19. Lessons in Defeat.
"Anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see." — Rev. 3:18.
Considerations essentially practical to Christian warfare now open up. The conduct of Israel before Jericho teaches what the behaviour of the soldiers of Jesus Christ should be in the world; while the lessons of Ai show what Christian conflict too frequently is, in its actual workings. In the end, at Ai, as at Jericho, victory was assured through grace; and it is written for us, whatever our defeats, "The God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly" (Rom. 16:20).
Before victory, amongst God's people, there is invariably dependence on God, and prayerful following of His word; and by these means God prepares His own for beholding His glorious work. But such are our hearts that, in the very victory God gives us, we are apt to begin to trust in self and to loosen our girdles. The path to victory is usually a safer one than the vantage ground of success obtained. Never more than in a time of marked blessing is a truly watchful and prayerful spirit needed; never more than when God gives victory do soldiers of Christ require to apply to themselves the practical truth of circumcision. Indeed, defeats often arise from absence of care in the hour of success.
Each hour of the week of warfare around Jericho had shown Israel's utter inability to conquer in their own strength, and had proved that in every sense the conquest was of God. At the very moment of victory God had given Israel warning what each soldier should shun, "lest ye make yourselves accursed." But Israel had in spirit departed from their strength. Sin in the camp occasioned defeat, and the pride of the army hindered the discovery of the sin.
In God's history of events before Ai, He lifts the veil previous to His record of a single step taken by Israel, so that the reader of His word may not fail to enter into His thoughts about the sin in the camp. His finger points out the evil hidden in the midst of Israel long before they discovered its presence (Joshua 7:1). Had they been walking humbly, they would have sought God before the battle, and He would have indicated that evil was among them; then their humiliation would have been alone with God, and on their faces they would have received His word to clear themselves. But their pride prevented dependence on God.
No evil can be hidden in our individual hearts, or amongst a company of God's people, of which He is ignorant. No deception, no lie, is compatible with God's presence, or with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And if we do not feel the evil among us, we are lacking in communion with God. On this point, instead of excusing ourselves, we require to be firm and stern with our souls. God creates misgivings in His saints, or makes them sensible, through His Spirit dwelling in us, that something is wrong, when they are near Him in heart. In the absence of this godly state of soul, God allows the evil to develop, till, by feeding on its fruits of misery, His people at length are so humiliated that they are forced to humble themselves. Then, once more, the watchful and prayerful spirit is found, and God again allows victory to arise.
God never alters His principles of government because of His ways of grace. Israel was flushed with the pride of success; therefore He allowed them to find out, by means of their defeat, that He was angry with them, sin being in their midst. They had committed a trespass; they had "deceived a deceit;" they had "sinned," and "dissembled also." Achan, the troubles, was representative of the people; the sin of one was that of all; the corporate body was affected by the guilt of the unit. Now, as a matter of fact, Christians usually discover the presence of sin among them, which God hates, by the result of His chastening, and too seldom discern it as dear children in His presence, under the gentle eye of His love. Spiritual discernment, to which most lay claim as a matter of course, is really a fine fruit of the Spirit of God, and by no means that common hedgerow plant which many regard it to be.
Israel looked at Ai as contemptible. Its name "a heap of ruins" — suggests that it was not like Jericho — a city mighty and fortified. Had it been a powerful place, maybe Israel would have sought God about its overthrow; but the language of the spies (after they had gone "up and viewed the country") — "Make not all the people to labour thither, for they are few" — indicates confidence in their own strength, instead of trust in God for Ai's destruction. Truly recognizing God as our strength alone, we hang on Him as much for the small as for the great enemies. Do we not know practically how that little enemies occasion great defeats?
Alas for the pride of victory! Could Christians boast in the number of their converts if they really believed that by God the Spirit each one had been born anew? Could teachers of the word vaunt themselves in their knowledge, if realizing that they were themselves taught of God? Those who walk in pride God is able to abase; His "great Name" requires humility in man — a divine principle man is slow to learn.
On went Israel, knowing not that their sin had separated them from God. Their chosen three thousand were confident of success; but they fled before the men of Ai, "who chased them from before the gate," and smote them. Their courage, built on self-confidence, broke down completely, "wherefore the hearts of the people melted and became as water."
The self-confident despair in defeat; whilst those who draw upon divine resources strengthen themselves in God in the day of trouble. Adversity and anguish in natural things bring out real moral greatness in men; so in things spiritual the really great spirit is manifest when everything seems to be adverse. David, in his dark hour, encouraged himself in the Lord his God. Joshua, like most men, almost blamed God for the overthrow. The effect, not the cause, seems to have filled his soul; the defeat, not the reason of it. "Alas," he cried in his bitterness — "Alas, O Lord God, wherefore hast Thou at all brought this people over Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us?"
A man really praying to God speaks out the truth of what is in his heart. This lamentation proved how far from the spirit of self-judgment Israel was; for to their leader it seemed that the seeds of sorrow were sown not in the camp, but in the heavens of God. Yet this need occasion no surprise, as usually the last place we are wont to search for the cause of our defeat is the state of our own souls. We may, perhaps, say we needed this sorrow, but seldom do we recognize why we needed it.
Let us now turn and engage ourselves with the more healthy spectacle of the nation, representatively through its elders, lying low before the Lord. The praying attitude of these leaders is most hopeful. Their defeat had sent them to God. Would God such an attitude, spiritually speaking, might in this proud day, be that of those who suffer defeats before "a heap of ruins," as the world may be termed when we recognize what it really is in God's sight. God revealed the secret of the discomfiture to the elders of Israel, when they were prostrate in His presence before the ark, and He did this, despite the lack of absolute self-judgment, which seemed to mark Joshua's lamentation. No doubt in the want of this rare quality lay the cause of the secret of the defeat not being discovered earlier; for from morn till even the nation of Israel knew not the cause. Pride stands in the way of true discernment; defeat may send us to God; yet, notwithstanding this, unless we rightly judge ourselves, our hearts remain in the dark as to the cause which hinders God from prospering us.
When Joshua had reached the very depth of his lamentation, and had reckoned all Israel as clean cut off, he touched the Name of Jehovah, saying, "What, wilt Thou do unto thy great Name?" This question, asked at the end of the day, called forth the answer of Jehovah as to the cause of Israel's trouble. God was acting amongst them for the glory of His great Name. Because of His great Name were their defeat and slaughter. What a heart-searching discovery! To all appearances the defeat of God's people denied the greatness of the Name of their God, but God sets His glory above appearances, His Name is greater than His people's successes; His character is bound up in His Name; His army, His Israel, had sinned. To the natural eye, the sight of men stricken by the hand of their God, might indeed awaken the question, "Is God among them?" To the spiritual understanding the truth is evident, that the honour of the great Name of the Lord demands in His people purity and humility, cost what it may.
Jehovah's answer to His servant, "Get thee up wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?" is again a lesson. How had Joshua been lying upon his face? "Thus" — despairing and practically casting the cause of Israel's defeat upon God. To lie upon the face before God is the only true attitude a believer can take, in a season of shame and dishonour; to affect any other is but to add the sin of pride to that which causes the defeat. "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up" (James 4:10). True humiliation before God is our only "door of hope" (Hosea 2:15) for blessing in a day of distress; but to lie "thus" — not judging ourselves, but blaming God, is not humility.
The spirit which chafes under defeat will not recognize the cause of defeat. True humility is rarer than diamonds. The question in the camp was of Israel's sin, their unconfessed and, therefore, unforgiven sin. God required this question first to be settled. That accomplished, He would use His people for His glory. Arise, for how could prayer that confessed not sin be availing? Sin had to be cast out. Action to this end was required by God.
"Israel had sinned." The army of the holy One, sent to destroy the wickedness in Canaan, had opened its bosom to the very iniquities it was sent to sweep away. The holy God had allowed for the greatness of His Name that the sword of the Amorite should be His rod of chastisement upon His people. Thus does God allow Satan to sift His saints. He allows the "Amorite," against whom we contend, to smite us when we trifle with sin. If evil be allowed in the camp and pride in the heart, let none be surprised, that when striving with spiritual wickedness in heavenly places, Satan, the rebel, becomes God's sword against His own people.
The cause of Israel's defeat was given by Jehovah: "Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant, which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before their enemies, because they were accursed." Terribly solemn words! — Israel "accursed," God's own people under His ban. Such is the effect of sin; such its inevitable consequences. Terrible is the sinfulness of sin before our holy God, Who is a consuming fire.
The corporate responsibility of the nation is here shown unmistakably. That great principle lies written upon the earliest dealings of God with Israel, and God changes not. Christian corporate responsibility cannot be ignored, unless God Himself be defied. Christians cannot regard themselves as isolated units in the army of God. The acts of one affect others. "One sinner destroys much good" (Ecc. 9:18). The sin of one works harm in a multitude, and because of the evil of one, all are defeated, and become as weak as water.
The promise of prosperity in the wars in Canaan was contingent upon Israel's obedience. Now in Achan they had not only sinned; they had transgressed a plain command. The accursed, or devoted, thing had been taken in contravention of the command of God, laid upon Israel before the destruction of Jericho — "The city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the Lord: . . . and ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it. But all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord" (Joshua 6:17-19). Not a shred nor a shekel from Jericho did God allow Israel for their personal glory or wealth. Nothing was to be appropriated by those who were called to execute the ban of God on the Canaanite. Now Achan had laid hands both upon the garment and the gold, both on that which was accursed to the fire, and that which was devoted to Jehovah's treasury. Achan was a prince in Israel, and it is often through the leaders, and not through the rank and file of God's army, that sin and sorrow are introduced. Achan coveted the garment of Shinar, the silver, and the wedge of gold, and he hid them in his tent; and thus were found in the midst of Israel the very things God commanded not to be touched.
The embroidered garment was desired for self-glorification, the silver and gold for self-advancement all were surreptitiously introduced into the camp, coveting, taking, dissembling, being mingled in the sin.
The garment was of Shinar. The place Babylon occupies in the ways of men towards God, and in the great judgments of God on men, must not be overlooked. Babel was the first organized attempt to establish a name for man, and a centre of human union, in opposition to divine authority. Babel, in the plains of Shinar, was the resolute apostacy of man from God. There God came down, scattered the race of man, and turned their tower of greatness into Confusion. And this will He do in the latter day, when spiritual Babylon once more rises into power!
The plain of Shinar had its manufactories when God destroyed Jericho, and Satan did wisely in bringing, through Achan's covetousness, the cloak of Babylon into the camp at Gilgal. At the very moment Israel was being used as God's executive to destroy the stronghold which was the key to Canaan, then the accursed thing, the princely robe in its attractive form, was being secreted in their midst! Just at the hour of the baring of Jehovah's mighty arm, and when His treasury should have been honoured, He was being robbed by His own people. Thus the camp of Gilgal, Israel's place of separation to Him, was leavened with the accursed thing, and Israel was made thereby a curse.
The exceeding solemnity of divine holiness commands us in this scene, and we can but enquire, What in our day answers to the accursed thing which caused the camp of Israel to be a curse? The garment was obviously for purposes of self-glorification. Being a robe from Shinar, it was characteristically an emblem of that early apostacy in which man exalted himself in opposition to God. Israel, in Canaan and circumcised, were separated to Jehovah, their strength. Our circumcision, the putting off the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, and our separation to God, are in Christ risen from the dead. Now when a believer, warring for his risen Lord, seeks his own glorification, even by reason of the Lord's using him, he is really exalting himself. He covets to adorn himself in the very things of the flesh upon which he knows God has passed the sentence of fire, and, thus in measure he is in spirit like Achan. And, if he would use the silver and the gold belonging to the Lord's treasury for his own advantage, he is again like Achan, and will pierce himself through with many sorrows. Our sins must sooner or later find us out.
Longings after the goodly Babylonish garment, after self-glorification, and thereby robbing God of His glory, are common enough, alas! Too many soldiers of the Lord in heaven have this buried in their tents. How exalted I am! is the secret name of this robe. In the tent, in the inner life, in the home circle, the truth of our desires comes out. And God sees us as we really are. Achan certainly never wore the garment for all Israel to admire. Whether his own personal friends extolled its glory, or whether he never so much as flung it over his shoulders, was of no difference before God, to whose eye the sin was manifest.
The greater the profession of holiness and separation to God a Christian makes, the more urgent upon him is God's demand for practical resemblance to Jesus our Lord. If we recognize our blessings in the heavenly places in Christ being over the Jordan of death and judgment, and if we assert that we are dead with Christ to the world, and risen with Him and alive to God, all the more terrible will be our reaping day, should we do the very things our doctrines deny: such behaviour is in absolute contradiction to the Christian profession, and such as practise it are like Achan.
It is remarkable how allied in spirit are the two great marks of God's displeasure with His Jewish and Christian people, at the commencement of their respective careers on earth. In the early days of Israel's history in Canaan, as in the early days of Christianity, we find God swiftly judging evil amongst His people, and bringing out into the light the secret sins of those who were seemingly for Him on the earth. Ananias and Sapphira, as Achan, "dissembled." But God is not deceived. It is for us to open our eyes upon our own actions, and to seek to see ourselves as God sees us. God's moral laws can never be tampered with by His people with impunity. Our secret sins are all bare in the light of His countenance; "All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do." Dissembling also will sooner or later be published from the housetops. Let servants and soldiers of Christ study their own secret objects, lest by self-seeking they, in the end, trouble not only their own souls, but defile and trouble the camp.
In the solemn lessons to be gathered from this scene, let not these words of the Lord to defeated Israel, "Sanctify yourselves," be neglected. His word was not, Look to your arms, but, Look to the state of your hearts. Holiness is the requisite for victory. "There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you." Their hands were to cast out the sin from their midst; they themselves were to put it out from among themselves ere they could again wield the sword. All Canaan, and its contending hosts, might know, it mattered not, how the army of God lay under the ban, and could never triumph more till the glory of Jehovah's great Name was re-established in the camp; and the casting out of the evil from their midst was the only way whereby God would again be among them. Most Christians, who have lived to middle life, have lived sufficiently long to see men once valiant for God and used by Him, lying under His stern hand of government, withered and practically worthless, as servants unused and disowned, because they have not heeded His word. "Sanctify yourselves."
In his energy, "Joshua rose up early in the morning," and brought Israel by their tribes before the Lord. Sifting from tribe to family, from family to man, the transgressor was in due course manifested. Where men are honest in their desire to clear themselves from iniquity, God will enable them to sift out till the seeds of the sin are discovered, and when He begins He will make an end. And more, the force of God's presence draws out from man the confession of sin. If the root of bitterness be not discovered, the reason is, God is staying His hand because of the carnal state of His people. Wherever sin lies unconfessed, God is afar off in our thoughts. It is utterly impossible to be before God, and not to be absolutely truthful, down into the deepest depths of the soul.
At the seat of judgment, God will bring every secret thing into the light; everything now covered will be revealed; and at this hour, those hidden evils amongst God's people, which bar the manifestations of His presence, would be exposed, confessed, and cast out, were His saints truly before His face.
Achan confessed his sin, pronounced publicly what had been in his breast. The messengers ran, dug up the accursed thing, and laid it out in the broad daylight before Jehovah. None of the shame of the sin was hidden, no hushing up of iniquity for the sake of peace dreamed of; the truth, not policy, prevailed; for the question on that solemn day of heart-searching was, Jehovah or man?
As all Israel were involved in the dishonour done to Jehovah by their prince, so all Israel joined hands in clearing their camp. "All Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire." And more, Israel was at that hour in no mood to smooth the memory of their sorrow. "They raised over him a great heap of stones unto this day. So the Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called, the Valley of Achor [i.e., trouble], unto this day."
The valley of Achor is the door of hope for God's people still. Through that valley, where stands the witness of iniquity cast out, and the memory of our shame, remains to this day the pathway to blessing. Weeping over our pride, and putting away from us our sins, ever lead to renewed victories. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).