Rahab, in mentioning to the spies the drying up of the Red Sea (Josh. 2:10), the report of which terrified the Canaanites more than anything else, intimates that those on that side the water expected that Jordan, that great defence of their country, would in like manner give way to them. Whether the Israelites had any expectation of it does not appear. God often did things for them which they looked not for, Isa. 64:3. Now here we are told,
I. That they came to Jordan and lodged there, Josh. 3:1. Though they were not yet told how they should pass the river, and were unprovided for the passing of it in any ordinary way, yet they went forward in faith, having been told (Josh. 1:11) that they should pass it. We must go on in the way of our duty though we foresee difficulties, trusting God to help us through them when we come to them. Let us proceed as far as we can, and depend on divine sufficiency for that which we find ourselves not sufficient for. In this march Joshua led them, and particular notice is taken of his early rising as there is afterwards upon other occasions (Josh. 6:12; 7:16; 8:10), which intimates how little he loved his ease, how much he loved his business, and what care and pains he was willing to take in it. Those that would bring great things to pass must rise early. Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty. Joshua herein set a good example to the officers under him, and taught them to rise early, and to all that are in public stations especially to attend continually to the duty of their place.
II. That the people were directed to follow the ark. Officers were appointed to go through the host to give these directions (Josh. 3:2), that every Israelite might know both what to do and what to depend upon.
1. They might depend upon the ark to lead them; that is, upon God himself, of whose presence the ark was an instituted sign and token. It seems, the pillar of cloud and fire was removed, else that would have led them, unless we suppose that it now hovered over the ark and so they had a double guide: honour was put upon the ark, and a defence upon that glory. It is called here the ark of the covenant of the Lord their God. What greater encouragement could they have than this, that the Lord was their God, a God in covenant with them? Here was the ark of the covenant; if God be ours, we need not fear any evil. He was nigh to them, present with them, went before them: what could come amiss to those that were thus guided, thus guarded? Formerly the ark was carried in the midst of the camp, but now it went before them to search out a resting-place for them (Num. 10:33), and, as it were, to give them livery and seisin of the promised land, and put them in possession of it In the ark the tables of the law were, and over it the mercy-seat; for the divine law and grace reigning in the heart are the surest pledges of God’s presence and favour, and those that would be led to the heavenly Canaan must take the law of God for their guide (if thou wilt enter into life keep the commandments) and have the great propitiation in their eye, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
2. They might depend upon the priests and Levites, who were appointed for that purpose to carry the ark before them. The work of ministers is to hold forth the word of life, and to take care of the administration of those ordinances which are the tokens of God’s presence and the instruments of his power and grace; and herein they must go before the people of God in their way to heaven.
3. The people must follow the ark: Remove from your place and go after it, (1.) As those that are resolved never to forsake it. Wherever God’s ordinances are, there we must be; if they flit, we must remove and go after them. (2.) As those that are entirely satisfied in its guidance, that it will lead in the best way to the best end; and therefore, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. This must be all their car, to attend the motions of the ark, and follow it with an implicit faith. Thus must we walk after the rule of the word and the direction of the Spirit in every thing, so shall peace be upon us, as it now was upon the Israel of God. They must follow the priests as far as they carried the ark, but no further; so we must follow our ministers only as they follow Christ.
4. In following the ark, they must keep their distance, Josh. 3:4. They must none of them come within a thousand yards of the ark. (1.) They must thus express their awful and reverent regard to that token of God’s presence, lest its familiarity with them should breed contempt. This charge to them not to come near was agreeable to that dispensation of darkness, bondage, and terror: but we now through Christ have access with boldness. (2.) Thus it was made to appear that the ark was able to protect itself, and needed not to be guarded by the men of war, but was itself a guard to them. With what a noble defiance of the enemy did it leave all it its friends half a mile behind except the unarmed priests that carried it as perfectly sufficient for its own safety and theirs that followed it! (3.) Thus it was the better seen by those that were to be led by it: That you may know the way by which you must go, seeing it, as it were, chalked out or tracked by the ark. Had they been allowed to come near it, they would have surrounded it, and none would have had the sight of it but those that were close to it; but, as it was put at such a distance before them, they would all have the satisfaction of seeing it, and would be animated by the sight. And it was with good reason that this provision was made for their encouragement: For you have not passed this way heretofore. This had been the character of all their way through the wilderness, it was an untrodden path, but this especially through Jordan. While we are here we must expect and prepare for unusual events, to pass ways that we have not passed before, and much more when we go hence; our way through the valley of the shadow of death is a way we have not gone before, which makes it the more formidable. But, if we have the assurance of God’s presence, we need not fear; that will furnish us with such strength as we never had when we come to do a work we never did.
III. They were commanded to sanctify themselves, that they might be prepared to attend the ark; and with good reason: For to-morrow the Lord will do wonders among you, Josh. 3:5. See how magnificently he speaks of God’s works: he doeth wonders, and is therefore to be adored, admired, and trusted in. See how intimately acquainted Joshua was with the divine counsels: he could tell before-hand what god would do, and when. See what preparation we must make to receive the discoveries of God’s glory and the communications of his grace: we must sanctify ourselves. This we must do when we are to attend the ark, and God by it is about to do wonders among us; we must separate ourselves from all other cares, devote ourselves to God’s honour, and cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit. The people of Israel were now entering into the holy land, and therefore must sanctify themselves. God was about to give them uncommon instances of his favour, which by meditation and prayer they must compose their minds to a very careful observation of, that they might give God the glory, and take to themselves the comfort, of these appearances.
IV. The priests were ordered to take up the ark and carry it before the people, Josh. 3:6. It was the Levites’ work ordinarily to carry the ark, Num. 4:15. But on this great occasion the priests were ordered to do it. And they did as they were commanded, took up the ark, and did not think themselves disparaged, went before the people, and did not thing themselves exposed; the ark they carried was both their honour and their defence. And now we may suppose that prayer of Moses used, when the ark set forward (Num. 10:35), Rise up, Lord and let they enemies be scattered. Magistrates are here instructed to stir up ministers to their work, and to make use of their authority for the furtherance of religion. Ministers must likewise learn to go before in the way of God, and not to shrink nor draw back when dangers are before them. They must expect to be most struck at, but they know whom they have trusted.
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