READ : Joshua 3-4
At last, with the years of wilderness wandering behind them, Israel stands poised to enter the Promised Land, but it’s going to take an act of real faith to get them in.
As the Old Testament book of Joshua opens, the people of Israel have reached both a beginning and an end. It was the end of the exodus: the end of the drama of escape from Egyptian slavery and 40 years of wilderness wandering, the end of their steady diet of manna and quail, the end of following the lead of the pillar of cloud and fire. And it was a beginning, the beginning of a new life in the land of promise.
But first Israel had to get there. Opposite them and a few miles inland lies Jericho, the gateway to Canaan. The Jordan River flows at their feet. Rising far to the north on the southern slopes of Lebanon and twisting like a serpent through its course from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, this river now blocks Israel’s path to its long-sought goal. So now the people have to get across the river, and go up to conquer the land.
Crossing the River
That might not be so easy. A river crossing is one of the most difficult and hazardous of all military operations, and for Israel the difficulty was compounded by the fact that not only did the soldiers have to get across, but the whole host of dependent women and children did as well. Moreover, it was springtime, the season of grain harvest, and the river was in flood as a result of the melted runoff from the mountains of Lebanon (see 3:15). The only way to cross was by fording, but with the river rushing along overflowing its banks, that seemed a distinctly unpleasant, not to say dangerous, prospect. The people were told to camp right on the river bank, and there they waited for three long days (3:1-2).
Then the Lord gave them specific orders. The ark of the covenant was to take the lead. This was the sacred gold-covered box with its lid (the mercy seat) that symbolized the very presence of the Lord of hosts with his people. The Levites were commanded to carry the ark a thousand yards ahead of the people so that all Israel could see it plainly and follow it carefully (3:3-4). Then the order was given to the people to consecrate themselves in preparation for the amazing things the Lord would do among them (3:5).
Those “amazing things” would begin, Joshua said, with a miraculous crossing of the river:
And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap (v.13).
And so it happened. The Jordan’s flow was cut off upstream at exactly the right time, and the host of Israelites crossed dry-shod just as their parents had at the Red Sea (see 4:23).
Raising the Stones
But that wasn’t the end of the story. A most important part yet remained. Joshua ordered that twelve men be chosen, one from each tribe. Each man was to pick up a stone from the middle of the riverbed for the construction of a monument that would serve as a perpetual reminder of this great day. The first night they spent in Canaan, before the Jordan River mud was even cleaned from their sandals, the Israelites had to do something to make sure they would never forget what had just happened.
After all, they would be busy people in the coming years. They had a new land to settle. There were hostile enemies to subdue, strong cities to conquer. They had to organize a nation, build a Temple, write a Bible, and eventually produce a Messiah. But first they needed to make sure that they would always remember what the Lord had done for them on that day when they crossed the Jordan River. They needed a memorial—nothing fancy or elaborate; a simple pile of stones would do. But it had to be something that would recall the mighty acts of God for all generations to come (4:21-23).
What exactly were those memorial stones commemorating? Several things. First, let’s not overlook the fact that this was a great act of faith, particularly on Joshua’s part, but for the priests and people as well. They were given a command that seemed to make no sense. Not, “Look for an easier place to cross,” or “Wait for the flood to subside,” but “Pick up the ark and march into the river!” It was a command that forced them to rely completely on God, rather like, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31), to take a New Testament example.
The people of Israel had only the bare Word of God to rely on, and appearances were very much against them, but yet they obeyed. I’d love to know what the priests who carried the forward ark poles were thinking as they marched down the river bank towards the rushing torrent. But march they did, and history was changed. Crossing the Jordan that day truly was an example of walking by faith. The great 19th century Christian leader John Henry Newman wrote the poem that became the hymn Lead, Kindly Light during a very difficult time in his life, as he was recovering from a serious illness.
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
That’s how we walk by faith, one step at a time. Then, notice too that the crossing of the Jordan was a great act of mercy. Think of all the faltering and backsliding of Israel throughout the Exodus. Remember their previous failure, their refusal to enter the land even when God commanded them to. And yet God never gives up on his people. He promised to bring them to a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and he is one who always keeps his word. Though circumstances change, and leaders come and go, and our obedience wavers, the Lord remains constant. He still guides his people today, and when the time comes, he will lead us over Jordan too and into the Promised Land.
Most of all, the crossing was a great act of encouragement, first for Joshua personally. “On that day,” says the Bible, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (4:14; cf. 3:7).
The miracle of the crossing publicly confirmed Joshua as God’s man to lead in Moses’ place, and as an encouragement to him personally that God’s presence would provide him everything he needed to fulfill his difficult mission. Those twelve stones piled on the river bank at Gilgal must have thrilled Joshua every time he looked at them, for the rest of his life. When things went badly, whenever Joshua was filled with frustration or discouragement, I imagine him going back to the river bank once more, looking at the memorial, and his sense of calling and his confidence in God’s promises were restored.
But this monument also served to encourage the people of Israel as a whole, and, for that matter, as a testimony to the whole world of God’s sovereign grace and power.
Joshua . . . said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let [them] know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters . . . so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever. (4:21-24)
Whenever God delivers any of his people with his mighty hand it impresses the world, encourages our own faith in him, and confirms our resolve to persevere in kingdom service and kingdom living.
It is good for us to remember the saving acts of the Lord. And so we need memorials too. I wonder, are there places which you can point to and say, “This is where the Lord delivered me when I was in trouble”? Do you have any “memorial stones” that can remind you of his grace and mercy, that call to mind how he kept his promises to you? We all need such tangible, physical, visible reminders that make the grace and power of God real to us. The greatest memorial of all, of course, is the one the Lord himself has given us. He has set a table for us, where the bread is broken and the cup poured out in remembrance of him. As long as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we can never forget what great things the Lord has done for our souls.
The Christian imagination has always thought of crossing the River Jordan as a picture of the believer’s passage from earth to heaven. When our turn comes at last to cross that river, may God then grant that we can remember all that the Lord has done for us. Two hundred and fifty years ago a Welsh hymn-writer named William Williams used the story of the Exodus as a metaphor of the Christian life in his hymn, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. The final stanza goes like this.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,*
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises,
songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.
* those are terms by which he addresses Jesus himself, who is the One who kills death and destroys hell.