31 plus battles where God was with His people and gave them the victory.
So this is not a boring list. It’s glorious evidence of God’s promises coming true, in real life, again and again and again. If you were an Israelite reading Joshua for one of the first times, each of these names of kings would bring to mind battles that your father or grandfather had fought in, stories you had grown up hearing. Each name says: “God kept His promises here. And God kept His promises here. And here and here and here, again and again and again.”
The same is true with chapters 13-21. Way back in Genesis 12:, God appeared to a Chaldean man named Abram and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1). And after Abram arrived in the land, “the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’” (Genesis 12:7). This was a promise that seemed so far-fetched at the time. So unbelievable as Abraham and Sarah approached 100 years of age without a single offspring of their own. And it seemed increasingly far-fetched as time went on and Abraham’s great-grandchildren had to leave the land and became slaves to the greatest superpower of the ancient world.
And knowing all that backstory, put yourself in the shoes of some guy from the tribe of Issachar. How would you read a passage like we read above, from Joshua 19? You’d be just pumped, because it meant that God’s promises really came true. Abraham’s offspring have become a mighty people with twelve tribes. Those twelve tribes are made up of many clans. And that promise to inherit the land now has geography attached to it. This is their inheritance. This is the part of the promise that comes to them. Sixteen cities with their villages!
See, if we read these passages like the children of Israel would have read them, we actually see the truth that’s here for you and I today: God keeps His promises. In detail.
And that’s why this whole section finishes up with this summary in Joshua 21:43-45: “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 had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:43–45).
No failing words—that’s the title of this sermon, and this series, because that’s the point of this part of Joshua and really the book as a whole. None of God’s words failed. They all came to pass. In detail. In fine, geographical detail.
And so as chapter 13 talks about the inheritance for Reuben (13:215-23) and Gad (13:24-28) and East Manasseh (13:29-31), and chapter 15 describes Judah, 16 the allotment for Ephraim, 17 the allotment for West Manasseh, and as chapter 18 describes what came to Benjamin (18:11-28), and chapter 19 outlines the territories given to Simeon (19:1-9) and Zebulun (19:10-16) and Issachar (19:17-23) and Asher (19:24-41) and Naphtali (19:32-39) and Dan (19:40-48), or the cities of refuge in chapter 20, or the cities given to the Levites in chapter 21, all of this taken together speaks of the power of the promise-keeping God.
So that’s the big idea that these passages communicate to us. God keeps His promises, in detail.
These passages do more than just that, however. Mixed in with all these examples of God’s promises coming true are examples of what it looks like to respond to this promise-keeping God. There’s negative examples and positive examples.
And that’s where we’ll spend the rest of our time here this morning. We want to look at these examples to learn, both negatively and positively, how to respond to the God of promise.
Land to Be Taken
And we’re going to group these examples into three main categories. The first category is a negative example. It has to do with Israel’s failure to take all of the land.
And you might say, “Really? There was more land to be taken?” And the answer is, most certainly. Look at how chapter 13, which begins this whole section, opens up: “Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess” (Joshua 13:1).
And God described the land that needed to be taken. These place names in 13:2-6 don’t mean much to us, but if you see them on a map you’ll see that they were all along the edges or borders of Israel’s land. Israel had taken the centre of the promised land, all around the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, but still needed to push their territory west, out to the Mediterranean Cost, and south, down to the border of Egypt, and up to the northern boundary God wanted to give them.
This might have been a little disheartening for Joshua to hear. He’d fought for years, and done his job well, but there was a lot left to do. So what a comfort it must have been to hear God’s promise in verse 6: “I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel.” The job is going to have to be finished by others after Joshua dies, but God Himself will see to it.
Joshua’s job, in the meantime, is, as verse 6 goes on to say, to “allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you. Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance to the nine tribes and half the tribe of Manasseh.” (Remember that the other half of Manasseh and Reuban and Gad had chosen to stay on the East Side of the Jordan.)
So that’s what starts off this whole section on the allotment of the land. As Joshua divides up and allots the land to the different tribes, he knows that much of this land that he is giving to the tribes is still under the control of other kings who still need to be dealt with. And the question is, will God’s people actually finish the job? And the sad answer we get, time and time again, is no.
- “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” (Joshua 13:13).
- “But the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judah could not drive out, so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day” (Joshua 15:63).
- “However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor” (Joshua 16:10).
- “Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out” (Joshua 17:12-13).
What’s going on here? Didn’t God promise to drive out all of the nations before Israel? What’s holding this up here?
And the surest answer to this comes in those next verses in chapter 17, starting in verse 14. “Then the people of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, ‘Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, although I am a numerous people, since all along the Lord has blessed me?’ And Joshua said to them, ‘If you are a numerous people, go up by 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.’ The people of Joseph said, ‘The hill country is not enough for us. 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.’ Then Joshua said to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, ‘You are a numerous people and have great power. You shall not have one allotment only, but the hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders. For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong’” (Joshua 17:12–18).
Ephraim and Manasseh were the two sons of Joseph, and were each so large that they were counted as two tribes instead of one tribe of Joseph. And they come and complain to Joshua that they he didn’t give them enough land, because they’re so big.
Ans so he says, in verse 15, if you’re so big, go get some more territory for yourself. Clear some more land. You can do this.
And in verse 16 they respond by basically saying that they can’t go clear more territory because the Canaanites there have chariots of iron. And they can’t compete against that advanced military technology.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This sounds just like the 10 spies back in Numbers 13 who said, “we can’t go attack the land! The people are too strong for us!”
And Joshua responds to them in verse 17 and 18 just like he responded back in Numbers 10: you can do this. You can drive them out. “For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong” (Joshua 17:18).
And with Joshua’s words hanging in the air, the account ends and moves on in chapter 18 to other tribes, other people.
But even there we find the same thing. In 18:3, “Joshua said to the people of Israel, ‘How long will you put off going in to take possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?’”
So this suggests to me that the people of Israel did not complete the conquest of the land, did not finish driving out the people of the land, because they got either scared or lazy or both. They either just didn’t want to keep fighting, or they stopped believing that God would give them the victory.
And so they got used to unfinished business. They got used to Canaanites and Philistines living among them. And some of these people, like the Philistines, continued to live and cause problems for Israel all the way until they went into exile in Babylon.
Caleb and Joshua
And that’s the first example we see sprinkled in and among these chapters. And it’s not a pretty one. The seeds of unbelief had been planted and we know the ugly flowers that will grow from them in the future.
And yet that negative example is not the only picture we see in this section. We also see two examples of strong faith in the persons of Caleb and Joshua. The two faithful spies, who were promised back in Numbers 14:30 that they alone from their generation would go in and possess the land.
And this whole big section here on the possession of the land has Caleb on one end and Joshua on the other, bookends which show us what it looks like to respond to God’s promises with faith.
Caleb first shows up here in chapter 14 verse 6, and it’s worth reading this section.
“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’” (Joshua 14:6–12).
I want to be like that when I’m 85. The total, polar opposite of Ephraim and Manasseh. He’s saying, “That spot over there with the giants and fortified cities? Can I have it?” Caleb trusted in God’s promise and he wanted to put that promise to work by going and taking on one of the toughest assignments still remaining.
What a capstone of faith to a life of faith. And that’s a lesson here. Caleb’s faith didn’t just show up out of nowhere. You see it here in his words in these verses: he looks back to when he first spied out the land as a spry 40 year old, and how He trusted in God on that day, and the promise he received from Moses that day. And in verse 10 he looks to the way that God has been keeping this promise to him in all of the years since.
And so, why not go fight some giants in walled cities? Not because Caleb is confident in himself, but because he knows what his God has promised. “It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said” (v. 12).
This is what faith looks like. Faith doesn’t just say “I believe that God will be with me as I fight the giants.” Faith actually believes that and so gets up and actually fights the giants.
And the next chapter, starting in verse 13, tells us what became of Caleb’s confidence. “According to the commandment of the Lord to Joshua, he gave to Caleb the son of Jephunneh a portion among the people of Judah, Kiriath-arba, that is, Hebron (Arba was the father of Anak). And Caleb drove out from there the three sons of Anak, Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai, the descendants of Anak” (Joshua 15:13–14).
Verse 15 and following show how he got others in on the fun. “And he went up from there against the inhabitants of Debir. Now the name of Debir formerly was Kiriath-sepher. And Caleb said, ‘Whoever strikes Kiriath-sepher and captures it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter as wife.’ And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, captured it. And he gave him Achsah his daughter as wife” (Joshua 15:15–17).
Caleb didn’t just have faith, but he knew how to get others involved in the work of faith. And God used this.
And that’s the example that we have on the one side of this section. On the other end, like a bookend, is the second faithful spy, the man after whom this whole book is named: Joshua.
Chapter 19, beginning in verse 49, says: “When they had finished distributing the several territories of the land as inheritances, the people of Israel gave an inheritance among them to Joshua the son of Nun. By command of the Lord they gave him the city that he asked, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim. And he rebuilt the city and settled in it” (Joshua 19:49–50).
Joshua, like a good leader, waits to receive his inheritance until everybody else has done so. Unlike Caleb, it doesn’t sound like he needs to do any major fighting to secure this location.
But while this account lacks drama, it’s still dripping in significance. God has kept His promises and has given Joshua a place after all of those decades of waiting and all of those years of war. He is settled in the land just like God promised He would be.
The third example we’ll touch on briefly here concerns the tribe of Levi. The Levites were those who were chosen by God to minister at the tabernacle and to take care of the sacrifices and other aspects of Israel’s worship. As a tribe they didn’t have one territory where they all lived. They were interspersed throughout the territories and lived off of the offerings that Israel brought.
And this section of Joshua draws attention to them and to their situation numbers of times.
- “To the tribe of Levi alone Moses gave no inheritance. The offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their inheritance, as he said to him” (Joshua 13:14).
- “But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them” (Joshua 13:33).
- “And no portion was given to the Levites in the land, but only cities to dwell in, with their pasturelands for their livestock and their substance” (Joshua 14:4).
- “The Levites have no portion among you, for the priesthood of the Lord is their heritage” (Joshua 18:7).
Imagine what it would have been like for the Levites. While everybody else was celebrating their territories and inheritances, they didn’t get anything.
But that’s actually not true. Their inheritance was the offerings, as 13:14 said. Their inheritance was the priesthood, as 18:7 says. Their inheritance was the towns that they were given to live in, as 14:4 describes and as chapter 21 lists out for us. But at the heart of this all is the statement in 13:33 that “the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance.” God Himself was their inheritance.
Now by saying this I’m not trying to downplay how significant the inheritances of the other tribes were. Their inheritances came from God and were very, very meaningful. But in the midst of all that, the Levites were a witness that all this land was merely a gift from God, and that God Himself was the real inheritance of His people.
Reflections for Us
There’s some more reflections to be had on the Levites and what we can learn from their perspective and experience, and some of that is reflected in this week’s study guide which you can grab in the foyer.
But the main lessons we want to draw from this passage are from these thundering words at the end of chapter 21: “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 had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:43–45).
And as we end we want to consider whether or not we respond to this promise-making God like Ephraim and Manasseh, or like Caleb and Joshua.
I wonder how many Christians, like Ephraim and Manasseh, say they believe God’s promises, and have experienced some of their benefits, but still act as if God’s promises aren’t enough.
They say they believe the gospel, in justification by faith alone, but they walk around every day wallowing in their guilt, feeling and acting like they’re the one exception to God’s forgiveness and God’s love. The one person for whom Jesus’ blood and righteousness wasn’t quite enough.
Or, they say that they believe in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, but they willingly tolerate some practice of sin, thinking it’s just a little bit too strong for them to push out right now.
Perhaps they say that they believe that Jesus died to save people from every tribe, tongue, language and people, and that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, but they are suspicious of every person who looks different from them, and their life shows no concern for the lost and needy of the world.
They might say that they believe that Jesus died to break down the dividing barriers and to make God’s people one, but in real life it’s their political or medical opinions that form the basis of their relationships with others.
Or they say that they believe that God is powerful and that His strength is made perfect in our weakness, and that He’s always with us no matter what happens, but they spend their whole life playing it safe, terrified of falling on their face and never doing anything risky or dangerous or difficult for the kingdom.
How many Christians live this way? How many days of your life have you lived this way? And perhaps the more important question is, what would it look like for you, this week, to live this week as a Caleb or Joshua and not an Ephraim and Manasseh?
And as I ask that question, please know that this is not about pulling up our bootstraps and working harder and trying better. This is about faith. It’s about recognizing just how staggering God’s power is and just how staggering His promises to us are. And if we really believe those promises, then we’ll go pick a fight with some giants, even if they’ve got walled cities and iron chariots, because if God is with us, then we shall drive them out just as He said.
Now I say these words with some measure of symbolism, because we’re in a different spot in the story than Caleb and Joshua. At this point in the story, God hasn’t promised us military victory over human enemies in a certain piece of land. But he has promised us forgiveness of sins and a righteous standing in Christ. He’s promised us His presence as we go to make disciples of all nations. He’s promised us all the things that a chapter like Romans 8 describes—that all things work together for good for God’s people, and that He’ll provide for us everything we truly need. He’s promised us our own resurrection and the restoration of all things.
Do you believe those promises? Do you believe that not one of God’s words to you will fail or fall to the ground?
Do you believe that one day, all of us who have trusted in Christ will stand together on a new earth, in new bodies, being more like Jesus than we ever dreamed possible? And maybe you and I will bump into each other and you’ll say, “Hey Chris, come look at what Jesus has given me to do here." And we’ll go for a walk and spend a few hours, or maybe a few decades, talking about it together. And maybe you’ll write it all down and it will take more chapters to spell out all of the detail than these nine chapters today in Joshua.
And you might say "that sounds like fantasy." And I would say, that is no more fantasy, that is no more a stretch, than God saying to an old man with no children, “To your offspring I will give this land.” The book of Joshua would have seemed like fantasy to Abram and Sarai. It probably would have seemed like fantasy to Joshua at certain points in his life. But it happened. Not one of God’s promises fell to the ground and neither will His promises to us.
So what would it look like for you, this week, to walk out of here with Caleb-like faith in the certainly of God’s promise?
Only you and God know what you’re up against this week. What challenges and temptations you’ll face, what opportunities will come your way. May God empower you, by His spirit, to know His word, know what He’s promised you, and then respond to those challenges and those opportunities with the faith that not one of His promises will fall to the ground.