Message: Praising God in the Tumult | Scripture: Joshua 8: 10- 29 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
As many of you know, I love to play tennis, and part of the reason why I like it so much is because it’s a game that takes just as much mental ability as it does physical ability. In fact, whenever I play a match, there’s always a big distinguishing feature between those that I win and those that I lose—and very often it has little to do with the quality of my strokes or my talent level. Rather, it is almost entirely tied to how well I execute my game plan. See, I always go in knowing exactly what it is that I want to work on both to get better and to put myself in a strong position to win.
But every so often, as many players, especially at my level, tend to do, I’ll make a mistake, and I’ll let that mistake alter my game plan. Then, when that mistake becomes a repeated pattern, I start to develop a plan in my head that has nothing to do with my original plan. Eventually, all the goals I had set prior to the start of the match begin to disappear, and the game that I went into with the mindset to win takes on more of a character of me trying simply not to beat myself.
See, the biggest difference between the matches that I win and lose is found in my posture and attitude towards the game, the strategy that I’m supposed to follow, and my ability to execute that strategy consistently.
Our text today has a lot to do with execution—execution of a plan—making sure that Joshua and Israel stick to that plan and do all the things that God commands them to do. But as much as there is in our passage about doing certain things, the underlying message focuses less on this and more on one’s the posture, and in particular, maintaining a posture of worship and submission to the will of God—no matter what their circumstances are. They’ve found out throughout this entire ordeal with Achan, and their first battle against Ai that doing the right thing is important, but one cannot do the right thing if one’s posture of worship is absent.
We are to have a posture of worship in every circumstance—in our wins and our losses—in good times and bad. Why? Because God controls the narrative, and we simply get to be participants in his plan. Our posture is one of worship, even in the tumult, because we are participants in all of this and not authors. We are servants and not masters—servants to a holy, omnipotent, and sovereign God. This is what we see in our text today, and like normal, because this is a longer passage, I’ll be reading the applicable verses to you as we come to their respective points within the outline.
1) Remember Where You’ve Come From
Read with me Joshua 8:10-13. TWoL: Joshua arose early in the morning and mustered the people and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people of Ai. And all the fighting men who were with him went up and drew near before the city and encamped on the north side of Ai, with a ravine between them and Ai. He took about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. So, they stationed the forces, the main encampment that was north of the city and its rear guar west of the city. But Joshua spent that night in the valley.
In the first nine verses of this chapter, we’re told that Joshua is to take 30,000 men to set up the battle lines and to set a trap for Ai, but in these verses we learn that only 5,000 are to be a part of the trap, which tells us that the main force that goes up to the north of Ai to play the role of decoy numbers around 25,000.
This makes sense because, tactically speaking, Joshua wants to make sure that the force that draws Ai’s army out is distracting and imposing enough that they pay no attention to the western side of the city. What’s important to note here for us is that later on in verse 17, we’re told that there was not a man left in either Ai or Bethel. That’s how we get the number of 12,000 slain in verse 25. Remember, the initial force sent up by Joshua in chapter 7 numbered around 3,000 because the size of Ai was small. But here, there are 12,000, which means by this time, the forces of Ai and Bethel have probably come together in a joint effort. We also know that this is probably the case because later in Joshua we’re told that Bethel has been defeated despite the author never discussing an actual battle in Bethel.
This detail is important because Bethel is to the west of Ai, so Joshua’s force has to be big enough and intimidating enough that the battalions of Bethel aren’t thinking, we need to be watching our own city to the west. They must think that all of Israel is amassed here in the north. An army of 25,000 Israelites compared to the previous 3,000 would have probably accomplished that goal, leaving the 5,000 hidden in the ravine unnoticed.
Additionally, the author includes all of these details for us to consider—the sheer number of Israel’s army, the overwhelming nature of the situation, the bleakness of Ai and Bethel’s situation—so that when we read these verses, we start to get a sense of excitement. We’re meant to become expectant that Israel, after all of their disobedience and Achan’s sin, the tide of battle is about to shift. Israel is finally on the cusp of victory, and we can taste it. God has planned this. His people are going to execute his plan, and they will prevail.
Yet, the genius of the authorship of this book is that its writer knows this. He knows our anticipation and adrenaline are building, and he knows that, in our reading these facts and seeing the details play out, we might be tempted into our own position of arrogance—just like what happened the first time with Ai. And he wants to draw a line in the sand—he wants to make sure that we do not become the very thing that God has set out to destroy, again.
How does he do this? Well he includes this small detail at the end of verse 13—after all the preparations have been made—after the ambush has been set in the west, and the main forces have been stationed to the north of the city—we’re told, “But Joshua spent that night in the valley.” Which valley? Well some commentaries say it’s the valley that the main force of Israel is staying in with the elders, but I’m fairly certain that is not the case because the encampment isn’t in the valley. It’s to the north of a ravine. But what’s quite telling is that the word for ravine and valley in the Hebrew text are different words. The author isn’t referring to the ravine, he’s referring to a different valley—one that’s away from the people of Israel and from their forces in the north and west.
No, the valley that Joshua goes back to—the last time we see this word for valley—is in reference to that place where everything went wrong—he goes back to the Valley of Achor. And why does he do this? He does it to remember what happened last time. He does it to remember where he and Israel’s come from. He’s sitting on the cusp of battle, and he knows the temptation to grow in arrogance—to lose one’s posture of worship—to lose sight of the God who has put all of his plan into action.
See, Joshua knows that he could be ramping himself up. He could be thinking, God has planned this all out, so I’m going to sit back, celebrate with my people, and we’re going to stick our thumbs at the enemy like we’re better than them. But instead of doing these things, he goes back to the valley, and there he recounts his steps and takes every precaution so that history does not repeat itself.
Brothers and sisters, there are times where we will know that we have the upper hand, the better idea, and the clearer vision, but our knowledge of these things is never a reason to boast in or praise ourselves, nor is it reason to lord it over those who oppose us. Justice, vengeance—those things belong to God. What’s more is that we belong to God, and God will do with us as he pleases, and instead of boasting in our apparent victories, we ought to be sobered and humbled that God might give us a grace that we do not deserve.
We are to let this text—Joshua’s soberness and humility in the face of his victory—be a lesson to us, calling us to be constant and vigilant in our own soberness and humility, especially when God’s given us victory despite deserving defeat. We aren’t meant to rub our achievements in the faces of the arrogant and make them feel worse about it. Why? Because God’s grace is not owed to us. We do not deserve better than misery, and we have no boast in our accomplishments.
But make no mistake in our victories and in our defeats—in every circumstance, God always deserves our praise because he is God and we are not. He has every right to strike down the wicked and lay low the haughty, both of which we are, yet by the very fact that we live and breathe—all of our life and all of our breath belongs to him who preserves us.
We’re to remember where we’ve come from—that we were in the valley of the shadow of death where we ought to have been slain. In that valley, we rebelled against a most holy God, we celebrated our own wickedness, and yet, through all of this, God has not dealt with us as our sins deserve. And as a response, there is only one posture we can have—a posture of worship—one that responds in perpetual, joyful sobriety and humility.
Worship your God in your victories so that when the darkness comes, and you feel the weight of your flesh and the temptations of the devil, you’ll be well practiced and well-seasoned, like Joshua was, to stand there in the Valley and know that when, not if, God delivers you, he will do it in the fullness of his own grace.
2) Be Patient for the Outcome
Follow along with me as I read to you from Joshua 8:14-23. TWoL: And as soon as the king of Ai saw this, he and all the people, the men of the city, hurried and went out early to the appointed place toward the Arabah to meet Israel in battle. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten before them and fled in the direction of the wilderness. So, all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. They left the city open and pursued Israel. Then 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 soons 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, and 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.
Right on the surface of this text, we see two results in the two opposing camps with how they approach the battle. On the one hand, with the people of Ai, we see an impetuousness or an impatience in verses 14-17. What we read is, “as soon as the king of Ai saw this, he and his people hurried and went out unaware of the ambush set for them to the west of the city.” There is no record that the king attempted to seek surrender from Israel, there’s no record of peace talks—nothing. The king of Ai goes out excited and impatient for the prospect of war—for the prospect of subduing and destroying Israel.
So impatient and blinded is he by his ambition for war that he forgets all the normal preparations that take place for war. He doesn’t check that the ramparts are intact, that the gates and other entrances into the city are shut, he doesn’t check for his people’s safety—he assumes it, he does not send out a scout to examine the rest of the land and determine if any traps have been laid. He is impetuous and confident that he knows and sees everything there is to know and see about this war.
But how easily is the knowledge and sight of man manipulated by the impatience of his heart. Right? How many of us have attempted to do something before we were ready to do it? How quick are we to run into the fire without the proper equipment, training, and strategy? Or to speak without thinking? Perhaps some of us are more impetuous than others, but all of us have fallen short in the impatience and ambitions of our hearts—all of us, in some way, are like the king and people of Ai—those who think we author our own fates and can fly by the seat of our pants without due consideration for our blind spots—those places that we leave open for the temptations of our flesh to creep in and destroy us.
How, then, might we reverse the course of our impatience? Well, Joshua and Israel provide us with the second result, the proper approach to a tumultuous situation, in verses 18-23—knowing that we deserve nothing—that there is no boast in ourselves, we’re to be patient that God will reveal to us his plans in his time and not ours.
See, in the midst of their running, which I’d like to point out would have looked absolutely ridiculous—25,000 men of Israel running from fewer than 12,000 men of Ai—a literal 2 for 1, if not 3 for 1 situation—in the midst of their running, Joshua isn’t waiting for the most opportune time for him to signal the ambush. No, he’s waiting for the words that come in verse 18: “THEN the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” Let’s not miss that even this command might have looked ridiculous to his enemies (a man running and holding up a javelin pointed at their city), and from Joshua’s perspective, it might have been heavy and burdensome to do, but he does it exactly as God tells him to do it anyway.
Why? Because Joshua isn’t waiting for the moment that is strategically perfect in his eyes to lay the ambush, he’s simply waiting for God to show up, reveal to them his plan, and enable them to execute that plan according to his will with exacting precision.
It is very possible that God simply allows Israel to keep running while leaving the 5,000 to suffer whatever fate he’s planned for them. It is very possible for God to allow these fewer than 12,000 fighting men of Ai to strike down these 25,000 Israelite men in their backs as they are running away—it’s happened before. Joshua doesn’t know and control exactly how or when God will show up—if he will show up, but one thing he does know—and one thing he has learned so far—God controls these events. He will do as he, alone, is pleased to do.
And regardless of what happens, Joshua knows, as a result of God’s control, that he has one obligation, and that is to respond reverently and submissively—to worship the sovereign God over all, trusting him with whatever outcome he is pleased to bring about. Joshua is not crying out, “when, Lord, shall you come,” and he’s not debating the ridiculousness of his people’s situation as he’s running, contemplating their advantage—“if I only turn around, this could be very different.” No, he’s not letting his heart, pride, or ambition dictate the terms of his engagement, like this pagan king is. Joshua is simply seeking after and waiting for the voice of his God because he’s learned: God, alone, can give Ai into his hand.
How is it that we can praise God in the tumult? How do we praise him in those times of uncertainty? By recognizing that all things, regardless of what the world thinks it knows, or whatever it thinks it can accomplish—all things are only certain in God, and we are simply called to worshipful patience as we await the fruition of his plans.
Now, you may be sitting there saying, “I know that God controls the outcome. I know that he reveals his plans in his time for his glory.” But I ask you, what is the posture of your heart towards God when things are certain, and your victory is clear? Then, ask yourself, simultaneously, what is the posture of your heart towards God when things are uncertain, and your victory is not so clear? Is there a difference?
You might find, either to your surprise or not, that you feel you’re more faithful and more worshipful in the uncertain circumstances than in the certain ones. Why? Because we’re naturally arrogant. And what does that reveal to us about ourselves? It reveals that we don’t truly know or consider the truth of God’s sovereign control half as much as we think we do. It shows us we’re not half as faithful or worshipful as we might think we are.
Brothers and sisters, we are to have the same posture of worship—the same posture of response in reverent submission to the commands and will of God—in every circumstance because all of our lives—the wins and losses—are from God to point us back to God. We are to be patient, sober, and humble as we wait for the outcome because God will bring it about—he is faithful to his cause, and we are to have no doubt that he will bring glory to himself while also acting for our good. But whether or not we know or see that good for ourselves is not the issue—the issue is who do you trust your God to be? Is he God or is he not? If he is not, then you ought not worship him. But if he is, then your posture ought never change. If he is, then you ought to have patience in the good times, as well as the bad, as you await his appointed outcome.
3) Participate in God’s Bigger Picture
Let’s read now the last little section of our passage, Joshua 8:24-29. TWoL: 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.
Now, I know I said a lot of things in that last section that might make you wonder if I’m preaching to you a form of hyper-Calvinism, what some people call fatalism—that it doesn’t matter what you do, or that you can sit on your hands, and God will still accomplish his plans and goals regardless of your involvement or participation in them. But I want to make sure that you know that I am not saying that. I do not advocate for a form of God’s sovereignty where we are insignificant in his plans. We are significant. But what I am saying is that we are not significant because of anything in ourselves or because of any accomplishments that we’ve achieved, we are significant only because God desires to include us and make us both active and willing actors in history.
This is what we see in our text, no? God is clear to repeat himself that he, alone, has given the victory of Israel over Ai into their hands. But the author is also very clear to state that while God is sovereign over it all, the king of Ai is the one who sees Joshua and musters his people to the north gate. And it is Joshua who gives the command to set the ambush, raise his javelin, and keep it raised as the city is completely destroyed. God desired these things to come about, but so did the king of Ai and Joshua—their desire was compatible with God’s desire for them—and in both instances, God gave them exactly what they wanted.
But what we mustn’t do is ascribe our ability to act as being equal to God’s authority and control. We are not co-authoring our story. No, in following our desires, we do so without any hint of sovereign foresight or foreknowledge. His control over all of history simultaneously through time and over time reveals to us that no matter what decision we make, we cannot frustrate his plans because he sees all while we see little. He knows us intimately, while we know only what he allows us to know.
In Joshua’s situation, in his remembrance of where he’s come from, and in his patience for the outcome, what he sees when he looks back after raising his javelin is that the ambush works—there have been absolutely no deviations or hiccups. And in the sovereign, perfect outworking of God’s plan, Joshua and Israel become participants in their own redemption from Ai when, seeing that smoke rise from the city, they are finally able to turn around and strike down every single person who thought that they could outmaneuver their God. This is what he sees—that at the perfect time, God determined that the ambush had to be sprung, just as the enemy thought they had Israel in their grip, and in an unexpected turn of events, it turns out that that same enemy has played directly into the hands of those meant to conquer them.
This is what Joshua knows through what God has shown him. This is how Joshua participates in the bigger picture of God’s historical plan of salvation. But what we get to see as a fulfillment of these events is that same God overcoming not only the city of Ai but all of his enemies—all of our enemies—in a fashion more genius and more incredible than what we see in our verses today. Because at the right time, as we were remembering our sinfulness and our weakness, as we were waiting patiently for our deliverance, which we could not secure for ourselves, as our enemy thought they had us in their grip, God unexpectedly sends his only begotten Son to die for the ungodly so that we, now, might look back and see not our man, our Saviour buried or hiding in the ground. No, he has been raised, and he has come into the city, and he has set the enemies fortifications on fire.
It is then, as we see the smoke of that flame, that our own hearts are set aflame with a zeal and courage that cannot be put out. And we turn back from our godly sorrow, from our waiting, and from our running, and we become, like Joshua and Israel, men and women possessed to obtain all that God has ordained to give into our hands because God has arrived, and the waiting is over.
And what is the result of our participation in the plans of God as he reveals them to us? Verse 25 tells us: all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000—and all of them—all of those people who were slain were from Ai. In other words, not a single one who belonged to God—not a single Israelite then, and not a single Christian now, shall be lost in the tumult.
And not only shall none be lost in the tumult, but through this ambush—through the trap set for the devil and his followers in the cross—not only do we get to keep our lives, but we are provided with an inheritance where no inheritance existed before. See, verse 27 tells us—not only do the dead belong solely to Ai—but all that stuff that was once theirs now belongs to Israel.
In the same way, all of the earth, all of the kingdom of heaven, all that the world and the devil sought to possess—all of it shall be given to those who possess a posture of worship. Why? Because God’s already given them all that they desire in Christ. If what he offers us is his own greatest treasure, what, then, will he withhold from us? All of his joy and satisfaction—all of our joy and satisfaction—is found in Jesus.
Why is it that we can have a posture of worship in every circumstance? It’s because we remember where we’ve come from in our sinfulness and desperation and know that we have no boast in ourselves. It’s because we are patient for the outcome—for God to show up and do that which he pleases. And it’s because he has shown up. He has spoken in our midst, he has sprung the ambush, he has set the enemies fortifications on fire, and he has called us to himself to be participants with him as we crush his enemies and claim their spoil as our own inheritance. This is our God. This is our Saviour, the Son of God, come to save sinners like you and me by dying upon a cross for our sins, in our stead, and as an ambush for the devil and his followers. In every circumstance, we are called to worship our holy and wise God because he, alone, is worthy of our praise. He alone is in control. He alone can satisfy us in our waiting. He alone can save us from the tumult—and in Christ, he already has.