James E. Cooper
In the seventh chapter of the book of Joshua, we find a story about a man who is remembered, not for the good that he might have done, but because he brought sin into the camp of Israel. This man was of middle age or younger, and had been present in the plains of Moab when Moses recounted unto the people of Israel the Law which had been given from Mt. Sinai about 40 years before. He was present when the words contained in the three speeches of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy were uttered. He was with the people of Israel when God caused the waters of Jordan to roll back and the people passed through on dry ground. He was with the people of Israel when God told them to take up the twelve stones from the river bed and set them up as a memorial of this great event. He was part of the great host of people that were engaged in the overthrow of the city of Jericho.
After the capture of Jericho, the army of Israel proceeded to the city of Ai. The advance scouting party reported that a small detachment of two or three thousand men would be sufficient to take the city as the defenders of Ai were few in number. Three thousand went up against the city—but, alas, they were defeated in the battle. Joshua was disappointed and cried out in anguish to the Lord in prayer.
God’s reply is found in Joshua 7:10-12:
And Jehovah said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore art thou thus fallen upon thy face? Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also; and they have even put it among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, because they are become accursed: I will not be with you any more except ye destroy the devoted thing from among you.
As we further study God’s answer to Joshua’s lament, we notice first of all that God hastens to inform Joshua that there is no use of complaining. God is not at fault in this matter. God has not failed his people; they have failed him. There is a very simple answer to the question in Joshua’s mind, “Israel hath sinned.” Because of this sin in the camp of Israel, God had withdrawn from them and had allowed them to be defeated in battle. The battle was not lost because the city’s defenders were many and strong, but because God was not with the people.
In charging them with sin, God specified three particulars involved in this sin. First, they had transgressed the covenant God had commanded. They had disregarded God’s instructions about how they should conduct themselves with reference to the spoils of Jericho. Joshua 6:18 says:
But as for you, only keep yourselves from the devoted thing, lest when ye have devoted it, ye take of the devoted thing; so would ye make the camp of Israel accursed, and trouble it. But all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are holy unto Jehovah: they shall come into the treasury of Jehovah.
The vast majority of the people heeded God’s instructions, but there was one man in the vast throng who flagrantly disregarded one of God’s “thou shalt not’s.” Achan, of the tribe of Judah, took three objects for himself. They were “a goodly Babylonish mantle, and 200 shekels of silver and a wedge of gold of 50 shekels weight.”
Second, they are charged with stealing the devoted thing. Not only did they take it, but they are charged with stealing it. God had declared it to be “holy unto Jehovah.” Achan had stolen that which actually belonged to God. God has never condoned a thief. He did not condone Achan. He will not condone a thief today. And to top it all off, Achan had stolen that which God said belonged to Him.
In the third place, God said that they have “dissembled also.” This means, according to Webster, “1. to hide under a false semblance; to feign; disguise. 2. to make pretense of; simulate. 3. To pass as if unnoticed; as, to dissemble wrongs.” It also means to conceal the true fact, responsibility today who dilly-dally about doing what God requires of them. He didn’t need anybody else to make up his mind after he had learned what God’s will in the matter was. He offered no excuses for postponing this action. He was not concerned about what somebody else would think. He did not delay. He “rose early in the morning” and gathered Israel, tribe by tribe, family by family, and finally narrowed the search until he discovered the culprit—Achan, of the tribe of Judah—and called upon him to confess his sin.
After Achan hid the articles he had taken from the city, and stolen from the Lord, he probably walked around through the camp of Israel with a big, smooth smile on his face, glad-handing all with whom he came in contact. On the surface, he was the very picture of a man who was genuinely interested in the welfare of his fellows. He certainly knew better than to do what he had done. Maybe he thought that if he would act as though he was as innocent as a lamb, nobody would suspect the real truth about him. Nobody would suspect that he was self-centered and covetous. No one would suspect that he was willing to sell God’s people down the river that he might prosper. The people of Israel all counted him as their friend, but they did not really know what he was.
Next, we observed that the entire people suffer for this evil deed. The Bible says nothing about all Israel being actually involved in the theft itself. It says nothing about half of Israel being involved, or even the priests and elders being involved. It only mentions one man as actually engaged in stealing, but the entire people is charged with guilt—“Israel hath sinned.” Because of this one man the army of Israel is defeated. Because of this one deed the people of God stand embarrassed before their enemies.
How often the people of God today stand embarrassed in the presence of their enemies because of the sinfulness of one individual, or because of a few hypocrites in the church. We sometimes wonder why our efforts do not meet with the degree of success that we desire. It is not because the enemy is so formidable that we cannot defeat them. God and one individual make a majority in any endeavor. The real reason—too many times—is because there is “sin in the camp.” And the people suffer God’s displeasure because they allow the sin to go unchallenged. In fact, too often those who should know better stand up and apologize for the sin in the sinner. They say, “Poor old so-and-so,” when they should be going to him and encouraging him to admit his error and turn from it. Whether any of Israel were sympathizing with Achan, we cannot know. Anyhow, God holds them all responsible for allowing the situation to be there. They had not, as yet, sought out the reason for their defeat. They had not sought out the sinner in their midst and dealt with him.
After Joshua became aware of the cause of their embarrassing position, he “rose early in the morning,” to take care of the situation. He was not like some in positions of Achan like many of us today. He confessed, all right, but not until he was caught red-handed with the goods. I can just imagine him, viewing the search with aloofness, outwardly, at least, appearing to be satisfied that he had nothing to fear. But, as the search came nearer and nearer to himself, he began to become more and more alarmed. But not until the finger of guilt was pointed directly at him did he acknowledge his sin. Then, finally, he said,
…of a truth I have sinned against Jehovah, the God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: when I saw among the spoil a goodly Babylonish mantle, and 200 shekels of silver and a wedge of gold of 50 shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it.
Finally, from God’s answer to Joshua’s prayer, we observe that the “devoted thing” must be destroyed from among the people before God would be with them and bless their efforts. Even though Achan was caught red-handed and confessed his sin, he still doesn’t have a good standing among God’s people. He must be punished for his transgression. The only way that the nation could redeem itself was by purging this undesirable from their midst. Until they did this they were accursed, and God was not with them. They had no promise from God that he would lead them in victory over the heathen in the land.
There is a wonderful lesson in all this for us today. Sin in the camp of spiritual Israel is still a serious matter in the sight of God. God’s people of today must have moral convictions, and they must be willing to act upon them. God will not be with, nor will he bless a people who allow sin to go unchallenged. God’s righteous people should “rise early in the morning” and remove sin from the camp. Paul said, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” The Alpha and Omega said,
He that overcometh shall inherit these things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But for the fearful, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murders, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part shall be in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death (Rev. 21:7-8).