“We will serve the Lord,” declared the people, and the children were taught this as their memory verse for the day. Story illustrations followed, including Jesus’s call of Paul the Apostle on the road to Damascus and one of a boy the children had been introduced to in a previous class, Derek, who was asked to clean up the trash in his classroom. Then, one by one, each showed a willingness to help -- to serve -- by picking up a piece of trash.
Did these 2- to 4-year-olds make the connection between their participation in the impromptu game of “pick up the trash” and the dubious promises of the Israelites to serve the Lord? Well, it’s always a teacher’s wish that there would be complete comprehension, but… probably not. I do hope that some of them were able to make the connection between the response to help the teacher and the helpfulness they ought to show to their parents (and God, by extension) at home. That would be an accomplishment with this age group!
Still, while most of us probably remember some of the phrasing of that passage because it shows up on so many door plaques and hallway decor, the rebuke and exhortation by Joshua about the ability of the people to keep their promises is likely less easily recalled.
Joshua 24 begins with a long remembrance of the acts of the Lord on behalf of the forefathers of the Israelites: the call of Abraham and the covenant with him to give him land and make him the father of many nations; the distribution of inheritance and blessing to Esau and Jacob and the sons of Jacob; the bondage in and the exodus out of Egypt and the rescue from the Egyptians by means of the miracle of the parting of the sea; and the victories over the enemies of the land they were told to conquer. Now it's time for the blessings bestowed on this generation of Israelites:
“I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant,” says the Lord in verse 13, followed by Joshua’s first charge to the people:
“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)
And the people respond that it would be beyond folly to disregard the Lord for the sake of other gods, and reply, “We also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Joshua, in a sudden turn, declares to the people that they are not able to serve the Lord because His holiness and His wrath against transgression will devour anyone who fails. "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. 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." (Joshua 24:19-20)
But, no, say the people, “We will serve the LORD.”
This pronouncement about the people of Israel -- while historically and theologically true -- nonetheless seems out of character for the Old Testament figure famous for his leadership skills and ability to encourage his people. This is perhaps why Matthew Henry lists a series of reasons why Joshua may have said this, everything from his desire to inspire them, to a godly zeal for their safety about the dangers ahead. I’ll go with this explanation since it is consistent with the themes of the book of Joshua: “They must therefore come off from all confidence in their own sufficiency, else their purposes would be to no purpose,” says Henry.
I am reminded of Zechariah’s vision of Joshua the High Priest in chapter 3 of that prophetic book.
"Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him." (Zechariah 3:1)
Didn’t Joshua warn the people that they would not be able to stand before the Lord? And here he is himself being accused and Satan doing the accusing. But wait, the Lord, on whom Joshua had placed all his sufficiency, intervenes:
"And the LORD said to Satan, 'The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?' Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, 'Remove the filthy garments from him.' And to him he said, 'Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.'” (Zechariah 3:2-4)
Joshua’s service was as filthy rags except that he had been chosen by the Lord, a brand plucked from the fire, and clothed in pure vestments. As long as he rested in his own sufficiency, he attracted the accusations of Satan, but in glad and grateful submission to the atoning and redeeming work of Jesus, garbed in the righteousness of Christ alone, his service was acceptable.
As much as we want the children in our homes and our classrooms and our lives to be obedient and desire to serve to please us -- and it makes for a much more pleasant atmosphere when they do! -- in the long run, the Gospel purpose of our teaching must be for them to shed all confidence in their own sufficiency and believe in and love Jesus. It takes diligent and patient effort to unceasingly lay these truths before such young and immature minds and hearts, but thankfully, the Lord is the one who regenerates both to love and serve Him.
Let us serve the Lord!