The Defeat of Israel
by Geoff Thomas
"But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD's anger burned against Israel." -Joshua 7:1
Whatever we read in the Scriptures is there for our learning, both the warning beacons and the godly examples. “Don’t live like this,” is the message flashed by those hazard lights; “Look at the patterns of these people’s lives,” the examples declare. The man named Achan whom we are beginning to consider is set out for us in the Bible as a beacon to the whole church of Christ. His background and behaviour is revealed to us in our text. We are told that he acted unfaithfully by taking some of the devoted things that should have been consecrated to the Lord. Let us pause and look at this beacon for a few minutes. Let us consider Achan.
Who is this man who provoked the Lord’s anger so that it burned against Israel? He was a member of one of the most prominent families of the tribe of Judah. When did his actions call for God’s anger to burn towards all the people? The very day that Jehovah gave them a glorious victory. Where did he provoke God? In the city of Jericho itself as its walls fell down and the people of God took it with scarcely any blood shed. At what time did he make God angry? Immediately after he heard Joshua his leader saying clearly to himself and to all the people, “The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (Josh. 6:17) and “All the silver and the gold are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury” (Josh. 6:19). Under the authority of the word of God he defied the Lord so that Jehovah’s anger burned against Israel.
The words are solemn, and full of food for thought. They ought to awaken us when we become sleepy, and warn us when we become careless, and draw us back when we approach the edge of the precipice. Shan’t we all listen to what is being said? Mightn’t these be the very words God wants you to hear more than any other word? Isn’t this his purpose in causing you to read them now? Let me seek to show you first of all who Achan was.
1. WHO WAS THE MAN ACHAN.
Some of you are thinking that Achan was a total pagan, a bad man, someone who drank iniquity like water, always on the lookout for unattended property, quick to grab easy money, a common thief, even that he was a Canaanite. Achan was in fact nothing of the kind. He came from one of the prominent families of the noble tribe of Judah. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Carmi, Zimri and Zerah, had lived for a century in Egypt under the lash of cruel task-masters finally reduced to making bricks out of clay with no straw. Had his own life had been wonderfully spared when the Egyptian soldiers sought to kill every baby born to Israel? His parents and grandparents saw the rise of Moses and Aaron, heard of the wonderful miracles that that these men did as demonstrations that the living God was with them when they asked Pharaoh to be freed from slavery to serve God in the wilderness.
His parents witnessed the plagues that came upon Egypt their taskmaster, the Nile turned to blood, the frogs, the gnats, the flies, the death of the livestock, the boils, the hail, the locusts and the darkness. The final plague was the death of the firstborn, but Achan’s family did what God told them to do. They sacrificed a spotless lamb or goat sprinkling its blood on the lintel and the door posts, eating the Passover meal dressed and ready to get out of the land. So their firstborn were spared and Achan owed his existence to his father’s obedience – just as his children owed their destruction to their father’s disobedience. Off they went leading the family out of Egypt weighed down with the spoils of the Egyptians who longed for these people who served Jehovah to leave the land.
It was Achan’s father Carmi who vividly experienced deliverance through the opening up of the Red Sea, who saw their enemies, Pharaoh’s horses and charioteers, being drowned under its waves. It was Carmi who saw the quails falling down from the skies to feed the people in the desert, who gathered the manna fresh every morning. Carmi was kept alive by the water that flowed out of the rock. When Achan was a little boy the brazen serpent set up high on a pole and when he and his family looked at it all those poisoned by the serpents’ venom were spared. They looked and lived.
These are the stories Achan’s family told him. They did not have Sunday School but they were not without a Sabbath day of rest. There before them each day stood a pillar of cloud and in the nights a pillar of fire. What stories his grandfather Zimri and great-grandfather Serah could tell him of the pyramids and hieroglyphic-covered obelisks of Egypt, the mighty river Nile and the tasty fish they caught and ate there in abundance. How many questions did he fire at them about the patriarch Joseph and how his brothers sold him into slavery, and how God worked all that for deliverance from famine of his nation. How wonderful the stories he heard again and again when Israel’s families gathered together and told of the mighty works of God. What influences helped form his convictions and understanding of what was right and wrong, how to please God and be spared from the wrath to come.
Achan later experienced the divine judgment that came upon his parents’ generation for their whining and complaining in the wilderness. He buried them all, Mum and Dad and his aunts and uncles, under the Syrian sky and he with the whole nation were kept wandering for forty years before his generation were allowed to enter the land of Canaan. Then Achan fell in love and married a daughter of one of the tribes and soon, one by one children were born, the reward of God, and his tent needed to be expanded as sons and daughters filled it with their happy chatter and play. He became a man of substance. He made a success of his business. He laboured for six days each week; he had flocks and herds. He had oxen for ploughing his fields, sheep for cash income, donkeys for transportation. In our day we would say he had tractors, and marketable products and trucks. He was the virtuous Abraham or Job of his day, all of them prosperous men. He also became a religious man; when he arrived in Gilgal he and his sons were circumcised because for forty years they’d all been neglecting this covenant sign in the wilderness wanderings
It was not until then that Achan and his sons and daughters partook the Passover together, and that fresh reminder came home to him of what his grandparents had first done in Egypt and how his own first-born father had been spared. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Then Achan experienced his own personal triumph that came to him and all the people when they obeyed God. They had entered Canaan and they approached their first obstacle, the guardian of the southern entrance to the land, a vast fortress-city named Jericho. What a strange plan came from God via Joshua to take this city. Once a day all the people followed the ark of God, blowing on their trumpets, walking around the city, and this they repeated on six consecutive days. Then on the seventh day they got up at daybreak and marched around the Jericho just as before but this time again, and again, and again, seven times in all. Then when the people gave a great shout and the trumpets sounded the wall of Jericho came tumbling down and the people were able to charge in and take it. All those evil people of that city were put to the sword as God had commanded, except for Rahab and her family. The silver and the gold were taken and put in the treasury of God. How mighty was the victory that Achan had a part in.
Such a man was Achan, a highly favoured man who knew of creation, fall and redemption through the sacrifice of the lamb and the sprinkling of the blood. He was a man of privileges and knowledge and experience, yet a man without salvation. The Lord Jesus told us of such men - like seed that fell into stony ground or seed that fell into the weeds and finally those weeds overwhelmed the good growth and destroyed it. So it was with Achan. He had many privileges and much knowledge but he had no grace.
2. WHAT THE SIN WAS THAT ACHAN COMMITTED.
Achan’s sin was disobedience and covetousness. All the spoils of Jericho had to be dedicated to the Lord, burned with fire in a huge bonfire except for the gold and silver which was to be taken to the tabernacle (one day a great temple would be built in the land of Canaan). The people were to make no profit from this victory; it was wholly through the Lord. The people had not devised the strategy for triumph; they hadn’t valiantly fought and shed their blood throughout a long campaign. There were no siege engines, and tunneling under the walls; no battering rams had had to be built; no bombardment and no storming the towers with hand to hand combat on the staircases parrying and thrusting at Jericho’s warriors with their swords; there had been no extraordinary feats of valour which would bring brave men great honour. There was nothing like that. God alone was to be honoured this day. They had simply done what God told them to do, marching around the city following the ark of the Lord, blowing their trumpets and giving a loud shout. The victory was God’s alone. They were not a bunch of marauding mercenaries entering this land to plunder it and murder and rape as thousands before them had done over the centuries. They were the instruments of God’s judgment on an evil people for whose repentance and new life the Lord had waited 800 years or more, since the time of their father Abraham.
This was only the beginning of the wars of conquest, the very first skirmish, and it was necessary from the very start that the people learned to trust and obey the Lord. This prohibition to take plunder and booty for themselves told the people very pointedly that it would never be their own swords and military strategies that would win this land for them. They could not conquer Canaan in their own strength. The Lord alone could give them the victory. Jericho was a sort of first-fruits and as such it was to be offered to the Lord as a burnt offering.
But as Achan entered the city what did his eyes meet in a house that he had entered? Opening a locked cupboard he saw a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. Achan coveted these precious objects and he slyly took them and hid them under his tent. They were accursed things, that is, the fruit of much wickedness. They had been obtained at the price of filth, but Achan took them. The gold and silver was immediately a snare to Achan, but still he took them. God had specifically told the people they were to take nothing for themselves, but Achan defied God.
You might think that the gold and silver were not worth much – the wages of a dozen shepherds for a year. That sum seems small to us, but that sum is not too insignificant to be connected with a great transgression. Men have gone to prison for stealing less. Murders have been committed for far less. On the streets of London this year men have killed other men for a mobile phone and a paltry sum of money in their wallets. Little things will often show the state of a man’s mind better than great ones. Little symptoms are often the signs of a deadly and incurable disease. The fruit that Eve ate was a little thing, but it proved that she had fallen from innocence and had become a sinner. A crack in the side of a ship seems barely noticeable but it proves the ship to be un-seaworthy. If you set out on a voyage in such a vessel you’ll never reach your destination. One straw may show which way the wind is blowing; your attitude to gold and silver and clothes are enough to reveal the state of a sinner’s heart.
The beautiful robe from Babylonia might last for several generations, a family heirloom. You remember that Samson slew Philistines at Ashkelon to have their fine clothes. The robe Jonathan wore David could also wear, and so the Bible emphasizes the power of beautiful dresses to tempt and enchant both men and women. They were clothes men and women needed for weddings and to attend feasts. They are the kind of wealth that a father leaves his children and their children leave after them in turn. Perhaps the oldest boy would be presented with such a robe when he came of age. When the prodigal son returned he was dressed in such a robe. Jacob said he smelled the scent of his son’s robe and it was as the scent of a field which the Lord had blessed.
Here was a robe from Babylon. Nineveh and Babylon were famous for their style and tailoring. How bright and durable were their dyes; how soft the silk. We would judge such a garment as very haute couture from the fashion houses of Milan and Paris. Josephus the Jewish historian says that the garment which Achan took was a royal robe woven entirely of gold. Perhaps it was, and if so it belonged to the king of Jericho and would be priceless. Think of the prices that are asked for the gowns that the late Princess Diana once wore. Achan saw the gown and touched it and he had to have it for himself. What a waste, he thought, to destroy it in the flames of the city; so Achan judged and he hid it under his coat and smuggled it home.
The silver, the gold and the garment were all dishonestly and dishonourably gained. Paul calls coveting ‘idolatry’ because the thing you covet and take becomes your god, it controls your life. Achan hid it under the floor of his tent. Were there many times when he closed and sealed the flap of his tent and in the light of his little lamp opened up the box and took out the garment and fingered it sensuously? He weighed in his hands the gold and the silver. What treasures were his! This is what he dreamed of; this was his glory! Coveting is the root of so much evil in society today; desires burst the boundaries that keep a country just and at peace. A man talks to a woman at his place of work and steadily he gets more intimate with her. What deceit and lies follow in the next years until finally he leaves his own wife and takes this woman from her husband. What pain and poverty comes to such families, what distress to the children, what loneliness to the abandoned wife, and it all begins with coveting the forbidden fruit. Think of David taking Bathsheba – it all began with a long look, or Ahab coveting Naboth’s vineyard, or Judas betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Through this craving some have wandered far from the faith and pierced their hearts with many sorrows.
The things hidden under Achan’s tent told you more of Achan than what was revealed inside the tent itself, the furnishings and the behaviour of the family. The hidden stuff told you of a proud spirit of unbelief in Achan, that he knew better than God. He thought he could do this and God would never know. The stuff under the tent told of a secret love of the world in Achan. His heart was more in Jericho than it was in Israel. These were the things that life was all about, money and fine clothes. His eyes often turned to the place where his treasure was hidden, just as a compass-needle turns to the pole. Achan’s future plans were not for the pilgrim soldier life, but settling down in a big house and wearing rich clothes.
Coveting is the itch for more money, property, possessions, success, esteem, status, fame, popularity, position and personal appearance. Covetousness dedicates the heart to a dream world, and to scheming and even agonizing for stuff that soon will be taken for granted and ignored – was it worth all the pain? It is all deeply offensive to God. “Make me your reward and your inheritance,” God says; “Don’t put me into second place!” But Achan did. The command had been made spectacularly clear. The gold and the silver were to be placed in the treasury of the Lord’s house, not in your own home in a secret place. All the rest was to be destroyed. Was that hard to understand? Was it complicated? No, but that was what Achan refused to do.
So his heart was taken over by self-justifications of greed and need and a superior aesthetic sense. What was the only thing Achan thought of after the walls of Jericho collapsed? Was it the mighty boom as they fell and the cloud of dust that shot out and up? Was it the victory God alone had wrought? No. It was that stuff he’d hidden under his carpet. Jesus says that you cannot serve God and mammon, and Achan had made his decision. Would he serve the Lord of glory or would he serve gold and silver and a robe? He chose the latter. God was far less interesting and desirable than a wedge of gold and beautiful clothes. Have you come across that attitude? Don’t you meet it every day? Don’t you see it in the newspapers and in Hello and OK magazines? Isn’t this what everyone in our sin-crazed society thinks? Money more than God any day of the week? That is their choice. Clothes more than Jesus Christ? Stuff more than the living God? Yes.
What a pathetic little man Achan became. His greed and defiance diminished him. No longer was there moral leadership in his family; he was reduced to ogling things that moth bugs eat and that thieves slink in and steal. He’d got obsessed with trivia. Covetousness is an act of worship. What people covet they will worship on this first day of the week. They have spent hours of mental planning day after day getting more and more of what they fancy, and these are the things that they cherish, and boast of, and live for, and jealously protect. Take anything from them, as long as you don’t take the silver and gold and clothes.
3. WHAT THE JUDGMENT WAS THAT CAME UPON THE PEOPLE.
The next fortress on the path into Canaan was at Ai, east of Bethel, and Joshua didn’t presume upon another bloodless victory. So he sent his spies there to see the strength of the enemy and the extent of their fortifications. They returned with a very positive report. There was nothing there comparable to the mighty defences of Jericho. A couple of thousand soldiers could easily take it; “there are only a few men there,” the spies said. So three thousand were sent, just to be sure, but – shock and horror – these three thousand were routed by the men of Ai, sent packing, their tails between their legs. They were chased for miles, scared stiff as the men of Ai, raced out of their city to strike them down like hounds after some foxes, keeping running after them swords in their hands their war-whoops encouraging one another, striking terror into the young solders’ hearts as they ran and ran for their lives all the way to the stone quarries and to safety, but leaving thirty-six of their friends dead on the battle field. Morale disappeared in Israel; “the hearts of the people melted and became like water. Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell face down to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening” (Josh. 7:5&6).
God had become angry with the people and left them to their own devices. God taught them the lesson that Christ’s own disciples needed to be taught and still need today, “Without me you can do nothing.” The Lord was angry with them for such sin as the sin of Achan. His covetousness was simply one significant symptom of a rebellious people who for the next four hundred years would do that which was right in their own eyes. You see how chapter seven begins? “But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things” (v.1). The ‘Israelites,’ not one Israelite man; “The Lord’s anger burned against Israel” (v.1), not against one man. Again in verse eleven we read, “Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant.” Should you not read this and fear, rather than complain? Fear because one man’s sin removed God’s help from his people. One man’s sin turned away God’s help from Israel. The Lord says, “I will not be with you any more” (v.12) because of what one man has done.
Some of you have brought into the congregation a spirit of individualism, as though a church is a gathering of individuals, like a sock full of marbles. No! The church is a body and when one member in a body is ill all the body is affected. The body cannot say, “It is only a bit of the brain that has some cancer cells; it is merely the appendix that is perforated; just a wrist is broken.” When one part of the body is sick the whole body is affected.
Remember the churches of Asia Minor. There were those in the Ephesian congregation who had lost their first love and the Lord threatened to come and remove the lampstand from its place – to take the illumination of word and Spirit from the church because of the coldness of some. The church in Pergamum had some members who were holding to false teaching and the Lord threatened to come soon and fight against them with the sword of his mouth. Imagine a church and the Lord whom it is supposed to be worshipping has become its enemy. The church at Sardis had members who were spiritually dead and the Lord said, “If you don’t wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” The church in Laodicea had many who were neither hot nor cold and the Lord threatened to spew them out of his mouth. All the church suffers through the sinful defiance of some. In Corinth some were sent sickness and some had died because of their wickedness, and what pain comes to a congregation when death and illness comes judicially.
What did Achan think he was doing when he looted the spoil? Surely he didn’t think God wouldn’t know? He must have thought it was unimportant, a little sin, scarcely worth any rebuke, that God would understand it was much better to keep the dress than burn it. Achan and his family would put it to good use. Achan’s sin was not like other men’s sins, it was sensible; it was rational; it was even beautiful. Such sins don’t exist; Achan’s conduct caused a terrible setback in God blessing all the people. It led to 36 men being killed and 36 families, parents and wives and children, broken-hearted. Achan’s action caused God to withdraw from his people and give them defeat. Achan crippled the reputation of the children of Israel; he brought dishonour on the honourable name of the Lord himself. Achan made the Lord’s enemies very bold and strengthened all the scorners and indifferent in the land in hardening themselves against the claims of Israel. “They weren’t so powerful after all. Pussy cats, not lions of the house of Judah. We can handle them and drive them back to the wilderness.” What a terrible example and snare Achan set.
And so I must ask is there an Achan in this congregation? Is there someone here who knows God’s will and yet secretly is defying it? Is that someone me, or is that someone you? Is your sin bringing barrenness and weakness on the congregation? Are you the cause of God removing his blessing from us? Are you tolerating what God tells us must be avoided like the AIDS virus? Didn’t the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount tell us, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29&39). But you are tolerating gazing at things you shouldn’t even glance at, and putting your hand where it should not go. You are going to hell with two hands and two eyes, but in the process you are also damaging the rest of God’s people. Do you struggle against sin to the shedding of your blood? What about your anger and rage and malice and slander? Does filthy language come from your lips? Do you speak the truth scrupulously? Do you forgive whatever grievances you may have against another? Do you bear with others? What is the specific wedge of gold and the Babylonish garment in your life?
Do you respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you? Do you hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work? Do you live in peace with your fellow members? Do you pay back wrong for wrong? Do you avoid every kind of evil? Do you keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to Christian teaching? Do you do this that he may be ashamed, while not regarding him as an enemy but warning him as a brother? Do you watch your life and beliefs closely and persevere in them to save yourself and those who listen to you? Do you dare to rebuke an old man harshly, or do you exhort him as if he were your father? Do you treat younger men as brothers, and older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity? Where is the wedge of gold hiding? Where is the Babylonian garment? Have you become an idler going about from house to house as a busybody and a gossip saying things you ought not to say? Do you entertain an accusation against an elder that has not been brought by two or three witnesses? The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. Do you have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction? Where is the wedge of gold hidden in your life?
Are you actively pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness? Are you fighting the good fight of faith? When did you last shed blood for the faith? Are you keeping God’s commands without spot or blame and will you go on doing so until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are you growing weary of sound doctrine and starting to search for teachers who will say what your itching ears want to hear? Do you say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and live a self-controlled, upright and godly life in this present age? Are you ready to do whatever is good, slander no one, be peaceable and considerate, and show true humility toward all men? Or are you foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures? Where is the wedge of gold and the silver and the Babylonian garment? Are you allowing a bitter root to grow up that causes trouble and defiles many? Do you refuse God when he speaks to you about such things and say, “Yes, but . . .” Would you dare say, “Yes, but . . .”
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, Achan; mourn and wail, Achan. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up. Look to Jesus Christ for in him there is plenteous redemption. If you confess your sin to him he will be faithful and just to forgive you your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.
God can keep you from despair though you have knowingly sinned against such mercy. How does he do this? By meeting us again and again on our pilgrim way with the fresh oil of gladness. God knows how to anoint the heads of repentant Achans in his church with fresh oil. He knows how to put the cup of cheer and comfort to our lips. He knows how much chastening we can take and what we cannot take, and God will bring us again and again to a new anointing. He is the God of the second chance. He is David’s Lord, the king who knew so great a fall, but it was this David who said of the Lord, “He restoreth my soul.” He is the God who came to Jonah the second time and recommissioned him. He is the Jesus who had heard Peter’s foul denials and yet said to repentant Peter, “Feed my sheep and feed my lambs.” Go and have dealings with him. Do not delay Achan. Confess your sin today and receive mercy from God in heaven. Who is a pardoning God like him? Who has grace so rich and free?
15 July 2007 - Geoff Thomas