Images of the Savior (5 – Achan’s Curse)
We may learn something very important from the account of Achan, and the trouble he brought upon Israel; and that is, that even when God has entered into covenant with his people, he still cannot tolerate that which is accursed, and will not permit it to enter his presence, but will pour out his fierce anger upon it, until it is utterly consumed. The people of Israel, under Joshua, that great type of the Savior, had just won a mighty victory over Jericho, and were confident that the Lord would fulfill to them his promise, and give them all the land that he had covenanted to give them. And so, when they came upon the next city, a little place named Ai, they sent only a few men against it, and were very certain of its soon downfall; but those men were dealt a resounding defeat, and they were all perplexed, and cried out to the Lord.
The problem, as Yahweh revealed to Joshua, was this: Achan had taken some plunder from the accursed city of Jericho, and had hidden it in his tent; and before the Lord would give his people victory, it was necessary that he be stoned, and he and his family and all his goods be utterly burned with fire; for that which is accursed of God must receive his smoking wrath, and it is only when his anger has been poured out upon the accursed thing that he will turn and give victory to his people. Achan was accordingly destroyed, and then, the men of Ai, although having been led to believe that they were winning another victory, were suddenly destroyed beyond remedy in an ambush, and their city was burned with fire.
This is the story, as you are already aware; the lesson that it teaches us is that this covenant which Joshua had renewed to the people could not finally be successful until all which was accursed had been utterly destroyed from the midst of the people by the fire of God’s wrath, and only then would they win a complete victory over all their enemies. Now, as we have noted before, the redemptive history of God’s people, while it was ever moving forward to the climactic redemptive accomplishment of Calvary, was also prefiguring and typifying that event in many shadowy ways – and if we look at this episode with that principle in mind, there is much that we may learn.
First, we may see that Joshua is still a type of the Savior, for he intercedes for the people with tears and groanings (Josh. 7:6-9; Heb. 5:7), then he searches out the cause of the trouble, and destroys it with fire; and then, he leads the people on to victory. In the same way, Jesus poured out his soul in prayer for his people just before he took the cause of their curse and trouble, that is, their sin and rebellion, and destroyed it in the fire of God’s wrath (John 17). And then, having successfully put away sin, he led the people in triumph, and will continue to lead them in their spiritual conquest of the world, until he has put all their enemies to shame before them, and burned their city with everlasting fire (cf. Rev. 18-19).
Second, we may see just how this salvation would come about, too, by observing how the accursed thing was put away from Israel in this case. First of all, it was not just the things that were destroyed, but the person in whose possession those accursed things were found. So we see that the wages of sin is human death, and that God in his justice cannot just burn away sin and rebellion as things in themselves, but must destroy those guilty persons who have become accursed by possessing sin and rebellion, hidden away in the tents of their hearts. Thus is the liberal notion utterly undone, that the biblical imagery of hellfire pertains only to the burning away of sin for the ultimate preservation of every person, and the heap of Achan pleads eloquently against that great error even “until this day”! This is why Jesus had to become human, and die for us – for if he would put away the curse of our sin, he had to become sin (2 Cor. 5:21), become a curse (Gal. 3:13), and suffer the personal, human penalty which that curse cried out to God’s holy justice to mete out.
Next, we see that the judgment against this accursed sinner was a spectacle of shame before the whole people. Achan was not executed in a private corner, but put to a shameful death before the watching eyes of all the crowd. So too was Jesus lifted up in shame before all the scornful eyes of the whole world. The curse which we own brings shame; and Jesus bore the shame, as well as the guilt, in our place, that we might be healed.
Then, we see that the family and possessions of Achan were likewise destroyed; and we are reminded thereby of the curse that we have inherited from our father Adam; but also, of how we who have become the brothers and sisters of the second Adam have died with him, have been put to death and shame, as it were, and have thereby been freed from the curse we had borne, which has no more just claim against us that has not already been fully answered; because when Jesus died before all the people, we his family died there too (cf. Gal. 2:20).
But most importantly, we learn from the fire which consumed Achan, that this was not ultimately just a death carried out by the people and a spectacle of shame to them; but rather, when they were executing their judgment, God’s wrath was then burning hotly against this accursed man; and when the flames had utterly consumed him, only then was it said that the burning anger of the Lord was quenched. So, too, we must realize that when Jesus died, it was not ultimately the Jews or the Romans or we (whose sins demanded his death) who killed him; but rather, God’s holy wrath was burning hotly against him, until it had been utterly exhausted. The great mystery of the Atonement is this, that God was pleased to pour out all his just wrath upon his own Son, so that we who deserved that wrath might find it utterly quenched, and only meet with tender mercy and favor from him forevermore!
So then, we have seen by the example of how an accursed sinner must die just what Jesus would do to take the curse from us, and die in our place; but the third point we will observe is how particularly it was typified to the people just how he would do so, by being lifted up on the cross as a curse, although he was their King. For the point of the next chapter of the text, when the city of Ai is destroyed with fire, is that, because the curse had been removed from the people of God by the fiery death of the one who bore the curse, it had then come to rest entirely upon the enemies of the people, so that Israel would henceforth remain unharmed, but all her enemies would be destroyed by fire. Now, the people were represented most especially by their king; and this king of Ai was shown to be accursed when Joshua hanged him up on a tree (Josh. 8:29). How amazing a type is this of the death of our Savior! For it shows us that when he was lifted up on a tree, then he was made a curse, and plunged into the fiery wrath of God, and that as the representative of all his people. The sinful king of Ai who thus became a curse never lived again, for the fire of God’s wrath, being infinite, consumed him for all eternity. But he who, being sinless, bore our sins as a curse was raised again to eternal life, for he, being infinite in his divine being, could not be eternally destroyed even by the infinite wrath of God.
Fourth, we see that, after the curse had been done away from Israel, their enemies thought that they would still destroy them; but just when it seemed like they had the victory, then they were suddenly undone, and their whole city was destroyed forevermore by fire. So too, when our enemies thought they would destroy us by putting our Champion to death, they suddenly realized that they had been put to eternal shame and defeat by the blood of his cross. And in the same way, the enemies of God’s people still think today, very often, that they will destroy all who follow Christ, as in the many places in the world where Christians are still fiercely persecuted and driven underground – but suddenly, pangs will seize them as of a woman in labor (1 Thes. 5:2-3), their whole world will dissolve in fire and fury (2 Thes. 1:6-10; 2 Pet. 3:7, 12), and the smoke of their torment will arise forevermore (Rev. 19:1-3).
Finally, we must take note of the extraordinary fact that, after this event, Joshua once again renews the covenant with the people, making a new altar and reading to them the Word of God (Josh. 8:30-35). This teaches us that, while sin and the curse were not yet destroyed once and for all, by the offering up of the body of Christ, which this account prefigured, the Covenant could never be finally firm; that is, not until the death of the Testator had made it firm (Heb. 9:15-17). But when this death came about, and the perfect satisfaction of the curse that it entailed, then a new covenant was confirmed to the people, founded upon the new altar, not hewn with human hands, where the great Sacrifice was burnt with the fire of God’s wrath, and was raised again to put his Law into the hearts of all his people – even as Joshua reared a new altar and read the Law to the hearts of the whole people on the day after he had hanged Ai’s king on a tree.
Oh, that you would flee to this great Savior and Sacrifice, who was hanged on a tree as a curse, who was made a spectacle before all the people, and went to a bloody death for them, and suffered all the fire of God’s wrath – who was numbered among the sinners, and experienced all that an accursed sinner ought to experience, for no wrong of his own, but only that he might deliver his people from all their sins, and lead them in triumph over all their enemies! Oh, what a Savior is he!