Prone To Wander
If you knew that you were going to die soon, what would be on your list of things to do? Who would be the people you’d call or visit? And what would you say to them?
Joshua chapter 23, the second-to-last chapter in the book, brings us to a time about 25-30 years after Joshua led Israel across the Jordan River. Perhaps 20 or so years have passed in between chapters 22 and 23. He’s been old and advanced in years for a long time (Joshua 13:1), and now as he nears the end of his 110 years of life, he knows it.
And so what he does is summon the tribes of Israel together and deliver what is basically his farewell address.
The book of Joshua began with the mantle of leadership being passed from Moses to Joshua, and now Joshua is passing the torch to the next generation of leaders, the “elders and heads, its judges and officers” as verse 2 says. Not one single leader will replace Joshua, but rather the leaders of the people will need to carry on what he started.
And Joshua’s message to these leaders, what is on his heart for them at the end of his life, comes in three parts. Part 1 is verse 3-8. Part 2 is verses 9-13, and the final part is verses 14-16. Each of these three parts follows a similar pattern. They begin by looking at what God either has done or has promised to do. And then they move from there into words that urge or warn Israel to stay faithful to God in the years ahead.
Let’s look at the first part of Joshua’s speech or sermon in verses 2-8. Joshua begins by stating the obvious: “I am now old and well advanced in years.”
Next, he reminds them of what they themselves have seen and experienced. Verse 3: “And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west” (Joshua 23:3–4).
And then he reiterates the promise of what God will do for them in the future: “The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you” (Joshua 23:5).
This is all basic material, right? This has been what the book of Joshua has been all about. But we can’t miss how important it is for Joshua to remind them that God is the one who has done this all. God has done these things to these nation, because God has fought for them. And God will push back those nations which still remain because God has promised to do so.
Joshua is helping Israel remember who has got them to this place. Not themselves! And because it’s God who has done this, then staying faithful to this God into the future is very, very important, which is his point in verse 6: “Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day” (Joshua 23:6–8).
It’s not hard to hear an echo here of God’s words to Joshua from chapter 1: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go” (Joshua 1:6–7).
And Joshua is now giving this same charge to the next generation. Look at what God has done, look at what God has promised, and now, be strong to keep and do all that He’s told you to do.
And in verse 7 he moves into a warning of five things they are not to do: they are not to mix with the remaining nations or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them.
But instead, they are to “cling” to the Lord their God just as they have done to that day. I just love that word for “cling,” a word used several times in the Old Testament to speak of life-long covenant faithfulness. It’s the same word used in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife.” It’s the same word used in Ruth 1:14, when it said that Ruth clung to Naomi. Which, as we find out, meant more than just a long hug—it meant that Ruth was going to stay faithful to Naomi until she died.
And so Joshua exhorts Israel to stay faithful unto death to this God who has done so much for them, “just as [they] have done to this day” (Joshua 23:8).
And with that he moves into what we’re calling the second part of his sermon, which begins with a second reminder of what God has done for them up to this point. “For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you” (Joshua 23:9–10).
One of God’s covenant promises from Leviticus 26 was that, “if you walk in my statues and observe my commandments and do them… give of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword” (Leviticus 26:3,8). And they had seen those promises come true.
And just like in the first part of his message, he moves from this statement of what God has done into an statement of what Israel is to do in response. Verse 11: “Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God” (Joshua 23:11). And then he moves very quickly into a warning of what will happen if they don’t do this. Verse 12: “For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you” (Joshua 23:12–13).
These are also familiar words, not just because they sound similar to the first part of his message, but because they pulled from numerous places where God had promised similar curses to Israel through Moses.
You’ll remember that this back and forth between blessing and curse is a major feature in the covenant God made with Israel through Moses. If they were faithful, they would be blessed. If they were faithless, they would be cursed. And so Joshua rehearses some of these curses here as a motivation to cling to Yahweh and not the nations around them.
Finally, the third part to this message, which begins with Joshua’s acknowledgment that he’s at the end of his life in verse 14. “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14).
There’s those words from the end of chapter 21—not a single word of God’s has failed. Just like in the first two parts of his message, Joshua looks back at what God has done, and carries his view up to the present day and says “look at how God has kept His promises.”
And then, once again, comes the warning in verse 15. “But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them.
Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you” (Joshua 23:15–16).
Look at all of the blessings that God has brought you as you’ve obeyed him. But if you disobey Him and serve other gods, then the promised curses will befall you, and God will be very angry with you, and you will die off from this land that God has given you.
And that’s it. With that final warning, his message is done.
I want you to imagine that you were present that day. It’s been 20 years or so since the conquest and you know Joshua is getting old and he’s summoned all Israel together and you think, maybe he’s going to appoint a new leader and you wonder who it is.
And instead, this is what you hear. Remember what God has done, and stay faithful to Him. And if you don’t, you’ll be destroyed.
I mean, just wow. Talk about a downer. One of the commentaries I read this week joked that Joshua would have failed preaching class, because this is just not how you end a sermon, especially a sermon that people have travelled days to hear.
And this isn’t how you end a sermon for this generation. I mean, maybe this would be an appropriate message for their kids when they started to wander. But these guys? They were the faithful ones who actually crossed the Jordan and got circumcised at Gilgal and fought all of these battles.
At the end of Joshua’s life, surely he should be handing out trophies and saying “Good job, guys.” But instead he’s warning them about destruction.
This is not how you end a sermon at the end of your life… or is it?
Dale Ralph Davis comments that “Psychologically, it would have been better had he somehow concluded with verse 14 on a positive note. As it is, the chapter begins with Yahweh’s rest (v. 1) and closes, thanks to Joshua, with Yahweh’s anger (v. 16). We see this pattern elsewhere in Scripture… So this is not just Joshua’s negativism… Why is a negative ending sinful? Because it will make Israel feel badly about themselves? What difference does that make? We may not prefer unhappy endings, but there is nothing wrong with an unhappy ending if it leads us to faithfulness.” [Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 179-180.]
And that’s the big point here. Joshua did not craft this message for the sake of Israel’s feelings. He crafted this message for the sake of their faithfulness. That’s what he was concerned about.
He had seen, time and time again in the wilderness, just how easy it was for them to wander from the Lord. He had heard all of the warnings from Moses. And so, at the end of his life, he is really, really concerned that these people stay faithful to the Lord who had led them thus far.
Yes, they had experienced all of these victories by God’s power. But that was no time to kick back and relax and coast. Instead, it was a time, as David Reimer wrote, for “deep concern and devoted commitment.” [See David Reimer, Joshua, ESV Expository Commentary, p. 497].
What About Us?
But that was then, and this is now, right? Israel these reminders because if how bad they were, but you and I, we don’t really need the same thing, do we? We don’t need warnings, right?
Well, here’s what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 11 to the church in Rome— the strong, stable church in Rome. Speaking about the ancient Israelites, he said, “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:20–22).
Or think of 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul likewise writes about what happened to the ancient Israelites, and he said that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11–12).
You think you’re doing well? You think you’re “standing”? Take heed—be careful—so that you don’t fall.
Or Hebrews 3, which also comments on the Israelites in the wilderness, and applies their history to us like this: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:12–14).
These are just two examples of the many, many places where the New Testament warns us. Think of Hebrews 6 or Hebrews 10, both of which contain some startling warnings. Do you remember the Sermon on the Mount, which we spent months in last year? It opened up with blessing. And yet it contained some staggering warnings about the fires of hell, and ended on this note: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:26–27).
That’s how it ended. Sounds a lot like Joshua 23, doesn’t it?
And when we take it all together And here’s what all of this is saying to us: just like Joshua’s generation, there is never a time for you and I to coast and be lazy in our faith. When we feel at our strongest, when we’re at the heights of victory, that’s when we need to be the most careful that we stay faithful to the Lord. That we not wander from our commitment to Christ. That we not get used to faithlessness and disobedience.
And it’s not just our own heart we have to watch out for. There are other players on the field who want to take us down. “Be sober-minded; be watchful,” says 1 Peter 6. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8–9). This is why Jesus taught us to pray “deliver us from evil” or “the evil one.” You have an enemy who wants to destroy your faith and he does not take a day off.
How would you leave this building today if you were told, “There is a hungry bear spotted in the area. As long as you see him first and stand up tall he’s going to leave you alone, but if you’re sloppy and let him sneak up behind you, he’ll attack you.” How would you walk to your car? How would you go about the rest of your day?
That is more or less how Christians should live their lives when it comes to our watchfulness in the faith. Not in terrified fear, but with a sober, careful watchfulness. We live with an awareness that we live on a battlefield. We are under constant threat of attack from the world, our own flesh, and the devil. We can overcome the world, we can put our flesh to death, we can resist the devil, but only if we are deliberate to stay on guard.
What About the Shepherd?
Now some of you might have a good question at this point. You might wonder, “What about all of the promises that God is holding on to us and nothing is going to take us away from him?” Promises like, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). Or promises like Philippians 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
I believe in those promises. I believe that nobody who has been truly saved by Jesus will ultimately be lost.
And these promises fit together with the warnings when we understand this: one of the ways that Jesus keeps His sheep is by warning us. It’s like the angel warning Joseph to get up and flee to Egypt, when Herod was trying to kill baby Jesus (Matthew 2:13-15).
There was no way, in God’s plan, that Herod could kill Jesus. Jesus was the long-promised Messiah and those promises had to come true. And one of the ways that God made sure that those promises would come true was by warning Joseph in a dream, so that he got up and fled to Egypt, out of Herod’s reach. God was going to keep Jesus safe. And one of the ways he did it was by involving Joseph, and warning him, so that he took action.
And so it is with us. One of the ways that Jesus keeps His sheep safe is by warning them about the dangers of wandering from him. And those who are His true sheep will listen to those warnings. And, empowered by His Holy Spirit, they stay vigilant. They stay alert. They resist the devil with God’s help. They overcome the world by the blood of the lamb.
And so the saints persevere.
And those who hear the warnings of Jesus but ignore them, and who persist in playing games with temptation and unbelief, those who don’t pay attention to the roaring lion who stalks their path—they prove that they were never actually a real part of Jesus’ flock. Because His sheep hear his voice. And by ignoring Jesus’ warnings they prove that they were never really a part of his flock in the first place.
Now this is the big-picture perspective. We may never be 100% sure where someone else is at in this regard. I’ve seen many people in my life and wondered, is that a genuine sheep who is going astray and the shepherd is going to come and rescue them? Or is that a goat whose very wandering is proof that they never belonged to the shepherd in the first place?
We might not be able to answer that question with certainly for others. But for ourselves this morning, we can understand from Joshua and from Jesus that these warnings, even these stern warnings, are gifts of love and grace from our good shepherd. They are one of the ways that our gentle shepherd keeps us safe.
What About Us?
So let me ask you an important question this morning: do you, right here this morning, feel like you need a warning like Joshua 23? Like Hebrews 10? Do you feel like you need to be reminded not to wander but to stay close to the Shepherd?
If so, good. Remember the grace and receive the warning as one of the ways that Jesus is keeping you faithful until the end.
And don’t miss how these warnings in Joshua 23 are connected to the reminders of what God has done and promised. Staying faithful means not forgetting what God has done and promised.
That’s why what we did here this morning was so important. Jesus told us to eat and drink in remembrance of him, and remembering together like that is a powerful means of God’s keeping grace in our lives. That’s why being together Sunday after Sunday is so important.
This is why regularly spending time in God’s word is so important. We don’t read the Bible just to learn new things all the time. Often, we read to remind ourselves of what we know and what we so easily forget.
And that’s why I love this last song that we’re going to sing, “Come Thou Fount.” This song confesses how prone we are to wander, and in response it asks God to come and help us remember what He’s done for us. Help treasure the Gospel. Because those are the ways that God keeps us. When we are aware of his past goodness and future promises, it binds our wandering heart to him.
Now as you receive the warning, maybe you know that you haven’t been deliberate with staying faithful. So let me encourage you to do something with this warning. Take a step towards faithfulness. Take a step.
What will that step be? Will it mean you start waking up earlier to spend time in God’s word? Signing up for a small group? Asking someone to mentor you?
On the other hand, are there practices you need to not be doing? Certain kinds of media you need to cut off? Certain relationships you need to avoid? 1 Corinthians 15:33 says “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” Parents, what does that verse mean for your kids? How are you tending to their faithfulness with the things and people you let them spend time with?
Whatever it is, take a step this week, a step away from undisciplined, lone-ranger Christianity, and take a step towards faithfulness. Faithfulness often isn’t flashy or fun but it is the difference between life and death.
Now maybe for others, you hear the warning and today you just need an encouragement to keep on walking. You are already taking many good steps—you’re faithful in church attendance and you’ve got good honest relationships with other believers and you’re reading the Bible faithfully and you’re dwelling on the gospel and you’re not filling your mind with trash and I just want to encourage you to keep that up.
Stay the course. Keep to the old roads, and keep asking God to meet you and empower you in the middle of your simple faithfulness.
Now on the other hand, maybe you listen this morning and you don’t feel like you need a warning. You feel comfortable and complacent and you’re pretty fine to just coast through life. In your mind, these warnings are for other people. If that’s you, then friend, please hear my words: your soul is in more danger right now than you could even imagine. That roaring lion may already have his claws dug deeper into your back than you might realize.
And so if that is you, you don’t need to just take a step. You need to run. Run back to the shepherd like your soul depends on it, because it does. Run to Jesus like you have hell behind you and heaven before you, because you do.
And these words are for you this morning even if you’ve never even thought of yourself as one of Jesus’ sheep. The Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for His sheep, says to you this morning, “Come to me.”