So, in Joshua 24, after Israel promises to adhere to its covenant with God — to put away the gods of Egypt and avoid the gods of Canaan — Joshua responds, rather firmly, to this stiff-necked people:
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 24:19–28 ESV)
I’m not sure I’d like to meet Joshua. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man you could sit down and have a beer with. He seems every bit the stern, angry, and possibly even self-righteous believer and follower of God that I’m certain he was. He scares me, and it’s no coincidence that the folks at The Brick Testament portrayed Joshua with a permanent, angry scowl.
So while this answer — “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” — is just that kind of stern and unyielding, it’s also absolutely correct. Israel can’t serve their God. And the history shows … they won’t.
And yet Israel swears it will serve. It will obey. It will worship. Big words from Israel. A big promise from Israel.
But I’m interested in this stone Joshua sets up as a witness of all that Israel has promised. All Joshua has said they cannot and will not do. And I am reminded of a passage from Luke:
37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37–40 ESV)
The stones would cry out. Would bear witness to who Jesus was, would shout “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We know stones cannot cry out. This stone will stand under this terebinth tree bear mute witness to Israel’s proclamation — “No, but we will serve the Lord.” And Jesus weeps over the city, over those very stones that would proclaim him Lord and King. “And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:44)
Stones bear better witness when they testify to what was rather than what is. Think of a ghost town, or an abandoned building, or the ruins of a lost and ancient civilization. It is the emptiness, the decay, the ruin, the disuse, that testifies. In silence, such things speak powerfully to what is no more.
This stone, underneath this tree, speaks of what is to come — failure, defeat, conquest, destruction, exile. Israel cannot know that, though I suspect Joshua has been given some insight. He may have some idea of what is coming.
And perhaps that is why he is such a stern and angry man. He has been given a thankless and unpleasant task, of faithfully leading and shepherding a faithless people. God’s people, whom God has called and formed and loved, but a people who will tread a hard and difficult path because they cannot do as they promise.
Joshua and his family follow the Lord, and all he gets for it … is the very same death every one of God’s people will die. Gathered to his fathers, to decay in the ground. The fate of the righteous and the sinner alike.