Message: Lessons on Losing Well | Scripture: Joshua 9:16-21 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
When we were young, my brother used to be attached to my hip, and he would do everything that I did—even if he didn’t really want to do those things. In fact, he looked up to me so much that he wanted all the things that I would get. So, when I got old enough to understand the basic concepts of supply and demand, I realized that my brother was willing to pay me money for toys and gadgets that I didn’t want anymore. It got to the point where we were making so many transactions that my brother would get all excited and tell my parents about all the things that he planned to buy from me.
To my surprise, for some reason, my parents really did not like that I was doing this. But because my brother had promised to buy these toys from my astounding collection, they let him go through with it. The only thing was that after he was finished buying the toys from me, my dad turned around, and he charged me for the grocery items that he had just bought for me—he said, “if you want to eat, then this is how much it will cost you.” It turns out, like some magic formula, the cost of the groceries was exactly the same amount that I had charged my brother for my toys.
Now, you might be asking, “why did your parents do this? Why didn’t they simply cancel the transaction and remedy the unfairness of the situation altogether?” And the answer is twofold. First, they wanted to apply the lesson to both my brother and I that in messy and unfair situations, when we make foolish promises, it is still necessary to stay true to one’s word as people of honour and integrity. Secondly, my dad wanted to teach us was that in our family, we don’t function as those who owe each other things. Rather, the economy of family was one of grace. Our “currency” was not based on what any one person deserved for their time or their things, it was based upon the fact that everything we had was given to us as those who deserve nothing, which frees us to give of ourselves generously to others.
These two lessons drive our text today. If you think about what happened to my brother and me, we both lost in our respective circumstances, and yet what my parents taught us was how to lose well. The same will be the case in Joshua 9:16-21. It’s all about how to lose well when we make foolish decisions or when we have wrong ideas about what we deserve, and at the center of all of it is grace. So, let’s read the text together—Joshua 9:16-21. TWoL.
At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbours and that they lived among them. And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. But all the leaders said to 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.
Our proposition this morning is that our obligation as Christians—our obligation as created beings—is to place God’s interests over our own as a witness to the world of who he is and what he’s done for us. Said more simply, we are to place God’s interests over our own as a witness to the world. We are to strive to display his character in all things, and when we fail to do that, we aren’t called to try and cover-up our mistakes or avoid the consequences of those mistakes. No, we’re called, simply, to return to our first priority—to love our God and to live in a way that honours him, even when it does not seem in our best interest to do so. Why? Well, that’s what I want to unpack from the text. So, let’s look at our first point now. Place God’s interests over your own as a witness to the world:
1) Even When It Seems Unjust
We pick up here from last week where we left off with Joshua and the leaders of Israel making a covenant with these Gibeonites who came to Israel’s camp dressed in ragged clothes, torn sandals, using broken wineskins, and eating dry, crumbly bread. What Israel didn’t know is that their visitors had only come from about 25 miles away rather than what appeared to be hundreds. And instead of turning to God for wisdom, Gibeon plays them for the fool, and as fools, Israel gives Gibeon exactly what it wants.
So, in our verses 16-18a and 19, Israel finds out that they’ve been lied to, and not only have they been lied to by the cunning of the Gibeonites, they find out that Gibeon wasn’t acting alone in making a treaty. Really, the treaty comprises of Gibeon and three other city-states all of which are quite important in Canaan because they are the entry way for a trade route that leads to the Mediterranean Sea. Having Canaanites live on this trade route presents a danger because it becomes easy for them to pass information throughout the land and threaten Israel’s peace. And this treaty means that threat will now always exist.
Thus, it stands to reason that Israel is quite upset. They feel an injustice was done to them when Gibeon lied, and that the treaty ought to be absolved. So, taking matters into their own hands, our text suggests, in verse 17, that Israel’s “setting out” isn’t just to see these cities. No, it implies that they geared up, and that they were ready and motivated to attack. Yet, when they get to the cities, they don’t destroy them. Why? Both verses 18a and 19 tell us the first reason—the most important reason, namely, because the leaders of Israel had sworn to Gibeon in the name of the Lord.
Now, why is this significant? I wish I had time to get into all of it, especially with stories like Jacob’s stolen birthright of Esau, which, like the Gibeonites, is obtained by trickery and is irrevocable. But what we learn from that story and our passage today is that, truly, the only one who can revoke the covenant blessings of God and oaths made in the name of God—is God himself. That is the difference. In any covenant that we make amongst one another, perhaps there is ground for breaking that covenant where trickery and cunning form its foundation, but where God is involved—where his name is invoked—so too is his character involved and invoked.
And the leaders of Israel know that if they cancel their oath, they communicate two things to the Gibeonites. The first is that God is not sovereign, that he is gullible, that he is ignorant and can be tricked by human cunning. See, what becomes very clear to the leaders of Israel is that as much as they feel that this situation is one of deep injustice, the fault does not fall squarely upon the shoulders of Gibeon. Much of problem Israel is in is because they did not seek the Lord, and in their failure to do so, they bound themselves when they shouldn’t have. If anyone deserves to suffer for their misdeeds, Israel is just as liable as Gibeon.
Might I add a brief application into our own situation, because how quick are we to judge the world for injustice done to us or to others who we think are innocent? Yet, how slow are we to condemn ourselves in our lack of dependence upon the Lord not only when things look desperate but also when things look favourable? These leaders exemplify for us the fruit of neglect—that very often, when we suffer injustice, it is not because God is uncaring, unsovereign, or absent, it’s because we, as his creatures have not pursued him as we ought.
Secondly, cancelling the oath would communicate that God, himself, is not a God of integrity. Not only would it show the Gibeonites that he lacks true sovereignty and omniscience, it would show them that his name means nothing—that it has no power to deliver those who are under its protection—that he cannot be trusted. And in this, a second realization is dawning upon the leaders of Israel—the oath must be kept because the name of Yahweh is more important than the pride, ambitions, and rights of Israel. The oath cannot be revoked because to do so would show the world that God acts rashly, without thinking, and that he makes mistakes, and what is more important in this moment—that Israel gets vengeance for being tricked, or that the integrity of the Lord is magnified?
Remember, Israel’s primary duty as the people of God was to display the glory of God throughout the earth—in this, they were like Adam. Through Israel, the world was supposed to see God’s likeness and image. When they made a covenant with them on the Lord’s behalf, they were to maintain that covenant as the Lord would maintain it. Thus, what the leaders know, in this moment, is to choose to suffer injustice—injustice brought about by their own foolishness—as the chosen sons of God for the sake of displaying the character of God to the world—for the sake of winning the world to him.
And in their example, we learn our lesson: we are to place God’s interests—place his character—over our own as a witness to the world, even when it seems like we’ll suffer injustice for it, because not only is he more important than us, but he uses our humility in our foolishness and the laying aside of our rights to bring sinners to himself. Here, the leaders of Israel display for us something radically different than what the nations would have expected. Gibeon knows its plan was risky. They likely expected Israel to attack. But the name of God does not bend to the expectations of the world, and we are to be exceedingly reverent in its use. He deserves a higher consideration. He deserves greater representation than having to bear the consequences of our foolishness. It’s in those moments that we would be wise not to compound our mistakes by making the situation about ourselves.
This is what the leaders of Israel do here, and it’s the right decision to make. They place God’s interests over their own as a witness to their Gibeonite neighbours even though it means suffering unjustly for it because God is worthy of the honour. God deserves our humility. And the world is watching. So, show them God more than your rights. Show them God more than your interests and let him bring them to himself.
2) Even When Others Tell You Not To
Now, you may be thinking the leaders have done the right thing, so their people would be supportive, right? Well, verse 18b tells us otherwise. In the revelation that the leaders made an oath with the Gibeonites using the name of the Lord, what is it that they do? They murmur. They grumble. They complain. And on the surface, it seems like they have good reason to do it.
Now, the word murmur is easily defined. In fact, it’s a word that defines itself because it’s an onomatopoeia—it’s speaking in half-articulated, low, and indistinguishable ways. But the reason why we murmur—why we speak in half-articulated, low, indistinguishable ways is often not only to hide the content of what we’re saying, but also to make it obvious that we’re displeased with something. It’s a passive-aggressive attempt to communicate without really communicating anything particular.
And why not simply say out loud whatever’s making you displeased? It’s because murmuring is almost always something we do when we know, at base, that we shouldn’t say what our hearts want to say. Right? We murmur when our mothers or fathers are angry at us because we know we’ll get into bigger trouble if they hear what we’re really thinking. We murmur when our bosses are making a mountain out of a molehill about our small, insignificant mistake. We murmur behind someone’s back when that someone gets something that we wanted.
In other words, we murmur because our hearts are discontented with our lot in life—because we are either receiving or not receiving what we think we deserve. And if you don’t agree with how I’m using and defining this word, then we ought to test where we see it used throughout the Bible. Other than this one time in Joshua, you only see it in six other places throughout the narratives and prophets. Every single instance shows up in two books: Exodus and Numbers. And every time it’s used in Exodus and Numbers, the one who is murmuring is always Israel. And not only is Israel the sole, named grumbler in the Bible, but in every single instance that it’s used, it’s speaking of their heart’s attitude towards God.
So, when we read that Israel murmurs against the leaders in verse 18b, we’re supposed to be very familiar with who and what they’re truly murmuring to. They aren’t just murmuring against the leaders—they are murmuring against the leaders because of who their speech points them to, namely, God himself. They are displeased with the fact that the leaders will not let them attack Gibeon because the leaders have rightly discerned that God will not let them attack Gibeon. God has withheld this from them, and they are not okay with his solution for their problem.
Now, you may think that perhaps in this instance, Israel has a reason to grumble. They’ve suffered injustice at the hands of Gibeon who tricked them, and not only that, but it’s the leaders of Israel who entered into this oath—not Israel, the people. Why should the people suffer for the cunning of the Gentiles and for the foolishness of the leaders? Shouldn’t the leaders listen to them and allow them to attack these untrustworthy cities?
But what Israel is forgetting is that what they receive isn’t earned because of Gibeon’s treachery, nor is it because of the leaders’ wisdom. It’s because God is gracious. See, in their grumbling, what the people of God tell us is that they’ve forgotten their history. They’ve forgotten about their deception and manipulation not only towards each other but towards God. They’ve forgotten all the times they’ve refused to seek his counsel and turned to idols. Yet, through all that, he has not treated them as their sins deserved.
Then, in addition to all the ways they’ve forgotten about their own sordid history of sin, they’ve also forgotten about all the grace they’ve received despite being sinners. They’ve forgotten the reason they were brought into the land. They’ve already put out of their minds Jericho and Ai. They’ve disregarded Egypt, the Red Sea, and the Jordan River.
It’s like God is only important to them when they miss out on something that they think they deserve, and when they don’t get it—what’s their knee-jerk reaction? It’s to grumble. It’s to complain. It’s to show that their satisfaction isn’t in the fact that God continues mercifully to be their God. No, their satisfaction is only in that next thing—in what God intends to give them, and to them, it’s also what they’re owed.
Brothers and sisters, grace is supposed to conform our character to itself and not make us spoiled children who expect God to give us what we want, when we want it. That’s not the Christian life. God does promise to give us the desires of our hearts, but that’s only because we’ve been brought into conformity with who he is and what he loves. But the world takes that message of God giving us the desires of our hearts, and it twists it in such a way that makes us think that he is subservient to us and not the other way around. I pray that we’re discerning enough to recognize the stupidity in that.
Place God’s interests over your own as a witness to the world, even when others tell you not to because they’re not functioning as they should. They’re not functioning in a way that takes all the facts into consideration, especially, your sinfulness and God’s graciousness. We need to rise above our murmuring. We need to recognize that we are undeserving. And we need to remember the hand that feeds us.
When are hearts complain—when we grumble in our souls—we have to remind ourselves that we’re not just grumbling about our circumstances, we’re telling God that what he’s given us isn’t enough—that HE isn’t enough. And when he isn’t enough, we let the world dictate for us what is. Let me save you the anguish of waiting for what happens to that kind of person—they run straight into hell to spend an eternity in their grumbling, never being satisfied in their desires. Don’t wait until you’re in hell. Place God’s interests over your own now, and do it so that you, too, might be a witness to the world of his saving grace.
3) Even When the Immediate Consequences (For Doing So) Seem Severe
I spoke under our first point about the first reason that Israel doesn’t attack Gibeon, namely, because the leaders of Israel had sworn to preserve Gibeon in the name of the Lord. And such a decision seems like quite a severe blow to Israel’s morale. Yet, as severe of a consequence as this is as a result of the leaders’ foolishness, verse 20 tells us the second reason, or should I say, the extended reason as to why Israel does not attack. They don’t attack because by holding back and honouring the oath they avoid an even more severe consequence. They avoid the wrath of God.
Now, for you Bible thumpers, you may be asking, wouldn’t not attacking the land bring God’s wrath upon Israel because it disobeys his commandment to devote the entirety of Canaan to destruction? And to this question, I have two responses. The first is to say that it does, in one sense, incur his wrath, only its form of judgment is something that will be felt over a prolonged period of time.
Remember what the command was in Deut 7? Devote all of Canaan to destruction. Why? Not only because they are wicked, but because if they stay alive in the land, Israelite children will intermarry with Gentile children, and their cultural religions and idols will pollute God’s people. So, it goes without saying, if the people become corrupted and polluted with other gods and religious practices, then eventually their fate under God’s anger will be the same as the Caananites.
The second way I’d answer the question is to say that they don’t actually incur the wrath of God—at least not in the traditional sense. Let’s be clear, when Israel doesn’t attack, they are disobeying God’s command in Deut 7. However, what’s taking place in the minds of the leaders right now is an uncomfortable tension. On the one hand, do they disobey the command in Deut 7 and allow the Canaanites to continue living amongst them, or, on the other hand, do they bring shame to the character of God by attacking Gibeon and breaking the oath that they swore in his name to protect them. Which of these two is worse?
And I believe we’re given the answer in what remains of verses 20-21. I believe that, in one sense, the leaders are learning from their past mistakes. The last time they acted without consulting God was when they attacked Ai the first time and lost, and the reason why they lost wasn’t just because they failed to consult God but because Achan, an Israelite, broke his oath to the Lord to destroy all of Jericho.
Here, in our text, an oath was made to the Lord but in the reverse—they were to protect Gibeon. Thus, to destroy Gibeon would once again break an oath that existed between Israel and the Lord, similar to what Achan did at Ai. So, one might figure that we don’t want a repeat of the episode at Ai. Therefore, it’s better to taint the land and have Canaanites live in it and bear those consequences instead of being completely wiped from the face of the earth and not be able to enjoy the land at all.
Then, in verse 21, the leaders determine what shall happen to the Gibeonites. Instead of being attacked, they’re relegated to become cutters of wood and drawers of water for Israel. Why is this important for the author of Joshua to tell us? It’s because what the leaders do in the face of their foolishness is not to continue being foolish—they don’t continue trying to figure out what to do apart from God. Instead, they learn from their mistake, and the author tells us that they return to God—they seek his will and counsel. How do we know that? Because what they decide to do with Gibeon is in exact alignment with what God commands Israel to do with foreigners when they come into their midst (Deut 29:11).
God says make foreigners amongst you cutters of wood and drawers of water, and that’s exactly what these leaders do—nothing more and nothing less. They look to the law of God, and they follow it. They don’t try to conjure up ways to get out of their mess with human wisdom or take matters into their own hands. They submit back to the ways they’ve already been directed.
In other words, the right choice to make was that which shows God that their desire is to pursue his interests over their own—to do that which desires to honour him and not themselves. Had the leaders chosen to attack Gibeon, while it would have been an objectively obedient thing to do according to Deut 7, they wouldn’t have done it to honour God. They would have done it to honour and vindicate themselves.
Whereas choosing not to attack on the grounds of doing what is acceptable in the sight of God does actually bring him honour—even if it means taking a loss in the eyes of the world. They take the loss well because their satisfaction is in God’s satisfaction over them and not in pursuing their ambitions or the world’s expectations. Don’t get me wrong, God does not delight in their foolishness—just as he does not delight in ours. But what he does delight in are those who humble themselves in their foolishness and realize that a heart of submission to him is always better than looking inward and trying to fix things ourselves.
Trying to fix things is our tendency. Trying to cover our mistakes and rectify things or justify things in a favourable light for us is something that we all struggle with because we think we are the solution. But what these leaders of Israel realize is that in their folly, they are not the solution. We are not the solution. We cannot fix our own mess. God, alone, does that! There is no win-win situation here for Israel. No matter what, they’re going to lose, and it may feel like in your life there are situations where no matter what you’re going to lose. You will face an uncomfortable tension and you will have to decide how to resolve that tension. In that moment, will you decide to do that which honours yourself, or will you lay yourself down for the glory and honour of God.
Because let me tell you this, roughly 2000 years ago, a man came to us who could do things that no other man could do, and who would say things that no other man had ever said. And in all his doing, in all his saying, he was offered the world, but he chose not to pursue it. So, he continued on in his ministry doing and saying these incredible things in completely righteous ways, and the more he rejected what the world was offering him, the more the world wanted him to give into its pressure. Until, one day, the world had pressured him to the point of choosing between submitting himself to its authority or facing his own death upon a cross. In that moment, he faced an uncomfortable tension—a lose-lose situation.
On the one hand, would he choose to suffer injustice to display the character of the one who sent him? Would he find his sufficiency, even in death, in the one who provides for him? Would he lay himself down for the glory of the one who possess an infinite wisdom and who, alone, can rectify our foolishness? Or would he, on the other hand, choose that which the world wanted him to choose—that which sought to honour and save himself?
I think you know which one he chose. He chose to honour, trust, and glorify God over his own well-being. In so doing, he vindicates any injustice that we might suffer, he promises us a place where there will be no reason to murmur, and he satisfies for us all the possible consequences of our foolishness. And not only that, but in his losing—the greatest loss the world has ever seen—he wins us to himself, he brings us to the God who once looked upon us in wrath, and he says, “let them live because you poured out your wrath upon me, and, in shedding my own blood, I made an oath to protect them.” Dear Christian, place God’s interests over your own as a witness to the world because in doing so you show them Jesus—the one who suffered injustice, the one who didn’t listen to the temptations of the world, and the one who paid the most severe consequence of divine wrath on our behalf.