Beginning in chapter 6 of the book of Joshua, Israel began the first of their three campaigns for conquering the promised land with a monumental victory against Jericho. Yet, coming off such a great victory, God’s people were met in the next chapter by embarrassing defeat. We begin reading in chapter 7:
Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, ‘Go up and spy out the region.’ So the men went up and spied out Ai. When they returned to Joshua, they said, ‘Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.’ So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.Joshua 7:2-5, NIV
Joshua’s mistake was not that he sent out the spies to first survey the situation before planning his strategy. Moses had done the same thing (Numbers 21:32) and Proverbs says, “Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance” (Proverbs 20:18). We are then told again, “Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers” (Proverbs 24:6). No matter how well-meaning a church may be, if they do not make plans for how they are going to incorporate a new ministry in their community, they will certainly be met with defeat. Therefore, this was simply Joshua acting as a good commander, a good pastor, of God’s people.
Joshua’s mistake was in his assumption that the Lord was pleased with the people and would give them victory over Ai. In verse 1 of the chapter the reader is made privy to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites regarding the devoted things from Jericho which were intended for the Lord’s treasury, Achan specifically coveting a beautiful Babylonian robe and a large sum of gold and silver (cp. verses 20, 21). Therefore, we are told, “So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel” (Joshua 7:1). Joshua had left God out of his planning and strategy, walking by sight rather than faith. The advice of the spies was essentially the opposite of what the spies said to Moses in Numbers 13; Joshua was told, “only a few people live there” (Joshua 7:3b), and it was not necessary to weary the whole army. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel. This itself turned out to be contrary to the Lord’s strategy for the conquest of Ai, the Lord saying, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai” (Joshua 8:1).
Spiritual leaders over God’s people must constantly seek the Lord’s face before setting out into new ministry challenges in obedience to the Lord’s Commission to us. No church should assume, no matter how simple the ministry may seem, that the Lord will bless the church with the fruits of victory. If Joshua had simply taken some time to call a prayer meeting, the sin among the people would have been brought to light and dealt with, and thus, the lives of thirty-six faithful soldiers of God would have been saved (Joshua 7:5).
We must be careful, however, that we do not judge Joshua or the Israelites too harshly because we are often guilty of the same sin of presuming on God, especially after our churches have experienced great blessing after great blessing. No matter how much the Lord has blessed a church’s work in the past, the people must be careful to remember that it was not because of their own quality or merit that the Lord set his affection on them, but rooted simply in his own decision to love them (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). We must not presume that we deserve God’s blessings in our lives or churches; if we did, his grace would not be gracious, but merely a paycheck for a job well-done.
The Great Commission is God’s Commission to us, and the work is his work, neither our own. The church exists to build God’s Kingdom, remembering that he can accomplish his work with or without us. If a church is unfaithful in their service in a particular community, God will raise up another church that will be faithful, leaving our building to rot in dead forms. Our confidence must not be self-confidence, but grounded in God, going to him in prayer before undertaking new fields of conquest, no matter how simple the conquest may seem. God will most certainly accomplish his purpose to fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory as the waters cover the sea, his will done on earth as it is in heaven. Whether he chooses to use us to be a small part of advancing his Kingdom, however, depends on our obedience as faithful soldiers.
Below is a wonderful rendition of the classic hymn, Onward, Christian Soldiers by the wonderful students of Fountainview Academy in British Columbia. I hope as you listen you will be motivated to be a more faithful soldier of Christ, seeking his will in every new field of conquest as you take the gospel to your community.