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Judgment at Ai

There's good news within even God's harshest acts of judgment.

Today we're going to look at the Book of Joshua, chapter 8, beginning in verse 18. We recall that Israel has once before been defeated by the little town of Ai. This was when Aichen had stolen the Babylonian garment and the silver and gold from Jericho and hidden them under his tent. God withdrew his blessing from the Israelites, and when they went to attack Ai, they were defeated soundly. Joshua cried out to God. The Lord told him there was sin in the camp and revealed to him what had happened there in the family of Aichen. Aichen and his family were put to death for that sin.

It was then time to go once again to Ai. This was a very different battle for Joshua than at Jericho. At Jericho God had miraculously delivered them. Their strategy was to march around the city once a day for six days, and then on the seventh day they were to march around the city seven times. There would be silence for just a moment, and then they were to blow the trumpets. At the sound of the trumpets the walls of Jericho fell. It was a miraculous event. The battle at Ai would be quite different. No miracles were given, no strange strategies. In fact, it was a military strategy that God gave Joshua. God told Joshua that he was to send part of the army for a full frontal assault on Ai. But another part of the army, the largest portion, was to basically hide behind the city, and when the men of Ai came out to fight the Israelites that were before their gates, those Israelites were to turn and flee. The king of Ai and his men would chase after them, and once they got out of the city, believing they once again had victory over the Israelites, the Israelites that were hidden behind the city were to invade and raze the city—to burn it and kill everyone in it.

It is this military strategy that God himself gives to Joshua when we pick up the story in verse 18:

The Lord said to Joshua, "Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand." And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city, and the men in the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and as soon as he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and captured it, and they hurried to set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, behold the smoke of the city went up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, some on that side. And Israel struck them down until there was left none that survived or escaped, but the king of Ai they took alive and brought him near to Joshua. When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset, Joshua commanded and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.

The problem of judgment

My father was my hero when I was a child. The Lord blessed me with a tremendous and precious relationship with my dad until he died a year and a half ago. But I was much like any other kid in that when other kids my age were around, I would notice certain quirks in my dad that would make me feel some embarrassment. I mean, my dad had a repertoire of only five jokes, and they weren't even five good jokes. I would have guys over to spend the night and when we'd wake up in the morning Dad would say, "Did you get your eyes together last night?" and they would sort of say, "Yeah … I guess." He'd say, "How'd you get them across your nose?" That was his brand of humor. He also had this fake French he would use to say ordinary English words. And he could talk like Donald Duck, and he would say, "You know how I talk like Donald Duck? Because my mother was a duck. If you don't believe me, you should see the way she waddles" (his mother was quite overweight).

That was my dad's sense of humor. He would tell these jokes, and I would just sort of cringe. As I got older, I'd feel a little nervous when he was around. And then of all things, when I was 15, we moved from rural Western Kentucky—where that sort of humor might fit in—to Detroit, where it just didn't. I would find myself somewhat embarrassed by my dad, until I started spending time in other people's homes. It was then that I realized how wonderful he was.

I think sometimes we approach texts in Scripture with an embarrassment at passages like this—passages that just don't fit in a modern mentality. What is this passage describing but genocide? God commands the Israelites to go in and wipe out a whole city—12,000 men, women, and children—and we worship this God? This presents a great problem, for many of reasons.

Robert Wright wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he sort of took off on all the civic debate about the possibility of building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. He talked about the Quran and its embarrassing parts, but he made the point that the Quran is not alone in this—that other sacred texts like the Bible have many embarrassing parts. He said,

For example, there are those passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are told to commit genocide, to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women, and children: 'You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.' As for the New Testament, there is that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter dogs because they aren't from Israel. In a way, that's the opposite of anti-Semitism, but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, in the New Testament, like the Quran, there are some unflattering things said about Jews. Devoted Bible readers who aren't hateful people ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.

Do we do that? We claim we believe in an inerrant Bible; we claim that it's all-inspired; we claim it's all profitable. But it's not often we turn to passages like this one.

One of the marvels of the Internet age is a thing called Pandora radio. When you listen to a radio station on terrestrial or satellite radio, you have to listen to every song played. You can change the channel but you can't change the song. You're stuck with whatever you're given. But that's not so on Pandora. On Pandora, you put in different singers, bands, or songs that you like; and they use an algorithm to parse the music that you list. The algorithm asks, is this rock, or is it soft rock, or is it hard rock? Is it antiphonal? Does it have guitar leads? Does it have a front man? It analyzes what you like and then it can incorporate other similar songs and artists into the mix. And by each song that's played Pandora puts a little thumbs-up sign and a little thumbs-down sign. When you click the thumbs-up sign, the algorithm is strengthened even more to your tastes, and it will play more music like that. If you click the thumbs-down sign, Pandora will just skip that particular song and bring up a different one for you to judge.

In an age where customization of lifestyle and belief has become the norm, this is often the way we approach the Bible. I like 1 Corinthians 13 about love; I don't like 1 Corinthians 11 about women. I like the Book of Joshua about God bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land; I don't like the parts of Joshua about killing people. I like Jesus, the baby in the manger; I don't like Jesus who calls a woman a dog. I like Jesus in the beatitudes; I don't like him when he talks about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand. We tailor and customize our view of Scripture and, ultimately, our view of God. It's like we have our own internal algorithm all the time, sorting through and processing the biblical data to say, "Oh, I accept this part, I'll preach this part, this part is useful to modern society; but this other part I'm embarrassed—even ashamed—of."

The context of judgment

But when you look at this text, you've got to look behind it—at the context of it. How did the Israelites get where they were? It seems that three things led to their spiritual defeat. The first thing was overconfidence. You might remember prior to this chapter, after that great victory at Jericho, Joshua didn't send much of his army, only about 3,000 men, up there to Ai. He assumed he didn't need to send the whole army. He never consulted God. He didn't talk about military strategy. He basically said, "You know, men, we're on a roll here; God has given us the victory at Jericho, so why don't you guys go up there to that little village of Ai, and you can take them, too. God will give you the victory." But when they got there, God withdrew his hand of blessing and Israelites were killed. They died because they went up there to Ai overconfident, trusting in the flesh.

Now, understand: they were aiming at a spiritual objective. God had told them to conquer the land. It's not that what they were doing was out of the will of God; rather, their folly was not consulting God. It's possible for us to have spiritual objectives but to go about them in the strength of our flesh—to fall prey to our own overconfidence, much like the Israelites did at Ai the first time.

The Israelites were also guilty of overindulgence. What was Aichen's great sin? He indulged the flesh.

When they went in to Jericho, God wanted the Israelites to learn something about himself. Though he allowed them to keep spoil from other cities in Canaan—cities they conquered after Jericho—he first wanted to teach the Israelites what was most important. God did not want his people to develop a taste and thirst for stuff. He didn't want them to think that conquering the land was about acquiring wealth, and so he said: "This first city, Jericho, is completely devoted to me; it all belongs to me—you can't touch a thing." You find that principle always throughout Scripture, that our first things should belong to God—the first minutes of your day, the first day of the week, the first tenth of your income. Offering God these first fruits acknowledges his lordship over all. Jericho was the first fruits of Canaan, so God said: Don't touch it. Don't take it. Yet Aichen saw that beautiful Babylonian garment, he saw the gold and the silver jewelry, and he stole it. He indulged his flesh.

Overindulgence will ultimately lead to overprotection. Here's the unavoidable truth about sin when you know God: you just can't enjoy it. Aichen didn't put the garment on, strut down the street, and say, "Hey, what do you think? Don't I look good?" He couldn't do that. Everyone would know where he got it. All he could do was take the garment and bury it in his tent. The silver, the gold jewelry—he couldn't adorn his wife with them and say, "Look what I got my wife." He had to bury them with the garment.

I picture Aichen lying there night after night on his cot, knowing that the thing that he has stolen lies beneath him. Like so much hidden sin in our lives, he can't enjoy it. He can't display it. There's nothing more delightful than enjoying the blessings of God. I just delight to have a wonderful wife. I bask in her presence; I enjoy her companionship, her fellowship, her friendship, her love. I'm so glad I don't have to hide that. I can't tell you there'll never be a picture of me on the Internet snuggled up with a hot blonde, but I will tell you this: if it appears, it's Tanya, trust me. I enjoy my wife.

Wouldn't it be an awful thing to try and steal a few moments of pleasure that you really can't enjoy? You just feel the guilt of conviction. It's a terrible trade-off. You've done something against the will of God, and there's no delight there, no joy there. You can't enjoy sin when you're a believer. A lost man can enjoy his sin; a lost woman can indulge her flesh and have a great time. But a child of God has a conflict, and whenever there's a conflict between what you believe and what you do, you are going to be one miserable person. Conviction sets in. Aichen can't enjoy his sin, and Israel can't win a victory because of this. Before God judges Ai, he judges Aichen. Judgment has to begin with the house of God; he deals with his people first.

The case for judgment

Then comes Ai. This is not a pretty story. It's very difficult for the modern Christian. Of course, Christ has come, and we're not a theocracy; we are not a nation. We don't have a physical army; we don't carry literal, physical weapons. The war that we fight is a spiritual battle; we no longer wrestle against flesh and blood, but that was not so in Joshua's day. God had commanded the Israelites to go into the Promised Land. He had commanded them to wipe out the Canaanites. Joshua and the Israelite army killed every man, woman, boy, and girl in Ai. Let's be blunt: they burned, beat, stabbed, and hacked them to death. There's no way to put a shine on that.

The historicity of this reality has led to several errors. Liberal Christians simply run and retreat from it. They'll say things like, "Well, the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament; it's a different God." In his book God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens sort of chides the liberal Christians and basically challenges, "Have you read the Book of Revelation? When Jesus comes again, according to the Book of Revelation, what you've seen in the Old Testament is small potatoes compared to what Christ is going to do in his reign on this earth—the destruction he's going to reap on this planet." So you really can't say the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, though some do.

Some others will say, "Well, the Israelites simply misunderstood God's will. God would never want his people to do this." Still others say, "The Bible is just for inspiration—it's not literal. I mean, how could a God of love command people to kill little children and their mothers and fathers? It's not possible."

All of these people are responding to God's Word with "like" or "dislike." They're setting their own algorithm—establishing their own standards of God's behavior. They're asking God to conform to their own understanding of justice and righteousness. People choose to make God fit their man-made theology. Men civilize God—they try to make him a nice guy. But an honest reading of Scripture simply says that God is not civilized. Don't limit him or humanize him or make him fit your idea of how he ought to behave.

A few things are worth noting here. First of all, God has been amazingly patient with Ai up to this point. Let's just examine who these people are. In Genesis 15, when God promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan, he surveys the land with Abraham and says, "In the fourth generation, your descendants are going to return here because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." In other words, the cup of the Amorites' iniquity had been steadily filling with their sin and unrighteousness for generations—for some 400 years. They had seen the witness of Sodom and Gomorrah. They had heard what God had done to the Egyptians when the Israelites came up out of Egypt. They had heard what the Israelites had done to the kings Sihon and Og. They had seen the miracle at Jericho. I mean, Ai is a small country. They had spies; they knew that God was bringing the Israelites into the land. Remember what Rahab said when the spies went into Jericho? She said, "We have heard of your God and we have feared." Rahab confessed to them that for forty years the people of Jericho had been fearing that day when the Israelites would cross the Jordan River and come into Canaan. No doubt, the people of Ai knew it too. They could have done what Rahab did. They could have aligned themselves with the Israelites. They could have come to them and said, "We want to worship your God. We want you to have mercy on us." But they didn't. They set themselves in array against them. They did not repent even though God had given them 400 years to do so.

Not only did the people of Ai not repent, but do you know what their religious practices were like? Read all of the laws and commands that God gave his people in the Book of Deuteronomy. Why did God tell his people not to commit bestiality? Why did God command his people not only to refrain from committing adultery, but also incest? Why did God tell his people not to commit sexual acts with children, and not to pass their children through the fire? Because all those people outside of Israel were doing every bit of that stuff. God wanted the Israelites to show what his holiness looked like in distinction to the Amorites, the Canaanites, and all those people that lived around them. God wanted them to see what holiness was like. And God had been gracious. God allowed them—like in the days of Noah—time and space to repent. He allowed them a witness. And yet still they did not repent. So the day came when God said it was time.

This situation generates four truths that we can't miss. First of all, we have to acknowledge that God is greater than us. Because he's created us, he has absolute right over us. We cannot compare God's actions toward humanity to our actions toward one another. They're just not in the same category. He is the creator and the sustainer of life. Second, God's glory is greater than anything. What God desires more than anything is his glory. He wants to be glorified. Third, God has the right and the ability to judge. And fourth, we have neither the right nor the ability to judge God. Yet, when we look at a passage like this, we want to. We want to say, "How can God do that? How can God be so violent with these people at Ai?" Though the passage is utterly brutal, I think there's a clue in the text worth noticing.

The gospel of Jesus within judgment

There's one person in Ai who is singled out. Did you see that? That person is the king. When Israel's two armies surround the army of Ai and everyone in Ai is put to death and the city destroyed, the Israelites keep the king of Ai alive. They take him to Joshua. Now, know that there's a motif throughout Scripture about the king. Often the king is mentioned instead of the country. Remember that when Abraham rescued Lot, the text describes the battle of the five kings versus the four kings. The kings represent their countries and their people. If you look all the way in Revelation 6, when the sixth seal is opened, it's the kings of the earth that run into the caves and cry for the mountains to fall on them, because the kings represent their people. Joshua knows that.

The king of Ai is kept alive for a unique and special punishment. Others are put to death immediately, but this king is preserved and brought to Joshua. Now, Joshua had been mentored by Moses. He had been with Moses when the law was given, and Joshua very well knew the command in Deuteronomy 21 where God said that if you really want to curse someone, you hang them on a tree. It was a sign of ultimate disgrace to expose a body like that: "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." Joshua knew that this king represented his people: all of their bestiality, all of their pagan pornographic worship, all of their sacrificing of children. This king represented all of the sins of all those people, and Joshua puts him to death. He hangs him on a tree. He leaves him hanging there in disgrace. There is no punishment too great; there is no curse too awful for this king, because he has been the leader of his people. He bears the mark of the sins of his people, and Joshua brings him outside the city walls and hangs him there in defeat and disgrace. It's an awful picture.

If you judge God for that act, you're going to have a real problem with something that happens 1,300 years later. There is another King, and his people are every bit as wicked as the people of Ai. His people are guilty of all kinds of atrocities and sins. His people deserve the same death the people of Ai received; their cup of iniquity also is full. This King's name is Jesus, and he represents all the sins of all his people. One day he's taken outside the city walls, and he bears the sins of all those he represents, and there he's hanged on a cross. God's judgment is poured out on him. He bears God's wrath. The same curse that Joshua inflicted on the king of Ai is applied to Jesus. But this King is different, because unlike the king of Ai, this King—though he represents all his people, though he bears all their sin—this King has himself not sinned. This King is perfect. This King is holy. Yet he takes their guilt and receives their punishment. God's judgment is poured out on him, and his people are allowed to live. I find it much more difficult to understand why God allows the people of King Jesus to live, than I do to understand why God allowed the people of Ai to die.

When you think about it, would it have mattered if the people of Ai had lived to be 80, 90, or 100 years old and had died a natural death? Would their ultimate end have been less worse, any less horrible, any less troubling? You see, the great tragedy is not the means of their death; the great tragedy is that they deserved to die and they received that death. But King Jesus, when he died, he took our sins upon himself so that we do not have to die. God's wrath and his mercy are both met perfectly in this King on the cross. God's judgment and his love are displayed fiercely before our eyes on the King who did not deserve to die, though his people did.


If you have a problem with the God of the Old Testament, then I assure you, you eviscerate the gospel too. Because the same God who judges the people of Ai judges his own Son for the sins of his people. A gospel with no wrath is no gospel at all. You cannot understand mercy and grace until first you understand what you deserve is death. I don't need Jesus to be my buddy, my best friend, and my traveling companion through life; I need him first to be my Savior, my King.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The Problem of Judgment

II. The Context of Judgment

III. The Case for Judgment

IV. The Gospel of Jesus within Judgment