Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: We must refuse all worldly covenants if we would belong fully to God.
Goal: Choose Christ as your only Lord, and identify specific changes this decision will require.
Jennifer Johnson banged her hands on the steering wheel. “I can’t believe it!” she screamed out loud. She’d run out of gas. It was dark, and she was scared. She was in a part of town where there had been riots only the week before. She could barely see outlines of large warehouses, railroad tracks, and chain link fences. She looked for a telephone, service station, anything. She saw nothing, and was scared.
Then she saw him, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. Her heart raced. In the middle of the street, coming straight at her, she could see a man approaching. “Maybe he won’t see me,” she prayed. But then he was at her window. He tapped the glass and yelled something, but she was instantly hysterical: “Get away. Leave me alone. Don’t bother me.”
He yelled louder, and knocked harder. He raced around the car and tried all the doors. She blew the horn and screamed, and he was gone. But in a moment he returned, carrying a long, thick board. He tried to say something to her, but she screamed, drowning out his voice. He battered the driver’s side window with the board until it shattered. In an instant he reached in, unlocked the door, opened it, and grabbed Jennifer. She hit him and kicked furiously until his nose and face were bleeding, but he pulled her from the car and dragged her away.
About 40 feet from the car, he suddenly dropped her. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, but she was terrified. She backed away from him until she ran into a fence. He had not moved. He tried to speak but she screamed, “Leave me alone. Go away.” He stood there for a second, and then walked slowly away.
She sat trembling. Then a strange noise caught her attention. Lights began to flash in the night. The ground began to shake. The noise grew louder, and came closer. In an instant she saw it. A train roared past a few feet from where she sat, crashed into her car, and dragged it scraping and banging into the darkness.
Then she realized: the man knew about the coming train. He was not trying to hurt her—he was trying to save her.
So it is with the will of God. What looks unfair, or punitive, or unreasonable, is not if it comes from the hand of an all-loving, all-powerful Father. A parent who forbids illegal drug use is not punishing his child, but protecting her. When we allow our children to compromise with that which will destroy them, we share the blame for their pain.
And so the God of Israel forbade his people to make treaties with the sinful, idolatrous people living in their Promised Land. He warned them again and again that such pagan alliances would poison them spiritually. His warning is as relevant to us as it was to them. We are to be in the world, but not of it. When the ship is in the water, all is well; when the water is in the ship, disaster is on the way.
C. S. Lewis remarked that any time we live for “Christianity and…”, whatever is on the other side of “and” inevitably supersedes that which precedes it. Are there places in your life where compromise with sin exists? How can you help your class yield themselves fully and only to God?
Expect opposition (vs. 1-2)
As we noted last week, the people of God are in a constant spiritual battle. Augustine was right: there is a city of God and a city of the enemy. They are locked in perennial struggle. But Satan cannot hurt the Lord of the universe, so he attacks his children. He knows that this is always the best way to hurt any loving parent. An African proverb says it well: when elephants fight, the grass always loses.
So expect the enemy to attack. As my youth minister used to say, if you and the devil are not in opposition, you’re probably in partnership. When the kings west of the Jordan heard about Israel’s victory over Jericho and Ai, they “came together to make war against Joshua and Israel” (v. 2). They came from the central mountain area, the rocky plateaus to the west, and the seacoast further west, comprising the largest portion of land in the region. And they formed a new strategy, becoming a new kind of enemy.
No longer would Israel have the privilege of fighting against a single army, one city at a time. Now they would face the combined forces of their opponents. But as great as this threat appeared to be, it would not pose the long-term threat the nation faced through the deception recorded in this week’s study.
You and I can assume that the enemy will attack us. We read only three chapters of God’s word before we find Satan deceiving our parents. Abel would face death at the hands of his brother Cain. Moses would withstand the assaults of Pharaoh and the mightiest army the world had ever seen. Daniel would face his lions, and his companions their fiery furnace.
Peter and the apostles would stand before their Sanhedrin. Paul would deal with his Judaizers and eventually his emperor. John would suffer on his Patmos. Jesus warned us that tribulation is inevitable (John 16:33). So expect opposition. The enemy is coming after you. A lion roars when he is about to pounce (1 Pt 5:8). You don’t have to find him—he’ll find you.
Beware deception (vs. 3-15)
Those enemies who attack us spiritually are a constant and predictable threat (cf. Ephesians 6:12). But our even more dangerous opponents are those who appear to be our friends. Because Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), “it is not surprising if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (v. 15).
So with the Gibeonites in this week’s study. The city of “Gibeon” meant “pertaining to a hill,” indicating its strategic height and location. Located eight miles north by northwest from Jerusalem, the area is known as “El-Jib” today. The city controlled the access routes into southern Canaan, toward Joppa and the seacoast.
Upon hearing the fate of Jericho and Ai, these residents “resorted to a ruse” (v. 4). They sent messengers to Joshua, made to appear as though they had traveled a long distance (v. 6). The Jews knew all about such wanderings, and could sympathize. Whether they knew it or not, their pretended distance of travel made them eligible for leniency on the part of Israel. According to Deuteronomy 20:10-18, the Jews were required to destroy completely the neighboring peoples, but were allowed to enslave those living further away, sparing their lives.
Strengthening their appeal, they claimed to know of “the fame of the Lord your God.” “Fame” is a broad term meaning God’s name, character, power, actions and feats. Just as Rahab had believed the reports about Israel’s God, so with these from Gibeon. They knew the fate of Sihon (cf. Numbers 21:21-35) and Og (cf. Deuteronomy 2:26-3:17). They wanted to serve such a powerful God and his chosen people.
Joshua and the leaders listened carefully and skeptically to their story (v. 7, 8). They “sampled their provisions” (v. 14a) to check the evidence. Then Joshua made a “treaty of peace with them to let them live” (v. 15a). Given that the nation had conferred no autocratic power or throne on their military general, “the leaders of the assembly” were required to ratify his commitment by oath. And they did (v. 15b).
This “treaty” was a legally binding agreement, a covenant. Such commitments usually involved the exchange of gifts (cf. Abraham and Abimelech, Genesis 21:22-34). And they typically required an animal sacrifice. An animal was cut in half; those making the covenant would pass between the halves. Symbolically, they were promising that they would accept such a fate for themselves if they did not keep their part of the covenant.
This treaty was a direct violation of the word of God requiring destruction of every people living in the Promised Land (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 20:16-18). It cost the nation a city of significant size, possessions, and military significance (Joshua 10:2: “Gibeon was an important city, like one of the royal cities; it was larger than Ai”). So why did Joshua and the leaders commit such a strategic sin?
Because they “did not inquire of the Lord” (Joshua 9:14). Here we find the key phrase in this week’s study, one of the most significant spiritual truths in the entire book of Joshua. The general had been trained in the use of the Urim and Thummim for determining the will of God (cf. Numbers 27:18-21). He could have taken the time to consult God in this way, or simply to pray for direction. But neither he nor the nation’s leaders did. And so they were all deceived.
What happened to them can happen to us. There is no sin you and I cannot commit. If they could get ahead of God, so can we. Human nature does not change, which explains why the Bible is still relevant, 35 centuries after this event occurred. And one reason why this story is in the text: to warn us, so that we don’t make the same mistake. Don’t get ahead of God—he may not follow.
If Satan cannot enter the house through the front door of temptation, he will try the side door of deceit. He is just as happy to appeal to our highest motives as to our basest. The children of Israel did not wish to annihilate every nation they met, but only to be obedient to God’s word. And so their enemy used their instincts for peace against them.
Our strengths are so often our weaknesses. I have known ministers whose compassion for hurting people led them into inappropriate counseling relationships. One pastor I know is so gifted administratively that he runs his church dictatorially. A worship leader of my acquaintance is so gifted musically that his ministry is more about performance than service. What are your greatest gifts and abilities for spiritual service? How can they be used to distract you from God’s will for your life?
When we enter a dark room, we know it; when someone dims the lights slowly, our eyes adjust to the darkness. A frog placed in boiling water will jump out of the pot; dropped into lukewarm water, he’ll swim around while we turn up the water until he boils. Expect opposition you’ll recognize as the enemy, and that which you won’t.
Ask God to redeem your mistakes (vs. 16-27)
God’s will for our lives is good and perfect (Romans 12:2). It is therefore crucial that we find and follow his intended plan for us. However, God can still redeem our mistakes and failures, so that we are never beyond his grace.
I used to envision the will of God as a high-wire; falling off would condemn me to second-class status in his sovereign purpose. Now I know that his will is typically more like a map than a tightrope. While there is usually a best way for me to proceed, he will not abandon me when I turn into a side street. Rather, he will still be my shepherd until he leads me home.
This fact is something of a logical paradox. If the Lord has a perfect will for us, anything less is tragically imperfect. And yet he turns even our failures into victories, when we place our mistakes into his hands. The “solution” to the dilemma is the fact that even confessed sin bears consequences. We can pull a nail out of the wall, but the hole remains. And every hour spent in sin is an hour lost to eternal reward for faithful obedience.
The Jewish leaders came to understand this law of unintended consequences first-hand. Not long after making their treaty with the deceptive Gibeonites, they heard reports that their new covenant partners were in fact their neighbors (v. 16). Their response was commendable. Rather than ignore this news, or accept it at face value, they explored the matter for themselves (v. 17). And they found that it was true. The Gibeonites were indeed from the nearby city bearing their name; from Kephirah, eight or nine miles west of Gibeon; from Beeroth, eight miles north of Jerusalem; and from Kiriath-Jearim, six miles east of Jerusalem. They were part of the Hivite population, precisely the people the Lord had promised to drive out before them (Joshua 3:10).
The Jewish leaders could easily have taken such exploratory steps before entering their treaty. But at least they admitted their failure, and took steps to remedy it as far as possible.
They kept their oath, preserving the honor of their Lord’s name (Exodus 20:7) and their own integrity (Leviticus 19:12). Centuries later, the Psalmist would ask, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” And he would answer, “who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:1, 4). When Saul later violated this oath, the Lord punished the people with famine (2 Samuel 21:1-9).
Such honor came at a price: “the whole assembly grumbled against the leaders” (Joshua 9:18). The people were understandably upset that their leaders had missed the will of God. And they were especially frustrated that they would not be able to inherit the Gibeonite lands, a significant agricultural and military procession.
But the leaders stood firm. And they sought a way to redeem the situation by turning the Gibeonites into their servants: “let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community” (v. 21). When Joshua confronted them, the Gibeonites admitted their ruse and its reasons (vs. 22-24), and surrendered themselves to enslavement (v. 25). And so Joshua spared their lives and made them into perpetual servants (v. 27). These Hivites were descendants of Ham; their slavery fulfilled Noah’s curse on their progenitor (Genesis 9:25). But it also brought them into the covenant community of God.
The Lord would redeem Joshua’s mistake in remarkable ways over the coming generations. As woodcutters and water carriers, the Gibeonites’ primary responsibility was to the sacrifices which occurred inside the tabernacle. And so they and their region were assigned to the priestly family of Aaron (21:17), and became a training center for the priests of God. Eventually Kiriath-jearim, the fourth town of their confederacy (9:17), would be home to the Ark of the Covenant for some 20 years. One of King David’s closest friends would be “Ishmaiah the Gibeonite, a mighty man” (1 Chronicles 12:4). By the time of Nehemiah, a thousand years later, the Gibeonites could prove their racial heritage as part of Israel (Nehemiah 7:25).
And perhaps most noteworthy of all, the young King Solomon would travel to Gibeon to offer “a thousand burnt offerings on that altar” (1 Kings 3:4). Here he would receive his vision from God granting him the greatest wisdom and wealth in history.
God redeemed Joshua’s mistake for the good of the nation. It is never too late to return home to such a Father and friend.
We must refuse to be conformed to the pattern and values of the world (Romans 12:1). Israel was the only nation in the world to have a “treaty” with the Lord, and was obligated to honor it before any covenant with any other people. We now live in the “new covenant” made possible by Jesus’ atoning death for our sins. We are granted the grace of God (Romans 5:21), so that we have died to sin (Romans 6:2). To compromise with the enemies of God is to betray God. What if a nation had a military treaty with us and with our enemies? With NATO and with al-Qaeda?
Recent bestsellers tell the story of our self-sufficient, self-centered culture: Looking Out for Number 1; Pulling Your Own Strings; Winning Through Intimidation; and Unlimited Power are just some titles we could cite. But God’s Kingdom stands opposed to this fallen world. If we would be in his will, we must live in absolute obedience to his word.
Where does this lesson find you spiritually today? Are there Gibeonites living in your home? Treaties with the enemies of God being signed by your values and priorities? What parts of the culture most tempt you to compromise? What areas are most difficult for those you will teach this weekend? Where is our church most likely to be deceived?
A very dear friend in our congregation recently sent me a perceptive and challenging note: “Pondering our church and its mission in life, I was drawn to what we aren’t. Contrary to popular belief:
We are not a benevolence institution.
We are not a banking institution.
We are not a political institution.
We are not a tax shelter.
We are not a performance hall.
We are not a corporation.
We are not a health club.
We are not a social club.
We are not an exclusive club.
We are not a club at all.
We are not a group of businessmen and women operating a business.
We are not ‘the keepers of tradition.’
We are the ‘church,’ the body of Christ himself. Period. Nothing else matters.
We have one purpose and one alone: helping people find and follow Jesus. Anything which hinders that purpose is not of God. Any questions?” I have none.
At youth camp this past summer, I told again one of my favorite stories, an account I first heard from my pastor many years ago. It concerns a very famous English pastor, a preacher much in demand and honored for his pulpit skills. After accepting yet another speaking engagement in a distant church, he began searching for someone to fill his pulpit on the particular Sunday he would be gone. Oddly enough, no one he knew was available. Every friend or contact he called was otherwise occupied.
He shared his dilemma with the church’s deacons, and one of them mentioned a young man who had just graduated from the local seminary. The deacon had never heard him preach, but thought he might be available. And he was. So the famous pastor preached in the distant church, while the neophyte filled his magnificent pulpit.
Returning home late that afternoon, the pastor asked his wife how the services had gone in his home congregation. To his shock, she replied honestly that the young preacher’s sermon had been the most powerful she had ever heard. Ego damaged, the famous pastor theorized that the new seminary graduate must have been working on that one sermon for years, and would likely have no others. So he called him that afternoon, inviting him to preach again in his church that night. The young man accepted, and the older pastor was there to hear him. When the message was completed, the famous preacher had to admit to himself that he had just heard the most powerful, life-transforming message of his life.
Now even more troubled, he followed the young preacher to his hotel room, entered without knocking, and found the man on his knees in prayer. He went to the point: “I want to know the secret to the preaching I heard tonight.” The seminary graduate stood to his feet, smiled, and said, “There’s no secret. It’s just that every key I have, I’ve given to God.”
The older pastor went home to bed. Before falling asleep he prayed, “Lord, I, too, want to give you every key of my life.” He fell asleep, and dreamed. According to his later autobiography, in his dream an angel came to his bedside with a keyring in his hand. He said to the famous pastor, “You told the Lord just now that you wish to give him every key you have. I’ve come to take those keys.”
In his dream, the pastor considered the situation. Then he reached into his heart and pulled out a key to an area of his life he had never totally dedicated to the Lord. He gave it to the angel, who clipped it on his key ring. He then pulled out a second key, and a third. Several more followed, each given over to God. Finally he stopped.
The angel asked if that was all the keys; he said it was. The angel asked if he was sure. He replied, “Well, there’s one more, but it’s small and insignificant. I didn’t want to bother you with it.” In his dream, the angel handed back the key ring and said, “All or none.”
The famous preacher thought for a while. Then he pulled out that last key. He thought it would be tiny, but discovered it to be larger than any of the other keys. He gave it to the angel, who clipped it onto the key ring and left.
The next Sunday, a spiritual movement began in that famous pastor’s church. A movement which touched hundreds and churches and thousands of souls. All because one man decided he to live above compromise, giving every key to God.
What is in your heart now?