Here is, I. The pious care of the separated tribes to keep their hold of Canaan’s religion, even when they were leaving Canaan’s land, that they might not be as the sons of the stranger, utterly separated from God’s people, Isa. 56:3. In order to this, they built a great altar on the borders of Jordan, to be a witness for them that they were Israelites, and as such partakers of the altar of the Lord, 1 Cor. 10:18. When they came to Jordan (Josh. 21:10) they did not consult how to preserve the remembrance of their own exploits in the wars of Canaan, and the services they had done their brethren, by erecting a monument to the immortal honour of the two tribes and a half; but their relation to the church of God, together with their interest in the communion of saints, is that which they are solicitous to preserve and perpetuate the proofs and evidences of; and therefore without delay, when the thing was first proposed by some among them, who, though glad to think that they were going towards home, were sorry to think that they were going from the altar of God, immediately they erected this altar, which served as a bridge to keep up their fellowship with the other tribes in the things of God. Some think they built this altar on the Canaan-side of Jordan, in the lot of Benjamin, that, looking over the river, they might see the figure of the altar at Shiloh, when they could not conveniently go to it; but it is more likely that they built it on their own side of the water, for what had they to do to build on another man’s land without his consent? And it is said to be over-against the land of Canaan; nor would there have been any cause of suspecting it designed for sacrifice if they had not built it among themselves. This altar was very innocently and honestly designed, but it would have been well if, since it had in it an appearance of evil, and might be an occasion of offence to their brethren, they had consulted the oracle of God about it before they did it, or at least acquainted their brethren with their purpose, and given them the same explication of their altar before, to prevent their jealousy, which they did afterwards, to remove it. Their zeal was commendable, but it ought to have been guided with discretion. There was no need to hasten the building of an altar for the purpose for which they intended this, but they might have taken time to consider and take advice; yet, when their sincerity was made to appear, we do not find that they were blamed for their rashness. God does, and men should, overlook the weakness of an honest zeal.
II. The holy jealousy of the other tribes for the honour of God and his altar at Shiloh. Notice was immediately brought to the princes of Israel of the setting up of this altar, Josh. 21:11. And they, knowing how strict and severe that law was which required them to offer all their sacrifices in the place which God should choose, and not elsewhere (Deut. 12:5-7), were soon apprehensive that the setting up of another altar was an affront to the choice which God had lately made of a place to put his name in, and had a direct tendency to the worship of some other God. Now,
1. Their suspicion was very excusable, for it must be confessed the thing, prima facie—at first sight, looked ill, and seemed to imply a design to set up and maintain a competitor with the altar at Shiloh. It was no strained innuendo from the building of an altar to infer an intention to offer sacrifice upon it, and that might introduce idolatry and end in a total apostasy from the faith and worship of the God of Israel. So great a matter might this fire kindle. God is jealous for his own institutions, and therefore we should be so too, and afraid of every thing that looks like, or leads to, idolatry.
2. Their zeal, upon this suspicion, was very commendable, Josh. 21:12. When they apprehended that these tribes, which by the river Jordan were separated from them, were separating themselves from God, they took it as the greatest injury that could be done to themselves, and showed a readiness, if it were necessary, to put their lives in their hands in defence of the altar of God, and to take up arms for the chastising and reducing of these rebels, and to prevent the spreading of the infection, if no gentler methods would serve, by cutting off from their body the gangrened member. They all gathered together, and Shiloh was the place of their rendezvous, because it was in defence of the divine charter lately granted to that place that they now appeared; their resolution was as became a kingdom of priests, who, being devoted to God and his service, did not acknowledge their brethren nor know their own children, Deut. 33:9. They would immediately go up to war against them if it appeared they had revolted from God, and were in rebellion against him. Though they were bone of their bone, had been companions with them in tribulation in the wilderness, and serviceable to them in the wars of Canaan, yet, if they turn to serve other gods, they will treat them as enemies, not as sons of Israel, but as children of whoredoms, for so God had appointed, Deut. 13:12-18 They had but lately sheathed their swords, and retired from the perils and fatigues of war to the rest God had given them, and yet they are willing to begin a new war rather than be any way wanting in their duty to restrain, repress, and revenge, idolatry, and every step towards it—a brave resolution, and which shows them hearty for their religion, and, we hope, careful and diligent in the practice of it themselves. Corruptions in religion are best dealt with at first, before they get head and plead prescription.
3. Their prudence in the prosecution of this zealous resolution is no less commendable. God had appointed them, in cases of this nature, to enquire and make search (Deut. 13:14), that they might not wrong their brethren under pretence of righting their religion; accordingly they resolve here not to send forth their armies, to wage war, till they had first sent their ambassadors to enquire into the merits of the cause, and these men of the first rank, one out of each tribe, and Phinehas at the head of them to be their spokesman, Josh. 21:13, 14. Thus was their zeal for God tempered, guided, and governed by the meekness of wisdom. He that knows all things, and hates all evil things, would not punish the worst of criminals but he would first go down and see, Gen. 18:21. Many an unhappy strife would be prevented, or soon healed by an impartial and favourable enquiry into that which is the matter of the offence. The rectifying of mistakes and misunderstandings, and the setting of misconstrued words and actions in a true light, would be the most effectual way to accommodate both private and public quarrels, and bring them to a happy period.
4. The ambassadors’ management of this matter came fully up to the sense and spirit of the congregation concerning it, and bespeaks much both of zeal and prudence.
(1.) The charge they draw up against their brethren is indeed very high, and admits no other excuse than that it was in their zeal for the honour of God, and was now intended to justify the resentments of the congregation at Shiloh and to awaken the supposed delinquents to clear themselves, otherwise they might have suspended their judgment, or mollified it at least, and not have taken it for granted, as they do here (Josh. 21:16), that the building of this altar was a trespass against the God of Israel, and a trespass no less heinous than the revolt of soldiers from their captain (you turn from following the Lord), and the rebellion of subjects against their sovereign: that you might rebel this day against the Lord. Hard words. It is well they were not able to make good their charge. Let not innocency think it strange to be thus misrepresented and accused. They laid to my charge things that I knew not.
(2.) The aggravation of the crime charged upon their brethren is somewhat far-fetched: Isa. the iniquity of Peor too little for us? Josh. 21:17. Probably that is mentioned because Phinehas, the first commissioner in this treaty, had signalized himself in that matter (Num. 25:7), and because we may suppose they were not about the very place in which that iniquity was committed on the other side Jordan. It is good to recollect and improve those instances of the wrath of God, revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, which have fallen out in our own time, and which we ourselves have been eye-witnesses of. He reminds them of the iniquity of Peor, [1.] As a very great sin, and very provoking to God. The building of this altar seemed but a small matter, but it might lead to an iniquity as bad as that of Peor, and therefore must be crushed in its first rise. Note, The remembrance of great sins committed formerly should engage us to stand upon our guard against the least occasions and beginnings of sin; for the way of sin is down-hill. [2.] As a sin that the whole congregation had smarted for: “There was a plague in the congregation of the Lord, of which, in one day, there died no fewer than 24,000; was not that enough for ever to warn you against idolatry? What! will you bring upon yourselves another plague? Are you so mad upon an idolatrous altar that you will run yourselves thus upon the sword’s point of God’s judgments? Does not our camp still feel from that sin and the punishment of it? We are not cleansed from it unto this day; there are remaining sparks,” First, “Of the infection of that sin; some among us so inclined to idolatry that if you set up another altar they will soon take occasion from that, whether you intend it or no, to worship another God.” Secondly, “Of the wrath of God against us for that sin. We have reason to fear that, if we provoke God by another sin to visit, he will remember against us the iniquity of Peor, as he threatened to do that of the golden calf, Exod. 32:34. And dare you wake the sleeping lion of divine vengeance?” Note, It is a foolish and dangerous thing for people to think their former sins little, too little for them, as those do who add sin to sin, and so treasure up wrath against the day of wrath. Let therefore the time past suffice, 1 Pet. 4:3.
(3.) The reason they give for their concerning themselves so warmly in this matter is very sufficient. They were obliged to it, in their own necessary defence, by the law of self-preservation: “For, if you revolt from God to-day, who knows but to-morrow his judgments may break in upon the whole congregation (Josh. 21:18), as in the case of Achan? Josh. 21:20. He sinned, and we all smarted for it, by which we should receive instruction, and from what God did then infer wha 5bd7 t he may do, and fear what he will do, if we do not witness against your sin, who are so many, and punish it.” Note, The conservators of the public peace are obliged, in justice to the common safety, to use their power for the restraining and suppressing of vice and profaneness, lest, if it be connived at, the sin thereby become national, and bring God’s judgments upon the community. Nay, we are all concerned to reprove our neighbour when he does amiss, lest we bear sin for him, Lev. 19:17.
(4.) The offer they make is very fair and kind (Josh. 21:19), that if they thought the land of their possession unclean, for want of an altar, and therefore could not be easy without one, rather than they should set up another in competition with that at Shiloh they should be welcome to come back to the land where the Lord’s tabernacle was, and settle there, and they would very willingly straiten themselves to make room for them. By this they showed a sincere and truly pious zeal against schism, that rather than their brethren should have any occasion to set up a separate altar, though their pretence for it, as here supposed, was very weak and grounded upon a great mistake, yet they were willing to part with a considerable share of the land which God himself had by the lot assigned them, to comprehend them and take them in among them. This was the spirit of Israelites indeed.