By J.R. Miller
It is a good thing to get safely to the end of one's life, to have done its work well, to have been victorious in its battles, and to have kept one's self unspotted from the world. The true time to judge of a life is at its close, when the work has all been done. We cannot be sure of the final outcome, until the very end. The very last step may be a false one. The last day may mar all.
Joshua's career was one of great strength and usefulness. His parting words to the people were full of wisdom. He saw that they were in danger of drifting back into the old life, through the influences that were about them--and he calls them very earnestly to make a new start and to continue to be faithful to God. Joshua's words, spoken when he was about to leave this world, must have made a deep impression upon the people.
He calls them first to a renewal of their devotion to God. Evidently they were not blameless in their loyalty, since he calls them to put away the gods which their fathers served--and to begin again to serve the Lord. They could not do the latter--until they had done the former. They had been enamored of the sensuous worship of the heathen people about them, and Joshua tells them that they must break away absolutely from all that they have been adopting from this worship.
This lesson is for all worshipers of God. It is not likely that there are images hidden away in any of our homes, as there probably were in the houses of some of the Israelites when Joshua spoke to them. Yet there may be idols, nevertheless. Anything which we keep in our hearts in the place which God ought to have--is an idol, whether it is an image of wood or stone or gold, or whether it is money, or a desire for fame, or love of pleasure, or some secret sin which we will not give up. If God does not really occupy the highest place in our hearts, controlling all, something else does--and that something else is an idol.
Joshua put the case very plainly before the people, telling them that they must make their choice. He did not mean that it makes no difference whether we choose to worship the true God or a false god. It does make an infinite difference. To leave God out of our life--is to lose all. To be a true worshiper, is to be in the family of God, one of His children, and to inherit all the blessings of Divine love. What Joshua meant was, that this is a matter which must be settled by us for ourselves. God does not compel anyone to love Him and obey Him. Joshua required the people to make their choice of the God they would serve. If it seemed evil to them to serve the Lord, they were told they must choose for themselves the god who would be a better friend to them, than the Lord would.
There are some people who think that serving the Lord is not the best thing. They look upon the Christian life, as the turning away from all that is bright, beautiful, joyous and inspiring, and the burying of one's self away in a life of gloom and shadow. They think it would be a great mistake to make a choice of such a life in preference to the happy, unrestrained life of this world. But is this true?
Think a little of the blessings which the service of God brings--pardon, peace, the sense of God's favor, Divine help at every point, precious promises for every experience, victory over every enemy, the Divine love and companionship. Set over against this inventory, that which this world has to offer--a few pleasures, with thorns for a pillow afterwards; a few cups of indulgence, with bitter dregs at the bottom; a few victories which yield no permanent result; a few gains which leave the hands empty at the last; a life of unrestraint and license which in the end binds the soul in chains; a dark death-hour, and a hopeless hell hereafter. Of these two pictures, which is the evil one? It surely does matter whether we choose God or not, whether we believe or doubt, whether we go in sin's ways or God's.
We must settle the question for ourselves--each one for himself--the question of how we shall live, and what we shall do with God. No one can choose for us, not even God Himself. Joshua called the people to make choice then and there, whether they would serve God or idols. Of course, we owe allegiance to God as our only rightful Lord and Sovereign, and we never can throw off this allegiance. We may refuse to recognize it; we may live on as if there were no God anywhere in the universe, giving Him no love, no obedience, no worship ; but we do not thereby get clear of Him or of His claims upon us. We may disregard His laws--but we shall find ourselves at last fast bound in their penalties.
In this sense there is no liberty of choice between God and Baal. Still we must make a choice. God never compels allegiance. He tells us what our duty is, what His claims are, what He desires of us, and shows us the blessings of obedience and the cost of disobedience. But we are free to decide for ourselves whether we will serve Him or serve the world. We cannot serve both. It must be the one or the other.
It is only the life devoted to God--that can go safely through this world's ways of temptation. The heart that is fixed with absorbing love upon God--will not be attracted by the fascinations of the world. It was Christ who said: "If your eye is single, your whole body shall be full of light." If with all our heart and with intense earnestness we follow Christ, we shall not be greatly troubled by the evil things about us.
Example is always most effective in leadership. There is little use in our telling people to go--where we ourselves are not willing to go; or to do--what we are not ready to do. But Joshua asked no decision from the Israelites which he himself was not ready to make. He said: "As for me and my house--we will serve the Lord!" What he would do, was not dependent upon the people's decision. If they all went in the wrong path--he was going in the right path.
It is a noble thing to be able to stand up in the face of all the world and dare to do right, though all the world does wrong. This is a courage that every person needs in these days. "No matter what the crowd does--I will do my duty. All the boys smoke--but I am not going to smoke. All the others go to evil places--but I am not going. All the others swear--but I will keep my speech reverent. The crowd is running after sin--but I am going to cleave to Christ, though I am the only follower Christ has."
It requires unusual moral courage to be true--when all others are false; to be honest--when all others are dishonest; to keep one's life pure and clean--when everybody else is drifting away into impurity; to be alone in our faithfulness. The true thing to do in all circumstances, is not to ask what anyone else is going to do--but to ask what God wants us to do, and then fearlessly do that!
We do not know, either, what our choice means to others. There is always somebody waiting and wavering in making his decision, who will decide--as you do. Then you do not know the influence of your true, beautiful life in the world, in the midst of the evil and the blackness that are everywhere. It gives hope when hope is nearly dead.
One was speaking of being almost driven to the belief that no one is true, that everyone is false, and then there came under observation, one plain, lowly life which in varied and most trying experiences proved sweet, lovely, true, keeping itself unspotted and never failing in any testing. This life saved the person from utter doubt. There was one who was faithful, and this one life restored faith in the power of Christ to save unto the uttermost. We do not know what it will mean to the world--for us to be faithful and true.
It is not easy to serve God. We cannot serve Him at all--unless we come out and break with the world. Joshua said to the people that day: "You cannot serve the Lord; for he is a holy God." He meant to say, that they could not serve God without giving up the idols which so many of them were secretly worshiping. We cannot serve God--and keep our sins. We cannot serve God--and the world.
Turning away from God--always brings trouble. "If you forsake the Lord," Joshua said, "He will turn and do you evil." We cannot keep our sins--and enjoy the favor of God. He is always a God of love--but He is also a God of justice, and His attitude towards men is either that of mercy or of judgment, according to their attitude towards Him. If we are true to the Lord and do His will--we will find in Him mercy and grace. But if we rebel against Him and serve other gods--we shall find in Him wrath and severity. If we want the Divine favor and blessing--we must do God's will.
The people were deeply impressed that day by Joshua's strong words and renewed their covenant with God. Then Joshua reminded them that they themselves were the witnesses of their own covenant. "You are witnesses against yourselves, that you have chosen you the Lord." We all are witnesses against ourselves, if we do not faithfully follow God. There will be no necessity of calling other people to stand at the bar of judgment, to bear testimony against those who have not obeyed nor served God, or those who have promised to obey Him and then have broken covenant with Him. Every man's conscience will witness against him if he has been unfaithful. It will testify that he knew his duty--and did it not; that God called him again and again--and he heeded Him not; that he sinned against his own soul, resisting and crushing under his feet--the sense of right that was in him.
No one in a Christian land who is now living in sin--needs any outside witness to condemn him. He remembers a mother's prayers and teachings, and all the gentle influences of a loving home. He remembers the family altar, where in childhood he daily bowed before God. He remembers his own promises, made in life's solemn moments, that he would yield his heart to Christ and follow Him. Such memories are witnesses against everyone now living in sin, whose youth was passed amid holy scenes and Divine impressions.
The outcome of this teaching should be the making or renewing of the covenant with God--by everyone who studies the words. That is, we should choose at once, finally and irrevocably, whom we will serve--whether God, the God of love and grace and truth--or evil, with all its darkness and bitterness.