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Joshua 23 & 24 – Joshua’s Farewell Discourse – Part 3

“Trauma of Holiness and God’s Faithful Word”



Last week we covered three more themes from Joshua 23 and 24.

  • In so doing, we encountered two significant ideas –
    • Abraham as a new creation metaphor
    • The “Beyond the River” concept


Today we finish both the final two themes of Joshua’s Farwell Discourse and the book of Joshua.

  • The Depravity of Humanity
  • God’s Covenant Faithfulness





Joshua 24:19–20 (ESV) — 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.”


The Israelites had just affirmed in verses 16-18 all that Joshua had declared.

  • “One could hardly have asked for a more gratifying and orthodox response than what Joshua received from Israel in verses 16–18” – Dale Davis.
    • We won’t “forsake the Lord”
    • We won’t “serve other gods”
    • Because we know what God has done on our behalf.


Given this affirmation, Joshua’s follow up comes as quite a shock – “a deep paradox” (David Howard).

  • This has got to be one of the biggest “buts” in Scripture!


But…you are not able to serve the Lord” (vs. 19).

  • And the reason – “He is a holy God” (vs. 19).


The words of Joshua demand to be unpacked a bit.

  • It is not an exaggeration to say that the shock waves of this “J-Bomb” reverberated through 1400 years of Israelite history.


His statement says loads about:

  • (1) Who God is.
  • (2) Who the Israelites are.


His statement also raises some very important questions about the law – Sinai.

  • If a holy God can’t be served and His Holy law obeyed then –
  • (3) What is the point of the law?
    • We have covered Calvin’s (3) uses of the law some weeks ago.


We will explore all three.


(1) Who God Is – He Is a Holy God:

What does it mean to say that God is holy?

  • We can’t begin to address this here – books must be read to begin to appreciate what this means.
  • However, we will use a simple definition from R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God.


Holiness –

“When the Bible calls God holy, it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be “other,” to be different in a special way” – R.C. Sproul.


How significant is the holiness of God?

  • Only once in “Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree” – R.C. Sproul.
  • Isaiah 6:3 (ESV) — 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
  • Luke 1:49 states that God’s name his holy, “holy is his name”.


Trauma of Holiness (Sproul):

A good way to understand God’s holiness is to understand what it does to His creatures.

“When we are aware of the presence of God, we become most aware of ourselves as creatures. When we meet the Absolute, we know immediately that we are not absolute. When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite. When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal. To meet God is a powerful study in contrasts” – R. C. Sproul.


An example of this is Isaiah’s encounter with God’s holiness in Isaiah 6:

  • Isaiah 6:5 (1901 ASV) — 5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts.
  • How does Isaiah know he is “undone”?


God’s holiness had a certain effect on Isaiah.

  • “To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. What Isaiah was expressing is what modern psychologists describe as the experience of personal disintegration” – R. C. Sproul.
  • Isaiah was no longer whole.


It was because of the holiness that disintegrates that Joshua said the Israelites would be unable to serve God.

  • And yet, Isaiah was able to serve God.
    • “Here I am Lord, send me.”
    • How do we account for this?


(2) Who the Israelites Are – Not Able to Serve the Lord:

First we need to do some quick background.

  • Joshua was not the only one making this claim.


Joshua was not alone:

God said –

  • Deuteronomy 31:16 (ESV) — 16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.
  • Deuteronomy 31:20 (ESV) — 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.
  • Deuteronomy 31:21b (ESV) — 21b For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.”


Moses said –

  • Deuteronomy 31:27 (ESV) — 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!
  • Deuteronomy 31:29 (ESV) — 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”



So why was a prophet like Isaiah able to serve a holy God, but the Israelites apparently could not?

  • God, Moses and Joshua seem clear that Israel is unable to.
  • Yet Isaiah is part of Israel.
  • Is this a contradiction?


The answer has to do with a right response to God’s holiness.

  • A theme we talked about a couple of weeks ago.


Isaiah fell to his knees and cried out “woe is me!”.

  • I am a man of unclean lips.


The Israelites, on the other hand, said to Joshua, “We got this”.

  • But worse than that, even as Israel agreed with Joshua about the call to be holy and obedient, they did so as idolators.
  • Joshua 24:14 (1901 ASV) — 14 Now therefore fear Jehovah, and serve him in sincerity and in truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt; and serve ye Jehovah.


Do you see the difference between Isaiah’s response to God’s holiness and Israel’s?


It is this fact that led Joshua to say:

  • Joshua 24:19–20 (ESV) — 19b 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.”


So what we have is not a contradiction, but simple math.

  • Holiness of God + Israel’s carelessness and idolatry = judgment.
  • Holiness of God + Isaiah’s brokenness/repentance = forgiveness


BTW – The forgiven, because of their “connectedness” to the judged, also suffer exile, famine, drought, etc.

  • The Isaiah’s of the OT are not exempt from God’s dealing with the body of Israel.
  • They are part of that body.


All of this leads us to our third sub-point of Joshua’s “But”.

  • Why did God, Moses and Joshua continue delivering the law and expect obedience?


(3) Why the Law:

We raised the question earlier.

  • Why demand obedience from the Israelites when everybody knew…
    • (1) They couldn’t obey.
    • (2) God was holy and they couldn’t measure up.


The answer to this question has already been given.

  • We saw the answer with Isaiah and the trauma of God’s holiness.
  • Isaiah 6:5 (1901 ASV) — 5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts.


God’s law is an expression of His holiness.

  • Its purpose is to undo us and disintegrate us.
  • Its purpose is to drive us to our knees in acknowledgment of the facts.
    • One such fact – We are creation; God is Creator.
    • “Here I am, send me” in broken and repentant humility is the purpose of the law.
      • Not the careless yes from a bunch of idolators.


Paul Also Answers this Question:

Paul puts the reason for the law as follows:

  • Galatians 3:19a, 24–27 (ESV) — 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made… 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.


In other words:

  • “The law of God is the mirror of true righteousness [holiness]. When we set our works before this mirror, the reflection in it tells us of our imperfections” – R. C. Sproul.
  • And the guardian, the tutor, the mirror of the law (God’s holiness) reveals our need to look outside of creation for a solution.
  • And from the beginning that solution was God in Jesus Christ.
    • The Serpent Crusher
    • The Promised Seed


And this is a perfect segue to our final theme.





Joshua 23:14 (ESV) — 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.


Joshua’s endorsement, just before his death, of God’s faithfulness is both inspiring and uplifting.

  • Remember, the early Israelites had a much different view of life after death.
  • They didn’t say things like – “I’m going to heaven”.
  • And yet Joshua praises God for all He has done.
    • not one word has failed
    • All have come to pass
    • not one of them has failed


We can go a couple of ways at this point.

  • We could review the fulfilled promises.
  • Or, we could examine the means that God used to express His covenant faithfulness.
  • We will do the latter.


Dabar of God:

Joshua previously cited all the work God had done on behalf of the Israelites.

  • All of which were promise fulfillments.
  • But here he hones in on the “thing” that conveys God’s “CF”.
  • The “dabar” of God.


It is strange that some translations of verse 14 actually leave out or gloss over this Hebrew word in their English translations (yet another reason to read multiple translations).

  • NLT – “one” (left out “word” or “thing”)
  • NIV – “one” (left out “word” or “thing”)
  • NASB – “one of them” (“word” as “them”)
  • YLT – “one thing” (“word” as “thing”)
  • ASV – “one thing” (“word” as “thing”)


So why go with “word” and not “thing” in verse 14?

  • There are two reasons.


(1) God’s promises didn’t come to Israel in “things” or “ones”.

  • God’s promises came to Israel in “words”.
  • Joshua is referring to the promises of the covenant – the words – not the “thing” of the covenant act itself (the victory over the Canaanites, for example).


(2) Importantly, the LXX translates “dabar” in verse 14 as…“logos”.

  • “Dābār” is the OT’s “logos”.


Significance of Dabar:

The importance of what Joshua is saying here can’t be overlooked.

  • God’s promises, His covenant, His “things” are all communicated with His words.
  • And as John makes so clear in John 1, this was never more true than in Jesus Christ –  the Word of God.
  • It is God’s Word that is the ultimate expression of His covenant faithfulness.


For this reason, the TWOT calls the use of the word dabar “a most important declaration”.

  • It is used about 400 times to communicate God’s “CF” to His creatures.


Some Examples:

  • Psalm 33:4 (ESV) — 4 For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
  • Psalm 119:89 (ESV) — 89 Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.
  • Psalm 119:105 (ESV) — 105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
  • Psalm 119:160 (ESV) — 160 The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.
  • Isaiah 55:11 (ESV) — 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
  • Jeremiah 23:29 (ESV) — 29 Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?
  • Jeremiah 15:16 (ESV) — 16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.


How is it that we can fully encounter the “fire”, “hammer”, “joy and the delight”, the “truth”, the “light”, the certainty, and the “faithfulness” of God’s dabar/logos in our lives?

  • Stay tuned.