14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
19 But Joshua said to the people, “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. 20 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.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance. – Joshua 24:14-28 ESV
Joshua was nearing the end of his life and, therefore, the end of his tenure as Israel’s spiritual leader. He had enjoyed a long and successful career after having assumed the mantel of leadership from Moses. During his rule, the people had finally crossed over the Jordan River and entered the land of promise. He had led them in their very first victory over the inhabitants of the land as they destroyed the city of Jericho. And he had followed God’s lead and dealt with the sin of Achan that had prevented the people from defeating the much-smaller city of Ai. In battle after battle, Joshua had been there, leading the way and fighting alongside the people of God. He had overseen the apportioning of the land between the 12 tribes, ensuring that each of the tribes received their fair share of the inheritance promised by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And all along the way, he had repeatedly reminded the people of their need to remain faithful to God. God demanded obedience and had forbidden them to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land. Why? Because He knew that they would end up worshiping their false gods. And there were plenty of false gods in abundance among the nations living in the land of promise.
So, as Joshua neared the end of his life, he felt compelled to provide his people with one last challenge. He calls them to “fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Joshua 24:14 ESV). He used two very important Hebrew words to describe the character of their service to God: tamiym and ’emeth. The first word has to do with the idea of wholeness or entirety. It is translated as “integrity” in this passage, but might be better understood as “wholeheartedness.” It carries the idea of bringing the entirety of your being to the matter – no compartmentalization. In other words, Joshua was calling the people to serve God with a “whole” heart. No hidden affections for other gods. No undisclosed love affairs with the things of this world. Jesus would one day put this concept into words that we can readily and easily understand.
37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment.” – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT
The prophet Jeremiah would later record the words of God, calling His people to this idea of tamiym.
13 “When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, 14 I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord.” – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT
But along with wholeheartedness, Joshua emphasized their need for ’emeth. This Hebrew word has to do with “truth” or, better yet, “faithfulness.” It carries the idea of stability or continuity of character. It is faithfulness displayed over the long-haul. Joshua was calling the people to a long-term, unending commitment of their entire lives to God. This was to include every area of their lives for the entire length of their lives – both as individuals and as the corporate community of God.
And we should not miss the significance of Joshua’s next challenge to the people of Israel:
“Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14 ESV
Their life-long commitment to wholeness of heart and holiness of character was going to have to start with a turning away from the false gods of Egypt to which they were still clinging. Even after all that God had done for them, there were those within the community of Israel who were holding on to their false gods. And Joshua was demanding that they let them go – once and for all. It is impossible to be wholehearted in your love for God if you have a heart that is divided in its affections. Joshua knew that the divided allegiance produced by the presence of false gods would ultimately lead the people away from the one true God. They would become half-hearted in their love and short-term in their commitment to Him.
And Joshua placed himself as a model of spiritual integrity and truth, claiming his allegiance to God.
“…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:15 ESV
He was verbally committing himself and his family to serve God alone. He was placing a stake in the ground and declaring his unwavering, undivided allegiance to God. And the people responded with enthusiastic agreement, shouting, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (Joshua 24:18 ESV). Good answer. Right answer. But was it a truthful answer? Did they really mean what they were saying or were they simply responding based on the excitement of the moment? Only time would tell.
And Joshua seems to have had his doubts about not only the sincerity of their answer, but also the potentiality of their follow-through. He boldly predicted, “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” (Joshua 24:19 ESV). Joshua seemed to have realized that the people were making their commitment to serve God with their whole hearts throughout their whole lives, in ignorance. They failed to recognize their own insufficiency to pull this off. Joshua was simply reminding them that what God was calling them to do was impossible – on their own. They would not be able to pull it off on their own strength, any more than they could have conquered the land of Canaan without God’s help. They were completely dependent upon God for everything, including the capacity to remain faithful and true to Him.
Joshua warned them that if they failed to keep their commitment to God, they would find themselves on the receiving end of His wrath and judgment. The God who had done so much to bless and prosper them would turn against them. But, once again, the people responded unanimously and enthusiastically, “No, but we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:21 ESV).
Then Joshua makes an interesting and highly revealing statement to the people of Israel:
“Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” – Joshua 24:23 ESV
It’s as if Joshua was challenging their commitment. He was demanding that they prove their enthusiastic verbal commitment with a realistic display of action. Words would not be enough. God would not tolerate lip-service. He wanted wholehearted devotion. God would later accuse the people of Israel of the very thing Joshua feared.
“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
And it’s interesting to note that the response of the people was another verbal expression of commitment, but without any form of visible action. They simply stated, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey” (Joshua 24:24 ESV). Again, the right answer was given, but it was lacking any tangible evidence of sincerity. So, Joshua took their verbal commitment and gave it a visual expression. He set up a stone, a witness stone, that would be a constant, timeless reminder of the commitment they had made to God that day. The stone would serve several purposes. First, it would act as a memorial commemorating the day they had renewed their covenant commitment to God. On the very same spot where Abraham had first built an altar to God after having arrived in the land of Canaan, they were setting up a stone to remind them of their expressed faith to God. But the stone would also serve as a witness against them, silently testifying of their unanimous commitment to serve God alone. Joshua made this point perfectly clear.
“Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” – Joshua 24:27 ESV
And the chapter ends with each of the tribes returning to their respective inheritance. They had made a verbal commitment to God. They had solemnly sworn to rid themselves of their false gods and to serve the Lord alone. They had made it to the land of promise. They had conquered many of the inhabitants of the land and were enjoying the fruit of their labors and the results of God’s blessings. God had been faithful to them. He had kept His covenant commitments to them. But would they remain true to their word? Would they serve Him alone? Would their lives be marked by wholehearted love and devotion over the whole length of their days? Only time would tell.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson