1 A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, 2 Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. 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. 4 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. 5 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. 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, 7 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, 8 but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day. 9 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. 10 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. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 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, 13 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.
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. 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, 16 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 23:1-16 ESV
Years have passed. Joshua has been in leadership over Israel for quite some time and is coming to the end of his life. And like his predecessor, Moses, Joshua feels compelled to give the people under his care one last word of instruction. He probably remembered well the words spoken to him by Moses when the mantel of leadership had been transferred.
7 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8 It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:7-8 ESV
And Joshua had seen that promise fulfilled. He had watched God work and was able to say to his people, “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” (Joshua 23:3 ESV). They had possessed the land, but not without the help of God. He had fought for them and had routed their enemies before them. But, even all these years later, there was still more work to be done. There were still more enemies to conquer and land to possess. But Joshua simply passed on to the people what he had heard from Moses:
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. – Joshua 23:6 ESV
Nothing had changed. Even after all the years that had passed, God was still in control and His demand for obedience and faithfulness still held. He had proven Himself to be trustworthy and true to His word. He had exhibited His power, time and time again. And Joshua reminded them, “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” (Joshua 23:9 ESV). So, any nations that remained would prove to be no problem. But Joshua knew his people well. After decades of leading the people of Israel, he had come to know their strengths and weaknesses. He was well aware of their shortcomings and the possibility that, after all these years, they could still end up turning their backs on God. So, like a loving father, he warned his sin-prone children.
11 So be very careful to love the Lord your God. 12 “But if you turn away from him and cling to the customs of the survivors of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry with them, 13 then know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive them out of your land. Instead, they will be a snare and a trap to you, a whip for your backs and thorny brambles in your eyes, and you will vanish from this good land the Lord your God has given you. – Joshua 23:11-13 NLT
Joshua knew that love for God had to be expressed in obedience to God. Lip-service was not going to cut it. The prophet Isaiah would later record the words of God, spoken in accusation against the future descendants of this very group of people listening to Joshua’s final charge.
“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT
Joshua had a sneaky suspicion that his people were going to constantly struggle with faithfulness. He knew that the remaining presence of the unconquered Canaanites in the land was going to be a constant problem, because of their false gods. He also knew that there was going to be a temptation for the people of Israel to compromise their convictions and disobey the expressed will of God by intermarrying with the Canaanites, rather than destroying them. But Joshua warned that accommodation could bring condemnation. Making concessions would only make things worse, not better. God was not going to tolerate any decision on their part to do His will their way.
It’s interesting to note that Joshua was passing on to the people the very same words God had spoken to him years earlier, when the mantel of leadership had become his.
6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 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 ESV
Those words had been proven true. Joshua believed them, because he had seen them fulfilled in his own lifetime. He had learned the value of obedience and faithfulness. He wanted the people he left behind to remain true to God and His Word. And why wouldn’t he? As he reminded them, “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 ESV). God had been faithful to them, so why in the world would they ever choose to disobey His commands? But Joshua understood human nature. And he was very familiar with his own sin nature. Covenant faithfulness was always in jeopardy because of the presence of indwelling sin. The presence of God’s law was not enough to cause obedience. In fact, the apostle Paul would later write of his own experience with the law of God.
7 I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead. – Romans 7:7-8 NLT
Paul knew that the law could not prevent sin. It could only reveal it. Which he made perfectly clear in his letter to the Galatians.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
God had forbidden intermarriage with the Canaanites, but here was Joshua warning them once again not to do just that. Why? Because he knew that they were prone to do what God had told them not to do. God’s ban on intermarriage was meant to be a protection. It was to keep his people from worshiping false gods and turning their backs on Him, the one true God. He was trying to protect them from experiencing His wrath. As God, He is obligated by His very nature, to punish sin. He cannot and will not tolerate unfaithfulness. His holiness and righteousness will not allow Him to do so. Compromise is not an option for God.
But we know how this story ends. The book of Judges and the history of the kings of Israel, recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings, remind us of Israel’s failure to keep God’s commands. In spite of Joshua’s warning, they would prove to be unfaithful. They would intermarry. They would make compromises and concessions. They would worship false gods and turn their backs on the one true God. And the prophetic words of Joshua would come to pass: “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 23:16 ESV).
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.