Joshua was devastated. Thirty-six of his men lay dead and the nascent nation of Israel was defeated and demoralized. Joshua was confused, clueless and even angry. Why would God let this happen? And how could God’s people be humiliated in battle by a little village like Ai?
Just a few days before, Joshua was the triumphant conqueror. The mighty city of Jericho lay in ruins and Israel rejoiced. Having polished off a walled, armed city like Jericho, a tent village like Ai did not present much of a challenge. They decided that the entire army was not even needed to tackle Ai and only three thousand were sent up the hill to do battle.
Then, the reports started pouring in from the battle. Israel was routed, dozens dead, the mighty army of Yahweh defeated. So Joshua did what he had seen his mentor Moses do whenever things went wrong. He fell on his face before God and called out to him for help. “Why did you let this happen, O God?” he whined.
And then God spoke, with surprisingly brusque words. “Get up off your face, Joshua.” It was not a time to pray. It was not a time to seek God’s blessing. There was nothing to pray about until Israel faced its sin and repented. Then, and only then, would the blessing of God-given victory continue.
I see three serious mistakes that Israel made that day. The first two mistakes were bad enough, but the third mistake cost 36 people their lives.
First, Israel became self-confident. Wait a minute, Dave, isn’t self-confidence a virtue? You have a hard time finding that in scripture. It was certainly no virtue in this passage. When the spies returned, they told Joshua, in Joshua 7:3, that they would not need the whole army. It would only take two or three thousand to conquer this city. They relied on their own ability.
Where did this presumption come from? What had Israel done to defeat Jericho? One thing. One thing only. They obeyed. When God said march, they marched. And the walls came a-tumblin’ down. It was not Joshua’s leadership or Israel’s military prowess that won the battle. It was God’s power. But now,Israel was taking credit for what God had done. “A mighty army like ours, having just defeated Jericho, will find little challenge against Ai.”
Remember this: In the power of God, no enemy is too big. Greater is he that is in you… But in the power of self, no enemy is too small. You can be defeated by anything in this world if you trust in yourself and rely of your own power. Those who trust in Christ will never be disappointed, but those who trust in themselves will be amazed at their ability to fail.
Second, Israel was careless. Achan had sinned against God, taking spoils from Jericho against the command of God. Israel had sinned and God would not bless them until the sin was dealt with. Today, we want to think that God has changed his mind, that he will bless us whether we are obedient or not, whether we walk in the flesh or in the Spirit. God’s love and grace is eternal and unrelated to any merit in us. But God’s blessings, his active favor on our lives, come to those who submit and walk under the Lordship of Christ.
When Israel repented, the blessing of God returned and Ai was defeated. But the victory at Ai, in Joshua 8, reveals the fatal flaw in Joshua’s leadership in Joshua 7. Israelwas self-confident and careless, but there was a bigger problem.
Finally, the battle of Jericho was won because Israel did what God told them to do, the way God told them to it. In Joshua 8, the battle of Ai was won because Israel did what God told them to do, the way God told them to do it. There is a pattern in victory; God commands, his people obey, and God acts in power.
In Joshua 7, Joshua acted independently, entirely on his own. God did not say, “Attack Ai.” He did not give battle plans. Joshua sent out the spies. Joshua made the decisions. He never sought God. If he had gone to God before the first battle of Ai, God would have said, “Deal with your sin first.” Thirty-six men would not have had to die.
The man or woman of God who wants victory does not act independently. He does not listen to the will of man or the ways of the world. He does not expect God to bless his agenda but seeks to submit himself to the agenda of God.
It is not the size of our enemies or our armies that matters; it is our dependence on God that makes the difference between victory and defeat.
Joshua learned at Jericho that a weak army, dependent on and obedient to God could defeat any foe. He learned at Ai that God’s people, sinful and self-reliant, could be defeated by the smallest things.