In a context where the apostle Paul has been discussing his ministry as an ambassador of Christ (see 2 Cor. 4:1-5:20), he declares “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” To walk by faith is to walk in a spirit of prayerful dependence on the Lord and His guidance. So James encourages us, “If anyone of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God” (Jam. 1:5). We are always to seek God’s wisdom because we need His omniscient and sovereign guidance no matter what the issue is that faces us. Later, in his epistle, James will warn against the sin of presuming on the Lord or against pursuing our own dreams and objectives apart from seeking God’s leading and will (4:13-17).
Jeremiah declared, “I know, O Lord, that a man’s way is not in himself, Nor is it in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). Man does not have the wisdom or ability, nor often the will to direct his way for “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). Our need is to always commit our way, our objectives, our pursuits, and our responsibilities to the Lord for not only His will and wisdom, but for His enablement (see Prov. 16:1-4, 9). The danger is that we will presume on God’s grace and strike out in our own wisdom without really seeking and searching His heart and blessing while ever realizing our total inadequacy and need of His grace.
The danger of presumption and walking by sight is amplified a hundred fold when we consider the fact we are in an age old conflict with supernatural forces that are extremely cunning and many times more powerful than are we. We see the material world, we see flesh and blood, and we can see the physical evidence and think, “I can handle it … it’s not that difficult.” We must be ever wary because often we are not just dealing with just flesh and blood. Rather, we are dealing with an insidious enemy who uses people to promote his schemes. When we consider our weakness and Satan’s power, cunning, deception, and methods of operations, we must certainly listen to Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:10-18:
6:10 Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 6:11 Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 6:12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. 6:13 For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. 6:14 Stand firm, therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness, 6:15 by fitting your feet with the preparation that comes from the good news of peace, 6:16 and in all of this, by taking up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 6:17 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 6:18 With every prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and to this end being alert, with all perseverance and requests for all the saints. 6:19 Pray for me, that I may be given the message when I begin to speak—that I may confidently make known the mystery of the gospel, 6:20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may be able to speak boldly as I ought to speak (NET Bible).
In chapter nine, though somewhat cautious, Joshua nevertheless failed to inquire of the Lord through prayer. Looking at the evidence, he supposed he could wisely discern what they were facing. He was wrong and ultimately, he was guilty of presuming on the Lord.
In the depths of winter at Valley Forge, George Washington went to his knees in prayer, certain that unless God aided his bedraggled and discouraged army, all hope for the fledgling United States was lost.
During the Civil War, when the fate of the nation again hung in the balance, Abraham Lincoln confessed to a friend that he was often driven to his knees to pray because he had nowhere else to go.53
In the passage before us (verses 9-10), we see the danger of failing to commit their way to the Lord (Prov. 3:5-7; Ps. 37:4-6), the peril of prayerlessness and the peril of walking by sight—making decision on the basis of how things appear.
As we have seen, Israel’s failure at Ai was to a large degree the result of failing to consult the Lord. Now again the failure of the leaders to commit their way to the Lord was about to produce another crisis. It reminds us again how susceptible we are to acting before praying.
There is another related problem here. The problem of trusting in our victories and our religious experiences. The context here is most significant. The people had just returned from a mountain-top kind of spiritual experience after hearing the Word of God read to them from Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. They had heard God’s promises of blessings and had affirmed their commitment to follow the Lord (see Deut. 27:11-28:14). It had been a time of spiritual victory, a spiritual high, but this is an important time for walking circumspectly knowing that such is also a time when often Satan attacks because he knows we are apt to trust in our experiences rather than in the Lord (see 1 Cor. 10:12). The moment we let down our guard and think we have it made because of our spiritual experiences, we are most vulnerable to the devil’s attacks. The judgment of God’s word here is that they “… did not ask for counsel of the Lord” (9:14).
As we study this passage we should be reminded of four passages of Scripture—1 Samuel 12:23; Proverbs 3:5-6; 1 Corinthians 10:12; Ephesians 6:10-18. These verses along with this passage in Joshua remind us of four things:
(1) As Christians, we are involved in deadly spiritual warfare with a power far superior to our own strength.
(2) To be delivered from our opponent and his nefarious schemes, we must cloth ourselves with our spiritual armor as given us in Christ.
(3) The offensive weapons given to us by the Lord are the Word of God and prayer. Without the Word and prayer, we are sitting ducks.
(4) When God’s people are victorious or are prospered, it seems Satan doubles his efforts in attacks against them.
1 Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things—those in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites)— 2 they came together to make war against Joshua and Israel (NIV).
The record given here is typical of Satan’s strategies. Powerful alliances began immediately to form in both the north and the south of Canaan. Where tribal warfare had gone on for years, suddenly deadly enemies were brought together in alliances as they united against the invasion of God’s people into the land.
When righteousness becomes aggressive and bent on an objective, it has a way of uniting the forces of righteousness and the enemies of righteousness. It happened this way when Jesus Christ launched his earthly ministry. His aggressive ministry of healing, preaching, and the confrontation of sin galvanized his own followers—but it also welded together three groups which had formerly been enemies, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. Scripture predicts that His future return will have a similar effect (See Ps. 2:2; Rev. 19:19.)
The more boldly the Christian faith advances, the more vocal and violent the opposition will become.54
It appears that all the city-states in mountainous regions joined forces against Israel as a means of keeping Joshua and his army from attacking one city at a time as had been done with Jericho and Ai.
Perhaps these kings were encouraged by the initial defeat of Israel at Ai. No longer would the reports of earlier victories lead them to suppose that Israel was invincible. In resisting Israel, however, they were resisting God. Their stubborn rebellion against God was eloquent testimony that the sin of the Amorites had reached its full measure (cf. Gen 15:16).55
9:3 When the residents of Gibeon heard what Joshua did to Jericho and Ai, 9:4 they did something clever. They collected some provisions and put worn out sacks on their donkeys, along with worn out wineskins that were ripped and patched. 9:5 They had worn out, patched sandals on their feet and dressed in worn out clothes. All their bread was dry and hard. 9:6 They came to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant land. Make a treaty with us.” 9:7 The men of Israel said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you live near us. So how can we make a treaty with you?” 9:8 But they said to Joshua, “We are willing to be your subjects.” So Joshua said to them, “Who are you and where do you come from?” 9:9 They told him, “Your subjects have come from a very distant land because of the reputation of the LORD your God, for we have heard the news about all he did in Egypt 9:10 and all he did to the two Amorite kings on the other side of the Jordan—Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan in Ashtaroth. 9:11 Our leaders and all who live in our land told us, ‘Take provisions for your journey and go meet them. Tell them, “We are willing to be your subjects. Make a treaty with us.”’ 9:12 This bread of ours was warm when we packed it in our homes the day we started out to meet you, but now it is dry and hard. 9:13 These wineskins we filled were brand new, but look how they have ripped. Our clothes and sandals have worn out because it has been a very long journey.” 9:14 The men examined some of their provisions, but they failed to ask the LORD’s advice. 9:15 Joshua made a peace treaty with them and agreed to let them live. The leaders of the community sealed it with an oath. (NET Bible)
Not all were willing to openly go against Israel in view of Israel’s victories. The Gibeonites, which included a league of cities (see vs. 17), concocted a clever ruse designed to deceive the Israelites and hide their true identity—a typical strategy of Satan, the deceiver. Their goal, which was successful, was to convince the Israelites they were from a country outside the land (vs. 6). They evidently somehow knew that God had commanded the Israelites to totally destroy all the inhabitants of the land. Their claim was that they were impressed with the great things Joshua had done and so they wanted a treaty allowing them to live because they were not of the land of Canaan.
It is hard not to admire the Gibeonites for their scheme. In view of verse 9, it appears they really did believe in the power of the God of Israel much like Rahab. The Gibeonites were not cowards (cf. 10:2). They knew they could not withstand the power of God and did the next best thing in their thinking; they turned to deception through disguise. This resulted in two major approaches:
(1) They played on their sympathies by appearing as weary travelers who had been on a long journey. Their garments were dirty and worn, their food was dry and moldy (or hard, crumbly), their wineskins old and patched, and their sandals worn and thin.
(2) They played on their egos and their sense of pride. They insisted they came from a great distance to show their respect for the power of the God of the Israelites and wanted to be allowed to live as the servants of Israel. Caught off guard, Joshua and the leaders of Israel listened to the ruse of the Gibeonites and they made two mistakes:
(1) They made the mistake of allowing the Gibeonites to play on their emotions. They accepted the evidence, though questionable, without further and more reliable evidence. Here we see the peril of sight versus faith and fact.
(2) The primary mistake, however, is not seeking counsel from the Lord. They should have sought direction from the Lord through the Urim and Thummim. Here we see the peril of presumption through prayerlessness.
It is always a mistake for us to lean on our own wisdom or judgment and make our own plans apart from God’s direction. It was a mistake then … and it still is. The exhortation of God’s Word is:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil (Proverbs 3:5-7).
Before entering into any alliance—taking a partner in life, going into business with another, yielding assent to any proposition which involves confederation with others—be sure to ask counsel at the mouth of the Lord. He will assuredly answer by an irresistible impulse—by the voice of a friend; by a circumstance strange and unexpected; by a passage of Scripture. He will choose His own messenger; but He will send a message.56
Though Satan surely knows he can never really defeat the Lord and that he is a defeated foe, he nevertheless turns to his many tricks and deceptive devices to defeat God’s purposes for and with His people (cf. Eph. 4:14; 2 Tim. 2:25).
9:16 Three days after they made the treaty with them, the Israelites found out they were from the local area and lived nearby. 9:17 So the Israelites set out and on the third day arrived at their cities—Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath Jearim.
Within only three days the deception was discovered, but as is often the case with the consequences of sin, they would live with their decision for the rest of their lives. Proverbs 12:19b is pertinent here which says, “Truthful lips will be established forever, But a lying tongue is only for a moment.” Words of truth are consistent, and stand all tests, while lies are soon discovered and exposed.57
9:18 The Israelites did not attack them because the leaders of the community had sworn an oath to them in the name of the LORD God of Israel. The whole community criticized the leaders, 9:19 but all the leaders told the whole community: “We swore an oath to them in the name of the LORD God of Israel. So now we can’t hurt them. 9:20 We must let them live so we can escape the curse attached to the oath we swore to them.” 9:21 The leaders then added, “Let them live.” So they became woodcutters and water carriers for the whole community, as the leaders had decided.
9:22 Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said to them, “Why did you trick us by saying, ‘We live far away from you,’ when you really live nearby?” 9:23 Now you are condemned to perpetual servitude as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God.” 9:24 They said to Joshua, “It was carefully reported to your subjects how the LORD your God commanded Moses his servant to assign you the whole land and to destroy all who live in the land from before you. Because of you we were terrified we would lose our lives, so we did this thing. 9:25 So now we are in your power. Do to us what you think is good and appropriate.” 9:26 Joshua did as they said; he kept the Israelites from killing them 9:27 and that day made them woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the LORD at the divinely chosen site. (They continue in this capacity to this very day.)
The text tells us that once the ruse was discovered, the people grumbled against their leaders because they judged them to be responsible. Apparently, in view of verses 19-21, the people also wanted them to disregard their covenant and destroy the Gibeonites. However, though they erred by leaning on their own understanding rather than consulting the Lord, they honored their agreement with the Gibeonites. Had they not been men of honor and integrity, they might easily have sought to cover their tracks by destroying the Gibeonites, but they honored their pledge because it had been ratified in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel. To break the covenant would dishonor God’s name and bring down His wrath. “In fact, such a judgment from God would later come to pass during David’s reign because Saul disregarded this agreement. (see 2 Sam. 21:1-6).”58
While they could not go back on their pledge, the Gibeonites had deceived them, so a punishment fitting their sin had to be prescribed. First, Joshua rebuked them for their dishonesty and then sentenced them to perpetual slavery. In the ruse of the Gibeonites, they had offered to be the subjects of the Israelites (vss. 8, 11). By this they were merely offering to become Israel’s vassals. In return they expected Israel, the stronger of the two, to protect them from their enemies (see 10:6). This backfires on them and they had to become Israel’s slaves. They would become woodcutters and water-bearers for the Israelites, especially in relation to the tabernacle service. In God’s grace, this turned out to be a great blessing.
… to keep the Gibeonites’ idolatry from defiling the true faith of Israel, their work would be carried out in the tabernacle, where they would be exposed to the worship of the one true God.
As a result, the very thing the Gibeonites hoped to retain—their freedom—was lost. But the curse eventually became a blessing. It was on behalf of the Gibeonites that God later worked a great miracle (see Josh. 10:10-14). Later, the tabernacle of the Lord would be pitched at Gibeon (see 2 Chron. 1:30, and the Gibeonites (later known as Nethinims) would replace the Levites in temple service (see Ezra 2:43 and 8:20).
That is the amazing way the grace of God works. He is still able to turn a curse into a blessing. While it is true that the natural consequences of our sin generally have to run their course, God in His grace not only forgives but in many cases He actually overrules our mistakes and brings blessing out of sin.59
In verse 27 we read, “… and that day made them woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the LORD at the divinely chosen site. (They continue in this capacity to this very day.)” How tremendous and gracious of God. They had the privilege of being brought close to the Lord and spiritual things on a regular basis. It is interesting that in later years, when the Israelites would go into idolatry, the Gibeonites would still be standing at the altar where the true God ordained that sacrifices should be made for sins. As a result of what they had seen God do for Israel, they became convinced, like Rahab, that Israel’s God was the true God. Like Rahab, they evidently became loyal believers.
For many years after this incident, there was war between the citizens of the land and the invading Israelites. Yet never once in the record of that long conquest do we hear of any Gibeonite defecting to his original side.60