And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope.—Hos_2:15.
The Prophet Hosea is remarkable for the frequent use which he makes of events in the former history of his people. Their past seems to him a mirror in which they may read their future. He believes that that “which is to be hath already been,” the great principles of the Divine government living on through all the ages, and issuing in similar acts when the circumstances are similar. So he foretells that there will yet be once more a captivity and a bondage, that the old story of the wilderness will be repeated once more. In that wilderness God will speak to the heart of Israel. Its barrenness will be changed into the fruitfulness of vineyards, where the purpling clusters hang ripe for the thirsty travellers. And not only will the sorrows that He sends thus become sources of refreshment, but the gloomy gorge through which they journey—the valley of Achor—will be a door of hope.
One of the psalms gives us, in different form, a metaphor and a promise substantially the same as that of this text. “Blessed are they who, passing through the valley of Weeping, make it a well.” They gather their tears, as it were, into the cisterns by the wayside, and draw refreshment and strength from their very sorrows, and then, when in their wise husbandry they have thus irrigated the soil with the gathered results of their sorrows, the heavens bend over them, and weep their gracious tears, and “the rain also covereth it with blessings.”
The Valley of Promise
The valley of Achor was to the Israelites the key to the possession of Palestine. It was a valley lying to the north of Jericho, between it and the highlands beyond. It was the first land upon which the Israelites entered after they crossed the Jordan, and the walls of Jericho fell flat to the ground. Hard by the city of palm trees was the fertile valley of Achor. If ever the Israelites in captivity were to go back again, they must enter Palestine by the same door if they crossed the Jordan at all; the key of the position was the valley of Achor, the first region of which they would have to take possession if they wished to win the rest of the land.
Such was its physical formation that in a most literal sense the valley of Achor was a door of hope, for in front of the Israelites, as they wound through the pass, there lay at the far end of the vista the smiling vineyards and yellow cornfields and peaceful blue hills of the Promised Land. So does the Redeemer lead those to whose hearts He has spoken, assuring them of reconciliation and peace with Himself. Every winding in the avenue of life reveals a blessing that is richer than the blessings they at present enjoy. They are lured from grace unto grace, and from strength unto strength. Mercy joins hand with mercy. Each good thing received becomes the pledge and the foretaste of a better which God hath prepared for as many as love Him.
There was an old English custom by which a man took possession of an estate “by turf and twig.” A sod of the turf and a twig from a tree were given to him. This was a token that the whole estate, with everything which grew upon it, was his property. And so, when Jesus whispered into your ear, and gave you the assurance of reconciliation with the Father, and fellowship with Himself, He did, as it were, give you the whole land of promise. The richest enjoyment of the believer is yours. You have the foretaste, and that is the pledge that you shall yet enter into the possession of the whole. However great the promise, however rich may be its treasure, it is all yours. You have not yet fed upon the clusters of its vineyards, but it is all yours; because, in taking possession of your first enjoyment, you have virtually claimed the whole. It was said of William the Conqueror, when he landed here, that he stumbled; but, clutching a handful of earth, he hailed it as a happy omen, saying that, in taking possession of that handful of earth, he had taken all England for his own. And you, who, on your bended knees fell prostrate before God in that first rich treasure of joy which came into your souls—you took possession of all the inheritance of the saints on earth, and of their inheritance in heaven.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
The Valley of Trouble
1. The valley of Achor became the scene of a great tragedy. Just after the capture of Jericho, at the time when the chosen people had invaded the Land of Promise, it came to light that a certain man, Achan, “the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah,” had taken a portion of the spoil which ought to have been reserved for the treasury of God Himself; he had hidden it in his tent, and it had brought defeat upon the whole army, and now he was found out. His sin had been brought home to him, and “all Israel stoned him with stones until he died,” and “they raised over him,” says the sacred historian, “a great heap of stones, unto this day. Wherefore the name of that place was called, The Valley of Achor (i.e., the Valley of Troubling), unto this day.”
It was treachery that Achan had been guilty of. He had been the friend of the friends of God; he had gone in and out with them; he had shared their hopes, their efforts, their successes. Who can doubt that in the service of the sanctuary he had knelt side by side with those upon whom he was bringing at that very time the curse of shame? This is what makes sin always most sinful and shameful—its treachery. We do not suspect it. We do not believe it. We are not armed as we might have been against it. The poison spreads and spreads, and nobody knows it. “There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel.”
Leaving the ten gulfs of torment, where fraud meets its due, the pilgrims, by the aid of a giant, are lowered into the last dismal pit of hell. This nethermost circle is buried in the heart of the earth; it is the region of pitiless cold; every spark of warm love is banished from this spot where treachery is punished. When the false heart has sold itself to the deceit which works evil against those to whom it is bound by ties of blood or gratitude, love flies from it. In such a chill heart pity cannot dwell; and, alas! the penalty of evil is to place itself under influences which tend to perpetuate the evil. The false, cold heart dwells where the icy blast does but intensify its coldness; the breath which beats upon it freezes all it touches. This, the possession of a heart out of which love has perished, is the last doom of sin! The Psalmist, who delineated the downward progress of sin, expressed the final stage as the incapacity to hate evil; man at the worst is the man of whom it can be said, “Neither doth he abhor that which is evil.”1 [Note: W. B. Carpenter, The Spiritual Message of Dante, 88.]
2. The sin was discovered and confessed. Slowly but surely the sin was brought home to the sinner. First it was fixed upon a tribe—“the tribe of Judah was taken”—then upon a house, the house of Zabdi, then finally upon the guilty man. “And he brought his household man by man; and Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken.” Observe what follows. The words of Joshua seem strange and hard at first. “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.” They are strange words, indeed, and hard. “Give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel.” But it is best that the truth should come to light. It is dreadful that sin should exist, but more dreadful that it should exist and not be known. When it comes to light, although the revelation be heartbreaking, although it prove not only weakness but wickedness, yes, and wickedness in the hated form of cruelty and treachery, to exist in the very heart of Gods people, let us be thankful at least that we know how bad we are or may be. Let us “give glory to the Lord God of Israel.”
Confession unto God—that is the first thing. For it is He whom we have grievously offended. “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight,” “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” And then confession unto man. He who will tell all the truth in the hour of his judgment is not so bad as he who departs with a lie upon his lips.
His soul was thirsting for confession as pilgrims in a desert thirst for the spring of living water. When sin warps the soul out of line, repentance springs it back again to its normal place. He who has pondered long lifes deepest problems knows that memory holds no dearer recollection than hours when the erring child moves from sin toward confession and forgiveness. Disobedient, the child fears the parents disapproval. Dreading the discovery, it conceals that sin through deceit. Soon the sweetness of the stolen pleasure passes away. Remorse makes a dark cloud to overshadow the child. Each moment increases the gloom. And when the darkness falls, and the prayers are said, and the light is turned out, and the mothers kiss leaves the child alone, with solitude comes increased sorrow. Because its first lie is a sin greater than it can bear, the child calls aloud, and flinging itself into the arms of the returning mother, in a wild, passionate abandon of tears and sobs pours forth the full story of its sin, and, mingling its torrent with the parents tears, is cleansed in that deep fountain named the mothers heart. What hour in life holds a happiness so deep and sweet as that hour of confession and forgiveness for the child, when it falls asleep, having recovered its simplicity? And men are but children grown tall and strong.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, Great Books as Life-Teachers, 108.]
3. The sin was expiated. The “accursed thing” had brought upon the Israelites disaster and defeat. The accursed thing must therefore by Divine command be put away. And it was put away with unflinching rigour in the valley of Achor. A trying day it must have been for the Israelites when they were called upon to stone to death one of their own brethren. Some may have shrunk back from the performance of so stern and painful a duty. Others may have wished that the punishment might be commuted into another less severe. But no. The guilty person must be put to death. And, at whatever expense of feeling on their part, he must die by the hands of his brethren.
There is a terrible sweepingness, an unsparingness, which startles and astonishes us in the work of judgment executed by the Israelites at the command of Jehovah. “And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the mantle, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them up unto the valley of Achor. And they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones.”
It does seem hard sometimes that the sons and daughters of Achan were made to share in the dreadful punishment of their father. And here it is by no means sufficient to say with a recent writer, who means at least to be religious, that the history before us only illustrates the sanguinary severity of Oriental nations, which has in all ages involved the children in the punishment of their father, for we cannot but remember that the Jews had received a law which has specially insisted on the sacredness of human life, and it is difficult to see how the slaughter in question was other than a high crime against the Sixth Commandment, unless it could appeal to some independent principle, which justified and explained it. It is, indeed, more than probable that Achans family were, to a certain extent, accomplices in his sin. They must have been privy to the concealment of the stolen spoil in the tent, and they knew what was involved in stealing and in concealing it. But, besides this, we cannot doubt that Achan and his family are here regarded as forming in some sense, a moral whole, and not simply as a set of individuals, each of whom was on his or her trial. Scripture does take these two views of human beings. Sometimes it treats us as each one entirely separate from all besides, both in probation and in judgment; and sometimes it merges the individual in a wider association of which he forms a part; and whether it be the family, or the race, or the church, or humanity, it merges him in it so completely as to treat him as though he were merely a limb of the great whole to which he belongs; and both of these views of men are true to, and they are based on, the nature of things, since man is by the terms of his creation at once a personal being complete in himself, and yet a part of a larger organism—the human family. On the first of these aspects the gospel, no doubt, specially insists, but it does not by any means ignore or dispense with the second. When the Apostle tells us that in Adam all die, and that by one man sin came into the world, and death by sin, he treats every descendant of Adam as part of a family which is united in its natural head, and which is fatally compromised by the acts of that head. This principle of the reality of a common nature which we all share explains our loss of righteousness in Adam; but it tells to our advantage even more decisively, for it explains our recovery of righteousness in Christ. “In Christ shall all be made alive.” “As by one mans disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
The Valley of Hope
The valley of Achor became a door of hope. It was in truth a terrific act of penal retribution by which Achan and his family met their death, and it requires an effort to ask ourselves how the spot which witnessed this scene of torture and of shame could be a door of hope. It was a door of hope for Israel, because Achans sin, while undiscovered, had about it this terrible distinction, that in an eminent degree it brought with it weakness and ruin to the public cause of Israel. Israel was not fully pure-hearted while the Babylonian robe which ought to have been burnt, and the gold and silver which ought to have been placed in the treasury of the Lord, were sacrilegiously hidden away in the earth beneath Achans tent; and a serious effort, like the attack on Ai, revealed the presence of moral unsoundness somewhere, which, so long as it festered at the heart of Israel, made further progress impossible. When Achan had been discovered and punished, Israels weakness at once disappeared. The Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger, and Ai fell easily before the first assault.
The punishment of the transgressor in that case, and the putting away of sin in connexion with penitence and prayer, reopened, after defeat, the door of hope, and restored the enjoyment of Divine help. The discomfiture that so troubled the host of Israel was immediately followed by the victory at Ai, which inspired them with the hope of soon possessing the whole land. So with Israel after the Captivity—a dreary night of weeping was followed by a bright and blessed morning. So, too, in time to come, when, after a long and sorrowful expectation, Israel shall return from the lands of their exile to their fatherland, or by faith and repentance to the paternal God, the light of better and more hopeful days shall dawn upon them.
1. The valley of Achor runs through the life of the world. Trouble is not young. The story of the earth is full of tragedy. Sin and penalty crowd into the experience of man. God leads us into struggle and difficulty. We ought to be glad, and we are glad when we are wise, that it is part of the order of human living that God does not suffer us always to be in the presence of a weakening, enervating, and destructive prosperity. When we have been emasculated by our continuous successes, He breaks the thread, and flings us upon defeat, so that we may learn that our truest success is in character, not in fortune; in the building up of manhood, not in accumulation of coin; in the discipline of the will and the subordination of our spirit to Him, and not in fleeting and transitory pleasures. Hosea does not try to hide from us that the valley of Achor is a valley of trouble by calling it by some other name. You do not change facts by changing the terms in which you describe them; and though you may assert that the sorrow is unreal, that it is entirely imaginary, if the iron is going into your soul all such assertions will be simply an increase of irritation and pain. We cannot, when the pressure is heaviest, and the burden is bearing us down to the earth so that we cannot stand on our feet—we cannot accept illusory terms, as if, forsooth, they altered actual facts. No! trouble is a reality in life. The sin that causes the trouble, that is the spring of it, that makes the penalty inevitable, that compels the God of righteousness and order to inflict it—that is the horrible reality, and we must treat it for what it really is, and then, and then only, is there a chance of our hearing and welcoming the good news of redemption.
No man would sin, if he could realize beforehand the prolonged agony of his act. If sin could foresee the end of its careless journey, it would shudder, instead of laughing along its route; and if it could see the pit beneath the golden bracken, the black swamp beneath the emerald moss, the cunning snare across the pleasant pasture, the gap on the dark bridge, or the worm in the mellow fruit, it would alter its hasty course, and seek to change its nature. The chief mission of righteousness is the merciful relieving of sins born-blindness.1 [Note: E. G. Cheyne, The Man with the Mirror, 114.]
2. Sanctified trouble is the door of hope, the herald of victory and rest. Faith amid trouble opens the way to the Promised Land. The figure which Hosea employs to convey this is very expressive. The narrow gorge stretches before us, with its dark overhanging cliffs that almost shut out the sky; the path is rough and set with sharp stones; it is narrow, winding, steep; often it seems to be barred by some huge rock that juts across it, and there is barely room for the broken ledge yielding slippery footing between the beetling crag above and the steep slope beneath that dips so quickly to the black torrent below. All is gloomy, damp, hard; and if we look upwards the glen becomes more savage as it rises, and armed foes hold the very throat of the pass. But, however long, however barren, however rugged, however trackless the valley may be, we may see a bright form descending the rocky way with radiant eyes and calm lips, Gods messenger, Hope; and the rough rocks are like the doorway through which she comes near to us in our weary struggle.
That bright form which comes down the narrow valley is Gods messenger and herald—sent before His face. All the light of Hope is the reflection on our hearts of the light of God. Her silver beams, which shed quietness over the darkness of earth, come only from that great Sun. If our hope is to grow out of our sorrow, it must be because our sorrow drives us to God. It is only when we by faith stand in His grace, and live in the conscious fellowship of peace with Him, that we rejoice in hope. If we would see Hope drawing near to us, we must fix our eyes not on Jericho that lies behind among its palm trees, though it has memories of conquests, and attractions of fertility and repose, nor on the corpse that lies below that pile of stones, nor on the narrow way and the strong enemy in front there; but higher up, on the blue sky that spreads peaceful above the highest summits of the pass, and from the heavens we shall see the angel coming to us. Sorrow forsakes its own nature, and leads in its own opposite, when sorrow helps us to see God. It clears away the thick trees, and lets the sunlight into the forest shades, and then in time corn will grow. Hope is but the brightness that goes before Gods face, and if we would see it we must look at Him.
I remember once, in the south of Europe, descending about sunset into a deep solemn valley, circled in by precipitous mountains, and shadowed over with dark pine groves. It seemed as if we were about to lose sight of the day, and of the gladness of nature, and to descend, with Jonah, to the bottoms of the mountains. But, in the perpendicular rocks on the opposite side there was a deep breach or cleft, and right up to this our path pointed. Now, through that rift the setting sun was pouring such a golden glory that it seemed the path to a better world; and I thought then, and I think now, that the deep gloom of the valley, and the brightness which we could not reach save by descending into it, were no bad types of the light affliction which is but for a moment, and the far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory hereafter.1 [Note: J. M. Neale.]
Russel Wallace tells us that one of the most peculiar and least generally considered features of our earth, but one which is also essential to the development and maintenance of the rich organic life it possesses, is the uninterrupted supply of atmospheric dust which is now known to be necessary for the production of rain clouds and beneficial rains and mists, and without which the whole course of meteorological phenomena would be so changed as to endanger the very existence of a large portion of the life upon the earth. Now, the chief portion of this fine dust, distributed through the upper atmosphere, from the equator to the poles, with wonderful uniformity, is derived from those great terrestrial features which are often looked upon as the least essential, and even as blots and blemishes on the fair face of nature—deserts and volcanoes. Most persons, no doubt, think they could both be very well spared, and that the earth would be greatly improved from a human point of view, if they were altogether abolished. Yet it is almost a certainty that the consequences of doing so would be to render the earth infinitely less enjoyable, and, perhaps, altogether uninhabitable by man.
In most human lives are periods closely corresponding with the deserts of the earth; times and conditions distinctly stale, flat, and apparently unprofitable; spaces of compulsory isolation and solitariness; seasons of intellectual infertility and depression; stretches of drudgery; tedious spells of personal affliction; times of enforced inaction; years of dullness, dreariness, and barrenness. Destitute of the ordinary interests, excitements, and charms of life, we may justly reckon such periods as constituting the wilderness stages of our pilgrimage. Of these monotonous interludes we think and speak regretfully. They are looked upon as the waste part of life, the days when we simply marked time, when we ploughed the sand. What the desert is to nature, a blot and blemish, that, we conclude, are the grey featureless terms of human life. Yet may we not be mistaken about our dreary days and years as we are in our estimate of the worth of deserts in the system of nature? As Dr. Wallace reminds us, indirectly we get our vineyards from the Sahara; and is it any more difficult to believe that what we are tempted to call the waste places of life fulfil a mission similarly benign and precious?1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, 98.]
3. The prophet speaks out of his own experience. He is telling what he himself has gone through. He had married a sweet and lovely girl in her purity and charm, and she had become an unfaithful wife. She that had been the guardian of his home, the spring of his happiness, the source of his strength, was disloyal; she was an adulteress, and the mans heart was rent, and in anguish he looked up to God. But how had he borne it? He had come out of the great tribulation, and washed his robes and cleansed his heart from all hatred and revenge, and ascended to loftier heights of spiritual power than he had ever known before, to larger conceptions of Gods pity and love. The valley of Achor—that is, the valley of troubling—had been the door through which he ascended to the highlands of the spiritual order—the heavenly places of God.
Hosea found his gospel where he found God—in himself; but he did not keep it to himself. He gave it to others. He turned the materials of his own experience into the means by which he became a Barnabas, a son of consolation. As one of our best teachers says: “He saw God in the tragedies of his life. He heard the voice of God in the sorrow and shame of his own home; and so, led by the love he still bore to his sinful wife, he became the messenger of Divine love and mercy to Gods sinful people.”
John Bunyan, in his Pilgrims Progress, talking about the Valley of Humiliation, says that “it is the most fruitful valley that ever crow flew over.” So it is. Where do we look when we want to feed our faith—when we ask for something that shall enable us to set our feet down firmly, to stand loyal to our conviction, true to our principle? We go back to the Valleys of Achor; see the men who suffer like heroes, passing through, rising high, doing their work whole-heartedly; and we are stiffened in conviction and sustained in conflict. Yes. “Call to remembrance the former generations,” turn over the history of human progress, and what do you come upon? Valleys of Achor. The greatest, the best souls go through them, and go through to the widest service of mankind. John Morley asks—
“To what quarter in the large historic firmament can we turn our eyes with such certainty of being stirred and elevated to thinking better of human life, and of the worth of those who have been most deeply penetrated by its seriousness, as to the annals of those intrepid spirits whom the Protestant doctrine of the indefeasible personal responsibility brought to the front in the sixteenth century in Germany, and in the seventeenth century in Scotland?”1 [Note: J. Clifford, The Gospel of Gladness, 36.]
The wilderness shall blossom
Beneath Thy ray benign
And Achor, with its vale of woe,
Shall spring with Hope Divine;
Thy resurrection power
Transforms the dreary scene,
Abundant blossom shall appear,
Where all had cankered been.
The earthly clod is helpless,
All, all the power is Thine,
The seedling and the fruitage fair,
The shower and the shine;
To Thee be all the glory,
To Thee resultant praise,
Eternity will still unfold
The wonder of Thy Ways.
The Valley of Achor
Burrell (D. J.), The Unaccountable Man, 191.
Clifford (J.), The Gospel of Gladness, 28.
Connell (A.), The Endless Quest, 102.
Dick (G. H.), The Yoke and the Anointing, 102.
Dykes (J. O.), Plain Words on Great Themes, 59.
Gray (W. A.), The Shadow of the Hand, 320.
Henson (P. S.), The Four Faces, 151.
Huntington (F. D.), Christ in the Christian Year: Trinity to Advent, 187.
Kelman (J.), Redeeming Judgment, 123.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Ezekiel to Malachi, 94.
Meyer (F. B.), Future Tenses, 69.
Neale (J. M.), Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, iii. 337.