The Memorial Stones—God’s Acts in History (Joshua 3 and 4)

The Book of Joshua serves an important role in the story line of the Bible.  It moves us forward from the judgment imposed on the covenant nation for their disobedience—40 years of wandering in a wilderness—to the conquest of the land promised 500 years before to Abraham.  But more than this, it brings us closer to the coming of Christ.  In order for Messiah to come, Israel must be in the land.  Certainly we are still years prior to the Davidic kingdom, and the era of the prophets.  Nonetheless, Joshua brings us back into the land that was the scene of most of the events in Genesis, and will be the stage upon which almost all of the great events of the accomplishment of our redemption happen.

The first two chapters of the book remind us of the story of the spies and Rahab.  Moses and the whole generation of adults who had witnessed the exodus from Egypt were dead.  The people waited upon the eastern banks above the Jordan, looking to enter and conquer the land.  They sent spies to the city of Jericho, who returned to inform their new leader that the people of the land were afraid of this conquering nation.  Israel was on the verge of the fulfillment of long and ancient promises.  They would soon have a home—no longer would they be wanderers, dependent on food miraculously given, burying their loved ones in the remote soil of a foreign wasteland.  They would have houses and farms and vineyards—wells of water and orchards and crops to harvest.  Imagine their excitement.

But there was still a major obstacle in front of them.  Their wilderness wanderings were ending in the Spring—the time of year when the heavy snow pack on Mount Hermon in the north was melting and providing the last natural barrier with an enormous flood of water.  It might be beneficial for us to know a few things about the Jordan River and the barrier it presented to the Nation.  Remember that there was something on the order of a million people poised on its banks.  The Jordan flows from the north to the south, serving as the eastern border of Israel.  From the place where it flows out of the Sea of Galilee to the entry to the Dead Sea is about 65 miles as the crow flies.  But the river actually meanders so that it flows about 200 miles in that space of 65 miles.  It is all below sea-level, and descends over this distance an average of 40 feet per mile.  This steep descent forms a very swift current.  Some scholars argue that the name Jordan comes from a verb meaning “descender, downcomer.”  Prior to the building of a dam in the early part of the 20th century, it is said that the river discharged 19.4 billion cubic feet of water per year into the Dead Sea.  This is about ½ the flow of the Colorado river.  The Jordan was a large, fast, powerful river—at its flood stage.  It was a major obstacle.  If the promises of God were to be fulfilled, all of the nation had to cross.

Still, there is something more that needs to be noticed.  These things, so we are told in 4:19, happened on the 10th of Nisan, 40 years to the day from when they were told to set aside a lamb for the 1st Passover (Exod. 12:2-3).  It was as if the whole period of 40 years marked an interlude in the accomplishment of redemption: begun on that day in Egypt, brought to fruition on this day on the west bank of Jordan.  The event before us takes on huge significance.  It is a notable part of the accomplishment in history of the plan of God.

With the help of a divine miracle, this huge nation crossed the river on dry ground. They experienced the power of God in bringing them to the promised land. In response, they took up stones from the river bed and built a monument–a memorial–to the work of God among them. It was a testimony to the direct presence of God in history. His faithful providence and protection delivered them into their new home. This was a promise of continued commitment. The Lord had been and always would be with His people. We might consider four things from this incident:

A.     History must always be understood as the accomplishment in space and time of the eternal decrees of God.  The Scriptures are clear and plain on this issue: Of him and through him and to him are all things.  We do not live in a random universe, we are not victims of blind fate, nor do we face a future that is unknown and even to God himself.  We live in a universe directed by the plan and purpose of God.  In the passage before us, this is evident in the details of the story.  He brings Israel through a long period of judgment, to enter the land of promise.  Geographically, they could have taken other routes.  They could have approached the land from the South, and entered without the obstacle of the river.  They could have been brought at high summer, when the river would have been at its driest and lowest point.  But the Lord brought them here on this day, with the waters swollen to their highest by the melting snows of winter.  And he did all of this to accomplish his own purpose.  Israel was to know, and to remember, that God was the Lord of history and of life.  They saw with their own eyes the conquest of the elements of creation when they were at their wildest point.  And yet they were nothing to the plan and purposes of God.  So soon as the priests placed their feet into the water, it stopped.  This was an enormous miracle, very similar to the crossing of the Red Sea forty years ago.  Water, earth, wind, fire—these are nothing compared to the might of the powerful God of heaven and earth.  Everything about this story cries out to us to contemplate the sovereignty of God in history.  He plans and accomplishes his will in the cosmos.

Secondly, and following along from this, we must say that

B.     While our experiences cannot be understood in the same way as those of the Israelites, nevertheless in a very real sense we must assert that we also see the accomplishment in space and time of the eternal purposes of God.  This is an important part of the Reformed formulation of covenant theology.  We believe that God plans in eternity, for his own glory, all of the events of cosmic history.  Then, he brings them to pass.  But most especially, he demonstrates his glorious purpose in the historical mighty deeds recorded in Scripture: creation, fall, flood, call of Abraham/covenant w/him, Joseph, Egypt, growth in captivity, Exodus, Mt. Sinai, wanderings, crossing Jordan, conquest, kingdom, exile, return, life of Christ, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, spread of the Gospel, return of Christ & consummation.  We live between the comings of Christ, but still we enter into this accomplishment.  Think of it like this: if you are a Christian believer, it is because in eternity God elected you—he chose you out of the mass of humanity to enjoy salvation.  In history, all of the events of the Bible had to happen in order to prepare the way for the greatest event of history—the coming of Christ.  And his coming purchased your redemption.  The just judgment of God against sin was satisfied in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.  But you weren’t born then.  You had to come into this world, and through the sovereign work of God, at just the right time and place in your life, were called out of darkness and united by faith with His son.  Your salvation rests on the historicity of all of these events.  What was planned in eternity, accomplished throughout the history recorded in the Bible culminating in Christ, has been applied in your life history.  God’s eternal plan, formulated in the aeons of eternity past, has been accomplished in you.  Does this make the Bible more precious to you?  Does it make this event, perhaps seemingly unimportant, take on great significance?  Because God brought Israel across Jordan, he is sure to bring to pass all of his purpose.  And we must live our lives with this perspective.  This is the whole point of the memorial stones.  While none of us have ever seen them by the river Jordan, the fact that their presence is recorded for us in Scripture is a sufficient reminder that God is present in history.  He is not far away, removed from real life.  He is active and involved, and day by day accomplishes his will in human history.  What drives the events of the world?  Is it chance?  Is it yesterday’s events?  Do we live in a world that depends on what happened a moment ago to influence what takes place next?  NO.   We live in a world governed by a kind sovereign God, who works all things together for his own glory and our good.
C.     There is a great need for us to teach our children about God’s great acts. (4:21-24).  They do not inherently understand that they live in a world governed by the hand of God.  Their darkened minds must be brought to understand that he is Lord and King and governs all things as he pleases.  He directs history for his own purposes.  We must teach our children in two ways: 1st, we must teach them about the great acts of God as recorded in Scripture.  They need to learn, from the Bible, that we live in a world created by God, governed by God, and in which he has intervened for the salvation of his people and the demonstration of his glory.  They need to know, from cover to cover, the events of Scripture and their theological significance.  Why did these things happen?  What was God doing?  How was he moving history toward the coming of Jesus Christ?  They won’t know unless we teach them.  But 2nd, we must teach them that God is at work in our everyday lives.  Each generation observes different activities of God in his rule over the world, each has the responsibility of passing on these accounts to the next generation.  The memorial stones were a physical curiosity, designed to invoke the interest of children.  You can picture the event 20 years later, when a Dad stands by the stones with his boy, and the child asks what they were for . . . .  Now, we must be careful, because we are not saying that every event deserves a memorial like these stones.  There is a difference between the daily, “routine” acts of God in our lives—sunlight and rain and all of the regular facets of providence—and his special acts.  The crossing of the Jordan was unique.  It was done in a certain way, on a certain day, for a certain purpose.  It is unlike all of the other events of their lives.  We cannot think that every event is of the same significance.  But we all have in our lives some events that are special tokens of the mercy and kindness of God.  Do you teach your children to see his hand in them?
D.     Memorial stones are useless without the fear of God. (4:24)  What is the purpose of this passage as it is incorporated here?  Isn’t 4:24 something of a climax?  Everything points us to the fact that the Israelites, and all those who hear this story—all those who see or know of the memorial stones, must be brought to the point of fearing God.  The ARK—central to the story—was the powerful symbol of God’s protection of Israel.  It was taken into the river first, it remained at the heart of the riverbed, and it came out last.  As soon as it did, we are told that (4:18) that the waters returned to their course.  Imagine what a roar of water there must have been!  But the Lord had triumphed.  All of the promises to Abraham and the promises were coming true.  They were standing in the promised land.  They were not looking down from the heights on the east side.  They were not viewing the road to Jericho from across the flooded river.  They were there.  The land that God had promised them was under their feet.  Can you imagine what must have been going through their minds?  They were the generation that was experiencing the fruition of 500 years of waiting.  Glory to the Lord.  He is a faithful God, able to accomplish his purposes and fulfill his promises.
All of this was intended to bring them to the point of worship.  As they entered the land, they were to do so with a deep consciousness of the fact that God is God.  He is ruler of nature, he is ruler of the universe, he will deliver the land into the hands of the Israelites.  And they must live in his fear.  They must reverence him for who he is—the one true living God—and they must remember that his power is great—it can break out in judgment against his enemies.  Not even the powerful elements of creation are an obstacle to him.  They saw his judgment in the wilderness—they had all buried their parents there—and could see it again if they gave their allegiance to idols.  They were to fear God.
These things were recorded in Scripture, not just for the following generations of Israel.  They were placed there for us.  They happened millennia ago, but they truly happened.  And they remind us that God is Lord of all.  If he is the Lord of history, we must bow down before him.  We must live and order our lives according to his sovereign purposes.  We have memorial stones.  You won’t find them on the banks of the Jordan river.  They are here, in this inspired account of what the Lord has done.
Do you fear him?  Do you understand that he rules in heaven?  Do you understand that even today, as you sit here in his presence, you are a part of the accomplishment of the eternal purposes of God?  He calls you to fear him.  He calls you to worship.  He calls you to obey.  May his spirit help us all to live for his glory.