Defeat after Victory, Joshua 7:2-15
Moses described the Promised Land as “a land of hills and valleys” (Deut. 11:11). That statement, I believe, is much more than a description of the contrast between the hilly landscape of Canaan and the flat monotonous topography of Egypt.
It’s also a description of the geography of the life of faith that is pictured by Israel’s experiences in Canaan. As by faith we claim our inheritance in Christ, we experience peaks of victory and valleys of discouragement. Discouragement isn’t inevitable in the Christian life, but we must remember that we can’t have mountains without valleys.
The ominous word but that introduces Joshua 7 is a signal that things are going to change; for Joshua is about to descend from the mountaintop of victory at Jericho to the valley of defeat at Ai. Joshua was a gifted and experienced leader, but he was still human. In this experience, he teaches us what causes defeat and how we must handle the discouragements of life.
1. DEFEAT COMES WHEN WE DEPEND ON HUMAN WISDOM (JOSH. 7:2-5)
Explanation: As a good commander, Joshua surveyed the situation before he planned his strategy. His mistake wasn’t in sending out the spies but in assuming that the Lord was pleased with His people and would give them victory over Ai. He and his officers were walking by sight and not by faith. Spiritual leaders must constantly seek the Lord’s face and determine what His will is for each new challenge. Had Joshua called a prayer meeting, the Lord would have informed him that there was sin in the camp; and Joshua could have dealt with it. This would have saved the lives of thirty-six and spared Israel a humiliating defeat.
It’s impossible for us to enter into Joshua’s mind and fully understand his thinking. No doubt the impressive victory at Jericho had given Joshua and his army a great deal of self-confidenceand which led to presumption. Ai was a smaller city than Jericho, so hmuanly, victory seemed inevitable. But instead of seeking the mind of the Lord, Joshua accepted the counsel of his spies; and this led to defeat.
The spies said nothing about the Lord; their whole report focused on the army and their confidence that Israel would have victory. You don’t hear these men saying, “If the Lord will” (James 4:13-17). They were sure that the whole army wasn’t needed for the assault, but that wasn’t God’s strategy when He gave the orders for the second attack on Ai (Josh. 8:1). Since God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9), we’d better take time to seek His direction. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18, NKJV). What Israel needed was God to take over, not human wisdom.
Ai was in the hill country, about fifteen miles from Jericho; and one went up to Ai because it was situated 1,700 feet above sea level. The Jewish army marched confidently up the hill but soon came down again, fleeing for their lives and leaving thirty-six dead comrades behind them.
Moses had warned Israel that they couldn’t defeat their enemies unless the nation was obedient to the Lord. If they were following the Lord by faith, 1 Jewish soldier would chase 1,000, and 2 would put 10,000 to flight! (Deut. 32:30) Three Jewish soldiers could have defeated the whole city, if the nation had been pleasing to the Lord (Josh. 8:25). “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” (Isa. 59:2).
The leader who had been magnified (6:27) was now mortified. If some of your best plans have ever been dashed to pieces, then you can identify with Joshua and his officers.
2. DEFEAT COMES BY FORGETTING TO SEEK GOD (JOSH. 7:6)
Background: The hearts of the Canaanites had melted when they had heard about the conquests of Israel (2:11). But now the tables were turned, and it was the Jews whose hearts were melted as water!
• Seek God’s Will: The general who had not known defeat spent the rest of the day prostrate before the ark at Gilgal and his leaders with him. They tore their garments, put dust on their heads, lay on the ground, and cried out to God. This was the prescribed course of action whenever the Jews turned to God in times of great danger or national sin (Neh. 9:1; Es. 4:1). Had Joshua humbled himself before the battle, the situation would have been different after the battle.
"My worth to God publicly is measured by what I really am in my private life. Is my primary goal in life to please Him and to be acceptable to Him, or is it something less, no matter how lofty it may sound?" Oswald Chambers
• Seek God’s Presence: The ark of the covenant was a reminder of the presence of God with His people. The ark had gone before Israel when they had crossed the river (Josh. 3:11ff), and the ark had been with them when they had marched around Jericho (6:6-8). God hadn’t told them to carry the ark to Ai, but God’s presence would have gone with them if there had not been sin in the camp. Without God’s presence, the ark was simply a piece of wooden furniture.
3. Defeat Comes When our Purpose Is Not God’s Glory (Josh. 7:7-9)
Explanation: In his prayer Joshua sounded like the unbelieving Jews whenever they found themselves in a tough situation that demanded faith: “Oh, that we had stayed where we were!” They said this at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:11), when they were hungry and thirsty in the wilderness (16:3; 17:3), and when they were disciplined at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 14:1-3). The Jews had frequently wanted to go back to Egypt, NOW Joshua would have been willing to cross the Jordan and settle down on the other side.
“But read his prayer, and you will catch a strange note in it,” wrote George H. Morrison; “Joshua reproaches God.” He seems to be blaming God for Israel’s presence in Canaan and for the humiliating defeat they had just experienced.
When you walk by faith, you will claim all that God has for you; but unbelief is always content to settle for something less than God’s best. This is why the Epistle to the Hebrews is in the Bible, to urge God’s people to “go on” and enter into the fullness of their inheritance in Christ (Heb. 6:1). God sometimes permits us to experience humiliating defeats in order to test our faith and reveal to us what’s really going on in our hearts. What life does to us depends on what life finds in us, and we don’t always know the condition of our own hearts (Jer. 17:9).
Here’s the heart of the matter: Israel’s defeat had robbed God of glory, and for this they had to repent. If the people of the land lost their fear of Israel’s God (2:8-11), this would make it difficult for Joshua to conquer the land. But the important thing was not Joshua’s fame or Israel’s conquests, but the glory of the God of Israel. Joshua’s concern was not for his own reputation but for the “great name” of Jehovah. This is a lesson the church needs to learn today.
4. Rebuke (Josh. 7:10-15)
Explanation: The Lord allowed Joshua and his leaders to stay on their faces until the time for the evening sacrifice. He gave them time to come to the end of themselves so that they would obey His directions, and then He spoke to Joshua. There is a time to pray and a time to act, and the time had now come to act.
Since Israel had sinned, Israel had to deal with its sin. God told Joshua that the nation had stolen that which belonged to Him and had hidden it among their own possessions as if it were theirs. The nation had been sanctified in preparation for crossing the Jordan (3:5), but now they had to be sanctified to discover an enemy in the camp. They had to present themselves to God so He could expose sin.
What the Lord said to Joshua helps us see Achan’s sin (and Israel’s sin) from the divine point of view. What they did was sin (7:11), a word that means “to miss the mark.” God wants His people to be holy and obedient, but they missed the mark and fell short of God’s standard. It was also transgression (v. 11), which means “to cross over.” God had drawn a line and told them not to cross it, but they had violated His covenant and crossed the line.
This sin involved stealing from God and then lying about it (v. 11). Achan had taken the forbidden wealth but pretended that he had obeyed the Lord. Achan had done a foolish thing (v. 15) in thinking he could sin against God and get away with it. Israel couldn’t face any of her enemies until their sin had been put away. The tribes could never claim their inheritance as long as one man clung to his forbidden treasures. Everything God had done for His people up to this point was to no avail as long as they couldn’t go forward in victory. What a lesson for the church today!
Closing: A man purchased a white mouse to use as food for his pet snake. He dropped the unsuspecting mouse into the snake’s glass cage, where the snake was sleeping in a bed of sawdust. The tiny mouse had a serious problem on his hands. At any moment he could be swallowed alive. Obviously, the mouse needed to come up with a brilliant plan. What did the terrified creature do? He quickly set to work covering the snake with sawdust chips until it was completely buried. With that, the mouse apparently thought he had solved his problem. The solution, however, came from outside. The man took pity on the silly little mouse and removed him from the cage.
No matter how hard we try to cover or deny our sinful nature, it’s fool’s work. Sin will eventually awake from sleep and shake off its cover. Were it not for the saving grace of the Master’s hand, sin would eat us alive