Something Good from Something Bad
May 27, 2019
We live in strange times.
In the last several years we have heard a lot about “fake news.” Without meaning to be political, I simply observe that fake news is nothing new. It’s not even really news. “Fake news” is what happens when something is reported that isn’t true.
Fake news is nothing new
We’re not the first generation to grapple with truth vs. lies. Human nature is such that many people find it easier to tell a lie than to tell the truth. You may be old enough to remember a TV show by that name: To Tell the Truth. There were two imposters on the panel and one person who told the truth. The celebrity judges had to decide which one was telling the truth. That turned out to be very hard to do because a good lie often sounds more truthful than the truth.
Politicians understand this. Adlai Stevenson once remarked that “a lie is an abomination unto the Lord—and a very present help in trouble.” Joshua 9 tells the story of the Gibeonites who proved the truth of both sides of that statement. It’s the story of something good that came out of something bad.
A Daring Deception
The story begins this way in Joshua 9:1-2:
Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things—the kings in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Mediterranean Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites)—they came together to wage war against Joshua and Israel.
When verse 1 mentions “these things,” it’s talking about the defeat of Jericho and Ai. All the Canaanite kings had heard about the collapse of the walls of Jericho and the burning of the city. But they had also heard about the defeat of Ai. Probably one detail stuck in their minds. After the town was burned to the ground, Joshua ordered his troops to take the king of Ai and impale him on a pole until sundown, after which they threw his body down at the city gate and covered it with a pile of rocks (Joshua 8:29). It was as if Joshua had raised the black flag and said, “Take no prisoners.” This was total war. That’s why the Canaanite kings banded together to fight it out with the Jews.
The Gibeonites knew they didn’t stand a chance
But that’s not the only response. The men of Gibeon decided to make peace with the Jews:
When the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse (vv. 3-4).
It’s not hard to feel sympathy for the Gibeonites. When they heard how Jericho and Ai fell to the Jews, they knew they didn’t stand a chance. They may have been pagans, but they knew enough to understand that behind Joshua stood the God of the universe.
It was a straightforward calculation: “The Jews are planning to sweep through the land. When they get to Gibeon, they will kill us and burn the city. We’d better make a deal while we can.” They also knew Joshua would never make a deal on his own. Why would he? After Jericho and Ai, the Jews were on a roll. They weren’t afraid of anyone or anything. There was no way the Jews would willingly enter into any kind of a deal with the Gibeonites, their sworn enemies.
What do you do then?
Disguise plus flattery works almost every time
The Gibeonites came up with a brilliant two-part plan: disguise plus flattery. That works almost every time. First, they pretended to come from some distant land. They put on worn clothes and packed moldy bread and cracked wineskins to make it look like they had been traveling for many weeks. It worked better than they imagined. When they got to Gilgal, the Jews at first questioned them but eventually decided they must be telling the truth. Second, they resorted to flattery. The Gibeonites poured it on thick with all their talk about how God had delivered the Jews from Egypt and how he had given them victory over the kings east of the Jordan. That was clever because it was true and because it appealed to Jewish pride.
This ruse shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Both Joshua and the leaders were skeptical at first, but the Gibeonites snookered them because they weren’t expecting a trick. I am struck by how easy it was to fool the Jews. That ought to be a lesson for all of us. We are told in the New Testament that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). He comes to us like a friend, but in the end he turns out to be a hissing serpent.
This ought to remind us that things are rarely what they seem to be. It’s like talking to an unscrupulous salesman. He’s got an answer for everything because he knows all the tricks of persuasion. He knows how to turn your objections to his advantage. You end up signing on the dotted line, thinking you got a great deal. Only later do you realize you were tricked by a con man.
That’s exactly what happened here.
A Basic Blunder
So now the Jews face a major decision. They suspect something is up, but they can’t prove it. What do you do then? The text says they sampled the provisions the Gibeonites brought with them, which means they checked out the bread and found it old and moldy. That done, they said, “Well, it seems legit. Let’s make a deal.” So they made a peace treaty with the Gibeonites, thinking all was well.
Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath (v. 15).
To make an oath meant they promised before God not to harm the Gibeonites. That’s serious business. You can’t make a promise in God’s name and then glibly break it. Remember what Psalm 15:4 says in answer to the question, “Who may dwell in your sanctuary?”
(He) who keeps his oath even when it hurts.
God takes our promises seriously, even when we don’t. That’s why Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 tells us it is better not to swear before the Lord than to swear an oath and break it later.
A deal is a deal
A deal is a deal.
Don’t make promises and break them later.
Don’t swear an oath you don’t intend to keep.
Don’t say, “It doesn’t matter,” because it does. God expects his people to be truthful.
So now the deal is done. The Gibeonites are safe. Joshua and his leaders only made one mistake, but it was a big one:
The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord (v. 14).
They ate the food but forgot their God, which is why they made such a basic blunder. The same thing happens any time we get too busy to talk to the Lord. We all know how it happens. Life gets hectic, you have a full agenda, something comes up, and you have to make a decision right now. You don’t mean to leave God out, but unless you intend to bring him in, he’ll always be left out. S. D. Gordon said it this way:
You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.
It’s easy to leave God out of your life
I know some people who seem to have the gift of discernment. They know how to make quick decisions, even in an ambiguous situation. But making quick decisions will occasionally get you in trouble because you start believing in your own ability to figure things out. You think, “I can spot a fraud a mile away,” which is good until it doesn’t work, and then you get conned by a grifter. Far better to say, “Lord, I don’t know what to do in this situation.” Better always to be like Jehoshaphat, who when facing an overwhelming foe cried out to the Lord, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).
Remember that this happened to Joshua—God’s appointed leader. It happened
After the miracle at the Jordan,
After the conquest of Jericho,
After the shameful episode with Achan, and
After the defeat of Ai.
After all those miracles of deliverance and after Achan’s deceit, Joshua still forgot to pray about it. He was a good man who trusted in his gut instincts when he should have asked the Lord for help.
We will never get to the place where we don’t need the Lord
If it could happen to him, it can certainly happen to you and me.
Let’s be clear about this. We will never get to the place where we don’t need the Lord. The moment we think, “I’ve got this, Lord,” we’re in big trouble and sinking fast.
A Righteous Response
Everything went fine for three days. Then word got out about the deception. It’s not clear how they found out. Maybe the Gibeonites spilled the beans. Who knows? It’s hard to keep a secret like that.
Now that the Israelites know the truth, what will they do?
The whole assembly grumbled against the leaders, but all the leaders answered, “We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. This is what we will do to them: We will let them live, so that God’s wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them.” They continued, “Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers in the service of the whole assembly.” So the leaders’ promise to them was kept (vv. 18-21).
The leaders couldn’t go back on their word because they knew God took them seriously. So they spared the Gibeonites and their cities but decided they would become perpetual servants of the Jews as woodcutters and water carriers.
When all else fails, tell the truth!
When Joshua asked the Gibeonites why they had lied, they told the truth:
We feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you.” (vv. 24-25).
Give them credit. The Gibeonites made no excuses. Matthew Henry summarized their answer this way:
They considered that God’s sovereignty is incontestable, his justice inflexible, his power irresistible, and therefore resolved to try what his mercy was, and found it was not in vain to cast themselves upon it.
Who got the better end of this deal?
They lied to save their lives, which does not justify the lie, but it led them to find mercy and not destruction. The final verses give us a glimpse of the grace of God at work:
So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly, to provide for the needs of the altar of the Lord at the place the Lord would choose. And that is what they are to this day (vv. 26-27).
Who got the better end of this deal? On the one hand, the Israelites got an endless source of free labor, so that’s a win for them. On the other hand, the Gibeonites saved their lives, so that’s a big win for them. But notice where they ended up—at “the altar of the Lord at the place the Lord would choose.” What happened at the altar? It was the place of sacrifice. The Gibeonites who started out as pagans now end up serving at the very heart of the Jewish religion. Every day they served where the animals were sacrificed to the Lord. They had a front-row seat to watch God at work in the divine object lesson of substitution. They learned that blood must be shed for the forgiveness of sin.
From Cursing to Blessing
Let’s pause for a moment and ask a question. What’s this story all about?
The dangers of deception?
The folly of not calling on the Lord?
The importance of keeping your oaths?
The answer is, this story is about all those things. But there is more going on here than these lessons. Let’s run the clock forward and see what we find.
What is this story all about?
In the very next chapter (Joshua 10) Joshua and the Israelites went to war to protect the city of Gibeon from the other Canaanite kings. Thus you have Jews protecting one group of Canaanites (the Gibeonites) from the other Canaanites. It was during this battle that the sun stood still over Gibeon, giving Joshua one of his greatest victories.
In Joshua 21 Gibeon was named one of the Levitical cities, which meant the priests lived there. This guaranteed the inhabitants would have firsthand knowledge of the whole sacrificial system.
When Saul massacred the Gibeonites (400 years later), God responded by sending a three-year famine in Israel (2 Samuel 21:1). That famine was not lifted until seven of Saul’s male descendants were hanged by the Gibeonites in retribution for the massacre. God judged his people for breaking the promise they had made to protect the Gibeonites.
Gibeon became famous for the worship of God!
When David’s mighty men are listed in 1 Chronicles 12, the list includes “Ishmaiah the Gibeonite, a mighty warrior among the Thirty, who was a leader of the Thirty.” That means he was in David’s inner circle, one of the most trusted men.
When Solomon went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, the Lord appeared to him and told him to ask whatever he wanted. That’s when he asked the Lord for wisdom (see 1 Kings 3).
When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah records that 95 men of Gibeon were among them (Nehemiah 7:25).
When Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (1000 years after the time of Joshua), men from Gibeon helped in the construction (Nehemiah 3:7).
What should we make of all this? First, the Israelites kept their promise faithfully, not only while Joshua was alive but for a thousand years. Second, the Gibeonites became fully integrated into the life of Israel, some of them serving in high positions. Third, it certainly must mean that they came to understand the true God and how he must be approached by way of blood sacrifice.
Let’s compare Rahab and the Gibeonites. She was a prostitute, but they were conmen. She lied to the king of Jericho, but they lied to Joshua. They both did what they did to save themselves from destruction. Rahab believed the God of the Jews was the one true God, while the Gibeonites said in Joshua 9:24, “Your servants were clearly told how the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses.” In both cases, these pagan Gentiles had heard enough to convince them to change sides.
Rahab left her own people to join the people of God.
The Gibeonites did the same thing.
Rahab knew if she were caught, she would be killed.
The Gibeonites were found out by the other pagans who tried to kill them.
The Gibeonites joined the winning team
Francis Schaeffer put it this way:
When the land was divided, Gibeon was one of the cities given to the line of Aaron. It became a special place where God was known. Approximately 400 years later, David put the tabernacle in Gibeon. That meant the altar and the priests were in Gibeon as well.
What does all this mean? “The Gibeonites had come in among the people of God, and hundreds of years later they were still there.” Does this mean all the Gibeonites became believers? Only God knows the answer to that question. But out of all the pagan nations in the land, they and they alone were the only ones spared. They and they alone joined with the people of God.
We are all like Rahab, and we are all like the Gibeonites. We come in with the prostitutes and the liars. It’s easy for us to look down our noses at people we regard as terrible sinners. Let me put it this way because I need to remind myself of this truth: God saves people I wouldn’t save if I were God. Which is yet one more reason why I’m glad he’s God, and I’m not. My “grace” has definite limits; his does not. He will save the most notorious sinner who turns to him. That even includes self-righteous church people like me. As Philip Yancey points out, if we say, “There is grace even for people like the Gibeonites,” we have unconsciously put ourselves in a different category. The truth is, there is grace even for people like Ray Pritchard.
There is grace even for people like Ray Pritchard
We have forgotten what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:12-13. First, he describes what we were before we were saved:
You were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world (v. 12).
Then he describes our new position:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (v. 13).
There was a time when we, like Rahab and like the Gibeonites, were without hope and without God in the world. That’s why the “but” of verse 13 is so important.
You were . . .
But now you are . . .
That’s the difference grace makes!
What a difference grace makes
There is a lesson here if we will pay attention. God has his people everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. You wouldn’t think a “fallen woman” in Jericho would end up in Hebrews 11, but that’s exactly what happened. You wouldn’t think lying conmen would end up serving at the altar of the Lord, but that’s what happened to the Gibeonites.
We are all born rebels.
We are all born hating God.
We are all sinners who have missed the mark.
God has his people everywhere
One final word. If God insisted the Jews keep their oath, even though it was foolishly made, how much more will he keep his own oath, which was freely given. Hebrews 6:17-18 puts it this way:
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.
Did you get that? God wants us to have no doubts about our salvation, so he made a promise and then confirmed it with an oath. He did it so that we might be “greatly encouraged” to believe in him.
Thank God for his oath!
God does not change, which means he will be there when we need him most. When we have failed, when we say, “I deserve to go to hell,” the Father speaks from heaven and says, “I have made a promise, and I swore an oath. Your sin cannot cancel my grace.”
Thank God for his oath!
He takes us to heaven in spite of ourselves.
Did you notice the little word “fled”? We who have “fled to take hold of the hope.” That’s what Rahab did. That’s what the Gibeonites did. They fled to the one true source of hope. That’s what we did when we came to Christ. We fled from Satan and from the world to grasp the one true anchor for our soul, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Will we see the Gibeonites in heaven? I believe many of them will be there.
Will we see Rahab in heaven? Yes, I’m sure of that.
Let us then lay aside all pride and all boasting and thank God because if he can save a prostitute and a bunch of lying conmen, he can save us too.