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"Altar of Witness" Joshua 22


Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh Commended (vv. 1-4)

Israel had now reached the end of the war. Not all the Canaanites were expelled, as the Lord commanded, but the land as a whole was subdued. There was no need to keep an army in the field, for the Lord does not want war to become a vocation or a business. The forty thousand or so from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh could now return home to their families. They likely rotated the men who remained on active duty, and there were lulls in the fighting during the winter season. These tribes had done as they promised and as Moses charged them when they proposed that their inheritance should be on the eastern side of the Jordan River. They were faithful to their brethren, fighting, living, and dying with them. Now that the Lord has given rest to the remaining tribes, they could return to their homes.

Joshua’s commendation reminds us that we must love one another fervently (1 Pet. 1:22) and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). If a brother is hurting, falls into sin, or needs our help, we are to consider our lives as bound up with his. Each believer should make such relationships with other believers that we can call on one another in the hour of temptation and seek the Lord until the victory is won. If there is hunger in the body, we should share with those in need. Since young believers are under attack, it is the responsibility of the entire body to uphold them by admonition, encouragement, example, and prayer. We are bound together by “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” We face and fight one enemy, worship one God, confess one Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord, and live by one standard, his holy Word. We will rest in heaven together when the war is over. This is our unity and our calling; it is the path of victory.

Joshua’s Charge to Them (vv. 5-9)

Joshua is old, and this will be the last time he will likely see these men with whom he has fought for seven years. As a good leader, he gives them a charge. They must diligently obey the Lord and his law. Distance must not be allowed to diminish piety or affection. Joshua can give no better advice than for them to walk in the Lord’s way and hold fast to him with all their heart. If they will serve him, they will preserve national unity. This charge is very pertinent to us. How can we be unified with all believers? Be committed to serve the Lord with all our heart and obey his word. Notice that heart religion was very much alive and well in those days. The Lord never had any love for a religion of forms and rituals – he wanted the heart. If we would serve him, we must give him our heart. He will cleanse our hearts from sin’s stain and give our hearts a meaningful purpose and power – serving him and being filled with his grace and truth (John 1:14; Gal. 2:20). Joshua appears to have given a second and less formal charge as he sends them off (vv. 6-9). They go with their hands full of all good things, and Joshua encourages them to divide the spoil with those who remained behind to guard home and borders.

Altar of Witness and Almost War (vv. 10-20)

10 And when they came to the region of the Jordan which is in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh built an altar there by the Jordan -- a great, impressive altar. 11 Now the children of Israel heard someone say, "Behold, the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh have built an altar on the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region of the Jordan -- on the children of Israel's side." 12 And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered together at Shiloh to go to war against them. 13 Then the children of Israel sent Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest to the children of Reuben, to the children of Gad, and to half the tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, 14 and with him ten rulers, one ruler each from the chief house of every tribe of Israel; and each one was the head of the house of his father among the divisions of Israel. 15 Then they came to the children of Reuben, to the children of Gad, and to half the tribe of Manasseh, to the land of Gilead, and they spoke with them, saying, 16 "Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD: 'What treachery is this that you have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the LORD, in that you have built for yourselves an altar, that you might rebel this day against the LORD? 17 'Is the iniquity of Peor not enough for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the LORD, 18 'but that you must turn away this day from following the LORD? And it shall be, if you rebel today against the LORD, that tomorrow He will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19 'Nevertheless, if the land of your possession is unclean, then cross over to the land of the possession of the LORD, where the LORD's tabernacle stands, and take possession among us; but do not rebel against the LORD, nor rebel against us, by building yourselves an altar besides the altar of the LORD our God. 20 'Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.' "

Israel’s Suspects Rebellion and Assembles for War (vv. 10-14)

Upon reaching the Jordan River Valley, the two and half-tribes constructed a very large monument or altar – one to be seen, something of a spectacle. As we shall see, it was not for sacrificing but for remembering. The Lord had authorized only one altar, a central one at the tabernacle, which was then in Shiloh. The two and half-tribes did not want a separate church, but they did not want their children to forget how they had helped conquer the land of promise or lose a sense of belonging to God’s people. The Jordan River Valley was a significant natural barrier, not simply a river but a 3,000 ft. difference in elevation. The other tribes heard of this and suspected treachery. The whole nation immediately gathered to Shiloh and prepared to “go up to war against them.” The high priest, Phineas, son of Eleazar, led the way, and with him ten princes from the ten tribes. It was a formidable embassy, intent upon putting down the rebellion. To them, it looked like their brethren were setting up a competing worship site and perhaps even an idolatrous one. It would not be tolerated.


Their Zeal for the Lord and Plea to Repent (vv. 15-20)

We might fault the ten tribes for their rashness but not for their zeal. Once assembled and ready for war, they appealed to the two and half tribes, who must have been startled and perplexed by such a large gathering on their borders. The leaders spoke – one of the best speeches the leaders of that nation ever gave in terms of earnest zeal for the Lord and evidence of having learned from their sufferings. Why are you turning away from the Lord (v. 16)? We have not yet even gotten rid of the stain of Baal-Peor (v. 17), when the Lord killed 24,000 for their idolatry and immorality. If you turn away, the Lord will be angry with the entire congregation (v. 18). The sense of national solidarity was still very strong. If the land to which you have returned is stained with idolatry or tempting you, come and have some of our land (v. 19). Stay near the tabernacle, for to be a strong nation we must be faithful to worship God as he commands. Do not build an altar to sacrifice? Achan sinned, and everyone suffered (v. 20).

It is true that this misunderstanding might have been easily averted. Perhaps we find all this zeal for worship quite humorous. Just let them go. Who cares if they start another church? Everyone should be free to worship God as he thinks best or prefers. This was not the spirit of those days, for the Lord’s word says otherwise. He alone defines the boundaries of acceptable worship (Deut. 12:32). We are not to worship like the other nations worship their gods or to make our own feelings and preferences the standard of worship. What is most commendable at this point in Israel’s national faith is their zeal for the Lord’s pure worship. They had learned the terrible lessons of the past, and they were ready to die for purity of worship. Thankfully, they did not rush in with guns blazing but made a plea to repent that gave the two and half tribes an opportunity to defend themselves. Our Lord Jesus was zealous for his Father’s house, and so we must be – for his sole authority through his word over our worship, and our horror of offering to him worship that he has not commanded. The worship question is not, “Do I like it?” The correct question is, “Has God commanded it?” Otherwise, it is “vain worship” (Matt. 15:9) and powerless “will worship” (Col. 2:23).

The Crisis Averted and the Faith Confessed (vv. 21-34)

21 Then the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh answered and said to the heads of the divisions of Israel: 22 "The LORD God of gods, the LORD God of gods, He knows, and let Israel itself know -- if it is in rebellion, or if in treachery against the LORD, do not save us this day. 23 "If we have built ourselves an altar to turn from following the LORD, or if to offer on it burnt offerings or grain offerings, or if to offer peace offerings on it, let the LORD Himself require an account. 24 "But in fact we have done it for fear, for a reason, saying, 'In time to come your descendants may speak to our descendants, saying, "What have you to do with the LORD God of Israel? 25 "For the LORD has made the Jordan a border between you and us, you children of Reuben and children of Gad. You have no part in the LORD." So your descendants would make our descendants cease fearing the LORD.' 26 "Therefore we said, 'Let us now prepare to build ourselves an altar, not for burnt offering nor for sacrifice, 27 'but that it may be a witness between you and us and our generations after us, that we may perform the service of the LORD before Him with our burnt offerings, with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your descendants may not say to our descendants in time to come, "You have no part in the LORD." ' 28 "Therefore we said that it will be, when they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say, 'Here is the replica of the altar of the LORD which our fathers made, though not for burnt offerings nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between you and us.' 29 "Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD, and turn from following the LORD this day, to build an altar for burnt offerings, for grain offerings, or for sacrifices, besides the altar of the LORD our God which is before His tabernacle." 30 Now when Phinehas the priest and the rulers of the congregation, the heads of the divisions of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and the children of Manasseh spoke, it pleased them. 31 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and the children of Manasseh, "This day we perceive that the LORD is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against the LORD. Now you have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the LORD." 32 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the rulers, returned from the children of Reuben and the children of Gad, from the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the children of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 So the thing pleased the children of Israel, and the children of Israel blessed God; they spoke no more of going against them in battle, to destroy the land where the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt. 34 The children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar, Witness, "For it is a witness between us that the LORD is God."

A Soft Answers Turns away Wrath (vv. 21-23)

Stung by the falseness of the charge, the eastern tribes did not start shouting at their accusers. They did not aloofly withdraw but stood and answered. The glory of God was more important to them than being falsely accused. “The Lord God of gods” – a full title for the Lord flowing from a full heart of zeal for his name – he knows. If we were rebelling against him and had built this altar for sacrifice, he would know. “Let him require it” – let him exact it of us. This was their way of expressing willingness to be searched and judged by the Lord for such treachery. The charge was serious, and their answer reflected it – not haughty or angry, but humble and earnest. When we are falsely accused, we should express our conviction that the Lord is our ever-present judge and our willingness for him to judge us, if we are guilty. A false accusation is hard to hear, especially when our accusers assume our guilt. It is best to humbly meet the charge head on, without acrimony or resentment, and defend our good name in the fear of the Lord. Like our Lord, we must “commit our souls to him that judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).

We Want Our Children to Feel Part of Israel (vv. 24-29)

The eastern tribes did not proudly walk away from their brethren and refuse to explain their actions. We see this too often. “You have accused me? I have nothing to say to you.” We should be willing to defend our good name, as well as our neighbors. Even if the charges against us are completely false, the Lord wanted us to hear them, to humble us and encourage us to walk more carefully in the paths of righteousness. The eastern tribes quickly explained their purpose for the altar of witness. We built it for our children. We do not want them to forget the Lord or lose a sense of identity in his covenant and people (v. 24). The Jordan River is a significant barrier between us (v. 25). You will live your lives, and we ours. People forget their history, and this would mean our children would stop fearing the Lord. We can think of nothing worse. This is the reason we built the altar – not for sacrifices but as a witness between you, us, and future generations (v. 27). The altar is as much for your children as for ours. They also need to remember our common faith, our common history, and our common Lord and Savior (v. 28). We never want our children – yours and ours – to forget the Lord. We have no intention of rebelling against him (v. 29). We will worship at his one altar at the tabernacle.

Who does not weep when reading this! We know very few of these people’s names, but if only they had been among us in our nation’s second and third generation. Do not forget what the Lord has done for you. Do not forget that you must worship him as he commands. Never forget that if your children forget the Lord, this nation will be destroyed. If a people leave off fearing the Lord, they have no future. Perhaps for a generation or two we kept these commitments, but Satan deceived us. Education stopped being about the Bible and more about science and worldly respectability. The old doctrines and the old history lost their hold upon our collective consciousness. Other peoples brought their gods with them, and we learned their ways. Now, we apologize for our older, godly ways. It is a tragedy beyond words – not that we have lost our nation but that we did not defend God’s mighty works in our nation. We did exactly what the eastern tribes tried most earnestly to avoid by their altar of witness – children, do not forget what the Lord has done. Never, ever stop fearing the Lord, which means to trust and love, obey and cling to him with all your heart.

It is not too late to remember and teach our children what made our nation great – once. It was faith in God and a common commitment to his gospel. We have many altars of witness in our colonial and some of our national documents and monuments. While wicked men are knocking them over, we must teach our children what they meant – what limited government under God meant. What “Christ, not man, is King” meant. What it meant to have checks and balances placed upon Leviathan by our Bill of Rights and other Constitutional means. What did it mean when State Governors and Presidents called for days of prayer and fasting? Our children will see none of these altars in today’s government schools, which is the reason that Christians should “come out from among them.” We must lay Christ as the foundation of wisdom and knowledge, as Scripture teaches (Col. 2:3), or we will lose our children to the world and to the devil. The way to keep a nation is to fear the Lord. The way to regain a lost nation, if the Lord wills, is to relearn the fear of the Lord and worship him zealously.

Israel Satisfied and Peace Restored (vv. 30-34)

And this is the way we can know, as they did, that the Lord is among us (v. 31) – when a “zeal for his house eats us up,” as it did our Lord Jesus Christ. The western tribes rejoiced that their eastern brethren were not guilty of any trespass against the Lord. The leaders were satisfied and returned to share the good news. They blessed the Lord; war was averted. The eastern tribes called the altar “A Witness.” We may feel this has little to do with us, but remember what the New Testament calls each one of you, what our Lord Jesus says of you: “You are my witnesses.” An impressive stone altar is a fine thing. Monuments and symbols are important reminders of the past. But we have better witnesses – a living heart for God that speaks his praise, knows some of his great works, and shares them with others. You are a witness, child of God, like Jesus was: “the faithful witness.” He did not deny but confessed before Pilate. You do not deny when asked. Confess Christ is King. Speak of his blood and righteousness. Speak of his reign as the only foundation for national unity, peace, and prosperity. Zealously worship him so that you can be strengthened and encouraged to serve and glorify him in all that you do. This is the way your light shines before men, Christ’s light in you, so that you shine brightly in this crooked and perverse nation (Phil. 2:15).

The world needs an authentic witness today – not shiny, television religion, or subjective spirituality without boundaries, or dead orthodoxy without joy and purpose. First, be an honest and humble witness. That you are a Christian because you are a sinner and need a Savior from sin; if we cannot tell the truth about ourselves, how can we boast in the cross? Second, be a confessing witness to the living Savior – speak of Jesus Christ as a real person, ruling over all, and the living Lord of your life. Our lives are not living sacrifices unless we are active followers of the Lord Jesus, unless he has made a difference in our lives. Third, be an intelligent witness – not arrogant, but know the Bible and be able to give answers to those around you. Can you answer the question – if there is a God, why is there so much sickness and trouble in the world? Fourth, be a bold witness – being an altar of witness will bring resistance from the world. Do not be afraid. Do not apologize for being a Christian, but give a faithful apology for Christ. Stand gently but firmly that he alone is Lord and his word alone life.

What kind of witness are we giving? Do we love Jesus Christ? Are we speaking of his offices, of his person, and of his work? His is the only glory that will drive away the darkness of our hour. I urge us in Christ’s name to become his faithful, living witnesses, wherever we go, in all we do. Speak his word, for it is powerful to demolish strongholds of unbelief and wickedness. Satan’s deepest lies cannot resist the plain sword of Christ’s mouth, the simple Scriptures. Learn enough about history to speak the light of truth against the pack of lies that ignorant and scheming men are spewing. Do not be embarrassed at Christ’s works in founding this nation. Above all, boast in his cross and follow him. Go everywhere speaking his word (Acts 8:4). The Lord will use you as a living sacrifice, living altars of witness to his grace, truth, love, and covenant.

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