One of the serious evils characteristic of mankind in all ages is forgetfulness; it is not surprising, therefore, that God made provision in Israel that this might be averted. Indeed, several of the feasts had it in view, specially the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. Thus the old were kept in remembrance, while opportunity was given to the young to ask questions, the answers to which taught them valuable lessons.
This was the purpose of the erection of the various heaps of stones referred to in the Book of Joshua, in the setting up of which the Israelites were following the example of their ancestor Jacob, the first to build this type of monument, as a reference to Genesis 28:18; 31:45; 35:14, 20 will show. Let us consider the circumstances that led to their being erected in each case.
(1) At Jordan (Joshua 4:1-9)
The first of these heaps of stones was erected in the center of Jordan, in the place where the priests' feet stood firm. The stones, being twelve in number, represent the nation. By means of them, God would have His people remember that the Ark had stood in that place, allowing them to pass over unharmed, and not only so, but that they themselves were figuratively under Jordan.
This, in New Testament language, is the truth of Romans 6:11, "Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin." just as the stones took the place where the Ark once stood, so the believer reckons that at the Cross he died with Christ to sin, to the world and to self.
Not only in the river, but on its bank, on the Canaan side, a similar heap was erected. The stones for it were taken out of the river, picturing the nation as being lifted from death and judgment to enjoy the inheritance.
This also has its antitype in the New Testament, "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above" (Col 3:1), or if we refer again to Romans 6, "Like as Christ was raised up from the dead... even so we also should walk in newness of life." Thus the meaning of these stones at Jordan is similar to the truth set forth in believer's baptism.
(2) In the Valley of Achor (Joshua 7:26)
The triumphs of Israel in the land were, like the victories of the gospel in the early days, soon marred by sin. Worthy of note is the parallel between the sin of Achan and that of Ananias: (1) both were the fruit of covetousness, (2) both consisted of keeping back God's portion, (3) both were exposed and judged and (4) neither offender perished alone.
Well might God's people erect a monument on the spot where such a troubler was buried, as a solemn reminder to all who passed the place that sin will be found out, that it is costly and that others will likely be affected by it.
Many examples of such failure are to be seen in our own day. Assemblies which once prospered until sin came in, perhaps going in for things of the world, or refusing to give God His portion, have been left weak in testimony, and in some cases have been altogether wiped out.
Let us learn the lesson of these stones: a man and his family perished (the family likely because they helped to hide the sin), an army was defeated and a people discouraged. All was the fruit of that serious sin of covetousness. "Will a man rob God?" (Mal 3:8).
(3) At the Gate of Ai (Joshua 8:29)
Not far do we travel in the land from where the stones are over Achan's grave till we reach the gate of Ai, and here we see another heap with its important message.
The defeat of chapter 7 is turned to victory in chapter 8, an outstanding encouragement to deal with sin. Joshua had judged the evils, thus leaving God free to help and bless His people. But though victory was gained, it was not without difficulty. All Israel's army had to fight and strategy was also required, thus teaching us that sin, even when followed by restoration, leaves God's people the weaker for it.
The hanging of the king of Ai and the raising of the great heap of stones over his body would remind Israel to keep right with God, if they wished to be able to count upon His help in future battles.
We, too, need God's help against our spiritual enemies, but this can only be experienced if we judge sin in ourselves and in our Assemblies.
(4) At Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:32)
The overthrow of Ai brought Israel into the very center of the land, thus giving them a suitable opportunity to acknowledge God and His Word. In obedience to the commandment given through Moses, the nation is gathered to hear once again the Law with its blessings and curses.
The altar erected on Ebal told them that only on the ground of sacrifice could they escape the curse and enjoy peace with God. This altar with its sacrifice was followed by the setting up of large plastered stones on which the Law was written. Such a monument in the center of their land continually reminded them of the importance of the Word of God, a matter upon which too much stress cannot be placed today The future prosperity of God's people depends largely on their obedience to His all-sufficient Word. May we give it its rightful place!
(5) At Maakkedah (Joshua 10:27)
The earlier conflicts had been with single cities, but in chapter 10 we have a united effort made by the Canaanites to withstand Joshua. This, however, furnished a suitable occasion for God to show His omnipotence. The heavy hailstones, together with the prolonged day, must surely have taught the nations that Israel's God controlled the universe.
The story of this chapter is a picture of that great future confederacy, when the united nations shall take counsel to prevent the establishing of Christ's kingdom (Ps 2). Then, as here, God will intervene and grant deliverance to His own through the appearing of earth's rightful Ruler.
With what joy would Israel erect over the bodies of the vanquished kings a great heap of stones, as an encouragement to trust God in future conflicts. So also may we take courage, even when all foes unite against us.
"God's armies, just hid
from our sight
Are more than foes which assail."
(6) At Shechem (Joshua 24:26)
After he divided the land among the tribes, nothing more of Joshua's doings are recorded until he calls the leaders together to deliver to them his final message. This incident reminds us of how Paul, another great leader, called the elders together to give them a parting charge in Acts 20.
In his farewell speech, Joshua traces the history of the nation from Abraham in Ur until the day in which he stood before them. He recounts the goodness of God towards them, and exhorts them to serve Him with true hearts.
What a noble end to a remarkable life! No better legacy could he have left the nation than the example of his own consistent testimony Well had it been for them had they kept the promise he here caused them to make before God.
Joshua, however, seemed to fear that Israel would soon forget their promise, so he erected a great stone in Shechem to be a silent witness that they had chosen God instead of idols. This monument together with the influence of his own life had a good effect on the elders that outlived him, as we see in Judges 2:7. Afterwards a new generation arose that "knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done" (verse 10), and at length they even ventured to display evidence of their departure from God at the very spot where the stone had been erected (see Judges 9:6).
Have we, too, not recollections of faithful men who stood for God and left behind them a savor of God which (like the stone set up) remains until this day?
May the lessons taught by these monuments in the land help us to maintain our testimony for God to the end, as did Joshua, Paul and many others since then.