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hosts, and the loss of six and thirty men: and, not very long before, the connexion of many with the
dianitish women in whoredom and idolatry, brought destruction on twenty-four thousand Israelites in one day. What then could be expected, but that, if these who had erected the altar should pass unpunished, God would punish all the other tribes as partners in their guilt? To avert so terrible an evil was their bounden duty; and therefore they acted right in determining to avenge the quarrel of their God. But, as it was possible they might prevail by gentler means, they sent delegates from every tribe, with Phinehas at their head, to expostulate with them on their conduct. These were met by other delegates from the supposed offenders, and everything was cleared up to their satisfaction: and thus the controversy was terminated to the unspeakable joy of all parties.
Now in this we see how nations ought to act, whenever grounds of disagreement arise, and their mutual interests interfere. Their ambassadors should confer with each other in a conciliatory manner, anxious to prevent extremities, and, by mutual explanations and concessions, to adjust their differences. One thing in particular was worthy of applause in those who seemed disposed for war: they were intent only on the prevention of iniquity; and, imagining that the altar had been raised with a view to put the land of Gilead on a footing of equality with the land of Canaan, they offered to give up a proportionate share of their own land to those who had erected it, and thus to sacrifice their own interests for the preservation
Alas! how different is this from what is usually found amongst contending nations! Modern embassies are most frequently characterized by duplicity and concealment, by chicanery and finesse, and by a wanton pertinacity about matters of inferior moment. Were all actuated by the spirit of Israel on this occasion, were frankness on the one side met by patience and conciliation on the other, the earth would be no more deluged with blood, but the “ swords would be beaten into ploughshares,” and happiness would reign, where nothing but desolation and misery is seen.]
But this history will be further useful for the regulation of II. Judicial policy
[This act was in reality an enforcing of the existing laws under the direction of the civil magistrate: for, though Joshua is not mentioned, we can have no doubt but that Phinehas and the ten princes had received his sanction at least, if they did not proceed by his express command. The law of God had plainly enjoined, that there should be only one place for God's
altar, and that all the tribes should offer their sacrifices therea. It also commanded, that, if any attempt should be made by any part of Israel to establish idolatry among them, the remainder, after due inquiry, should cut them off with the sword 6. This then was an interference of magistrates in support of the laws: and it was indispensably necessary that they should interfere, to prevent so fatal a schism as was likely to arise.
We would not be understood to say, that civil magistrates would be justified in using the sword for the prevention or punishment of schism now. The true Church is not so accurately defined now, as that any one body has a right to assume to itself the exclusive privilege of being called The Church of Christ: nor is there any commission given to magistrates to carnal weapons in the support of any particular system, either of doctrines or of discipline, in the Church: but where, as in the instance before us, there appears to be a public renunciation of all religion, and a profane contempt of all laws, the magistrate is bound to interfere; and every Christian in the land is bound to give him his support. Opinions are not within the cognizance of the civil magistrate, except when they are manifested in actions, or are so promulged as to endanger the peace and welfare of society : but, when carried to that extent, they justly come under his control. This vigilance however, though sufficiently exercised in relation to the things which concern the State, is but little seen in the suppression of profaneness and iniquity. We have laws against every species of iniquity; but they are not carried into effect. The fear of divine judgments on the land scarcely ever enters into the bosoms either of magistrates or people : hence, if only there be no flagrant violation of the peace, iniquity may prevail almost to any extent, without any one to vindicate the honour of God, or to avert his displeasure from a guilty land. In this respect there is an awful difference between the Israelites and us: insomuch that we, with all our superior advantages, are not worthy to be compared with them. must remember, that whenever we put forth the arm of power for the suppression of vice, our first object must be, by expostulation, to reclaim ; nor must we ever inflict punishment, till milder measures have failed of success.]
This history will be yet further useful to us in the regulation of, III. Religious zeal
“ It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing:" but our zeal should particularly exert itself,
a Deut. xii. 5, 7. b Deut. xiii. 12-15.
1. To prevent apostasy from God
[This was the real object of the persons who raised the altar: they, in a most reverential and solemn manner, called God to witness that they had been actuated only by a desire to transmit to their posterity an indelible assurance, that they were as truly the Lord's people, as those who dwelt in Canaan; and that though their land was separated from that of their brethren, their interests and privileges were the same.
Here was a noble example of regard for posterity. It might have been better indeed to have consulted Joshua, or rather to have taken counsel of the Lord, respecting this measure, before they had carried it into execution : but holy zeal does not always pause to consider all possible effects and consequences; (though doubtless, the more tempered it is with wisdom, the more excellent it appears:) but God does not blame their conduct: and in this at least we shall do well to follow it, namely, by exerting ourselves in every possible way to transmit, and to perpetuate even to the remotest ages, the knowledge of God, as our God, our Father, and Redeemer.
The other tribes also manifested a noble zeal in the same cause, though by different means. They were fearful that this altar would be the means of turning many of their brethren from the worship of the true God; and they went forth at the peril of their lives to prevent it. It may be said, that these two were less temperate than they should have been : but, convinced as they were in their own judgment, their zeal was not at all more ardent than the occasion required. Though they spoke roughly, they spoke with candour, and with a perfect openness to conviction, if any thing could be said to justify the act. And their offer to surrender a part of their own possessions, in order to remove the temptation to which, in their own minds, they had ascribed the act, shewed, that they were actuated solely by a regard for God's honour and for Israel's good. Here then is proper scope for all our zeal.
We should remove, as far as possible, both from ourselves and from our children, every temptation to apostasy from God. We should rebuke sin in others also, and set ourselves against it to the uttermost. We should shew ourselves on all occasions on the Lord's side; and be willing to sacrifice, not only our property, but even life itself, in vindicating his honour, and maintaining his interest in the world.] 2. To preserve love and unity with man
[If we find somewhat to blame in each of these opposite parties; in the one, an undue precipitation in building the altar; and, in the other, an undue hastiness in ascribing it to wrong intentions; we behold much, very much, to admire in both. When the accusers found themselves mistaken, they did not shift their ground, and condemn their brethren for imprudence; nor, when the accused had evinced their innocence, did they condemn their accusers on the ground of uncharitableness and injustice : the one were as glad to acquit as the others were to be acquitted; and both united in unfeigned thankfulness to God, that all ground of dissension was removed.
Now it will almost of necessity sometimes happen, that the well-meant actions of our brethren shall be misconstrued, through an ignorance of their precise views and intentions: it may also happen, that the well-meant reproofs of our brethren may be founded in misconception. Here then is ample room for the exercise of well-tempered zeal. To avoid, on the one hand, unnecessary accusations, and gladly to retract them if they have been unwittingly adduced; and, on the other side, to avoid vindictive recriminations, and with pious meekness to satisfy the minds of any whom we may have unintentionally grieved; this is the spirit which we should continually cultivate: it should be the labour of our lives to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”]
3. To avert the divine judgments from our guilty land
[It is a memorable expression which is recorded on this occasion;
have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the Lord.” Sin delivers us into his hand for punishment. Of this, the history of Israel in all ages is a decisive proofd. On the other hand, repentance delivers us out of his hand; as was remarkably exemplified in the case of Nineveh; which, but for the intervention of their penitence, would have been overthrown in forty days. But we need not go
further than to the history before us, where this very effect is ascribed to the pious zeal of the Reubenites and Gadites. Happy would it be for us, if we all considered the effect of our conduct on the public welfare! God has no pleasure in punishing his creatures: and he is ever ready to remove his judgments, when they have produced in us the desired humiliation. Let us then approve ourselves to him: and then, though our zeal be misinterpreted, and even our own brethren be for a time incensed against us, our righteousness shall be made to appear, and our labours be crowned with the approbation of our God.]
c ver. 31.
a If this be the subject of a Fast Sermon, the judgments inflicted on us may be adduced as an additional proof.
GOD'S INTERPOSITIONS FOR US ARE OBLIGATIONS TO LOVE
AND SERVE HIM.
Josh. xxiii. 10, 11, The Lord your God, he it is that fighteth
for you, as he hath promised you. Take good heed therefore unto yourselves, that ye love the Lord your God.
MUCH as patriotism and valour are admired, and deservedly as, in many instances, they have been rewarded by men, they are of no value in the sight of God, if they be not accompanied with true piety. Their utility to the state of which we are members is undoubted; but their moral excellence depends on their union with religion. Abstracted from a regard to God, they are a mere compound of pride and selfishness; but, regulated by religion, they are in a high degree amiable and praiseworthy. Many bright examples of patriotism, united with piety, are set before us in the Scriptures; but none shines with greater lustre than that of Joshua : when his whole nation was sinking under desponding fears, he encouraged them by his unshaken fortitude and confidence in Goda ; and when he had vanquished all their enemies, and put them into the quiet possession of the promised land, he still improved his influence to confirm their faith, and to establish them in the paths of righteousness. The words before us are part of his dying address to all the elders of Israel. In applying them to the present occasion, we shall
I. To whom our successes have been owing
God has promised to interpose on behalf of those who wait upon him
[His promises to hear the prayers of individuals are numberless. And the same are made also to repenting nations]
His interpositions on behalf of our nation have been signally manifest
[We may be led to ascribe them to the valour of our forces, or the skill of our commanders. But it is God who
a Numb. xiv. 6—9.
b Matt. vii. 7.
c 2 Chron. vii. 14.