At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath--"Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho--At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates." Joshua 6:26

"It was during Ahab's reign that HIEL, a man from Bethel, rebuilt Jericho. When he laid the foundations, his oldest son, ABIRAM, died. And when he finally completed it by setting up the gates, his youngest son, SEGUB, died. This all happened according to the message from the Lord concerning Jericho spoken by Joshua son of Nun." 1 Kings 16:34

In the midst of the reign of an idolatrous king of Israel, we come to an epitaph on the gravestone of two children, within the city of Jericho.

It is probable that the whole family of Hiel lie entombed in that rocky cave. Two blossoms, at all events, have been nipped in the bud--two "little suns" have set on the mountains of Judah--going down "before it is yet day."

As we stand on the heights of Jericho, beside this newly-hewn sepulcher, with the Jordan flowing through the green plains below--let us inquire WHY it is that these two youthful pilgrims have been called so soon to tread the waves of the typical Jordan--why these two little lives have been so prematurely taken.

There is always a solemn and saddening interest surrounding the death-beds and the graves of the young. There are often, though we understand them not, wise and loving reasons for these early removals. It is God's own inscription, though it often cannot be read through our blinding tears--"Taken from the evil to come." Parents often erroneously infer that the Lord has been inflicting merited retribution on themselves, for their own sins, by snatching away "the desire of their eyes with a stroke;" while in reality it was some gracious purpose regarding the little ones themselves, sparing them unforeseen experiences of sorrow and sin, and gifting them with an early crown.

In this passage of sacred story, however, we have a special exception. Jehovah here vindicates His own word and righteousness, in writing the household of this Bethelite childless. It is a story of significant warning and instruction. Though dead, these silent tongues still solemnly speak.

Jericho, the old city of palms, had been lying in ruins for five hundred years, ever since the Israelitish conquest. God had pronounced by the lips of Joshua a solemn curse on the man who would dare to rebuild it--"Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho--At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates." Joshua 6:26. That curse had been handed down from generation to generation. Many, doubtless, as they passed near the site of the old city, and saw the magnificence of its situation as "the key of Palestine," with its two valleys behind, each pouring into it a fertilizing stream--the magnificent forest of palm-trees for miles on every side--the Jordan flowing, with rapid torrent, amid rare luxuriance, on its way to the Dead Sea--many who witnessed all these manifold natural advantages, would long to see the walls of the city again restored, and its ramparts rebuilt, as when Israel first beheld them from the opposite valleys of Moab.

But any such longing was immediately repressed, when they recalled the stringent prohibition which threatened bereavement and death to the man that should dare to violate a Divine decree. It must have been an impressive sight to see the old ruins, "beautiful for situation," scattered as they had been for ages, untouched by the hand of man; the shepherd alone, perhaps, following his flock amid the lush herbage--or the wandering Arab, then, as now, pitching his tent amid the moss-grown stones. But no builder dared set his foot among them, lest haply he might be found "fighting against God."

At last a bold, defiant spirit rises up, to make the daring venture. A dweller in Jacob's old city--which had now, alas! by the worship of Ahab's golden calves, sadly belied its name as "the House of God"--Hiel the Bethelite rises up, in impious pride, to brave the prohibition, and risk the dreadful consequences. But who has hardened himself against God and prospered? He enters the proscribed ground, and already, just as he has begun to dig the foundation for a new capital--a messenger speeds from his dwelling with heavy tidings. In digging these forbidden foundations, he has dug the grave of his first-born son! On the first stone of the old ruins being removed, an arrow sped from the quiver of God with unerring aim, and laid low the pride of his heart!

Will he take warning? Another child still is left--his youngest--probably his only other--his Benjamin--his best beloved. Amid the bitterness of the first bereavement, he fastens the severed tendrils of affection around his surviving boy, saying, "This child shall comfort us."

Surely now at least Heil will profit by the dreadful voice of warning! The Hebrew workmen will be disbanded from their cursed enterprise, and desolation will once more be installed amid the lonely ruins. But, No! it his been well said by the preacher, "The heart of the sons of men is full of evil; and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead." The arrow is again on the string. He refuses to humble himself by repentance--own the Divine hand, and desist from his impious enterprise. With "hardened and impenitent heart" he spurns the dreadful counsel, and will listen to none of the reproof!

He has cleared the foundations. Stone by stone, edifice by edifice is rising--an imposing city again crowns the Jordan-heights, and looks forth amid its forests of majestic palms. Hiel, inflated with pride, forgets the early warning. If staggered at first by the occurrence of the death of his firstborn, simultaneously with the digging of the city's foundations, he speaks of it, as we often find many still doing in similar circumstances, only as "a strange and unhappy coincidence." His inmost thought is, "Let me bury my vain grief for the loss of my first-born. I have yet a son called by my name. He will be the pride of my family. He will transmit my name to posterity as the founder of the second Jericho."

The battlements are raised. The walls are completed. Perhaps thousands are congregated to witness the last act in the bold enterprise--raising the ponderous gates of iron on their hinges. Something like the ovation of a conqueror awaits the hero of the day. Hiel's bosom is swelling at the moment with the one dominant thought--"This is the great city I have built." But another messenger, at that moment--like him who sped to the patriarch of a former age--comes with the heaviest tidings a parent's heart can hear. The voice of triumph is that day turned to mourning. "Joseph is not, and Simeon is not," and his own obdurate disregard of the Divine command compels the taking of "Benjamin also." The first procession we see treading the new streets is a funeral crowd! Hiel is the chief mourner. He is bearing his last--his only one--to the rocky vault where his first-born lies. He has rushed with madness against Jehovah's shield, and terrible has been the price of his audacity and sin; for "When he laid the foundations, his oldest son, ABIRAM, died. And when he finally completed it by setting up the gates, his youngest son, SEGUB, died."

As that mournful procession is pacing the streets, let us join it in thought, and gather solemn lessons and warning for ourselves.

What could have induced Hiel to brave so solemn a prohibition, and risk incurring so dreadful a penalty?--A Bethelite--a "Hebrew of the Hebrews"--he must, like all his brethren, have been abundantly cognizant of the curse recorded by Israel's leader. It was the nursery tale of every Hebrew mother to her child. How did he come to be so mad and foolhardy as to dare the Almighty's displeasure, and serve himself heir to the curse? To get his name immortalized as the founder of a city, was a poor equivalent for the irreparable loss. And, independent of natural affection, to a Jew, (as the possible ancestor of Messiah,) the heaviest infliction was the deprival of his offspring.

Let us try to conjecture one or two reasons for Hiel's contemptuous disregard of the Divine command.

To take the extreme view of his character, Hiel (Israelite by name as he was) may have been in heart, like many professing religionists still, a practical Infidel and Atheist. We know that, under Ahab's reign of unparalleled wickedness and irreligion, many were contaminated with the impiety of the reigning monarch. God, the God of their fathers, was by multitudes virtually disowned. Hiel may have denounced the whole story of the threatened curse as a fable--a bugbear and delusion--some old legend of a lying prophet--the falsehood palmed on an unsophisticated age and people; and when, passing oftentimes along the valley of the Jordan, he saw that marvelous site abandoned to ruin and decay, solely, as he surmised, on account of a foolish superstition, he at length resolved to expose and unmask the lie. He put forth his hand, like Achan, to touch the accursed thing; saying in his heart, in the words of the wicked boasters of old, with a proud, self-confident, infidel sneer, "The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard," (Ps. 94:7). But woe to the worm of the dust that contends with his Maker! As wave after wave sweeps over his household, the solemn truth is brought home to him, the confession is forced from him amid the wail of death--"Who has hardened himself against the Lord, and prospered?" (Job 9:4.) "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," (Heb. 10:31).

How many are there, it is to be feared, with Hiel's spirit still among ourselves! God has put a solemn curse on the man who will dare to upbuild the city of iniquity. He has put a curse, also, on the neglecter of salvation. He has solemnly declared, "Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished," (Prov. 11:21). But there are those (bearing, it may be, like Hiel, the name of Israelite), outward professors--who carry inwardly Hiel's atheist heart. They spurn God's curse; they treat His solemn warnings about death, judgment, eternity, as idle tales. Yes, and there is so much, to them, startling, and apparently inconsistent, in the providential, government of God, that, in their secret thoughts, they deny alike a moral government and a moral Governor. Regardless of consequences, "they will take their chance;" they will outbrave these denunciations--they will build where God has forbidden to build. They say, with the people to whom Ezekiel prophesied, "The Lord has forsaken the earth;" (Ezek. 8:12)--what do we care for lying prophets--enthusiastic dreamers!--neither nature nor experience endorses these pulpit utterances and Bible threats. "We will walk in the light of our own eyes. Who is the Lord, that He should reign over us?"

"Woe unto those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!" "Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him; for the reward of his hands shall be given him," (Isa. 3:11). God may not, as in the case of Hiel, undeceive you, in THIS world, in your atheist-dream. He seldom now, as in the old dispensation, makes visible and temporal retribution to descend on the scorners of His word and warnings; sentence against an evil work is not now, as it then was, "executed speedily," and therefore the hearts of the sons of men are all the more "fully set in them to do evil." But there is a day coming, when, as the gates of death close upon you, (as Hiel's gates closed on Jericho,) the Divine denunciations shall be awfully verified; and the conviction be solemnly flashed upon you, (shall it be for the first time?) before the great white throne, "Truly there is a God who judges in the earth!"

But let us pass to a more modified view of Hiel's self-delusion. In rebuilding Jericho, he may have had an honest belief in the being and power of the God of his fathers, as well as in the truthfulness and reality of Joshua's warning. But he may have been influenced by the thought that the stringency of the old prohibition may now have been relaxed; that what was imperative enough in Joshua's time, was not so binding after the lapse of five centuries. Time does much in softening the rigor of MAN. He may have measured the Divine feelings and procedure by a comparison with the human; he may have concluded that God had now modified the severity of the olden curse. "There surely" (he would argue) "could be no great sin, or risk, or danger now, in rescuing such a noble site from ruin, and erecting a strong frontier-city to guard incursions from the border-tribes of Moab. The curse, binding and literal at the time, had now, surely, become obsolete." He may have even made out a case of necessity; that he was only doing a patriot's deed, for which he would be lauded in all coming time as one of the heroes of the nation!

MAN may change, but GOD never can. "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years." When God pronounces a curse, it is not as a human being, who is influenced by momentary emotion, passion, prejudice. The WRATH OF GOD is not a passion, but a principle. It is the calm, deep, deliberate response of His nature to sin. His word is unalterable--His judgments are subject to no waywardness or caprice.

How many there are, in these days of ours, who apply Hiel's false reasoning to the Word of God and its solemn averments. Disciples, as they call themselves, of a dreamy dogma--or theory of "development," who dare to speak and write of the Bible as an antiquated book, containing only the utterances of some Jewish shepherds, and vine-growers, and fishermen; and whose day, and meaning, and obligations are past. As "progress," say they, is the world's normal law, so there is advance here, as in everything else. This Bible, with its old-world threatenings, was all very well for that old-world state of things, when it was a child, and spoke as a child, and understood as a child. But now the world has reached its manhood, and "put away childish things." The Bible curses are contained in the code of "the law which genders to bondage." We live under the Gospel, and the truth has made us free. The God that spoke in curses amid the blackness, darkness, and tempest of Sinai, is not the God who now speaks to us from heaven.

He is! The same "God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spoke in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken unto us by his Son," (Heb. 1:1). And hear how that Son speaks--they are his own living utterances--"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Mat. 5:17, 18). His word is very faithful. His word and His throne have immutability to rest upon. "I am the Lord; I change not," (Mal. 3:6). "These things," he says to every such presumptuous dreamer, "these things have you done, and I kept silence; you thought" that I was changed--that I had altered the thing that had gone forth out of my mouth--"that I was altogether such a one as yourself." But I will demonstrate my righteous adhesion to every threat against "the workers of iniquity." "I will reprove you, and set them in order before your eyes." (Ps. 50:21).

Let us beware of measuring God by our puny selves. Oblivion does its work with us. Time, like the waves of the sea on the rippled sand, obliterates much of the memories of sin; and because it does so, we are apt impiously to dream that such is the case with God also. But He is "the same yesterday, and today, and forever." The past, and present, and future are to Him alike. There was to Him, no measurable period of time between Joshua's utterance of the curse against a builder of the doomed city, and Hiel's futile attempt to fight against it. Be assured, all that God has said in His Word in ages past remains uncancelled, unaltered, and unalterable, to this hour. We may well write, "Thus says the Lord," on every curse, as well as every blessing. With the memorable example and signal retribution of Hiel before us, let us make it our earnest prayer, "Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins."

We have just surmised, that one false idea which Hiel may have fostered, and trusted in, was, that the lapse of ages had modified the stringency of the old prohibition. He may also have been influenced in his undertaking by an expectation that God would not rigidly stand to His word--that He would not adhere so sternly to His threat, as many supposed and dreaded He would.

Perhaps he might be strengthened in this supposition by what he had observed in his own native city of Bethel. He had there seen that same God of Israel foully dishonored--His name blasphemed--His word and authority scorned--golden calves and Baal-shrines polluting the sacred places--and yet, notwithstanding, He had interposed with no visible judgment. He seemed to "wink" at these heinous sins. He had visited the idolaters with no retribution. Hiel, from all this, may have drawn the unwarrantable conclusion that Jehovah was not rigid in the enforcement of His threats--that He did not mean all He said--that, having apparently overlooked the Bethel calf-worshipers, He would not be over severe on the less heinous sin of braving His curse in the building of Jericho.

He makes the dreadful venture. But first, over the grave of his elder, and then of his younger son, he is brought to read the inscription--"God is not a man that he should lie, or the son of man that he should repent." As he returns, through the streets of the new-built city, to his rifled home, and as he marks the two vacant seats in his desolate house, he could say--(may we hope it was through penitent tears of shame and sorrow and devout humiliation)--"God has spoken once, yes, TWICE have I heard this, that power belongs unto God!"

Ah! is not Hiel's reasoning here, also, the ruinous, soul-deluding reasoning of multitudes still? There is no more common or fallacious argument than this--"God will not be so strict as He says He will be. His nature and His name are love. He never could, and never will, curse the creature of His own making. These denunciations will be modified and softened at the Great Day. His justice will merge into compassion. Stern Retribution will descend these iron steps, and Mercy will ascend triumphant to her golden throne."

"No, but, O man, who are you that replies against God?" Go back to these twin graves at Jericho, and read in them the great principle of God's moral government--that when He says, "Cursed be the man," He means "cursed," and when He says, "Blessed," He means "blessed."

You remember, when Saul ventured on a similar unworthy tampering with the Word of God, in the commanded extirpation of Amalek, and reserved (contrary to an express injunction) King Agag and the goodliest portion of his flocks and herds. He doubtless imagined that there was no great evil in the reservation itself--that, at all events, God would overlook it--that He would visit so trivial a departure from the letter of His Word with no great severity. What was the result? Saul lost his kingdom. The prophet of Jehovah stood before the monarch, confronting him with the question, "What means this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king," (1 Sam. 15:23). The Lord is not slack concerning His promises, (and that is a blessed truth to us!) But let us always view it side by side with its counterpart--"The Lord is not slack concerning his threatenings."

When we see vice apparently unrebuked, walking with unblushing front, pillowed often in affluence--the wicked apparently with no bands either in their life or death--we are apt to draw the false inference that God is, like Baal, "asleep"--that He has flung the reins of His moral government loose to chance--that He takes "no account of these matters." But though it is true that His dealings now-a-days are so far altered from those of the earlier dispensation, that transgression is not followed by temporal retribution--yet judgment is in dreadful reserve. The sinner treasures up to himself "wrath against the day of wrath." God is saying now, in words He uttered of old to Isaiah, "I will take my rest; I will CONSIDER in my dwelling place," (Isa. 18:4). This is the time for His "considering." The weapon of vengeance is still sheathed. He has no pleasure in the death of him that dies. He waits to be gracious.

But let us not misconstrue His forbearance as if it denoted any alteration in His purposes. If not now, at least hereafter, on the Great Day, the dreadful truth shall be made manifest--"Be sure your sin will find you out." "Walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment." (Eccles. 11:9).

The great practical lesson from all this subject is, BEWARE OF RESISTING GOD.

He ever speaks to all of us solemnly in His providences. Let us beware of attempts to stifle His voice and precipitate our own ruin. Hiel's offence was deeply aggravated. When the impious builder, in digging the city's foundation, carried to the grave his elder-born--he might well have bowed his head in the dust--owned God's sovereignty, and "turned at His reproof." But he despised all His counsel. The solemn warning failed to impede him in his unrighteous resolution. The buildings rose; but he was only thereby exposing his bosom to another dart of death.

How many there are among ourselves like Hiel! Reader! God has spoken to you once by some solemn warning--by sickness--by worldly loss--by opening perhaps the grave of your child. Have you listened to His voice?--Have you bowed to the rod?--Have you profited by the warning?--Or is it the case that the monition has passed and gone?--that the Jericho of pleasure or sin is, rearing just as before--provoking Him to new, and, it may be, severer judgments?

"Harden not your hearts." "Exhort one another," says the apostle, "while it is called today, lest any of you be HARDENED through the deceitfulness of sin." Beware, like Moab, of "settling on your lees," of getting into that dreadful state of callousness and indifference, alike under warning and mercy--"fattening your hearts for a day of slaughter," (Prov. 29:1). In the case of Hiel, it was a presumptuous hardening after God had solemnly pled with him through tears of parental anguish. Remember that solemn word--"He that being often reproved hardens his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy," (Prov. 29:1). Are any who read these words sinning in the face of solemn monitions, when God is giving them "line upon line, precept upon precept"--speaking to them by "earthquake," or "whirlwind," or "fire," or "the still small voice?" Be assured He will yet make inquisition for these rejected warnings--this unrequited love! Go in thought to Jericho. Stop and read the epitaph on that tombstone--"Consider THIS, you that forget God!"

One other sentence in conclusion. Let none suppose, from all that has been suggested by this subject, that we entertain a repulsive theology--a theology that would represent God--the loving Father of His people--as a vindictive Being, armed with curses, stronger to smite, than "strong to save." He visits indeed "iniquity unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate him;" but He shows "mercy unto thousands of those who love him." While "He can by no means clear the guilty," yet "He delights in mercy." His blessings are more abundant than His curses. His gospel message begins with the proclamation of "peace on earth and good-will to men;" and it ends with the invitation, "Whoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely," (Rev. 22:17). The infatuated builders of every city of sin--what can they expect but ruin and disaster?

But "we HAVE a strong city--salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks;" and He who, by His own blood, purchased a right to bestow upon us that city, says, as He stands by its gates, "Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28). Yes, say not that we teach a gloomy theology with such a God as this--who, in order that He might be a Father to us, "spared not HIS own Son." Hiel, from pride and vainglory, sacrificed His son in laying the foundation of an earthly city. But we can tell of a great Being who, in laying the foundations of a more magnificent city than earth ever saw, surrendered "His only-begotten," His "well-beloved." He laid its foundations--He set up its immortal gates in the death of His First-born; and all in order that guilty, worthless sinners might be saved!--that in the exercise of His paternal love, He might embrace a lost world in the arms of His mercy, and exclaim, "This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!"

That city expands its sheltering portals to all. None are forbidden to enter. We are encouraged to "open the gates, that the righteous (those made righteous through the righteousness of another) may enter in." A city in which--unlike that of which we have been speaking--the wail of the mourner is never heard, and where death never enters!

Oh, look away from all human shelters to that "city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God." Be assured, all who are content with building for earth the Jerichos of the present, shall find there the grave of their hopes. But "they of THIS city shall flourish like grass on the earth." "The world passes away, and the lust thereof, but he that does the will of God abides forever!"

Home       QUOTES       SERMONS       BOOKS