At a place called Shechem, old Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel together so that he could speak to them one last time. The purpose of his speech was to call on the nation to officially renew their covenant with God.
Joshua began with a history lesson (v.2-13). It was a story that was familiar to everyone present. In a culture in which written media was scarce, the repetition of their oral history was important. While every elder in Israel knew the history by heart and shared it often, it was different coming from Joshua. He had been there: as a slave he had felt the sting of an Egyptian whip on his back, he knew Moses and Aaron personally, he saw the plagues in Egypt, and he was an eye-witness to the parting of the Red Sea.
The old leader reminded the nation that God had cared for them in the wilderness and kept them safe. He recalled the miracle of the conquest of Canaan, in which God had defeated all their enemies and given them cities they had not built, farmland they had not worked, and vineyards they had not planted.
These reminders set up Joshua’s call for covenant renewal (v.14-15). He called for the people to “serve the Lord in sincerity and faithfulness.” They were to forsake idolatry once and for all and make the commitment to serving God exclusively. Like any good leader, Joshua led the way in renewing the covenant: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The Israelite multitude responded by affirming their commitment: forsaking idols, acknowledging God’s grace, and committing to serve Him.
Joshua’s rebuttal in verse 19 was a reality check: “You are not able to serve the Lord.” Knowing his nation’s fickle faith, he was calling their hand, seeking their most serious and thoughtful commitment. They affirmed it: “No, but we will serve the Lord!” Joshua recorded their commitment in the Book of the Law and memorialized it with a large stone next to the Tabernacle — it doesn’t get any more serious than that.
This text teaches two timeless truths. First, our commitment to the Lord should be both a settled fact and an ongoing process: “I decided to follow Jesus in the past, and I am actively deciding to follow Jesus right now.” The Israelites were living in a covenant relationship with the Lord, but that covenant had to be renewed often in order to keep it fresh and vibrant. So it is with our faith in Christ. Living in a state of repentance and revival is the key.
Second, we must actively resist both the outward pull of the world and the inward inclination to sin. For the Israelites, the false gods of Canaan offered the feeling of worship without the requirement of holiness — a deadly but attractive alternative to worshiping the one true God. Following our hearts will lead us astray; following God will lead us to a place of blessing and protection.