Achor, the Valley of Trouble
November 29th, 1959 @ 8:15 AM
ACHOR: THE VALLEY OF TROUBLE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-29-59 8:15 a.m.
Now let us turn to the seventh chapter of the Book of Joshua: Joshua, chapter 7. The title of the sermon is in Achor, the Valley Of Trouble. Joshua 7; Jericho is in heaps. The lurid flames of its conflagration have arisen up to heaven. And now, all the land of promise lies before them for conquest, for the taking [Joshua 1-6]. And as Joshua faces that assignment, he follows exactly the strategy of his great predecessor: Moses. For Moses, on the other side, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, saw the plan of attack, and he spoke of it minutely. For example, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses said:
It shall come to pass, when the Lord thy God hath brought thee in unto the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt put the blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and the curse upon Mount Ebal.
Are they not on the other side—on the western side of Jordan—by the way where the sun goeth down, in the land of the Canaanites?
… And ye shall observe to do all the statutes and judgments which I set before you.
[Deuteronomy 11:29-30, 32]
Now he said the same thing again in the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy:
Therefore it shall be when you be gone over Jordan, that ye shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in Mount Ebal…
These shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless . . .
And these shall stand upon Mount Ebal to curse . . .
[Deuteronomy 27:4, 12-13]
So Moses said that the line of attack would be from Jericho into the center of the country, and, then, turning northward to the great pass which is at Shechem—on one side the peak Mount Ebal, and on the other side the peak Mount Gerizim.
So when Joshua begins the conquest of the Promised Land, his strategy has already been clearly and minutely outlined by the great lawgiver Moses [Deuteronomy 27:4, 12-13]. From Jericho, he is to go up into the hill country to Ai and to Bethel. They control the road that ran north and south from old ancient Jebus to Shechem—from Jerusalem to Samaria—today from Jerusalem to Nablus, that great highway that for untold centuries has been traveled by those who pass through the heart of Palestine. Now in order to win that great highway, he had to turn his face toward Bethel.
Bethel was a sacred city and deeply to be desired by the people of the Lord, as they faced the conquest of the land. Jericho is down here in the Jordan plain. Bethel is about thirteen miles west and a little to the north, and it lies up there in a little plain, high up among the hills. Bethel was a sacred place to Israel. There Abraham had built altars [Genesis 13:3-4]. There Jacob had seen the vision of the ladder [Genesis 28:10-19]. It was back to Bethel that God told Jacob to go when he lived in Paran [Genesis 35:1]. It was under the great oak at Bethel that Deborah was buried [Genesis 35:8]. Bethel was a holy and sacred place.
So the first great strategic point that Joshua must win is Bethel, which is on that road from Jerusalem to Shechem, to Samaria. Now in order to win Bethel, he had to take the fortified city of Ai, for Bethel and Ai were together. Bethel furnished Ai with water. And Ai because of its unusual and strategic location was the fortified city guarding Bethel.
Now the men of Ai were Amorites [Joshua 7:7]. They came of the tribe of the giants: the Rephaim—Og, Goliath, the sons of Anak [Deuteronomy 9:2]. They were people who were of great stature and great power in war. So Joshua turns his face now from the plain of the Jordan for the conquest of the land, and the line of his strategy is westward, up into the hill country, to take Bethel, which meant Ai and then, having won the road, turning northward to the great pass at Samaria or Shechem, between those tall peaks of Ebal and Gerizim.
Now, in the seven years of the war for the conquest of Palestine, this is the only battle that they lost; the battle for Ai [Joshua 7:1-5]. This is the only time that you will find Joshua down on his face in dismay and in defeat [Joshua 7:6]. And the story of the loss and the defeat at Ai is minutely recounted because of its great lesson to Israel and because of its incalculable meaning to us. And by its meaning to us—may I just point out—Christian people are so accustomed to defeat until they have become inured against it. We are accustomed to quitting. We are accustomed to surrendering. We are accustomed to giving up. We are usually in the role of fleeing and turning our backs to our enemies.
Why, there are enough Christian people in this city of Dallas, there are enough Christian people in the state of Texas to make the liquor traffic as obnoxious and as underground as the narcotic traffic. But we are accustomed to being defeated. This last week somebody wrote home and said, “The First Baptist Church is a very unusual church. It not only has a gymnasium, it not only has a skating rink, it not only has a drugstore, it not only has office buildings, they’ve even got a liquor store in the First Baptist Church in Dallas.” I said, “What in the earth made them write that?” And I found out that they thought that we owned the Cotton Exchange Building. And there, staring us in the face, is that liquor store; has been for years and years. There’s a little old clause in the city ordinance of Dallas: “You can’t have a liquor store within three hundred feet of a church, except downtown”—that little clause: “except downtown.”
However, I use that as just one out of a multitude of instances that illustrate the weakness and the accustom to defeat which so largely characterizes the Christian faith and the Christian life. You don’t find many Christian people down on their faces, like Joshua here [Joshua 7:6], searching the cause of the impotence and the weakness of the Christian church and the Christian religion and Christian people. So I am just saying that this recounting here is told in minute detail because of its incalculable, immeasurable lesson that lies in it for us.
Now Ai is a little town. It has twelve thousand people. There is a great gorge from Jericho’s plain, upward to the west. And there, in that entanglement of valleys and hills, it runs into another one, and on top of that preeminence is this fortified city of Ai. The watchmen on its walls—those men can look in every direction. They can guard the approach to the heart of the Amorite country. In his reconnaissance, the spy men, the soldiers, the scouts came back and said, “It is just a little city. There are only twelve thousand people in it.” So, by deduction, they assumed that there would be about two thousand armed men. So, in the third verse, they returned, these men on reconnaissance, to Joshua and said, “Do not bother about Ai. Let about two thousand or three thousand men go up and smite Ai, for they are but few” [Joshua 7:3].
So the first thing that contributed to their defeat was their loathsome self-confidence in their own ableness to do this thing. For, you see—now, you listen to this—the reasoning that lies back of what these men were saying was this, “We stormed Jericho. We took Jericho [Joshua 6]. Therefore, it is as a small peccadillo for us to face the assignment of taking Ai. We did the other, therefore, it will be easy for us to do this” [Joshua 7:2-3].
What’s the fallacy in that reasoning? Just this; what did they do in storming Jericho—just exactly what? Well, they walked around the city [Joshua 6:3-4, 13-15]. That’s one thing they did. And the second thing they did, they shouted [Joshua 6:16, 20]. That’s all! And yet they are assuming that, “We overwhelmed Jericho. We took it by storm. We made a great victory for ourselves at Jericho. Therefore, it will be a very small matter for us to take Ai” [Joshua 7:2-3]. That’s always the first weakness of the people of God. We assume that we do it. There is no need to pray for God to save the lost. Why, we grind up our machinery, we get our choir to singing and our preacher to preaching, and we get all of these organizations going, and it just automatically ensues in a great spiritual victory.
Does it? Does it? Well, we don’t need to worry about God’s favor and God’s power upon our church and our people. Why, just look at all of these things that we have going. And they just naturally result in great victory. No need to be burdened. No need to be full of anxiety. God says, “It is not by might, and it is not by strength, but it is by My Spirit, saith the Lord” [Zechariah 4:6]. Jericho was won according to the leadership of the great Captain of the hosts, who said to Joshua, “For this cause am I now come” [Joshua 5:13-14]—and the people had seemingly very little to do with it. But, they are much persuaded that this is a victory they have achieved at Jericho; therefore, it will be a very small thing for them to overwhelm Ai [Joshua 7:2-3].
Let me make a proposition to you. If you want to see how very weak and unable you are, let me assign you the humblest man that you will pick out in the city of Dallas and try to win him to Christ in your own strength and in your own ingenuity, without prayer and without depending upon God. There are no little Ai’s in the Christian life. Whatever it is, it’s a big job. It’s a big assignment. If it’s for God, it’s to be prayed over. It’s to be asked about. It’s to be taken to the Lord in intercession.
That was the first mistake that they made in assuming that they did it. We overwhelmed Jericho. Therefore, to conquer Ai is just an insignificant inconsequential in our lives, we who do big things for God. All right, the second great mistake at Ai; Joshua—and how Joshua was led into this, I do not know—Joshua asked God about every other thing: every strategy, every conquest, every journey, every battle. Joshua needed to be encouraged. Time and again God says to Moses, who says to the people, “Tell him to be strong and of a good courage” [Deuteronomy 31:7, 23].
And Joshua was of a nature to wait on the Lord. He was of a nature—though he was a military man, he was of a nature to pray and to ask God’s direction. But he didn’t hear. He didn’t hear. Joshua, depending upon his own ingenuity and genius as a soldier, and listening to the reports of the reconnaissance parties about Ai—Joshua, for some unknown reason, went into this campaign having never asked, having never inquired at the oracle of the Lord [Joshua 7:2-5]. That’s unusual, and it’s not like Joshua. But God can see the hole in the dike, and God can see the speck of decay in the fruit, and God can see the rift in the fellowship. And God can see the sin in the camp. God can.
In our revelry and in our glorious living in this world, we don’t see the handwriting on the wall [Daniel 5:5-6, 17-28]. And in our listening to the unanimous voice of all of the false prophets, we don’t bother to inquire, “Is there a Micaiah, God’s man in the midst?” [1 Kings 22:7-9]. Basking in the favor of the Lord, we just take it for granted. No need to speak to deaf ears. No need to argue with people in great self-confidence. No need to plead with people who are filled with themselves, just let them go, just let them go. And the Lord let them go. And they met disaster and defeat at Ai [Joshua 7:4-5].
You listen. If Joshua had prostrated himself on the ground, in the midst of the great victory at Jericho, he would not have been prostrate on the ground before God at the defeat in Ai [Joshua 7:6]. And had Joshua, in humility, inquired of the Lord in the great triumph of Jericho, he would not have been pleading how to overcome the defeat of Ai [Joshua 7:6-9].
I wonder if I can keep my sentences straight to say this like the old-timers say it. A young neophyte, a young preacher, just beginning, and so proud of himself ascended into the pulpit of the church in order to deliver his neophytic, his initiation sermon. And full of himself, and boastful and prideful in spirit, there the young fellow stood to deliver his sermon. And it fell miserably and ingloriously flat. And when he descended down out of the pulpit, he did it in shame and in consternation and confusion of face. And the old-time member of the church, after the service, said to the young man, “Young man, if you had gone up into the pulpit like you came down out of the pulpit, you would have come down out of the pulpit like you went up into the pulpit.” Did I get it straight? I believe I did. It’s a whole lot better to prostrate yourself in the presence of the Lord, and to humble yourself in the presence of the Lord, and to look in humility and in self-effacement unto the Lord, and let the Lord lift you up. Let the Lord make His face to shine upon you. Let the emoluments, and the rewards, and the stipends, and the favors come from God on our faces, on our knees, in humility and in asking counsel of God.
Now, the third reason: first reason was that boastful self-confidence. We don’t need to pray about this, we just go do it. The second: they never asked of God, just in their own ingenuity. And the third, of course, is the heart of the story. That’s the funny thing about the way God does things. I never saw this until I prepared the sermon for this morning. You look at this. In the tenth verse of the seventh chapter of Joshua: “And the Lord said unto Joshua, Get up, get up; wherefore liest thou upon thy face? [Joshua 7:10]. Israel—plural, all of them—Israel hath sinned, and they have transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; and they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have stolen and dissembled, and they have put it even among their own stuff…Because they were accursed” [Joshua 7:10-12].
Isn’t that an amazing thing? There was only one man [Joshua 7:20]. God lays it to all of them [Joshua 7:11]. Well, that whole thing is unusual. First of all, Joshua rent his clothes—sixth verse—falls upon the earth before God [Joshua 7:6], and he blames God for the defeat. “And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord God, wherefore hast Thou brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would to God we had stayed over there [Joshua 7:7]. O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turns her backs on her enemies! For the Canaanites and the inhabitants of the land shall hear it, and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth,” and what shall we do?” [Joshua 7:8-9]. All the livid, spectral forms of disaster and defeat passed before Joshua, and he blames God: “O Lord God, wherefore hast Thou…?” Isn’t that just typical of all of us? Isn’t that typical of all of us? It’s God’s fault, God’s fault—here we are in this trouble, in this difficulty, and it’s God’s fault, God’s fault.
And the Lord said to Joshua, “Joshua, get up [Joshua 7:10]. Get up. Get up. There on your face, blaming Me; Joshua, stand up. There’s work to do. There is even now a worm gnawing at the root of the vine. There is a plague spreading among the people.” Isn’t that a strange thing, I say, how God charges all of them, all of them? [Joshua 7:11]. Well, the whole Bible is like that. No man liveth unto himself, and no man dieth unto himself [Romans 14:7]. Or, as Paul would say, again, “If one member suffers, all the other members suffer with him” [1 Corinthians 12:26].
I don’t even know I have a little toe. I never think about that little toe. It never enters my mind about that little toe. But let something get wrong with that little toe, and that’s all I am is a little toe. All of me is a little toe. Just let it start aching or something. That’s the way that God has made the body of Christ. One of us is all of us. And all of us is one of us. That’s a strange thing—strange thing—how we’re all so interrelated and tied in together. And God said all Israel has sinned [Joshua 7:11]. All of them. They, they, they.
All right; Joshua says, Lord, now what? The Lord says, “Call them by their tribes” [Joshua 7:14]. And they called the tribes and took the tribe of Judah [Joshua 7:16]. Then God said, “Call them by their families,” and they called them by their families and chose the Zarhites [Joshua 7:17]. Then, they said, “Call all the family of the Zarhites” and Zabdi was taken [Joshua 7:17]. And they went by, one by one—the family of Zabdi—and Achan was taken [Joshua 7:18]. Isn’t it strange whenever Achan is presented—here in the first verse and in the second verse—it’s always Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah of the tribe of Judah? [Joshua 7:1]. Always that. When God traces sin, He has its genealogy, and it has a genealogy. Don’t ever think that we just sin, just like that. This has led to this, and this has led to this, and this has led to this and this. And all of us are in that line: all of us.
And Joshua said, “My son, what hast thou done?” [Joshua 7:19]. And Achan said, “In the afternoon, before the flames mounteth the heaven consuming Jericho, I found an unusual thing” [Joshua 7:21]. And it was a noble find, a beautiful garment, in a day when garments were hard to come by, and hardly anyone possessed them, like Joseph’s coat of many colors [Genesis 37:3]. Nobody else had one like that. Nobody else had one like Achan found. From the plains of Shinar, for which it was famous, a beautiful, beautiful woven garment, richly colored, and decorated with gold and many silver coins and a heavy wedge of gold—”I saw them, and I surreptitiously, furtively carried them away, when all Israel was jubilant over the conquest of Jericho, and I took them to my tent, and I swore my wife and my family to secrecy. And we dug a hole in my tent and buried it there” [Joshua 7:20-22].
You know, something comes back to my mind. I took a course in trigonometry at Baylor under Professor Harold—not because I had any interest in trigonometry, and I didn’t have to take it—but I just wanted to sit at the feet of that blessed man. He was a junior Sunday school teacher all the days of his life. Years, a generation, he taught little boys. And he said—listen to what Professor Harold said—he said, “You know a man and his little boy get on a streetcar. And the little boy is over twelve years of age. But, if he is under twelve, he gets on the streetcar for half fare. So the dad gets on the streetcar with his little boy, who is now over twelve. And he puts a full fare for himself, but he puts a half fare for his little boy, though he is over twelve. And they sit together on the seat in the streetcar. And while they sit there, the dad looks at his little boy and winks at him.” And Professor Harold says, “Twenty years later, when the boy is in the penitentiary for robbery, that man will say, ‘Oh, how did it ever come to pass that my boy turned out to be a thief?’”
“See what I have,” and they dig in the tent floor and they hide it together [Joshua 7:21]. And God says that that pride of the flesh, and that lust for the world, and that covetous ambition, and that dissimulation—God says it will eat your soul out. God says it will destroy your house and your home and your life: covetousness, greediness, ambition, love of the world and the things of the world, pride of the flesh. Such a beautiful garment, such a beautiful garment, fit for a queen. And this gold and this silver: this world and what it has—Satan offered it to Jesus, all the glory of it. Look at it, look at it, look at it [Matthew 4:8-9].
Why, I have trouble even getting all of our people to support the church, much less to turn loose of the world. I’ve got a little part of it, and I’m getting more of it, that beautiful garment in the windows displayed and the silver and the gold.
I must close. Here is where I really ought to start preaching. And for the sin to be washed out and the stain to be taken away, they stoned Achan and his family. And they call that place “Achor, the valley of troubling” [Joshua 7:24-26]. Achor means “troubling.” Is this the man, only, who has sinned? Haven’t I? Haven’t you? Why aren’t we in the Valley of Achor, being stoned to death? Simply because Christ, our great substitute, went down into the Valley of Achor for us. And in our stead, He suffered the judgment of God upon our sins [2 Corinthians 5:21].
That’s why you don’t face Achor. That’s why you don’t face the terrible penalty of the sin and judgment of God in your life [Romans 6:23]. It’s because Jesus went down into that valley of judgment and the wrath of God and trod the winepress in our stead [Matthew 26:39; 2 Corinthians 5:21]. He went down into Achor in our stead, for us, and gave us the freedom of the forgiveness by which our lives are preserved and our souls are kept forever [John 3:16], in the love and grace and mercy of God [Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:4]. Oh, what a debt—what a debt we owe to the blessed and holy Lord Jesus! Were it not for Him, all of us would be damned, and lost, and undone, and in perdition forever. But in His grace and mercy, He died in our stead, and we have life in Him [1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21].
In this moment while we sing our song, in the balcony, on this lower floor, somebody you give his heart to Jesus. Somebody you, a family, put your life in the fellowship of the church. Anywhere, while we sing this song, while we make this appeal, would you come? Would you make it now? Would you make it this morning, as God shall say the word? The Holy Spirit opens the door. While we sing this song, on the first note of the first stanza, would you come and stand by me? While all of us stand and sing our hymn together.