Sin in the Camp

Joshua 7

May 20, 2019 | Ray Pritchard

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You never sin alone.

That’s the main lesson for today. If you get that and miss the details, you have still learned the main thing you need to know from Joshua 7.

You never sin alone because you are never alone. Someone always sees what you do even when you think you got away with it.

You never sin alone.

Achan learned this lesson the hard way.

This is the story of one man’s sin that brought the nation of Israel into a terrible defeat. I began my last sermon by commenting that the story of Joshua at the battle of Jericho is one of the best-known stories in the Bible. It is a great irony that this story, coming in the very next chapter, is hardly known at all.

Yet the two stories are intimately connected. If Joshua 6 is the thrill of victory, then Joshua 7 is the agony of defeat. We like to hear more about victory than we do about defeat, but since these stories occur side-by-side, we cannot pick and choose one over the other.

Here are two fascinating facts about what happened in Joshua 7:

  1. This is the only defeat the Jews suffered in the conquest of Canaan.
  2. This is also the only recorded loss of Jewish life.

Let’s begin with Joshua 6:27, the last verse in the story of the great victory at Jericho: So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.” After a verse like that, you’d expect Chapter 7 to begin by saying, “So Joshua and his people rolled from victory to victory.” And why not? Jericho was the chief Canaanite city. If Jericho could fall to Joshua, what city could stand against him? If the Jews were overconfident, one could hardly blame them. Victory has a way of making us complacent and careless. No doubt that’s part of the explanation for what happens next:

Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai (v. 2).

When the text says they went “up,” that was literally true. Jericho was down near the Jordan River, not far from the Dead Sea. Ai was up in the mountains to the north and west of Jericho.

If Joshua 6 is the thrill of victory, then Joshua 7 is the agony of defeat.

When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there” (v. 3).

From a military standpoint, this made sense. Ai was a tiny outpost compared to mighty Jericho. But the spies were acting as if they had conquered Jericho in their own strength, but Jericho fell because God was with them. Now they are leaving God out of the equation. It’s as if they said, “General, let’s send the Junior Varsity up there because they didn’t get much of a workout at Jericho. The second team can take care of Ai.” That was a bad idea.

So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water (vv. 4-5).

This is not just a defeat; it’s a shameful rout. What should have been an easy victory turned into a total disaster. Now there are 36 graves to dig, and the people are melting in fear. Oh, the difference a day makes.

How in the world could this have happened? Having crossed the impossible river and defeated the impossible city, how could they have been routed at Ai?

When word of this shocking defeat reached Joshua, this is how he responded in verse 6: “Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.” Something had gone badly wrong. God had promised to be with them wherever they went, but somehow the people of God have lost their way. At this point in the story, only God knows the true explanation. No one is pointing the finger at Achan. Joshua knows nothing about Achan taking the loot for himself. That will eventually be exposed by the Lord.

The key to this story is the instruction Joshua gave to the soldiers before the attack on Jericho. He told them to burn the city and kill the inhabitants, but no one was to take any of the plunder (Joshua 6:17-18). They were to bring any precious metals to the treasury of the Lord. Everything else must be burned. Of the thousands of soldiers involved in the attack, only one man violated that order. Although Joshua doesn’t know it yet, Achan’s greed led to Israel’s defeat at Ai.

One man disobeyed, and that’s why there are 36 funerals.

One man disobeyed, and that’s why there are 36 funerals.
One man disobeyed, and that’s why the army was routed.
One man disobeyed, and that’s why the nation was put to shame.

Before going any further, let’s pay attention to how this chapter begins and ends:

V. 1 “The Lord’s anger burned against Israel.”
V. 26 “The Lord turned from his fierce anger.”

This is a sermon about the wrath of God. It stands as a solemn warning not to take God lightly. Said another way, this is not a message for outsiders or for unbelievers. It’s not for the folks who never go to church. This passage speaks to those of us who go to church every Sunday. The more faithful you are, the more you need to hear what God is saying.

There are many things we should learn from this story. Let me point out a few of the obvious lessons:

1. Great victory often leads to great temptation.

If you read the first few verses of Joshua 7, it’s clear that no one expected a defeat at Ai. Compared to Jericho, Ai should have been an easy victory, but it wasn’t. An easy victory turns into a shameful defeat. This should not surprise us. The same thing happens today. A. W. Pink writes about the temptation to take it easy after a great victory:

When the Lord is pleased to exercise his power in the saving of souls, preaching appears to be an easy matter, and the minister is tempted to spend less time and labor in the preparation of his sermons. And when God grants a saint victory over some powerful lust, he is apt to feel there is less need to pray so earnestly. But such a spirit is disastrous (Pink, “Gleanings in Joshua,” Loc. 4749).

In the Lord’s work, it is better to feel weak than to feel strong. At least in your weakness you know you need the Lord. The man who thinks he stands by his own power is heading for a shameful fall.

2. Your sin always hurts other people.

That’s a clear point in Joshua 7. Verse 1 says, “But the Israelites were unfaithful.” Verse 11 says, “Israel has sinned.” The Lord even says it this way:

They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions (v. 11).

In the Lord’s work, it is better to feel weak than to feel strong.

But it wasn’t the whole nation that sinned; it was just one man. The rest of the nation had nothing to do with it. But God held them all responsible for one man’s sin. That’s what it means to be part of God’s family. When one person sins, we all suffer the consequences. You’ve never committed a private sin because there is no such thing. Every evil word, every evil deed, every evil thought hurts those around you. That’s Paul’s whole point in 1 Corinthians 5 when he talks about the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. He tells the Corinthians to put the man out of the local assembly not only to bring the man to repentance but also to protect the purity of the church. Sometimes we must do hard things for the sake of the body of Christ. If there is cancer growing in your body, you can’t ignore it, or it will spread. That’s why Paul reminded them that “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (v. 6). Sin spreads like yeast in a ball of dough. If you leave it alone, it will permeate every part of the church.

3. God knows how to bring our sin to light.

Here is part of the irony of the story. Achan was a rich man. He had children, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and a tent. He came from the leading tribe of Judah. He took the loot because of greed, not poverty.  The rules Joshua laid out in chapter 6 were clear. The soldiers were not to touch the loot they found while Jericho burned.

There is no such thing as a private sin

No trinkets.
No souvenirs.
No gifts for the wife.

Achan knew what God had commanded, but in choosing to ignore it, he sealed his own fate.

It must have been a long day for Achan. As the process of elimination went on, he knew they were coming closer and closer to the truth. Every footfall near his tent shook him. His nerves shot, his guilt rising, he felt the misery of a guilty man waiting to be caught. Alexander Mackay describes the torture he felt: “The rust of gold, like some Satanic acid, ate into his soul, like some unspeakable torture.” That long day illustrates the truth of Proverbs 13:15: “The way of transgressors is hard.”

The Lord told Joshua to bring the nation before him by tribes. Then he said, “It’s Judah!” Then the tribe of Judah came forward by clans. The Lord said, “It’s the Zerahites!” Then the clan of the Zerahites came forward. The Lord said, “It’s Zimri!” Then the family of Zimri came forward, and the Lord said, “It’s Achan!”

Be sure your sin will find you out

God had already decreed the punishment in verse 15: “Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him.” So this is a capital punishment case. And the reason is given, “He has violated the covenant of the Lord and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!” God takes all this very seriously.

Write one verse over this story: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). And remember these words:

Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.

4. Honest confession brings glory to God.

When Achan stood before Joshua, the great commander gave him this advice:

“My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me” (v. 19).

True confession is good for the soul because it relieves you from the burden of your sin. Give Achan this much credit. He told the truth and admitted what he had done. You might say he didn’t have a choice because of the way this went down, but we always have a choice. Some people lie because they can’t bear to tell the truth.

Achan confessed his sin and made no excuses:

“It is true! I have sinned against the Lord,
           the God of Israel.

This is what I have done:
When I saw in the plunder
           a beautiful robe from Babylonia,
           two hundred shekels of silver
           and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, 

 I coveted them and took them.
They are hidden in the ground inside my tent,
           with the silver underneath” (vv. 20-21).

Consider the verbs he uses:

I saw.
I coveted.
I took.

I saw.
I coveted.
I took.

There is a natural progression here:

What the eye beholds,
The heart covets, and
The hand takes.

Honest confession glorifies God because he is holy. He cannot dwell where sin is enshrined. When we say, “I have sinned,” we open the door to every blessing, and we remove the barrier that stands between God and us.

This raises a fascinating question. Could Achan be in heaven? We do not know and cannot know, but Proverbs 28:13 comes to mind: “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” It is not impossible that although Achan suffered the just punishment for his sin, God could still have forgiven him. If so, then his case would indeed be like the man in 1 Corinthians 5 who was put out of the church so that his flesh might be destroyed in order that his spirit could be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:5).

5. Sin always brings consequences that must be faced.

You can shoot an arrow and repent while it is in the air. But the arrow still comes down, and when it does, it may hit someone and kill them. Repentance removes the guilt of my sin, but it does not remove every consequence. Murderers may confess and seek forgiveness and still later be put to death.

Now we come to the end of the story in verses 24-26:

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor.  

 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.”

 Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day.

If this seems harsh, perhaps it is because we have lost our sense of God’s holiness. Do you remember what happened when a man lied to an apostle in a church service in the New Testament?  He dropped over dead, then three hours later his wife dropped over dead, and there were fresh graves in the churchyard that day (Acts 5:1-11). What happened to Achan in the Old Testament is the counterpart to what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament.

Sin brings consequences

Perhaps we have become so accustomed to making excuses that this seems extreme to us. But Joshua knew what he was doing. That pile of stones would be a permanent reminder to everyone in Israel that God must not be trifled with. Either take God seriously or walk away from the whole deal. Don’t think you can rewrite the rules to suit yourself.

 Let me tell you what happens next. In chapter 8 the Jews go back to Ai, conquer it, and then burn it to the ground. This time God says, “You can keep the loot for yourself,” which means if Achan hadn’t been so greedy, he could have had his Babylonian garment and his silver and his gold. All he had to do was to wait a few more days.

Satan is a Liar!

Write it down, friends. Satan is a liar. He buys your soul with counterfeit promises. He whispers in your ear, “Don’t wait. Go for the gusto. You deserve it. You need it. This will make you happy.” And then he says, “Don’t worry. No one will ever know.”

Satan is a liar!

Satan is a liar!
He lies, he cheats, he steals, and then he destroys your soul.

Before you grab that forbidden fruit or try to hide that stolen loot, remember that you never sin alone because you are never alone. God hears! God sees! God knows!

The story of Achan is a cautionary tale about the wrath and mercy of God. God’s wrath burns against sin because he loves us so much. His judgment on sin is part of his severe mercy to us.

He loves us too much to let us get away with sin.
He loves us so much he will do whatever it takes to get us right with him.

The Achan in All of Us

If you wonder where the gospel is in this story, just look at what happened. God’s anger burned against Israel until Achan paid for his sin. Hold on to one key thought: Sin must be dealt with and paid for. If God ignored sin, he would no longer be holy.

Will you now die in your sins?

Achan stands for the whole human race because we too have sinned and then tried to hide it. We have lied and cheated and tried to cover it up. We’ve broken our promises and blamed others. We’ve played the fool, and our sin has found us out every time. Because of that, we deserve what Achan received. The stones that shattered him should have shattered us.

Sin matters so much to God that he sent his Son to pay the price. Will you now die in your sins? Or will you trust in Christ who took your place?

He was pierced for you.
He was crushed for you.
He was punished for you.

Does that mean anything at all to you?
Run to the cross because it is your only hope.
If you come to Jesus, he will not turn you away.

When Alexander Whyte preached on this story, he pointed out that when we sin, we have a Savior who is greater than Joshua. If your sin has found you out, come clean, admit the truth, own up to what you have done, and then cry out, “O Lord, is your name Jesus? And do you save sinners from their sin?” Then tell the Lord you are the chief of sinners. In fact, Alexander Whyte advised his hearers to lie down on the floor and beg for mercy. You need not think it too much to do, he said, for “the Son of God did it for you on the floor of Gethsemane.” In your desperation you will find mercy when you turn to Christ.

“O Lord, is your name Jesus?”

In 1740 Charles Wesley wrote a hymn called “Depth of Mercy.” Let me share a bit from this old hymn because it speaks to this very topic.

First, there is the great question: Can God forgive someone like me?

Depth of mercy! Can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear,
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?

Second, there is the admission of guilt:

I have long withstood His grace,
Long provoked Him to His face,
Would not hearken to His calls,
Grieved Him by a thousand falls.

Then there is hope found in the gospel:

There for me the Savior stands,
shows His wounds and spreads His hands
God is love! I know, I feel;
Jesus weeps, but loves me still!

Weep, believe, and sin no more.

Finally, there is a new commitment to the Lord:

Now incline me to repent,
Let me now my sins lament,
Now my foul revolt deplore,
Weep, believe, and sin no more.

May that be our testimony today. Like Achan, we have sinned and tried to hide it until at last our sin found us out. But in Christ we find the mercy we need. God grant that we might “weep, believe, and sin no more.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?