Something Good From Something Bad

Over the past several years, we’ve heard a lot about “fake news.” And without meaning to be political, I would simply make the observation that fake news is nothing new.  “Fake news” is simply what happens when something is reported that isn’t true.  Probably the most famous example of this happened in 1948 when the Chicago Daily Tribune printed papers declaring Thomas Dewey the winner of the presidential election.  They put out their paper before the final electoral count came in and, of course, it was Harry Truman who actually won the presidency.

            We’re not the first generation to grapple with what’s true and what’s not.  Human nature is such that many people find it easier to tell a lie than to tell the truth.  Some of you may be old enough to remember a TV show by that name: To Tell the Truth.  On that show, there were two imposters on the panel and only one person who told the truth.  The celebrity judges had to decide which one was telling the truth.  And that often turned out to be a difficult thing to do because sometimes a good lie sounds more believable than the truth.

            Politicians understand this.  Adlai Stevenson once remarked that “a lie is an abomination unto the Lord — and a very present help in time of trouble.”  Our text this morning, Joshua chapter 9, tells the story of the Gibeonites who proved that Adlai Stevenson was correct in both of his observations: (1) a lie is an abomination to the Lord, and (2) it can be a very present help in time of trouble.   But this is the story of something good that came out of something bad.

            Our story begins in the first verse of Joshua chapter 9:

            “As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel.”  (Joshua 9:1-2)

            Verse one tells us that all these kings heard of “this”.  The “this” that they heard about was the Israelites’ defeat of Jericho and Ai.  All the Canaanite kings had heard about the collapse of the walls of Jericho and the burning of that city.  They had also heard about the defeat of Ai, and I’m sure there was one detail in particular that stuck in their minds.  

            After the town of Ai was burned to the ground, Joshua “hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening.  And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones.” (Joshua 8:29)

            It was as if Joshua was saying, “There will be no prisoners in this war.  We intend to kill all of the armies and all of the kings.  So that’s why the Canaanite kings came together to join their forces and fight it out with the Jews.

            But there was one city that decided they would not join with all the other Canaanite cities.  The city of Gibeon decided, instead of fighting the Jews, they would try to make peace with the Jews.

            Verse 3 tells us,  “But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning…” (Joshua 9:3-4).  The New Living Translation says, “they resorted to deception to save themselves.”

            It’s not hard to feel some sympathy for the Gibeonites.  When they heard how the Israelites had destroyed Jericho and Ai, they knew they didn’t stand a chance.  They may have been pagans, but they knew enough to understand that Joshua had the God of the universe on his side.

            And so, they started to figure out how things were going to turn out.  “The Jews are planning to sweep through the land, taking one city at a time.  When they get to Gibeon, they’re going to kill us and then they will burn our city.  There’s no way we can win.  We don’t stand a chance against them, so we’d better make a deal with them while we still can.”  

            But they also knew that Joshua would never make a deal with them.  Why should he?  It was obvious that it was the goal of the Israelites to conquer the entire land of Canaan.  And it was also obvious that the Israelite armies were strong enough to do just that.  They weren’t afraid of anyone or anything.  There was no way the Jews would ever make any kind of a deal with the Gibeonites.  So, what could they do?

            The Gibeonites came up with a brilliant two-part plan: deception plus flattery.  First, they pretended to come to the Jews from a distant land.  

            “[They] went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly.  And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, ‘We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.’” (Joshua 9:4-6)

            The Gibeonites put on these old clothes and they packed moldy bread and cracked wineskins to make it look like they had been traveling for weeks or months.  They said to Joshua, “We’ve come from a land far, far away.”  And their deception worked.  At first, the Jews questioned the truthfulness of what they said, but eventually they decided that they were telling the truth. 

            Second, the Gibeonites resorted to flattery.

            “They said to [Joshua], ‘From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God.  For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan…’(Joshua 9:9-10)

            The Gibeonites poured it on thick with all their talk about how God had delivered the Jews from Egypt and how he had given them victory over the kings east of the Jordan.  And that was a smart thing to do because, first of all, it was true and secondly, because it appealed to the pride of the Jews.

            Both Joshua and the leaders were skeptical at first, but the Gibeonites managed to deceive them.  And that ought to be a lesson for all of us.  Hebrews 3:13 talks about the “deceitfulness of sin”.  It’s so easy for us to get caught up in sin because we think that it’s not a big deal, or it won’t really matter or we won’t get caught or there won’t be any consequences.  Satan doesn’t bother to tell us what will happen if we choose to sin.  He only wants to tell you about the pleasure you’ll enjoy.  Sin is deceitful.

            So, the Gibeonites tried to deceive the Jews, but the Jews didn’t fall for it right away.  They took some steps to try to determine if the Gibeonites were lying.  Verse 14 tells us they sampled the provisions the Gibeonites brought with them, which means they checked out the bread and found it was old and moldy.  But once they did that, they said, “Well, it seems legit.  Let’s make a deal.”  So, they made a peace treaty with the Gibeonites.

            “And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.” (Joshua 9:15)

            The Israelite leaders swore an oath, which means they promised before God that they would not harm the Gibeonites.  We need to understand that taking an oath is serious business.  Once you make a promise in God’s name, you can’t come back later and decide you’re going to change your mind.  In Psalm 15, the psalmist asks the question, “Who may dwell in your sanctuary?” and part of his answer is “He who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:4, NIV)

            We need to understand that God takes our promises seriously, even if we don’t.  Which is why Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 5 that it is better not to swear before the Lord than to swear an oath and break it later.

            Now I’m sure there are a lot of people who might say, “I don’t feel like the Israelites had to keep the promise they made.  After all, it was a promise based on lies that were told to them.”  We might think that that invalidated their oath.  But Joshua and the other leaders knew that there are no loopholes when it comes to taking an oath.  When you make a promise to God, you keep that promise no matter what.

            And I think the lesson for us this – if you make a promise before God, you had better keep that promise.  Don’t swear an oath that you don’t intend to keep.  And I would put the marriage oath at the top of that list.  Don’t ever be tempted to say, “I made a promise before God, but things have changed and I’ve changed my mind.”  God takes oaths seriously, and He expects his people to be truthful.

            So now the deal is done. The peace treaty is made and the Gibeonites are safe.  But Joshua and his leaders made a mistake.  It was only one mistake but it was a big one: “The men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord.” (Joshua 9:14).

            The Israelites sampled the food to see if it was old, but they forgot to consult God, which is why they made such a big mistake.  And I would suggest to you that the same thing happens any time we get too busy to talk to the Lord.  And we all know how it happens.  Life gets hectic, you have a full agenda, something comes up, and you have to make a decision right now.  You don’t mean to leave God out, but unless you intend to bring God in, he will always be left out.

            I know there are some people who seem to have the gift of discernment.  And by that, I mean they know how to make quick decisions, even in difficult circumstances.  But, sometimes, making quick decisions can get you into trouble because you start believing in your own ability to figure things out.  You think, “I know what needs to be done.” 

            It would be far better for us to say, “Lord, I don’t know what to do in this situation.  I need your help.  I need your guidance, your wisdom.”  We all need to be like Jehoshaphat, who was facing a tough situation and he cried out to the Lord, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).

            Keep in mind that it was Joshua who made this mistake.  Joshua, who was God’s appointed leader of His people.  And it happened:

  • after the miracle at the Jordan,
  • after the conquest of Jericho,
  • after the shameful episode with Achan, and
  • after the defeat of Ai.

            After all those miracles of deliverance and after Achan’s deceit, Joshua still forgot to pray about this decision.  Joshua was a good man who may have trusted in his gut instincts when he should have asked the Lord for help.  And I think it’s safe to say that if that could happen to Joshua, it can certainly happen to you and me.

            We need to always remember that we will never get to the place where we don’t need the Lord.  The moment we start thinking, “I’ve got this under control”, that’s when we’re in trouble.

            As for the Jews, everything went fine for a few days.  Then word got out about the deception.  We’re not told exactly how the Jews found out that they had been lied to.  But once the Israelites know the truth, what are they going to do?

            Beginning in verse 9, “Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders.  But all the leaders said to all the congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them.  This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.’  And the leaders said to them, ‘Let them live.’  So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them.” (Joshua 9:18-21)

            These Jewish leaders couldn’t go back on their word because they knew God took their oath seriously.  So, they spared the Gibeonites and they spared their city, but they decided they would make them become servants of the Jews as woodcutters and water carriers.

            When Joshua confronted the Gibeonites and he asked them why they had lied, they told the truth:  “We feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing.  And now, behold, we are in your hand.  Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” (Joshua 9:24-25)

            We need to give them credit — the Gibeonites didn’t make any excuses for what they did. They lied to save their lives, which doesn’t justify their lie, but it did lead them to find mercy and not destruction. The final verses of chapter 9 give us a glimpse of the grace of God at work:

            “[Joshua] delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them.  But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose.” (Joshua 9:26-27)

            Let me ask you a question — who got the better end of this deal?  On the one hand, the Israelites got an endless source of free labor, so that was a win for them.  But, on the other hand, the Gibeonites saved their lives, so that was a big win for them.  

            But notice where they ended up — at “the altar of the Lord.”  What was significant about the altar?   That was the place of sacrifice.  The Gibeonites who started out as pagans now end up serving at the very heart of the Jewish religion.  Every day they served where the animals were being sacrificed to the Lord.  They had a front-row seat to watch God teaching the Jews a lesson of substitution.  They learned that blood must be shed for the forgiveness of sin.

            So, what’s the most important thing for us to learn from this story?

  • The dangers of deception?
  • The folly of not looking to the Lord when we need to make decisions?
  • The importance of keeping your oaths no matter what?

            The truth is, this story is about all of those things.  But there’s something else that’s very important that’s going on here.  Let’s turn the clock forward a bit and see what we find.

            In the very next chapter (Joshua 10) Joshua and the Israelites went to war to protect the city of Gibeon from the other Canaanite kings.  So, now you have the Jews protecting one group of Canaanites (the Gibeonites) from all of the other Canaanites.  It was during this battle that the sun stood still over Gibeon, giving Joshua one of his greatest victories.

            In Joshua 21, Gibeon was named one of the Levitical cities, which meant that some of the priests of Israel lived there. That guaranteed that the inhabitants of Gibeon would have firsthand knowledge of the whole sacrificial system.

            When Saul massacred the Gibeonites (400 years later), God responded by sending a three-year famine on Israel (2 Samuel 21:1).  That famine was not lifted until seven of Saul’s male descendants were hanged by the Gibeonites in retribution for the massacre.  God judged his people for breaking the promise they made to protect the Gibeonites.

            When David’s mighty men are listed in 1 Chronicles 12, that list includes “Ishmaiah of Gibeon, a mighty man among the thirty and a leader over the thirty.” In other words,  this Gibeonite was in David’s inner circle, one of his most trusted men.

            When Solomon went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, the Lord appeared to him and told him to ask for whatever he wanted. That’s when Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom (I Kings 3).

            When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah tells su that 95 men of Gibeon were among those who returned (Nehemiah 7:25).

            When Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (1000 years after the time of Joshua), men from Gibeon helped them in that construction (Nehemiah 3:7).

            So, what does all of this mean?  It means, first of all, that the Israelites faithfully kept the promise they made, not only while Joshua was alive but for over a thousand years.  Second, the Gibeonites became fully integrated into the life of Israel, some of them serving in high positions.  Third, it’s obvious that that they came to understand the true God and how He must be approached by way of blood sacrifice.

            In some ways, the Gibeonites were a lot like Rahab.  They both were deceivers.  She lied to the king of Jericho, they lied to Joshua.  They both did what they did in order to save themselves from destruction.  Rahab believed the God of the Jews was the one true God, while the Gibeonites said in Joshua 9:24, “It was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land.” 

            In both cases, these pagan Gentiles had heard enough about God to convince them to change sides.  Rahab left her own people to join with the people of God.  The Gibeonites did the same thing.
            The Gibeonites came in among the people of God, and hundreds of years later, they were still there.  Now, does that mean that all the Gibeonites became believers in God?  I don’t know.  Only God knows the answer to that question.  But, I do know this — out of all the pagan nations in the land of Canaan, the Gibeonites were the only who ones who were spared.  They were the only ones who joined with the people of God.

            And I would suggest to you this morning that all of us are like Rahab and the Gibeonites.  We come to God along with the prostitutes and the liars.  And I know it’s easy for us to look down our noses at people like Rahab and the Gibeonites hat we regard as terrible sinners.  

            But I need to constantly remind myself of this truth — God saves people I wouldn’t save if I were God.  Which is one more reason why I’m glad that he’s God, and I’m not.  My “grace” tends to have limits, but God’s grace does not.  God will save the most notorious sinner who turns to him.  And that includes even self-righteous church people like me.  

            Philip Yancey once said, “If we say ‘there is grace even for people like the Gibeonites,’ we have unconsciously put ourselves in a different category.”  The truth is, there is grace even for people like Alan Smith.

            We dare not forget what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2. First, he describes what we were before we were saved:  “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12).

            And then he describes our new position:  “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13) 

            There was a time when all of us, like Rahab and like the Gibeonites, were without hope and without God in the world. That’s why what Paul says in verse 13 is so important.  Here’s what you were . . . But now, here’s what you are . . .  God’s grace makes all the difference in the world!

            And so, I think this may be the most important lesson from our story this morning — God has people in his family who come from everywhere, even the most unlikely places.  You wouldn’t think a prostitute in Jericho would end up in Hebrews chapter 11 in the list of the great men and women of faith, but that’s exactly what happened to Rahab.  You wouldn’t think lying conmen would end up serving at the altar of the Lord, but that’s what happened to the Gibeonites.

            And I think the lesson for us is this – no matter what you are right now, no matter what you’ve been in the past or what you’ve done in the past, God’s grace will welcome you into his family.

            One last observation. If God insisted that the Jews keep their oath, even though it was foolishly made, how much more will God keep the oath he has taken.  Hebrews 6 puts it this way: 

            “God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind.  So God has given both his promise and his oath.  These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie.  Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us.” (Hebrews 6:17-18, NLT)

            Do you see what the Hebrew writer is saying?  He says God doesn’t want us to have any doubts about our salvation, so God made a promise to us and then he confirmed it with an oath.  And he did that so that we might be able to have “great confidence” in trusting him.

            We can trust that God will always be there when we need him most. When we mess up, when we fail God, when we start to beat ourselves up, God says, “I made a promise, and I swore an oath. Your sin cannot cancel my grace.  However much you may have sinned, my grace is greater.”

            And did you notice that little word “fled”?  We are people who have “fled to him for refuge” as we “hold to the hope”.  That’s what Rahab did.  That’s what the Gibeonites did.  They fled to the only source of hope in their lives.  There was no one else who could save them.  And that’s what we did when we came to Christ.  We fled from Satan and we fled from this world to grab hold of our only hope for salvation — Jesus Christ.

            And I believe that when we get to heaven, we’re going to see a lot of those Gibeonites.  And I am absolutely certain that we will see Rahab there.   Knowing that, let us then lay aside all of our pride and thank God, because if he can save a prostitute and a bunch of lying conmen, he can save us, too.  No matter what you are right now, no matter what you’ve been in the past or what you’ve done in the past, God’s grace will welcome you into his family if you will only flee to him for refuge.


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