Updated: Mar 26
Do Not Be Afraid (v. 1)
God’s chastening can be unsettling (Ps. 39:11). After he humbles us, he has to raise us back up again (1 Pet. 5:6). The Achan matter left Joshua dazed before God’s majesty and more conscious than ever that the Lord sees and knows all. He is present with his people in his goodness and his holiness. Sin offends and provokes him (1 Cor. 10:22). What could encourage Joshua to get back up and continue with the conquest of the land? What will encourage us to continue as Christ’s disciples after a season of testing or chastening? Joshua needed to hear “Do not be afraid. What has happened is not the end of the war, of your career, or of my promises to you.” I think Joshua was not simply afraid of failing again. He was more afraid of the Lord than of the men of Ai. He had seen God’s holiness face to face, and it left him on the ground. Chastening teaches us to fear him (Ps. 119:71; 2 Cor. 7:1). It rebukes our pride and presumption. When we fall sick, or sin is exposed in circumstances that only the Lord could bring about, or someone dies in the prime of life, or we lose all we have worked for in a market crash, we need to hear, “Do not be afraid.” Yes, I have chastened you, the Lord said to Joshua, and some have died, but I have not forsaken you. I have corrected you, but I am still with you.
You Will Win (v. 2)
And, what restores our soul is his promise. God’s promises are faith’s food. This time, Joshua, take all the people. Do not presume upon your strength or that I will do a miracle every time. Use all your fighting men. I have given the city of Ai and its king into your hand. Destroy the entire city and its inhabitants – this time, however, you may keep the spoil. The folly of Achan is seen so clearly now – what he took rashly, the Lord intended to give generously later. And here is the plan – lay an ambush for the men of Ai. There is nothing inappropriate with ambushes and feigned attacks and counterattacks in legitimate or justified war. This is what Joshua needed to hear – the previous promises. You are going to prosper, Joshua. The city is yours. It is God’s promise that builds our confidence in all godly endeavors – that he will be with us and prosper us as we serve him. Our Lord Jesus, our greater Joshua, has already told us that the whole earth is his, and therefore ours (2 Cor. 1:20-22). All authority in heaven and earth is his. He has bound the strong man and is spoiling his house. We have but to use his weapons prayerfully, down through our generations, and we shall overcome. The outcome is certain, for God’s promise is sure. He cannot lie. Christ has overcome the world, and we will overcome it also.
The Battle Plan and Victory at Ai (vv. 3-29)
3 So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai; and Joshua chose thirty thousand mighty men of valor and sent them away by night. 4 And he commanded them, saying: "Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind the city. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you be ready. 5 "Then I and all the people who are with me will approach the city; and it will come about, when they come out against us as at the first, that we shall flee before them. 6 "For they will come out after us till we have drawn them from the city, for they will say, 'They are fleeing before us as at the first.' Therefore we will flee before them. 7 "Then you shall rise from the ambush and seize the city, for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand. 8 "And it will be, when you have taken the city, that you shall set the city on fire. According to the commandment of the LORD you shall do. See, I have commanded you." 9 Joshua therefore sent them out; and they went to lie in ambush, and stayed between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai; but Joshua lodged that night among the people. 10 Then Joshua rose up early in the morning and mustered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. 11 And all the people of war who were with him went up and drew near; and they came before the city and camped on the north side of Ai. Now a valley lay between them and Ai. 12 So he took about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. 13 And when they had set the people, all the army that was on the north of the city, and its rear guard on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley. 14 Now it happened, when the king of Ai saw it, that the men of the city hurried and rose early and went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at an appointed place before the plain. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. 15 And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness. 16 So all the people who were in Ai were called together to pursue them. And they pursued Joshua and were drawn away from the city. 17 There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. So they left the city open and pursued Israel. 18 Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Stretch out the spear that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand." And Joshua stretched out the spear that was in his hand toward the city. 19 So those in ambush arose quickly out of their place; they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand, and they entered the city and took it, and hurried to set the city on fire. 20 And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and behold, the smoke of the city ascended to heaven. So they had no power to flee this way or that way, and the people who had fled to the wilderness turned back on the pursuers. 21 Now when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city ascended, they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. 22 Then the others came out of the city against them; so they were caught in the midst of Israel, some on this side and some on that side. And they struck them down, so that they let none of them remain or escape. 23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua. 24 And it came to pass when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness where they pursued them, and when they all had fallen by the edge of the sword until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned to Ai and struck it with the edge of the sword. 25 So it was that all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand -- all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as booty for themselves, according to the word of the LORD which He had commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever, a desolation to this day. 29 And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until evening. And as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his corpse down from the tree, cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raise over it a great heap of stones that remains to this day.
A Careful Battle Plan Executed (vv. 3-22)
This confidence is not triumphalism. Our assurance and confidence of victory is very different from “power of positive thinking” tripe that often bleeds over from the world into the church’s ethos. Our confidence lies solely in the path of obedience to the Lord, and it is a path of faith and hard work, supported at every step with his promises. We can thus be very positive in our outlook, not because positivity is like an energy field that lines up with cosmic rhythms and makes us successful. No, we are cheerful and confident because the Lord of hosts walks with us. In obedience to him, we have every promise of success through difficulty, sorrow, and even defeat. And this time, the Lord showed Joshua that we need to consult him for the best way forward and then to follow his plan. The plan is simple. The whole body of the people is to march up to the walls of Ai. The night before, 30,000 men are to march around to the west of Ai. The bulk of the army is to feign a retreat. Then, 30,000 are to march into unguarded Ai and burn down the city. As an added precaution – and notice that the Lord being with us does not justify throwing planning or caution to the wind – on the way to Ai the next morning, Joshua sent another 5,000 from the main body to cut off the pass from Ai to Bethel. Joshua expected that Bethel would come to the aid of Ai, which in fact happened (v. 17). The plan was carried out – the King of Ai assumed another rout was on and chased the main Israelite army. The detachment of 30,000 entered the city and burned it behind the men of Ai. Joshua raised his javelin as a sign of victory, and then the main army turned on the men of Ai and Bethel. All were slaughtered.
Ai Completely Destroyed (vv. 23-29)
Jericho was a glorious victory of the Lord. We can now see perhaps more of the Lord’s plan – he was marching into Canaan to judge his enemies (Gen. 15:16). He did not need an army, and the conquest of Canaan was not first and foremost about Abraham and the promises – it was about his right to be worshipped and served by the entire universe. That point being settled, he would not have his people, who were the amazed recipients of the Jericho victory, to fall into dependence upon miracles or to think that the conquest of the promised land would be without their faith and hard work. Careful planning would be required. They must be holy and courageous. He would be with them, but his presence would not substitute for their laziness and indifference to following his word.
And this time, they followed his word completely. The king of Ai, whom they had saved alive, they brought to Joshua. Then, leaving the king of Ai to deal with later, they returned and slaughtered the entire city, adults and children, for all were children of disobedience, children of wrath, and children of the devil. If anyone shouts “innocent!” or “Genocide,” he thinks more highly of men than the Lord. He denies original sin, God’s sovereign majesty, and his unquestionable right as the judge of all the earth to deal with men and nations as he has righteously determined. The destruction of the city and its inhabitants being accomplished – with the spoil saved for Israel’s reward – they returned to camp, hanged the king of Ai, and then took down his body at sunset and buried him under a “great heap of stones” in front of the city gates. Israel was completely obedient and won a complete victory.
The Covenant Renewed at Ebal (vv. 30-35)
30 Now Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in Mount Ebal, 31 as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: "an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool." And they offered on it burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there, in the presence of the children of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 Then all Israel, with their elders and officers and judges, stood on either side of the ark before the priests, the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, the stranger as well as he who was born among them. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them.
An Altar to Atone for Sin (vv. 30-32)
Some have thought that the sacrifice and covenant renewal on Ebal must have occurred later. Ebal was about thirty miles north – would the Canaanite nations have permitted Israel to pass through? Likely not, but some of the defeated kings listed in chapter 12 would have been along this route. The Book of Joshua is a complete account of the conquest and occupation of Canaan. We are given only the highlights, displays of God’s power and faithfulness, humbling instances of Israel’s failures that magnify God’s grace, and exhilarating moments when faith and obedience gave the victory. But for my part, I believe that this renewal happened quickly after the defeat of Ai and Bethel. Along the way to Ebal and Gerizim, Israel met stout resistance but subdued their enemies.
It likely occurred to Joshua almost immediately after Ai/Bethel that the nation needed to renew the covenant in Canaan proper. They needed to build an altar and offer atoning sacrifices for the nation. This is what they proceeded to do. The nation had sinned in Achan’s sin. The nation stood firmly in God’s grace and could expect his forgiveness only by blood atonement. They built an altar of plain stones, as the Lord had commanded. Burnt offerings for atonement and peace offerings for fellowship were made. Upon the stones of the altar, Joshua wrote a breviary of God’s law, likely the Ten Commandments or perhaps the back and forth (responsive) confession of God’s law found in Deuteronomy 27. It would appear that some of these stones have been recently located at the Ebal Dump Site. We are not dealing in the realm of myth or fancy when we follow our fathers as they took Canaan. These things really happened when and how the Bible says they happened, and they are written for our instruction and encouragement (1 Cor. 10:11).
God’s Word Read and Pledged (vv. 33-35)
The altar and Ark of the Covenant likely were placed in an outcropping between the two mountains. All the people, with their priests, leaders, and judges, fanned out on the two mountains, alternating confessing the blessings and curses of God’s covenant. This was no republication of the covenant of works, for the stone altar and Ark of the Covenant stood in the middle – the people seeking mercy through blood atonement and the Ark pledging God’s gracious presence with his people. While they were assembled, Joshua read the entire law of Moses to them, certainly Deuteronomy, perhaps Exodus 20-23, perhaps the entire Pentateuch. This renewal of God’s covenant – grace on his part and faith on theirs – was critical for conquering the land of promises. God’s people required blood atonement. Measured by God’s holiness, they were no better than the Canaanites they were dispossessing. They had recently broken covenant with the Lord at Jericho. But the Lord would forgive his people. He provided a Lamb. And he also provided a law by which they would live free from the abominations of the Canaanites so they might grow to be the nation he called them to be – holy in heart and conduct, circumcised inwardly to love the Lord their God (Deut. 10:16; 30:6), true Jews (Rom. 2:28-29), true sons and daughters of his covenant.
The Way We Fight and Overcome the World
Depend upon God’s Promises (2 Cor. 1:20)
Fear is dangerous. It holds our soul in a grip tighter and deadlier than the danger we fear. Fear is atheism. Fear says that God is unable or unwilling to do what he has promised. At its worst, fear degenerates into rank unbelief and refuses to move forward in obedience to God. It is one of our Lord’s most common commands: “Do not be afraid.” What is more, he often puts a very personal touch upon the command – “It is I; be not afraid.” “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” “Why are you so fearful, O you of little faith.” Fear is not overcome by mental manipulations. It is overcome by a person. This is the reason for the Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness. The Lord God was telling them, “I am with you.” It is the reason we now have Immanuel, “God with us,” and the “Spirit of the living God” dwelling in us. The Lord is telling us, “Yes, you face a terrible foe, and you are weak. But I am strong, and I am with you.” All of God’s promises, therefore, including his promise “never to leave or forsake us” (Heb. 13:5), are blood-sealed through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). If we doubt God can be with us in this conflict, or in this season of life, or facing this foe, let us look at the cross, for upon that bloody stake the living God said “YES” and “SECURED” to all his promises. And we must depend upon his promises and depend upon his presence with us. God’s presence is no guarantee that all will go as we want. This is a genie, not God. God’s promised presence means that he will pass with us through every fiery trial, guide us with his counsel, always reveal himself to us and help us when we seek him with our whole heart, and finally bring us to be with him in heaven, where the believing heart wants to be more than anywhere else (Ps. 73:24; Phil. 1:23).
Follow Our Captain’s Orders (Heb. 2:10; Rev. 3:10)
In both the Jericho and second Ai battles, Joshua followed the Lord’s directions for the battle. He did not apparently ask for directions in the first Ai battle. His presumption is rebuked, gently, but rebuked nonetheless. We, like Joshua, are in a war, not for Canaan but for the whole earth, so that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” How should we fight? The Lord Jesus commended the Philadelphian believers for “keeping the word of his patience” (Rev. 3:10). They held fast to his word, and they held fast patiently. They endured. They did not give up or consult their feelings or the world to find an easier way. And the Lord Jesus is our greater Joshua, the “Captain of our salvation” (Heb. 2:10). We must know his word, immerse ourselves in it, and be shaped by his wisdom. Then, with our minds renewed by his word, we can make wise plans for our earthly lives, plans that follow the principles of his word. Since, to take but one example, the present-day government schools are hotbeds of perversity, social Darwinianism, and ignorance, we must forsake them. We follow Jesus Christ, and in him alone are “hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3-8). Therefore, I cannot, since my children belong to the Lord, place them under Satan’s tutelage but must bring them under the authority and blessing of Christ the Wisdom of God. The simple message of Ai is: “Trust and follow the Captain; and WIN!
Give No Quarter to God’s Enemies (Matt. 5:29-30; 2 Cor. 10:4-5)
The complete destruction of the Canaanites will be condemned as inhumane and unjust. Even the worst men must have some good in them, some quality worth saving. By today’s standards, perversion, idolatry, child sacrifice, and tyranny can be valid and useful in the name of “democracy.” This is to think like rebels. The Lord is the judge of all the earth, and he always does what is right (Gen. 18:25). Moreover, he calls upon us to have the same attitude toward sin. “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things that are done by them in secret” (Eph. 5:11-12). Clearly, the Lord has a very different attitude about sin. He would have us “cut off our hand” and “pluck out our eye” if they offend us (Matt. 5:29-30). What does this mean? To take whatever measures are necessary to remove the sin in our lives, put it to death (Col. 3:5). Use every weapon that the Lord has placed at our disposal to “demolish the strongholds that oppose Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). We are not called to take up the sword against the wicked – except for the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). Let us learn again to give no quarter, not an inch to sin in our lives, to shine as lights in the world, and ask the Lord through our witness to call men out of darkness “into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Live before the Altar (1 John 2:1-2)
But we are not yet perfected in holiness. We need constant cleansing. The heavy responsibilities of daily life and even the intensity of our warfare do not release us from the duty and need of cleansing from our sins. We have a heavenly altar now, our Lord Jesus Christ and his perfect sacrifice. He is ascended to heaven to be our “satisfaction” at the Father’s right hand. As Joshua and Israel trekked through the land to Ebal to build an altar and renew covenant with the Lord, so we must daily make our pilgrimage to the throne of grace. There we come to the Father through our great high priest; we have bold and free access (Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:19). The Lord Jesus leads us to the Father, ushers us before him, and secures a place for us to draw near with confidence. Many defeats in our warfare and failures in our pursuit of God’s kingdom is because our sins increase and become a heavy burden to our souls. A wise disciple learns to unburden his soul daily at his heavenly Ebal, where Jesus Christ is, makes intercession for us, and grants us forgiveness. Live before the altar, and you will gain increasing victories over sin, joy in your worship, and strength in your service.
Keep Covenant with God (Heb. 10:16-25)
Like the church of God in the wilderness, we are in covenant with him. Jesus Christ is the covenant of peace (Isa. 42:6; Heb. 13:20). We have no haphazard or whimsical relationship with the living God. He has bound himself to us, and by faith we respond to his grace and promises by faith and repentance. There are many aspects to keeping covenant with God, but the fundamental idea is that he makes himself known by his word, promises to take us to be his people, forgive our sins, and give us every other blessing through his Son (Eph. 1:3). Hebrews 10:16-25 is a good summary of keeping covenant with God in the new covenant age. The Lord gives us a new heart and forgives our sins (vv. 16-18). In response, we enter and pray boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, for he is the great high priest who secures our access to the Father – all his love, grace, and help (vv. 19-22). In the strength of his grace and presence, we must “hold fast our profession” (v. 23) – cling tightly to our Savior and his word – no worldly wavering. We are also bound to each other and must “stir up” one another to love and good works (v. 24). Worship is critical, so we must be regularly renewing covenant with the Lord and the privileges of knowing him by praise, prayer, his word preached and heard in faith, and encouraging one another in our most holy religion. We are in covenant with God and each other. We cannot lose if we walk in faith and obedience, and he will help us, for he has made us “exceeding great and precious promises.” By these we will be made holy and overcome the world (2 Pet. 1:4).