Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, O Lord GOD, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?”
We must never think that our safety is the glory of God. God’s glory is our security and when we dishonor God we leave ourselves with this security. In this case we have a case of breaking faith with God and so facing divine wrath. When we think that we can far from God and still enjoy His blessings we lose faith. When we think God will reward disobedience, we must come to this passage.
But this passage is the most telling about how we are to come to God in prayer. But what is prayer? Prayer is the immense privilege of communing with God. It is a close personal worship, praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. It is a display of dependence on God, for things pertaining to this life as well as for the one to come. Prayer also discloses sins before God, self-accusing looking for God to show mercy and pardon abundantly. Prayer is also unburdening other people’s problems to God.
There was a double tragedy –
1. The immediate problem was the loss of 36 men by a very tiny community called Ai.
2. The compound problem was that God had withdrawn His support to these people. Clearly God’s invincible and omnipotent hand was not with them, when they were routed by a little city of Ai.
What lessons do we learn here especially on corporate prayer?
Prayer was done by the leaders of Israel led by Joshua, on behalf of the people and so they pray in first person plural – “we…us” and not “I…”. The elders were representatives of each of the tribes of Israel. We read that each of them, led by Joshua spent the whole day with torn clothes, with ashes on their head, and their heads on the ground, crying to the Lord. Talk about taking prayers seriously! Do we as your leaders take prayers this seriously? Do we portray ourselves as men who take communing with God as solemn? They rent their garments as an act and attitude of his not only expressed an humbling of himself beneath the mighty hand of God, an unsparing self judgment for his failure, but it also betokened a spirit of hope. Doesn’t this remind us of the prostration of our Lord in Gethsemane for our sins and trespasses? How our Lord bore our burden of sin, and took the wrath for us? Compare with Matthew 26:39
But it is for this reason that the church and any other gathering of God’s people have to have a serious leader take up this matter. Choice men have to lead in these serious prayers! You notice that Joshua did not ask any of them to pray as many people do these days – when the food is served by their wives they are so quick to delegate the responsibility for their wives and children to “pray for the food!” Such is unbecoming when we realize that prayers are serious moments of communion with God and we should show leadership by praying in the most reverent manner. Remember the New Testament command in 1Timothy 2:8 – “I desire that in every place the men ought to pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling…” This is a NT command that we disregard when we delegate the privilege of prayer to others.
In this story also is the failure of the leadership of Joshua: why did he need to send more spies, especially when God had not said so? Why did Joshua listen to the counsel of the spies on how he was to lead the people – taking orders from his juniors, being led in stead of leading was wrong. But it was also a failure on the people’s part giving counsel to Joshua and in him heeding it instead of respecting and submitting to his leadership. If he had requested for their suggestions it would have been reasonable, but he had not. Their suggestions were full of over-confidence and divisive – only three thousand men will do the job, they are tiny! The result is catastrophic. Moreover, Joshua was to take orders only from the Lord. It is very interesting that this event is so closely related with what had happened after the spies came from spying the land in Numbers 14:2-4 and 20:3-5. The only way to remedy this failure was to go to the Lord in prayer. The Lord who appointed him a leader had to hear of his failure and give him fresh orders. Then the Lord answered his prayer by saying, “Get up!
Do we offer a prayer like this to God or are we too casual in prayer? Do we delight in being led by our pastors in prayers? Shall we take corporate prayers seriously by having men who will seriously think about what they will say to God before men?
In this passage we do not see Joshua employ eloquence of speech or of decorum (he does not mention any of God’s promises). We have here a very spontaneous unburdening of himself before God and in a sense this may appear to be a very faulty prayer. It is a prayer of a desperate leader, he is overwhelmed by the implications of being without God – and so without hope.
How would God uphold His holy Name before the world when His people had been defeated by such a small community of Ai? This in effect meant that when other communities like the Canaanites among others in the land heard of this unfortunately terrible incidence they will all come out to annihilate this people, bring dishonor to the Lord who brought them from the land of Egypt promising them land. In other words, God’s promise to the forefathers to give them the land was at stake, so that His name could be blasphemed among the heathens but also His own people could they continue to trust Him? Clearly, Joshua expected God to give them victory always. This may help us to understand his despair when he tore his clothes – it meant solemn mourning in repentance. We commend them that their despair led them to immediately turn to God and not to their own schemes. Prophet Joel (2:13) says that we rend the hearts and not the garments but here is a company of who rends both the hearts and the garments signifying that their hearts were already rent. Yet according to John Calvin, something I also observe here is that,
Joshua oversteps the bounds of moderation when he challenges God for having brought the people of the desert, but he proceeds to much greater intemperance when, in opposition to the divine promise and decree, he utters the turbulent wish, “Would that we had never come out of the desert!” that was to abrogate the divine covenant altogether. But as his object was to maintain and assert the divine glory, the vehemence which otherwise might have justly provoked God was excused, since he turned to God rather than to men – God is indeed God, slow to anger, full of compassion and abounding in love (Exodus 34:6,7).
Clearly we do not know how to pray. Our prayers are mean and weak – were God to grant us our wishes we would forever sink in the mire of our own perdition. But God is gracious – He answers our prayers far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV) Yet this is not a license to overstep the boundaries set by God in His Word. We must always aim to pray according to the will of God and for His will to be done (the content and motive of our prayers must correspond). Only when the will of God is accomplished in our lives can we experience the liberating delight in the glory of God.
Our prayers have to be simple, humble and modest because we cannot impress God by our eloquence. This is the antidote to hypocritical prayers. No words will surprise God, no manner of praying will take God aback and so we better approach God with in simplicity because He knows our hearts. We are instructed not to pray like the Pharisees do – they pray to be seen and heard by men, their reward is earthly from men – those whose art is in composing prayers. Neither are we to pray like people of this world for they multiply unnecessary words, like the Charismatics who are loud and repetitive (Matthew 6:5-8)
“Alas, O Lord GOD…O Lord, what can I say…? It was not because Joshua was short of words because he went on to pour out his mind and heart to God. It was because he was at anguish of soul for what had befallen the community that he was tasked to lead. More over in saying this, he knew that what he was just about to say could be answered back with a strong rebuke from God, since it was in a sense implying that God had not thought of the honor of His name when he allowed this defeat on His people. He justly complains that he is left without an answer. Now in his prayer he seeks understanding from God and hence the question, “Why…?” Surely Joshua was not seeking to find fault with God! The “Why …?” question can only be explained as an utterance of supreme grief. Yet in this prayer we see him expressing bewilderment at what had happened to be God’s breach of the covenant…because the problem at hand here is not a willful disobedience (as it was in Numbers 14:13-19) but ignorance of a hidden transgression.
Joshua’s prayer contains a complaint in vv.8&9 that could have amounted to murmuring where it not directed to God. But it was very different from the murmuring of the people on that occasion against guidance of God, for it by no means arose from unbelief, but was simply the bold language of faith wrestling with God in prayer, - faith which could not comprehend the ways of the Lord, and involved the most urgent appeal to the Lord to carry out His work in the same glorious manner in which it had been begun, with firm conviction that God neither relinquish nor alter His purposes of grace.
For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?” From this statement of prayer is Joshua’s main petition. This displays the heart of Joshua’s prayer and this is what I call most sincere and earnest prayer. It acknowledges that our hope is in yielding all glory to God as this is the purpose for which He created us. Joshua was so concerned for the glory of God to be manifestly glorious not just to him and the Israelites but also to the people with which they were in contact. Our number priority in prayer must be to seek the glory of God and in our lives. Obviously when we live like the world, the Lord is not glorified.
It should cause us to tremble when we see how the sin of Achan was imputed to the whole of the nation of Israel because God saw them as an organic unity and so one man’s sin defiled the whole nation just as the Lord says that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. One man’s failure is the failure of the whole church, the whole nation. The whole nation had acted unfaithfully before God (v.1) thus all Israel suffer punishment for the sins of one person. But Joshua did not know this, did he? He did not have Joshua 7:1 for his instruction. He did not have the same knowledge we have as read this passage and so he prays with a sincere heart. He intensely pray without knowledge.
Thankfully we have the Lord Jesus Christ who intercedes for us on the right hand of God who is not finite in knowledge as we are. Yes, the One who intercedes for us in not ignorant of the will of God, nor of the sins of men. Christ Jesus the righteous does not depend on men to tell them that they have coveted and lusted in the last week. He does not depend on our confession that we have stolen or we have lied – he knows it all. And so He faithfully represents us with both the sins we have admitted and the ones we haven’t. He pleads for us not with words but by His merit and by His blood. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. (Hebrews 2:16 ESV) and we know that even Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God's house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (Hebrews 3:5-6 ESV)
Christ has also given us the Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26 ESV) Therefore we have all reasons to be prayerful as in the same way Adam’s sins was imputed to us and we also sin daily so that the need for prayer is even greater.
 A.W. Pink, Gleanings on Joshua, Moody press, 1973 reprint, p.186
 J. Calvin, Joshua and the Psalms, AP&A, Grand Rapids, Michigan p. 44
 M. H. Woudstra, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The book of Joshua, Eedermans Grand Rapids Michigan, 1988 reprint, p.124
 Richard s. Hess, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries on Joshua, An Introduction & Commentary, IVP, 1996, Leicester, England, p.149
 Keil & Delitzsch, Commentaries on the Old Testament, Joshua Judges and Ruth , Eedermans, 1970 reprint, Grand Rapids Michigan p.77
 C.J Goslinga, Bible Student Commentary Joshua, Judges and Ruth, Regency Zondervan © 1986, p. 75