"You Are Not Able to Serve the Lord"
Joshua 24:19 is an interesting verse, but many people (including myself) have often read over it without really stopping to think about what is being said. The verse in Joshua 24 that catches our attention is verse 15 where Joshua says: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” That’s T-Shirt, wall poster, and meme material. Because Joshua’s statement is so arresting, we can get caught up in it and then quickly read over the last verses of the book without paying close attention.
But let’s slow down for a minute and consider these last verses of Joshua. By the time we reach this chapter, Joshua has completed his task of bringing the people of Israel into the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is getting old, so he calls the leaders of Israel together (Joshua 23:2). He reminds them of the law of Moses, the blessing that God has promised for obedience to it and the curses that will come if they disobey (vv. 6–16).
In chapter 24, Joshua gathers Israel and recounts all that God has done for his people. He reminds them of the call of Abraham (24:3). He reminds them of the events of the exodus (vv. 5–7). He then reminds them of the conquest (vv. 8–13). After recounting all that God has done, Joshua commands Israel to: “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.” And then we read Joshua’s own choice: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (v. 15).
What does Israel say in response: “Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, 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. 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’” (vv. 16–18).
Now, here’s where we come to verse 19 and Joshua’s response to Israel’s choice. “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.”
So, Joshua says, “Choose whom you will serve.” Israel says, “We will serve the Lord.” And Joshua responds, “You’re not able to serve the Lord.” How does Israel respond? “And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, but we will serve the LORD.’” (v. 21).
This exchange is so fascinating because of all that has gone before it. Much of what we find in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is instruction on how Israel is to serve the Lord in the promised land once they take possession of it. Now, in Joshua 24, they have taken possession of it, and Joshua tells them, “You are not able to serve the LORD.”
Why does Joshua say this? Does he want Israel to choose not to serve the Lord? No. The final chapters of Joshua hearken back to the final chapters of Deuteronomy and have to be understood in light of those earlier chapters and that book as a whole.
Deuteronomy contains the words that Moses spoke to “all Israel” (Deut. 1:1). In Joshua 23, “all Israel” is summoned to hear Joshua’s words. Before they enter the land, Moses explains the great commandment to Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). Moses warns Israel that she is a holy and chosen people (Deut. 7:6–8). But Israel is also a stubborn people. Moses writes:
Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD (Deut. 9:6–7).
Moses continues, saying that Israel is to love the Lord with all of her heart and soul (10:12). The people of Israel are commanded to circumcise their hearts (10:16). They are not to do what is right in their own eyes (12:8–9) but what is right in God’s eyes (v. 28). (This theme will be picked up at the end of the book of Judges).
At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses explains the blessings for obedience (28:1–14) and then the curses that will follow upon disobedience (28:15–68). In chapter 29 Moses summarizes his warnings to Israel. Deuteronomy 30 is interesting because it begins by assuming that Israel will disobey and will experience the curses of the covenant (v.1). If the people repent, however, God will bring them back to the land (vv. 2–5).
Verse 6 is a key text here. Moses writes, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” That which Israel was commanded to do in 10:16, Moses says the Lord will do, and the result will be that they fulfill the great command to love the Lord with all of their heart and soul (cf. 10:12).
Moses then says something that makes what Joshua later says even more puzzling: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut. 30:11–14).
God then calls Moses and Joshua in order to commission Joshua. Before He does so, He tells Moses that the people will forsake Him and break the covenant (31:16, 20). God then says, “For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” (v. 21). Moses then commands the Levites to put the Book of the Law by the ark and says to them, “For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death!” (v. 27). Chapter 32 contains the Song of Moses, which recounts Israel’s rebellion thus far and predicts more rebellion to come.
So, why do Moses and Joshua say the things they do? Why does Moses say “this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you” when Joshua will later say “You are not able to serve the LORD”? Let’s look at what Moses says in 30:11–14 more closely.
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
The first thing to recall is what was said at the end of the preceding chapter in Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The commandment that Moses commanded Israel is not one of the secret things of God. It is one of the things that are revealed. It is “not too hard” in the sense that some judicial cases will be “too difficult” (Deut. 17:8).
Israel does not have to go on a quest to find God’s will. They don’t have to go to heaven or across the sea because God has given it to them (30:12–13). It “is in your mouth and in your heart (30:14). This last phrase should immediately remind the reader of what is said in Deuteronomy 6 in the Shema passage.
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (6:6–7).
So, Israel has God’s law, but as Moses has recorded throughout the Torah, and summarized in Deuteronomy 9, Israel has repeatedly broken it.
The key to understanding what Moses says is Deuteronomy 30:6, which falls within the section where Moses talks about what God will do after Israel ultimately rebels and is exiled. In verse 6, in this section where God acts to redeem Israel, God promises that He will circumcise the hearts of His people. This anticipates the promises of a new heart and a new covenant found in the later prophetical books (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:22–28).
Ultimately, Moses doesn’t contradict Joshua. Moses too indicates that Israel will fail to obey the law (Deut. 31:16, 20–21). When we look at all of these passages together, we see that God is telling Israel that she cannot, in her own strength, perfectly obey the law He is giving her. Why not? Because those who are in the flesh cannot obey God, and Israel is in the flesh. Israel, however, repeatedly fails to understand her sinful fallen nature. Moses knows Israel cannot and will not obey. Joshua tells them to their faces. The law is “not too hard” but only for those with hearts circumcised by God Himself. God has to change the sinful heart before there is any ability.
As Paul would explain much later in numerous texts such as Romans and Galatians, Israel continually misunderstood the nature and purpose of the law that had been given to her. They needed to understand the necessity of a circumcised heart. They needed the Messiah.
The Messiah has now come. Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate (John 1:1, 14) and is the promised Messiah. He is the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 9:15). He is the one who circumcises the hearts of His people.
Public Domain Image by Gustave Doré