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 ESV
The nation of Israel had survived 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on their way to the land that God had promised them. Once they set foot in Canaan, the land of promise, they had experienced an extraordinary victory over the city of Jericho. God had delivered this walled city into their hands in a miraculous fashion that clearly revealed it was a divinely ordained victory. Under God’s direction, Joshua had led the people around the walls of Jericho in a grand processional for six straight days. On the seventh day they marched around the circumference of the city seven times. At the end of their last lap, seven priests blew seven trumpets, the people shouted, and the walls fell. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill military engagement. But that’s because it was God’s doing. Nobody could claim credit for the victory but Him.
But the joy of the victory was to be short-lived. Because the next city to be attacked was Ai, a much smaller town that should have been a breeze compared to Jericho. The problem was that “the people of Israel broke faith in regards to the devoted things” (Joshua 7:1 ESV). Just prior to their final “victory lap” around Jericho, Joshua had warned the people “the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction” (Joshua 6:17 ESV). But a single individual would choose to ignore Joshua’s warning and take some of the forbidden plunder for himself. Achan ended up stashing a costly cloak, 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels in his tent. As a result of his sin, the Israelites would suffer an unexpected and humiliating defeat at the hands of the people of Ai. Routed and demoralized, “the hearts of the people melted and became as water” (Joshua 7:5 ESV). And it is within that bleak context that Joshua, the God-appointed heir to Moses’ mantle as leader, brought his case before God. His was a very blunt and bleak prayer. It reflects Joshua’s confusion over what had just happened. He began his prayer by asking, “Why?!”
“Why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all?” He was looking for an explanation. He wanted answers. What he had just witnessed made no sense to him. They had gone from overwhelming victory to inexplicable defeat. At this point, Joshua had not idea why this tragedy had happened. He didn’t get it. He didn’t like it. And as far as he was concerned, God had some explaining to do. Had it been God’s plan to release them from captivity in Egypt and drag them across the wilderness for 40 years, only to allow them to suffer defeat at the hands of the Amorites? Joshua even sarcastically commented that it would have been better had they just been content to stay in Egypt. In essence, Joshua questioned God’s integrity and intentions. When he couldn’t explain his less-than-acceptable circumstances, he was quick to blame God. Not only that, he jumped to the worse-case-scenario, automatically assuming that all was lost. Once every other nation caught wind of their defeat, the days of Israel’s existence as a nation would be numbered. It would be just a matter of time before they were just a memory.
This passage is seldom used as a model for prayer. Joshua’s brutally honest verbal fusillade is rarely held up as a healthy example of proper prayer etiquette. And yet, God answered Joshua. He didn’t reprimand him. He didn’t respond with a haughty, “Who do you think you’re talking to, young man?!” Seeing Joshua lying face first in the dirt with his clothes torn as a sign of mourning, God simply said, “Get up!” Then He asked for an explanation for Joshua’s actions. “Why have you fallen on your face?” (Joshua 7:10 ESV). But before Joshua could respond, God gave His own answer. He provided an explanation for what had just happened. “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 7:11-12 ESV). God was more than willing to accept responsibility for Israel’s defeat, but He would NOT accept blame for their sin. Joshua could question God’s intentions and motives, but he should never have questioned His integrity. There was and always is a very good reason and explanation for what God does and for what He allows. He is never out of control, caught off guard, mistaken, or ever unjust in His interactions with men. Whether we like or understand the circumstances of our lives, God is sovereignly overseeing each moment. Joshua’s prayer was based on ignorance. He was pointing fingers at God, questioning His intentions and doubting His integrity. But little did he know that sin had entered the camp. Because they had failed to keep God’s command to devote all the plunder to destruction, God was forced to devote them to destruction. Their circumstances were self-inflicted, but God ordained. It was not wrong for Joshua to ask God, “Why?” But it was wrong for him to doubt God’s character. There was a perfectly good reason for their defeat, and it had nothing to do with God’s power or His failure to keep His promises. Our prayers should always begin with what we know about God. His character is unquestionable. His integrity is unshakeable. His intentions are always justifiable. It is perfectly okay to ask God why, but it is safe to say that any blame to be had will never be His. We must always be willing to say along with David, you are “justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4 ESV).