TROUBLE AND REST IN OUR LIVES
Readings: Joshua ch. 7; Isaiah ch. 11; 2 Thessalonians ch. 3
Our readings from the Scriptures today powerfully remind us of two of life's experiences which form an essential part of God's purpose with those He has called to His Kingdom and glory. The one operates now, on and off, here and there, and we do not welcome it. The other is largely in prospect and therefore difficult to appreciate now, but will be accepted unreservedly when it comes to be enjoyed in all its fulness. We refer, on the one hand, to "trouble," and on the other, to "rest."
Firstly, as to trouble, "Man that is born of a woman", observed Job, "is of few days, and full of trouble." How true that is! However pleasant things may be, however comfortable, however happy, sooner or later trouble comes knocking at the door and enters into our lives. But there are two kinds of trouble. There is the trouble that is generally unavoidable, such as illness, or declining physical and mental powers, or bereavement, or loneliness; housing or money or employment problems, the burden of ecclesial or family responsi¬bilities, to name but some of the problems that can and do beset us from time to time. And then there are the troubles which come upon us as the result of our own foolishness. There are the stresses which arise because of the weaknesses and failures of ourselves and others; the situations which come about as the result of the non-observance of those righteous laws to which we are subject, and which we disregard at our peril. These are the troubles which are, or may be, avoidable.
What should be our reaction to these various troubles that come to us in our lives? Well, it is here that we can gain much instruction, warning and encouragement from those who have gone before, in seeing what happened to them.
For the past few days we have been in the company of Joshua, so let us see what his experiences teach us about trouble and how to deal with it. Joshua was a man full of faith and valour, inspired to his duty by the Divine promise of success: "Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them. Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest." Joshua believed those words, and he acted upon them, wholeheartedly and implicitly. Yet trouble came, and that through no fault of his own.
His campaign to drive out the wicked inhabitants and to occupy the promised land started well enough. The Jordan was crossed, and we read yesterday how that by a dazzling display of Divine power Jericho had fallen and the people had gone in and destroyed it. But we notice that just before the very moment of their triumph there was a pronouncement that the city was to be regarded as accursed or devoted to the Lord (Joshua 6.17). Nothing it contained was to be appropriated to themselves. Except for any vessels made of metal, which were to be consecrated to the Lord, the destruction was to be total; and there came the warning in v. 18: "And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it."
In the event, the strategy had worked perfectly. Ostensibly, the Divine instructions had been carried out, and all had gone exactly according to plan. But—there was just one man who thought he could disregard with impunity the express command of the Lord not to take of the city's spoil. Achan was his name, and he allowed his avarice to over-ride his conscience in acquiring for himself that which was accursed of God. The sight of an expensive Babylonian garment, some silver money (worth perhaps £300 to £400 in today's terms) and an ingot of gold (in value say ten times that amount), there apparently just for the taking, proved too much of a temptation for him. Acting on an unsuppressed impulse, he furtively removed the illicit articles to his tent and buried them from view—with, it would seem, the knowledge and help of his children, who thereby became his accomplices. No doubt, as they lay down to rest that night, they stifled any unease they might have felt by contemplating the envisaged enjoyment of their illgotten gains when life returned to normal.
For a time it appeared that they had got away with their disobedience because nothing untoward happened as Joshua started to implement the next phase of his campaign, as recorded in today's chapter. Preparations were well in hand to attack the second city, Ai. By all events it should have been a walkover, so much so that the reconnoitering party advised sending in only two or three thousand men. So that is what they did. But, horrifying to relate, the operation was a total disaster. The unthinkable had happened—Israel was routed by the enemy and no less than 36 of them lost their lives!
Now it is an inescapable fact of life, which all responsible to Divine law ignore at their peril, that wilful disobedience to God's commands will in no wise go unpunished. A generation before, Moses expressed a truth which has become widely quoted as a proverb: "Be sure your sin will find you out." Achan must have thought that by hiding his sin from human eyes it would be hidden from God. Well, Adam and Eve made that mistake, with the far-reaching consequences that we have all inherited. Far better is the attitude of Job: "If I covered my transgressions as Adam by hiding mine iniquity in my bosom. . . this also were an iniquity to be punished by the judge: for I should have denied the God that is above."
This was exactly Achan's position, and it did not take long for the consequences of his guilt to catch up with him. "All things are open unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do," as Achan was now about to find out. On the same day that Israel suffered its reverse, Joshua was commanded to sanctify the people against the morrow, for, said God, "Israel hath sinned ... for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled (deceived) also." Still Achan made no move. Perhaps he thought he was not the only one involved, and that others had been equally culpable and that the collective responsibility would somehow lessen the impact of his own crime.
So the process of identifying the guilty party was set in motion, and it did not take long. Lots were cast, and the tribe of Judah was taken, and from them the family of the Zarhites. Presented man by man, the household of Zabdi was taken, then Carmi, and finally Achan. By now, of course, any inclination to "brazen it out" had evaporated as it became increasingly clear that there was no place to hide, no escape from the enormity of the trespass. Calmly, Joshua extracted Achan's confession, more in sorrow than in anger, v.19: "And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me. And Achan answered Joshua, and said, Indeed I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: when I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it."
The stolen goods were quickly retrieved and the evidence spread out before the assembly of Israel. The penalty had already been fixed; the guilty ones were to be burnt with fire; and so Joshua and all the people prepared to carry out the sentence. As the record here implies, and as a later reference in the book of Joshua shows, the man was not alone in his iniquity. No mention is made of his wife (perhaps she was no longer alive) but we are told that his sons and his daughters, together with all his possessions (including the looted items) were taken to a place among the ridges outside the city, where Joshua spoke a few final words. He reminded the assembly that the very name Achan means "trouble," which was also reflected in the name given to the place of his execution, "the valley of Achor"; v. 25: "And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones unto this day. So the Lord turned from the fierceness of his anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called, The valley of Achor, unto this day."
We must all agree that this record of Achan and his lamentable lapse makes very solemn reading indeed. But are there any lessons in it for us today? Well, there could be. As regards Achan himself, his sin was basically covetousness, as he himself admitted. That in turn led to theft; then to involvement of his own children and encouraging them in the evil deed. After that there was the cover-up and the deception. To all this must be added the fact that he did not even do the honourable thing and own up until the matter was laid bare by Joshua. We tend to hold up our hands in horror, but are we so strong that we would never fail in any of these things when similar temptations arise?—and they do arise from time to time, as secretly we must all admit to ourselves.
How powerful is the human propensity to "covet" what we have not got! God put His finger unerringly on the matter in the specific directions of the tenth commandment:"Thou shalt not covet" anything that is thy neighbour's—whether it be his house, his goods, his wife, or anything else he has which to us may appear desirable. Because it is a principle reiterated by Christ and the apostles it is also binding on us today. Equally true is the fact that because the principle is so widely disregarded in modern society, the world is beset with "trouble."
There is also another aspect to the matter. Jericho was declared "accursed" and its inhabitants and their possessions pronounced unclean in the sight of the Deity because of all the abominable practices they indulged in. The same considerations apply in our day and age to a thoroughly corrupt generation. "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing." We have no need of all those possessions the world regards as so desirable, because their destiny is destruction anyway, like the possessions of the people of Jericho. To set our heart on them, to covet them, will cause us nothing but trouble. Who among us is so strong that we are never even tempted, even if only momentarily, with a passion for a wardrobe full of fine clothes, pockets full of silver and a wedge of gold in the bank—just like Achan of old? If and when we are, let us remember what happened to him, and the trouble he brought to himself, his family and the ecclesia of God. It is not without significance, probably, that when Paul summoned the elders of the Ephesian ecclesia to give them the benefit of his advice before he saw them no more, he solemnly declared: "I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or appareP'—the very commodities which led to Achan's undoing.
Now we said at the commencement that there were two aspects of life presented by our readings. We have looked at "trouble;" let us now give consideration to "rest." That was something which not even Joshua could provide in the circumstances of his times. "For if Jesus (Joshua) had given them rest," says the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews, "then would he not afterward have spoken of another day. There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God." Rest is the very antithesis of trouble. "The wicked are like the troubled sea which cannot rest. . ."But to the righteous there comes that gracious invitation of the second Joshua: "Come unto me, all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." In the time of unparalleled trouble that is in store for the world we have been promised deliverance. "I trembled in myself," said the prophet Habakkuk, "that I might rest in the day of trouble," and we know he will. The very place where Achan was stoned and consumed in the fire will be wonderfully changed. "I will give her," God promises in Hosea, "the valley of Achor for a door of hope"; while Isaiah declares: "The valley of Achor shall be a place for the herds to lie down in, for my people that have sought me."
With these thoughts in mind we turn to the I lth chapter of Isaiah. As in the days of Achan, there is first of all to be judgment of the wicked. Joshua brought victory in his day after great and mighty battles. So with his illustrious antitype, Jesus Christ, the Anointed of God. Isaiah 11.1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, nor reprove after the hearing of his ears: but with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked." How these words remind us of what happened to Achan! But although there will be a time of trouble for the wicked, the righteous will have nothing to fear. Verses 6-9 give a delightful picture of the peace and tranquillity of that happy time: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." And then v. 10: "And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people: to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious." Here then at last is that rest which awaits the people of God, which Joshua, for all his faithful leadership, could not provide. It will be "glorious" indeed!
Now for a moment or two let us turn to the 2nd Epistle to the Thessalonians. The members of this ecclesia evidently had their troubles, too. Ch. 1.4 speaks of all their "persecutions and tribulations" which they endured. But the apostle encouraged them with the assurance that God would recompense tribulation to those who troubled them. Then he goes on to say, v.7, in words very reminiscent of those we read in Isaiah: "And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day." Here is exactly the same combination—"trouble" and "rest." "Trouble" now, because God has never promised that a life of probation would be without it, but "rest" in the day of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Nor was the apostle Paul exempt from the troubles which afflicted faithful servants of God like Joshua. Wicked men have always had to be withstood regardless of the unpleasant consequences. So with the lessons of Achan in mind we read in ch. 3.1: "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith. But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil. And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command you." If that situation means trouble, as it did in the days of Joshua, than so it must be: it is our duty to ensure that the Word of God has free course. So the apostle goes on to encourage all believers with the benediction of v. 16: "Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace always by all means. The Lord be with you all." The New Testament word for "peace" also incorporates the idea of "rest," and is in fact so translated in that passage in Acts: "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea . . ." The welcome prospect before us all is rest and peace in the Kingdom of God. May we all attain to it.
Now we turn our attention to the main object of our meeting together, to remember Christ in the way which he has appointed. "Come unto me ... I will give you rest." As we do so, it is in the knowledge that he also experienced trouble more deeply than any other man. Yet he too was encouraged by the promise of rest to be enjoyed in all its fulness in the day of his future glory—"his rest shall be glorious." First there was the trouble, the anguish, the pain, the death. It showed through at the death of Lazarus doubtless because it was a painful reminder to him of his own impending suffering—"he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled," we read. Shortly afterwards, the prospect pressed upon him even more heavily: "Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name." At the last supper the troubled mind was again revealed: ". . . he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me."
One of the Messianic Psalms (116) lays bare his thoughts at this time: "The sorrows of death compassed me about, and the pains of hell (the grave) gat hold upon me. I found trouble and sorrow." But that same Psalm goes on to voice the hope and the confidence in the rest which he sought: "I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with me. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling." Again, "trouble" and "rest" are two of the key words.
As we now partake of this bread and this wine, may the thoughts which these chapters engender help us to do so to our edification and not to our condemnation. May we take to ourselves those words of the Psalmist which again speak to us—on the one hand of trouble, but on the other of rest: "The salvation of the righteous" he declares "is of the Lord: he is their strength in time of trouble." "Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him . . . the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace":—L. L. F. Deadman