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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Joshua 7

 

 

Verses 1-26

Curious Conjunctions

Joshua 7

APART from the main course of this narrative, there are some conjunctions of names which are full of interest, and full also of spiritual instruction and comfort. We have to go in search of some beautiful things: they do not always lie upon the broad and open surface. The loveliest parts of a country are not always seen by travellers who keep on the highway: they lie apart, they have to be sought for; there are little dells, waterfalls, tarns, and natural gardens which only the pedestrian can see, and he only as the result of patient inquiry. It is so with the Scriptures. Almost every verse has its hidden jewel. We read perhaps too rapidly, or we have come under the mischievous operation of a familiarity which supposes it knows all about the Bible. "All about the Bible" it is impossible for any finite intellect to know. The deepest and most continuous readers of the holy record rise from their last perusal to assure us that they have hardly begun to spell out the initial meaning of God"s written revelation.

What conjunction, then, strikes us first in reading this exciting narrative? There is a remarkable one in the second verse:—"Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai"—where is that?—"which is beside Beth-aven, on the east side of Bethel." The striking conjunction is in these two names—"Beth-aven" and "Bethel." For a long time they were supposed to be different names of the same place, but the latest and highest authorities have determined them to be two distinct places. Coming before us in these strange syllables, many may not be able to see the contrast or feel its. force. "Beth-aven" means, "house of vanity," "house of idols;" "Bethel" means, "house of God." Now read:—"Ai, which is beside Beth-aven, the house of vanity, on the east side of Bethel, the house of God." So we find it all through life. Contrarieties face us every day, and make us wonder why they should be. It is possible to draw two totally different pictures of society, each of which shall be exactly done, and neither of which shall represent the reality of the whole case. There are people so constituted that they can see but in one direction: they can see only that which is good; they multiply the sanctuary into a church which covers the whole earth, and they say, The millennium has come, if not in its fulness of splendour, yet in a dawn about which there can be no mistake; they listen to the reports of gracious charity; they hear the song of the worshipping multitude; they see what is being done on the right hand and on the left—all of which is good, beneficent, beautiful; and they say, looking at these things alone, This is the Sabbath of the world, the great rest-period of time; now is the day of God"s salvation. There are others who can see only the darkness, the miser, the sin, and the sorrow—the fatal wound; and they say, Churches have failed, ministries have come to nothing, evangels have sounded their silver trumpets and delivered their sweet messages, and all their sounding has died upon the air and nothing is left but emptiness. Neither of these statements, taken as a whole statement, is correct; we must put them together if we would really understand the exact position of the world. But there are people who will not look upon Beth-aven—the house of vanity, the house of idols. They are singularly constituted—at least, in the sense that they will not look upon evil or believe in its existence. When evil is described, they follow the description with the criticism that it is an exaggeration. They are hopeful, buoyant, generous themselves, and most pure, and therefore they will not believe in the Song of Solomon -called revelations of the perdition of modern civilisation. There are others who will only look upon that side. The point to be kept in view is that there are two sides, and they must both be looked at fearlessly in a spirit of righteousness, with an intention to ascertain the truth, abide by righteous consequences, and make lifelong reparation for lifelong unrighteousness. The timid people who will not look upon Beth-aven are often most exasperating. Nothing can persuade them to look into certain cases: they prefer not to be shocked; they pass Beth-aven in haste, and speed to the house of God. We recognise their goodness in a measure, and the sweetness of their disposition generally, but we must not take the key-note of progress and administration from people who are oppressed with such timidity. Beth-aven exists in every age, in every civilised land; it stands next door to the house of God, and we must face the fact and all its consequences. Enter into what city we may, there is the house of wealth, and there is the hovel of poverty just behind. The city has its great thoroughfares aflare with gas, brilliant with decoration, astir with all the signs of modern activity and progress; but, alas! the city has its back streets, its out-of-the-way places;—some of us dare not go through such portiors of the city,—what wonder if we only see thoroughfare life, and say, Behold the signs of wealth, and splendour, and power; this is the culmination of civilising influence? Who reflects that there are quarters in every metropolis in Europe into which decency dare not enter, and purity itself, except associated with the highest moral strength, shudders to think of? We find also in this city the house of piety and the house of profanity. How we deprive ourselves of many a stimulus to fuller labour by concealing from ourselves that there is a house of profanity! We do not destroy the house by ignoring it. We bless God that there are some brave spirits who do not ignore the existence of the house of profanity, but who go boldly up to it, and ask to walk through it, and leave a message to its owner, and ask its inhabitants to discuss great questions and submit themselves to the influence of new atmospheres. These are the apostles of the time—the brave pioneers of heaven"s own King; they should be supported, honoured, and sustained by persons who have not their moral nerve or their spiritual dauntlessness. All this we may admit and yet forget that Beth-aven and Bethel are in the same man. Every man would seem to be two men. What contrasts there are in our own personal character! On one side how generous, noble, trustful, philanthropic; almost grand to a heroic point in our impulses and propositions and activities; and yet presently we come upon a vein of the purest selfishness that ever debased a character. We have public benevolence and private self-will: we will do anything for the masses, we begrudge everything expended upon our own family. Or contrariwise: the little personal house may have everything—every door-panel a picture, every window a garden, every floor a bed of flowers; but we care nothing for those who are outside, wasting, suffering, dying, hastening, for aught we know, to all the horrors of perdition. Let every man examine his own character, and he will be struck with the contrasts which it presents—the singular and instructive conjunctions which come together even in the individual spirit. One self speaks up in the name of right; another self says, Do not speak so loudly. Everything depends upon the self which is uppermost at the time. It is perfectly possible in a moral sense for the same fountain to pour sweet waters and bitter. The apostle asks the question in a sense which was not intended to exclude that possibility. There does not live a Christian man who is not conscious of this dual movement in his own soul: within himself he says, I know not what to do; when I would do good, evil is present with me; when I would pray, the evil spirit will not allow me; when I would sing, I am suddenly choked; when I would give, my hand seems smitten and it falls by my side in helplessness. So everywhere the seeing eye beholds Beth-aven, the house of vanity, Bethel, the house of God; and the Christian teacher wants in some way to bring the influence of the latter to bear upon the action of the former.

What a curious conjunction is found in Joshua 7:24 :—"Achan the son of Zerah." This does not strike us as a conjunction or contrast in English reading. "Achan" means "trouble;" "Zerah" means "the rising of light." "Achan the son of Zerah"—not immediately, for Achan was "the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah." But the division is most startling as seen in this twenty-fourth verse:—Achan—trouble; Zerah—the rising of light! How family histories vary! A praying father has a blaspheming son. The honestest man in the city lives to see his firstborn expatriated as a felon. Heredity in virtue is exploded. Good men have not good sons by necessity. It is easy and pleasant talking to say, Given a good stock, and the branches will all be right; given an excellent father and mother, and the children need not be much looked after; they will come up in the way of righteousness and be ornaments in society. That sophism has been exploded in countless tragical instances. Zerah, representing the rising of light—quite a poetical name; the horizon widens as he gazes upon it, all heaven heightens as he looks the prayerful look towards its sublimity; how little he thinks that presently there will arise in his family a man who will be stoned to death as a thief! He could not help that. Abel is not responsible for Cain. We do not understand the working of many a mystery in Providence. Things are not to be explained by one reference, or two: the explanation lies far back in history. The dead live. Reproduction accompanies development. We cannot tell what virus stained our blood. But, on the other hand, heredity in vice is not fated. The blaspheming father has a praying son. The man who was never known for his goodness has a child who is a philanthropist, a missionary,—who dies with Christ upon the cross, and counts the crucifixion coronation. So the law does not operate in one direction only: it is an impartial and comprehensive law. Let no man say, I am fated to do thus, and so. It would be a wicked criticism upon Providence. The answer is in every man"s soul; and who does not know that he could if he chose be a better Prayer of Manasseh , a larger man altogether? Let the soul itself answer the question in its own identity and in the solemnity of its own oath.

What a beautiful conjunction is found in Joshua 7:26, when connected with another passage of Scripture in a later book! In the twenty-sixth verse are these words:—"Wherefore the name of that place was called, the valley of Achor, unto this day"—that Isaiah , the "valley of trouble." The valley of Achor is said to be a pass leading from Gilgal towards the centre of the country, or, as it might be represented, from Jericho to Jerusalem,—that Isaiah , from the city of destruction to the city of God. Remember that "Achor" means what Achan also means, namely, trouble. Now read Hosea 2:15, and see what is meant by the beauty of the conjunction:—"And I will give her... the valley of Achor for a door of hope"—I will make the valley of trouble the door of hope. See the great power of God! He can accomplish even this miracle. "Thy dead men shall live." The desert shall blossom as the rose, and the wilderness shall become as a fruitful field. Where thou didst weep, thou shalt laugh in godly triumph; where thou didst fall, thou shalt rise: affliction shall become an altar; tears shall be turned into telescopes through which thou shalt see still further into the heights of God"s astronomy—the mystery of heaven"s blazing glories. God will not have valleys of trouble left in his earth. It is the purpose of Heaven to cleanse out all the stains and taints of sin and all the footprints of misery, and to grow a flower where poison grew before. "I will give her the valley of Achor for a door of hope;" she will hope the more when she remembers the trouble. Our afflictions add to our enjoyments when sanctified and turned to their highest uses. Chastening lifts up victory to higher, if soberer, triumph. It is the contrast that arrests the soul. Had all been garden-land flowers, singing birds, summer air, we should not have known want or pain, nor should we have been surprised by new revelations of God"s goodness. We see the stars in the darkness. We know where home Isaiah , and think of it as the evening closes in. We left the house in the morning, it may have been thoughtlessly or carelessly, without highly-accented recognition of its security and plentifulness; but as the shadows gathered, and the wind grew colder, and people rose from labour and went away from the field, we too thought of home. The light scattered us, the darkness brought us together! "I will give her the valley of Achor for a door of hope;" the background shall be adapted to the picture: she shall see the light thrown upon the darkness, and be astonished with great amazement when she beholds what can be done in unexpected or forsaken places. Our own experience confirms this. We know this sweet passage to be quite true. We are the better for the visit to the churchyard. We are the richer for the grave; it is to us a freehold worth more than a thousand acres, nay, it consecrates all other acres: it touches the whole land with religious suggestiveness and solemnity. Now we are the better and richer for the loss. Now we feel that we would not forego the advantages of the great sorrow. Let us find in our own experience a commentary upon Holy Scripture. If the Bible is a book far outside of us, without any vital relation to what we know and feel and handle, what wonder if it should fall into desuetude or become almost contemptuously neglected? But finding in the Bible our own history, a mirror in which we can see ourselves, reading in the Bible the universal language and not a provincial dialect, feeling that it touches life at every point, who can wonder if it should be the man of our counsel, the chief book in the house, our chart at sea, our confidence on land? Let us say again and again to ourselves, as if reciting heaven"s own poetry, "I will make the valley of Achor a door of hope." The very repetition of such words discovers their music Say it in your distresses, repeat it in the snowy winter-time, rehearse it when the fig tree doth not blossom, whisper it to your souls on the way to the graveyard; and in the time of personal despondency, of which you can only speak with reluctance even to your dearest friend, hold this soliloquy, "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance and my God." The utterance of that word will break the spell of misery. To speak such a sentence to the soul will be to break the fetters which bind it in unholy and humiliating bondage. I will make the valley of Achor a door of hope. So though today we be in trouble and darkness and distress, wait awhile, and the valley shall be a door, and the door when it springs back will open heaven.

Selected Notes

"The valley of Achor for a door of hope" ( Hosea 2:15)-—The Easterns prefer a figure that is suggestive but at the same time hazy and indistinct, and this passage belongs to such a class. The Valley of Achor runs up from Gilgal towards Bethel. There Achan was stoned, and the divine indignation removed. The word Achor means trouble, affliction; and it is just possible that from it we get our word ache. Thus the valley of affliction was the door through which Israel first entered the land of Canaan. And so again, by Hosea , the Lord promised to lead Israel to peace and rest through the valley of trouble. The very indistinctness makes this mode of speaking the more suggestive.

"Achan... was taken" ( Joshua 7:18).—When Jericho was taken and devoted to destruction, Achan fell under the temptation of secreting an ingot of gold, a quantity of silver, and a costly Babylonish garment, which he buried in his tent, deeming that his sin was hid. For this which, as a violation of a vow made by the nation as one body, had involved the whole nation in his guilt, the Israelites were defeated with serious loss, in their first attack upon Ai; and as Joshua was well assured that this humiliation was designed as the punishment of a crime which had inculpated the whole people, he took immediate measures to discover the criminal. As in other cases, the matter was referred to the Lord by the lot, and the lot ultimately indicated the actual criminal. The conscience-stricken offender then confessed his crime to Joshua; and his confession being verified by the production of his ill-gotten treasure, the people, actuated by the strong impulse with which men tear up, root and branch, a polluted thing, hurried away not only Achan but his tent, his goods, his spoil, his cattle, his children, to the valley (afterwards called) of Achor, north of Jericho, where they stoned him, and all that belonged to him; after which the whole was consumed with fire, and a cairn of stones raised over the ashes. The severity of this Acts , as regards the family of Achan, has provoked some remark. Instead of vindicating it, as is generally done, by the allegation that the members of Achan"s family were probably accessories to his crime after the fact, we prefer the supposition that they were included in the doom by one of those sudden impulses of indiscriminate popular vengeance to which the Jewish people were exceedingly prone, and which, in this case, it would not have been in the power of Joshua to control by any authority which he could under such circumstances exercise. It is admitted that this is no more than a conjecture: but as such it is at least worth as much as, and assumes considerably less than, the conjectures which have been offered by others.

Prayer

Almighty God, we ask for a clean heart and a right spirit, an obedient will, an unquestioning, restful faith. "We would say the Lord"s prayer, Not my will, but thine, be done. Who but the Lord could say this to thee? We can repeat the words; we can feel after the sentiment as blind men grope for what they want, but we cannot pray the prayer in all the fulness of its meaning, because of the infirmities which disable us, and because of the temptations which assail and weaken the soul. What we do not understand is God"s will. If we knew that, we should wish it to be done. But we do not know it; we misunderstand it; we make it narrow, and empty it of all divinest thought and meaning: so how can we pray that it should be done? But even this miracle thou canst" work within us; thou canst reveal thy will to our hearts, and make us know how good it Isaiah , how necessarily wise and beneficent, righteous and pitiful. Lord, do this great thing for us, and so deliver us from ourselves, and lead us into thy personality, that we may live and move and have our being in God, and be conscious of no other life, but have all the triumph and sense of security rising from the sure consciousness that we are in the Living One. We are blind, and would see afar off. Thou seest the end from the beginning. We mistake all things; we misplace them; we cannot follow all the drift of their meaning, or appreciate all the colour of their suggestion; we are poor, inapt scholars in the great school. Give us rest from ourselves by giving us deeper peace in God. Thus would we come to the Lord"s prayer, which lay so near the Lord"s Cross. If we can pray this prayer, the bitterness of death will be past, and the Cross we shall despise as to its shame. Help us to carry life"s burdens with some measure of cheerfulness, and enable us to say, This also cometh forth from the Lord, even this great cross, this dark cloud, this large loss, this weakening infirmity. Thus we shall count the stones upon the road as jewels; the Cross will be a way to the crown; and all the discipline of life will have as its promise an exceeding great reward. As for our sin, we remember it only to mourn it, and we bring it to the Cross, and we nail it there: there it is borne away by the Lamb of God, in whom is our heart"s trust, and from whom is our daily expectation. Love us every one, throw thine arms more closely and tenderly around us, give us a feeling of security, work within us a godly discontent with everything that is less than ourselves, and create in us that fierce hunger which only the infinite can satisfy. Pity us in our weaknesses and reckon not our infirmities against us until they aggravate thy righteousness and provoke thy law, and come over the mountain of our sin as one who travelleth in haste, and destroy the mountain as thou dost touch it in the passage. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray. Until he came, our prayers were poor, and narrow, and selfish; but he being in our hearts, by the Spirit, we can pray to have no will: we can say, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.


Verse 13

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Up, sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow."Joshua 7:13

In this sense sanctification was equal to preparation.—There should be solemn days of scrutiny in every man"s life.—We can complete the process of self-scrutiny even where social scrutiny is impossible.—The man who judges himself most severely has least to fear from the judgments of others: he can bear their criticism with composure when he knows it to be just; he can treat it with disdain when he knows it to be malicious.—All these appointments lead up to the grand assize in which the whole world shall be judged.—To live without scrutiny is to live without the enjoyment of many a privilege.—Scrutiny is not all on the side of severity.—The Old Testament saints were sometimes enabled to plead their integrity under circumstances of persecution as a ground for divine protection. They knew that the enemy had formed a wrong estimate of their character, and, being confident of this, they had also confidence in God.—Such scrutiny as is indicated in the text shows that there are circumstances in life which can only be met by severe moral inquest. Penetrating questions must be asked; detailed examination must be conducted. A man must, so to say, retire within himself, and submit every part of himself to scrutiny, as if each part were a separate individuality. The sin may be found lurking in the imagination, the taste, the affections, the understanding, the selfishness or the ignorance of man.—The man must not look upon himself as a whole, and ask general questions regarding his conduct, but must regard himself as divided into many attributes and forces, and must seize each, and by severest cross-examination discover which is the Achan, the thief, the idolater, the miser, the blasphemer, the liar; it is easy to talk about a general examination and to pronounce vague judgments; we are called to analysis severe and exhaustive.—He does not love himself, but, on the contrary, bitterly hates himself, who is unfaithful in this matter of self-scrutiny.


Verse 15

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"He hath wrought folly in Israel."Joshua 7:15

The charge seems to be a two-fold one. The first is that "He hath transgressed the covenant of the Lord;" and the second is that "He hath wrought folly."—Look upon sin as being not only criminal but foolish.—The sinner is not only a criminal, but a fool. He plays with fire, and burns himself. He trifles with edged instruments, and maims himself. He tampers with eternal forces, and thus in every way disables and impoverishes himself.—It is pitiful to think that at the end the sinner will stand forth as a fool, and not as a hero. He mistakes the relations of things; the values of things; the consequences of actions.—A great French statesman was blamed because he pronounced a certain policy not only as a crime, but worse than a crime—a blunder.—Crime does not touch one side of the character alone, for then under some conditions it might claim somewhat of heroic importance, and be invested with a kind of transient grandeur.—According to the Christian conception the universe is a great moral constitution; not an infinite vastness of matter, but a symbol and expression of something within tenderly sensitive and ineffably pure: Hebrews , therefore, who operates in a manner contrary to its law and purpose undertakes to supersede Omniscience, and to Revelation -create creation: at the end he stands forth in pitiable weakness: a man who is not only regarded as foolish, but who is constrained to call himself a fool.—Some men are more touched by the contempt which follows upon folly, than by the censure which follows upon crime; their pride is affected, their sense of dignity is lowered.—God thus attacks the sinner at every point; he shows that in the very act of playing the great man the sinner becomes a foolish Prayer of Manasseh , and is obliged at last to confess that his conception of life has been a profound and pitiable mistake.—Folly has but a short day. The time of its revelation is always at hand.—No sinner has ever proved himself to have been both a genius and a criminal in the moral sense: genius there may have been in the conception of the crime as a merely mechanical or social Acts , but the folly of it has been demonstrated by its consequences.—It may be for this reason that God pities the sinner: he sees what a fool the sinner is; he sees to what fate of contempt and shame the sinner is hastening; he knows it is hard for the sinner to kick against the pricks.—On every ground God hates the sin and pities the sinner.


Verse 18

Achan a Representative Man

Joshua 7:18

THERE is nothing old in these words. Achan is "taken" every day. Achan is sure to be "taken." If we are practising the policy of Achan, the fate of Achan we can never avert; the detail will be different—the mere map and plan—but the issue will be the same, because God"s throne is the same, and there is no change in his righteousness. So this is not ancient history, but a line taken out of this day"s record—a line we would gladly not read; but why should we spoil our schooling because we are eclectic, reading a line here and there just as it may please us, instead of reading straight through, solemnly, minutely, and fearlessly? We do not like to look into perdition—we are afraid of being scorched! But whatever we find upon the way of life and in the discipline of life, it will be well to look at steadfastly and reverently, and ask God for that apt mind and interpreting faculty which can seize meanings and secure them and hold them as spiritual riches.

What a representative man is Achan! Does he not represent those, for example, who are continually taking great risks? What a life some men lead! They are always on the brink; an unforeseen pebble might topple them over in a moment. There is a kind of moral speculativeness about them. Their psychology is difficult to understand. They will take chances, they will run into dangerous places; their happiness appears to consist in the number and the quality of the risks they accept. It was very unlikely that any man would escape who took such a risk as Achan took. But we must not lightly dismiss the people who are taking risks. It would be easy to blame them, easy to chastise them with stinging words and bitter and just reproaches; but there is something in the making of a man: we cannot account for it; there is a tincture in the blood. Some men would seem to be almost born to risks and dangers, every laugh a concealment, every joke a new hypocrisy, every appearance of guilelessness an attainment in infernal skill. There is but a step between them and death. The partition which keeps them from the prison and the gallows is almost transparent; a wind of the gentlest kind might blow it down. What an excited life! and not the less excited that it appears to be measured and quiet; every tone is a calculation; the whole life is constructed upon dramatic and poetic lines; not a posture that is not also a confession, or an evasion, or a suggestion, if we had those keen eyes which can see below surfaces into meanings and purposes.

But the mystery of it is that Achan represents also men who have no need to take risks. They have plenty; they have sweet homes; they have gardens rich with all kinds of flowers; and "he very air is made musical by the birds which sing in it. They need not go out of their own doors for a single pleasure: their table is bounteously spread; every corner of the house is built upon a rock, and every voice in the house is charged with some musical message. Yet they covet just a little more: it is only one acre to complete the estate; it is only one thousand pounds more to make the odd figure into an even one—then all will go rhythmically in the matter of finance and property; it is only one more slave that is needed, and then the enjoyment will be sphered off into completeness, and will roll and shine among a thousand globes, and be a source of daily joy. If they had need, there would be some excuse. When David ate the shewbread he was excused because of his hunger. So men may do many desperate things, and be excused in some degree for doing them, because of biting hunger and void necessity and tremendous urgency of circumstances. These are not defences, complete replies to righteous impeachments, but they may be construed into extenuations, and the just magistrate may take note of them when he has to pronounce his sentence; they may throw a sob into the judge"s speech; they may be the means of suggesting even to the criminal that his punishment has mercy mingled with it. But when men have no need to take risks, and yet take them, it becomes a wonder whether they are so fated, crushed down by Heaven to do this thing, or whether they have attained a mental and moral perversity absolutely beyond the range of any chaste imagination. These things show us the critical nature of life, the awful difficulty of living, and the tremendous pressure that is put upon some men in certain directions. We must be charitable in all our judgments, especially charitable towards those who are young and inexperienced, who do not understand the mischief they are beginning; and something must be set down to an imagination too buoyant to bow before the sober dictates of reason. Then allowance must also be made for men of a certain descent. We carry our fathers with us. We have seen again and again in these studies that no man liveth unto himself, and that no man is himself only. What can some men do who were born in darkness, born in slavery, born just outside hell; who have had no friends, no education, no chance in life, and who. seem to think—and not unreasonably—that life is a battle in which the strongest wins, a race which is given to the swiftest, and that sometimes strength must be outwitted by cunning, and sometimes swiftness must be deceived by putting the time forward or backward so as to baffle calculation? Thank God we are not judges. We stand in the same dock: let God be judge.

Achan committed a sin which is common to us all, in so far that he felt it extremely difficult to subordinate the personal to the communal. He might have said—and in so saying he would have talked good, round English,—What can a wedge of gold matter in all this great heap of wealth? What is the difference one Babylonish garment more or less? Who will be the worse for my taking it? Nobody need know. I want a relic of this event, I want a keepsake; this has been a very wonderful miracle, and I want to keep in my house some memorial of it; I could turn these things into good, moral uses: I could preach sermons upon them, I could derive lessons from them. It cannot make any difference where thousands of men are concerned if I take one wedge of gold, two hundred shekels of silver, and a goodly Babylonish garment—they are all but a handful, and who will miss them? In fact, there will be no reckoning; things in connection with a battle are done so tumultuously and so irregularly that none will ever think of looking up such a handful of spoil as I may seize. That is the exaggeration of individualism; that is the lie which man is always telling to himself. It is the falsehood which enables him to cheat the body politic:—What can it matter if I do not vote? There are thousands of people who want to vote, let them enjoy themselves, and I will take mine ease. What can it matter if I do not keep the laws of the company—the municipal or other company? The great majority of the neighbours will keep them, and as for any little infraction of them of which I may be guilty, it is mere pedantry to remark upon it. Who cares for the body politic—the body corporate? We are being taught to respect that Song of Solomon -called abstraction; but the lesson is a very difficult one to learn. What seems to belong to everybody, belongs to nobody. When shall we come to understand fully that there is a corporate humanity, a public virtue, a body politic, with its responsibilities, laws, duties,—a great training-school in which individualism is subordinated to the commonwealth? We talk today in this matter the language of Achan. Let him who is not guilty say so to himself, for no other hearer could well believe him.

Does not Achan represent those who create unnecessary mysteries in the course of divine Providence? It is the concealed man who could explain everything. It is the thief behind the screen who could relieve all our wonder, perplexity, and distress. We have to search him out by circumstantial evidence. If he would stand up and say, "Guilty!" he would relieve our minds of many a distressing thought even about the divine government We wonder why the people are delayed, why the battle goes the wrong way, why the heathen pursues the chosen Prayer of Manasseh , and beats him down, and scorns his assaults. We speak of God"s mysterious way. It is a mistake on our part. The silent Prayer of Manasseh , skulking behind the arras, could explain the whole affair, and relieve divine Providence of many a wonder which grows quickly into suspicion or distrust. There is such a thing, however, as circumstantial evidence: point after point is established, link after link is forged and added, and we watch the chain getting round a Prayer of Manasseh , closing in upon him, beginning at the foot and coiling upwards until it strangles him! That is not a picture in romance; that is the reallest thing in all human affairs. There is a providence of time, circumstance, and the relation of the one to the other. Now the man escapes, and now he is swiftly brought back; at this moment circumstances favour him, and presently they close in upon him with tremendous certainty and awful pressure. So we have bye-circumstances, often so difficult to piece together and put into any meaning shape, to discover crimes which should be confessed openly, and the confession of which would relieve the religious consciousness of men from many an unhappy and unwelcome thought about divine Providence. There can be no escape! The very stones of the field will fight against the criminal; the light will shine at the wrong time. The detection of God is unerring. We say this, but do not realise it. If we could realise it we should begin to consider, and repent, and return.

Look at the case in one or two remarkable aspects. Consider Achan, for example, as a solitary sinner. He was the only man in the host who had disobeyed the orders that were given. Only one! It is therefore incredible. It cannot be that one man would stand apart from the whole host, the solitary criminal. It is excusable, if not incredible. He was the only one. Why judge him? Why arrest a whole army on account of one traitor? Or if it is neither incredible nor excusable, it is trifling. Nothing smaller could have occurred. Let the host go on. So man would say. God will not have it so. He does not measure by our scale. One sin is a thousand. One uplifted arm is a universe in rebellion. How many sins has a man to commit before he is a sinner? God will not allow us to alter the relation of things. It is SIN that is abominable to him—not a thousand sins; it is the spirit—not the number of actions. This is the rule of the divine judgment, and this is the explanation of the divine movement in a redemptive and judicial direction.

Think of Achan as a detected sinner. For a time there was no prospect of the man being found out. But God has methods of sifting which we do not know of. He himself will say how the sifting process is to be conducted: the tribe, the house, the family, the man! To see the judgment coming, to see it a day nearer, to see it within an hour, to feel the inward fire burning into unquenchable self-accusation, to know that any one moment the arresting hand may fall,—that is punishment, that is everlasting punishment. Why this discussion about everlasting punishment? All punishment is everlasting. We have made the word "everlasting" the principal word in the argument, whereas it is merely incidental. The abiding word is punishment. And no punishment is for a day. A man once condemned has to bear the results of that condemnation for ever. The young man commits a crime, and is punished fifty years after; a stone will be thrown at him on that very account. Only God can deal with this great mystery. The great evangelical theology says that it is possible now for God to be just, and yet the Justifier of the ungodly by the great mystery of sacrifice—the shedding of atoning blood. But it needed God to work the miracle. Nature never worked it. Conscience never worked it. Law never thought of it This is God"s doing, in love, in pity, in the justice which is inspired by compassion.

Then look at Achan as a confessing sinner. He did confess his sin, but not until he was discovered. And the confession was as selfish as the sin. That is a difficulty we must face. A man"s religion may be the only thing really against him. Beware of irreligious religion! That is the explanation of your imprecatory psalms. That is the explanation of Pharisaism. That is the explanation of narrow and unworthy views of Providence and heaven. Men may pray selfishly, believe selfishly, attend to religious ordinances selfishly, confess their sin selfishly,—make an investment of their tears, and aggravate their original offence by an awful hypocrisy.

The picture of Achan as a punished sinner is appalling. Who punished the sinful man? The answer to that inquiry is given in the twenty-fifth verse, and is full of saddest, yet noblest meaning. Who punished the thief? "All Israel stoned him with stones,"—not one infuriated Prayer of Manasseh , not one particularly interested individual, but "all Israel." The punishment is social. It is the universe that digs hell—the all rising against the one. A great mystery is here, yet a most holy and beautiful point. Society punishes the bad man. When the magistrate pronounces sentence, he does not speak in his own name: he is a representative man; he is Society delivering sentence upon the evildoer. So it will be at last. There will be no one to arise and vindicate the sinner, no volunteer advocate, no man so left to himself as to stand up and say, "I defend the prisoner at the bar." Then things will be seen in their reality. Sin will be measured by the righteous standard, judgment will be meted by the righteous Ruler; and the sinner shall be stoned by the universe, buried by the universe, forgotten by the universe. My soul, come not thou into that secret!

Prayer

Almighty God, feed us with the bread sent down from heaven! This is the true bread, even thy Son Jesus Christ. He called himself the Bread of Life. He gave his flesh for us, and his blood, in mysterious and most holy sacrifice. He could not tell us all he had to tell because of our want of capacity and sympathy and nurture in the Lord; but we begin now to see somewhat of his deep meaning. He laid up words which time would explain: he gave hints which the ages would bring to perfectness of meaning. Now we hear the rising music; it sounds far off, a distant bell, but the sound thereof will grow, and all nature shall answer it, and all hearts shall be made glad by it, and heaven and earth shall melt into one another. We draw around thy Son Jesus, for he has the words of eternal life, and he speaks them as thou thyself wouldst speak them, with such fulness and depth and tenderness that our hearts know them to be true, and say, Of a truth this is a voice from heaven, a gospel from eternity. If we say otherwise, we condemn ourselves, and the truth is not in us. When we are under proper exultation of spirit we answer Christ in his own tongue: for we are taught of God, and being under the direction of the Spirit we understand Christ"s language and speak it like our mother-tongue. Reveal to us the unsearchable riches of thy Son. Show us that if we are poor, it is not because the wealth of heaven has not been offered to us. If we are sitting in darkness, it is because we have wilfully shut our eyes. If our souls are not alive with God, it is because we have chosen death. Multiply thy grace unto us according to the need of the hour. Sometimes it is an hour of blackness, yea, of sevenfold night, of darkness gathered and heaped up into gloom that cannot be borne. Sometimes it is an hour of delight, of genial sunshine, of summer hopefulness; and then we think we shall never die, and wonder why we were ever sad. Save us even in hours of exultation, lest we become heedless and forget the littleness of our own strength. Visit us in the house and make the four corners thereof as four lamps, and the table thereof as a board of sacrament, and the fire thereof like an altar kindled from above; thus shall the house be a delightsome place, full of holiest memories, enriched with noblest associations, every footprint marking a progress, every night a rest, every morning a grander vow. The Lord comfort us in sorrow, in affliction, in loss, in trial. Visit our dear ones in the sickroom and in the places of waiting, in the sanctuary of distress and in the places of wonder, sore expectancy, that kills the heart"s life because of long and mocking delay. Lift up those who are bowed down, yea, straighten them into their first uprightness, and give them the joy of returning youth. The Lord be our strength when our poor life totters under some tremendous blow. The Lord clothe us for the battle, and bring us home after the war more than conquerors. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Joshua 7:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/joshua-7.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, December 8th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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