So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai: and Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valor…
I. THERE IS SUCH A THING AS VICTORIOUS RETREAT. There are times in your life when the best thing you can do is to run. You were once the victim of strong drink. The glass and the decanter were your fierce foes. Your only safety is to get away from them. Your dissipating companions will come around you for your overthrow. Run for your life! Your retreat is your victory. Here is a converted infidel. He is so strong now in his faith in the gospel, he says he can read anything. What are you reading? Bolingbroke? Theodore Parker? Drop them and run. You will be an infidel before you die unless you quit that. Fly before they cut you with their swords and transfix you with their javelins. There are people who have been well-nigh ruined because they risked a foolhardy expedition in the presence of mighty and overwhelming temptations, and the men of Ai made a morning meal of them. So also there is such a thing as victorious defeat for the Church. Thousands of times the kingdom of Christ has seemed to fall back. When the Vaudois of France chose extermination rather than make an unchristian surrender, when on St. Bartholomew's day mounted assassins rode through the streets of Paris, crying, "Kill! Blood-letting is good in August! Kill! Death to the Huguenots! Kill!" When John Bunyan lay rotting in Bedford Jail, saying, "If God will help me, and my physical life continues, I will stay here until the moss grows on my eyebrows rather than give up my faith," the days of retreat for the Church were days of victory. But there is a more marked illustration of victorious retreat in the life of our Joshua, the Jesus of the ages. First falling back from an appalling height to an appalling depth, falling from celestial hills to terrestrial valleys, from throne to manger; yet that did not seem to suffice Him as a retreat. Falling back still further from Bethlehem to Nazareth, from Nazareth to Jerusalem, back from Jerusalem to Golgotha, back from Golgotha to the mausoleum in the rock, back down over the precipices of perdition, until He walked amid the caverns of the eternal captives and drank of the wine of the wrath of almighty God amid the Ahabs and the Jezebels and the Belshazzars. Oh, men of the pulpit and men of the pew, Christ's descent from heaven to earth does not measure half the distance! It was from glory to perdition. He descended into hell. All the records of earthly retreat are as nothing compared with this falling back. Santa Anna with the fragments of his army flying over the plateau of Mexico, and Napoleon and his army retreating from Moscow into the awful snows of Russia, are not worthy to be mentioned with this retreat when all the powers of darkness seem to be pursuing Christ as He fell back, until the body of Him who came to do such wonderful things lay pulseless and stripped. But let not the powers of darkness rejoice quite so soon. Do you hear that disturbance in the tomb of Arimathea? I hear the sheet rending! What means that stone hurled down the side of the hill? Who is this coming out? Push Him back! The dead must not stalk in this open daylight. Oh, it is our Joshua! Let Him come out. He comes forth and starts for the city. He takes the spear of the Roman guard and points that way. Church militant marches up on one side and the Church triumphant marches down on the other side. And the powers of darkness being caught between these ranks of celestial and terrestrial valour, nothing is left of them save just enough to illustrate the direful overthrow of hell and our Joshua's eternal victory.
II. THE TRIUMPH OF THE WICKED IS SHORT. Did you ever see an army in a panic? There is nothing so uncontrollable. If you had stood at Long Bridge, Washington, during the opening of our unfortunate war, you would know what it is to see an army run. And when those men of Ai looked out and saw those men of Joshua in a stampede, they expected easy work. They would scatter them as the equinox the leaves. Oh, the gleeful and jubilant descent of the men of Ai upon the men of Joshua! But their exhilaration was brief, for the tide of battle turned, and these quondam conquerors left their miserable bodies in the wilderness of Bethaven. So it always is. The triumph of the wicked is short. Call over the roll of bad men who prospered, and see how short was their prosperity.
III. How MUCH MAY BE ACCOMPLISHED BY LYING IN AMBUSH FOR OPPORTUNITIES. Are you hypercritical of Joshua's manoeuvre? Do you say that it was cheating for him to take that city by ambuscade? Was it wrong for Washington to kindle camp-fires on New Jersey Heights, giving the impression to the opposing force that a great army was encamped there when there was none at all? I answer, if the war was right then Joshua was right in his stratagem. He violated no flag of truce. He broke no treaty, but by a lawful ambuscade captured the city of Ai. Oh, that we all knew how to lie in ambush for opportunities to serve God! The best opportunities do not lie on the surface, but are secreted; by fact, by stratagem, by Christian ambuscade, you may take almost any castle of sin for Christ. Come up towards men with a regular besiegement of argument, and you will be defeated; but just wait until the door of their hearts is set ajar, or they are off their guard, or their severe caution is away from home, and then drop in on them from a Christian ambuscade. There has been many a man up to his chin in scientific portfolios which proved there was no Christ and no Divine revelation, his pen a scimetar flung into the heart of the theological opponents, who, nevertheless, has been discomfited and captured for God by some little three-year-old child who has got up and put her snowy arms around his sinewy neck and said, "Papa, why don't you love Jesus?" Oh, make a flank movement; steal a march on the devil; cheat that man into heaven! Do not rub a man's disposition the wrong way. Do not take the imperative mood when the subjunctive mood will do just as well. You can take any man for Christ if you know how to get at him. Do not send word to him that to-morrow at ten o'clock you propose to open your batteries upon him, but come on him by a skilful, persevering, God-directed ambuscade.
IV. THE IMPORTANCE OF TAKING GOOD AIM. There must be some signal — a signal to stop the one division and to start the other. Joshua, with a spear on which were ordinarily hung the colours of battle, points towards the city. He stands in such a conspicuous position, and there is so much of the morning light dripping from that spear-tip, that all around the horizon they see it. It was as much as to say: "There is the city. Take it. Take it now. Roll down from the west side. Surge up from the north side. It is ours, the city of Ai." God knows and we know that a great deal of Christian attack amounts to nothing simply because we do not take good aim. Nobody knows, and we do not know ourselves, which point we want to take, when we ought to make up our minds what God will have us to do, and point our spear in that direction, and then hurl our body, mind, soul, time, eternity, at that one target.
(T. De Witt Talmage.)
Parallel VersesKJV: So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai: and Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valour, and sent them away by night.