Joshua: Chapter 23 - Going Forward or Going Backwards?

Bible Study @ Hurst Gospel Hall

Author: John Whitmarsh
Added: 2010-07-17

At the commencement of the book we saw that Joshua made a rallying call to the children of Israel. This took place on the far side of Jordan and was with the prospect of victory in the land and the subduing of their enemies. We remember that before Joshua passed on this message to the people he received it as a personal message from the Lord Himself. Some of the phrases that were used in Joshua chapter one are repeated almost word for word here notably that found in 1.7, 'Only be thou (Joshua) strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right or to the left, that thou mayest withersoever thou goest.' Similar words are used by Joshua as he spoke to the people in verse 6 of this chapter. It is important to note that the same message that was found at the beginning of the book is found at the end of the book. Much has happened in between but the people are to remain faithful to the God who has been faithful unto them. Thus the chapter can be divided into two simple sections:

Verses 1-11 Cling to God and make progress

Verses 12-16 Cling to the rest of the nations and the result will be a turning back and destruction

There was a danger that had been foreseen by God in that, though God was to bring them into the land (Deuteronomy 7) having dealt with the seven nations that were greater and mightier than the children of Israel, they could think that their newly acquired wealth and prosperity in a land where they would eat bread without scarceness was as a result of their own hand (Deuteronomy 8.17, 'And thou shalt say in thine heart, My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.'). Two verses later in Deuteronomy 8.19, having told them to beware that they forget not the Lord their God (verse 11), God had forewarned against the dangers of forgetting the Lord their God and walking after other gods and serving and worshipping them. He promised them that to do so would result in them perishing in the same way as they destroyed their enemies in the land.

The rallying cry of chapter 1 had focused on the need to be obedient to the word of the Lord and the command of Moses as they were going up to possess the land. There was an extra dimension to this rallying cry in that there were dangers ahead and warnings that had been sounded as long ago as the book of Deuteronomy needed to be reiterated now that they were in possession of the land. There was a sense in which they had been successful but they were not to forget the fact that the Lord their God had fought for them. Their victories in the land under the hand of God were to be used as the basis and foundation of further progress in their relationship with their God. They needed to go on. Joshua's end was not their end. There comes a time when good men have to pass on but that is not to say that there should not be a group of people to continue in the things that they had learned from the good man. Progress was required. There was no merit in being static and certainly none in going back.

Notice that 'the Lord' is mentioned 17 times in the chapter thirteen of them with the additional words 'your God'.

23:1 And it came to pass a long time after that the LORD had given rest unto Israel from all their enemies round about, that Joshua waxed old and stricken in age.

There are two parts to verse 1 - the rest that had been given to the children of Israel and the waxing old of Joshua. The last phrase of chapter 11 said that the land rested from war. The first phrase of chapter thirteen says that Joshua was old and well stricken in years. It should be pointed out that the beginning of chapter 13 makes it abundantly clear that rest from war did not equate with full possession of the land 'there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed'.

Not only do we need to recount the words spoken in the earlier part of the book (i.e. at the end of the fighting and the beginning of the allocation) but those which come at the end of the division of the land. 21:43-45 says, 'And the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. And the Lord gave them rest round about according to all that he sware unto their fathers and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the Lord delivered all their enemies into their hand. There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.' There is great emphasis placed upon God's faithfulness in these verses. God had given them everything that He had promised to give them. In a general sense they possessed the land but Judges 1 makes it clear that they did not possess the land fully and failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land. In the same way as the introductory notes have looked back to warnings given in Deuteronomy 7 and 8 so we are able with the completed word of God to see what happened beyond the events of this chapter and why the warnings given in Deuteronomy had to be repeated. Judges 2.7-12 says, 'And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord, that he did for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance in Timnathheres. in the mount of Ephraim, on the north side of the hill Gaash. And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim: And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger. And they forsook the Lord and served Baal and Ashteroth.'

Joshua's time was coming to an end in this chapter. It is interesting that the language is that he waxed old whereas the start of chapter 13 has said that he was already old. There are some notes given in the introduction to chapter 14 suggesting that Joshua was about 90 years old at the time of the events recorded there. Others think that Joshua was younger than Caleb (this is not discussed here but, say, he was eighty at the beginning of chapter 14) which would make the time to his death the age of 110 a period of 30 years. Whether this period is 20 or 30 years is perhaps immaterial. What is important to know is that there is a lengthy period of time from the commencement of the allocation of land process until the time that Joshua died. During that period of time the land had rest from war so that Joshua's last days were marked by rest. We know from Hebrews 4 that he did not give them full rest as described in that particular chapter but there was certainly rest from war. On an individual level it is of benefit that our last days can be spent in rest. How sad it is to witness men whose physical strength is gone having to battle with spiritual things in the assemblies of God's people. Many are well able to deal with such problems but the problems should not be there in the first place. So many of these godly men would love and long to see out their last days in a measure of rest. Many are at rest in themselves and at rest within their family circle but still struggle with problems in the assembly to which they belong. Some are just unable to take on the battle for the right and, consequently, the assembly suffers.

23.2 And Joshua called for all Israel, and for their elders, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and said unto them, I am old and stricken in age:

Recognising his advancing years and his impending death Joshua addressed the people. It was not that he was putting his own house in order ('as for me and my house we will serve the Lord'). It was not that he was speaking with His Maker and settling accounts with Him. He was conscious that he would no longer be among them and he called for the people to move on in his absence. It is important to see who comprised the company of people who were gathered. When it came to the division of the land there was Eleazar the priest with Joshua and the heads of the tribes. In chapter 22 there were ten princes that were sent to speak with representatives from the two and half tribes in the matter of the altar called Ed. The word used there is different from the words used to describe the heads and judges in this verse. We have seen officers before in the book of Joshua notably in chapter 1. There is a brief mention of them at the beginning of chapter 3 and then again in 8.33 but on each occasion there is association with the ark. There is no mention of the ark in this chapter. There is a lot to consider there but suffice it to say that all Israel was gathered and that it is the same group of people who were present for the next part of this address. It is interesting to note at this stage that chapter 24 mentions the location Shechem. Chapter 23 does not specify the location. Also the words that are given in chapter are Joshua's words to the people. The majority of chapter 24 presents the words that Joshua passed on to the people from Jehovah and is prefaced with the phrase, 'Thus saith the Lord'.

23.3 And ye have seen all that the LORD your God hath done unto all these nations because of you; for the LORD your God is he that hath fought for you.

The Lord their God, spoken of in the third person, is the subject of his address. The verb 'to do' is very important in this chapter. It is here in this verse. The people were asked to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses in verse 6. They were also required to cleave unto the Lord as they had done until that day. Our God is a God of action. The children of Israel had witnessed this. The word translated 'because' could also be translated 'before' or 'in your presence'. They had known that the Lord had fought for them. They had been required to do as they were told even if it meant marching around a city in silence for thirteen times. God was the One who give the victory even when they used their weapons. These nations were mightier and stronger than they were. They had not really been settled as a nation. They had been in Egypt for many years (somewhere in the region of 200 even though Exodus 12 speaks of 430 years as it takes the time span from Abraham leaving Haran at 75 years of age). They had been 40 years in the wilderness. There was no real structure as far as a national army was concerned. They relied on their God.

23:4 Behold, I have divided unto you by lot these nations that remain, to be an inheritance for your tribes, from Jordan, with all the nations that I have cut off, even unto the great sea westward.

Verse 3 explains what God had done for them and covers the events of the first twelve chapters. Verse 4 explains what Joshua had done for them in accordance with the instructions given as early as the book of Numbers. This covers the events of chapters 13-21 (chapter 22 is quite unique in the book). The final two chapters are the words of Joshua's valedictory address.

Joshua had apportioned the land that was from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean sea (the great sea). Note that Joshua said that he had cut off the nations (see 11.21).

23:5 And the LORD your God, he shall expel them from before you, and drive them from out of your sight; and ye shall possess their land, as the LORD your God hath promised unto you.

It is clear that there was still land to be possessed. The Lord was prepared to drive them out of their sight so that full possession of the land could be enjoyed. We have read throughout this book that there occasions when the various tribes either could not or would not drive the inhabitants out of the land. What God wanted for them was full possession. What they did not want for themselves was full possession. They looked at the chariots and they looked at the tribute that they could gain from some of the inhabitants and they did not utterly destroy all the people throughout the land. God was prepared to do so for them but only if they wanted it to be done. It was god's will. The people's will did not match the Lord's will.

23:6 Be ye therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that ye turn not aside therefrom to the right hand or to the left;

Then there is a call to obey the Lord. Courage was needed. Courage is still needed to obey the Lord. A lack of deviation either to the right or to the left was needed. Determination was needed for full obedience and it is still needed today. We have to apply ourselves to God and His word if we are going to know the happiness that comes with trusting and obeying.

23:7 That ye come not among these nations, these that remain among you; neither make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, neither serve them, nor bow yourselves unto them:

We sometimes sing a hymn which starts with the words 'dare to be a Daniel dare to stand alone'. Courage is needed to go God's way and stand out from the crowd. The children of Israel had never come across these particular nations until they had come into the land. They had known the oppression of Egypt. Once free from it there was hankering after the leeks and cucumbers (the good things) that they experienced down there in Egypt. They had a tendency to forget the whip and to remember the few pleasures that they enjoyed. Joshua was appealing to the people not to get among the nations that remained. They may not have been driven out God wanted them driven out but now that they remained it was incumbent upon them not to get involved with them but to be separate from them. Had they not been there they would have been separated from them. But being there they were to remain apart from them. They were not to get involved with their gods. They were not even to mention the name of the gods nor swear by them nor serve them nor bow down to them. This was stressed as the law was given at Sinai. Joshua stressed the importance of this all over again.

23:8 But cleave unto the LORD your God, as ye have done unto this day.

We came across this word 'cleave' in the book of Joshua in verse 5 of chapter 22. The meaning of the word used here, and also that used in the previous chapter, is given below. It is not to be confused with another word, also translated cleave, which means to split, to divide as seen in Genesis 22.3, 'Abraham.clave the wood for the burnt offering..'

01692 // qbd // dabaq // daw-bak' // a primitive root; TWOT - 398; v AV - cleave 32, follow hard 5, overtake 3, stick 3, keep fast 2, ...together 2, abide 1, close 1, joined 1, pursued 1, take 1; 54 1) to cling, stick, stay close, cleave, keep close, stick to, stick with, follow closely, join to, overtake, catch 1a) (Qal) 1a1) to cling, cleave to 1a2) to stay with 1b) (Pual) to be joined together 1c) (Hiphil) 1c1) to cause to cleave to 1c2) to pursue closely 1c3) to overtake 1d) (Hophal) to be made to cleave

The first mention of the word is in Genesis 2.24, 'Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh.' In the same way that I am to cleave to my wife (that is her to the exclusion of all others) so it is to be with my God. It is cleaving to Him to the exclusion of all other gods (see the previous verse in this chapter they were not allowed to make mention of the name of the gods, nor swear by them nor serve them nor bow down to them). It says of Hezekiah in II Kings 18.6, 'For he clave to the Lord, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments which the Lord commanded Moses.'

It was pointed out that the AV margin for this verse has, 'If ye will cleave to the Lord'. This marginal rendering was contrasted with the phrase in verse 12, 'if ye do in any wise go back, and cleave unto the remnant of these nations.' The children of Israel had clung to the Lord throughout the past 25 years or so. There were aberrations (Ai comes to mind) but in general they have stuck close to the Lord as a people. Now they were in their tribal locations and the need to be faithful was great. There was a great danger of falling away as Joshua mentions later on but at this stage he commends them for their cleaving to the lord and asks for more of the same into the future.

23:9 For the LORD hath driven out from before you great nations and strong: but as for you, no man hath been able to stand before you unto this day.

There was a reason for the cleaving to the Lord that was demanded. The first word of verse 9 is 'for'. It was because the Lord had driven the strong and mighty nations out from before them that they were to cling fast to the Lord. They knew something of the Lord fighting for them as they came out from Egypt ('the horse and his rider hath he cast into the sea') and now they had experienced the Lord fighting for them as they came into the land. We must never forget that militarily they were stronger than the children of Israel but not one of these nations had been able to stand before them (though the text mentions the individual 'no man hath been able to stand'). We in our day are to cling fast to Him as well because of all that He has done for us.

23:10 One man of you shall chase a thousand: for the LORD your God, he it is that fighteth for you, as he hath promised you.

Deuteronomy 32.30 says, 'How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, except their Rock had sold them, and the LORD had shut them up?' Psalm 18.29 says, 'For by thee I have run through a troop; and by my God have I leaped over a wall.' Note also the numbers involved in Leviticus 26.8, 'And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.' In verse 3 the AV puts the verb in the past tense (other translations leave it in the present tense). Here the verb is in the present tense. He fought for them and He was still fighting for them. He had kept His promise. It was up to them to remain faithful to Him. He has kept his promises as far as we are concerned - There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken and it is for us to see to it that we remain faithful.

23:11 Take good heed therefore unto yourselves, that ye love the LORD your God.

Again care is involved. The idea in the word 'heed' is to observe and preserve. The verse from I Timothy 4 was quoted at this stage in the reading, 'Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.' Acts 20.28 could also have been quoted, 'Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.' The Lord may fight for us but that does not mean we forsake our duty and responsibility. We are to be diligent in this respect that we are to love our God.

23:12 Else if ye do in any wise go back, and cleave unto the remnant of these nations, even these that remain among you, and shall make marriages with them, and go in unto them, and they to you:

It is all too easy to go back. It is all too easy to cling to the wrong things. The world has a pull upon us. Not each person will be attracted by the same things. This is largely dependant on the a person's physical age and spiritual maturity but there is no time in our Christian experience that we can let our guard fall and expect to get away with it. Spiritual harm will ensue once we are ensnared by the world whatever form it takes. The children of Israel were not only to have no involvement with the nations' gods. They were not even to cleave unto the people that worshipped these gods. They were to remain separate from both their gods and the people themselves. They were to make their friends from among their own. They were to make their marriages from among their own (II Corinthians 6.14). The children of Israel had never been associated with these people. They were not to start. It is interesting to see that the language of the verse is, 'if ye do in any wise go back'. Many of God's people have been brought out from the world. They have known what it is like to keep company with such and all that goes with such gatherings. The message for such is this that we are not to 'go back' to the things that we once enjoyed. II Timothy 2.4 says, 'No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life: that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.'

23:13 Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.

There were consequences if such an action took place. As soon as they showed affinity with the nations among whom they dwelt then God would cease to help them drive them out. Such nations would become a snare and a trap to them, scourges in their sides and thorns in their eyes until such time as they perished from the good land that they were on. This would not happen straight away. Assuming that the people were in the land in about 1450BC and that the last two tribes were removed in 586BC then we realise that the process took some 850 years and that God showed great patience.

23:14 And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof.

Going the way of all the earth means to die. Joshua knew that his days on earth were done. He uses language that has already been used in chapter 21 in this verse. As God had kept His promise in relation to the good things that had happened to the people so He would keep His promises of bad things happening (see next verse)

23:15 Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the LORD your God promised you; so shall the LORD bring upon you all evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.

23:16 When ye have transgressed the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed yourselves to them; then shall the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and ye shall perish quickly from off the good land which he hath given unto you..

What a lesson for the people to learn. Obey and cleave and love the Lord and everything would continue as it had done. They need not fear the stronger nations among they dwelt not indeed surrounding nations but disobey, cleave to these nations and their gods and despise their own God and they would suffer terribly. The God who had fought for them would fight against them. Jeremiah 21.5 says of the last days that the children of Israel were in the land before their exile, 'And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger, and in fury, and in great wrath.'


Whilst it is true to say that the Lord will never leave us nor forsake us we should never put this to the test by forsaking Him. Our God is a jealous God. He wants our undivided attention. He wants us to obey (verse 6), to cleave (cling) to Him forsaking all others (verse 8) and to love Him (verse 11). It will need good care to do such things. Diligence is involved but blessing ensues for the one who will trust and obey.