In Joshua 8, the Scriptures recount the second battle of Ai and the means by which Joshua and the children of Israel took the city. The account reads: “So Joshua sent them out. And they went to the place of ambush and lay between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai, but Joshua spent that night among the people. Joshua arose early in the morning and mustered the people and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to 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 guard west of the city. But Joshua spent that night in the valley. And as soon as the king of Ai saw this, he and all his 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 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, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped” (Jos. 8:9-22 ESV).
There are a number of lessons that can be learned from this battle and the events preceding it in chapter 7. Although we generally consider Israel when it comes to examination and application of the text, consider with me some spiritual lessons we need to learn from the actions of Ai.
In the first place, Ai focused only on the enemy directly before them. They gave no thought that there could be other dangers in the vicinity and they focused all of their energy and manpower on the singular point of contact with the enemy. In doing so, they left themselves open for attacks from other directions and wound up defeating themselves by their own brashness.
Sometimes Christians can do the same thing. We get so focused on one particular enemy, temptation, or problem that we neglect to be watchful for others that, though not as visible, are just as deadly. Some Christians, in their vigilance to uphold truth and keep the church pure, have so focused on “keeping their brethren in line” that they are not even watching any longer for the other enemies that are around them. Eventually, they wind up being blindsided by other problems they did not know existed because they were so focused on one area they could not see anything else. Some preachers have become so focused on certain issues (commonly called “hobby horses”) that they ignore other equally dangerous topics and concerns that wind up devouring the souls of those they were trying to save. We need to learn the lesson of Ai and not become too focused on one enemy. We must fight, yes, but the battles can come from any direction and we must remain focused on the truth and a balanced defense of God and his Word.
In the second place, Ai left the protection of their city to engage the enemy. Spiritually, we have a fortress in which we reside: God, our rock and security (Psa. 18:2). When we remain with him in the fortress of the church, which he has made available to us, we are protected and safe from the enemies without. Unfortunately, Christians sometimes decide, as the king of Ai did, to leave the fortress in order to defeat the enemy. This is often a painful, if not deadly, decision. How many times have people left the confines of God’s Word and God’s plan to seek to save the souls of others? How many have argued for more “modern” worship services or permit their families to “experience” other kinds of service that God has not authorized under the auspices of having opportunity to teach someone else? How many times have Christians left their Christianity behind in their language and actions because someone else was belittling, mocking, or disrespecting God or the church? We need to learn the lesson of Ai that leaving the safety of the city only leads to our own destruction. We can be confident and safe within the confines of God’s Word and his promises; when we leave them behind, we leave behind our only hope of survival.
Though there are many lessons to be learned from the Israelites taking Ai, let us be sure to examine all of the lessons available, not just the ones that come from one side. May we ever be watchful for all enemies no matter the direction from which they come; and may we always remember that it is within the walls of safety, provided by God’s Word and his church, that we have our salvation.