Have you ever been duped? Have you ever been the victim of a con artist, or succumbed to a scam? And if so, what did it cost you? Perhaps you lost some money, or were signed up to a contract for a service you didn’t really need, and had to wait months or years before you could get out of it. I assume I’m not the only person here this morning who receives unsolicited phone calls offering to sell me life insurance, to solve my PPI claim or to give me a better broadband connection. Offers that often sound attractive, but are not so good on closer inspection!
In our Bible reading this morning the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, succumb to a scam. They are duped into a deal that threatened to compromise their mission and morality. Joshua and Israel are seduced into a bad deal, and flattered into a foolish mistake.
If you were here last week you will know that the Israelites have just won a famous victory. The walls of Jericho have fallen, and the city was conquered. This was swiftly followed by the conquest of another city called Ai, which you can read about in Joshua chapter 7 and 8. News of these conquests must have travelled fast, because as we rejoin the story in chapter 9 today, the kings of Canaan decide to come together to resist the advance of God’s people. We’re told that all the pagan peoples of Canaan planned “to make war against Joshua and Israel”.
All except one, that is. Because the people of Gibeon had a different idea. Like Baldrick in the Blackadder TV series, they had a ‘cunning plan’. A “ruse” that worked rather better than Baldrick’s usually do! Their plan was to trick Joshua and the Israelites into signing a peace treaty. They would send ambassadors to the Israelites, who would pretend to be weary travellers from a far off land. As verses 4 and 5 tell us, they arrived at the Israelite camp carrying “worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and mouldy.” Then they said to Joshua and the men of Israel “We have come from a distant country, make a treaty with us” (v.6).
As we look at what happened next, we can learn some lessons for us today. We’ll see the wisdom of seeking God’s guidance. We’ll see the importance of integrity. And we’ll see the wonder of God’s sovereign grace.
It’s wise to seek God’s guidance
Common sense and rational inquiry are great things aren’t they? God has given us brains and its good to make use of them. For example, last week saw the discovery of ‘gravitational waves’. For the first time, scientists have detected the great ripples of gravity that result from major cosmic events. This, and all the other advances of science, wouldn’t have been possible if people hadn’t used their God-given intellect.
But there are many situations in life when raw intellect isn’t enough. There are many circumstances when we need wisdom as well as intelligence. Circumstances when we need good judgement as well as good evidence. Times when we need divine revelation, not just human reason. Moral choices, ethical dilemmas and religious beliefs all fall into this category. That category of decisions where we need outside help, external advice, and God’s guidance.
This was the lesson that Joshua and the Israelites had failed to learn when the Gibeonite messengers arrived at their camp. Despite harbouring suspicions about the Gibeonites orgins, they were decieved by appearances, and allowed themselves to succumb to flattery. They unwittingly signed a peace treaty with a near neighbour. With pagan neighbours who could have compromised the Israelites’ mission and morality.
You see, a deal with a near neighbour could have compromised Israel’s mission, because it would have created an enclave within the Promised Land. The land that God had given to his people would have to be shared with a pagan nation. Moreover, a peace treaty with a neighbouring city could have compromised God’s people morally as well. Living side by side with pagan people could tempt the Israelites into their sinful behaviour and evil ways – into beliefs and behaviours far removed from those God had taught them.
With so much at stake, Joshua and the Irsaelites were initially rightly suspicious when the Gibeonites first approached them. “Perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?” they said to them. But the Gibeonites used flattery to allay the Israelites’ concerns and appeal to their pride. “We are your servants”, they said to Joshua. “We are your servants who have come from a distant country because of the fame of the LORD your God”. Having ‘softened up’ Joshua with these smooth words, the Gibeonites sealed the deal by showing him their threadbare clothes, their worn sandals and their “dry and mouldy” bread (v.12). Evidence, they claim, that they have come a long, long way from home.
After sampling the Gibeonites provisions, the gullible Israelites decide they must be genuine, and sign a peace treaty with the travellers. A treaty, we’re told, that was ratified by an oath. The Israelites great mistake, ofcourse, was to make their decision on their own. Verse 14 tells us that they rushed to judgement without consulting the Lord. They made a major decision without seeking God’s guidance. Never a good move!
In Old Testament times, God’s people could seek his will by casting lots or consulting a priest (e.g. Num 27:21). That’s certainly what Joshua should have done that day. But what about us? How can we seek God’s will when we face a major decision? How do we get God’s guidance in the midst of an ethical dilemma? Where can we get God’s view on who we should marry, how we should work, how much we should give, and what should we believe? And how can a whole Church get clarity on a theological conundrum or a ministry question?
First of all, of course, we must pray. We must offer our question or concern to God, and ask for his help. But once we’ve prayed where do we look for God’s answer? Where can we find his reply? Well, let me introduce you to three C’s: the Commands of Scripture, the Compulsion of the Spirit, and the Counsel of the Saints.
Number 1, the commands of Scripture. As individual Christians and as a Church, God’s written Word must be our ultimate authority. Read carefully and prayerfully, the Bible gives us enormous guidance on a whole range of ethical and spiritual questions. It sets the standards and parameters for our belief and behaviour in a whole host of areas. Whatever else we might think or feel, if the Bible says something is wrong, its wrong – and if its right, its right! To benefit from the Bible’s guidance, of course, we need to know what it says. The Gospels are a great place to start – why not try reading Matthew, Mark or Luke this Lent? After that, why not try the New Testament letters; Romans to Revelation. Do look at our library for some study guides that may help you get going. Or join a house group – over twenty of us now study the Bible together every fortnight.
The second way God can guide is through the compulsion of his Spirit. Because sometimes our prayers for God’s guidance will be answered by inner thoughts, feelings and intuitions. Inner thoughts, feelings and intuitions that are given to us by God’s Holy Spirit. If we are Christians, God’s Spirit can touch our hearts and turn our thoughts in the right direction. This means we should be attentive to what God might be saying to us when we pray about a particular decision or situation. If an unexpected thought or impression springs to mind whilst praying, don’t discard it – reflect on it and weigh it up. It might be a prompt from God’s Spirit. We do need to be careful, however! It can be easy to confuse the Spirit’s work with wishful thinking. So we need to be discerning, and must weigh up any thoughts or feelings we have against the clear teaching of Scripture. God’s Spirit will never lead us to do things that are against God’s Word. To give extreme examples, God’s Holy Spirit will never tell us to commit murder, adultery or theft, because the Bible clearly forbids them.
Thirdly and finally, we can seek God’s guidance in the counsel of the saints. That’s just a fancy way of saying we should talk to other Christians. We should seek out the advice of fellow believers – especially if they are more spiritually mature than us. They may have a better understanding of the Bible than we do, or more sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting than we may be. We should listen to them and carefully weigh up what they say. They could be a channel God wants to use to guide us!
To avoid making the same mistake as Joshua and the Israelites, we need to seek God’s guidance in life. We need to listen to his commands in Scripture, be sensitive to the promptings of his Spirit, and seek out the counsel of his saints.
Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ – integrity is important!
Returning to today’s passage, it seems the Israelites soon discovered that they had been deceived. Verse 16 tells us it took only three days for them to discover that the Gibeonites were near neighbours, probably living less than twenty miles away. We’re told that the whole of Israel broke camp and travelled to Gibeon. Once there, the people of Israel “grumbled against their leaders”, because they had been so gullible. They probably wanted them to tear up their peace treaty and attack the deceitful Gibeonites. But Joshua and the Israelite leaders said ‘no’. In contrast to the Gibeonites, the leaders of Israel would act with honesty and integrity. Having agreed a peace treaty, they would honour it.
Look again at their words in verse 19: “‘We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. This is what we will do to them: we will let them live, so that God’s wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them.”
Having failed to consult the Lord, the leaders of Israel were not going to increase their sin by breaking an oath – especially an oath made in God’s name. You see, If they had broken the oath and invaded Gibeon, they would not only have damaged their own reputation in the eyes of the Gibeonites – they would have damaged God’s reputation before the Gibeonites as well.
This incident should remind us of the importance of integrity today too. As Christians, we should have a reputation for being honest, reliable and trustworthy. At work, in our homes, in our community, Christians ought to act with integrity. We follow a God who is totally honest and trustworthy, and so should we be. We shouldn’t be people who fiddle the figures, massage our accounts or engage in gossip. As Jesus himself said, we should be people for whom our ‘yes’ means ‘yes’, and our ‘no’ means ‘no’ (Matt 5:37).
As Christians, our integrity is doubly important. Not only is our own personal reputation at stake – so is Christ’s. If we are known to be dishonest or devious, what does that say to the world about the one we claim to follow? If a Christian gets a bad reputation that’s bad enough. But its an absolute tragedy if our sin gives people second-thoughts about Christ. We must imitate the integrity the leaders of Israel showed at Gibeon.
Wonder at God’s sovereign grace
Finally, before I finish, I want us to look at God’s grace to the Gibeonites in our passage. Its fair to say that in the first twenty three verses, the Gibeonites have not covered themselves in glory. They were a pagan people who resorted to lies and deceit to get their own way. They certainly deserved the penalty that Joshua gave them – they were to serve as water carriers and wood-cutters for the community and at God’s altar. They would do these menial tasks as a penalty for their trickery.
But God is always in control, always sovereign, and can get good out of the very worst of situations. Because the Gibeonites’s penalty meant they now had a permanent place among God’s people. The Gibeonites now lived among the Israelite community. Their menial tasks put them in position where they could learn more about God and his people. They now had a unique vantage point to observe the character of God and learn about the way of salvation. In a similar way, I want St Michael’s to be a place where non-Christians can come to hear God’s Word and meet his people. A place where non-Christians can discover for themselves what it means to know and love the Lord Jesus.
God showed great grace to the Gibeonites that day, bringing the possibility of salvation out of a bad situation. It reminds me of another day in history. Another day when deceitful men did an evil act. A day when a man of total integrity was betrayed and killed. A day when simply everything seemed to have gone wrong. But God used that day for good. He used that day to create the possibility of salvation for men and women around the globe. Because that was the day we now call Good Friday.