At the end of Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto there is quote from Will Durant, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Durant is referring to the fall of the Roman Empire, but throughout Scripture we see this truth applied to God’s people. God’s people fall, not because of the power of their enemies, not because of their lack of resources, not because they are not cool enough or relevant enough. They fall because of sin.
Ai and Ebeneezer
We see this principle worked out in two episodes from the Old Testament, the fall of Ai under Joshua and the taking of the ark of covenant under Eli. Joshua and Israel have just finished marching around Jericho and watching it fall. They basically won without firing a shot. Now they have come to a smaller city, Ai, which should be easily taken (Joshua 7:3). But it did not work out that way. Israel was beaten back and thirty-six men died. Joshua’s response is striking:
Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, O Lord GOD, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name? (Joshua 7:6-9)
The Lord does not take kindly to Joshua’s prayer:
The LORD said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. (Joshua 7:10-12)
Joshua should know the reason for the defeat. Israel has sinned. Joshua is right to turn to God, but he is wrong to assume that God has randomly thrown Israel to the wolves. God deals with Achan (Joshua 7:25-26) and in chapter 8 Israel defeats Ai.
Later in Israel’s history there is a similar situation. Israel’s priesthood has become corrupt. Eli’s sons are taking food from the offerings (I Samuel 2:12-17) and they are having sex with women at the door of the tabernacle (I Samuel 2:22). Though Eli tries to correct his sons, it is too late (I Samuel 2:24-25). And most importantly he refuses to cut them off from Israel. He honors his sons more than he honors God (I Samuel 2:29). Therefore God promises to cut off his house (I Samuel 2:31). Some time later Israel goes out to fight against the Philistines (I Samuel 4:2). Not surprisingly, she loses. This time four thousand of Israel’s men die. But the response by Israel is quite different from Joshua’s. Though Joshua misunderstood the root problem, he at least knew he needed to go to God. Israel does not even step back and evaluate. They decided the reason they lost was because the ark of the covenant was not on the battlefield (I Samuel 4:3-4). It was not sin or unrighteousness, it was the failure to have the magic ark with them. So they go get the ark, have a pep rally, rush the battlefield and get slaughtered. Hophni and Phineas are killed. Thirty thousand Israelite soldiers are killed. The ark is taken. Eli when he hears the news falls over and breaks his neck. Phineas’ wife goes into labor, has a child, names him Ichabod (Hebrew for There is No Glory) and then dies. I Samuel 4 is one of the more tragic episodes in Israel’s history. What was the problem? Why did Israel lose to the Philistines? Sin.
We know this because later Samuel calls Israel to repent of her sins. When she does repent (I Samuel 7;6), God gives them victory over the Philistines (7:10-11). When God’s people are overrun by her enemies the problem is always sin. When we let sin linger in our homes, churches, denominations, and seminaries the battle is already lost.
What Then Shall We Do?
When God brings defeat of any kind we need to seek Christ’s face and repent of our sins. Our Puritan fathers were great at this. They assumed every event that was bad, especially defeat by enemies was a sign of God’s displeasure. At times they over did it, but we under do it. We assume that when a denomination fails, pagans begin to run roughshod over us, same sex marriage becomes the law of the land, fornication is rampant among our young people, or another leader is found sleeping with someone other than his wife it is just chance not the hand of God. We view defeats through a naturalistic lens. Bad things just happen. But they don’t. All things come from God’s hand. When our enemies are winning it is because are churches, homes, and denominations tolerate sin.
The answer to this is twofold: We repent and confess our sins. And we practice church discipline. Achan was cut off. Eli refused to cut off his sons so God did it for him. When a church or denomination refuses to discipline sin she is destroying herself from within. In due time the conquerors will come and mop up the remnants.
An pastor friend was building a house. On the lot there was a huge oak tree. The tree was beautiful to behold. He brought in a tree doctor to look at what trees he should keep and which ones he should cut down as he prepared to build his home. The tree doctor told him that beautiful oak had to go. “Why?” my friend asked. “It is so magnificent and will provide shade in the summer.” The doctor told him to trust him and wait. The men came and cut down the tree. The inside was rotten. In time a strong wind would have come and blown the tree down. So it is with all men, churches, and denominations who allow egregious sins to go unchecked. It is only a matter of time.