The Agony of Defeat

Biblical Truth: When God gives a person an opportunity to lead, He also encourages and empowers the person to lead.

Don’t Blame God: Joshua 7:6-7.

[6] Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, both he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust on their heads. [7] Joshua said, "Alas, O Lord GOD, why did You ever bring this people over the Jordan, only to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? If only we had been willing to dwell beyond the Jordan!”  [NASU]

Verses 2-5 give a description of the tragedy of the defeat at Ai. Note here that there is absolutely no reference whatsoever to the Lord. In making their plans, in assessing their enemies, in going into war against Ai, they do not so much as consult the Lord God Almighty. There seems to be, on the part of the people of God, a presumptuousness that the victory of Ai is absolutely certain. It is as though they had completely forgotten that Jericho was taken, not by their own wits, and not by their own might, and not by their own abilities, but by the mighty power of God. How quickly they forgot that lesson. How quickly after a spiritual victory they once again turned to themselves and their own cunning in order to try and secure the victory. Everything about this says to us that Israel was trusting in the arm of flesh. Perhaps they reasoned that God would be with them no matter what. Perhaps they reasoned that because God had given them victory in the past they would certainly know victory in the future, no matter what they did, no matter what they thought. The spies come back from Ai and they are full of victory that has just occurred in Jericho. They are overconfident, telling Joshua that only a small number of their army is needed to destroy Ai. And Joshua listens to them without any indication that he sought out God’s guidance and instruction in this matter. He only sends around three thousand soldiers and they are soundly defeated.

[6]  Joshua and the elders recognized that their defeat was due to the Lord’s being provoked and they fell face down before the ark of the Lord until the evening. The rending of their clothes was a symbol of lamentation, the putting of dust on their heads signified distress and grief. The ark was the symbol of the Lord’s throne and presence in Israel. When things go seriously wrong, diligent and solemn examination is called for. Both in the crossing of the Jordan and the march around Jericho, the ark had been accorded the place of honor, as it was borne aloft by the priests, signifying to Israel that victory for them depended upon their covenant God being duly magnified and counted upon. Joshua had fallen on his face once before, when he confronted the divine messenger [5:14]. That was in the humility of worship. This is in the humility of defeat and shame. The elders of Israel have not appeared earlier in the book. They are included here to show that national lamentation rather than individual is meant.

[7]  Alas is a cry of shock and hopelessness. It is most often used in addressing God [Judges 6:22; Jeremiah 1:6; 4:10; 14:13; Ezekiel 4:14; 9:8; 11:13]. Here we find Joshua overwhelmed, heavily burdened, deeply perturbed, and we hear him pouring out his heart before God. Joshua acknowledged that it was the Lord who had brought Israel over Jordan, and then asked if He had done so only for them to be destroyed at the hands of the heathen. Verse 9 shows that at the heart of Joshua’s prayer was concern for the Divine glory which had prompted this prayer. Joshua could not endure a prospect which reflected upon the fidelity and power of their covenant God. Joshua’s prayer contains a complaint [7] and a question addressed to God [8-9]. The complaint was simply the bold language of faith wrestling with God in prayer, faith which could not comprehend the ways of the Lord, and involved the most urgent appeal to the Lord to carry out His work in the same glorious manner in which it had been begun, with the firm conviction that God could neither relinquish nor alter His purposes of grace.

The Lord allowed this event to happen in order to teach His people the following lessons. First, to teach all succeeding generations of His people that they are never in greater danger of yielding to the pride of their hearts than when the Lord’s power has been most signally displayed on their behalf. Second, to exemplify the basic truth that, if we are to enjoy a continuation of God’s governmental blessing, we must remain steadfast in our subjection to His holy will. Third, to set before His saints a lasting warning that the Holy One is jealous of His glory, and will not condone sin in His own people. Fourth, to emphasize that nothing can be concealed from Him: that the most secret actions of an individual fall beneath His observation [Proverbs 15:3].

Call for Consecration: Joshua 7:10-13.

[10] So the LORD said to Joshua, "Rise up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face? [11] Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things. [12] Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, for they have become accursed. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst. [13] Rise up! Consecrate the people and say, Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, for thus the LORD, the God of Israel, has said,  There are things under the ban in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you have removed the things under the ban from your midst."  [NASU]

[10-11] God did not turn a deaf ear to Joshua’s prayer. Rise up! God has work for Joshua. Up to now Joshua was in complete ignorance of Achan’s offense, the root cause of the disaster. [11] God now reveals to Joshua why He has allowed the defeat of His people. If we really seek God’s honor and glory, we shall not be left long in ignorance of the best way to recognize and promote it. God instructs Joshua concerning what he is to do in order to bring glory to His Name. It is Israel’s sin which has caused their defeat at the hand of their enemy. In describing this sin, God lists six items. (1) Israel has sinned. (2) They have transgressed God’s covenant. (3) They have taken some of the banned things. (4) They have stolen from God indicating a deliberate act. (5) They deceived by pretending to be innocent instead of confessing the iniquity. (6) They hid the banned items with their own things instead of bringing it to the treasury of the Lord. Observe that the charge is applied to the whole nation and not simply against a single individual. In the sight of God Israel was a corporate unit. The sin of one individual affected the covenant relationship of the entire nation.

[12-13] Therefore indicates the consequences of their sin. When His people who profess to be in covenant relationship with Him violate its terms and flagrantly transgress His commandments, then His blessing is withheld from them. God will not be trifled with. Now God instructs Joshua concerning what he must do in order to remove the sin from the midst of the people. Consecrate yourselves. The call was for the people to be sanctified, that is, for them to be formally and reverently assembled before the Lord. They were to duly prepare themselves for the solemn and searching ordeal which the Lord had appointed [7:14-15].

Confront Sin: Joshua 7:16-21, 24-26.

[16] So Joshua arose early in the morning and brought Israel near by tribes, and the tribe of Judah was taken. [17] He brought the family of Judah near, and he took the family of the Zerahites; and he brought the family of the Zerahites near man by man, and Zabdi was taken. [18] He brought his household near man by man; and Achan, son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, was taken. [19] Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, I implore you, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me." [20] So Achan answered Joshua and said, "Truly, I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel, and this is what I did: [21] when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it." [24] Then Joshua and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, the silver, the mantle, the bar of gold, his sons, his daughters, his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his tent and all that belonged to him; and they brought them up to the valley of Achor. [25] Joshua said, "Why have you troubled us? The LORD will trouble you this day." And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones. [26] They raised over him a great heap of stones that stands to this day, and the LORD turned from the fierceness of His anger. Therefore the name of that place has been called the valley of Achor to this day.  [NASU]

[16-21] So Joshua arose early in the morning. Here we see Joshua’s willingness and readiness to obey the Lord’s command. However painful the task, there was no delay. Joshua yearned to have the Lord’s honor vindicated, and for the nation to be restored to His favor. Achan remained stubborn and deceitful to the end. As he had not confessed his offense when Israel was repulsed at Ai and the hearts of the people melted and became as water [5], so now he maintained silence. When the lot fell on Achan, Joshua begged Achan to give glory to God and confess his sin. It is striking to note how mildly Joshua addressed Achan. This is an example not to condemn those who are in misery, even though their own sin has caused their misery. We need to treat such offenders with a spirit of meekness, humbly recognizing our own sinful desires. Achan’s confession would give glory to God in several ways. It would testify to the Divine omniscience in detecting and exposing his sinful act. It would acknowledge God’s holiness in abhorring his wickedness. It would give witness to the Lord’s justice, in that God’s righteousness was so displeased with him. By recognizing and acknowledging these Divine attributes, Achan would have brought glory to his God. Thus confession of our sin is one of the ways appointed by God in which we glorify Him. In connection with the confessing of sin we are too apt to confine our thoughts to the clearing of our conscience and being restored to fellowship. But a truly contrite soul will eye the dominion of God, acknowledging His right to rule over us and our duty to live in entire subjection to Him. He will see the righteousness, holiness, patience, mercy, etc. of the covenant God. And by thus focusing attention on the Divine perfections of His character, the contrite sinner will bring glory to His Name. Failure to confess sin is not only to deprive ourselves of comfort, but is to withhold from God that which is His due. We shall never confess sin with a true sense of its infinite evil until we consider how contrary it is to the nature and will of God, and perceive how it reflects dishonor upon the Divine perfection, particularly as it is a contempt of His authority and a direct opposition to His purity. Achan finally confesses what he has done. Note that  Achan’s confession contains three verbs: saw, coveted, took. This verse is closely related to Genesis 3:6, where the same three verbs are used.

[24-26] The whole nation was required to dissociate itself from the sin and take part in punishing the sinner. For any not to take part in the punishment would be to condone the sin. The severity of the punishment must be estimated by the relation of Achan’s crime to the whole plan of the conquest of Canaan. In addition, it is to be borne in mind that Achan deliberately transgressed the plain commandment of Deuteronomy 13:17. He acted in contempt of the awful curse which Joshua had just previously denounced [6:17-19]. He defied Jehovah at a time when His presence was so conspicuously manifest among His people. His crime was not only one of theft but sacrilege in that he converted to his own use what was devoted to the Lord. And his offense resulted in the people of God being put to shame in the sight of the heathen. The heap of stones was designed to serve as a terrible warning against the crime of sacrilege, to rebuke those who imagine themselves secure in secret sins, and to furnish a witness of what an awful thing it is to be a troubler of God’s people. In addition the stones were a reminder of God’s great mercy in turning from His great anger against their sin and restoring once again His people to His favor.

SUMMARY: Chapters 7 and 8 show the reverse sides of warfare led by Yahweh. Warfare carried out in thoughtless self-confidence leads to disaster. Warfare carried out in obedience to each of God’s commands leads to victory and possession of the land forever. The narrative of a sacred process has illustrated to Israel how she must act when she brings the anger of God upon herself. These two chapters play a key role in defining the identity of the people of God. In so doing they stand in stark contrast to the preceding chapters. There the people of God were pictured in all their festal gaiety and victorious jubilation. Here the people of God return to the reality of life, learning to deal with defeat. They learn that even people of God face the anger of God when they act in self-confidence, refusing to look to God for direction or give Him the glory for victory. The lesson learned by the fathers in the wilderness had no effect on the sons in the Promised Land. They had to learn it all over again. From their experiences with the anger of God, they developed rituals to deal with such times of defeat. One such ritual was that of the sacral lot, whereby God captured the guilty party and demanded from him a confession of guilt and of the justice of God. The Psalms and the book of Lamentations show us that Israel incorporated this lesson into her worship.

Through the agonies of defeat, the people of God learned one major lesson. They learned what it meant to be the covenant people of God. Covenant meant more than simply accepting promises of God to multiply the nation and extend her power in the land. It meant more than going through the ritual of circumcision and the celebration of the yearly festivals. Being people of God meant accepting certain obligations set down by God. It meant adopting the divinely ordered life style. It meant making each decision of life in the light of divine leadership, not in the light of personal self-confidence. In summary, the elements of chapters 7-8 taught Israel the meaning of life in the divine presence. Only the covenant people could expect that divine presence, but even they had to learn that divine presence was demanding as well as promising. They had to learn how to react to a punishing as well as a promising God. They had to learn to value the divine presence above material prosperity. And they had to learn that the acts of man were only temporary, whereas the acts of God gave results lasting to this day. Through such results God assured the greatness of the name of His people and of His own name.

Questions for Discussion:

1.    Note the pride that leads to Israel’s defeat at Ai. All indications in the passage point to Joshua and the people thinking that they could now win battles in their own strength. How quickly their focus turned off of God’s power and presence and onto themselves. Think about times when you have done the same thing. What things can we do in order to prevent this from happening in our spiritual journey? How can we battle against indwelling sin causing us to look away from God and at ourselves?

2.    What four possible lessons did God intend for His people to learn from their defeat?

3.    What different ways does true confession of sin give glory to God?


Joshua, Trent Butler, Nelson Publishers.

Gleanings in Joshua, Arthur Pink, Moody Press.

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