Judgement - Joshua 5:13 - 6:27

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 6th July 2008.

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One of the films that has taken the box office by storm in the last year is the Kite Runner. It’s based on the book by Khaled Hosseini, and tells the story of two boys, called Amir and Hassan, growing up in Afghanistan in the 1970’s. They are best friends and spend lots of time together, despite being from very different social classes. But one day tragedy occurs as Hassan is attacked by a group of older boys, beaten, abused and left for dead. The problem is that Amir has witnessed the attack, but did not have the courage to intervene. And his inability to defend his friend eats away at him, and his guilt forces him to break the friendship with Hassan. But one of the underlying themes of the film and the book is the quest for justice, the desire for justice to be done and for the group of boys to pay for the hideous crime they have committed. And really the rest of the film is the search for justice and a righting of the wrongs that have been committed, not just by the boys who committed the crimes, but by Amir for deserting his friend in his time of need.

            Justice is a very powerful concept. When injustice happens we cry for the wrong to be righted, the criminal to pay. We perhaps feel it in our lives as we are wrongly ostracised at work for something we are falsely accused of. We feel aggrieved if we are poorly treated or misunderstood- “it’s not fair,” we say. We rightly get very angry at a hit a run driver who gets off scot free, a rapist never caught and free to re-offend, a dictatorial leader abusing his power and ruining the lives of millions in his country. Justice. In many ways it’s the heartbeat of our society. True and fair societies are what governments build their manifestos on.

            And it’s that deep seated desire and longing for justice that causes us to react strongly when we come to passages in the Bible such as Joshua 6. Now at first we might not spot it. After all, we sang at Sunday School that “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.” It’s one of our children’s favourite stories. It’s a dream for a Sunday School teacher with its tumbling walls, trumpets and marching. All sorts of re-enactments can be done with this story. But look below the surface and there is something rather more disturbing. Because when you read it carefully as a adult, we find the rather brutal destruction of an entire city. Men, women, children and even animals wiped out by the people of God, and everything burnt to the ground. Such that at the end of the story we find Joshua even cursing the person who dares to rebuild the city. So where’s the justice in that? What right do the people of God have to do such a thing? Do we really want to know a God who allows such things to happen? It just seems so horribly unfair. Couldn’t the Israelites have chatted first with the leaders? Maybe imposed economic sanctions? Why the utter destruction? It’s not just is it? And it’s a question that confronts us not just here in Joshua but again and again in the book. Sooner or later, we would have had to deal with this question. What right do the people of God, indeed what right does God have, to wipe out entire cities seemingly at his whim? Surely there is no justice here? Surely it would be better if passages such as this were not in the Bible?

            Well I want to suggest to you tonight that if you and I rip Joshua 6 out of our Bibles then we may as well rip the NT out as well. If we cannot deal with the God of Joshua 6, then we cannot deal with the Jesus of the gospels. If we cannot deal with the powerful message of this chapter, then actually we have not really understood the character of God. In fact we have really not begun to grasp the gospel message itself. Because this chapter, stark and bald though it is, actually gets to the heart of what the Bible’s message is all about. It shows us in crystal clear language what the God of the Bible is really like. And it teaches you and me, as people who follow Jesus Christ, just how wonderful a rescue Jesus has performed for us. So as we come to this chapter, then, let us humble ourselves under God’s word, and not proudly sit in judgement over God’s word, as we hear three powerful and important lessons for us:

1) Be comforted by the presence of God

2) Be sobered by the judgement of God

3) Be amazed by the grace of God

1) Be comforted by the presence of God

So our first lesson then is this: Be comforted by the presence of God. And that is what Joshua experienced as he prepared to lead the people of God against the people of Jericho. Now it’s important before we see the details that we remember where we are in the story of Joshua. Joshua is a book which explains how the people of God took the promised land. This was a land that God had promised to give to his people many centuries before when he first spoke to Abraham. And now the reality is present. The first four chapters of Joshua have seen the people cross the Jordan, the boundary of the promised land. And last week we saw in  chapter 5 that people needed to recommitment themselves to God. They performed various ceremonies which reminded them of the past and encouraged them not to make the same mistakes of the previous generation. Because that generation refused to go into the promised land forty years before, and God’s punishment on them was forty years of wandering in the desert and finally death for every one. Now, in chapter 6 the battle commences. This is the first battle in the conquest of the promised land.

            But before there is any fighting, something rather strange happens. Joshua meets an angelic warrior. And it’s through this warrior that Joshua is reminded of the presence of God. So what then does Joshua learn from the presence of God? Well he discovers two things. First he finds out that God’s presence brings assurance. Let’s read from chapter 5 verse 13: “Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" The commander of the LORD's army replied, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so.” Now at first the encounter seems normal enough. Joshua asks the stranger whose side he is on. At  time of war this was a perfectly natural question to ask. After all the stranger was carrying a sword and Joshua wanted to know if he would have to fight him or befriend him. But it becomes apparent very quickly that this solider is no ordinary person. He says he’s the commander of the army of the Lord. This is the person who is really in charge of the armies of the Lord. And more than that, Joshua’s reaction suggests that Joshua himself realised that this person was someone very special indeed. Our versions say in verse 14 that Joshua feel to the ground in reverence. But the word for reverence call also mean “worship”. Joshua was worshipping, something you do not do to any ordinary angelic messenger or human being. But also notice what the divine solider told Joshua to do in verse 15: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” God alone is holy. Joshua was standing in the presence of God. This figure was in some mysterious way God himself.

            Now this incident is very similar to something that happened to Moses. Do you remember the episode of the burning bush, or non burning bush as we should say? There God spoke to Moses and told him to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. There God gave Moses a revelation of himself as Moses began his ministry. And it was a huge assurance to Moses that God was with him. And here it’s the same for Joshua. This vision is designed to assure Joshua before he leads the people into battle. This is Joshua’s burning bush. And what an assurance. God is saying to Joshua “I am with you. I am personally taking charge of the armies of the Lord.” In fact he’s already said this to Joshua back in chapter 1. Do you remember? “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” And now as Joshua embarks on one of the most significant battles of his life, he gets a personal visit from God himself and receive a huge boast of assurance. God is with him. And notice how at the end of our passage in 6 v 27, that is preciously what the author recognises. “So the Lord was with Joshua”. It’s often the way the Lord works in the Bible as he assures his servants before they embark on a big task. Remember Isaiah seeing the holiness of God in the Temple before he started his preaching career? Do you remember Ezekiel seeing a vision of the glory of God before he received his calling? God often reassurances his servants by his presence. And he does it here for Joshua.

            Now the big question for us is whether you and I can claim a similar promise. Does God promise to be with us in the same way? Can we expect such heavenly visitations before we do something for God? Well God doesn’t promise such dramatic visions every time. And in fact in the Bible they are relatively rare. But for us as NT believers, the reality is we have something much better. Or more accurately we have someone much better. You see Joshua was able to see this vision before he began the conquest. But as Christians, God has taken up permanent residence in our hearts by his Spirit. God is with us all the time, whatever we face, wherever we go. In fact the writer to the Hebrews uses words spoken by God to Joshua and applies them directly to us: “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” Those words are timeless. Whatever we are facing, whether it be another grim week at work, an uncertain future, a trip to the hospital, a tough week at home with the kids, an exam, whatever it is, God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Now I fear when we hear such things, they can come across as trite, almost blasé. Yes, we say, I know you you’ve got a tough week this week, but God is with you.” But just take a moment to think about those words. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” There is nowhere we can go, no emotion we can feel, no experience we can have where God has not promised to stand by us. He does not get bored with us, frustrated, annoyed, afraid or scared, like other friends. He is with us whatever happens. And how often have many of us been through tough times when we can look back and known that God is with us. How many times have we said to God, “I cannot carry on. I want to give up.” But we’ve made it. We’ve not got through on our own. We’ve done it only because God has brought us through. What about this past week, with all it’s ups and downs? Our own strength, or God’s, who has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

            Sheila Cassidy is one woman who has experienced this reassuring presence of God. She was a missionary doctor in Chile under General Pinochet in 1975 and as a doctor treated a patient on the run from Pinochet’s regime. As a result Dr. Cassidy herself was tortured horrifically for several weeks and put in solitary confinement. But through it all, she later said that the thing that sustained her was “an enormous sense of the presence of God.” “Never will I leave you or forsake you.” Joshua knew it and so can we.

            But the presence of God also taught Joshua something else. That God’s presence brings victory. Because notice how Jericho is described in verse 1 of chapter 6. “Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.” The place is impregnable. You cannot get in. There is no way anyone is going to take this city. But then notice what God says in the very next verse. “Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.’” An impossible situation where victory seems a million miles way. But God is the one who will bring victory. God is the one who will give the city into the Israelites’ hands. And that is why there is a very bizarre strategy for attack over the next seven days. The soldiers are to go round the city blowing their trumpets. Can you imagine the scene in the Israelite high command when Joshua told them that one. All the generals are wringing their hands looking forward to a cunning strategy and siege over the next few months followed by a pincer movement from the north and south. But Joshua walks in and says, “Ok boys, here’s the plan. We’re going to walk round the city lots of times blowing our trumpets and then the walls are going to fall down!” “What? Are you mad, they’re thinking. He’s been on the cactus juice again!” But the point is this is God’s army and God’s victory. He will give the victory, and without him, the people are nothing. And the question for us is whether we are on God’s side or not.

            George Washington was once asked by a woman during the American Civil War whether he thought God was on his side or not. And replied: “The question is not so much whether God is our side, but whether we are on God’s!” That is precisely the question. Because it is God who brings victory. Now for us as Christians that victory has been won through Jesus’ death on the cross. But the victory will be completed when he returns. And make no mistake, he will. Whilst life for the Christian now is often hard and painful, there is victory. And God is the one who will bring it. So are you on his side? Trusting him? Because when you are on his side, when you submit to him, trusting him, walking in his ways, then you can be assured of his presence with you and his victory. Both things are guaranteed. So if you are trusting him tonight, then be comforted by the presence of God.    

2) Be sobered by the judgement of God

Our second lesson though is more sombre, and that is to be sobered by the judgement of God. Because when we consider the fall of Jericho and the subsequent destruction of the city and its inhabitants, then what we are seeing is the judgement of God. Now six days have passed since Joshua received his vision from God. And on each of those days the army together with the priests and the ark of God symbolising the presence of God have marched round the city of Jericho once. They’ve blown their trumpets, but they’ve not said a word. And now the seventh day is here. And on this day, according to verses 15 and 16, the people are to march round the city seven times, blowing their trumpets, and then at the seventh time they were to blow the trumpets and shout and the walls would collapse. So verse 20: “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it- men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” But more than that, verse 24: “Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD's house.” Everything is burnt to the ground. You’ve got to admit it’s pretty thorough isn’t it? Can it really be just? Can we really believe in a God who wipes out a city’s inhabitants? Is this God really the same as the Jesus who is gentle and humble in spirit, who does not crush a bruised reed or snuff out a flickering flame?

            Well there are several things which help us to understand this destruction of Jericho. And we’ll see that the lesson is very sobering indeed. First of all, we need to see that God has been very patient. Way back in Genesis 15 v 16, God had said to Abraham that in his time he would not see the conquest of the promised land. It wasn’t right for Abraham and his family to drive out the people from the promised land. Why? Because, said God, the Amorites’ “sin has not reached its full measure.” In other words, they didn’t deserve the punishment that was coming on them. It wasn’t the right time. It would have been unjust to destroy the Amorites at that time. The people of Israel would have to wait another 400 years before the sins of the Amorites had reached full measure, and the action of God could be justified. Do you see what God is saying? He is saying, “I do not punish unjustly. I will only take action when it is merited.” God is very patient. He waited 400 years before he took action against the Amorites and the rest of the people of Canaan.

            But yet, secondly, God is also just. For there does come at time when justice demands action. Judgement must be meted out. And so people are held accountable for their actions. The people of Jericho are destroyed. In fact, we discover in Deuteronomy 9 vv 4-5 that God destroys them because of their evil practices, not because Israel is particularly good. They worship other gods. So Israel is God’s not-so-perfect instrument for bringing his judgement upon rebellious people. Now of course we don’t know everything. We don’t know whether God gave them lots of opportunities to repent. Certainly we do know from the story of Rahab that God’s actions were known in Jericho and so they had heard about God and his amazing power. At least one of them did turn to God, as we will see. But for the rest, it appeared they refused. And God brought his judgement against them. There comes a time, you see, when God’s patience runs out. When judgement, for the sake of justice, must fall. And justice is just as much a characteristic of God as is his love. Yes he is perfectly loving, but he is also perfectly just. His holiness is such that he cannot stand sin and rebellion. And he holds human beings accountable for their actions, rightly so. And not one of us can say that in bringing judgement God is unjust. For with God there are no miscarriages of justice.

            Thirdly, though God is kind. Because one of the reasons God allowed for the destruction of the enemies of God’s people was for the Israelites’ own protection. This is how God puts it in Deuteronomy 20 vv 16-18: “In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them….as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.” Sin has a nasty way of infecting those around it. And God saw that the holiness of his people was at stake. So the punishment must be total. And it’s clear that this is not some personal spite carried out by God’s people, but they are his instrument for judgement. They are in one sense doing a holy act, which is why anything precious in Jericho is to be spared and given to God’s Temple. This is God’s work- it’s not about human glory or pride. God is the warrior. God is bringing his judgement on the nations.

            But perhaps most sobering of all is the final aspect of this judgement. And that is that God is consistent.  Because the God of the OT is the God of the NT. The God revealed in Joshua 6 is the same God revealed in Jesus Christ in John 1. The writer to the Hebrews is crystal clear on this when he says: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And “our God is a consuming fire.” It was Jesus himself who warned the most of the fires of judgement, of the reality of the justice to God. The only difference is that in the OT God chose to act in judgement through his people. Now, God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish- today is the day of salvation! But one day, he will act in final judgement. And that day will be as nothing compared to the destruction at Jericho. For then the destruction is final and eternal. Then the whole of humanity will be under judgement, not just the inhabitants of Jericho. You see we often cry out for justice, and rightly so. But we forget that first on the list is you and me. For we too have fallen far short of the standards of God. We’re no different to the people of Jericho. We too rightly deserve his just judgement. And it’s by the mercy and kindness of God that any of us live long enough to hear the message of salvation. And when we realise that God is the God of awesome judgement and justice, then what does it do? Does it not fire us to be urgent in prayer for unbelievers? Does it not compel us to take seriously the commands to get rid of sin in our lives that God so hates? Does it inspire us to be passionate about pointing people to the Saviour? Does it not cause us to weep for our unbelieving friends? Because the judgement of Joshua 6 is a picture of the judgement to come. The God of Joshua 6 is the God of the NT. And we, like the people of Joshua’s day, need to be sobered by the judgement of God.

3) Be amazed by the grace of God

But wonderfully, amid the judgement there is hope. And leads us to see our final lesson. Be amazed at the grace of God. And we see that grace in the rescue of Rahab and her family. It’s actually very interesting the way the author has threaded together his story in the second half of the chapter. Because as he tells the story of the judgement of Jericho and the victory of God, he also interweaves the rescue of Rahab. It’s as if he’s making the point that despite the judgement there is hope for those with eyes to see. So for example see what Joshua says in verse 17: “The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent.” Everything in the city is to be destroyed, apart from Rahab and her family. Or again verse 22: “Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, ‘Go into the prostitute's house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.’” Or again verse 25: “But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.” Three times, the rescue of Rahab is mentioned amid the carnage of Jericho. So why was she rescued? What was different about her? Well Joshua tells us that she hid the spies when they came to Jericho. We looked at the story a few weeks ago in Joshua 2. And there we found that Rahab protected the Israelite spies from the king’s secret service. So did she earn her salvation? Did she deserve being saved? Is that how God works? He helps those who help themselves? No- because Rahab realised that the God of Israel was the living and true God and all she could do was fling herself on the mercy and grace of God. She knew that like the rest of the people of Jericho she was doomed. All she could do was entrust herself to God. Her actions in hiding the spies were simply an outworking of her trust in God. And her trust in God was proved right. God saved her.

            And against the painful background of the judgement of Jericho, the grace God shows Rahab shines brightly. Because the amazing thing is not actually that God should judge anyone. That is precisely what he should do. Rather the amazing thing is that he should save anyone. Rahab didn’t deserve rescue, as much as any of the people of Jericho, but save her he did. Not because she earned it, but because of his grace. And it’s the same for us. You know the amazing thing is not so much that people will be sent to judgement in hell. But that anyone will be in heaven. What right do we have to be in God’s perfect place with him. We’ve spent our whole lives ignoring him, deeply offending his holiness and honour. We should expect nothing from him. But in his grace and mercy, he holds out that hand of rescue. And as Jesus died on that cross, both the judgement of God and the grace of God are seen. His judgement in rightly punishing human rebellion in all its horror and evil. But his grace in that God himself in the person of Christ stepped into our place and died for us. Grace is staggering. And it should cause us to stop and wonder. Yes, the judgement of God might give us reason to ask questions, even of God himself. But the grace of God should cause us to shut our mouths in utter awe and wonder. For there is no reason to save you and me, other than his amazing and wonderful grace.

Back in 2002 a group of students experienced grace in an unusual way. They were students at a theological college and the day came for their final exam. When the students opened their papers they were astonished to find every answer filled in. At the bottom of the page was a message that read: "This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced ... grace." The course lecturer, a Dr. Hufty, spoke to the students about the exam. He said "Some things you learn from lectures, some things you learn from research, but some things you can only learn from experience. You've just experienced grace. One hundred years from now, if you know Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, you will find your name written in the book of life, and you will have had nothing to do with writing it there. That will be the ultimate grace experience. Never forget grace."

            What was it that John Newton wrote, the slave trader, the rapist, the atheist, the liar, the cheat, a man deserving the judgement of God as much as any of us. He wrote after bowing the knee to Jesus Christ and receiving his rescue: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” You see Joshua 6 teaches us the gospel. And we throw it out at our peril. It shows us God’s judgement  in punishing human rebellion and that should sober us. It shows us God’s grace in saving Rahab and that should cause us to be amazed and receive that same rescue. But it also shows us how when we walk with God, we do experience his presence, both to assure and to guarantee victory. And that should bring great comfort to our souls.




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