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The Taking of Ai Spiritualised
THE details of this chapter are certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the later revelations of the mind of God. We have nothing to do with the chapter locally and incidentally; in that respect it is a forgotten thing. Revelations are unquestionably matters of time. This is the solution of many difficulties which are supposed to be found in the Bible, where there are really no difficulties at all when the whole is measured by the right scale and examined in the true light. It must not be thought that the events recorded in the Bible took place one after another, just as quickly as they could occur. There may be ages between one book and another. The first chapter of Genesis may be a chapter stretching over countless epochs, rising and falling myriads of years. Between Malachi and Matthew there is but a page in the printed book, but between Malachi and Matthew as a matter of historical literature there is a span of four hundred years; in other words, Malachi having laid down his pen, that pen is not taken up in continuous history for four centuries. Keep this in view, and very much that is cloudy and perplexing will be dissolved and made luminous. What, therefore, shall we do with a chapter like this, so full of cunning, stratagem, military surprises, and what would be called sharp practice upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of Ai? We can spiritualise it in the best sense. There is a legitimate way of spiritualising ancient history, and this is the only way in which a history of this kind can be treated with modern pertinence, comfort, and edification.
With this precaution then, how does the striking story appeal to us? It appears, in the first place, that in going out to battle with anything that is doomed we must have a right character and a right cause. This was insisted upon in the case of Ai. The Lord would not allow a blow to be struck at the city by a wicked hand; he will have judgment executed by righteousness; he will have the law proclaimed by lips that have been circumcised and anointed. Israel was all but innumerable in force. In relation to the city of Ai, Israel was a torrent that could not be withstood. But Israel had committed sin. A goodly Babylonish garment and two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold fifty shekels in weight had been stolen by an Israelitish soldier. The Lord will not have such warriors. His purpose has ever been to prove that right is might, that without character we cannot do his work not spotless character, which may be impossible under present conditions, but character that is intensely in earnest, set in the right direction, aspiring after continual perfectness. Do not go to battle with a wrong cause, or your weakness will be assured before you begin. No man can be really eloquent upon a bad cause. He may be fluent, and may use many highly-coloured words, and use them with great skill; but earnestness of conviction is absolutely necessary to all-persuasive and all-enduring eloquence. So, before going to war, there must be an inquiry instituted into the character and into the quality of the thing that is proposed to be done. The first great inquiry of man is a moral inquiry, not an inquest about numbers, places, and possible issues but, is this thing right? and am I right who attempt to do the work? That being the case, go forward. Do not be deterred by any man, by any man's threatening, or any man's inexcusable folly, but proceed steadily, prayerfully, confidently. This is the rule of the chapter. This is the rule of all ages. Do not take a step until that rule has been observed and realised. Nor must the term "right" be construed narrowly. There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding about right. We have murdered right, or divided it into opinions and enumerated them, and accounted our individual opinions the sum-total of right. Let the spirit commune with the Spirit of God, and inspiration will not be withheld. It will be difficult to keep down selfishness, vanity, ambition, and all that brood, but it lies within the compass of the power of God even to crush the serpent's head.
The next great lesson of this incident is that we must all advance upon the doomed institution. When the idea of taking Ai was first broached, there were clever men in Israel who said, Let two or three thousand of us go up and take the city; the whole army has been perambulating round about the walls of Jericho; it is quite needless to put the entire army to this expense of time and strength; depute some two or three thousand of us, and we will go up and smite Ai and burn it to ashes; it is a pity to weary all the people when a handful of them might execute the design. There are always such meddlesome people in God's army, who will divide, and distribute, and cultivate what they call opinions. They will not allow the great laws of God to move on in massiveness and majesty; they will meddle with God. Two or three thousand of the people of Israel went up against Ai, and we have seen the result. Now we must return, says the historian, in effect, to God's own appointed law in this matter: "I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city" ( Jos 8:5 ). That must be the rule of the Church in all its great moral wars. The battle is not to be handed over to a few persons, however skilful and zealous. The work of teaching the world and saving the world is a work committed to the whole Christian body. There are to be no laymen in this war. We must obliterate the official distinction between clergy and laity, pulpit and pew. The living Church of the living God is one. Forgetting this rule, what has come to pass? that destructive work and constructive work, acts of benevolence and charity, have devolved upon handfuls of men, and they have been left to do all that was needful in battle and in charity. They have been favoured with the criticism of those who have stayed at home. Criticism has never been a scarce article in human history! Persons who have done nothing, sacrificed nothing, given nothing, are the very people who are able, by some vicious inspiration, to find fault with everybody else. When the Church realises its totality, when every man is part of an army and not an isolated warrior, then every Ai doomed of heaven shall reel under the battering-ram which the Church will employ. When all the people are at work, there can be no criticism: they are involved in the same strife and issue; they are common patriots, fellow-soldiers, parts of the same great multitude, and there is no time for mutual exasperation and folly. The clever men, therefore, were in the second instance displaced. They supposed that they had realised quite a clever idea, that all the great body of Israel might remain at home and two or three thousand young, sharp, clever, active men might go up and do all the work, and come galloping home at night conquerors rich with spoil. The Lord will not have it so. Joshua must himself go up, and all the people must go up with him. There are to be no mere critics; there are to be thousands of active soldiers.
This being so, the incident brings before us in a very suggestive and picturesque manner the fact that we must excel the enemy in shrewdness. A perusal of the chapter will show what military cunning was expended upon this particular situation. The idea is not to be taken in its literal sense as applicable today to anything with which the Church has to deal; but this is the eternal thought: that the Church is to be shrewder than the world, believers are to be keener of mind and more active in every energy than unbelievers. Who was to be "wise as serpents," "harmless as doves"? Who was called to realise that startling paradox? It is the law of true advancement and conquest in things moral and divine. But the Church can never learn this lesson. "Harmless as doves," in the sense of doing nothing, the Church is superhumanly able to be; but "wise as serpents" silent, thoughtful, shrewd, far-sighted, patient, who can realise this idea? Whatever the world does, the Church should show a nobler strength. The Church should buy up every institution which it cannot burn up. The Church should have all the thoroughfares and crowd back the evil back, and further back still, till it reels into the river! The Church has not done this, but has taken up positions in quiet corners, and out-of-the-way places, and has lived a very inoffensive and peacefully obscure life. The Salvation Army is right, or Christianity is a mistake. Respectability, conventionally understood, in Christian service may be blasphemy. So long as men remain in obscure positions and show themselves to be so infantile that they would not even injure the devil if they saw him, the devil is perfectly willing that chapels without end should be put up; but where men are burning with godliness, mad with earnestness, where the universe divides itself into heaven and hell, right and wrong, there can be no peace, there can be no truce, there can be no hand-shaking over the chasm. Would Heaven that all the quiet people were on the other side of this question! They could be well spared! Christianity in a fallen world is not quietness. Herein is that wonderful word true: "Think not that I came to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword " I came to kindle a fire upon the earth, and to set a man against his fellow-man, and to make war in the house. We call these expressions "figurative" and escape the awful discipline!
It is evident, moreover, that if we are to do any real work in the world in the name of God and in the cause of Christ, we must be about our business night and day. In the tenth verse we read: " And Joshua rose up early in the morning;" in the thirteenth verse we read: "Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley." That was a soldier's life! We are, as Christians, supposed to be soldiers. How reads the old story? "And Joshua rose up early in the morning.... Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley." It is sad that we can appease our consciences by telling them that this is a piece of ancient history and related to very obscure incidents. It is not so. If men will subject themselves, the apostle says, to such processes of discipline to obtain a corruptible crown, what should we do whose aim is to secure an incorruptible? The argument is a cumulative one, aggravating itself even into agony. If any will so discipline themselves to obtain an ivy or a parsley chaplet, what shall we do whose prize is the crown of life? If we cannot attain this sublimity of heroism, we can at least set it before us, keep it as the continual idea of life. We need not upbraid ourselves unreasonably if we do not attain it, for the apostle himself said he counted not himself to have apprehended, but he pressed toward the mark, that is to say, he was always found pressing in one direction, never vacillating, halting, returning, but eternally set, like the needle to the pole. Who will join this great army? How useful some men might be if they had the spirit of consecration: what time they have on hand! They can rise early and sit up late, and order their affairs with comparative freedom. Would they give themselves to the Cross, would they be slaves of Christ, would they make up their minds to be either infidels or Christians! The difficulty is with the tepid man, with the man who wants to walk upon both sides of the road, to keep sacrament once a month and visit the devil between whiles.
We should miss one great lesson of this story if we did not note that we are bound to set fire to every devoted abomination. Ai was burned. The smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and Ai became, not a heap, but the heap, as if it were the only heap. That was complete work. Is our work complete? Have we added fire to the sword? Is ignorance burned, or is it only labelled "wisdom"? Is slavery burned with unquenchable fire, or has it only changed its relation and its colour? We are called to a work of extirpation. We are not called to compromise, to paltering, to arranging, to expediency where ignorance is concerned, or slavery, or vice, or wrong. We must not omit the fire. Things must be so burned down that they can never grow again. Otherwise we shall have all the work to do over again, and the ages will be hindered in their highest progress.
And after destruction, what then? Positive religion comes next: "Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord God of Israel in mount Ebal" (v, 30). It is no use building your altar until you have burned the abomination. A great destructive work is to be done first, and in the doing of it, there will be great outcry about change, and novelty, and reprisal, and revolution, and confiscation, and a number of terms very imperfectly understood. But we must not build where the altar itself will be burned down. Be sure about the foundation before you put up the building; know where you are going to set the altar. If you have not been faithful in the work of destruction, you cannot be faithful in the work of construction. It is lying unto the Holy Ghost to build an altar upon the basis of a rotten life. So we are called to thoroughness of work. There is to be no superficial action here. In doing this we may give great offence; we may have to part with friends. But our fathers did more than that. Read their history indeed, read the history of all progress, and you will find it to be a history of loss on the one side and of gain on the other. Blessed are those workers in the field to whom no favour can be shown, because they want none, whom it would be impossible to patronise. They, having done the destructive work, may and will erect the altar.
And after the altar, what? The law the law of righteousness, the law of God. Jos 8:32 reads: "And Joshua wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel." This is complete work destruction, the erected altar, the inscribed law. This is healthy work. The surgeon has done his duty, and now nature will proceed to heal and comfort and bless. The enemy has been driven off the field! Now the altar is put up and the law is promulgated. Society without law is chaos. An altar without righteousness is evaporative sentiment. Prayer without duty may be a detachment of the wings from the bird they were intended to assist.
The picture is a right noble one. Omitting all that was local, incidental, and temporary, here stands the great law of spiritual conflict: a right character, a right cause, a unanimous advance, a super-excellent shrewdness, a business that touches the early morning and the late night, fire set to the devoted abomination, an altar built upon the ashes, the law written upon the altar, that is the programme; and any programme whose lines are not covered by this sublime delineation maybe a clever invention, but it is not a revelation from heaven. We are thus called to energy, called to labour, called to sacrifice. We are all called. Merely to hear what the army has been doing is not patriotism. In the Church there is no place for indolence, there is no place for criticism, there is no place for mere sentiment. Has the world to be captured for Jesus Christ, or has it not? If you say it has not, then abandon the standard altogether; if you say it has, then never forsake the standard. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Strive to enter in at the strait gate. Take unto you the whole armour of God. Stand against the wiles of the devil. Never leave it an open question as to which side you are upon. Having done the destructive work, do not imagine that the whole programme is complete; now begin the construction of the altar. And having made a place for prayer, do not suppose that the whole duty of man has been perfected; next put up the law: battle, prayer, law; law, prayer, battle. If there is aught else, it has not yet been to me revealed.
Almighty God, the bitterness of death is past: the world's worst history has been lived; and now the latter days have come upon us days of morning, beauteous and rich with light; the glory of hope is round about us, and heaven is near at hand. We will not sorrow as men who have no hope; this would be to offend thee grievously, for thy providence was never so near our life as it is at this moment. All things teach us the divine nearness. Our own life is a witness that the whole world has become a sanctuary because of the Cross of Christ, and the whole priesthood of the Son of God. We bless thee that the future is lighted up with ineffable glory: now we speak of abolished death, of descending heaven, of immortality, of life all purity, service all music, and hope that cannot fade away. This is the realisation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the very perfectness of love, the bringing to maturity of thine eternal thought concerning man. We will therefore dry our tears, and assure our hearts, and go forward like men inspired and made strong. May all tone of mourning be taken out of our voices, all colour suggestive of dismay and fear be wholly removed from the whole course of our being; may our life be a daily witness to the power and goodness of God. For thine open book we bless thee; for its most ancient history we thank thee; for everything that shows the unity of manhood and the human heart we cannot but be grateful to God. The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. All time is thy clothing; yea, thou hast made a garment of the universe, and thou standest amongst us clothed with that glittering humiliation. Behold, for God to be, is to make all other being possible, and yet to distress it with a sense of infinite distance. Thou chargest the angels with folly; the heavens are not clean in thy sight; what can compare with the infinite pureness of God? Still, thou comest near to us, and thou diest upon a cross; thou settest forth a great mystery of sacrificial blood: we understand it not, but we know it to be the gospel which the heart most needs. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"... an altar of whole stones, aver which no man hath lift up any iron." Jos 8:31
This is a point in the spiritual education of man. We must think ourselves back to the time when such mechanical exactitude was part of personal and national religion. The uses of such studies may be to show how far we have advanced, and to inquire into the methods by which our progress has been realised. We do not advance from those points unless we have really been at them ourselves, either literally or sympathetically. It is not enough to know that the Israelites were at the point of literal detail, such as is indicated in the text; we must ourselves have been at that point in some clearly recognised sense; we do not descend upon great spiritual privileges, but we work up to them through processes of subservience; we are not born into this household of grace and liberty, but are brought into it by long processes of self-rebuke, self-chastisement, and self-denial; all men must begin at the alphabet, and pursue their way into the delights of literature. It is the same with religion as it is with education. We are born into a great literary estate, full of philosophy, poetry, history, and imagination; yet though we are born into this inheritance and have certain rights to it, we can only claim the inheritance by becoming patient inquirers and students: when the philosopher leaves his philosophy to the world, even his own children must begin at the alphabet, and toil up the ascent upon which the great fortune stands. Passages of this kind rebuke the idea that religion now is a merely off-handed exercise, a pleasure that can be taken up or laid down: a species of luxury which may be languidly enjoyed or languidly declined. To build the altar is not to create the God. To build the church is not to unfold the revelation. There is a wonderful co-operation in the whole process of religion. God will, so to say, be met half-way. He will come to the top of the mountain, and meet us at the end of our opportunity. A beautiful thought is this, that God sometimes will come no further down than to the top of the mountain; if he remained one league above it, we could not reach him; but it is in accord with his mercy that he begins where man ends; man toils to the top of the mountain, and cannot proceed one step further, and it is in this extremity that God creates his own opportunity. Although altar-building may now have been done away, and much of mechanical process may have been abrogated, yet still there remains the great fact that man must always make some preparation to meet God and enter into the full enjoyment of religious privileges. The preparation indicates the spirit of the worshipper. When called upon to offer hospitality to a king, we prepare according to the dignity of the guest; when summoned to the presence of some great one, all our preparations are made with a view to the greatness of the man whom we have to meet. We have only to apply these facts in a religious direction to discover what we ought to do when we are called upon to commune with Heaven.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Joshua 8". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11