The Fear of the Lord in Joshua 24

THE FEAR OF THE LORD IN JOSHUA 24:1-28

The thesis of this term paper is: the fear of the Lord, central to covenant renewal, can be awakened by the contemplation of the superfluous grace of God and challenged into action by the weight of God’s holy character.  Joshua awakens this affection in the people of Israel by recounting the grace of God within redemptive history as it applied to the nation of Israel.  Thus, following a brief discussion of the fear of the Lord, the first half of the thesis will be advanced through a discussion of God’s grace as it is manifest in unconditional election, mysterious providence, omnipotence, and the gift of the Promised Land.  Furthermore, Joshua challenges Israel’s fearful resolve into action by pressing upon them the weight of God’s holy character.  The second half of the thesis, then, will be handled in the following way: first, Joshua’s paradoxical statement in verse 19 will be addressed; secondly, it will be shown that the same statement, when balanced by the weight of God’s holy character, is intended to press the fear of the Lord into action, that is, sincere covenant renewal.

The Fear of the Lord

Joshua 24 recounts a covenant renewal ceremony.  God had been faithful to all that He had promised Israel, and now it was incumbent upon Israel to choose whom they would serve.  In order to direct them the only viable response, Joshua, acting as prophet, recounts the history of God’s gracious dealings with Israel.  Upon their response, Joshua challenges their weightlessness by the weighty character and exclusivity of the God they propose to serve.  Both the front end of the passage, dealing with God’s redemptive grace, and the latter challenge by Joshua, hinge on the fourteenth verse of the chapter.  Joshua says, “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Josh 24:14).  The implication of the language of the text is that the fear of the Lord is the proper resultant due to the contemplation of God’s superfluous grace, and the affection out of which sincere and faithful service to the Lord may be rendered.

What, then, is the fear of the Lord?  Marten H. Woudstra, in his commentary on Joshua, writes, “Fearing the Lord sums up the religious attitude expected of the OT believer. . . . Fear of the Lord is the attitude of awe and of filial reverence which befits the child of God over against his Maker and Redeemer.”  Ryan Fullerton, in his sermon on Joshua 24, speaks of the fear of the Lord as the tension that exists between knowing God’s justice but having experienced God’s grace.  Woudstra and Fullerton get the nature of the fear of the Lord right: it is an affection of the heart.  The text submits that it is the essential affection that leads to covenant renewal manifest as service rendered in sincerity and faithfulness.  The fear of the Lord is the Godward orientation of the heart awakened by His superfluous grace in full view of His great holiness.  It is that affection most readily approved by God (Deut 4:10), the distinction between the unbeliever (Ps 36:1) and the one who has tasted the gracious forgiveness of God (Ps 130:4).  Thus, the fear of the Lord is that affection for God that works in the believer in order to effect allegiance unto God in every minutiae of daily life.  The goal of this paper is to show that this fear of the Lord can be awakened by the contemplation of the superfluous grace of God and challenged into action by the weight of God’s holy character and His jealous desire for exclusive worship.

The Fear of the Lord Can Be Awakened

The fear of the Lord can be awakened by the contemplation of God’s superfluous grace.  In Joshua’s twenty-fourth chapter, the servant of the Lord (Josh 24:29), recounts the history of God’s gracious dealings with the people of Israel (Josh 24:2-13).  God’s grace is presented in the text as unconditional, mysterious, omnipotent, and completely gratuitous, and thus, mighty to awaken the fear of the Lord.

God’s Grace Manifest in Unconditional Election

The grace of God is shown to be unconditional in the election of Israel’s patriarchs (Josh 24:2-4).  “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.  Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many” (Josh 24:2-3b).  Joshua, serving as prophet, begins his discourse by taking Israel back to their roots.  Their fathers, including Abraham, were like the rest of the nations in Genesis 11: they served other gods.  At this point Calvin infers, “that Abraham, when he was plunged in idolatry, was raised up, as it were, from the lowest deep.”

This must have been a stunning truth to recall, for in taking possession of the Promised Land, God had commanded Israel to devote their enemies to the ban precisely because these foreigners were idolaters.  As such they were enemies of the living God.  In this text, Joshua explicitly states that Israel’s fathers, even Abraham, were just like these enemies when they lived “beyond the Euphrates.”  The implication, then, is that Abraham, and thus, Israel had no claim upon God, no merit by which they might call Him their God.  Rather, like those whom they had encountered on their way to Canaan, they could have been justly removed from the earth.  But God, in His grace, “makes a new beginning with Abraham,” says Woudstra.  God called Abraham when He was free to call Nahor or Haran, and established His purpose with him and not the others.

Joshua writes on behalf of God, “Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River” (Josh 24:a).  God is determined to be the actor in this election, and by it, there was to be a clean break from the service of other gods.  In other words, God chose Abraham in order that he might be a monotheist, one who fears Yahweh alone.  Whereas a relative like Laban, the grandson of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, is mentioned lusting over his household gods (Gen 31:19, 34-35), Abraham, on account of God’s unconditional election, becomes the father of biblical faith in Yahweh.  So, too, were the offspring of Abraham to be. This must have cut the Israelites to the core, for even as Joshua spoke to them, they were in the midst of their harlotry (Josh 24:14, 23).  Nevertheless, that God took Abraham and “led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many,” is intended, by its explicit emphasis on God’s unconditional election, to incite the fear of the Lord.  They weren’t killed or left to their own idolatrous devices, but rather, they were redeemed to be Yahweh’s people.  When God, in His freedom, grants mercy when He might have freely dispensed justice, those who have received mercy are to respond with godly affections for Him.

The grace of God displayed in His creation of a new people is central to the history of Israel’s fathers.  God chose Abraham and not his brothers.  From Abraham, at an impossible age, God “gave him Isaac” and chose him rather than Ishmael to be the promised heir.  From Isaac, even though Rebekah was barren, God granted twins, choosing the younger, Jacob, to be the heir of promise rather than Esau.  It is with reference to Jacob and Esau that the apostle Paul illustrates God’s unconditional election before they were born quoting, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13; Mal 1:2, 3).  Thus, God set his love upon those quite undeserving of it, and the Israel before Joshua was the blessed recipient of it.  They were a people created by the grace of God.  It is precisely this tension, between God’s justice and mercy, that aims to awaken the fear of the Lord.

God’s Grace is Mysterious

As Joshua moves from Abraham to the history of Jacob and Esau, he intends to develop the biblical theme of God’s mysterious providence as it relates to those whom He has chosen to love or hate.  As has been mentioned, and will be drawn upon here, Paul, in his defense of God’s faithfulness to His word, alludes to the unconditional election of Jacob over against Esau.  Again, quoting from Malachi 1:2-3, Paul writes God’s prophetic words, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.”  It is incumbent upon us to notice what God does with the one He hates and the one that He loves in this text.

The one that God hates, that is, Esau, He gave “the hill country of Seir to possess” (Josh 24:4b).  The one that God loves, that is, Jacob, he “and his children went down to Egypt” (Josh 24:4c).  So, the one that God hates receives from God the gift of property and freedom.  Esau becomes Edom.  The one that God loves He sends into slavery in Egypt.  This seems to be backwards, but it is not.  As the story unfolds, the prosperity that He gave to Esau becomes a judgment, while the slavery that He allotted for His people, Jacob, becomes the setting for the personal and corporate experience of God’s mighty redemption.  This, Joshua alludes to in the fifth verse through the seventh.

In Exodus 14:30-31, Moses relays the fact that Jacob, that is, Israel, whom God had sent into slavery, “saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians,” bearing the following consequence, “so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”  But what of Esau, that is, Edom?  The Song of Moses in Exodus 15 captures their portion in God’s redemptive act for Israel (Exod 15:13-16a):

You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.  The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philisita.  Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.  Terror and dread fall upon them.

While Israel, having been enslaved, receives the gracious deliverance of God and a relationship with Him, Edom, having formerly received their portion, now receives dismay, trembling, terror, and dread.  They are grouped with the rest of the inhabitants of Canaan, the enemies of Yahweh.  God’s grace is truly mysterious.  Those whom He loves, He positions in order that they might see His saving grace; and that same saving grace to Israel, was terror to Edom.  That God graciously works for those whom He graciously loves, no matter how grim the circumstances may appear to be, serves to awaken wholehearted devotion in His people.

God’s Grace is Omnipotent

Several instances, beginning with the exodus from Egypt, are mentioned by Joshua to emphasize God’s omnipotent grace.  It should be noted that while this omnipotent grace appears as grace to those for whom God fights, it manifests itself as omnipotent judgment upon those with whom God fights.  It was pertinent that Israel see the power of Yahweh.  Richard S. Hess explains, “In Joshua 24, the stress falls on divine deliverance from enemy peoples, beginning with Egypt.  Israel must understand that its God can grant victory for all the enemies that remain in the land.”

The constant emphasis of Joshua in 24:5-13 is thus the exclusivity of Yahweh in defeating His and, consequently, Israel’s foes.  God makes a distinction between Israel and Egypt, and, thus, He fights against Egypt and redeems a helpless nation of hired servants.  God sent Moses and Aaron, the former a murderer and the latter an idolater, and by them He performed His great acts of deliverance for the sons of Israel.  He specifically orders them to turn back and encamp by the sea so that upon Egypt’s appearing they might “fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Exod 14:13).  Thus, Israel walked through the sea and Egypt was destroyed in it.  Yahweh fought for Israel, and they had “only to be silent” (Exod 14:14).  And as has been shown, they feared Yahweh (Exod 14:31).  Howard astutely notes beginning in Joshua 24:5 that, “A dramatic shift in perspective occurs in these verses,” that, “in v. 5 ‘you’ occurs for the first time, and ‘you’ alternates with ‘they’ through v. 7. . . . This puts the focus on the present generation in a dramatic way.”  God asserts that the present generation saw what He did in Egypt.  Howard continues, “The impact of God’s words was greater because of this focus on them.”  God had not only worked in generations past, but had more recently worked, and was presently working in the history of this generation as well.

More hurriedly, Joshua recounts Israel’s battle with the Amorites, “who lived on the other side of the Jordan” (Josh 24:8b).  This most certainly accounts for the narrative in Numbers 21:21-35, where Israel’s defeat of the two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, are attributed to God, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land” (Num 21:34).  The Lord then recounts Israel’s deliverance from Balak, the king of Moab, and the pagan prophet, Balaam.  In somewhat of a different manner, Yahweh omnipotently protects His people from the curses of Balaam.  Indeed, He forbids Balaam from cursing them, and instead, Balaam blesses Israel, and even prophecies of God’s eschatological goal through Israel.  This narrative (Numbers 22-24) reveals the omnipotence of God’s grace in this way: those whom Yahweh has blessed, must be blessed.  They cannot be cursed on account of Yahweh’s faithfulness.  Woudstra writes that this narrative, “shows the complete mastery of the God of Israel over all the forces that would seek to harm his people.”

All of this leads up to the actual conquest of the land of Canaan, which begins in the eleventh verse.  Once they have miraculously crossed the Jordan, there awaits the leaders of Jericho, “and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Josh 24:11).  According to Deuteronomy 7:1, these were seven nations “more numerous and mightier than (Israel).”  They were international bullies; but God “gave them into (Israel’s) hand” (Josh 24:11).

Israel dispossessed them all by the power of God, but it was “not by your sword or by your bow” (Josh 24:12d).  God, in His omnipotent grace, fought for Israel against their enemies, such that the Holy Spirit attributes the entirety of their conquest to God alone.  As He has defeated the nations before Israel, so He has proven Himself to be the God of the whole earth, a God greater than those of the nations around them, a God that they, as the benefactors of His omnipotent grace, should be awakened to fear.  Israel is to fear Yahweh because any power or might or merit that they could claim for themselves as the basis of their inheritance is stripped from them and attributed to God’s omnipotent grace.

God’s Grace is Gratuitous

While this appears redundant, the text supports it.  The thirteenth verse of Joshua 24 serves as a summation of all that God had done for Israel in bringing them into and granting them the Promised Land.  The Israelites had not labored in the land, nor had they built cities, but they dwelt in them.  The Israelites had not planted vineyards or olive orchards, but they ate of them.  Israel’s existence, and their existence in the Promised Land was owing to none but Yahweh alone.  In His grace, He had given them the land.  Woudstra writes,

The prophetic summary, characterized by an emphasis upon the undeserved nature of the gifts that the Lord of the covenant has bestowed upon Israel and its forefathers, now comes to its conclusion.  The present possession of the land . . . is once more said to be due entirely, not to Israel’s efforts but to the goodness of Israel’s God.

Thus, we have seen that God’s grace is superfluous.  God’s grace is unconditional, mysterious, omnipotent, and gratuitous.  The contemplation of this grace, as it occurred in Israel’s history, is intended to awaken and cultivate the fear of Yahweh.  This is the obvious direction of Joshua, when on the basis of this grace, he continues, “Now therefore fear the Lord” (Josh 24:14a).  The thesis to this point has been defended: the fear of the Lord can be awakened by the contemplation of the superfluous grace of God.

The Fear of the Lord Can Be Challenged

Having directed Israel to the only viable response to the experience of God’s grace, specifically, the fear of the Lord, Joshua challenges Israel’s resolve in Joshua 24:15-28.  Joshua 24:16-18 addresses this initial resolution to fear Yahweh.  The passage stands in the midst of at least three challenges from Joshua to solidify their affections.  The first challenge is the example of Joshua, himself, as he goes before them saying, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh 24:15).  The third challenge from Joshua is the stone of witness that he sets up “under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord” (Josh 24:26-27).  The second challenge, standing between the two previously mentioned and serving to press upon the Israelites the weight of their resolve, is their apparent inability to fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness.  It is this challenge, standing most prominently in the text, that will be addressed in accordance with the thesis of this paper.  It will be shown how Joshua’s challenge in verse 19 attends to the nature of Israel’s confession.  Thereafter, the content of Joshua’s challenge, consisting of the weight of God’s holy character, will be discussed, and proven effectual unto action.

The Paradox of Joshua’s Challenge

In Joshua 24:14-18, Joshua receives what appears to be any preacher’s dream.  He has preached a sermon on the grace of God in redemption, and the people, in response to his call, resolve to serve Yahweh.  The altars are about to fill in a frenzy!  And thus, Joshua’s response is quite shocking: “You are not able to serve the Lord” (Josh 24:19).  On this account, Howard, Jr., quoting Butler says that this is, “perhaps the most shocking statement in the OT.”

How does one account for this apparent paradox?  Paul R. House writes, “Joshua’s warnings are part exhortation and part suspicion.”  In other words, Joshua is hopeful but realistic about Israel’s history and present idolatry.  Bruce K. Waltke is more pessimistic, “The scene is unsettling.  The worship of other gods is already a present reality, and future apostasy is presented as inevitable because of Israel’s overconfidence.”  Hess and Howard, Jr. draw out the monotheistic desires of Yahweh and His servant, Joshua, against the backdrop of Israel’s present idolatry. There is a sense in which each of these aspects is present in Joshua’s challenge.  In order to arrive at the heart of this challenge, however, one must understand why Joshua might have said this in the first place.  There are four brief lines of reasoning to entertain.  First, Israel’s past history, riddled with idolatry from start to finish, granted no immediate consolation to their leader.  Secondly, Israel was engrossed in present idolatry.  It seems that while Joshua is speaking to them, idols and other gods are in their midst (Josh 24:14, 23) such that it constitutes the occasion of covenant renewal.  Thirdly, their remains an obvious prophetic function to Joshua’s words.  Joshua had attended the sermons of Moses in Deuteronomy 27-33, and in much the same way, anticipates Israel’s ultimate apostasy.  Fourthly, Moses had previously developed a deep theology of the heart that could easily have come into play in the words of Joshua (cf. Deut 6:5; 10:16; 29:4).

At the very least, it seems that Joshua doubts the seriousness and the weight of their resolve.  They have not felt the weight of what they have resolved to do, and thus, to bring it out and to press it upon them Joshua alludes to God’s character and Israel’s current state of idolatry.  Calvin writes of this scenario thus, “They build without a foundation.  This happens because they neither distrust their own weakness so much as they ought, nor consider how difficult it is to bind themselves wholly to the Lord.”  Agreeable to this are the words of Woudstra, “Joshua simply wants to confront Israel with the seriousness of the solemn promise it has just uttered.”

There is an obvious duality in Israel’s resolve, for their gods were amongst them; and an obvious weightlessness also, for they had failed to consider the nature of Yahweh’s character – He is a monotheist!  Joshua aimed at their hearts with his words.  Israel must serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness out of the reservoir of the fear of the Lord.  What content does Joshua use to press this affection into wholehearted service?

The Content of Joshua’s Challenge

Israel’s inability to serve the Lord is grounded in the character of God.  Joshua challenges them, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.  If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good” (Josh 24:19-20).  In other words, it is quite possible that Israel has made a rash vow, that they have failed to consider the God who has redeemed them, and what He requires of them in return.

Three things are mentioned with regard to the character of God that serve to emphasize the weight of the moment.  First, God is holy.  God’s holiness is His distinctive attribute.  It sets Him apart from His creation, and especially, from the gods of the nations after whom Israel whored.  Frequently in Israel’s history, the people had sinned against God and God, in His absolute holiness, had lashed out at them in His consuming wrath.  The law and its provision for faithful sacrifice was given in order that this holy God might dwell amongst an unholy people.  In fact, the emphasis to be placed upon Joshua’s words here may allude to a very simple reality: God is holy, and the Israelites before him were not, nor were their gods.  Israel must be holy, for God is holy (Lev 19:2)!  This, obviously, would have been quite sobering.

Secondly, God is jealous.  Woudstra defines God’s jealousy as, “God’s zeal for the maintenance of his honor.”  Howard Jr. insightfully adds, “This was (and is) part of God’s very nature: he would not brook any competition for his people’s loyalties.”  God’s greatest desire is his own glory, and Israel’s idolatry of the moment was unappeasing.  Israel, like their fathers, were to make a decisive break with all other objects of worship on the basis of God’s redemptive grace.  The failure to do so would result in condemnation (Josh 24:19e-20b).

Thirdly, God is faithful to His word, for blessing and for cursing.  This is hinted at in the twentieth verse.  God had faithfully delivered Israel and given them the land.  This redemptive grace was intended to awaken the fear of the Lord; but where the affection is not awakened, and the people continue to mix themselves with and serve other gods, God will be equally faithful to utterly destroy them from the land.  This verse, then, recalls the earlier covenant renewal from Joshua 8:30-35 (cf. Deut 27-30), where the blessings of God were recited from Mt. Gerizim, and the curses of God from Mt. Ebal, binding the people to the condition of obedience to Yahweh.  Here, before Joshua, they stood guilty, and Joshua knew it.

The very attributes of God’s character, His holiness, jealousy, and faithfulness, demanded of Israel that they serve God alone.  He would not put up for any other competition.  The content of Joshua’s challenge, then, consisting of God’s holy character, provided the necessary weight to Israel’s hasty resolve.  This challenge served to press the fear of Yahweh into action, into service, sincere and faithful.  In light of their persistence (Josh 24:21, 22), and the Spirit’s appraisal in Joshua 24:31 it appears that the resolve of this generation is sincere:  “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.”  Thus, the fear of the Lord being challenged into action by the weight of God’s holy character brings about the desired renewal of the covenant, a service that endured throughout that generation.

Conclusion

Joshua 24:1-28 is a covenant renewal ceremony wherein the essential affection of the heart for proper service is the fear of the Lord.  This term paper has argued that the fear of the Lord can be awakened by the contemplation of God’s superfluous grace, as it is manifest and personally experienced in election, mysterious providence, omnipotence, and gratuity.  Also argued is that this graciously awakened affection can be challenged into action by the gravity of God’s character, particularly His holiness, jealousy, and faithfulness.  The contours of God’s redemptive grace do, in fact, lead to the fear of the Lord, and the fear of the Lord can be challenged into faithful service as has been proven by the argumentation set forth.  At least in the life of this generation, Israel fears Yahweh.  Nevertheless, Joshua 24:1-28 looks forward to the promise of an eternally better covenant, a covenant by which God’s elect will receive new hearts, hearts that fear Yahweh, having been given by Him.  The New Testament Joshua, the Lord Jesus Christ, by His blood, has purchased these life-giving promises for His people that we may fear the Lord forever, and impart that fear to the world who has none before them.

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