14 “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. 15 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.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
19 But Joshua said to the people, “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. 20 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.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 
Times of transition frequently serve as markers in our personal histories. We look back on them and mark our lives by these key events. Leaving school, getting your first job, getting married, moving into our first house, and retiring are all significant events that encourage us to look back and take stock of our lives. As we review the past, we can consider what lies ahead. That is what takes place in this final chapter of the book of Joshua.
This final covenant renewal address to the whole population of Israel might be called a “state of the union” address. It contains both direct prophecy from God through Joshua as well as Joshua’s exposition and application of the prophecy and the author or editor’s closing remarks. The focus of the chapter is verse 15, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
The narrator takes care with the setting of this important gathering since it shapes the whole event he describes. Verse 1 tells us that Joshua “gathered all the tribes of Israel.” Verse 2 reiterates this with the phrase, “all the people.” But he does not gather them for himself. He is acting as God’s profit first and foremost. All his leadership has been given to him by the Lord. So the people are not coming simply to hear Joshua. “And they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel’” (2b,3a).
Notice, Joshua announces that he is speaking prophecy from the Lord when he says, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel….” That is what God’s people do today when we meet together regularly. Our meetings carry the same implications. We are coming not merely to hear a human speaker but to present ourselves together as a corporate body to the Lord himself who speaks to us.
They came “to Shechem” (24:1). The name of the site is full of significance in the Old Testament story. Here, at the oak of Moreh, the Lord appeared to Abram and promised to give the land to his offspring (Genesis 12:6, 7). Here Abraham built an altar as an expression of his faith in the promise. Here Jacob bought a plot of land from the sons of Hamor after reconciling with his brother Esau and built an altar in the name of the God of Israel (Genesis 33:18-20) to express his trust in the Abrahamic Covenant.
You may recall from our studies in chapter 8 of Joshua that it was here, in the shadow of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, that Joshua led the nation in a previous covenant renewal ceremony following the disaster at Ai. As the nation regathers at this spot, we recognize that the wheel has turned full circle, that God’s promises have been fulfilled. The great nation God had promised to Abram now gathers to meet God at the very place in the land where he first promised the land would be theirs. Now it is!
The land has now been distributed in tribal inheritances, although much of it still remains to be fully possessed, and so it has been given “rest” by its owner, YHWH. This second assembly at Shechem is proof that not one word has failed of all the good things that God promised. In light of all that God has done for his people, he now requires that they choose loving, wholehearted, and exclusive devotion to him and so they commit themselves to taking formal possession of the land (24:25).
Many commentators note that chapter 24 reflects the form of a treaty between an earthly, political, or military overlord and his people. Such treaties were common in the ancient Near-Eastern world. Since this is not a class in ancient Near-Eastern history, for our purposes it’s sufficient to show that God is communicating with his people in a way that is familiar to them. The important thing for us to remember is that this is not a chapter about Israel, much less about Joshua, but about God himself and his unwavering loyalty love for his people.
We live in a very different world from the people of Israel in the land of Israel. That is not our context, and we are not to attempt to force ourselves into their context. Our first and greatest benefit will be to remind ourselves of the nature and character of our God, who has bound himself to us with promises that can never be broken and has confirmed his covenant of redemptive grace with us through the blood of his crucified, resurrected, and ascended Son.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “All the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2nd Corinthians 1:20). When we speak our Amen to God, we are proclaiming whom we will serve. We commit ourselves to the God of the promise and resolved by his grace and in his strength alone to live the life of faith. That is the benefit of allowing Joshua to teach and challenge us in the verses that follow.
Joshua began by reminding the people of their past and of what God had done for them in bringing them out of the culture of ancient Babylon and then later out of Egypt into the land he had promised to Abraham at the beginning of their history. The emphasis is on what God did for them and of the fact that he had done it.
There would have been a temptation at the end of these long decades of conquest for the people, particularly the soldiers, to think back over their victories and boast of them as their achievements. They might have boasted of their victory at Jericho, Ai, or any one of the many other hundreds of engagements. But Joshua does not allow the people the sin of such reflections. He does not say that God did something by using the third person to refer to him. He quotes God, using the first person for God repeatedly and effectively throughout this section. He is speaking as God’s prophet.
I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River…. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau…. I sent Moses and Aaron…. I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out.… I brought your fathers out of Egypt.… I brought you to the land of the Amorites…. I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you…. When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel.… I delivered you out of his hand…. The citizens of Jericho fought against you … but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you…. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant (24:3-13, emphasis mine).
A traditional covenant treaty of the day begins with the overlord introducing himself and then reviews his relationship with the other party. In the case of a conqueror setting out his terms of subjugation, this was a unilateral imposition of his will upon those who had no voice in the matter. If they did not submit to his terms, they would die.
But Joshua defines God as the ultimate overlord, the God of covenant faithfulness, who revealed his gracious character in the deliverance of Abraham from demonic idol worship and of Abraham’s seed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. But Abraham is not mentioned to remind the people of their supposed illustrious ancestry but to remind them of their humble and utterly pagan beginnings. The point is that “long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (24:2, emphasis mine).
People have the idea that when God chose Abraham to be the father of the Jewish people, he looked for someone with a little bit of saving faith and when he found such faith in Abraham, he saved Abraham and began the Jewish nation through him. But that is entirely backward.
God tells us what he sees when he looks upon the unregenerate heart. Jeremiah quoted God as saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Moses wrote, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5).
The apostle Paul declared, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10–12). If that is what the heart of man is like from God’s perspective, then how could God possibly look down from heaven and find something good in anyone—unless he had first put it there? How could he find faith in Abraham unless the faith he found was God’s own prior gift to the patriarch?
That is Joshua’s point. In reminding the people of their past, he was not reminding them of some great heritage they were being challenged to live up to, but rather of the fact that they had been pagans, worshipers of false gods, before God called them. They were to live for him because of who they had been and what he had done for them.
Paul teaches that same is true for us this side of the cross:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. 
There is something we should note in this portion of the text before we move on. We should see the degree to which our corrupt flesh clings to us, even after many years of experiencing God’s grace. Despite Abraham’s close walk with God and faithful teaching of his family, his family still cherished idols three generations after God’s call to him when he was a pagan worshipping Ur’s moon god. You might recall Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, who hid her father’s household idols (idols from beyond the River Euphrates) under a saddle and sat on it when he searched the camp after concluding someone in Jacob’s clan had stolen them. Even in the time of the patriarchs, the men to whom God spoke face to face as prophets, those bearing God’s name still possessed and cherished their demon idols.
Here in the last chapter of Joshua we have something even more amazing. Joshua has to urge his people to “throw away the gods your forefathers worshipped beyond the river and in Egypt” and “throw away the foreign gods that are among you” (24:14, 23). Did you catch that? Here, at one of the greatest peaks in all Israel’s long history, Joshua had to urge the destruction of these demonic idols! God has given them victory after victory. He has finally given these wandering people a home to call their own. And yet they still worship the demonic realm in the privacy of their own homes.
Are we really any better than that? If you know your own heart you know how the sins of the past cling closely and pose danger at every turn. It is always crucial to reject the false and continue always to choose to worship and serve the true God. Every morning we boot up in the power of our own flesh. Every day we must continue to repent of our self-dependence and beg God to empower us to continue to choose him over our own self-seeking desires.
15 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.
When Joshua challenged the people to choose to serve God and affirmed that this was his personal choice as well, the verb tense he used implied more than a once-for-all choosing, as if one could make a choice and be done with it afterward. The tense involves what grammarians call continuous action. It involves the past, but it also involves the present and the future. Joshua was declaring that he had chosen to serve the Lord, that he was still choosing the same path of service, and that he would go on choosing to serve God until the very end.
That was Joshua’s God-given character. He chose, and he chose, and he chose, and he kept right on choosing YHWH. He understood the nature of the choice God demanded, once-for-all choice and continuing existential choice. His word to the people of Israel was not mere puffery made on the spur of the moment. It was deeply embedded in his understanding of what God required from a person made in his own image, one called upon not to obey like a machine, or an animal, but to obey God by choice.
Joshua did not misrepresent the options when making his case to the people, because even though God had chosen them, having called Abraham when he was still an idol worshipper in Ur and having called the entire nation out of Egypt, the people still had to choose God themselves. They had to choose intelligently, decisively, and willingly if their choice was to be of real value. So, Joshua gave them four options.
First, They could choose the gods their forefathers had served while in Ur of the Chaldeans. This is what Joshua meant by “beyond the river.” The river is the Euphrates, and the gods served beyond the river were the gods of the Babylonians.
Second, they could choose the gods of Egypt. These were different gods from those of Babylon. They were the gods of the Nile, the land, and the sky. Ra, the sun God, was the great God of Egypt. He was thought to be continually embodied in the ruling Pharaohs. When God brought the people from Egypt through the 10 plagues, it was against the gods of the Nile, land, and sky that the plagues were directed. The plagues showed the Egyptian gods to be impotent.
Third, they could choose the gods of the Amorites, in whose land they were now living. These were the despicable demon gods, like Molech. They demanded the sacrifice of infants. Many of the gods were fertility gods worshipped in cultic orgies. These were the very demon gods against whom the people of Israel had been at war for the last 30 years.
Fourth, they could choose the one true God who had made Israel into a people, had brought Abraham from the land of the Chaldeans, had rescued them out of Egypt, had fought for them and established their own land, a good land, as he had promised.
HIS WATCH HAS ENDED
The people know the right answer to say out loud. “16 Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God’” (24:16-18).
They knew the correct thing to say. But Joshua knew the difference between the Covenant of Works given through Moses and the Covenant of Grace given through Abraham. Joshua knew that the Covenant of Works could only be fed by perfection. The people lacked the ability in themselves to simply roll up their sleeves, try harder, and do more to be perfect. Joshua tells them just that:
19 But Joshua said to the people, “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. 20 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.”
But the people would not have it. They were confident in their own strength and their own self-generated morality. “21 And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, but we will serve the Lord.’” “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord,” said Joshua (v. 22). “Yes, we are witnesses,” they answered. “Then throw away your foreign gods,” said Joshua (v. 23). “Oh, yes,” they said. “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him” (v. 24).
Joshua took their affirmation as given, drew up a covenant between the people and God, and recorded the fact that he had done so. The book of Joshua, and especially this chapter, is the record of Israel’s covenant renewal. Then, comes one more rock. It’s not a pile of stones but one large stone set up as a memorial. Then he gave his parting words: “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.”
Joshua then dismissed all the tribes to go back to their tribal lands. He had kept the faith. Now there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness that the Lord, the righteous judge, would award him on that day, not based on Joshua’s faithful works but upon the perfect work of the Promised Seed to come (2nd Timothy 4:7-8). Joshua could no more keep the covenant of works than the people who stood before him and promised to do so, but for God’s gracious work in him.
Joshua could not make the people’s choices for them. He could not guarantee their future. In this case, the author tells us that “31 Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.” But in the very next book of the Bible, in Judges chapter 2, we are told:
10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger.
When all the leaders and all the people who had sworn to God before Joshua had passed away and the next generation had risen in the land that God had given them, Israel began worshipping idols and participating in the evil cultic practices of their pagan neighbors with widespread enthusiasm.
The book ends with three graves. Joseph the patriarch is buried. General Joshua is buried. And Eleazar are the high priest is buried. While the leaders lived, the people remained faithful. But when they were gone, Israel began to do what was right in their own eyes.
No mere human leader can make people faithful to God. All Joshua and Eleazar could do was to be a pale reflection of the Commander of the Armies of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Only he has the infinite power to grant true and lasting rest.
St Author of Hebrews sums up the book of Joshua for us:
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 24:14–24.
 James Montgomery Boice, Joshua (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 131–132.
 Id., 133.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 2:1–10.
 Schaeffer, 208.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jdg 2:10–12.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 4:8–13.