August 16, 2009
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a well-known person introduced with these words, “So and so is a person who needs no introduction.” If that’s true, then why are the introductions for such people so long, telling us once again what we are already supposed to know? When we come to the Book of Judges, however, we come to a book of the Bible that really does need an introduction. When I looked at all of my favorite websites to see what others have done, I found that other preachers have done little or nothing on the Book of Judges. I find that Christians in general tend to avoid the book. When others heard that my next preaching series would be on the Book of Judges, the response I received from each has been remarkably similar. Put simply, they’ve looked a bit puzzled and asked, “Why study the Book of Judges?” It is a fair question, one that will take an entire message to answer.
After dealing with a few characteristics of Judges which are important in understanding this book, I will attempt to demonstrate why this book is worthy of our attention, and accomplish this by setting forth some of the main reasons why I believe this book is neglected or ignored by many Christians. As I answer these objections to Judges, I believe we will see why this study is so important today. So, fasten your seatbelts, and come along with me on this study.
1. Judges don’t really “judge.” When I think of a judge, I think of someone who makes legal judgments. In the Bible, I think of those leaders who were appointed to judge the Israelites, thus removing some of the burden from Moses:
12 “But how can I alone bear up under the burden of your hardship and strife? 13 Select wise and practical men, those known among your tribes, whom I may appoint as your leaders.” 14 You replied to me that what I had said to you was good. 15 So I chose as your tribal leaders wise and well-known men, placing them over you as administrators of groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and also as other tribal officials. 16 I furthermore admonished your judges at that time that they should pay attention to issues among your fellow citizens and judge fairly, whether between one citizen and another or a citizen and a resident foreigner. 17 They must not discriminate in judgment, but hear the lowly and the great alike. Nor should they be intimidated by human beings, for judgment belongs to God. If the matter being adjudicated is too difficult for them, they should bring it before me for a hearing” (Deuteronomy 1:12-17; see Exodus 18:13-23).2
Deborah, the prophetess, would come the closest to the “judges” who were appointed by Moses to “judge” the Israelites.3 Ultimately, God was the One who “judged” Israel.4 But more than anything in the Book of Judges, “judges” are presented as military leaders:
16 The Lord raised up leaders who delivered them from these robbers. 17 But they did not obey their leaders. Instead they prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned aside from the path their ancestors had walked. Their ancestors had obeyed the Lord’s commands, but they did not. 18 When the Lord raised up leaders [judges]5 for them, the Lord was with each leader and delivered the people from their enemies while the leader remained alive. The Lord felt sorry for them when they cried out in agony because of what their harsh oppressors did to them (Judges 2:16-18).
The Lord’s spirit empowered him and he led [judged] Israel. When he went to do battle, the Lord handed over to him King Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram and he overpowered him (Judges 3:10).
Often these “military leaders” who are called “judges” actually lead the Israelites in battle. But then there is Samson, who is said to have “judged” Israel (15:20), and yet all of the victories were fought and won by Samson individually (14:19; 15:6-17; 16:28-31). Indeed, the Israelites seemed willing to pacify their Philistine overlords, giving Samson over to them (15:9-13).
More typically in Judges, those who judged initiated combat, inspired the Israelites to go to battle, and led the attack. Some “judges” may have assumed additional leadership functions, as is suggested in this statement:
17 But they did not obey their leaders [judges]. Instead they prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned aside from the path their ancestors had walked. Their ancestors had obeyed the Lord’s commands, but they did not. 18 When the Lord raised up leaders for them, the Lord was with each leader and delivered the people from their enemies while the leader remained alive. The Lord felt sorry for them when they cried out in agony because of what their harsh oppressors did to them. 19 When a leader died, the next generation would again act more wickedly than the previous one. They would follow after other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They did not give up their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:17-19).6
It would seem that nowhere in the Book of Judges does a judge assume the role of a king (whose descendants would become a dynasty). The men of Israel desired this in the case of Gideon, but he rightly declined.7
2. While Joshua dealt with Israel as a nation acting in unity, Judges tends to deal with Israel’s tribes independently. Chapter 1 dwells mainly on the tribe of Judah, which teams up with that of Simeon. When we encounter the terms “Judah” and “Simeon,” we are not to think of these men, who are long since dead, but of the tribes of Judah and Simeon. The oppression of a neighboring country, the raising up of a judge, and the liberation resulting may not encompass the entire nation of Israel. It could impact a smaller area and perhaps one or more of the tribes. Thus, the tribes of Israel are dealt with in a case-by-case manner.
3. The political structure of Judges is not highly centralized. I liken it to the “confederation of states” in American history. The original states were organized as a loosely joined confederation of autonomous, sovereign, states. They operated in unity only at the consent of each of the states. This soon gave way to the federal form of government in which the federal government had considerably greater powers (such as taxation). Likewise, the tribes of Israel operated as a kind of confederation, with each tribe seeking to maintain its sovereignty. Before the period of the Judges, Israel was united under the strong central leadership of Moses or Joshua. When we come to the Book of 1 Samuel, we find the Israelites eventually united under the leadership of its kings (Saul, David, Solomon). The Book of Judges describes a decentralized period of Israel’s history.
4. The Book of Judges thus fills the gap between Joshua and 1 Samuel – in such a way that it prepares the reader for what is to come in 1 and 2 Samuel. It is here that the unique contribution of the Book of Judges can be identified. Every book of the Bible makes a unique contribution to the Scriptures, so that the story would not be complete without any one of the books of the Bible. The unique contribution of Judges is that it describes that period in Israel’s history when it had no strong central leader (like Moses or Joshua), before it came to be led by kings.
5. The Book of Judges also sets the stage for the Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth begins with these words: “During the time of the judges there was a famine in the land of Judah” (Ruth 1:1a). As bad as things were in Israel during the days of the judges, there were still men like Boaz who delighted to obey God’s law, which meant showing compassion to those in need, including a Moabite woman (who was destined to become a part of the Messianic line). We could not appreciate the Book of Ruth as we should without first having read the Book of Judges.
6. Keys to understanding the Book of Judges. As I currently understand the book, there are at least two keys to understanding it. The first should be obvious by its location: the introductions contained in the first chapters of the book. The second is also obvious by virtue of its repetition in the book:
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 17:6).
In those days Israel had no king. And in those days the Danite tribe was looking for a place to settle, because at that time they did not yet have a place to call their own among the tribes of Israel (Judges 18:1).
In those days Israel had no king. There was a Levite living temporarily in the remote region of the Ephraimite hill country. He acquired a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah (Judges 19:1).
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 21:25).
Israel is “kingless” in the Book of Judges, and thus it would appear that the provision of a king would be the solution to its problems. History will prove this assumption to be false (unless, of course, we are speaking of the ultimate “King,” the Lord Jesus Christ).
In addition to this, the Israelites “did what was right in their own eyes.” This is to say that the Israelites lived with disregard toward what God had declared to be right in the Law.
“You must not do like we are doing here today, with everyone doing what seems best to him” (Deuteronomy 12:8).
“In this manner you will purge out the guilt of innocent blood from among you, for you must do what is right before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 21:9).
What Israel really needs is a godly king (God in the flesh) who writes His Law upon the hearts of His people.
Excuse Number 1: There is too much sex and violence in Judges. A number of years ago a colleague and I were preaching in India. We were speaking on the life of Joseph from the Book of Genesis. One of the men objected to our teaching, insisting that there was “too much sex.” The wife of the church leader with whom we were staying interjected, “Go ahead and teach on it! I’ve been speaking to his wife, and this man needs to hear it.”
It cannot be denied that this book contains its share of sex and violence. I would suggest, however, that those who seek to offer this excuse apply this first to the television programs and movies they watch. The sex and violence we watch on TV may be designed to stimulate immoral and ungodly thoughts and actions. This is not so with the accounts we find in the Book of Judges. Immorality and sexual perversion are depicted, but not in a seductive way. They are described in a way that is true to the facts and which condemns both as sin that is accompanied by dire consequences. Sex and violence in Judges are not a “centerfold” required to keep the reader’s interest; they are a description of the consequences of unbelief and disobedience.
I would suggest that the Bible needs to directly address sex and violence precisely because they are so prevalent in our society. Our children need to be warned and instructed regarding these things. Who better to teach them than parents, and what better material is there to teach than the Word of God? I would remind the reader that the Book of Proverbs is a book of fatherly instruction to children, and it has a great deal to say about sex and violence. Judges reinforces the teaching of Proverbs by providing us with real life examples of the consequences of sin.
Excuse Number 2: “I’ve heard it all before.” This is a most disheartening objection. Our children may be bold enough to say it, but many adults are thinking the same thing. It is the result of what we might call the “Sunday school syndrome.” Bible story books and Sunday school curriculum focus a great deal on Bible stories – not a bad thing in and of itself. But the problem is that they are watered down to teach moralistic goals (be kind to others, etc.) while avoiding many of the details, including the message of the story in the context in which they are recorded. The real lessons – the lessons God intended in giving us these stories – are often lost, and having grasped (or so we suppose) the simplistic messages that were taught, the person sees no further need to repeat the same old story once again. I would hope and expect that you will see these old, old, stories in a whole new light.
Excuse Number 3: “Judges is irrelevant to me and to my life.” “Judges is all about the long ago and the far away. It describes a culture and a people who are vastly different from us. How, then, can this book be helpful to me?” Admittedly, the Book of Judges is not easy to understand, so the meaning and message does not come easily. But this is true of all Scripture, not just the Book of Judges.8
There is a dispensational distortion of this error which sets aside all of the Old Testament as a kind of “second class” revelation. Let me be quick to point out that few dispensationalists actually advocate this position, though more seem to follow it in practice. Evangelical preachers spend most of their time in the New Testament, and very little time in the Old. The reasoning is that the Old Testament depicts life under the Old Covenant. Since Christians now live under the New Covenant, there is no longer any need for the Old. Indeed, some might accuse those who teach the Old Testament books to be a legalist, keeping people under the law. The problem with this view is that it seems to deny in practice the truth of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
There are other texts as well which make the same point, but I will deal with them a little later in this message.
I believe we can readily see how the Book of Judges is relevant to our culture in America (and elsewhere around the world). We live in a Postmodern age, where it is believed that there is no absolute truth, but that all truth is in the eye of the beholder. That is precisely what was happening in ancient Israel during the days of the judges. “Every man was doing what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). The sex and violence of that day is little different, both in kind and in degree, to our own times. Are we seeing God’s hand of discipline on our nation as we lose status among the nations and as our economy continues to erode? I believe that while we are not the nation Israel, we are experiencing similar circumstances to those described in Judges.
There is yet another way that the Book of Judges seems relevant to our times. Judges describes a time of disregard for God’s Word and of departure from true worship. It speaks of a time when there was no lasting ruler, “no king in Israel.” And all of this is to prepare the ancient reader for the time that is coming when God gives Israel a king, David. As our society continues downward, we should see (like the author of Judges) that the only permanent solution is a righteous king. And is this not what we look forward to – the coming of our Lord? Thus, as we see our society walking in the path of the Israelites of old, we should be encouraged that the King is coming, and He will defeat His foes (and ours) and establish His kingdom. As Paul wrote in Colossians, the things which we find in the Old Testament are but a “shadow of what is to come, the substance of which is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). Thus, Judges turns our hearts and eyes toward the future as we eagerly await our King.
Thus we see that this book is extremely relevant. If we do not recognize this to be true, it may be because we are as spiritually dull as were the Israelites of old.
Excuse Number 4: Judges is “politically incorrect.” I have never actually heard anyone say this in these precise terms, but I believe it is an unspoken fear which we try to suppress by avoiding those books which expose the problem. Dale Ralph Davis, one of my favorite commentators on the Old Testament historical books, presents the problem in these words:
Second, for many readers Judges 1 raises once more the so-called moral problem of the conquest. How horrid that Israel butcher innocent Canaanites, wreak havoc and misery, grab their land – and all, allegedly, at Yahweh’s command! If only the Canaanites could know how much emotional support they receive from modern western readers.9
This issue is particularly awkward because of the doctrine of Jihad, held and practiced within Islam. In short, radical Islam calls for the extermination of non-Muslims – infidels. Some Christians are uneasy with the fact that God commanded the Israelites to exterminate – totally annihilate – the Canaanites:
10 When you approach a city to wage war against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms and submits to you, all the people found in it will become your slaves. 12 If it does not accept terms of peace but makes war with you, then you are to lay siege to it. 13 The Lord your God will deliver it over to you and you must kill every single male by the sword. 14 However, the women, little children, cattle, and anything else in the city – all its plunder – you may take for yourselves as spoil. You may take from your enemies the plunder that the Lord your God has given you. 15 This is how you are to deal with all those cities located far from you, those that do not belong to these nearby nations. 16 As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. 17 Instead you must utterly annihilate them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they cannot teach you all the abhorrent ways they worship their gods, causing you to sin against the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).
God gave very clear instructions to His people regarding their enemies. Those at a distance were given the opportunity to surrender. If they chose to resist, war would be waged by the Israelites. All the men were to be killed, but the women and children should be spared and taken as spoil (see Deuteronomy 20:10-15 above).10 It was quite a different thing with the Canaanites, those who lived in the land which God was giving to His people. They were to be utterly annihilated. Every Canaanite man, woman, and child was to be killed (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18 above). When commanded to do so, the Israelites also destroyed all the cattle. Such was the case when God gave Israel the victory over Jericho (Joshua 6:21).11 The Israelites were always to destroy the Canaanite idols and objects of false worship (see Exodus 23:23-25).
There are a number of things we need to understand about this matter of the annihilation of the Canaanites in the Old Testament that will enable us to view this matter in a different light.
1. God did not order the extermination of all non-Israelites. We see this in the text above (Deuteronomy 20:10-15), where God required the annihilation of the Canaanites, but not those foreigners who lived at a distance. Jihad does not make such distinctions, in practice, if not in theory as well.12
2. The Canaanites were wicked and deserved divine judgment. The Canaanites were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in that they were ripe for judgment, not only because of their moral depravity, but also because of their rejection of God:
12 When the sun went down, Abram fell sound asleep, and great terror overwhelmed him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” (Genesis 15:12-16, emphasis mine).
9 So realize that the Lord your God is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 but who pays back those who hate him as they deserve and destroys them. He will not ignore those who hate him but will repay them as they deserve! (Deuteronomy 7:9-10, emphasis mine)13
4 Do not think to yourself after the Lord your God has driven them out before you, “Because of my own righteousness the Lord has brought me here to possess this land.” It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out ahead of you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness, or even your inner uprightness, that you have come here to possess their land. Instead, because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out ahead of you in order to confirm the promise he made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 6 Understand, therefore, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is about to give you this good land as a possession, for you are a stubborn people! (Deuteronomy 9:4-6, emphasis mine).
3. The Canaanites must also be entirely eradicated because of the corrupting influence they would have on the Israelites:
1 When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy and forces out many nations before you – Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you – 2 and he delivers them over to you and you attack them, you must utterly annihilate them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy! 3 You must not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will erupt against you and he will quickly destroy you. 5 Instead, this is what you must do to them: You must tear down their altars, shatter their sacred pillars, cut down their sacred Asherah poles, and burn up their idols (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).
“You must destroy all the people whom the Lord your God is about to deliver over to you; you must not pity them or worship their gods, for that will be a snare to you” (Deuteronomy 7:16, emphasis mine).
The Canaanites were like a deadly virus that had to be eradicated.
4. God did not condemn the sin of the Canaanites and wink at the same sin in His people (Exodus 13:12-17). He threatened disobedient Israelites with the same fate. Listen to how the Israelites were to deal with their fellow-Israelites who turned to serve other gods:
24 “‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things, for the nations which I am about to drive out before you have been defiled with all these things. 25 Therefore the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity upon it, so that the land has vomited out its inhabitants. 26 You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the resident foreigner in your midst, 27 for the people who were in the land before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become unclean. 28 So do not make the land vomit you out because you defile it just as it has vomited out the nations that were before you. 29 For if anyone does any of these abominations, the persons who do them will be cut off from the midst of their people. 30 You must obey my charge to not practice any of the abominable statutes that have been done before you, so that you do not defile yourselves by them. I am the Lord your God’” (Leviticus 18:6-30).
19 “Now if you forget the Lord your God at all and follow other gods, worshiping and prostrating yourselves before them, I testify to you today that you will surely be annihilated. 20 Just like the nations the Lord is about to destroy from your sight, so he will do to you because you would not obey him” (Deuteronomy 8:19-20).
12 “Suppose you should hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you as a place to live, that 13 some evil people have departed from among you to entice the inhabitants of their cities, saying, “Let’s go and serve other gods” (whom you have not known before). 14 You must investigate thoroughly and inquire carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thing is being done among you, 15 you must by all means slaughter the inhabitants of that city with the sword; annihilate with the sword everyone in it, as well as the livestock. 16 You must gather all of its plunder into the middle of the plaza and burn the city and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It will be an abandoned ruin forever – it must never be rebuilt again. 17 You must not take for yourself anything that has been placed under judgment. Then the Lord will relent from his intense anger, show you compassion, have mercy on you, and multiply you as he promised your ancestors” (Deuteronomy 13:12-17, emphasis mine).14
5. God embraced foreigners into His covenant blessings for Israel on the basis of faith. Foreigners were welcomed and cared for in Israel, particularly those who embraced Israel’s faith. Some (like Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) were incorporated into the Messianic line. Think, too, of those others, like Ahimelech (1 Samuel 26:6) and Uriah (2 Samuel 11:3) who were embraced by Israel.
6. We live in a different dispensation, and thus the command to exterminate the Canaanites does not directly apply to Christians today. In the New Testament age, civil government is responsible to execute judgment upon evil-doers.
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:1-7).
Christians are called to suffer for their faith and to love their enemies. We are to take the gospel to the lost and to rely upon the Word of God, enlightened and empowered by the Spirit of God, to convince and to convert the lost. Believers should be willing to lay down their lives to win the lost; we are never to seek to produce converts by threats of bodily harm. The gospel is spread by the blood of the martyrs, not by the blood of the lost.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. 18 And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace (James 3:13-18).
Having said these things, I must also say that I believe there is a principle which we can and should learn from the Old Testament command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites. We are to be merciless regarding sin – particularly sin in our own lives, or in the church. We cannot live in “peaceful coexistence” with sin.
8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell” (Matthew 18:8-9).
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh 13 (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live (Romans 8:12-13).
So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
Excuse Number 5: “Judges is merely ancient history.” Actually, Judges is ancient history, and herein lies the problem for those in our day who disdain history. Indeed, I believe that it is safe to say that history is under fire today, perhaps more than at any other time in human history. Allow me to elaborate for a moment by citing the ways in which history is being attacked and abused in our culture.
One of the ways I’ve seen history “abused” (if I dare to use this word) is by some forms of psychology or psychiatry. It began with the premise that much of one’s troubles in life can be traced back to one’s childhood. And so it was that some were encouraged to launch an expedition into the past to find the cause of their troubles. Soon, some therapists were guiding their clients on an expedition that actually re-wrote history, so that the blame for my problems could be pinned on someone else (often a parent). Understand that I am not seeking to attack all such therapy, only that which encourages the fabrication of false memories. And with this revised history, the client can now feel better, or so it seems.
The same approach has also been employed on a much broader scale. Many doubt the validity of any absolute truth. Once such a premise is granted, one is then free to revise history in a way that validates one’s ideology. And so, amazing as it may seem, there are those who dispute the horrors of the Holocaust, claiming it is but a fabricated lie. History for such folks can be whatever it needs to be to sanction the beliefs and practices of a group, even a nation.
Modern science and technology can also (perhaps unwittingly) undermine a proper appreciation for history. Today I was cleaning out my “computer” file, looking (if I must confess) for a receipt. I discovered a paper on the future of microprocessors. I threw it away, for the same reason that I don’t go to the second-hand bookstore to buy old computer and technology books. Newer technology vastly surpasses the old so that we don’t value the old which, like history, is a part of the past. Doctors attend conferences and seminars to be constantly brought up to date on the latest medical data and techniques. They have no time to read a 200-year-old medical text.
Then, too, evolutionary thinking has also served to undermine our appreciation for the value of history. If you believe the shopworn slogan, “Every day and in every way, man is getting better and better,” then you will not value history as much as you should. If man has progressed greatly since the days of the judges, then what value is there in studying the Book of Judges? The “caveman” of the evolutionist is someone who is a novelty, but an irrelevant one. One might reason that we need to focus more on the present than on the past. Thus, history suffers yet another blow. No wonder history buffs seem so rare in the younger generation.
Christians have also contributed to a popular disdain for history. On the one hand (as we have already indicated), one might conclude that we now live under the New Covenant, and thus a study of the Old Covenant could be thought of as anachronistic.15 Then, too, as I have already stated, Sunday school curriculum and Bible story books have given us the impression that the stories can be understood and applied adequately without any sense of history or context. Familiarity can breed contempt (for history).
We dare not allow history to be trampled underfoot, so that we avoid the powerful message of Old Testament history. A disregard for history is a denial of what we see taught and practiced in the Scriptures. Let me elaborate for a moment.
Time will only allow me to scratch the surface of the Bible’s use of history. First of all, much of the Bible is the record of history, and the prophets are interpreters of history in the light of the precepts and principles of God’s Word. When one comes to the Book of Deuteronomy, we come to God’s written revelation to the second generation of Israelites, who are about to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. The first half (approximately) of the book is a review of Israel’s history, which reveals two very important realities: (1) the greatness of God and His faithfulness to His covenant promises; and, (2) the sinfulness of man and his desperate need of salvation.
The great deeds of God and Israel’s sins are often repeated in the Old Testament. Some significant examples of the use of history in the Old Testament can be found in Nehemiah 9, Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135; and Daniel 9:1-23. Over and over in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are exhorted to “remember” the past.16 Throughout Old Testament history, God used rituals (like the Feast of Booths and the Passover) to commemorate the past, not to mention various monuments for future generations (see Joshua 4:4-6, 21-22). Forgetfulness is likely to be fatal.
In the New Testament, there is much emphasis on the historical data of the Old Testament. Jesus spoke of Adam as a real, historical, person. He rooted the permanence of marriage in the first “marriage” of Adam and Eve.17 Likewise, Paul grounded much of his teaching upon Old Testament history.18 Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is a history lesson with a very clear point. Stephen was convinced – like Paul – that there is a great continuity between the past and the present. Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 was a recap of Israel’s history, and the writer to the Hebrews makes much of the past, not just as something old and irrelevant, but as a prototype of the salvation God was to bring about through the once-for-all atonement for sins of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.
The New Testament teaches us the value of Old Testament history by example, but also by straightforward statements. Consider these statements and what they convey to us about the value of Old Testament history.
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness. 6 These things happened as examples for us, so that we will not crave evil things as they did. 7 So do not be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 And let us not be immoral, as some of them were, and twenty-three thousand died in a single day. 9 And let us not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes. 10 And do not complain, as some of them did, and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall. 13 No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).
4 For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope (Romans 15:4).
Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 focus primarily on the Old Testament Scriptures. He tells us that the Old Testament Scriptures are profitable – all of them (“All Scripture is inspired by God and useful. . .”). They are useful for teaching doctrine, for rebuking and correcting, and for training in righteousness. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul turns to the history of the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness to warn Christians today about the temptations associated with self-indulgence.
If I may, I’d like to focus mainly on the words recorded in Romans 15:4. Here Paul informs us that the Old Testament Scriptures were for our benefit.19 Just what is the nature of that benefit? Paul tells us that the Old Testament Scriptures produce encouragement that gives us hope, which produces endurance. How in the world can the Book of Judges give us hope, as Paul claims in Romans 15:4? I believe that our hope and endurance flows from the Old Testament in this way. First, I believe the Bible teaches that man today is really no different than he was in the days of the judges. That is why all temptation is “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Even more encouraging is learning that God has not changed (James 1:17).
So how do these truths give us hope and endurance? Thus far in Israel’s history, we can safely say, “Judges is as bad as it gets.” (Actually, it will get worse, but this is as bad as it has gotten thus far in their history.) In spite of how bad Israel had become, God remained faithful to His covenant promises. Time after time, generation after generation, the Israelites sinned, and God chastened His people through the surrounding nations. Time after time, God raised up a judge, a deliverer, to deliver (save) His people. When I see God’s faithfulness to His promises and His people in Judges, I am encouraged because it assures me that God will fulfill His purposes and promises to me, even when I fall short of what God desires of me. I am encouraged that God used men who were not perfect, men who had flaws. In the end, it is not our faithfulness on which we can count, but on God’s faithfulness. Endurance grows because our confidence in God grows as we are reminded of His deeds in history.
We live in dark and uncertain days, days very much like those depicted in the Book of Judges. We are no better and really no different than the Israelites of old. God provided deliverers in the past, but they died, and the Israelites spiraled downward from bad to worse. What Israel needed was a king, one who would reign forever. The Deliverer has come. He is the Lord Jesus Christ. Unlike the judges of old, He is the perfect Deliverer. His death did not spell the end of deliverance, but the beginning of an eternal deliverance – salvation from the bondage of our own sins. If you have trusted in Him, then take heart; He will return to this earth to defeat His enemies and to establish His eternal kingdom. Though times may be dark and difficult, we are assured through Judges that God is faithful and thus He keeps His promises. Find encouragement from biblical history and from the message of the Book of Judges.
And if you have never trusted in the person and work of Jesus Christ for your salvation, do so today. Jesus saves. He lived a perfect life, and by His death on the cross of Calvary, He bore the penalty you and I deserve for our sins. He took our sin and guilt upon Himself, and He offers His righteousness and eternal life to you if you will trust in Him. Nothing we read in the Book of Judges can compare with Jesus, God’s once-for-all Deliverer. It is His faithfulness that gives us eternal life, hope for the future, and endurance in difficult days.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 16, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 Judges 4:4.
4 Judges 11:27.
5 I’m not quite sure that I agree with calling the “judges” of the Book of Judges something else, like “leaders” here (and elsewhere in the book). It certainly makes it difficult to do a concordance search on the term “judges” in the English text.
6 Remember that five times in this passage “leader” is literally “judge” in the NET Bible.
7 See Judges 8:22-23.
8 See, for example, Psalm 1:1-2; Proverbs 2; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 3:14-16.
9 Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 16. If the reader were to purchase only one commentary on the Book of Judges, this is the one I would recommend.
10 You will recall that the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites, pretending to be a distant nation, and thus they were foolishly offered Israel’s protection in exchange for their voluntary servitude. They thus shrewdly took advantage of the distinction made between near and distant nations in Deuteronomy 20 – albeit by a lie.
11 See Deuteronomy 2:32-34 and 3:6-7 where the cattle could be taken as booty.
12 I make no claim to expertise in understanding the Koran, so I don’t wish to be overly dogmatic about Islam on this point.
13 See also Revelation 16:5-6.
14 See also Deuteronomy 28:15-68; Matthew 10:5-15.
15 Go ahead and look up this term; I did just to make sure I was using it correctly.
16 See, Deuteronomy 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19-20; 9:7.
17 Matthew 19:1-6.
18 See 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; 11:7-10; 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
19 Peter has a similar theme in 1 Peter 1:8-10.