And Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people. . . .
And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water (for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all of the time of harvest),
That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap . . .
And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed over Jordan.
The Church of God stood at a very important juncture in its history. The promise of God’s covenant was about to be fulfilled. It was about to receive its inheritance. Many, many years before God had stood with Abram in that same country and had said unto him, “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” But years and centuries had passed by. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all wandered in that land but never came to possess it. Finally the children of Israel were banished to Egypt to dwell there as little more than slaves. All that had remained was God’s promise.
But now through the agency of Moses, they had been brought again to the gate of this promised land. Their passage from Egypt to Canaan was a miracle wrought by the power of their God. They were more than conquerors through Jehovah their God that loved them. Nothing could stand in His way. All that stood between them and the land of promise was the river Jordan. Once that was crossed the hope of their fathers would be fulfilled. And now the spies had returned from Jericho with their report. The greatness of Israel’s God was confirmed by the fear which He struck in the hearts of their enemies. Under Joshua Israel was about to be brought into its inheritance.
The morning after the spies returned Joshua arose early. Calling the people together, he led them to the bank of the river Jordan. But that was as far as they could go. It was .spring and the melting snow of the mountains had filled the river until its banks were overflowing. The river was too deep to ford; its current was so swift as to require the heroic effort of a strong man to swim it; the waters were cold as ice. For Israel with its women, children, weak and elderly people, as well as cattle, it would have been almost impossible to cross in the drought of summer to say nothing of early spring. For three days the swift, swirling waters of the river formed a forbidding barrier. But Israel knew of the power of its God, and for three days the people patiently waited. Then God came and spoke.
For Joshua personally there was a word of particular assurance. To him Jehovah said, “This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.” The work that was soon to take place would more than anything else establish him as the rightful successor of Moses and the prophetic leader of God’s people.
Also for the priests there was a command. Through Joshua they received the instructions, “Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people . . . When ye are come to the brink of the water of Jordan, ye shall stand still in Jordan.” These, the priests carrying the ark, were to serve in a place of crucial importance through the work which was about to be performed. The ark was the symbol of God’s presence and of God’s covenant in Israel. It was to be made perfectly evident that it was that presence alone that was bringing Israel into its inheritance.
Most elaborate were the instructions for the people. The first of these were passed on to them by their officers. “When ye see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, Then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure; come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way heretofore.” At this crucial juncture it must become perfectly evident to all that it is Jehovah who is bringing Israel into Canaan. As Israel passes into the land of promise, it must be by keeping their eyes upon Him symbolized in the ark. Still through it all respect must be maintained and everyone was to keep a reverent distance from the holy presence lest in their boldness they commit the sin of Ussah in later years. It was Joshua that expressed the conclusion of the matter when he said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” As yet no one knew exactly what was to take place; but anticipation was running high for there were forebodings of a great and marvelous work.
The next morning Joshua stood before the people once again and spoke. “Come hither, and hear the words of the LORD your God. Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into Jordan. Now therefore take you twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, out of every tribe a man. And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap.”
Here were the plans and promise for a work that would be truly extraordinary. For three days the children of Israel had been looking at the swollen mass of swirling water which barred them from the land of Canaan. Now suddenly it was to be stopped and the bed of the river laid bare. It must have reminded them of that great work by which Jehovah had brought them out of Egypt by leading them through the depths of the Red Sea. Actually there were few living any more that had taken part in that passage through the sea, and of them only a few had been old enough to remember it very clearly. But now the work was to be repeated, and in a sense, in an even greater way. That passage had been through the comparatively quiet waters of a stable sea; this passage would be through the raging torrent of a swollen river. Just a few hours would produce a tremendous backflow of water in the river above. Humanly it was impossible.
But the children of Israel were not in a doubting mood. In fact, this generation had learned much from the mistakes of their fathers. They believed in the strength of their God and were ready, even eager, to follow in the way that He led. Quickly they appointed men who were to take the stones from the river bed and erect a memorial to the wonder of this day. Twelve men were chosen to the privileged position, one from each tribe. After that the people arranged themselves quietly but eagerly behind the ark of the covenant in preparation for the grand and triumphal entrance into Canaan.
Finally, when all was ready, there was a loud and clear blast of trumpets and the priests bearing the ark of the covenant began to move. Quickly and without hesitation they walked directly into the raging torrent of the swollen river. No sooner had their feet touched the waters’ edge than the river ceased to flow. In a matter of moments that whole swollen torrent had drained away and the rocky bed of the river was laid bare. Behind the priests came the people. While the priests with the ark stood above, a strange, mystical dam to the waters of the river, the masses of people passed below as though there had never been a river there. In all the camp of Israel, no one could fail to feel the thrill of seeing the land of Israel opened up so suddenly and so miraculously before them. Here was the powerful faithfulness of their covenant God.
And even as the hearts of Israel thrilled at the working of their God, a feeling of dazed anguish passed across the hearts of those who watched from the other side of the river. Undoubtedly there were official watchmen whose duty it was to observe every movement of Israel from the western side of the river. And then there were the people who came just out of their own personal concern to watch the children of Israel across the river. As much as they may have disliked the spring floods in other years, this year they were only too grateful to find the raging torrent blocking the path of Israel. It seemed to guarantee their security at least until well into the summer. And then it happened, From the safety of their river bank they watched the strange actions of the four men who bore that cloth-draped box, It almost seemed like suicide the way they came walking directly into the river current, until suddenly, they could hardly believe their eyes, the swollen current stopped short. In a moment the waters were stopped far above. And then, just as the tide of water was stopped far to the north, there came that tide of humanity, the whole host of the children of Israel, men, women, children, cattle and all crossing that same river bank from the east. Before they had heard and feared; but now they had seen and knew just how helpless they were before Israel’s God. In confused and anguished dismay they turned to flee into their city, to lock the gates tight and wait not knowing what to expect.
As for the children of Israel, they were too occupied to pay much attention to the reaction of the onlookers across the river. Calling to him the twelve men who had been appointed, Joshua commanded them to take twelve large stones from the river bed and to carry them out to the shore of the river, erecting of them .a memorial to the wonder that they witnessed. Even while they were doing this Joshua himself gathered twelve other stones and erected a pillar in the river bed where the feet of the priests stood withholding the tide of waters. Only after all of this was finished, and all of the people had passed through the river, did Joshua speak to the priests and command them to come forth from the river. This they did, and no sooner had their feet been lifted from the river bed than the tide of water came crashing back into its place. The river flowed on as though it had never been interrupted.
Filled with awe and grateful, the people stood in solemn assembly as Joshua pointed them to the pillar of twelve stones and spoke what God had commanded, “When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the LORD your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over: that all the people of the earth might know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the LORD your God for ever.”