I am delving into territory where angels fear to tread. Yes, I am kicking off a series on the Book of Judges. I can almost hear you saying, “What? Keith, what are you thinking? Is the ministry so demanding that you have lost your mind?” Well, perhaps. If you are familiar with the Book of Judges, you know that it is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is a truly bizarre book. We will meet a man wearing a loom in his hair. We will read of an army defeated by its own soldiers. Indeed, this is a strange book! Judges is also a dark, R-rated book. We will read the horrific story of a man chopping his dead girlfriend into pieces and delivering those pieces by special messenger to twelve different parts of Israel. We will also study a woman who wins a battle for Israel by hammering a nail through a man’s head. Judges is anything but routine, run-of-the-mill stuff. The book is so intense that when your kids are playing their X-Box 360 or PS2/PS3 they may say, “Dad, Mom, I’m not playing Halo…I’m playing Judges!”
So why study Judges? First, I believe “ALL Scripture is God-breathed and profitable” (2 Tim 3:16). When Paul wrote these words he was speaking primarily of the Old Testament. So Judges is directly from God and is useful2 for life in the 21st century.3 Second, I made a commitment many years ago to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27). Hebrews 13:17 says that I’m going to have to give an account to God for you so I want to make sure that you get a solid diet of God’s Word. Third, I want you to appreciate the theology of narrative literature (i.e., stories). Often we assume that stories belong in Sunday school for little kids. Yet, many scholars argue that story is one of the most sophisticated forms of communication known to man.4 Regardless, stories are the emphasis of Scripture. Over three-quarters of the Bible consists of story. [Grab the pages of Romans-Revelation and provide a visual.] It is imperative, therefore, that we appreciate and understand stories.5 Finally, God directed me to preach through Judges because the church of Jesus Christ is becoming just like the world. After our vision series on “transferring truth to the next generation,” I sensed that God wanted me to preach a series on what can happen when leaders and followers fail to fulfill this vision.
I am titling our series through Judges, “Avoid Generation Degeneration.”6 It is my hope that we will learn from the stories of Judges how to live for God and transfer truth to the next generation. In the introduction to Judges the writer helps us to see that God’s love compels us to fight against competing passions.7 The introduction is broken down into two sections that are intended to be read together.8 In 1:1–2:5, God deals with Israel’s military failure to conquer the land. This is the political section. In 2:6–3:6, God deals with Israel’s religious failure to obey the law. This is the theological section. The first section narrates matters from the Israelites’ point of view, while the second section narrates from God’s point of view.
The Book of Judges begins with these words: “Now it came about after the death of Joshua that the sons of Israel inquired9 of the LORD, saying, ‘Who shall go up10 first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’ The LORD said, ‘Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand’” (1:1–2). These opening verses impart two very important truths. First, God’s people need to inquire of Him. In 1:1, Israel exercises godly wisdom by inquiring of God. In this moment, God’s people are seeking Him to accomplish His purposes His way. Likewise, as individuals and churches we must seek the Lord’s face and ask for His direction. It is always dangerous to have our own plans and vision and then ask God to bless what we want to do for Him. Today, are you seeking Christ’s vision and goals for your life? Second, God’s kingdom does not collapse when godly leaders die. Even though Joshua died, God raises up Judah (1:2).11 We must always remember that our help is in the name of the Lord, not in the name of our pastor or any Christian leader. We are all expendable! Even when Jesus Christ Himself went away, He told His disciples that it was to their advantage for Him to leave (John 16:7).12 If you are to transfer truth to the next generation, you must remind yourself that God wants to use you, but He doesn’t need you. Are you holding your life and ministry loosely? Do you recognize that it belongs to God and He can do with it whatever He wants?
The account of Judah continues in 1:3–4: “Then Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I in turn will go with you into the territory allotted you.’ So Simeon went with him. Judah went up, and the LORD gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hands, and they defeated ten thousand men at Bezek.” Judah seeks the cooperation of Simeon. He believes he needs his brother’s assistance to do what God calls him to do. He also offers Simeon his assistance. Each time Israel acts in tribal unity the Lord grants victory.13 God’s blessing is poured out when His people operate in corporate unity (1:3; cf. 1:17, 22). We too must recognize that we need other brothers and sisters in Christ to do what God has called us to do. Who are you currently serving with in ministry? Do they know how significant they are to you?
The first four verses beg the question: Why does God want to annihilate the Canaanites? The answer is simple: God didn’t want the wickedness of the Canaanite society (e.g., child sacrifice, sexual immorality, idolatry) to contaminate His people (Num 33:55). Israel was God’s special people, chosen to fulfill divine purposes. Israel would give the world the knowledge of God, the Scriptures, and the Savior. In order to accomplish these purposes, Israel had to be free from the pollution of all the other nations. Yet, it is critical to recognize that God gave the Canaanites over 400 years to repent (Gen 15:16). This showcases God’s mercy and grace. But eventually, God’s patience runs out. He must judge sin! It is also worth noting that Judges records a slice of time where God pours out His judgment through His people. This is not a common theme throughout the Bible; it appears nowhere in the New Testament. Rather, God commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44).
In 1:5–7, our story continues: “They [Judah and Simeon] found Adoni-bezek [Lord of Bezek] in Bezek and fought against him, and they defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. Adoni-bezek said, ‘Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.’ So they brought him to Jerusalem and he died there.” Judah and Simeon discover an effective way of ending Adoni-bezek’s military career. There is no way he can handle a bow or spear again. But mutilation was a pagan practice. And besides, God wanted these men put to death, not mutilated. God never said, “You can play with your enemies like a cat plays with a mouse.” This is an early indication that God’s people are conforming to their culture.14 Interestingly, Adoni-bezek, a man like Osama bin Laden, acknowledges, “What goes around comes around!” He seems to understand how God’s justice works. Similarly, we must understand that God is a God of justice. When we sin against Him, even as believers, there are consequences for our sin (2:14–15l cf. Gal 6:7–8). God’s love compels us to fight against competing passions.
The storyline continues in 1:8–16. Judah leads some victories in the South, one of them being against Jerusalem (1:8).15 At this time in history, Jerusalem does not belong to Israel.16 From there, Judah and company wipe out various Canaanite cities (1:9–11).17 In 1:12–16, there is a peculiar story about Caleb offering his daughter Achsah for a wife to anyone who attacks and captures Kiriath-sepher. Othniel,18 a Kenite does so and receives Achsah as a wife. Achsah then persuades Othniel to ask her father for a field. I’m sure this isn’t an easy request for this new son-in-law to ask of his father-in-law. Achsah then asks her father for springs of water. (Water is a valuable commodity. Without water, what benefit is a field?) He graciously obliges her. So what’s the point of this bizarre account? The point is this: God shows His grace and mercy to foreigners. Even in the Old Testament, God’s program includes those who are not Israelites. When people like the Kenites turn to God, they are shown grace. What a reminder that God’s plans and purposes include all who will believe in Christ and be saved. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God welcomes you if you will believe in His Son (John 3:36).
In the paragraphs that follow, the author of Judges records the downward spiral of God’s people. Small compromises lead to catastrophic failures. As you study this passage, your goal must be to learn from the failures of God’s people (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:6, 11). Notice the steps of progression that lead to demise.
Step One: Partial obedience (1:17–32).19Things began well in 1:17–18: “Then Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they struck the Canaanites living in Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. So the name of the city was called Hormah” (i.e., “destruction”). And Judah took Gaza with its territory and Ashkelon with its territory and Ekron with its territory.” This is exactly what God wanted.20 Unfortunately, from this point forward God’s people compromise His command to exterminate the Canaanites.21 The turning point in our story comes in 1:19: “The Lord was with the men of Judah. [They are unstoppable and can conquer anyone they face.] They conquered the hill country, but they could not conquer the people living in the coastal plain, because they had chariots with iron-rimmed wheels.” Since when have chariots been able to thwart God’s purposes and power?22 The problem here is not the Canaanites’ impressive technology; it is Israel’s refusal to rely upon the Lord (see 2:1–5). God will give His people victory when they trust in Him.23 As Paul says in Rom 8:31: “If God is for us, who is against us?” Even when you feel that there are obstacles in your path, if God has called you to do something, He will do it! The reason that Judah did not have victory is that they did not trust God. We too will not experience spiritual victory unless we place our confidence in the Lord.
In 1:20, we come upon another significant verse: “Then they gave Hebron to Caleb, as Moses had promised; and he drove out from there the three sons of Anak.” Now this sounds kind of bland, but the Book of Joshua enlightens us. Caleb is one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, partly based on what happens here. Caleb and Joshua were in the group that spied out the land back in Numbers 13. The other spies got cold feet and wanted to turn back at that point. One of the reasons they were scared was what they saw at the city of Hebron. Hebron was located down in the territory of Judah, situated on a mountaintop. It had high and impressive walls. Not only that, one of the leading families of Hebron was a fierce warrior clan known as the sons of Anak. The Anakites were huge people; so huge, in fact, that they scared the living daylights out of the spies. But while other people were scared, Caleb was challenged. He said, “Don’t worry about the Anakites. Once we get into the land, I’ll take Hebron and deal with the Anakites.” And he did just that—and at 80 years of age! Caleb didn’t believe in taking his Social Security check and sliding for home. He is a warrior who never gives in. The rest of Israel had its struggles, but it wasn’t because of Caleb. Caleb did his job. What an inspiring character! May you and I be like Caleb. By the way, this past Thursday, my friend, Jason Wolden, told me that he finished reading a book by Francine Rivers that really impacted him. The book is a historical fiction work on the life of Caleb called, The Warrior.24 Jason is a missionary and Multnomah Biblical Seminary grad so I take his book recommendations seriously. Perhaps you should pick up this book and follow in the footsteps of Caleb?
After a few glimmers of hope in 1:17–20, several other tribes from Israel also fail to drive out the Canaanites. As a result, there are consequences. In 1:25–26, the Israelites let an entire family go free and the family builds a city in the land of the Hittites.25 In 1:27, the writer of Judges makes the point: “…so the Canaanites persisted in living in that land.” Seven times in 1:27–33 Israel is accused of not taking possession of the land of the Canaanites.26 At first the victorious Israelites allow the Canaanites to live in a distance (1:22–26) and then the Israelites fail to drive out the Canaanites and the Canaanites live among them (1:27–30).27 Israel’s problem is partial obedience. Similarly, when we refuse to completely obey God, we miss out on all that God wants to do in and through us. What area of your life are you half-stepping with God? God’s love compels us to fight against competing passions. The next step down is…
Step Two: Coexistence with the enemy (1:33–36). Verse 33 clearly states that the Israelites “lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land.” A refusal to drive out the Canaanites led to living with them. Furthermore, instead of eliminating the Canaanites, the Israelites make slaves of them. Economics have taken on a higher priority than obedience!28 Obedience is often uncomfortable, inconvenient, and sacrificial. Yet, when you chose to obey, God abundantly blesses you. What area of your life is God calling you to submit to Him today? Are you currently addicted to pornography? Are you pursuing materialism at any expense? What sin are you allowing to come into your life that is competing against your relationship with God? God’s love compels us to fight against competing passions.
[Partial obedience leads to coexisting with the enemy, and then to…]
Step Three: Cooperation with the enemy (2:1–5). In 2:1–3 we read: “Now the angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim.29 And he said, ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land which I have sworn to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land;30 you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me; what is this you have done? Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” This section makes it clear that the Israelites are believers in spite of their disobedience. The phrase, “I brought you up out of Egypt” (2:1) was a description of salvation in the OT. It is the equivalent of the cross for you and me. In 2:2, the Lord declares, “I will never break My covenant with you.” God keeps His promises. He doesn’t add on all kinds of hidden conditions and “ifs” and “maybes.” He does what He says. How do we know our sins are forgiven? God said so. How do we know we have eternal life? God said so. How do we know we are part of God’s family? God said so, and He never goes back on His Word. That is a foundation block for life. We can trust the Word of God because the God of the Word stands behind it.31 Yet, the covenantal faithfulness of God demands a response from the recipients.32 In the same breath, the Lord told Israel not to make any covenant with the Canaanites33 and to tear down their altars. Unfortunately, Israel disobeyed God’s commands. So God said, in effect, “Since you don’t want to get rid of the Canaanites, I will let you keep them nearby!” God lets His people have what they want. He gives them the desires of their hearts, but sometimes this is a punishment. If God’s people are half-hearted about getting rid of their spiritual enemies, God leaves them with their enemies!34
The story continues in 2:4–5: “When the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. So they named that place Bochim (“those who weep”); and there they sacrificed to the LORD.” The people of Israel wept and sacrificed to the Lord, but it did not bring about lasting change. It is good to be moved to tears but better to be brought to repentance.35 God wants to produce “good grief” in us.36 One of the most certain facts of spiritual experience is that the path of partial obedience leads to Bochim. The most miserable people in the world are believers who will not commit themselves to the Lord. They do not have the best of both worlds but the worst. If we try to walk the tightrope of compromise and partial obedience, we will not know spiritual victory and God’s blessing. We will know the bitterness of defeat and frustration in our Christian lives. 37
[Partial obedience leads to coexisting with the enemy, cooperating with the enemy, and eventually…]
Step Four: Being corrupted by the enemy (2:6–13). This section goes back into history and explains further the decline of God’s people. “When Joshua had dismissed the people, the sons of Israel38 went each to his inheritance to possess the land. The people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, who had seen all the great work of the LORD which He had done for Israel. Then Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten.39 And they buried him in the territory of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals, and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the LORD to anger. So they forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtaroth.” Instead of removing the spiritual cancer from their land, the Israelites caught the disease. Just before Moses died, he instructed Israel to do three things: destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan, avoid intermarriage with the Canaanites, and shun worship of the Canaanite gods (Deut 7:1–5). In the Book of Judges, Israel fails on all three accounts. The breaking of God’s law and the record of Israel’s subsequent moral degradation are sad indeed.
These verses emphasize that the best thing mature believers can do is encourage the next generation to discover God for themselves.40 It is quite possible that Joshua’s generation did this and his descendants chose to go their own way. We cannot be sure! We must all take responsibility to pass the baton of faith and also recognize that we are responsible for ourselves.
[Partial obedience leads to coexisting with the enemy, cooperating with the enemy, being corrupted by the enemy, and…]
Step Five: Divine discipline (2:14–15).41These two verses remind us that God is not a God to be mocked. The author of Judges writes, “The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and He gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies around them, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went, the hand of the LORD was against them for evil, as the LORD had spoken and as the LORD had sworn to them, so that they were severely distressed.” The curses of the Mosaic Covenant are now implemented against the nation Israel. The Israelites will now suffer military defeat at the hand (or sword) of their enemies. God will cease to send rain for their crops, and their cattle will no longer thrive and reproduce. What God had warned He is now unleashing on His people. As believers, we must not make the mistake of assuming that we can presume on God’s grace. If you are a child of God, eventually He will discipline you (see Heb 12:5–11). God’s love compels us to fight against competing passions.
[Fortunately, divine discipline leads to…]
Step Six: Divine deliverance (2:16–18). God is a God of compassion and grace. He shows this clearly in 2:16–18: “Then the LORD raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do as their fathers. When the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them.”42In response to their suffering, the Israelites cry out to God for relief. God, in His grace, raises up a judge who delivers the Israelites from the oppression of their enemies. These judges are not men who wear long, flowing black robes, sit on high benches, and make legal decisions. Rather, the judges (shophetim) are political-military leaders of Israel who exercise nearly absolute power because of their office and abilities. Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke, prefers to call judges “warlords.”43 This seems to be in keeping with their role throughout the book. The deliverance of Israel typically lasted the length of the judge’s life. In spite of our sin, God always finds a way to express His grace and mercy.
[Despite God’s constant mercy and grace, God’s people still rebel against His love. The final step of demise is…]
Step Seven: Advancing in apostasy (2:19). Through and through, the Book of Judges concludes with bad news. A glaring example of this is found in 2:19: “But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways.” Even when the Lord provides judges to deliver His people, disobedience grows worse following each judge’s death. You discover the true nature of people by observing them when they are not bound by external constraints. Take a class full of second graders. Let the teacher leave the room and all Cain gets raised. They, like Israel, are showing their true nature.44 Tragically, we are just like our spiritual ancestors.
[The introduction of Judges concludes on an interesting note.]
Left Behind: A statement of divine purpose (2:20–3:6). You’re most likely familiar with the Left Behind book and video series. It chronicles unbelievers who are “left behind” to endure the tribulation after the rapture of the church. Well, in the context of Judges, God allows some of the Canaanite nations to be left behind. The author of Judges tells us precisely why God allows this: God uses the Canaanites to test Israel “whether they will keep the way of the LORD to walk in it as their fathers did, or not” (2:22). God’s people are to choose between right or wrong, obedience or disobedience. The final verses, 3:5–6, summarize the entire introduction. They also function as a report card, expressing God’s evaluation of Israel. The verdict is clear: Israel failed!45 First, they “lived” among the Canaanites (3:5). Second, they “took” the Canaanites in marriage (3:6). Third, they “served” other gods (3:6). These three verbs (“lived,” “took,” and “served”) emphasize the sins that continue to haunt Israel throughout the Book of Judges.
Like Israel, we must be on guard against the sins that Israel succumbed to. This means studying the Book of Judges and learning from their failures. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you are a part of the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7). Consequently, Jesus expects you to “walk in a manner worthy of His calling” (Eph 4:1). In doing so, you can express gratitude to God for His unconditional love and grace. God’s love compels us to fight against competing passions.
2 Timothy 3:16–17
Genesis 2:16–17; 3:1–7
Deuteronomy 7:1–12; 30:19–20
2 Corinthians 7:8–11
1. Why is godly leadership so important (1:1)? Who are the godly leaders that have impacted my life? What do these leaders have in common? Do I consider myself a leader? Why or why not? How can I grow in my leadership qualities?
2. Why is it so difficult to persevere in the Christian life and ministry (1:2–36)? Who are the people I know that are marked by perseverance? How have these individuals been able to walk with God over the course of their lives? Read 1 Corinthians 9:24–27. How is the Christian life like a fight? How should I train to win this spiritual battle? Read Ephesians 6:10–18.
3. How does partial obedience and compromise lead to sin (2:1–5)? When have I seen my own personal compromise result in severe consequences? What sin am I allowing to come into my life that is competing against my relationship with God? What advice would I give the next generation on how to avoid small compromises? Why is it so important to remember and retell the mighty acts of God?
4. When have I experienced God’s discipline in my Christian life (2:14–15)? How did I respond to this chastening? What is the tension between God’s unconditional love and His fatherly chastening? How would I explain this to a new believer? Read Hebrews 12:5–11.
5. How does God use people and circumstances to test me (2:22)? Read Psalm 106 and James 1:2–12. What have I learned through the trials and tests that God has brought into my life? In what areas of my life have I seen the most growth? Why does God continue to show such amazing grace in my life (2:20–3:6)?
1 Copyright © 2009 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
2 The adjective translated “profitable” or “useful” (ophelimos) means “useful, beneficial, advantageous.” See BDAG s.v. ophelimos. The only other NT occurrences are 1 Tim 4:8 [2x] and Titus 3:8.
3 Judges contains tension and strife between rival groups, disputes over land and territory, uncertainty over the roles of men and women, power-hungry political leaders, child abuse, spouse abuse, senseless and excessive violence, male political leaders who chase women, excessive individualism, moral confusion, and social chaos. See J. Clinton McCann, Judges. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 2002), 1–2.
4 See Robert Alter, The Art of Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
5 See Jeffrey D. Arthurs, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives” (pp. 73–85) in Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006). Dr. Arthurs is one of my former preaching professors and is one of the finest homileticians I know.
6 This title is based upon Judges 2:19: “But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways.”
7 This big idea comes from Steve Mathewson, “The Fight of Your Life” (Judges 1:1–2:5).
8 Younger argues that we should never interpret Judges 1:1–2:5 apart from 2:6–3:6. K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges, Ruth. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 84. Tanner writes, “The Book of Judges may be viewed as having a two-part introduction (1:1–2:5 and 2:6–3:6) and a two-part epilogue (17:1–18:31 and 19:1–21:25). Parallel ideas and motifs link the first introduction (1:1–2:5) with the second epilogue (19:1–21:25), and in like manner the second introduction (2:6–3:6) with the first epilogue (17:1–18:31).” J. Paul Tanner, “The Gideon Narrative as the Focal Point of Judges,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149:594 (April-June 1992): 149.
9 Eaton writes, “Presumably they consulted the ‘Urim and Thummim’, the stones kept in the high priests coat that could be thrown like dice. The way they landed could reveal the will of God. They could say ‘yes’, ‘no’, or give no answer.” Michael Eaton, Judges and Ruth. Preaching through the Bible (England: Sovereign World, 2000), 10.
10 The major divisions of Judges 1:1–2:5 open with a form of the verb 'alah (to go up; 1:4, 22; 2:1; cf. 1:1, 2, 3).
11 Perhaps God told Judah to go first because Judah was the kingly tribe (Gen 49:8–9).
12 Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Focus on the Bible (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000), 20.
13 Davis, Judges, 20; Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 10–11.
14 This begins the “Canaanization of Israel.” See Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 91. Another view is that the account of the defeat of Adoni-Bezek (1:4–7) is intended to show that God’s treatment of the inhabitants of the land was just. Without the confession of Adoni-Bezek that he justly deserves this punishment, one might raise the question of whether God’s treatment of the inhabitants of the land was fair. Why should Israel be commanded to carry out such harsh judgment on these people? The writer uses Adoni-Bezek’s own words to show that God’s ways are just (1:7).
15 McCann writes, “The focus on Judah and Jerusalem invites attention to the larger context of the prophetic canon. The humbling of Adoni-bezek, for instance, happens in Jerusalem (1:7). The later humbling of the Judean monarchy will also happen in Jerusalem, suggesting ultimately that God plays no favorites. God wills justice and righteousness, and the failure to embody it will eventually bring any people down.” McCann, Judges, 29.
16 The Israelites conquered Jerusalem, but they didn’t occupy it (1:21) until the time of David (2 Sam 5:7). Later, Jerusalem would become “the city of David” and the capital of Israel.
17 In Judges 1:10, the three sons of Anak were “killed” by Judah. But, in 1:20 it says they were merely “expelled” from the land, which is what Joshua 15:14 says as well. Which was it? There are two basic views in response to this problem. One view assumes that these two passages refer to the same event, while the other view maintains that they refer to different events. The Same Event. According to this position, the children of Judah were led by Caleb. Thus, one passage could refer to the men who did it and the other to their leader. Further, the Hebrew word for “expel” can mean to “drive out” or “destroy.” In this sense they were expelled not only from the land of Judah, but also from the land of the living. Different Events. According to this view, the first chapter of Judges does not follow in chronological order, being almost verbatim from Joshua 15:13–19. If so, the events would be as follows: when Joshua conquered the land, the sons of Anak were simply “expelled,” only to return when Joshua turned elsewhere. Later, after the initial campaigns, Judah settled the land and Caleb and his men actually “killed” them. Either position would resolve the difficulty. See Norman L. Geisler and Thomas A. Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992), 145.
18 Othniel later was called to serve as Israel’s first judge (Judges 3:7–11).
20 Their success was pretty limited, however, because a number of years later the Philistines came and took back all three of these cities. By the time of Samson, the Philistines were again in control of these towns.
21 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 73.
22 After all, the Lord destroyed the Egyptian chariots in the Red Sea (Exod 14:23–28; 15:4). He promised to give the Canaanite chariots into Israel’s hands and instructed Joshua to burn them (Josh 11:4–6, 9). Later Joshua assured the tribe of Joseph that the Canaanite iron chariots would not prevent them from conquering the plains (17:16–18). Judges 4–5 records how the Lord demolished the iron chariots of Sisera. Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “A Rhetorical Use of Point of View in Old Testament Narrative,” BSac 159:636 (Oct 2002): 407.
23 See Num 14:42–43; Josh 1:5; 6:27; and Judges 6:16.
24 Francine Rivers, The Warrior: Caleb (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale 2005).
25 This story in Judges 1:22–25 is very reminiscent of the story about Rahab in Joshua
26 If one includes Judah (1:19) and Benjamin (1:21) the final count is nine.
27 Barry Webb, The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 99.
28 Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 173.
29 The LXX identifies Bochim with Bethel. If this is correct, Judges 2:1–5 is linked to the epilogue, in which the Israelites gather at Bethel and weep before God.
30 This echoes Exod 23:32–33: “You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods. They shall not live in your land, because they will make you sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
31 Gary Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 15.
32 Deuteronomy 6 outlined the nation’s basic responsibilities: love and obey the Lord as the only true God (6:1–5); teach your children God’s laws (6:6–9); be thankful for God’s blessings (6:1–15); and separate yourself from the worship of the pagan gods in the land of Canaan (6:16–25). Unfortunately, the new generation failed in each of those responsibilities.
33 This echoes Exod 23:32–33: “You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods. They shall not live in your land, because they will make you sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
34 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 14.
35 Block writes, “This chapter contains no hint of repentance. The word shub occurs only once (v.19), where it denotes a turning from the way of Yahweh to paganism.” Block, Judges, Ruth, 134.
36 Davis, Judges, 28. See also Joel 2:12–13: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.”
37 See also Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay, 19.
38 The name “Israel” occurs more often in Judges than in any other book of the Hebrew Bible. See Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 591.
39 How could Joshua be dead in 1:1; be alive in 2:6, die in 2:8, and finally be buried in 2:9? The authors of Scripture did not always write their historical accounts in chronological order. They wrote to convey both their story and their theology. The author of the Book of Judges used the flashback technique here, as he did later (see chapters 17–21).
40 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 17. “An up-coming generation has to be able to say to their parents what the people of Samaria said to the Samaritan woman: ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves…’ (John 4:42).”
41 Cf. God’s judgment at Kadesh-barnea, Num 14:1–10.
42 Much of the era of judges involves a series of seven cycles that are recorded in the book of Judges. Each cycle has five component parts: Israel’s sins, God disciplines them through military conquest by a neighboring country, Israel repents and cries out to God for deliverance, God grants a judge who delivers them from bondage, and God frees the land from military oppression for the remainder of the judge’s life. That is one cycle: sin, conquest, repentance, deliverance, and freedom. Then, when a judge dies, the repetition of Israel’s misfortunes begins again, followed by conquest, followed by repentance, etc. Seven such cycles are recorded in the book of Judges.
43 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 588.
44 Davis, Judges, 41–42.
45 Block, Judges, Ruth, 140.
Have you ever wondered, “How could God use someone like me?” Perhaps you are consumed with guilt over sin and failure. You may suffer with the scars of your family history or personal background. Perhaps you have physical problems and limitations. Maybe you have difficulty accepting yourself and bear the burden of a poor self-image.2 Maybe you feel inadequate due to a lack of education, skills, or spiritual gifts. I don’t know about you but when I think of myself I’m not impressed. There are many physical features I dislike about myself. There are many personality quirks, I wish I could change. When I think of myself from the world’s perspective, underwhelmed comes to mind. Yet, over the course of my life, the Lord has taught me that He loves to use weak and foolish people like me.3
We are in the second sermon in a series through the Book of Judges (“Avoid Generation Degeneration”). The introduction to Judges (1:1–3:6) revealed what devastating consequences occur when God’s people rebel against Him. Now the author is going to focus on three judges whom God uses in a powerful way. In Judges 3:7–31 we will see, “Our responsibility is response to God’s ability.”4 In these twenty–five verses, the term “Lord” (Yahweh) occurs thirteen times. That’s every other verse! Even though God dominates this passage, these three stories remind us that He uses people like you and me to accomplish His purposes in the world.
Our first story in 3:7–11 begins on an ominous note. “The sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgot [abandoned]5 the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth [female Canaanite deities…Baal’s girlfriends]” (3:7). The opening phrase “the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” is repeated throughout Judges (3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). Each time the phrase is used, it marks a period of oppression by Israel’s enemies. In spite of the amazing grace that God showed His people in Judges 1–2, Israel walked away from God. These people weren’t just having a bad spiritual day. They didn’t skip their devotions or forget to pray, they actively rebelled against the one true God whom they were in covenant with!
In 3:8, God gets ticked!6“Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, so that He sold them into the hands of Cushan-rishathaim [“Doubly-Wicked”] king of Mesopotamia; and the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years.” The phrase “the anger of the Lord was kindled” literally reads “the Lord’s nose became hot.” This is a figurative way of describing God’s wrath.7 We tend to get angry to benefit ourselves; God gets angry because His holiness elicits a response.8 In His anger, the Lord sells His people to the enemy.9 Israel acts like slaves, so God sells them like slaves.10 God will not allow His people to sin successfully. God will use whatever form of discipline is necessary to restore His children to fellowship.
Although God is angry, 3:9–11 demonstrates His grace. “When the sons of Israel cried to the LORD,11 the LORD raised up a deliverer [a savior]12 for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel. When he went out to war, the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand,13 so that he prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. Then the land had rest [no war]14 forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died.” Despite Israel’s rebellion, God listens to their cries and delivers them. What’s interesting is the word translated “cried” (za‘aq) does not refer to repentance. Rather, the word denotes crying for help out of distress.15 This is an important conclusion, for it shows that when the Lord raises up a judge for Israel He is not reacting to any repentance on Israel’s part. If anything, He is responding to their misery rather than to their sorrow, to their pain rather than their penitence. Who then can ever plumb the depths of the Lord’s compassion for His people, even His sinful people who are more moved by their distress than by their depravity? Truly, God delivers out of sheer grace.16 Today, will you express your great love and appreciation to God for His tremendous mercy and grace?
In our story, the judge God raises up is Othniel—the man who captured Kiriath Sepher and married Caleb’s daughter, Achsah (1:12–13).17 Othniel, the first judge, is exemplary in every way. Samson, the twelfth and final judge, is deplorable in almost every possible way. The progression downward, even in Israel’s leaders, is clear.18 Yet, God uses each of His judges in unique and powerful ways. Please note in 3:10 that God’s Spirit empowers Othniel.19 This is true of all the judges, though the writer does not always mention it. No one can accomplish anything significant spiritually without the Holy Spirit’s enablement (cf. John 15:5). However, with God’s assistance His people can be the agents of supernatural change and can carry out His will. Never underestimate the good that one person can do who is filled with the Spirit of God and obedient to the will of God. It is so easy to accomplish ministry in the flesh—through our own abilities, knowledge, or personality. You can pull this off and even fool a lot of people. But if you want your work for the Lord to stand the test of time (1 Cor 3:10–15), you need to rely upon Him. Our responsibility is response to God’s ability. God wants you and me to know that we can’t do anything apart from Him.
After reading this first story, you should be struck by the colorless nature of Othniel. There is no flash and dash about Othniel. In fact, this entire story just reveals the bare essentials, which consist of what the Lord has done.20 It is likely that this first story about a judge is stripped down so that we will see clearly what is most essential—the activity of the Lord. God’s victories are, to a greater degree, stories about God than stories about human heroes. In other words, God wants us to learn about Himself more than about Othniel.21 Sometimes interesting people can obscure that, and we end up watching these fascinating folks but never see what our God is doing.22 Othniel is a man of anonymity. People didn’t know much about him.23 But what is clear is that Othniel was a Kenizzite—a foreigner. This serves as an example that background should not limit your service to Christ.24 Regardless of your family of origin, ethnicity, or nationality, God wants to use you powerfully. Your responsibility is response to God’s ability.
Our second story is found in 3:12–30, and it begins just like the first account. “Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the LORD. And he gathered to himself the sons of Ammon and Amalek;25 and he went and defeated Israel, and they possessed the city of the palm trees. The sons of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years” (3:12–14). This story begins, once again, with God firmly on the side of the pagans (3:12). Obviously, God is very unhappy with His people, so He decides to use idolaters (the Moabites) to discipline idolaters (the Israelites). Eglon & Co. possess the “city of the palm trees” (3:13). Now your mind may immediately think of Hawaii or some other tropical paradise. But the “city of the palm trees” was Jericho (Deut 34:3), which was the first town that Israel captured in Joshua 6. This is a telling picture of how far Israel has fallen. She did not continue to possess the land; instead, her enemies took the land back by force. Additionally, Israel suffers under Eglon for eighteen years. Under Cushan the Doubly Wicked, she only suffered for eight years. When God’s people fail to learn from His discipline, He may turn the heat up. The goal, then, must be to respond to God’s chastening and learn whatever lessons we can so that we don’t have to retake the test.
In 3:15, we come across a very important verse. “But when the sons of Israel cried to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for them, Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjamite, a left-handed man. And the sons of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab.” The Lord raises up Ehud to take on King Eglon and deliver Israel. The narrator states that Ehud is left-handed. This may seem like a small detail, but it is a key point. The whole story is built around Ehud being left-handed, which to the writer is a limitation. In Hebrew, being left-handed is described as “restricted in his right hand.” This can be understood in one of three ways: (1) Ehud was disabled.26 (2) Ehud was ambidextrous.27 (3) Ehud was left-handed, nothing more, nothing less. Although all of these views have merit and may shed some light on this account, the best interpretation seems to be the third option. Ehud is a left-handed man from the tribe of Benjamin, a name that means “son of my right hand.” Perhaps you’re still not convinced of the significance of this narrative insertion. Let me explain.
Historically, left-handedness has been seen as an oddity, almost a disability. People were encouraged to correct their left-handed children. Being left-handed was even seen by some as being a sign of evil! Language seems to bear out this meaning. A man who is awkward is called gauche, a French word meaning left-handed. Something that is wicked or evil we call sinister, the Latin word for the left-hand. I am married to a lefty so I have to be careful about what I say here. I recently asked my wife about the challenges of being a lefty and she rattled off several. When we go out to dinner, we often forget that if she sits at my right hand (the seat of power and authority) we have a hard time eating because our elbows are constantly colliding with one another. Lori can’t use scissors with her left hand because most scissors are manufactured for right-handed people. So Lori cuts with her right hand. Lori likes to journal, but she has a difficult time writing on the top pages. She typically smears the ink as she writes. She even tells me that people make fun of her and say that she writes upside down because of the way she positions her left hand as she writes. Being left-handed certainly has its disadvantages. You might say that left-handed people were discriminated against. At the very least, being left-handed was considered unnatural and peculiar in antiquity.28 Perhaps the left-handers of the world should form a “lefty lib.”
Ehud could have been devastated by this problem. “Why am I left-handed in a world of right-handers? Why am I different?” Many of us are defeated by things in our lives which may be no more significant than left-handedness. But if we do not accept our limitations, they can keep us from being usable. When we accept ourselves with our weaknesses and limitations, God can use us. That is exactly what Ehud did.29 Ehud uses his own physical limitations to carry out the work of God. In Ehud, the author is able to show that God’s leaders are those who use the talents and circumstances that God has given them to do His work, even when that entails some limitations.30
In 3:16, we discover that Ehud is like an ancient James Bond. “Ehud made himself a sword which had two edges, a cubit [18’’, the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger]31 in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his cloak.” This is the start of the ancient James Bond movie. Ehud makes himself a sword and binds it to his right thigh under his cloak. King Eglon’s security apparently assumed that Ehud was a right-handed man. They must have frisked him before allowing him to enter into Eglon’s chamber. If they did not frisk him, this suggests that Ehud was extremely unimpressive and unthreatening because the bodyguards and security allowed him entrance with seemingly no hesitation.
In 3:17a, Ehud enters the king’s chambers and presents a tribute (a form of taxation, probably largely agricultural produce32) to Eglon. The paying of tribute added to the king’s wealth and acknowledged the king’s authority over Israel. This verse concludes with some very unusual words: “Now Eglon was a very fat man” (3:17b). Why does the narrator include this statement? It appears rather cruel. At the very least it is not politically or socially correct. It is important to understand that when the Bible refers to a person as “fat,” it points to an individual who is a lazy, selfish, hoarder. In this case, Eglon is indulging in the tributes. While it is real he is most likely hungry, Eglon is devouring everything in sight. Ironically, Eglon’s name means “fat ox.” Here he is portrayed as a fattened calf going to the slaughter.33
In 3:18–20, our story picks up speed. “It came about when he had finished presenting the tribute, that he sent away the people who had carried the tribute. But he himself turned back from the idols which were at Gilgal, and said, ‘I have a secret message for you, O king.’ And he said, ‘Keep silence.’ And all who attended him left him. Ehud came to him while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. [The man was chilling out without a care in the world.] And Ehud said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’ And he arose from his seat.” The Hebrew word translated “message” (dbr) means “word” or “thing.” This serves as a double entendre for the verbal message and for Ehud’s dagger.34 Ehud is not being deceptive when he declares that he has a “message” for Eglon. God’s messages are not always positive messages of well-being or of hope; they are, at times, messages of judgment and death.
In 3:21–23, our story moves into slow motion. “Ehud stretched out his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into his belly. The handle also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the refuse came out.35 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule and shut the doors of the roof chamber behind him, and locked them.” This episode would have been on Israel’s newscast of sports highlights at 11:00. When Eglon stands, Ehud reaches for his dagger and plunges it into the fat king’s body. It must have been a powerful thrust because the point of the dagger came out the king’s back; and Eglon died instantly.
We now come to an amusing verse that is filled with bathroom humor. (Sorry ladies, but I have to be as biblical as possible.) In 3:24, the author of Judges writes, “When he [Ehud] had gone out, his servants came and looked, and behold, the doors of the roof chamber were locked; and they said, ‘He is only relieving himself in the cool room.’” If you have a center or single-column reference Bible, you will see that the Hebrew phrase “relieving himself” literally means “covering his feet.” This is a wonderful word picture. This afternoon if you want to be really biblical you can tell your spouse or children that you need to go “cover your feet.” Apparently, Elgon’s men thought that their king left his throne to go sit down on his other throne. I’m sure even in Eglon’s day men took magazines and books into the throne room. No doubt these ancient men took twenty, thirty, or even sixty minutes like many contemporary men do today. This is what makes 3:25a so amusing: “They waited until they became anxious; but behold, he did not open the doors of the roof chamber.” This must be one of the greatest understatements of the Bible. As indicated above, these men must have waited quite a while. But the length of time and the stench of Eglon’s bowels made them anxious, literally “ashamed.” Can’t you just envision this episode? You know how men are. These guys were no doubt coarse in their jesting. They must have been laughing their heads off, then crying over the stench at the same time. In 3:25b, the men said enough is enough: “Therefore they took the key and opened them, and behold, their master had fallen to the floor dead.”36The three “behold” statements in 3:24–25 indicate the three surprises that the men experience: the doors are locked, the king doesn’t respond to their knocks and calls, and the king is dead. All of this took time and gives Ehud opportunity to escape, much like James Bond.
Our story concludes in 3:26–30. “Now Ehud escaped while they were delaying, and he passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah. It came about when he had arrived, that he blew the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was in front of them. He said to them, ‘Pursue them, for the LORD has given37 your enemies the Moabites into your hands.’ So they went down after him and seized the fords of the Jordan opposite Moab, and did not allow anyone to cross. They struck down at that time about ten thousand38 Moabites, all robust and valiant men; and no one escaped.39 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land was undisturbed for eighty years.”40Ehud leads his people to annihilate 10,000 of God’s enemies. Consequently, God grants Israel peace for eighty years! Some scholars assume that Ehud is guilty of treachery and murder. However, the question is: Did God call His people to exterminate the Canaanites? If so, it is a holy war, and all is fair in love and war.41 The author of Judges portrays Ehud as a hero. Indeed, Ehud the courageous lefty does lefties proud! The name “Ehud” may be derived from the Hebrew word “one,” playing off the fact that our champion stands alone. Alternatively, the name may be derived from a word meaning “majesty,” in which case it serves to applaud him.42 When no one else in Israel was willing to fight God’s enemies, Ehud stepped up in a big way.
What gave Ehud this type of boldness and courage? The clue is found in 3:19 and 26. Ehud may have been worshiping idols like the rest of Israel, but one day he said, “I’m turning my back on idolatry and I’m going to destroy God’s enemies. If the Jews had been asked to vote on a leader, Ehud probably would have lost on the first ballot. But he was God’s choice, and God used him to set the nation free. Moses was slow of speech and Paul was not imposing in his appearance, but Moses and Paul, like Ehud, were men of faith who led others to victory. Ehud turned a disability into a possibility because he depended on the Lord.
Our third and final story is a “one-verse wonder”—a mere sound bite.43 Check out this amazing and unorthodox story in 3:31: “After him [Ehud] came Shamgar44 the son of Anath, who struck down six hundred45 Philistines with an oxgoad;46 and he also saved Israel.” I love this name Shamgar. You can tell that this man is one bad dude! Just say that name a few times out loud: Shamgar…Shamgar! That’s a stud! And notice as well he’s “the son of Anath!” This is obviously a manly man! Interestingly, Shamgar is not an Israelite name. Furthermore, “Anath” is the name of a Canaanite goddess of war. Perhaps “son of Anath” was a nickname that meant “son of battle”—that is, a mighty warrior. So here we have a non-Israelite delivering Israel. The point: God can use anyone to deliver His people.47
Shamgar seems to be a professional soldier who is a bit impulsive. In this episode, Shamgar’s weapon of choice is an “oxgoad,” which is a stick about eight feet long with a sharpened iron point (1 Sam 3:21), used to train and drive oxen when plowing (cf. Eccl 12:11). He uses the oxgoad like a javelin or spear.
Shamgar is a man with inadequate weapons. Nevertheless, he is a man who obeys God and defeats the enemy even though his resources are limited. Instead of complaining about not possessing a sword or spear, Shamgar gives what he has to the Lord, and the Lord uses it. God makes His power obvious in human weakness.48 So give your education, experience, and talents to Him. Give whatever tools you have to the Lord, stand your ground courageously, and trust God to use what’s in your hand to accomplish great things for His glory.”
A woman walked to work past a pet store. One day a parrot called out to her as she passed and said, “Hey lady, you’re ugly.” She was upset but blew it off. Same thing happened the next day. She got a little angrier but went on. The third day the same thing happened. She went into the store and told the owner who had a talk with the parrot. The next day she passes by, “Hey lady.” She looks at him and says, “Yes?” The parrot said, “You know.”
In this life, there will be people who call you ugly. Others will say you don’t have what it takes. You will feel inadequate, incapable, and inferior. But if you bring all that you are to the Lord, He can do great things in and through you. Stop letting the enemy, your flesh, and others keep you from achieving all that God has for you. Yield yourself to the Lord and let Him fill you. Your responsibility is response to God’s ability.
1 John 2:15–17
Acts 4:24, 28
2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1; 11:3
1 Peter 5:8
Why am I often prone to do “evil in the sight of the LORD,” when He is so gracious and patient (3:7)? Can I accurately articulate the biblical balance between God’s patience and His anger (3:8)? How does God express His anger in my life today? Read Psalm 18:25–26 and Galatians 6:7–8. Have I recently experienced God’s discipline in my life? How did I respond? What did I learn?
Why is it so important to be filled with the Holy Spirit (3:10)? Read John 15:5. When have I recently been filled with the Spirit for the purpose of accomplishing ministry? How can I have confidence that I am truly filled with God’s Spirit? Read Ephesians 5:18–21.
How has God used my disabilities and weaknesses in ministry (3:15)? What has He taught me through these experiences? Who has challenged and inspired me in the use of their gifts despite their limitations? How did the great apostle Paul deal with his “thorn in the flesh?” Read 2 Corinthians 12:1–10.
Do the following characteristics describe me: power, strategy, and courage? Why or why not? Read 2 Timothy 1:7. How can I become a man or woman of valor? What “flesh and blood” example can I imitate in my pursuit to be more like Christ? Read 1 Corinthians 4:16.
What faulty perspectives keep me from achieving God’s work in and through me? Read Colossians 3:1–3. How can I ensure that I am fruitful for Him? What step of obedience will I take this week as a result of studying Judges 3?
1 Copyright © 2009 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
2 Gary Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 44.
3 Paul writes, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor 1:27–29). Zechariah 4:6 states: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts.”
4 Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Your Church Sign (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 81.
5 This is the only occurrence in Judges of the verb shakach, translated “forget.” Block argues persuasively that this verb denotes “to disregard, not to take into account” (cf. Judges 2:11–13). Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 151.
6 Psalm 90:11: “Who understands the power of Your anger and Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?”
7 This is called an anthropomorphism—a figure of speech where human traits or emotions are ascribed to God.
8 Anger that is acceptable to God is the anger that is appropriately directed against sin or inequity (cf. Josh 23:16; Ps 106:32–40; Amos 5:11–15; Ezek 22:23–31). Anger that displeases God is the expression of rage either that seeks the benefit of oneself rather than that of another or that extends beyond an appropriate time (both types of anger being those which ultimately work against the individual who expresses that emotion, cf. Eph 4:26; Jas 1:19–20).
9 Four times in the Book of Judges we’re told that God “sold” His people to the enemy (3:8; 2:14; 4:2; 10:7).
10 If Israel had been faithful to the Lord, He would have sold their enemies into their hands (Deut 32:30).
11 1 Samuel 7:3 provides an example of how to cry out to the Lord: “Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, ‘If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.’”
12 The leaders in Judges are not called “servants of the Lord,” like Moses and Joshua. They are “deliverers.”
13 Why does the Lord give Cushan-rishathaim into Israel’s hands? Davis explains, “When Yahweh’s own people are unfaithful, he raises up an instrument of his wrath to bring them low; but then the time comes when that instrument becomes too big for his international britches, when the instrument deludes himself into thinking he is Lord rather than the feeble vassal of the Great King. Then Yahweh must bring down his instrument-that-refuses-to-be-an-instrument.” Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Focus on the Bible (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000), 52.
14 Eaton notes, “The outcome of victorious work for God was ‘rest’ (3:11). This is what ‘entering into rest’ is - it is the reward of one’s labours after one has inherited the promises of God by diligent works of faith. “Rest’ is the enjoyment of the blessings of God, the reward of diligent faith.’ Michael Eaton, Judges and Ruth. Preaching through the Bible (England: Sovereign World, 2000), 22.
15 See Davis, Judges, 49–51. See also Block, Judges, Ruth, 153. Younger adds, “That the element of repentance is lacking can be graphically seen in 10:14, where when the Israelites cry out [z‘q] to Yahweh, he retorts sarcastically, ‘Go and cry out (z‘q) to the gods you have chosen. Let them save [hosia‘] you when you are in trouble [sara].” See K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges, Ruth. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 102.
16 Davis, Judges, 50.
17 Bible scholars don’t agree as to the exact blood relationship Othniel had to Caleb. Was Othniel Caleb’s nephew—that is, the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother—or was he simply Caleb’s younger brother? As far as the text is concerned, either interpretation is possible.
18 Block, Judges, Ruth, 149–50.
19 In ancient Israel, the Spirit of the Lord came upon (cf. Jdg 6:34; 11:29; 14:6, 19; 15:4; 1 Sam 10:10; 11:6; 19:20, 23; 1 Chron 12:18; 2 Chron 20:14) or filled (cf. Exod 31:3; 35:31; Deut 34:9; Micah 3:8) specific individuals to perform specific tasks (e.g., designing the Temple, prophesying, leading people to victory in battle). Yet, Block argues condignly that the filling of the Spirit was not selective and impermanent in the OT. Block, Judges, Ruth, 154–55.
20 Wright astutely notes, “The story of Othniel differs from the other judges in its universal scope. Unlike the other judges, Othniel, did not face one of Israel’s immediate neighbors but rather the “king of Mesopotamia,” a generic title pointing to the mighty empires of the east which would so trouble Israel during the latter days of the monarchy. Furthermore, while the activity of the other judges was limited to one or at most several of the tribes,Othniel appears to have delivered all Israel. The paradigm of an effective judge was thus set: total deliverance from the most powerful of enemies. No other judgment this standard.” Paul Wright ed., Joshua, Judges. Shepherd’s Notes (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 65.
21 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 22.
22 Davis, Judges, 55. Sailhamer writes, “It is clear that the author is primarily interested in the pattern and the lesson about God’s grace and forgiveness that it teaches. He gives little else for the reader to think on. His purpose is to establish this pattern as straightforwardly as possible at the beginning. In the subsequent stories, the author will include many more historical details in each of the stories. By leaving out such details here at the beginning and concentrating only on the pattern of God’s dealings, the author assures us that this pattern will not be lost to the reader amid increasing details of each story.” John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 207.
23 Jewish rabbis were so impressed with Othniel that they ranked him first among the judges and applied to him the words of the Song of Solomon 4:7: “You are altogether fair, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay, 48.
24 Younger, Judges, Ruth, 109.
25 The armies of Mesopotamia came a long distance to invade Israel; but the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites were not only neighbors but also relatives of the Jews. Lot, the nephew of Abraham, was the ancestor of Moab and Ammon (Gen 19:30–38); and Esau, the brother of Jacob, was the ancestor of Amalek (Gen 36:12, 16; Deut 25:17, 19).
26 See Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 23. This view is attractive because it preaches well and explains why the security allowed Ehud to enter without hesitation. The problem, however, is that in Judges 20:16, there are seven hundred troops with their right hand restricted who could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.
27 The Benjamites were known for their ambidexterity (Judges 20:16 and 1 Chron 12:2). Furthermore, the LXX (Greek OT) translates the Hebrew phrase in question by a word meaning ambidextrous (amphoterodexios). Yet, the Hebrew phrase seems like an odd way of describing an ambidextrous person.
28 Younger, Judges, Ruth, 114.
29 Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay, 51.
30 Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary, 207.
31 Although the Hebrew word gomed (“cubit”) only occurs here in the OT, Block, Judges, Ruth, 163, argues that it was understood as a cubit. See also Victor H. Matthews, Judges and Ruth. New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 60. Others maintain that gomed refers to a short cubit (approx. 12”). See Thomas Constable, Judges 2009: 25 n. 95.
32 Davis, Judges, 60; Younger 116.
33 Block, Judges, Ruth, 158.
34 Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 598.
35 The LXX (Greek OT) translation leaves this last phrase entirely!
36 Why did God destroy Eglon, whom He originally commissioned to bring judgment against His own people (3:12–13, 20–21)? First, Eglon did not acknowledge God’s role in empowering him to defeat and rule over the people of Israel, as was evidenced by the presence of idols in his palace; hence, Eglon still worshiped idols, rather than the living God (3:26). Second, Eglon apparently ruled harshly, rather than compassionately, as the cry of God’s people for deliverance suggests (3:15).
37 The author of Judges uses the Hebrew perfect verbal form here (“has given”) to describe a future action as if it were a completed, past event. He was confident in the outcome because of God’s faithful word.
38 Davis writes, “How accurate were biblical numbers, e.g., the 10,000 Moabites killed by the Israelites (Jdg 3:29), the 80 years of peace, (Jdg 3:30), or the 600 Philistines killed by Shamgar (Jdg 3:31)? Numbers found in Scripture functioned in several different ways. Some were intended to be precise, and were recorded as such (cf. Ezr 2). Other figures that may appear to be precise were, in fact, intended to be understood as approximations, and were often designated as such by the use of the adverb ‘about’ (e.g., the number of Israelites killed at the battle of Ai is recorded in Jos 7:5 as being ‘about 36’). Still other figures were intended to be understood as approximations, but were recorded without the use of the designating adverb ‘about’ (e.g., the 600 Philistines killed by Shamgar, here in 3:31, since it is unlikely that someone counted each person that Shamgar killed).”
39 Verse 29 is difficult to interpret for two reasons. First, the word translated “thousand” can also mean “military unit” (cf. 20:10). Second, it is not clear whether the Israelites killed these Moabites as they tried to cross the Jordan on this occasion. Perhaps this was the total Moabite force that the Israelites killed in their war with Moab. In either case this was a great victory for Israel.
40 Some biblical scholars fault Ehud for his treachery. But half-truths, lies, deception, and treachery are all part of holy war. Furthermore, Israel’s oppressors are as guilty as the Nazis who were sentenced to death by the war-crimes court at Nuremberg. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 598.
41 It is a mistake to see what happens here as a simple case of murder. This is not murder any more than the death of a soldier in battle is murder. Israel is at war. There is a truce in effect, but it is an imposed truce. Israel is an oppressed people. They are, in effect, slaves living under an army of occupation. Ehud assumes the role of a freedom fighter here, and kills the enemy, the number one enemy, of his people.
42 Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 147.
43 McCann notes, “Like Shamgar, Samson also fought the Philistines. The writer devoted four chapters to Samson, but Samson did not accomplish in four chapters what Shamgar did in one verse. Samson did not deliver Israel. This comparison further demonstrates the pattern of progressive deterioration that characterizes the Book of Judges.” J. Clinton McCann, Judges. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 2002), 48.
44 “The name Shamgar is non-Israelite and may have been of Hittite or Hurrian origin. This does not automatically infer that he was a Canaanite, although this is possible; it may witness to the intermingling of the Israelites with the native population. In any case his actions benefited Israel.”
45 Shamgar may have killed all 600 Philistines at one time in one place (see 2 Sam 8:8–12), but it’s also possible that 600 is a cumulative total.
46 Younger writes, “Interestingly, the term ‘oxgoad’ (malmad) is focused on the causative stem of Imd (“learn”)—literally, ‘an instrument of instruction or learning.’ Thus there may be a play on words involved in the choice of the oxgoad. Sham teaches the Philistines at thing or two. They, like, Eglon got the point of the lesson. Younger, Judges, Ruth, 129.
47 Pressler, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 151.
48 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 24.
Someone has said there are only three kinds of people in the world—those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who scratch their heads and ask, “Hey, what’s happening?” The ability to make things happen is the gift of leadership.3 Leadership is needed in every sphere of life. Our country needs leadership to lead us forward in the 21st century. Our churches need leadership to lead the world to Christ. Our homes need leadership to transfer truth to the next generation. Leadership is paramount! Yet, as important as human leadership is God’s leadership is most essential, for apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
In Judges 4–5,4 we will learn about two godly female leaders who perform legendary exploits for God. These two women are leaders who are willing to risk life and limb for God’s purposes. They are women of courage. In this account, our author reveals that God intervenes when we act with courageous faith. Chapter 4 contains two acts: Act 1 focuses on Deborah’s victory (4:1–16), and Act 2 on Jael’s victory (4:17–24). Chapter 5, then, is a victory song by Deborah that provides us insight into chapter 4.
Act 1: Deborah’s victory (4:1–16). Our story begins in 4:1 on a tragic, but familiar note. “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died.”5After Ehud gutted the “fat calf” Eglon (3:20–22), God gave His people eighty years of peace (3:30). This is the longest period of peace recorded in the Book of Judges. But once Ehud dies, the people return to their evil (see 2:10–19). This verse tells us something about sin. It is difficult to be creative in sin. There’s a certain monotony about it; most all of that has been done before; it is simply that we do the same thing again.6 Sin is a boring routine, not a fresh excitement. The fast lane becomes an old rut. Evil never lends itself to originality. Hence, there are two problems: the slavery and the staleness of sin.7 Today, you may have a stronghold of anger in your life. You express this anger to your spouse, kids, and coworkers. It feels good to fly off the handle and vent your frustrations. However, when the dust settles you feel awful inside and you can’t take your words back. Perhaps you are guilty of overeating. The food tastes great going down, but when your stomach is filled to the point of overflowing you feel guilty. Maybe you are addicted to Internet pornography. The immediate rush that your flesh feels is glorious, but then the Holy Spirit convicts you and you realize that this sin will destroy your marriage, family, and ministry. All of these sins follow the cyclical pattern of sin in the Book of Judges. They are repetitious, monotonous, and destructive.
The Book of Judges is like a broken record. God shows His grace and His people rebel. The cycle repeats itself over and over and over again. It makes one wonder, how can I ensure that after my death the next generation lives righteous and godly lives? This is a question every church must ask because we are just one generation away from extinction. We must begin with desperate prayer: “Lord, may my children, grandchildren, and disciples walk with you until they see you face-to-face.” It is also critical to follow up prayer with action! As a church our vision is “transferring truth to the next generation.” You must own this vision. It must preoccupy your thoughts, time, and energy. Right now, who are you investing your life into? Like Ehud, one day you will die. Who will pick up the baton of faith and run? To put it another way, if the future of Christianity depended on your investment in others, would Christianity live to see another day? God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.
In 4:2–3, Israel’s rebellion requires God to act. “And the LORD sold them [Israel] into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan,8 who reigned in Hazor;9 and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim [lit. the woodlands of the nations]. The sons of Israel cried to the LORD; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.”10 God loves His idolatrous people enough to discipline them with idolaters. He lovingly preys on their insecurities by raising up Jabin and Sisera along with their nine hundred iron chariots.11 Through the use of this powerful technology the Canaanites rule over Israel for twenty long years.
Our story picks up steam in 4:4–5. We are introduced to Deborah and learn a little bit about who she is. “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging12 Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.”13God raises up a courageous woman named Deborah to be Israel’s judge.14 Deborah’s name means “honeybee” for she does what most marks a bee. She stings the enemy, and she brings sweet refreshment to her people.15 Deborah is also called “the wife of Lappidoth,” which means “woman of torches.” This is quite apropos since she will shortly light a fire under Barak and demonstrate conquering power, which torches symbolize (cf. 5:7; Isa 62:1; Dan 10:6; Zech 12:6).16
Now that we know who Deborah is, we must determine exactly what she does. In 4:6–7, we discover that Deborah “sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, ‘Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded,17 ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun. I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.’” It is important to note that 4:6 is a question.18 The NASB provides a margin note offering an alternative translation (“Has not…commanded…?) This question is a better rendering of 4:6. It ought to be translated, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded that you should march to Mount Tabor?” Deborah is not telling Barak anything that he does not already know. She calls Barak to Bethel to remind him of the truth that he already possesses. God has been speaking to Barak. His home was Kedesh-naphtali. “Kedesh” means sanctuary. Evidently there was a holy site there in Naphtali, and there may have been a very small glimmer of truth and light there. In any case, Barak knows the truth. He knows that he should be a man of faith. He knows that God can deliver Israel, but he is impotent, powerless, and afraid to act. Deborah is calling him to go back to what he knows is true, and to act on it.
In 4:8, we come upon a verse that should hurt every man. “Then Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” Initially, it seems like Barak is a pantywaist, girlie-man. He seems to be the ultimate coward.19 Now, admittedly, this preaches well; however, it is not the best understanding. Rather, it appears that Barak wants Deborah to accompany him so that he can be assured of God’s presence.20 He also likely wants the prophetess with him so that he can consult with her as he has need.21 While this sounds somewhat reasonable,22 the problem is God’s will has already been revealed to Barak, and he is reluctant to act on the command he has received.23 The will of God is clear, but Barak puts a condition on obeying God.
Barak (“lightning”) is told where to go, how many men to take with him, and even what tribes they are to come from. He is told that he is to provoke Sisera to attack, descending from Mount Tabor to the plain near the river Kishon, and there God will deliver him into Barak’s hand. There is nothing more that Barak needs to know. He does not need Deborah to accompany him for any further guidance, nor does he require her presence to obtain a following or a victory. Nevertheless, he thinks he needs Deborah to come along with him, even though he has God’s promise of victory.
It’s easy to be passive like Barak when we receive God’s commands. For Barak, the command was to lead the Israelite army against Jabin’s army. For you, it might be God’s call for you to discipline your children, to train up your children in the way of wisdom. But you slink from the task. You’re afraid to set boundaries. You’re reluctant to hold your child to standards. You don’t have the courage to say, “We’re not going to watch this television program in our home.” You hesitate to say, “There’s a song on this CD we’re not going to allow in our home.” There’s no way you’re going to announce, “You can’t go out with this boy or with this girl.”24 It is so easy to say to your wife, “Honey, will you talk to the kids?” “Will you discipline the kids?” As men, it is so easy to be lazy and passive. We can often lack faith when God has called us to lead. Today, will you recommit yourself to being the spiritual leader God wants you to be?
God merely asks that you take one step forward in obedience. He is looking for you to have courageous faith. When you do so, God promises that He will intervene. After all, when God wants to glorify Himself through His people, He always has a perfect plan for us to follow. In the case of Barak, God chose the leader of His army, the place for the battle, and the plan for His army to follow. God also guaranteed the victory.25 Similarly, we know that “God’s commandments are God’s enablements” and that we should obey His will in spite of circumstances, feelings, or consequences.
After Barak’s classic ultimatum, Deborah replies in 4:9–10: “‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’26 Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him.” This is a beautiful response from Deborah. She does not ridicule Barak or “call him out” by questioning his manhood. She doesn’t nag, command, or insist. Nor does she attempt to manipulate him. Instead, she merely reminds him of his responsibility before God. Deborah uses the carrot approach and reminds Barak that God wanted to honor him. But due to his lack of faith, a woman will be honored in his place. Even so, Deborah promises to support Barak and go with him into battle.
Perhaps you can relate to this episode between Deborah and Barak because you are married to a spiritually passive man. In the past, have you ever turned on Christian radio or television hoping that your husband will be convicted by a sermon? Have you ever given your husband a book on how to be a godly man? Have you ever put a tract on his pillow hoping he will read it before bed? Have you ever been guilty of telling your husband that you wish he was more like [insert a godly man]? Although these attempts may be well-intentioned, they are fruitless. If anything, you will drive your husband further away. The best thing you can do is simply pray for your husband and exude a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet 3:1–6). Like Deborah, if you then seek ways to support your husband and be an encouragement to him, the Lord can do great things in your man.
The contrast between Deborah and Barak suggests that God raises up a woman to lead Israel because the Israelite men were cowards and declined leadership. Barak, though a gifted warrior, is tainted by his lack of faith and shamed for it. The honor of killing the enemy commander in battle will go to a woman. Verse 9 keeps us in suspense. Who will be the woman who gets the honor? At this point, we assume that it will be Deborah herself. Act 2 will give us…“the rest of the story.” But the point is: In the absence of manly men, the Lord uses heroic women.27 Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Barak did have faith. In fact, he is included in the “hall of faith” (Heb 11:32). But then again so was Samson! Both of these men were believers in Yahweh, but their faith was not as strong as it should have been. What a great reminder that God can use weak and sinful people like you and me.
Before we continue our story and learn about Israel’s victory,28 there is a “speed bump” in 4:11. It seems like a non sequitur, but there is a hint of what is to come. “Now Heber the Kenite had separated himself from the Kenites, from the sons of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.” This verse suggests that Heber is a defector. Instead of cooperating with Israel he has moved north and is dangerously close to God’s enemies. There will be more to come in Act 2.
In 4:12–13, the author of judges continues his story: “Then they [the Canaanite troops] told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor. Sisera called together all his chariots, nine hundred iron chariots, and all the people who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon.” Sisera must have said, “I’m going to kick tail and take names.” He is pumped because he knows he is going to be able to obliterate Israel. After all, he has over nine hundred iron chariots, thousands of foot soldiers, and an arsenal of weapons. Furthermore, it is sometime between June–September. The weather is beautiful and the time is right to continue his twenty-year domination of Israel.
Yet, 4:14 marks a turning point in this chapter. Deborah moves from posing a question and speaking a prophetic word to issuing a war cry. She says to Barak: “‘Arise! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the LORD has gone out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him.” Like an ancient Joan of Arc, Deborah calls the people to battle, leading them out of idolatry and restoring their dignity as God’s chosen ones.29
Not once, but twice, Deborah informs Barak that it is the Lord who is going to bring victory. It is not Deborah, Barak, or Israel; it is the Lord who will win this battle! This is confirmed in 4:15–16 which states: “The LORD routed30 Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. But Barak pursued the chariots and the army as far as Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not even one was left.” The emphasis in these two verses is that “all” the military might and technology of the Canaanites is annihilated. How in the world did this happen? Chapter 5 tells us that at just the right moment, the Lord allowed the Kishon River to flood and completely disable the enemy so that Israel could slay them (5:4–5, 19–20).31 Sisera’s legendary iron chariots become mired in the muck and mud. Hence, all of Sisera’s tactical advantages go down the drain as Barak’s infantry charges down from Mount Tabor and absolutely destroys the Canaanites.32
The battle plan God had given Barak made little sense, militarily speaking. Chariots were very effective on the plains, but they were of little or no value in the mountains. God ordered Barak to muster his troops on Mount Tabor, and then to lead them down from the mountain and onto the plains. This is precisely where the chariots had the advantage and could do the most damage. Humanly speaking, the plan didn’t make sense. But in retrospect we can see how shrewd God’s plan was. Because the Israelite army was on the plain, Sisera felt that his chariots were the perfect weapon. He ordered all of his chariots to engage the Israelites in battle. It looked like a slaughter, which is exactly the way God wanted it to appear. The Canaanites depended upon their nine hundred chariots. The Israelites chose to trust in God’s promise. What are you depending upon to give you spiritual victory? Throughout the Book of Judges, God uses weak and foolish people and methods. He continues to do so today. Will you offer yourself to the Lord? God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.
It is interesting to read the Book of Hebrews with this story in mind, because when you come to the great roll call of heroes in Hebrews 11, there are a number of judges whose names are cited as examples of faith. There is Gideon and Jephthah and Samson, and there is Barak. What is notable is that there is no mention made of Deborah. And if it were not for this story we would never know of Deborah’s place in history. She was content to take that role. Deborah could have called herself, “judge,” “prophetess,” “general,” “leader,” “woman of God par excellence,” or “wife of Lappidoth.” However, she describes herself as “a mother in Israel” (5:7). Her position is one of mother, not only to her own biological children but mother to all the children of Israel. Perhaps you’re not in an influential position of authority. You can still be a mother to your children and the children in your neighborhood and lead them in the right direction. Perhaps you have little power in your job or position, you can still be a mother to those around you and inspire them to righteousness. Perhaps your life allows little time or opportunity for significant positions of leadership, you can still be a mother in your sphere, whether big or small, wielding influence far beyond your lowly position. You can be like Deborah, used of God to be a mother in Israel.33 Don’t let our society talk you down, take a step of courageous faith and watch God intervene in your life.
Act 2: Jael’s victory (4:17–24). In the following story, Barak’s fearfulness is contrasted with Jael’s faithfulness.34 But first, our “to be continued…” story picks up from 4:11. “Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.” Heber has indeed changed sides. He is no longer on Israel’s side, but on the Canaanites’ side. He has made an alliance with the enemy. So Barak seeks out his wife’s tent. This is forbidden in the Ancient Near East culture.35 But what Sisera doesn’t know is: In spite of her husband’s loyalty to Sisera, Jael is loyal to Israel.
In 4:18, “Jael [“mountain goat”] went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him.” Providentially, Heber is not home but Jael offers Sisera hospitality. She invites him into her tent and tells him not to fear. Like Deborah, the mother of Israel, Jael treats Sisera like a little boy. She covers him with a rug, gives him milk to drink, and tucks him into bed because he has had a long, hard day.
Before he drifts off to sleep, Sisera says to Jael, “‘Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’ But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple,36 and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died.37 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple.”38 This lady is a bad mama-jama. She is a courageous warrior! This is the origin of the expression, “Step softly but carry a big hammer.” By the standards of ancient warfare, she is a hero. She decisively and courageously helped God’s people at a critical moment in history.39
It is tempting to wonder, “What if Jael missed in her death blow?” Sisera would have awoken and killed her on the spot. But we must remember that in biblical times, pitching a tent and striking camp was a woman’s work. Jael had the tools of her trade close at hand and knew how to use them. Driving a tent peg through Sisera’s skull was like a hot knife through butter. From an Israelite point of view, Jael did a masterful piece of work. The glory did, indeed, go to a woman and not to Barak.
Verses 23 and 24 conclude this account and mark a turning point for Israel. “So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the sons of Israel. The hand of the sons of Israel pressed heavier and heavier upon Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin the king of Canaan.” The defeat of Sisera and his army was a turning point in history because it put the Israelites on the offensive and the Canaanites on the defensive. This victory not only eliminated some of Jabin’s top warriors, but it deprived him of his greatest weapons—his nine hundred iron-rimmed chariots. The spoils of this victory would also have provided armor and weapons for many Israelite soldiers—men who previously would have had to fight unarmed (see Judges 5:8). This placed a great handicap on the Canaanites, and leveled the playing field for future battles. God brought all this to pass through the obedience of two women.40God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.
The Finale: Deborah’s victory song (5:1–31). Our passage concludes in chapter 5 with Deborah’s song of praise. Whenever God’s people win a battle, they break out into praise. Call it the Hebrew way! In 5:2, Deborah exclaims, “Bless the LORD”; again in 5:9 she says, “Bless the LORD”; and in 5:11 she declares, “There they shall recount the righteous deeds of the LORD.” The entire focus of this chapter is on God’s glorious power. What is also of great interest is this song emphasizes who did and who did not participate in the battle against Sisera. Deborah begins with commendation. In 5:2, God’s people step up—the leaders lead and the people volunteer. This verse explains the theme of the chapter. In 5:13–15a, five specific tribes are commended for fighting Sisera’s army: Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (part of the tribe of Manasseh), Zebulun, and Issachar. After commending these five tribes, in 5:15b–17, Deborah turns to four specific tribes who refused to join the fight: Reuben, Gilead, Dan, and Asher. The people of Gilead thought they need not join in the conflict since they live on the other side of the Jordan River. The people of Dan were too busy doing business with the nations and their ships. The people of Asher were unwilling to leave their homes by the Mediterranean Sea. Deborah then returns to commendation and focuses in on two peoples who were very different. In 5:18 we read, “Zebulun was a people who despised their lives even to death, and Naphtali also, on the high places of the field.”
This section reminds us that we must make a choice whether or not we will serve the Lord (Josh 24:15). It is so easy to be passive, lazy, busy, and distracted, yet the honor goes to those churches and individuals who are faithful to the Lord. Although the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church universal (Matt 16:18), thousands of American churches will close their doors every year. There is no guarantee that any church will remain successful. This is also true of individuals. If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior, you are good for heaven, but you may not be good for earth. Deborah’s song could have been a song in Barak’s honor, but instead God’s choice women received the glory. Barak was not fully obedient to what God called him to do. Today, will your story be different?
The last verse of this section is particularly meaningful. The author of Judges writes, “‘Thus let all Your enemies perish, O LORD; But let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might.’ And the land was undisturbed for forty years.” I will tell you a little secret. I always keep the shades in my office closed. A colleague in my former church occasionally called me Count Dracula because, like a vampire, I lived in darkness. The reason I do this is because if the shades are open, I will be distracted with the sites of people pulling into our church parking lot, going into our church auditorium, or coming into our office. I need to focus on my appointments and sermon preparation. However, I can’t resist a gorgeous sunrise. Last week as our staff met in my office, I saw the sunrise peeking through my blinds. It was so beautiful that I had to open them. As I observed the sunrise, I couldn’t help but glorify God for His beauty. Whenever I see a sunrise, I feel especially close to God. Sunrises remind me of His great love for me and also of the great love that I need to have for the S-O-N. As I love the Lord Jesus Christ, I become like the rising of the sun in its might. God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.
2 Samuel 1:17–27
1. Following eighty years of peace and Ehud’s death, Israel returns to her wayward ways (4:1). Why does this repeatedly happen throughout Judges? What can I do as a leader to ensure that my legacy makes a lasting difference? Who can I transfer truth to so that the next generation will grow in godliness? What will I do this week to impact the next generation?
2. As a man, how am I like Barak (4:8)? When I am filled with doubt and fear, how do I usually respond? What should I do? Read 2 Timothy 1:7 and James 1:6–8. How can I be a mighty man of faith? Read Mark 11:22–24. Who inspires me to cultivate greater faith? How can I spend more time with this person? Read Proverbs 27:17. What can I do to ensure that the times I spend with this individual are spiritually worthwhile?
3. As a woman, how am I like Deborah (4:4–10)? How have the men in my life failed me so that I have had to step up in my marriage, family, work, and ministry? Will I commit today to pray that God will raise up stronger men in my life and church? Will I simultaneously do what God has called me to do in a submissive, teachable, and gracious way?
4. God fulfilled His Word and gave Deborah, Barak, and Jael victory over the Canaanites (4:10–22). What has God called me to do? What promises has He given me? Why do I still lack faith and persist in disobedience? What can I do today to step out in faith and obedience? What is holding me back? Read Mark 4:35–41 and ask God to increase your faith. Meditate on Hebrews 11 and ask God to make you a person of faith.
5. One step of obedience often leads to many blessings (4:23–24). How have I experienced this biblical principle in my own Christian life? In what ways does my history with God’s grace and faithfulness encourage me? What area of my life is God asking me to surrender to Him today? Read Luke 14:25–35. Will I fall back on His goodness and mercy? Do I truly believe that He will sustain me?
1 This is the chapter title of Judges 4 from Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Focus on the Bible (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000), 69.
2 Copyright © 2009 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
3 Gary Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 55.
4 Block writes, “No literary unit in Judges has evoked more scholarly discussion than these two chapters.” Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 177.
5 This is the exact same wording as the Ehud narrative (Judges 3:12).
6 Interestingly, Judges 5:8 does reveal that Israel began to worship “new gods!” Yet, they are still worshiping dead idols.
7 Davis, Judges, 72.
8 As you read this narrative, however, you get the impression that Sisera, captain of Jabin’s army, is the real power in the land. Jabin isn’t even mentioned in Deborah’s song in Judges 5.
9 Critics of the Scripture have been quick to point out Joshua also fought a king of Hazor named Jabin and suggests this may be an evidence of the unreliability of Scripture. Actually, archaeological research at Hazor has demonstrated the amazing accuracy of the Scripture on this point. Jabin was not a personal name, but rather a dynastic title which belonged to the king of that city. Also, Jabin appears to be only a figurehead leader in this opposition of Israel. The real power of this alliance was that of Sisera. Archaeologists have discovered that though Hazor was rebuilt after Joshua, the city had not returned to its former strength by this time.
10 Judges 5:6–8 expounds further on the domination of the Canaanites. The Canaanite presence in Israel wrought great havoc. The highways were virtually deserted, no doubt heavily patrolled by the Canaanites with their chariots. Villages were likewise abandoned because there were no walls to protect the people from being pillaged and robbed by the Canaanites. The Israelites seem to have retreated to the walled cities, and even these did not really protect them. And if the Canaanites had their chariots, swords, spears, and shields, it would seem that the Israelites were not allowed to possess any weapons. Israel may have been able to muster 40,000 warriors, but they would have had to fight unarmed.
11 Contrary to what people think, ancient iron chariots were not like mod tanks. They were not used to break through enemy lines. Instead they were used for pursuit and slaughter of the fleeing enemy. They were primarily a killing platform. Against a fleeing enemy in an open plain they were very effective. K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges, Ruth. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 139.
12 Block, Judges, Ruth, 193–94 gives twelve arguments against Deborah being understood as a judge in the delivering sense of the word.
13 This appears to be the same kind of “judging” we see Moses doing (Exod 18:13–27), and later his seventy helpers (Num 11:16–30).
14 Deborah was both a judge and a prophetess. Moses’ sister Miriam was a prophetess (Exod 15:20); and later biblical history introduces us to Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:26), and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). Other prominent women in the Bible include Queen Esther (Esther 2:15–9:32), Priscilla (Acts 18:18–26), and Phoebe (Rom 16:1).
15 Deborah’s name also suggests her prophetic role as she spoke to Barak since the consonants in her name are the same as those in the Hebrew word translated “speak” and “word.” The writer may have referred to her palm tree, another source of sweetness, to contrast it with the oak of Zaanannim under which the compromising Heber worked (4:11). Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Judges” (2009 ed.): http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/judges.pdf, 29–30.
16 J. Clinton McCann, Judges. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 2002), 51–52.
17 Lit. “Has not Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded you, go…?”
18 The NET Bible renders the first part of this verse as a question, as does the KJV and the NKJV, and some others.
19 It may be that Barak feared no one would follow him. Such fears were not unfounded. After all, the Israelites had been oppressed for 20 years by the Canaanites. The Canaanites were well armed; the Israelites were virtually unarmed. Many had been coming to Deborah for judgment. Perhaps they would follow her into battle, even if they would not follow Barak. Eaton disagrees and sees Barak as acting within his assurance of faith. Michael Eaton, Judges and Ruth. Preaching through the Bible (England: Sovereign World, 2000), 26.
20 Block, Judges, Ruth, 199.
21 The Greek OT adds: “for I [Barak] never know what day the angel of the Lord will give me success.”
22 This would not have been such a terrible request. After all, did the Israelites not take the means of discerning God’s will into battle with them at other times (1 Sam 14:3, 18–20; 30:7–8)? Even Jonathan sought a sign to confirm that his attack was God’s will (1 Sam 14:6–14).
24 Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 143.
25 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Available: Judges, Electronic ed.
26 The phrase “into the hand of a woman” is in emphatic position in the Hebrew text.
27 See also Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 600.
28 The story of Israel’s deliverance under Deborah and Barak is told twice, once as a narrative and once as a poetic song. These two tellings complement each other and provide a unique look at the way Israel remembered its past. Paul Wright ed., Joshua, Judges. Shepherd’s Notes (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 67.
29 Ann Spangler & Jean E. Syswerda, Women of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 109.
30 The Hebrew verb hamam sometimes describe situations in which God brings a thunderstorm (Josh 10:10–11; 1 Sam 7:10; Pss 18:14; 144:6). See John Stek, “A Bee and a Mountain Goat: A Literary Reading of Judges 4,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, ed. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 68.
31 The Canaanite god Baal was the god of storms, so the sudden change of weather would have affected the superstitious Canaanites. Had their own god Baal turned against them? Was the God of Israel stronger than Baal? If so, then the battle was already lost, and the wisest thing the soldiers could do was flee.
32 Davis, Judges, 75.
33 Spangler & Syswerda, Women of the Bible, 110.
34 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 600.
35 Matthews lays out seven violations of hospitality in the Jael narrative. Victor H. Matthews, Judges and Ruth. New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 68–69.
36 The war is not over until the military commander is captured and killed.
37 How can Jael be commended for such a cruel act of murder? First, it should be remembered that Sisera was a mighty warrior. When he came to Jael’s tent, Jael was hardly in a position to refuse him entrance. Although it was Jael who went out to meet Sisera to encourage him to find refuge in her tent, it is clear from 4:17 that he was already planning to go to Jael’s tent. Second, Sisera was a cruel warrior who had viciously oppressed God’s people. If Sisera had escaped from the battle, he would most certainly have lived to brutalize God’s people again. If Jael had not acted, she would have been party to any future slaughter or oppression of God’s people by this godless man. Third, Jael’s own commitment to the Lord God of Israel dictated the only course of action she could take. The enemies of the Lord and the Lord’s people were Jael’s enemies. She had to kill him. She could not hope to face such a warrior in combat. Her action had to be swift and certain. She could not take a chance on failing to kill him and perhaps merely wound him. She had to take decisive action that would result in the certain and sudden death of Sisera. Faced with the alternatives, Jael chose the greater good. To prevent the future slaughter and oppression of the people of God, Jael killed Sisera. Fourth, although there is no place in the Bible where God honors or praises Jael for the manner in which she killed Sisera, the song of Deborah certainly praises her for her decisive action. Jael was an instrument in the hands of God to bring judgment upon this terrible enemy of God’s people. See Norman L. Geisler and Thomas A. Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992), 147.
38 Was Sisera lying down when Jael killed him, or was he upright as Judges 5:27 seems to indicate? The poetic description of Judges 5:27 can be understood to describe possible convulsions which Sisera’s body exhibited after the blow to the head. Also, the term “fell” is frequently used in a figurative sense to indicate someone’s demise. This would be especially likely in the poetic structure of chapter 5. The poem is not describing a literal falling down to the ground, as if Sisera was upright. Rather, it is poetically picturing Sisera’s demise. At the hand of this maiden, the mighty Sisera, captain of the army of the Canaanite king, has fallen. There is no contradiction here, merely the difference between historical narrative accurately reporting the events in a literal manner, and poetic expression accurately reporting the events in a poetic figure. See Geisler and Howe, When Critics Ask, 147.
39 From Sisera’s arrival and subsequent actions Jael must have realized that the Israelites were prevailing in the battle with the Canaanites. She must have sensed this was her opportunity to come to Israel’s aid by putting Sisera to death.
40 Sailhamer writes, “The author’s point in all this is not to elevate the virtues of women over those of men. Throughout the narrative he wants it abundantly clear that it was God and God alone who delivered Israel’s enemies into their hands (4:9, 14, 23; 5:31), working mightily through the resourcefulness of these two courageous women.” John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 208.
Have you ever doubted God’s promises? Have you ever questioned His work in your life? Of course, you have. It’s easy to do this, isn’t it? Consider the following scenarios: A leader in our church who is an extraordinary preacher has a call on his life to preach and pastor. Recently, his home church decided that they wanted him to be their new pastor. Unfortunately, the regional director of their denomination disqualified him because he doesn’t have at least one year of Bible college or seminary. Sadly, a Masters Degree in teaching was insufficient. Another man in our church with eight kids was recently laid off due to the economy. He was in the midst of an apprenticeship and still had three more years of night classes. Now his future in this career is up in the air. But what is certain is the mouths that he has to feed and the mortgage that he has to pay. A woman in our church battles chronic back pain and migraines. She lives in severe pain every day of her life. In each of these cases, God is at work and His promises will be fulfilled. If God calls a man to ministry, He will open up the right position in the right time. When a father loses his job, the Lord will eventually provide another. When a godly woman suffers extreme pain, God will not give her more than she can bear. God will always perform what He promises.
In Judges 6–8,2 we will study Gideon—a man who doubts God’s promises and questions His work. You could say Gideon is a lot like you and me (Jas 5:17). Although Gideon eventually becomes a great hero, he is also filled with fear. In fact, he is one of the most fearful and doubtful individuals in the entire Bible. No biblical character requires and receives more divine assurance than Gideon. Yet, at a specific point in Gideon’s life he becomes the man God wants him to be. Therefore, this section is the key to the entire Book of Judges.3 God wants you and me to be faith-filled believers who overcome our doubts and obediently trust Him. This story demonstrates that He will do whatever He can to bring us to the place of obedience. The word for today is: Believe God’s promises and move from fear to faith.
The introduction and setting before Gideon’s debut (6:1–10). This new section begins with a familiar refrain: “Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD gave them into the hands of Midian seven years” (6:1). Now remember, Israel is coming off of forty years of peace after God’s deliverance over Sisera’s nine hundred iron chariots (5:31). One would think Israel would have learned her lesson by now. But this generation, like the previous generations, falls right back into idolatry. What is the principle for us today? Remember, remember, remember! Remember the times God has delivered you in the past out of or through a difficult time. It is so easy to forget God’s faithfulness.4 Might I recommend keeping a record of God’s faithfulness? Some people like journaling. Notice, I didn’t say “some women…” It’s easy to assume that journaling is for women, yet I have known many men who have journaled God’s faithfulness. Last week, I talked with a man who has been journaling his entire relationship with his fiancée. He wants to keep a record of God’s faithfulness to share with his wife, children, and grandchildren. If journaling is not for you, why not consider opening up a Word doc. and typing up bullet points of God’s faithfulness. If you would prefer to avoid the computer after a long day of work, work on regularly reminding your children and grandchildren of God’s faithfulness. This can be a healthy reminder not only for them but for you as well. Time has a way of eroding our memory and dimming our vision of the greatness of our God. Periods of rest in our spiritual lives can lull us into the delusion that we are self-sufficient and don’t really need God all that much.
In 6:2–6, God uses the Midianites to break the Israelites so that they will call out to Him. The Midianites are a vast army from the east who invade Israel riding on camels. They come each year during harvest season. They enter the land just as the Israelites are harvesting their crops. They plunder the land, take the harvest, get on their camels, head out of town, and then stay away until the next year’s harvest. Then they come back in and plunder the harvest again. This sounds like what deer do to my wife’s garden and fruit trees. Fortunately, we don’t depend on our harvest like the Israelites! This is a devastating loss over a seven-year period. Yet, God uses this pain and suffering to woo His people back.
In the midst of Israel’s distress, God does something unorthodox. He sends an unnamed prophet to rebuke His people (6:7–10).5 This is akin to a stranded motorist calling a garage for assistance and the garage sending a philosopher instead of a mechanic. Israel needs deliverance and the Lord sends a prophet; Israel asks for an act of God’s power and He sends them a preacher who rehearses His grace (6:8b–9) and repeats His demands (6:10). The Lord sends a prophet because Israel needs more than immediate relief; they need to understand why they are oppressed. They must see that “the LORD gave them into the hands of Midian seven years” (6:1) because they refused to obey Him (6:10b).6 Likewise, in many cases we need understanding before we receive relief. We may want to escape from our circumstances while God wants us to interpret our circumstances. God’s way of holiness is more important than the absence of pain. If things aren’t going so well at work, God may be trying to get your attention. He may want to teach you some things. If you’re having trouble in your marriage and family, God may have handpicked you for a trial because He wants to sanctify you…yet as through fire. Would you simply identify the trial in your life and then ask God what He is trying to teach you?
The commissioning of Gideon as Israel’s deliverer (6:11–32). Instead of “dropping the hammer” on Israel, God once again shows them His great grace by raising up another deliverer. In 6:11–16 we read, “Then the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah [not “Oprah”], which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press in order to save it from the Midianites. [One would normally thresh wheat at the threshing floor outside the city. Animals and a threshing sledge would be employed. Because of the Midianite threat, Gideon was forced to thresh with a stick in a winepress inside the city.7] The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, ‘The LORD is with you, O valiant warrior.’ Then Gideon said to him, ‘O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.’ The LORD looked at him and said, ‘Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?’ He said to Him, ‘O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.’ But the LORD said to him, ‘Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.’” This is some kind of dialogue! The angel of the Lord pursues a scaredy-cat from an idolatrous family. He even calls Gideon “valiant warrior.”8 I used to think the angel must have had difficulty keeping a straight face, without bursting out in laughter. I now see these words as prophetic. The angel spoke to Gideon, not as he was at the moment but according to what he would be in the future.9 Even today the Lord addresses you and me as “saints,” even though we are often fearful and faithless. God is confident in us because “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3) has already been implanted within us. Now it is merely a matter of appropriating who we are in Christ. The Lord wants you to believe what He says about you.
The promise the angel gives Gideon is: “Yahweh is with you” (6:12). He repeats this same promise again in 6:16. Against Gideon’s inadequacy the Lord stacks His adequacy. God does not always answer the questions that we have. We want to ask all kinds of what, when, where, why, and how questions, but all we really need to know is WHO!10 Unfortunately, Gideon complains against God and makes all kinds of excuses for himself. He does this not once (6:13), but twice (6:15). Gideon then asks for a sign to assure him that it is really the Lord who is speaking to him, and the Lord graciously accommodates Himself to Gideon’s unbelief. Gideon then prepares a sacrifice, which God promptly consumes by bringing fire from a rock (6:17–21).11 This miracle results in Gideon being astonished with the Lord (6:22–23). Consequently, he builds an altar to the Lord and names the place “The LORD is Peace” (6:24). The Hebrew word for “peace” (shalom) means much more than a cessation of hostilities but carries with it the ideas of well-being, health, and prosperity. Gideon now believes the Lord is able to use him, not because of who he is but because of who God is. This is where you and I must find ourselves. We must become convinced that we are insufficient and God is more than sufficient. Believe God’s promises and move from fear to faith.
In 6:25–32, the Lord lays down a call to “altared living”12 In 6:25–26 the narrator writes, “Now on the same night the LORD said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it; and build an altar to the LORD your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner, and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.’” The assignment God gives isn’t an easy one. He calls Gideon to kill two of his father’s bulls and abolish his altar. Since altars to Baal were built on high places, it would have been difficult to obey God’s orders without attracting attention.13 Gideon is required to come out of the closet and go public with his faith in Yahweh. This is exactly what he does in 6:27–32. “Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the LORD had spoken to him; and because he was too afraid of his father’s household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night. When the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was torn down, and the Asherah which was beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar which had been built. They said to one another, ‘Who did this thing?’ And when they searched about and inquired, they said, ‘Gideon the son of Joash did this thing.’ Then the men of the city said to Joash, ‘Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has torn down the altar of Baal, and indeed, he has cut down the Asherah which was beside it.’ [According to Deut 13:6–9, it was the idol-worshipers who should have been slain!] But Joash said to all who stood against him, ‘Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? Whoever will plead for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar.’14 Therefore on that day he named him Jerubbaal, that is to say, ‘Let Baal contend against him,’ because he had torn down his altar.”
This section makes it clear that two altars cannot coexist side-by-side. In other words, you cannot have an altar to Yahweh and an altar to Baal. They are mutually exclusive. The demand placed on Gideon is meant as a paradigm for Israel. Yahweh is preparing to deliver them. But Israel must be properly prepared for such deliverance. God cannot safely trust His good gifts to those not fully given to Him. When one of our children runs into the house crying, after skinning a knee from a headlong fall in the driveway, we don’t simply slap a giant two-inch-wide Band-Aid over the mass. Rather, we cleanse the grit and gunk out of the wound before the Band-Aid goes on.15
Another insight that comes from this section is: Many of our biggest spiritual battles will be fought in the home. Knowing that Gideon is still afraid, God assigns him a task right at home to show him that He will see him through. Gideon has to take his stand in his own village before he dares to face the enemy on the battlefield. Before God gives His servants great victories in public, He sometimes prepares them by giving them smaller victories at home.16 When we prove that we’re faithful with a few things, God will trust us with greater things (Matt 25:21). We must always recognize if we don’t practice our faith at home it is unlikely that we will practice it anyplace else.
The preparation for the battle (6:33–7:18). The focus of this entire passage is found in this section. The driving force of this passage is not the matter of Gideon being the judge from the Midianites. Certainly he is used for that purpose, but the focus of the narrative comes in 6:33–7:18, in which the theme of deliverance is momentarily suspended to allow for another development. The primary matter in the Gideon narrative is not the deliverance itself but rather something more personal, namely, Gideon’s struggle to believe God’s promise.17
Before Gideon believes God’s promise, he asks for reassurance.18 What is troubling about this is three times prior the angel said, “You are the man” (6:12–16). Then Gideon asks for and receives a miraculous sign that he is the one (6:17–21). After all that, he is still unsure. “Lord, I know what you want me to do, but I still have my doubts. I’m insecure. I feel inferior. I don’t feel up to the task.” So Gideon does the unthinkable, he “fleeces” the Lord not once, but twice.
In 6:36–40, the narrator records an unusual episode. “Then Gideon said to God, ‘If You will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken, behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I will know that You will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken.’ And it was so. When he arose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece, he drained the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not let Your anger burn against me that I may speak once more; please let me make a test once more with the fleece, let it now be dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground.’ God did so that night; for it was dry only on the fleece, and dew was on all the ground.”
Obviously, this account is not the ideal. Like Gideon, when you know God’s will, you are to do it. Period. End of discussion. It is a weak form of Christianity that says to the Almighty, “You must meet my conditions before I will do your will.” A better way to discern God’s will is to say “I will” to God. In 2 Cor 5:7 Paul writes, “We live by faith, not by sight.” You can say it another way: “We walk by faith, not by fleeces.”19 With that said, the old bumper sticker “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” may be snazzy bumper-sticker theology, but it doesn’t always neatly cover the struggles of believing experience.20 Many godly men and women are afraid. Fortunately, God is not as pious as some Christians, for He is unashamed to stoop down and reassure us in our fears. Think about this: If your little girl is afraid of the big neighborhood dog are you going to call her “sissy” or “chicken?”21 Of course not! That would be hurtful and unthinkable. In the same way, God doesn’t browbeat us because we are wimpy believers. He simply wants us to bring our fears to Him. I like the spiritual expression, “Faith is doubt saying its prayers.” Today, believe God’s promises and move from fear to faith.
Now, in 7:1–8 we move into battle preparations. “Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him, rose early and camped beside the spring of Harod [trembling]; and the camp of Midian was on the north side of them by the hill of Moreh in the valley. The LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me. Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.’ So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. Then the LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many; bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore it shall be that he of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.’ So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, ‘You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink.’ Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water. The LORD said to Gideon, ‘I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.’ So the 300 men took the people’s provisions and their trumpets into their hands. And Gideon sent all the other men of Israel, each to his tent, but retained22 the 300 men; and the camp of Midian was below him in the valley.” What an astounding account! This is one of the more inspiring (and potentially frightening) accounts in the Bible. God uses some amazing odds to teach Gideon to believe His promises and move from fear to faith. In 8:10, we discover that there are 135,000 Midianite troops vs. 32,000 Israelite troops (7:3). This amounts to four Midianite troops for every one Israelite soldier. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like those odds. But God shrinks the odds further. Gideon has to say, “If anyone is afraid, you can go home.”23 The army shrunk by 2/3—from 32,000 to 10,000. This means there are thirteen Midianite troops for every one Israelite soldier. But God isn’t done leveling the playing field. In one last seemingly sadistic cut, God shrinks the army from 10,000 to 300.24 Gideon and his army are now outnumbered 450 to 1. Whoa! This seems outrageous and sublime. Nevertheless, now it is clear that if Israel wins, the battle really is the Lord’s. As Zech 4:6 says, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts.” God wants there to be no doubt that He fights for Israel and He wins her battles.
After all the false starts of the previous chapter, Gideon is finally ready to confront the Midianites—or at least mostly ready. He has received three miraculous signs from God, and that ought to have been plenty of encouragement, but God comes to him and says in 7:9: “Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands.” But God knew Gideon. He knew all his weaknesses and his hesitation, so he adds these words in 7:10–11a: “But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp.” Is God a God of grace, or what? The story continues in 7:11b–14: “So he went with Purah his servant down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp. Now the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. When Gideon came, behold, a man was relating a dream to his friend. And he said, ‘Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat.’ His friend replied, ‘This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand.’” This is remarkable…God speaks through a Midianite soldier!25 What are the odds of this? Two enemies of Israel are discussing a relevant matter that the Lord allows Gideon to eavesdrop on. God Himself orchestrates the dream, the interpretation, and the conversation. Once again, God’s power and sovereignty are clearly evident.
The key to the Gideon narrative and the entire Book of Judges is found in 7:15–18: “When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. [Gideon doesn’t wait to get back to the camp where he will be safe and sound. He immediately prostrates himself and worships the one true God.] He returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise, for the LORD has given the camp of Midian into your hands.’ [The “valiant warrior” FINALLY lives up to his name.] He divided the 300 men into three companies, and he put trumpets and empty pitchers into the hands of all of them, with torches inside the pitchers. He said to them, ‘Look at me and do likewise. And behold, when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I and all who are with me blow the trumpet, then you also blow the trumpets all around the camp and say, ‘For the LORD and for Gideon.’” This sounds like an ancient “Semper fi” (always faithful) chant. Gideon and his men moved forward in faith because they were bent on fulfilling God’s promise. This is a powerful reminder that you cannot be too small for God to use, but you can be too big. If you want the credit for what God is doing, God will not use you. He says that He alone is Lord and there is no other and that He will not give His glory to another (Isa 42:8). And so we often see God working powerfully in the lives of some very weak people.26 They are the ones who know that only He could get the glory and they are careful to give it to Him. Believe God’s promises and move from fear to faith.
The defeat of the Midianite army (7:19–8:21). Gideon and Israel storm the Midianite camp in the middle of the night. They blow trumpets, smash pitchers, and shout, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” (7:20–21). Then something amazing happens: In all of the commotion of the attack “the LORD set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army” (7:22). In other words, God turns the Midianites against themselves and they kill one another. Israel’s obedience results in God fighting their enemies for them! In 7:25, there is an obscure phrase that ties everything together for us: “…they [Gideon and Israel] killed Zeeb at the wine press of Zeeb.” This refers back to the start of the Gideon narrative (6:11) when the angel of the Lord visits the frightened Gideon while he is threshing wheat in a winepress, but it ends with Gideon executing the enemy prince at a winepress.27 What a pilgrimage for Gideon. Although he started slow he matures in his faith, slowly but surely. We must remember that God is patient with us in our spiritual growth. He permits Gideon to take baby steps and bears with him through it all. It would have been much better if Gideon had been immediately courageous and obedient, but God is gracious to Gideon and to you and me. Even still, we must actively and intentionally seek to believe God’s promises and move from fear to faith.
The story of Gideon’s battle against the Midianites trails off into an account of the series of events surrounding the pursuit of the fleeing Midianite kings. The central theme throughout these stories is that the Israelite tribes participated in the battle. The response of the Ephramites (8:1–3) stands in stark contrast to that of the officials at Succoth (8:6) and at Peniel (8:8).28 Gideon appears to have had his hands full.29 Not only is he pressed for time and supplies in his pursuit of the enemy, but he receives no cooperation from his own countrymen. Some complain because they are left out of the battle and others refuse to join in. One cannot escape the conclusion that the writer intends to show that leading God’s people was a thankless if not hopeless task. Through it all, though, we see Gideon faithfully accomplish his work under the power of God’s Spirit (see 6:34).30
The apostle Paul likely has Gideon’s military conquest in mind when he pens 2 Cor 4:6–7: “ For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure [the gospel] in earthen vessels [clay pots], so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” In the battle against the Midianites, the Israelites broke their jars so that the light can shine as they ransack the camp. Similarly, you and I are clay pots that are fragile, imperfect, and weak. Yet, we contain the treasure of Jesus Christ in our clay pots. At our best we are no more than clay pots. But when we are broken the light of God shines out of our weakness. Today, acknowledge your weakness and allow God to shine in and through you. When you believe that God is your first, last, and only option, you are right where God wants you to be. Brokenness precedes victory. In your doubt, weakness, and faithlessness, will you believe God’s promises and move from fear to faith? If so, God will accomplish His purposes in and through you life.
Joshua 2:8–11, 23–24
Exodus 3:12; Joshua 1:5
Isaiah 41:8–10; 43:2, 5
2 Corinthians 3:5; 12:9
1. How has the Lord disciplined me in my personal life (6:1–6)? How long did it take me to respond to God’s chastening? What brought about my repentance? What have I learned from this experience? Are there ways I think the Lord has disciplined my church? What (if anything) has my church learned in the process?
2. Why does God continue to grant exhortation (6:7–10) and deliverance (6:11ff.) to His people? How has this principle proven true in my own life? Over the course of my Christian experience, how has God extended His patience and grace to me? What have I learned about God through these episodes?
3. In what area of my life am I currently struggling to believe God’s Word (6:13–21)? Why is it so difficult to trust God’s promises in this particular area? How have I seen God fulfill His Word in my past experience? Why do I struggle to appropriate faith today?
4. When have I struggled to discern God’s will (6:36–40)? What methods did I use to make my decisions? Was my orientation biblical? Why or why not? In my decision making today, how would I do things differently? How would I respond to the common question: “How can I know God’s will?”
5. How can I be a greater man or woman of faith (7:1–18)? What areas of my life need further growth? When do I tend to be weak in faith? Read Genesis 22:1–19 for a great example of faith. Who is a modern day example of faith to me? How can I learn from this person?
1 Copyright © 2009 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
2 For an excellent study see J. Paul Tanner, “The Gideon Narrative as the Focal Point of Judges,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149:594 (April-June 1992): 149–61.
3 Gideon’s judgeship receives the most extensive narration in the Judges (100 verses comprising three chapters). Samson is comparable, with 96 verses in four chapters. Tanner writes, “In relation to the book as a whole, Gideon receives attention as the focal point because he represents a significant shift in the ‘quality’ of the judges that served Israel. A progressive deterioration begins with Othniel and continues through Samson. Othniel was almost an idealized judge, and Samson was a debauched self-centered individual. God used each judge, whether strong or weak, to accomplish His sovereign will and effect deliverance for the theocratic nation. Gideon, on the other hand, stands somewhere between these two extremes and represents the primary turning point from the ‘better’ judges to the ‘weaker’ ones.” Tanner, “The Gideon Narrative…,” 152.
4 See the record of Israel in Deuteronomy 8.
5 Tanner writes, “Though the familiar refrain “the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” is given in 6:1, the Gideon narrative is not simply one more cycle of apostasy on par with the previous ones. The nation’s apostasy has reached a lower point, and this is underscored by the additional fact that the Lord sent an unnamed prophet to rebuke them (6:7–10) before Gideon was raised up as a “judge” to handle the Midianite crisis.” Tanner, “The Gideon Narrative…,” 154.
6 Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Focus on the Bible (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000), 92.
8 The phrase “valiant warrior” frequently had a military connotation. In the present context it appears that the name anticipated Gideon’s role as a warrior and was intended to inspire confidence. It is possible that the phrase simply identifies Gideon as a prominent citizen in his town which is how it is used of Boaz. “Valiant warrior” is the same description used of other men in the OT: Joshua (Josh 1:14, 8:3, 10:7), Jephthah (Judges 11:1), Boaz (Ruth 2:1), and David (1 Sam 16:18).
10 Davis, Judges, 95.
11 Preparing a sacrifice is a costly thing to do at a time when food is scarce. An ephah of flour was about a half a bushel, enough to make bread for a family for several days. It probably took him an hour to dress the meat and prepare the unleavened cakes, but God waits for Gideon to return and then consumes the offering.
12 This expression is coined from my friend, Mike Paolicelli, pastor of Renew Church Charlotte, NC.
13 Jewish altars were made of uncut stones and were simple, but Baal’s altars were elaborate and next to them was a wooden pillar dedicated to the goddess Asherah, whose worship involved unspeakably vile practices.
14 Elijah takes a similar approach in 1 Kgs 18:27.
15 Davis, Judges, 97.
16 Before David killed the giant Goliath in the sight of two armies, he learned to trust God by killing a lion and a bear in the field where nobody saw it but God (1 Sam 17:32–37).
17 Tanner, “The Gideon Narrative…,” 157.
18 The fleece is simply to confirm God’s will, not to determine God’s will. He actually says as much in 6:36, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised.” Verse 37 says, “Then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” No matter what conclusion you come to about the modern practice of fleecing, remember that originally it was used to confirm God’s will, not to determine it.
19 What is a fleece? A fleece is seeking to learn God’s will by means of a pre-determined sign. People generally use a fleece when they come to a point of decision and don’t know what to do. Maybe you’re faced with a job offer and don’t know whether to say yes or no. So you say to God: “Please give me a sign.” You are putting out a fleece when you say, “God, I am asking you to give me a sign and this is the sign I want you to give me.” It’s that second part that really qualifies as putting out a fleece. It’s not just asking for guidance. It’s when you say, “Lord, I want you to do such-and-such, and if you will do what I have asked, I will know what your will is.”
20 Davis, Judges, 99 n. 4.
21 Davis, Judges, 100.
22 The word “retained” (chazaq) is important. The Hebrew word typically means “to get a grip on what is trying to get away.” The point: Gideon didn’t exactly have a company of brave men to work with. If it hadn’t been for the honor of the thing, I believe they would just as soon have gone home. Courage is not exactly common.
23 See also Deut 20:8: “Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart.’”
24 It is likely that God chose this final method of sifting the army because it is simple, unassuming (no soldier knew he was being tested), and easy to apply. We shouldn’t think that all 10,000 drank at one time, because that would have stretched the army out along the water for a couple of miles. Since the men undoubtedly came to the water by groups, Gideon was able to watch them and identify the 300. It wasn’t until after the event that the men discovered they had been tested.
25 In the Scriptures, God frequently spoke to people through dreams. He spoke to the following believers: Jacob (Gen 28, 31), Joseph (Gen 37), Solomon (1 Kgs 3), Daniel (Dan 7), and Joseph, the husband of Mary (Matt 1:20–21; 2:13–22). But He also spoke to the following unbelievers through dreams: Abimelech (Gen 20), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2, 4), Joseph’s fellow prisoners (Gen 40), Pharaoh (Gen 41), and Pilate’s wife (Matt 27:19).
26 “Gideon is weak, frightened, and hesitant. Does God choose weak individuals? Of course! Is God patient with weak servants? Absolutely—up to a point.” See Terry G. Cater, J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hays, Preaching God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 226.
27 Gideon’s great victory over the Midianites became a landmark event in the history of Israel, not unlike the Battle of Waterloo for Great Britain, for it reminded the Jews of God’s power to deliver them from their enemies. The day of Midian was a great day that Israel would never forget (Ps. 83:11; Isa. 9:4; 10:26).
28 Succoth and Penuel were two Israelite cities in the territory of Gad on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Thus, once again, some fellow-Israelites were unwilling to come to the aid of their brethren who were in need. The unity between the tribes of Israel that we witnessed in the Book of Joshua is rapidly eroding in the Book of Judges.
29 Judges 8:1–3 introduces the first note of discord among Israelite tribes in Judges—a note that will crescendo throughout the remainder of the book. Gideon moves from fearful to faithful in the conflict with the Ephramites. Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 179.
30 John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 209.
In 2001, Jim Collins wrote the landmark business book Good to Great.2 Collins and his team thoroughly researched hundreds of businesses and came up with a list of characteristics that distinguish great companies from good or mediocre ones. Good to Great has become one of the most popular business leadership books of all time. Interestingly, two companies Collins commends that moved from “good to great” are Fannie Mae and Circuit City. As you may know, both of these companies are now imploding. The principle is this: Just because a company succeeds doesn’t mean that their success will continue. This is true not only of businesses; it is also true of churches, families, and individuals.
Gideon was a man of mediocrity. He battled fear, discouragement, and disbelief. Yet God slowly but surely moved Gideon from good to great. When Gideon finally believed God’s promises and acted upon them, the Lord used him to conquer the Midianites and save Israel. If the story ended there Gideon would forever be remembered as a man of greatness.3 Unfortunately, we are about to learn an important truth: Greatness does not guarantee permanence. Judges 8–9 chronicles the personal demise of Gideon and the forfeiture of his legacy.4 In this passage, we will find one of the greatest examples of the New Testament principle: What a person sows he will reap (Gal 6:7).
Gideon refuses Israel’s kingship (8:22–23). Gideon’s victory over the Midianites in chapter 7 led to national renown and popularity.5 In 8:22 we read: “Then the men of Israel6 said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.’” Gideon is so popular that the people ask him to set up a dynasty, something altogether new for the nation of Israel.7 This is one way they can reward Gideon for what he has done for them. It is also somewhat of a guarantee that there will be unity among the tribes and protection against future invaders. Yet, in their request Israel commits two sins. First, Israel gives Gideon credit he doesn’t deserve. Apart from what God has done in his life, Gideon is a weak, defeated, discouraged man. Although Gideon is the instrument, he is only an instrument. The credit belongs to God alone. Unfortunately, as you read this chapter you will not find one word of spontaneous praise or gratitude to God. Nothing is more indicative of the spiritual condition of Israel than this. Israel should have been praising God for His victory and seeking His guidance long before they approached Gideon. Instead, they get hyped over God’s instrument. We are just like Israel. We can find it easy to get caught up in people instead of God, who works through His people. God, however, doesn’t want me to put people on a pedestal; He wants me to worship Him as the one true God. Second, Israel makes a request that is outside God’s will. God raised up Gideon to be a judge, but Israel wants to make him into a king, to establish a royal dynasty. This is not God’s plan. God Himself is the king in Israel (Deut 33:5). God wants Israel to be a theocracy, a nation led and ruled by Him rather than by any earthly king.8 Later, God permits Israel to have a visible king, but at this point Israel is to be a theocracy.9 Like Israel, it can be easy for us to assume that we know better than God what we should do and when we should do it. Yet, we typically fail to pray, fast, and seek godly counsel. As a result, we move ahead of God and make foolish decisions. God wants us to wait on His timing and His will. Once He reveals His direction, we are then free to move forward in faith.
In 8:23, Gideon responds to Israel’s request by saying, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you.” Gideon turns down the opportunity of a lifetime. He then reminds his people that God is their king. What a theologian! What a God-fearer! This sounds so good, doesn’t it? It appears that Gideon is on the right track. Unfortunately, the rest of the story proves otherwise. Furthermore, there is a subtle clue here that demonstrates Gideon is less than theologically sound. Like Israel, Gideon fails to give credit to Yahweh for the victory.10 Previously, when Deborah and Barak won a victory over the Canaanites, Deborah wrote an entire song exalting the Lord for His victory (5:2–31). Moses and Joshua did the same thing when God gave them victory. But Gideon is strangely silent.
Gideon rebels against God (8:24–32). After Gideon turns down the kingship of Israel, he does something both shocking and revolting. In 8:24, he makes a request of his political suitors: “‘I would request of you, that each of you give me an earring from his spoil.’ (For they [the Midianites] had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.11) They [Israel] said, ‘We will surely give them.’ So they spread out a garment, and every one of them threw an earring there from his spoil. The weight of the gold earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels [about 43 pounds] of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the neck bands that were on their camels’ necks. Gideon made it into an ephod, and placed it in his city,12 Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot13 with it there, so that it became a snare14 to Gideon and his household” (8:24–27). Gideon turns from God to gold.15 Consequently, he becomes a greedy and idolatrous man.16 There is some debate over the ephod that Gideon makes. In the Old Testament, an ephod is a garment shaped somewhat like an apron and worn by the high priest during worship in the tabernacle.17 Over the ephod, the high priest wore a linen breastplate with two stones used to determine God’s will (Exod 28:1–14).18 However, in this context the ephod seems to be a shrine of idolatry. Apparently, Gideon reconstructs the shrine to Baal he earlier had torn down (6:25–32).19 This new shrine becomes a “snare” to Gideon and his household.20 Gideon is following in the footsteps of his passive father, Joash, who led Israel into idolatry. Like father, like son.21
Remember, Gideon began life in a pagan home. Then God entered his life and he destroyed his family idols. But in his old age he returns to the idols of his youth. This is a phenomenon I’ve seen in the lives of many people: the sins of youth come back to haunt them in their old age. That’s why it’s so important for young people to “remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl 12:1). When we sow our wild oats the germination may take years. Eventually, the seeds will sprout.22 Young people, please avoid little compromises in your youth because they may come back to haunt you. Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
In 8:28, we learn that Gideon’s victory over the Midianites brought blessing. But the words here are bittersweet. “So Midian was subdued before the sons of Israel, and they did not lift up their heads anymore. And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon.” These words are sweet because the Midianites have finally been crushed. They can’t even lift up their heads anymore. This is how Israel lived for seven years under Midianite rule and invasion. But finally the tables have been turned…Israel is now on top! Yet, these words are also bitter because of the last phrase, “And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon” (8:28b). This is the last note of rest and peace in Judges (cf. 3:11, 30; 5:31). Gideon’s sin pushes God over the edge, so to speak. A corner has been turned; Israel is about to reap what they have sown (cf. Gal 6:7).
Tragically, Gideon’s rebellion against God continues. Gideon succumbs to the “I-deserve-it” syndrome.23 In 8:29, the author of Judges pens these predictable words: “Then Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and lived in his own house.” Gideon retires and decides to live large. Verses 29–32 describe the lifestyle of a king, not that of a judge or a retired army officer. Gideon is quite wealthy, partly from the spoils of battle and partly from the gifts of the people. Often having too much stored away for retirement can be a bad thing. Wealth and leisure can destroy us. Instead of serving God, it is easy to squander some of the best years of our lives on ourselves. Are you building up God’s kingdom or your own kingdom?
Gideon’s spiral disintegration continues in 8:30: “Now Gideon had seventy sons who were his direct descendants, for he had many wives.” The Mosaic Law had warned Israel against having a king who accumulated many wives (Deut 17:17). Near Eastern kings paraded their status by taking many wives.24 It seems like this is exactly what Gideon is doing. To make matters even worse, Gideon has a child through his Canaanite mistress (concubine),25 who lives in Shechem (8:31).26 The Israelites were to eradicate the Canaanites, but now their top leader decides to marry one! This is expressly forbidden in Scripture (Exod 34:15–16; Deut 7:3–4). Israel suffers the consequences of Gideon’s disobedience.
It seems that Gideon’s spectacular victory over the Midianites led to pride. Before long “Thy kingdom come” is replaced with “My kingdom come.” Unfortunately, the old adage “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” often holds true even in the church.27 We must always bear in mind that those who are called to leadership in God’s kingdom face constant temptation to exchange God’s agenda for personal ambition and pleasure. Ironically, the more impressive one’s achievements for God, the greater the temptation one may encounter. Please pray for your pastors, elders, and ministry leaders. Leaders are not immune to idolatry or immorality. In fact, we may be even more susceptible to these sins because of Satan’s constant attack. We desperately need your prayers. Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
The account of Gideon’s life concludes in 8:32 with these words: “And Gideon the son of Joash died at a ripe old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.” Surprisingly, Gideon’s death notice confirms his importance; only he and Samson are said to have been buried in the tomb of their fathers. To die “at a ripe old age” implies a long and full life. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the expression is used only of Abraham (Gen 15:15; 25:8) and David (1 Chron 29:28). This leads to a natural question: Why does God allow Gideon to live out his fully ordained days? As a student of divine discipline, I would suspect that God would take him home prematurely. Yet, He doesn’t. God just allows Gideon to wallow in his sin. Who can say why God does what He does? He has a purpose in everything. Sometimes He allows sinning Christians to live on and He takes faithful Christians home early. From our limited, earthly perspective, there is no rhyme or reason to it. Nonetheless, we know God is sovereign. All that we need to know is Gideon fails to finish well. Like many Old Testament characters, he falters in his latter years. It seems that Gideon fails because he lacks a strong foundation of faith. In other words, in the wake of a national emergency Gideon steps into the limelight and exhibits a moment of courage, but due to his lack of faith and faithfulness the rest of his life is weak and sinful.28
It is important to recognize that there are two different types of courage—courage for a moment and courage for a lifetime. The latter is usually more difficult. In my weight lifting, I have trained my body to lift heavy weights. In a moment of courage (or insanity), I can attempt to lift a heavy set. I then take a rather lengthy break and do another set. This is power lifting. However, I have not trained my body to lift lighter weights for higher reps and little or no rest. This is endurance lifting. I think the majority of the Christian life consists of stamina not strength. As Christians, we need to work out with the light and momentary challenges of life and push ourselves on a daily basis to keep lifting. It’s easy to be courageous in a moment of time, but what we really need is believers who will live for Christ day in and day out over the course of a lifetime. Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
Gideon fails to leave a godly legacy (8:33–35). The sad legacy of Gideon’s life begins in 8:33–35: “Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith [“Baal of the covenant”] their god. Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel.” When the lead runner makes a wrong turn, his followers go with him. The idolatry of Gideon becomes the idolatry of his descendents.29 This is a tragic failure! Leaders are responsible for the spiritual well-being of their followers. We must always take this seriously. You are most likely a leader over someone. How are you leading this person? Is your faith drawing this individual closer to Christ or is your example leading him or her astray? It needs to be noted that when a godly leader succumbs to sin the consequences can be disastrous. In the case of Gideon, Israel treats his family poorly (8:35). You see, when a godly leader falls the worst consequences hit his family. It is devastating for a family to hear the world and other Christians criticizing their loved one. It’s even worse when people turn their words and ill-treatment on the victimized family. Churches also experience grave consequences when a leader falls. Regardless of what a leader has accomplished, a failure to finish well leaves a bad taste and taints a legacy. Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
Interestingly, in 8:35 the narrator begins calling Gideon by his pro-Baal name “Jerubbaal.” This is not coincidental. The Scriptures begin identifying Gideon by the name “Jerubbaal” after he makes the golden ephod (6:32). The name Gideon means “hacker,” and symbolizes the great victories of his life. It was Gideon who cut down the altar of Baal and then cut down the army of Midian. But it is the name “Jerubbaal” which identifies him with the pagan religious practices of his day. Ten times following his death, the Scriptures refer to Gideon by his pagan name “Jerubbaal.”30 What a horrific legacy! The message seems to be that how you conclude your life will be how you are remembered by others. Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
Abimelech’s rise to power (9:1–6). The story of Gideon’s legacy continues into chapter 9 through his son Abimelech. Abimelech, which means “my father is a king,” tries to live up to his name and become ruler over all Israel.31 In 9:1–6, the story picks up: “And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives, and spoke to them and to the whole clan of the household of his mother’s father, saying, ‘Speak, now, in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that seventy men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ Also, remember that I am your bone and your flesh.’ [The sons of Gideon are acting as if they are a tribe of kings! They are following their father’s example (8:27) and are not popular. Abimelech uses this to his advantage.] And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem; and they were inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, ‘He is our relative.’ [Abimelech gets his mother and her family to do his dirty work for him. The favorite-son argument wins the day. Apparently, blood is thicker than brains.32] They gave him seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, and they followed him. [The seventy pieces of silver is for each intended assassin.] Then he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. [This is a calculated, brutal act of murder, not a quick slaughter of unsuspecting victims.33] But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself. [This fact will become important.] All the men of Shechem and all Beth-millo assembled together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar which was in Shechem.”
Abimelech’s “coronation” was a farce, an empty ritual that was never accepted or blessed by the Lord. The new “king” not only blasphemes God by the promises he made, but he defiles a place sacred in Jewish history. The coronation took place by the “oak of the pillar which was in Shechem” (9:6). This is probably the “oak of Moreh,” where the Lord appeared to Abraham and promised to give him and his descendants the land (Gen 12:6). It was near this site that the nation of Israel heard the blessings and curses read from the Law and promised to obey the Lord (Deut 11:26–32; Josh 8:30–35). Jacob buried the idols here as he called his family back to God (Gen 35:1–5), and here Joshua gave his last speech and led the people in reaffirming their obedience to the Lord (Josh 24:25–26). All of this sacred history is degraded and dishonored by the selfish acts of one godless man.34
If only Gideon hadn’t had a mistress in Shechem (8:31)! Gideon no doubt assumed that with his vast wealth and great national reputation his children would be well provided for, but just the opposite proves true. Sixty-nine of his seventy sons are killed by their half-brother.35 The principle is simple: There is no security apart from the will of God. As parents, the most important thing we can do for our children is pray for them and personally seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6:33). If Gideon had done this, his legacy might have been radically different.36 Similarly, if we choose to live for the Lord our children may follow hard after Him. There’s no guarantee.37 But often godly parents will produce godly offspring. It has been said two factors influence a man supremely—his parents and his home environment. Unfortunately, both of these work against Abimelech. They do not excuse his actions or remove his guilt, but they are important considerations in understanding the man.38 They are equally important for us to bear in mind as we raise our children.
Jotham’s courageous fable (9:7–21). As I indicated above, the fact that one of Gideon’s sons survived is significant. In the verses that follow, Jotham, whose name means “Yahweh has integrity/is blameless”39 gets up to preach. “Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and called out. Thus he said to them, ‘Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you. Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come, reign over us!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come, reign over us!’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?’ [The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine are all beneficial.] Finally all the trees said to the bramble [thorn bush], ‘You come, reign over us!’ [Abimelech considered himself to be a stately tree of great value, but Jotham said he is nothing but a useless weed. What a blow to the new king’s pride! When Israel chose Abimelech as their king, the men of Shechem didn’t get useful olive oil, tasty figs, or cheery wine; they got only thorns—fuel for the fire.] The bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade;40 but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon’ [i.e., the leading citizens of the city]. Now therefore, if you have dealt in truth and integrity in making Abimelech king [The phrase “truth and integrity” (9:16, 19) is key to understanding this passage.41], and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have dealt with him as he deserved—for my father fought for you and risked his life and delivered you from the hand of Midian; but you have risen against my father’s house today and have killed his sons, seventy men, on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your relative—if then you have dealt in truth and integrity with Jerubbaal and his house this day, rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and consume the men of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and from Beth-millo, and consume Abimelech.’ Then Jotham escaped and fled, and went to Beer and remained there because of Abimelech his brother.” The point of the fable is its climax (9:14–15). The focus is on the stupidity of the trees (9:14) and the uselessness of the bramble (9:15). For a bramble to invite the other trees to trust in its shadow is laughable!42 A bramble is a useless nuisance in the land, good only for fuel for the fire. This, of course, is a symbol of Abimelech, the new king. Only trees which are desperate or simple-minded would look for a leader in a bramble!43 Jotham’s theme is the foolishness and peril of accepting clearly unqualified leadership. Jotham is no mere spinner of fables, but an instructor of the Church. What care God’s people should take in seeking and selecting their leaders.44 Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
In a nation of passive and frightened men, Jotham, the youngest of Gideon’s sons, steps up in a big way. In speaking out against Abimelech he risks his life because he loves his people. He knows he can’t do anything about Abimelech’s reign, yet he speaks a prophetic word that is eventually fulfilled. Praise God for courageous men and women who will not back down from anyone or anything. Edmund Burke said, “All that is essential for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” May you and I not sit by while evil occurs; may we be courageous like Jotham.
The story of Abimelech throws light on Gideon’s refusal to become king. Gideon might have arranged for an orderly line of kings. He might have trained one of his sons to be a righteous king over Israel. Instead he took no steps to secure the future. No doubt securing the future is not completely possible, but Gideon did not make even the feeblest attempt to secure righteousness in the nation after so much time. The result is that Gideon left a power-vacuum after his death, and one of the worst of his sons has stepped into the gap. But the blame must largely go to Gideon. He took no responsibility for Israel’s future.45 He wanted privilege without responsibility. I don’t know how things are run in your kingdom (your home), but this doesn’t work in my home! Privileges come when responsibilities are met.
Abimelech’s fall from power (9:22–57). Even in the midst of Abimelech and Shechem’s downfall we see evidence that God’s hand lies behind the course of events (9:23–24).46 God sends an “evil spirit” (i.e., a bitter attitude)47 between Abimelech and Shechem. The Shechemites begin dealing treacherously with Abimelech (9:23–25). Then all of a sudden a man by the name of Gaal comes on the scene. And let me tell you, this man has a lot of gall. (I know this is bad line.) In 8:27, Gaal heads to happy hour at the temple and finds that a little Shechem Light goes a long way. He denounces Abimelech and offers to lead a revolt against him. He had lots of support there in Baal’s Bar.48 Take a look at the trash talk in 9:28–29: “Then Gaal the son of Ebed said, ‘Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and is Zebul not his lieutenant? Serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem; but why should we serve him? Would, therefore, that this people were under my authority! Then I would remove Abimelech.’ And he said to Abimelech, ‘Increase your army and come out.’” Gaal is calling out Abimelech. YIKES! In doing so he makes a terrible mistake. His smack talk reaches the ears of Zebul who calls Abimelech on his cell phone and sets up Gaal (9:30–34). Check out the hilarious dialogue in 9:35–38: “Now Gaal the son of Ebed went out and stood in the entrance of the city gate; and Abimelech and the people who were with him arose from the ambush. When Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, ‘Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains.’ But Zebul said to him, ‘You are seeing the shadow of the mountains as if they were men.’ [Check your contacts, Gaal.] Gaal spoke again and said, ‘Behold, people are coming down from the highest part of the land, and one company comes by the way of the diviners’ oak.’ Then Zebul said to him, ‘Where is your boasting [lit. “mouth” = trash talk] now with which you said, ‘Who is Abimelech that we should serve him?’ Is this not the people whom you despised? Go out now and fight with them!’” Gaal has to “put up or shut up.” If he hides in the city he loses his following, is disgraced, and eventually caught and killed. If he tries to run away, Abimelech’s men will chase him down and kill him. All he can do is gather his followers and go out to face Abimelech. Of course, his army is routed and he and his cohorts are driven out of the city. The lesson here is found inProv 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.”
Abimelech lets this victory go to his head and he settles a score with the citizens of Shechem who had cursed him (9:27). In 9:42–44, he wipes out the Shechemites as they are working in the fields. In order to make sure the city didn’t rebel against him again, Abimelech destroys it and sows salt over it. The sowing of salt on a conquered city was a symbolic action that condemned the city to desolation so nobody would want to live there. It’s similar to spiking a football in the end zone. Abimelech is making a statement. He then goes after the city leaders who attempt to escape to what they hope is the safety of the temple tower. Abimelech, however, decides to play follow-the-leader (9:48) and starts a huge brushfire, either burning up or smoking out his prey (9:49).49 Thus, the Lord avenges the blood of Gideon’s sons.50 Indeed, the fire did “come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (see 9:15, 9:20). If this isn’t enough, Abimelech also takes out the city of Thebez (9:50–52). Yet, it is precisely at this point that we are introduced to a woman who has a crush on Abimelech.51 In 9:53, we read these fascinating words: “But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull.” Abimelech makes the mistake of getting too close to the tower, and a woman drops an upper millstone on his head and kills him. Abimelech experiences a triple disgrace: (1) He is killed, but not really in a battle; (2) he is killed by a woman, which is a disgrace to a soldier;52 and (3) he is killed with a millstone, not a sword.53 The fact that his armor-bearer finishes the job with a sword didn’t change anything; for centuries later, Abimelech’s shameful death is remembered as being accomplished by a woman (2 Sam 11:21).54 There are great consequences when a man does not finish well.
Our passage closes with a focus on God’s judgment. “Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father in killing his seventy brothers. Also God returned all the wickedness of the men of Shechem on their heads, and the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal came upon them” (9:56–57). This passage teaches that there is a payday someday. The question is: Do you want to be a spiritual Gideon or a spiritual Jerubbaal? Greatness does not guarantee permanence.
2 Chronicles 16
2 Chronicles 18:1–19:3
2 Chronicles 26:16–23
2 Kings 20:12–21
1 Corinthians 9:24–10:13
1 Corinthians 10:14–11:1
1. When have I had a particularly impressive success (8:22–23)? What happened in the days or weeks following this victory? How did Satan and my own flesh battle me? Was I victorious or did I succumb to temptation? What was the result of my obedience or disobedience? What has God taught me through these experiences? How can I pass on what I’ve learned to others?
2. What sin do I battle with the most: pride, idolatry, greed, or immorality (8:22–35)? How does this sin manifest itself in my life? What can I do to avoid this pattern of destruction? Am I currently accountable to anyone? If so, who? If not, why not? Who can I ask for accountability and encouragement today? Write up a game plan to battle this sin in the power of the Holy Spirit. Read Romans 8:1–13; 13:14; and Galatians 5:16–26.
3. How can I leave a godly legacy for my children, grandchildren, and church (8:32–35)? If I were to die today, how would my legacy fare? Would my life be worthy of imitation and live on to impact the next generation? If not, what can I begin doing today to change the course of my generational line?
4. How does God bring His wrath upon an unbelieving world? Read Romans 1:18–32. How does God judge His people when they choose to ignore Him? Read Galatians 6:7–9. How have I witnessed this in my own life and in the experiences of others? What have I learned from these episodes?
5. Why does God use women to accomplish great and heroic acts in the Book of Judges (e.g., 9:53)? Where are the men? Who should have dealt with Abimelech? What can the men in my church do to protect God’s people and lead them into victory? Read 1 Timothy 2:8 and 1 Chronicles 12:32. How can I grow in my prayer life and leadership? What steps is God calling me to take?
2 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap—and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001).
3 The author of Hebrews does include Gideon in the “Hall of Faith” (Heb 11:32), but that doesn’t mean that he is a model of a man who finishes well.
4 Gideon didn’t start well either. Trace the following chronology:
See Barry Webb, The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 158. The problem of internal strife, first observed with Gideon, persisted with Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson. Though not necessarily placed chronologically, the epilogue to Judges reveals the intensity and magnitude of the internal problem.
5 God did make provision for an Israelite king in the Mosaic Law (Deut 17:14–20).
6 Block rightly argues that these men do represent the nation as a whole. Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 296–97.
7 Moses warned that Israel would one day want a king like the other nations and forget that they were a unique nation, unlike the Gentiles (Exod 19:4–5; Deut 4:5–8; 14:2; 17:14–20).
8 See 1 Sam 8:5–9.
9 Gary Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 148.
10 Block states, “In spite of his pious comment, ‘I will not rule over you’ (8:23), all of these actions suggest the opposite. He behaves like an oriental king, a status memorialized in the name of his son, Abimelech (‘my father is king’).” Daniel I. Block, “The Period of the Judges: Religious Disintegration under Tribal Rule,” in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration, ed. Avraham Gileadi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 50.
11 The term “Ishmaelites” loosely describes any trading nomadic group (cf. Gen. 37:25, 27, 28; 39:1).
12 Instead of being a leader like Moses or Joshua, Gideon becomes like Aaron and leads God’s people into idolatry (Exod 32:1-6).
13 In Scripture, idolatry is looked upon as harlotry (Isa 50:1–3; 54:6–8; Jer 2:1–3; 3:1ff; Hosea 2; Jas 4:4; Rev 2:4).
14 “Snare” (moqesh) describes the lure or bait placed in a hunter’s trap and comes to mean the snare itself as used to trap birds. The LXX translates moqesh with the Greek word skandalon, which is literally that part of a trap on which the bait was laid, when touched caused the trap to close on its prey and came to mean any entanglement of the foot. That’s a picture of sin which looks alluring, but if touched will surely captivate and capture its foolish prey.
15 Kings were famous for accumulating gold. The OT law warned any king that he must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold (Deut 17:17). Gideon says “no” to kingship and then immediately starts acting like a king.
16 Gideon’s actions in 8:24–32 are not consistent with his words in 8:22–23. He turns down the responsibility of kingship, but he wants the privileges. Michael Eaton, Judges and Ruth. Preaching through the Bible (England: Sovereign World, 2000), 52. He talks humility, but he thinks about his own importance. He no longer seeks ways of serving his nation, but he wants to live large and do his own thing. It is ever our danger that after being used of God in some way, we mouth humility but practice pride. Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Focus on the Bible (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000), 113.
17 See Exod 28:4, 31–35; 35:27; 39:2–4, 22–26.
18 Wright states, “The ephod represented the presence of God in intimate access to Him; for this reason, its use is restricted to the high priest. Gideon’s ephod may have been such a vestment or a golden image of the person (or deity!) who wore the ephod. In either case, his making an ephod encroached upon areas of authority which were clearly not his.” Paul Wright ed., Joshua, Judges. Shepherd’s Notes (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 74.
19 Block, Judges, Ruth, 300. See also Victor H. Matthews, Judges and Ruth. New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 98.
20 Moses and Joshua had warned Israel that the undefeated Canaanites would build idolatrous shines (Exod 23:32–33; Num 33:55; Deut 7:16; Josh 23:13), yet here God’s top leader in Israel does so.
21 Interestingly, Joash had challenged Baal to contend with Gideon/Jerubaal (see Judg 6:31–32) and now apparently Baal wins. See Daniel I. Block, “Will the Real Gideon Please Stand Up?” JETS 40 (1997a), 365.
22 Erwin W. Lutzer, When a Good Man Falls (Wheaton, IL: Victor/Scripture Press, 1985), 49.
23 Lutzer, When a Good Man Falls, 48.
24 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 52.
25 The NET Study Notes state, “A concubine was a slave woman in ancient Near Eastern societies who was the legal property of her master, but who could have legitimate sexual relations with her master. A concubine’s status was more elevated than a mere servant, but she was not free and did not have the legal rights of a free wife. The children of a concubine could, in some instances, become equal heirs with the children of the free wife. After the period of the Judges concubines may have become more of a royal prerogative” (2 Sam 21:10–14; 1 Kgs 11:3).
26 The Canaanites controlled Shechem at this time (cf. 9:2, 28). From the references that will appear in chapter 9, Gideon’s mistress is a Canaanite.
27 Block, Judges, Ruth, 307.
28 See also Arthur E. Cundall, “Judges,” in Judges and Ruth by Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 122.
29 Lutzer, When a Good Man Falls, 49.
30 Judges 8:35; 9:1, 2, 5 [twice], 16, 19, 24, 28, 57. See also Elmer Towns, History Makers of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Victor/Scripture Press, 1989), 273–74.
31 It is likely that even though Gideon formally refused the office of king the people may have referred to him popularly as their king. This likely went to his head and further led to his carnality. Alternatively, it is also possible Gideon hopes that this son might one day become the father of Israel’s first king. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Judges” (2009 ed.): http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/judges.pdf, 59.
32 Davis, Judges, 122.
33 Block, Judges, Ruth, 312. See 1 Sam 14:33–34.
34 Wiersbe, Be Available, Electronic ed.
35 Why didn’t Israel stop Abimelech and protect Gideon’s family? Tragically, God’s people of Israel have forgotten the goodness of the Lord and the kindness of Gideon (8:33–35). They have neither the conviction to be concerned nor the courage to intervene.
36 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Available (Omaha, NE: QuickVerse 2006 ), Electronic ed.
37 The theme of a good man’s wicked son plays a prominent role in the subsequent historical books (e.g., Eli’s two sons, 1 Sam 2:12–36; Samuel’s two sons, 1 Sam 8:1–3; and David’s two sons, 2 Sam 13–18). John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 209. I strongly recommend Gary Thomas, Sacred Parenting (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Chapter 2 “The Gold Behind the Guilt” (pp. 37–52) is especially pertinent to this point.
38 Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay, 161.
39 Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 604.
40 “Shade” is a metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and in ancient Near Eastern literature for a ruler’s sovereign authority and protection.
41 Michael Wilcock, The Message of Judges: Grace Abounding. The Bible Speaks Today Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 92. The only other time this phrase is used is in Josh 24:14, which is a radically different context.
42 Often in the summer, fires would break out in the bramble bushes; and these fires would spread and threaten the safety of the trees. (See David’s use of this image in 2 Sam 23:6–7; cf. Isa 9:18–19.)
43 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 55.
44 Davis, Judges, 124.
45 Eaton, Judges and Ruth, 56.
46 Sailhamer notes, “The lesson falls in line with the larger purpose of the Deuteronomic history.” Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 604 writes, “Whereas Gideon was a warlord and refused to be a king, his son Abimelech is not a warlord and installs himself as a king. Though not a warlord, Abimelech is given a full narrative, in part to teach the principle of providential lex talionis. Gideon pays for his false cult in the loss of his sons, and Shechem pays for its treachery against Gideon by the loss of the city.”
47 On several occasions in the OT, God uses an “evil spirit” to judge sinners (1 Sam 16:14; 18:10; 19:10; 1 Chron 21:1). Yet, we must be careful not to read the Gospels into the Book of Judges. This is not a demonic spirit.
48 Davis, Judges, 125.
49 Davis, Judges, 126.
50 The shedding of innocent blood is something that God takes very seriously and eventually avenges (Deut 19:10, 13; 21:9; 1 Kgs 2:31; Prov 6:17; Isa 59:7; Jer 7:6; 22:3, 17; Joel 3:19).
51 Davis, Judges, 119.
52 An unidentified woman dropped (lit. “threw”) a (piece of a) millstone down from the tower and cracked open Abimelech’s skull. The text emphasizes her singularity (lit. “one woman”) and by using the verb “threw” suggests a heroic act of strength like that of a warrior.
53 The LXX renders this as “a fragment of upper millstone.”
54 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 604 writes, “Abimelech is a type of Saul. Both have their armor-bearers draw their swords and kill them to spare them shame (9:54; 1 Sam. 31:4), and both committed suicide with the presence of an evil spirit from God whose coming hastened their demise” (Judg 9:23; 1 Sam 16:15).
Have you been on a commercial airline flight this year? What happens when you get on an airplane? You likely locate your seat, store your carry-on luggage, and then sit down and buckle your seatbelt. While you are settling in or preparing to taxi out to the runway, a flight attendant gets up and delivers a sermon. The sermon goes something like this, “Please take out the card located in the seat in front of you and familiarize yourself with all of the safety features located on this plane.” The exposition of this three-point sermon includes a discussion on how to operate your seatbelt. The flight attendant then provides instructions on how to use the oxygen mask in case the cabin loses pressure. The message concludes with an explanation as to how your seat may serve as a flotation device! As you look at your seat, you realize that this is not a comforting thought.
I don’t know about you but I have to confess, I don’t pay attention to airplane sermons any more. Right or wrong, I typically read something else or rest my eyes. Occasionally, I will attempt to be courteous and make eye contact with the flight attendant, but by and large I’m not listening. Now I hear the person talking in the background but it is all noise, because I am not engaging in a sermon. Honestly, it just doesn’t seem very relevant to me. I figure if we get into a difficult situation, a flight attendant will repeat the sermon. If it is a worst-case scenario, it’s not going to matter anyway. We’re all going to die!3
I think this may be how you and I approach the Bible. It’s easy to think that we really know God’s Word. Perhaps you have thought to yourself, I don’t need to read or study the Bible. I’ve been doing it for so many years. Seriously, what else is there to learn? Maybe you’ve said, “I’ve listened to hundreds or thousands of sermons in my life. I’ve heard the good, the bad, and the ugly. Do I really need to keep attending church every week? Scripture suggests that this is a dangerous attitude that can affect every area of your life. In the Book of Judges, we will discover that right theology and a thorough understanding of the Bible are essential. To put it another way: A biblical mind is a terrible thing to waste. Judges 10–12 breaks down into five scenes.
Scene 1: The devastating demise of Israel (10:6-16). Our story begins in 10:6 like a broken record. Israel once again does evil in the sight of the Lord. In fact, she serves a total of seven gods.4 The number seven emphasizes Israel’s complete spiritual corruption.5 In her idolatry, Israel forsakes the Lord and fails to serve Him. This is terribly ironic. The “gods” that Israel is worshiping belong to nations that God’s people have conquered in battle. Who gave Israel the victory? Yahweh, the one true God! Yet, instead of worshiping Him, Israel worships their “gods” (see Deut 32:36–38). That’s insane! Yet, you and I are frequently guilty of the same insanity. We are prone to worship various idols such as our house, yard, possessions, leisure, job, spouse, children, and even our ministry. Interestingly, idolatry seems to be rampant during times of peace and rest. God gave Israel forty–five years of peace (10:1–5) and they respond by worshiping seven different gods. Similarly, when God grants us rest and success, we can put other people and pursuits before Him.6 We are just like Israel.
In 10:7, the Lord gets righteously ticked7 over Israel’s idolatry and sells her as slaves to the Philistines and Amonites. These tribes afflict8 and crush Israel for eighteen years (10:8). That’s a long time! (If you have teenagers, you surely understand this.) Nevertheless, God loves His people enough to discipline them, with the goal of wooing them back to Himself. Israel becomes distressed as a result of her slavery (10:9). Thus, in 10:10, we read these words: “Then the sons of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, ‘We have sinned against You, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served the Baals.’” This is the first time that Israel acknowledges her sin in the Book of Judges. It is refreshing to hear God’s people call their behavior “sin.” What a great reminder that we too must call sin “SIN”…not a mistake, an error, or a shortcoming. When you and I call sin “SIN,” we demonstrate that we have a proper view of ourselves and an exalted view of God.
In 10:11–14, the Lord verbally drops the hammer on Israel and reiterates the fact that He delivered her from all of her enemies;9 yet they have forsaken Him and served other gods. Therefore, the Lord declares, “I will no longer deliver you. Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress” (10:13b–14). Since Israel has been worshiping seven other gods, the Lord “gives them over” (cf. Rom 1: 24, 26, 28) to find what they are looking for in their other lovers. This is “tough love,” but this is what it takes to get Israel’s spiritual attention. Spouses and parents often have to make similar tough-love decisions when a loved one is in rebellion. The goal is to let the individual reach rock bottom and eventually, Lord willing, be reconciled in the marriage or family. Spiritually speaking, as long as we are comfortable we will not change. But when we are “given over,” God can humble us and draw us back.
Israel responds to God’s judgment by exclaiming: ‘“We have sinned, do to us whatever seems good to You; only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD; and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer” (10:15–16). God’s people finally decide that they are going to worship and serve the Lord, whether it pays them to do so or whether it doesn’t. In the past, all that Israel cared about was God delivering them from their circumstances. They seemed to view God like a Vegas slot machine. They pumped in a few coins (i.e., prayers) and expected blessing in return. But God doesn’t typically work this way. In fact, God doesn’t promise His people worldly happiness and success; He promises them joy in the midst of life’s circumstances.
The last phrase of 10:16 is fascinating: “and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer.” This phrase speaks of God’s compassion toward His people. In the wake of Israel’s dark ages, God’s grace, mercy, love, and compassion are evident. Believers and unbelievers alike often speak of Jesus as the one who brought love to this world (see esp. Matt 5:43–48), yet Yahweh exhibits love when His people are at their absolute worst! The only appropriate response to this kind of love should be gratitude and obedience. After all, a biblical mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Scene 2: God delivers His people with a judge (10:17–11:11). Even though the Israelites have confessed their sin, their repentance is short lived. Rather than inquiring of God for a battle strategy, the Israelites seek out a human leader whom they can put their confidence in. They are rejecting Yahweh’s authority over them by doing this (10:17–18; cf. 1 Sam 8:7).10 Israel’s mistake is one that the church frequently makes as well. Instead of depending upon the Lord, we look to men and women to lead us. Granted, God does use men and women to lead His people; however, we must be careful to not trust in people instead of the Lord. A biblical mind is a terrible thing to waste.
In 11:1–3, a man by the name of Jephthah is introduced. “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior,11 but he was the son of a harlot.12 And Gilead was the father of Jephthah. Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.13’ So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob [“good”]; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him.” Jephthah’s name means “he opens,” and he is quite good at opening his mouth and speaking.14 Unfortunately, his mouth ends up getting him in a lot of trouble. Jeff is the Peter of the Old Testament. Yet, initially he is the victim, not the victimizer. When Jeff’s dad dies and the inheritance is to be divided, his brothers drive him away because he is the son of a harlot. Little do Jeff’s brothers realize they are rejecting the man that would deliver them and all of Israel. Jephthah is in good company though. Joseph was rejected by his brothers and later became their savior. It also took King David seven years to gain the full support of the twelve tribes of Israel. Even Jesus was rejected by His people, but will be received by them when He comes again. Indeed, God has a huge sense of humor and He shows it here. Jephthah turns out to be the most gifted guy in the family. What a great reminder that God chooses the weak and foolish people of this world to shame the wise and strong.
As the two nations gather for battle, Israel realizes that they need a general who will lead them into war (11:4). Israel asks Jephthah to be their leader (11:5–6). Jephthah responds by saying, “Why now? You dogged me out, and now that you’re in need, you come crawling back on bended knee?” (11:7) Jeff and Israel agree that if he destroys the Ammonites he will become their “head and chief”—their main man (11:8–11). In this dialogue, Jephthah shows a lack of faith and manipulates the elders with shrewd diplomacy. He uses his powers of persuasion to assure himself of leadership. Interestingly, there is no mention that Jephthah is called to be a judge. Yet, the writer of Judges tells us that the Lord raised up Othniel (3:9) and Ehud (3:15) and through a prophetess summoned Barak (4:6) and through an angel called Gideon (6:14) and Samson (13:5). But there is no such word regarding Jeff!15
Scene 3: Jephthah proclaims Israel’s right to the land (11:12–28). In an attempt to avoid war, Jephthah preaches an eloquent and persuasive sermon to the King of Ammon. This sermon can be succinctly summarized: God gave Israel the land that they now occupy (11:23–24). Israel has lived on the land for centuries (11:25–26). If the Ammonites declare war on Israel, they will be fighting against the Lord, which will result in disaster and defeat (11:27). Jephthah tries to reason with the King of Ammon, but in the end he disregards the message (11:28). Literally, the king “did not listen to the words.” This is typical of many people who sit under God’s Word. Although King Ammon is an unbeliever, he is still accountable for his response to God’s Word. A biblical mind is a terrible thing to waste. The person who hears God’s Word is accountable for his or her response. To coin Jesus’ words: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48).
Scene 4: Jephthah makes a rash vow (11:29–40). The battle between Israel and Ammon is set to begin. Therefore, the author informs us that the “Spirit of the LORD” comes upon Jephthah as he makes his way to the battle line (11:29).16 In 11:30–31, we read that “Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever17 comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” Jephthah seeks to manipulate the Lord Himself with his rash vow. This vow is totally unnecessary, but Jeff needs God to come through big so that he has the allegiance of his people.18 So he opens his big mouth and makes what turns out to be an awful mistake. In 11:32–33, God gives Jeff the victory. It is clear that God would have done this with or without the vow, but Jeff didn’t believe that simple faith was sufficient. Yet, the Bible declares that simple faith is all that is required for salvation and the Christian life. The issue is not the amount of faith a person has; what is critical is the object of a person’s faith. If a believer has Jesus Christ as the object of his or her faith, even the faith of a mustard seed is more than enough.
In 11:34–40, we come upon one of the most tragic sections of Scripture. As you read these verses, make sure you read them aloud, with emotion. Feel Jeff’s agony and the horrible loss of his unnamed daughter. “When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back.’ So she said to him, ‘My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.’ She said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.’ Then he said, ‘Go.’ So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made;19 and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.”
Now, I must acknowledge that this is one of the most disputed accounts in the Old Testament. There are two primary views on how this passage should be understood: (1) Jeff offered his daughter as a human sacrifice or (2) Jeff offered his daughter as a living sacrifice (see Rom 12:1). Godly men and women disagree on which of these views is correct.20 In fact, some scholars believe that this issue won’t be settled until Jesus returns. Nevertheless, this past week my twelve-year-old son, Joshua, settled this debate for me. (I say this facetiously.) After we read this account out loud together, I said, “Joshua, what do you think happened to Jeff’s daughter?” Joshua said, “Dad, that’s easy. Judges 11:39a reads that Jeff ‘did to her according to the vow which he had made.’ Jeff killed his daughter and offered her as a human sacrifice!” From the mouth of babes! Since Joshua wasn’t familiar with the theological debate, he just accepted what appears to be the plain meaning of the text.21
One of the reasons I believe that Bible students struggle with this account is that they cannot grasp how a supposedly godly man could offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Many people claim Heb 11:32 and point out that Jephthah is included in the “Hall of Faith.” This is true, but Jephthah is included alongside Gideon and Samson. Like Jephthah, these two men are not exactly stalwarts of the faith. I would argue that all three of these men failed to finish well. Thus, it is important to understand that the author of Hebrews takes snapshots of Old Testament examples of faith. He is not suggesting that these individuals are to be imitated in every area of their lives.
Many careful Bible students also observe the emphasis upon the virginity of Jephthah’s daughter (11:37, 38, 39). It is argued that if Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice, virginity would not be emphasized. This appears to be a rather convincing argument. However, the author of Judges emphasizes the theme of family throughout the book. In the case of Jephthah, he seems to be emphasizing that this father forfeited a lasting legacy. Consequently, God had to raise up other judges to carry on the generations. This is one of the primary points of the secondary judges in 12:8–15. Ibzan had thirty sons and daughters (12:8–10) and Abdon had forty sons and thirty grandsons (12:14–15).22 The principle is: There is no lasting success apart from godly generations.
Going back to the Jephthah account in Judges, I think it is clear that Jephthah was influenced by the culture around him. If you recall, Israel has been worshiping seven different gods (10:6). Some of the nations that worshiped these gods offered human sacrifices (Ammon = Milcom/Molech: Lev 18:21; 20:2–5). Apparently, Jephthah was guilty of going with the spiritual flow in Israel. He may have assumed that he was obligated to fulfill his vow (see Num 30:1–2). Yet, would God take seriously a vow that violated both human rights and divine law? The sixth of the Ten Commandments forbids murder. God does not want a vow that violates His Law and is abhorrent to Him.23 Furthermore, Lev 27:1–8 provided a way out. As a successful soldier who had just returned from looting the enemy, Jephthah could easily have paid the redemption price to redeem his daughter. Jephthah knew his Old Testament, but he chose not to obey. A biblical mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Like Jephthah, perhaps God has given you success in your job and ministry. Praise God! But I have a few questions: Are you listening to the Lord in every area of your life? Are you applying your knowledge of God’s Word in all the circumstances of your life? Specifically, have you focused on your family and your subsequent generations? The danger that you and I face is a failure to apply God’s Word in the difficult circumstances of our lives. Generally, it’s not that we don’t know what to do. We know the Word… we just fail to apply it. Today, will you be a doer of the Word and not merely a hearer (Jas 1:22)? Will you spend time alone in God’s Word on a daily basis? Will you make a commitment today that you will spend five to ten minutes a day five days a week reading God’s Word and praying with your children? This simple discipline will not only change your own life, but it will impact your children and their children. There are no easy answers, quick fixes, or guarantees in parenting, but parents who read God’s Word to their children and pray with them typically experience amazing results. Will you focus on your family and raise up a godly line of believers who will transfer truth of next generation?
Scene 5: Jephthah turns on his own people (12:1–7). Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they do! The author of Judges writes in 12:1, “Then the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the sons of Ammon without calling us to go with you?” The word “us” is emphatic in the Hebrew text. Ephraim’s gripe is that they are somebodies and you don’t treat somebodies like nobodies.24 This tribe wants to be on the front page of the Jerusalem Times. They are glory hounds! So in their outage, Ephraim exclaims, “We will burn your house down on you.” This statement is dripping with irony, for Jephthah just finished burning his own house (i.e., lineage) down. In 12:2–3, Jephthah responds by explaining that he had called on the Ephramites, but they had left him in the lurch. In fact, Ephraim had eighteen years to step up and get involved in the battle, but they never did. Nevertheless, the Lord Himself gave Israel the victory over Ammon.
This scene concludes with a tragic civil war. Initially, the Israelites were fighting together, against their common enemies. Now, the Israelites are fighting among themselves.25 In 12:4–6, Jephthah and his men fight Ephraim, capture the land, and play a game of Bible Password. The Ephramites who tried to escape are asked to say the word “Shibboleth,” meaning “stream.”26 Unfortunately, the Ephramites cannot pronounce the “sh” sound so they say “Sibboleth.” This hits particularly close to home for me. When I first came to my present church, I would frequently say “tanks,” instead of “thanks.” For whatever reason, I did not pronounce the “th” in the word “thanks.” People gave me a hard time about this and I was eventually able to change my ways.27 Unfortunately, the Ephramites were not able to do so! So every Ephramite who played Bible Password that day lost.28 The death toll reached 42,000! Jephthah exacts revenge when offended and does not know the true character of the Lord or the content of His law.29
Verse 7 concludes with these words: “Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.” The Jephthah cycle ends without declaring that the Ammonite menace has been eliminated or that the land was secured during his tenure, let alone attributing this newfound security to the Lord.30
I own a high-tech piece of computer software called Bible Works. I have been using Bible Works since 1994. Over the course of many years, I have moved from version 3.5 to the brand new version 8. Yet, I am ashamed to admit that I have never read the user manual or watched the online videos. I keep saying, “I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Bible Works and the various updates; I really need to learn all of the potential of this software program.” But I never do. I have all kinds of great intentions, but the tyranny of the urgent always keeps me from mastering the potential of this valuable software. When I talk with Bible Works users, I admit that I am probably only utilizing 5–10% of the software’s capacity.
When it comes to the Bible, you may know just enough to be dangerous. Maybe you get by on the bare minimum. Yet, you know God has entrusted you with a great deal of knowledge and many resources. Perhaps the following statements reverberate through your heart and mind, “To whom much is given, much is required.” “Right theology and a thorough understanding of the Bible are essential.” If so, make a commitment that today you will seek to live out God’s Word like never before. A biblical mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Judges 10:1–6; 12:8–15
1. Why is it so easy for me to “tune out” when I am listening to God’s Word? In my personal Bible reading, do I typically skip biblical passages that I am familiar with? Do I often sense that I know more about the Bible than I really do? What can I do to remedy this faulty mindset?
2. How has my personal comfort diminished my character (10:6ff.)? Which of God’s good gifts have I abused to the point that my character has suffered? How can I bring this gift back into balance? What will I do this week to ensure that I do not continue to be spiritually soft? Who will help me reach my full potential in Christ?
3. God has always exhibited a heart of compassion and pity for His people (10:16). In what specific ways has God shown me mercy and compassion in the midst of my sin? How has He responded when I have repented? Read Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15; and 66:2b. When I sin, what can I do to ensure that I keep short accounts with God? Read 1 John 1:9. This week pray, “Lord, when my sin interrupts my fellowship with you, may I immediately confess my sin and seek to be in harmony with you.”
4. Jephthah ended his family line in one foolish move. While Jephthah seems to have had a good grasp of Israel’s past and God’s working in and through the nation (11:12–27), he ended his own line so that there was no one to carry on the faith (11:29–40). In what ways am I guilty of this same sin, spiritually speaking? How have I succeeded at work and church only to fail at home? How can I begin to correct my failure this week?
5. Jephthah’s failure with his family led to a civil war massacre (12:1–7). How do my failures with my own family lead to problems in my church, community, and nation? Why is the family so strategic in God’s program? What can I do to ensure that my family has a solid foundation? How can I help other families grow in Christ? As my children and grandchildren mature, what can I do to help them spiritually succeed in life?
1 See Michael J. Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges, Part 1: Jephthah,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162:647 (July 2005): 279–98.
2 Copyright © 2009 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
4 The lengthy list of gods in Judges 10:6 seems to indicate the progression of idolatry, which includes many more gods than in the past (see 2:11; 3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1).
5 Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 605.
6 Wiersbe writes, “Comfortable living often produces weak character. Henry Ward Beecher said, ‘Happiness is not the end of life, character is.’ But character is built when we make right decisions in life, and those decisions are made on the basis of the things that we value most.” Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Available (Omaha, NE: QuickVerse 2006 ), Electronic ed.
7 This is the first time God’s anger has occurred since Judges 3:8.
8 The Hebrew verb raats (“afflicted, crushed”) occurs but one other time in the OT, in Exod 15:6, where it describes Yahweh’s affliction of the Egyptians.
9 God sold Israel into the hands of two nations, and these two nations were the focus of deliverance for the last two primary judges: (a) Philistines, (b) Ammon, (c) Ammon (Jephthah story), (d) Philistines (Samson story). Boling explains the mention of the two nations by saying that 10:6–16 forms a theological introduction for the remainder of the Book of Judges. Robert G. Boling, Judges: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 193; and Barry Webb, The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 162–63.
10 Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Judges” (2009 ed.): http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/judges.pdf, 68.
11 Block states, “The narrator’s characterization of Jephthah as a ‘valiant warrior’ (gibbôr ḥayil, 11:1) hardly commends him spiritually for the role of savior in Israel. Indeed, he was a most unlikely candidate for leadership, being the ostracized son of a harlot and a leader of a band of brigands in the mountains of Gilead (11:1–3). Although his bargaining with the Ammonites reflects political astuteness and an awareness of YHWH’s actions in Israel’s history (11:12–28), his negotiations with the leaders of Gilead are motivated by opportunistic ambition (11:9–11). His rash vow, preceding his battle with the Ammonites, sounds like the type of bargain foreigners would make with their gods (11:30–31). Daniel I. Block, “The Period of the Judges: Religious Disintegration under Tribal Rule,” in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration, ed. Avraham Gileadi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 50.
12 Abimelech was the son of a concubine (Judg 8:31), a secondary wife; Jephthah was the son of a prostitute. Both Abimelech and Jephthah are sons of sexual relationships outside of marital vows. Block notes, “Gideon raised Abimelech in a setting of religious syncretism, and Gilead produced Jephthah as a result of his immoral passion with a harlot (11:1).” Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 387.
13 This action of Jephthah’s half brothers may be a violation of Deut 21:15–17.
14 Webb, The Book of the Judges, 342. Webb points out that in each of the five episodes: “The power of the spoken word is a key motif.” In the first episode Israel spoke, telling God that they had sinned and asking Him to deliver them. God also spoke but He was exasperated with Israel. In the second episode Jephthah confronted the elders of Gilead, asking why they hated him but had now come to him for help. In the third episode Jephthah gave a speech to the Ammonites, but they did not respond favorably. In the fourth episode Jephthah said to his daughter, “I have given my word [lit., ‘opened my mouth’] to the Lord” (11:35). His daughter responded, “You have given your word [lit., ‘opened your mouth’] to the Lord; do to me as you have said [lit., ‘whatever has gone out of your mouth’]” (v. 36). In the fifth episode the spoken word was “Shibboleth,” and if it were mispronounced as “Sibboleth,” it announced a death penalty on the speaker. Jephthah, whose name means “He opens,” was good at opening his mouth and speaking (75, 41).
15 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 605.
16 Barry Davis, “How could Jephthah make such a foolish vow if the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him? Under normal circumstances, even though the Holy Spirit may have guided an individual, that individual still had the freedom either to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading or to reject it. Jephthah here, apparently, chose to act on his own. Thus, in his own exuberance (albeit misplaced), he made an unwise vow (Pr 20:25; Ec 5:2-4). Furthermore, the guidance of Jephthah by the Holy Spirit may have related solely to Jephthah’s activities as a judge (e.g., leading God’s people into battle—Jdg 11:29, 32-33) and not to his private life (Jdg 11:30-31).
Certain other ancient Israelites (e.g., Samson, Saul, and David) experienced the Holy Spirit coming upon them to be the leaders of God’s people (Jdg 13:25; 14:6, 19, 23; 15:14; 1 Sam 10:10; 11:6; 16:13) but also were, at times, failures in their own private lives (Jdg 14:1-3; 16:1; 1 Sm 13:9-13; 2 Sm 11:2-4).” Barry C. Davis, “Notes on Judges/Ruth” in the Apologetics Study Bible.
17 Kaiser says that Jephthah could have had only people in mind when he made the vow. “What then did Jephthah vow? Some have tried to soften the vow by translating what was vowed as whatever comes out. However, if the Hebrew text intended this neuter idea (which would have allowed for anything including Jephthah’s animals), it should have used a different gender here (neuter in the Hebrew would have been signalled [sic] by the feminine form of the word). Since the masculine form is used, and the verb is to come out, it must refer (as it does in every other context) only to persons and not to animals or anything else.” See Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Jephthah Did with Her as He Had Vowed,” in Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 103; italics his). Howard is more specific regarding the feminine gender required for animals. “That is because things with no specified gender—abstracts or neuters—are expressed in Hebrew by the feminine… ‘Whatever’ is an inclusive form that would fall into this category.” David M. Howard Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody, 1993), 116.
18 Block, Judges, Ruth, 366.
19 In contrast to Caleb, who brought blessing on his daughter (Judg 1:12–15), Jephthah’s foolishness brought a curse on his daughter.
20 For an excellent discussion on the two options see Constable, “Notes on Judges,” 74–76. For further discussion of Jephthah’s vow see Block, Judges, Ruth, 365–69.
21 I say this with all humility because one of my favorite OT scholars, John Sailhamer, sees it differently. See John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 211.
22 See also Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges,” 283.
23 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 607.
24 Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Focus on the Bible (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000), 150.
26 Because of this story, the word “shibboleth” has become a part of our English vocabulary and is now found in our dictionaries. It stands for any kind of test that a group gives to outsiders to see whether they really belong.
27 Depending upon the region one lives, there are different pronunciations of words such as aunt, almond, theater, lawyer, and root. I also get a kick out of Oragon vs. Oregon and Wershington vs. Washington.
28 Davis, Judges, 151.
29 In contrast to Ehud who took the fords of the Jordan against a Gentile army (Judg 3:28–30), Jephthah is fighting against Israel.
30 Block, Judges, Ruth, 385.
Hello. My name is Samson.2 My name means “little sun.”3 I can tell from the looks on some of your faces that you recognize my name. I’m not surprised. After all, when I lived here on earth I was anything but “little.” I was a larger than life legend. I was not a “little sun,” I was an enormous sun. I had a bright and glorious future. I was the most famous man in the world. Everyone knew the name of Samson. And they spoke it with respect. They had to. I was the strongest man who ever lived. If I was on earth today, you’d not only admit me into your Olympics, but you’d have to set up a special category for me. Because I’m the strongest man of all time—bar none. What? You think I’m exaggerating? Overstating my case a little bit? Well, let me tell you the facts and you decide whether my claim is true or not.
As a young man, I fell in love with the wrong kind of woman.4 She was not of my people.5 The woman was a Philistine who lived in Timnah. She was an unbeliever. Yet, the moment I laid eyes on her, I fell in love…or should I say I fell in lust. I knew I had to have her. I told my parents, “Get her for me, she looks good to me.”6 Naturally, my parents were concerned with my decision to marry an unbeliever, but I was a strong-willed child so I eventually broke them down.7 In order to make arrangements for the wedding I had to travel to Timnah. The journey to Timnah was dangerous; rocks and bushes were scattered across the hilly terrain. There were countless perfect hiding spaces for bandits. But I was a bit distracted because I was thinking of my wedding night and honeymoon. Even though I kept scanning the horizon looking for danger, I was not prepared for what happened. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something worse than a bandit—I saw a golden blur flying out from behind some boulders toward me. It was a lion!8 But this lion was not the kind of lion that you’re familiar with. You know, the caged excuse for an animal that sits around all day and eats at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when someone throws him dead meat. Not that kind of a lion. I mean a real lion…a young lion. One who’s learned to think on his feet and to live by its wits. A lion whose body has been honed by constant action and constant killing. One with jaws so strong that it can snap the bones of an animal just like that (snap fingers).
Anyway, this lion suddenly lets loose a roar and launches itself through the air toward me. What would you have done at that instant? Freeze? Cry for your mother? Make a mess? Do you know what I did? Without a moment’s hesitation, as the lion leapt toward me ready for the kill, I bent down and grabbed it from underneath. And as it passed over me I grabbed hold of each end and began pulling. You could hear the cracking of bones and the ripping of sinew and then, suddenly, there was the lion at the side of the road…in two parts. I stood in awe of my own handiwork. And when the carcass stopped twitching, I knew that I was really the strongest man who ever lived.
Still doubt my claim? Still not sure I was the strongest man who ever lived? Let me give you another example, and you can make up your own mind. When I lived here on earth, the Philistines were Israel’s number one enemy. They brutalized and oppressed my people. They had large armies, state of the art weapons, and a thirst for blood. They knew that I was only one the only one who stood between them and their quest for total domination of Israel. So one day the Philistine commanders came to the elders of an Israelite town and said to them: “Give us Samson or we will kill you all!” So a delegation of 3,000 Israelite men came to me and said, “Samson, we don’t want to turn you over to the Philistines—we know that they intend to kill you, but what choice do we have? It’s either you or us. I said to them, “Guys, no worries. I'll take care of myself. The Philistines have no idea who their messing with. What I want you to do is to tie me up with two new ropes.” Not the kind of ropes that you are thinking of! Not binder twine. Not that skimpy yellow stuff you use around the house. I'm talking about rope, real hemp rope. The rope as thick as your arm that is used in seaports to tie up the oceangoing vessels. I told my countrymen: “Tie me up with two new ropes and hand me over to the Philistines.” My Israelite brothers expressed great concern for me, but I told them to trust me and to hand me over to the Philistines. They did so.
My countrymen placed me at the end of a field and a group of thousands of Philistine warriors were waiting for me at the other end of the field. As soon as my countrymen took off, the Philistine army began running toward me. Every soldier wanted to be the man to kill the great Samson. As they came, I just stood there standing bound and helpless before them. As an army of men ran toward me the ground beneath my feet shook like an earthquake. They kept coming faster and faster, their war cry filling the air. When they were about two-thirds of the way down the field, I took my stance. As I began to press against the ropes, I could feel the God’s Spirit come upon me. And those new hemp ropes? They became like charred flax. I snapped them as if they were burnt thread. When the Philistines leading the charge saw what I had done to those ropes, they were not quite as eager to claim their glory. They began to express a new willingness to share their anticipated glory. In fact, they became consummate gentleman and let other men go first. The problem was, however, that the soldiers further back had not seen the ropes snap, and they weren’t stopping. The ones at the back were still running as fast as they could. Before I knew it, soldiers were bouncing off of each other and falling to the ground. There was a melee of confusion.
I took full advantage of this situation and began walking towards the dazed men. Of course, I immediately realized that I didn't have a weapon. How typical! Why is it that the Philistines always have all the good weapons? I began to frantically look around for anything that I could use. Lo and behold, I found a dead donkey. As I kicked at the donkey carcass in frustration, I realized that it was relatively fresh. The teeth were still in the jawbone! So I picked it up and began to use the donkey's jawbone as a sword. As the soldiers enveloped me I went wild. Spinning one way and then another Going low one moment and swinging high the next. As I danced my deadly dance, Philistines began to scream…and die! When the dust finally settled that afternoon, a thousand Philistines lay dead, and the others were running for their lives. I overcame any human odds!
Still not sure I was the strongest man that ever lived? Still need more evidence? I’ll give you one more story. One day I decided to go to Gaza, a Philistine city on the seacoast (16:1–3). I was looking for a woman so I disguised myself well and began to mingle with the people who filled the busy streets. As I began to relax in my supposedly anonymity, I saw a drop-dead lady of the night. I liked what I saw so I paid money and slept with her.9 In the middle of the night, when I was finished, I prepared to leave. But then I recognized that the men of Gaza had identified me. They were going to wait for reinforcements and try to prevent me from leaving their city. It was relatively easy for them to do this. Gaza, like all Philistine cities, was surrounded by large walls. Walls higher than you could throw a stone over and wide enough to ride a chariot on. These were huge stone walls built with the strength they needed to keep enemies out. The gate was considered the strength of the city. And this one was strong all right. It went from the ground up to the top of those walls. It was made of solid hardwood, six feet thick, and was mounted with solid bronze hinges to huge post driven ten to fifteen feet in the ground. As if that were not enough, the entire structure was reinforced with bronze bars. It was immense! No one could leave the city once the gate was shut. The Philistines knew I would be trapped.
I began to suspect something was up in the middle of the night as I began to make my way back home. As I walked through the streets I saw people looking out their windows and whispering: “We have him! At long last Samson is ours!” As I turned the corner and saw those massive gates shut and locked, the plan of the city fathers became obvious. They had me trapped like a lion in the cage (or to they thought). I don’t know what you might have done in that situation. Try to hide, maybe? Try to pick the lock? Scale the wall? That wasn’t my style. That’s not Samson. I didn’t quiver in fear. I walked straight and boldly right through town until I came to the main gate. I stood in the courtyard for a moment and then turned around to make sure everyone knew who I was. Then I walked up to those gates. I spat on my hands, bent down, and grabbed hold of the reinforcing bar. Boy, I was glad they put it there! It made a great handle. Then I began to pull…harder and harder. As I pulled, I began to feel the inner warmth of God’s Spirit as He began to course through my body. As I pulled harder and harder the supernatural heat spiked with intensity. I began to hear creeks, and then groaning, and finally the snapping of timbers as the gate came wrenching right out of the ground. A lesser man might have just dropped it on the ground and walked away. But I decided that would not be humiliating enough. So I lifted the gate up on my shoulder and carried it to the top of that hill twenty–eight miles away and dropped it there. They could go get a team of forces and pull it back if they wanted to, but it wasn't good enough for me just to escape from that town. I wanted to embarrass them. That was the strength of their city and I stole it. I am the strongest man that ever lived. No question. No argument.
What bothers me, however, is that when people like you remember me, they think of me only as a strong man not a great man. And I could have been great. I should have been great. Even my birth was special. It was announced by the angel of the Lord. By God Himself! I was His gift to a barren couple and to a nation in distress. The angel told my parents: “You are going to have a son—a son with a mission in life. The purpose of his life is to set Israel free from the Philistines.” My mission was clear; my path of life had been laid out in front of me. Then the angel of the Lord went on: “The only thing you need to know, the only thing that he must remember, is that he must be raised as and live like a Nazirite.” What makes a Nazirite so special? Three simple rules.10 My mom told them to me over and over again when I was growing up. Parents are like that sometimes.
My problem was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of obedience. Remember how I told you about my visit to Timnah for my upcoming wedding? Well, I had to make another trip back to set things in order. But this was no easy task. Timnah was quite a distance and the terrain was difficult. As I made the trip, I felt like my stomach was eating away at itself. I may be the world’s strongest man, but I am still a man, and I have a ravenous appetite. Finally, I came to the spot in the road where I ripped the lion and a half. I decided to take a look at the damage I did. Bees had made hives right there in the carcass. There was honey! All I could see was food! I didn’t even think, I just plunged my hand into the heart of the hive and pulled out some honeycomb. I can tell you that nothing had ever tasted sweeter!
There I was eating at home with honey dripping down my arms and all over my beard into my mouth and I felt good. You know how when you finally get food, how wonderful that sugar rushes? You can feel the strength just coursing through your body again! Now I knew that I could make the rest of my journey. And then I remembered… I remembered what my mother had said and what the angel of the Lord had said…that I wasn’t to touch any unclean thing. And I realize that by doing this I had touched a carcass and broken my vow. I waited and looked at the sky for lightning to come or God to swallow me with an earthquake or…but nothing happened. Hmmm…maybe my parents were wrong. Nothing happened. Maybe sin isn’t that serious.
I went on and arrived at Timnah and we threw the world’s greatest wedding and bachelor’s party. Of course, all the Philistine guys are checking me out. You know what that’s like. They want to see if I’m a real man, and I’m trying to prove that I’m one of the guys. And you know, I’m a man’s man, and everyone else is pounding it back. What’s one Philistine beer? So I knocked one back and suddenly I realized that I had broken the second Nazirite vow.
I looked around, wondering if God would hit me with a fireball. What would be the consequences of my sin? I didn’t pause for quite as long this time. I wasn’t quite as afraid, but still I wondered what God would do. And you know what He did? Nothing! Nothing at all! I began to think that maybe all this sin talk was overblown. After all, the first two vows were broken and nothing happened. Life just went on. Not with that woman, by the way. Things didn't work out. There’s another story there. A lot of dead Philistines at the end of that story too. But life went on. Without a serious girlfriend.
Then one day I thought I had met the answer to my prayers. I met the woman of my dreams. She had black hair, olive skin, and eyes that could just melt you. Boy, could she fill a dress! This was a woman! Her name was… Delilah.11 She was the perfect woman; she had everything a man could ever want. You couldn’t imagine anything else. Except for one little thing… she was perfect except… she was a nag. She was easy on the eyes, but she was a nag! When she got something under her skin, she just kept going and going and going until she got it. And she wanted to know the secret of my strength. She would say, “Samson, if you love me, we’ll have an honest, transparent relationship. Tell me the secret of your strength.”12 She fluttered her eyes. She tossed her hair. Nonetheless, I held out! Three consecutive times I deceived her
Finally, Delilah said to me, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have deceived me these three times and have not told me where your great strength is” (16:15). After hearing her words, I finally broke. In my anger and exasperation, I told Delilah about the one Nazirite vow I had not broken. I told her about how I was never to cut my hair. As I looked into her eyes, I was sure I could trust her. That night, I fell asleep with my head in her lap. I trusted her with my life, but I was betrayed. As I slept, she had someone come and cut my hair and time yet. Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are here! Samson, the Philistines are here!” I got up as I had so many times before. I thought, “This is getting old, you know what I mean. We’ve done this so many times. Don’t you guys ever learn?” But this time was different— the Lord had departed from me. I was like a lamb being led to the slaughter. The Philistines seized me, gouged out my eyes, and put me in bronze chains. I became a grinder in their prison.13 They kept me caged up like an animal. (However, during my captivity my hair began to grow again.) The Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to rejoice. They exclaimed, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hands.” When the Philistines saw him, they praised their god and said, “Dagon has given our enemy into our hands. The great destroyer will destroy no more!” They then called for me to entertain them. The crowds chanted, “We want Samson!” “We want Samson!” They wanted to mock me for entertainment. This was the most humiliating moment of my life.
The Philistines made me stand between the pillars where I could be easily seen and scorned. . I was even in the hands of a boy who was leading me by the hand from place to place. I then asked the boy to let me feel the pillars on which the house rests so that I may lean against them. I then called out to the Lord and said, “O Lord God please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” (16:28). I grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced myself against them and said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” I then used every ounce of my strength and brought the house down on 3,000 people. I killed more in my death than in my life!14
My name means “sunny,” yet I ended up in the darkness, blinded by the very enemy I was supposed to conquer. God gave me every advantage, and I threw it away in favor of doing what was right in my own eyes to my own undoing.15 I was the strongest of all men, but I was weakened and defeated not by soldiers or armies but by one woman! I, the strong one could not entangle myself from “the weak one.” It may seem harsh, but it would have been better for me to have become physically blind earlier in my life. It could have prevented my sexual sin.16 It was only after my eyes were taken away from me that I prayed for the first time.
My fall can be traced back to two things: (1) I didn’t know my weaknesses, and (2) I didn’t know my strength.17 Mistakenly, I didn’t see God as the real source of my strength. Instead, I saw only myself (see 15:14–17). Consequently, God allowed my strength to be taken from me so that in painful circumstances I could learn that without the powerful God, I am powerless.
I live with the haunting reminder that God didn’t take my ministry away from me. I gave my ministry away. I forfeited not only my physical life but my spiritual legacy. I’m remembered as a strong man, not as a great man. If I could share with you one lesson it is this: No one gets away with sin. Not me, not you.
1 Timothy 4:8
Deuteronomy 7:3–4; 21:18–21
1 Corinthians 10:12–13
1 I have relied heavily upon the work of my doctoral director and dissertation reader, J. Kent Edwards, who wrote a sermon entitled, “Samson: The Strong Weak Man” (Judges 13–16) in his book Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 147–55. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Edwards for helping me to improve my skills in narrative preaching.
2 Baylis writes, “While Jephthah delivers Israel east of the Jordan, Samson becomes a judge in the west (chaps. 13-16). The writer gives more space to Samson than to any other judge. He was chosen to be judge before birth, so his beginnings rival those of Samuel, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. Certainly much should be expected from this man. But he is woefully disappointing. He regularly disregards the law, intermarries with the Philistines, and uses his delivering power to carry out acts of incidental violence. Why spend so much time on Samson’s failure? Because he climaxes the message of Judges. His life matches that of the nation itself. Samson, like Israel, had a special calling but deserted it to pursue his own desires. His power, though great and bestowed by Yahweh, did not deliver because his life was marked by unfaithfulness to Yahweh and intermarriage with the nations of the land.” Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 175.
3 Samson is derived from the Hebrew word for “sun” (shemesh) and probably refers to “that which is distinguished, the pinnacle, one who is strong.”
4 Commenting on Samson’s qualification as judge, Block remarks, “Like most of the other judges, Samson was an unlikely candidate for leadership in Israel. The narrator seems to stress that what accomplishments were achieved were all to YHWH’s credit, produced in spite of, rather than because of, the man.” Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary (Nashville: Holman Reference, 1999), 51.
5 The Lord had given Samson a godly heritage, and he had been raised to honor the Lord; but when Samson fell in love, he wouldn’t listen to his parents when they warned him. Samson had wandered four miles into enemy territory where he was captivated by a Philistine woman and decided to marry her. This, of course, was contrary to God’s Law (Exod 34:12–16; Deut 7:1–3; 2 Cor 6:14–18). Samson was living by sight and not by faith. He was controlled by “the lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) rather than by the Law of the Lord. The important thing to Samson was not pleasing the Lord, or even pleasing his parents, but pleasing himself (Judges 14:3, 7; see 2 Cor 5:14–15). Michael J. Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges, Part 2: Samson,” Bsac 162:648 (October 2005): 431 observes: “Samson is also a picture of the nation. Israel was faulted for living among and intermarrying with the Canaanite enemy. After Samson’s birth narrative (Judg. 13) the rest of his life story centers on his pursuit of Philistine women. Samson is an example of Israel’s “playing the harlot after other gods” (2:17; 8:27, 32).”
6 Lit. “She is right in my eyes” (Judg 14:3, 7). The narrator here illustrated and foreshadowed his theme from the epilogues, where “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). It is likely that the attraction was both physical and cultural. Crenshaw explains some of the differences and advances in Philistine culture that would have made their women attractive to Israelite men. See James L. Crenshaw, Samson: A Secret Betrayed, a Vow Ignored (Atlanta: John Knox, 1978), 81.
7 The failure of Manoah and his wife will be discussed in the final sermon on the book of Judges.
8 Did God send the lion as a warning to Samson that he was walking on the wrong path?
9 Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges,” 431, writes, “The Philistine woman and her father are unnamed (14:1) as is also the harlot from Gaza (16:1). Once again the fact of their being unnamed might be the narrator’s way of saying that they represent all or any Philistines.”
10 Like John the Baptist, Samson would be a Nazirite from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:13–15). The word Nazirite comes from a Hebrew word (nazir) that means “to separate, to consecrate.” Nazirites were persons who, for a stated period of time, consecrated themselves to the Lord in a special way. They abstained from drinking wine and strong drink; they avoided touching dead bodies; and as a mark of their consecration, they allowed their hair to grow. The laws governing the Nazirite vow are given in Num 6:1–8.
11 Delilah means “the weak one” or “the longing one.”
12 Waltke notes, “The Philistines offer Delilah a fantastic sum of money [1100 pieces of silver (Judg 16:5)]—more than a lifetime of earnings for the average worker.” Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 611.
13 Block, Judges, Ruth, 462, notes that the Philistines were following an ancient Near Eastern custom. Prisoners were blinded and then forced to do menial tasks of slaves and women. So Samson, ironically, ended up doing a woman’s job. The man, who had incredible strength over other men was defeated in his greatest weakness, that of foreign women, to end up emasculated and doing the task of a woman.
14 I believe it is likely that Samson talked to the Lord as he turned the millstone, confessing his sins and asking God for one last opportunity to defeat the enemy and glorify His name.
15 Block, Judges, Ruth, 431.
16 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:27–29).
17 The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
A proud, young couple brought their newborn son to the pediatrician for his first checkup, and the doctor said, “You have a beautiful baby.” Smiling, the mom said, “I’ll bet you say that to all the new parents.”
“No,” the doctor replied, “just to those whose babies are really cute.” The mother responded, “So what do you say to the others?” The doctor replied, “I say, ‘He looks just like you.’”2
This story hits close to home because as a follower of Jesus, I want to find creative ways of speaking the truth in love.3 I want to be positive and uplifting. I want to encourage others. Yet, there are times when I have to be brutally honest with other believers. Today, we are going to test the old adage: “Honesty is the best policy.” We will test this expression by working our way through the ugliest section in the entire Bible—Judges 17–21. Whew! Buckle your seatbelt because this is going to be a doozy!
The final five chapters of Judges function as an appendix to the entire book. Instead of focusing on the sins of Israel or of their judges, these chapters look closely at the lives of two Levites. Levites were the priestly tribe in Israel—the religious leadership of the nation. Sadly, we will discover that the religious leadership is not holding the nation accountable for its sin.4 Instead, the Levites are as messed up as the people they are supposed to lead!5 Their small, personal failures escalate to tribal and national dimensions and plunge Israel into political and moral anarchy.6 Thus, Judges concludes with a finger pointing in the face of the Levites. The overriding message is: When God goes, everything and anything goes.7
Scene 1: The idolatrous Levite (17:1–18:31). Our story begins in 17:1–6 when a man by the name of Micah steals a large amount of silver from his mother.8 The exact amount is 1100 pieces of silver (about 28 lbs).9 An average yearly salary in Micah’s day was ten pieces of silver (17:10), so he ripped off a fortune. Micah’s mom gets ticked and pronounces a curse on the thief. This is completely understandable. How would you feel if someone ripped off your retirement? Tragically, due to our crashing economy, perhaps you know first-hand the feelings Micah’s mom experienced. When Micah learns of his mom’s curse, he gets nervous and returns her silver.10 The Old Testament law required Micah to add a fifth to what he had stolen, but there is no record of him doing so. It is not the fear of the Lord that motivates Micah to confess his crime and restore the money; it is the fear of his mom’s curse. Micah is not broken over his sin; instead, he is merely trying to save his own skin.11
To make matters worse, when Micah returns his mom’s silver, she doesn’t curse him…she blesses him! This mom’s values are upside down! Micah’s mom doesn’t discipline her son; instead she rewards him by hiring a silversmith to make her son idols that he then brings into his home.12 I don’t need to tell you that this is NOT a good thing! Apparently, this mother doesn’t condemn her son because she is a thief as well. In 17:3 she says, “I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the Lord,” however, in the very next verse she only coughs up 200 pieces of the silver! What happened to the other 900 pieces that she had promised to the Lord?13 It appears that she keeps this amount for herself! She is a thief and she is not a woman of her word. She does not set a godly example and fails to pass biblical values on to her son. So the sad outcome is: like mother, like son. Micah follows up his mom’s sin and his own sin with even more sin. He consecrates one of his sons to become his priest. This is completely opposed to God’s plan. Micah and his son are Ephramites and the Bible declares that only Levites are to be priests. There is disobedience all over the place in this account. Consequently, the author pens these disturbing words in 17:6: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” This is the key verse of the Book of Judges. It is likely that the expression, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) refers to God as King (see Deut 33:5).14 Israel has completely ignored God’s ways and instead has chosen to go their own way. The phrase “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25) tells the sad story of human history. Even today, we live by the philosophy, “If it feels right, if it seems right, do it. What’s right for me must be right.”
Micah and his mom epitomize what happens when you do what is right in your own eyes.15 They managed to break seven of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17) without even leaving their home.16 As far as sinners go, this is fairly remarkable. Yet, Micah’s name means, “Who is like Yahweh?” He is a believer in Yahweh who is not living up to his name. Instead of honoring the Lord’s name, Micah calls the shots and lives for himself. It’s easy to do this…all it takes is just a few small compromises. These compromises can easily result in idolatry.17 Perhaps you don’t feel like you are guilty of idolatry. You sold your boat and one of your three cars, stopped spending so much time in your yard, and started to prioritize your family over your job. I commend you. But in this context, the idolatry is primarily spiritual. Is it possible that your idol is your ministry, your biblical or doctrinal knowledge, your spiritual gifts, your reputation, or your marriage and family? Remember, an idol is anyone or anything that usurps the place of God. An idol can be one of God’s gifts that is abused or misprioritized. Do you have an idol that needs to be surrendered to the Lord? If so, give it to Him today!
In 17:7–13, we are introduced to a young Levite named Jonathan (see 18:30) who has been living in Bethlehem, which is not one of the cities assigned to the priests and Levites.18 He is probably unemployed. With the spiritual collapse of the nation, there is little or no demand for priests. Sadly, instead of seeking the Lord to meet his needs, Jonathan set out to find a place to live and work, even if it means abandoning his calling as a servant of God. Quickly he runs into Micah who invited him to be his personal priest. Certainly Micah knows that the Lord had appointed the family of Aaron to be the only priests in Israel; and if anybody outside Aaron’s family served as priests, they were to be killed (Num 3:10). Micah continues his sinful choices. Jonathan is no better.19 Think about this for a moment: What did Micah have in his house? Shouldn’t a Levite who is to able to teach the law know that Micah has broken God’s law? If Jonathan is typical of God’s servants in the period of the Judges, then it’s no wonder the nation of Israel is confused and corrupt. Jonathan has no appreciation for his high calling as a Levite, a chosen servant of God.20 He gives up God’s call for comfort and security in the home of an idolater. The irony in all this is Micah now thinks he has God’s favor because a genuine levitical priest is serving as his private chaplain. Micah practices a false religion and worships false gods (with Yahweh thrown in for good measure), and all the while he rests on the false confidence that God is blessing him! Little does he know that the day would come when his priest and his gods will be taken from him and nothing will be left of his religion.
In 18:1–31, the author of Judges focuses on the Danites—a small tribe in Israel21 who begin “seeking an inheritance for themselves to live in” (18:1b). The Lord had assigned the tribal allotments under the direction of Joshua, with the help of Eleazar, the high priest, and the elders from the tribes (Josh 19:51). God put each tribe just where He wanted it. For the tribe of Dan to reject God’s assigned territory and covet another place is to oppose His divine will. Dan eventually discovers Laish—a place of security and comfort. Dan ends up conquering this land and claiming it for themselves in the name of ease and prosperity. This sounds a lot like you and me, doesn’t it? Instead of submitting to God’s will and waiting on Him, it is easy to go after what somebody else has.22 TV and the Internet compel us to crave more and to never be satisfied with what we have. Therefore, we go out and spend money that we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people who don’t really care. At some point, we must recognize that we don’t need a better car, a larger house, a better job, a new spouse, different children, or the perfect church. Rather, God wants us to learn to be content and to trust that He alone can satisfy our restless hearts.
On their way to conquer Laish, the Danites send out five men to spy out the land. On their journey they come across the house of Micah, where they spend the night. When they hear the young priest speaking, they recognize his accent and know he is not from Ephraim. He probably said, “Shalom ya’ all.” Upon recognizing that he is a Levite priest, they immediately pepper him with a trio of questions: “Who brought you here? And what are you doing in this place? And what do you have here?” (18:3) It’s always disturbing when those who are in sin “call out” other believers who are in sin without first examining their own hearts.23
Jonathan’s response is hilarious. In 18:4 he says, “Thus and so has Micah done to me, and he has hired me and I have become his priest.” In other words, Jonathan lays a pile of baloney on the Danite men. He justifies his decision to work for Micah. The Danites realize that they have come across a two-timing spiritual compromiser. This pleases them because they are interested in Jonathan’s services. So they reply, “‘Inquire of God, please, that we may know whether our way on which we are going will be prosperous.’ The priest said to them, ‘Go in peace; your way in which you are going has the LORD’S approval’” (18:5–6). This priest resorts to ear tickling and confidently approves what God disapproves. What a sell-out! On another front, if the tribe of Dan had really wanted God’s counsel, they could have consulted with the high priest. But they were actually rejecting God’s counsel by refusing to remain in the land He had assigned to them. Therefore, it wasn’t likely God would have revealed anything to them. So with the blessing of the priest, the Danites scope out Laish and then return home to tell their brothers of the paradise they have discovered (18:7–13).
The Danites then prepare to conquer Laish, but first they make another visit to Micah’s house (18:14–17). This time they discover the idols! Instead of being incensed with Israelite idolatry, they decide that they want these idols for themselves! So with 600 men waiting at the city gate, the five spies waltz into Micah’s house and steal his idols. When Jonathan realizes what is going on he says, “What are you doing?” The men reply, “Shut up, boy! Mind your own business.” Actually, they say: “‘Be silent, put your hand over your mouth and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be a priest to the house of one man, or to be priest to a tribe and a family in Israel?’ The priest’s heart was glad, and he took the ephod and household idols and the graven image and went among the people” (18:19–20). Jonathan is a priest for hire. He goes to the highest bidder. After all, every priest has his price, right? In doing so, he leads the Danites into idolatry.24
On their way out of town Micah returns and finds the idols from his crib are gone! So he tears out of his house and shouts at the departing Danites. Micah’s pathetic words are found in 18:24: “You have taken away my gods which I made, and the priest, and have gone away, and what do I have besides?’” Micah is so far out of fellowship with God that he feels like he has nothing else of value besides his idols! Consequently, he is willing to risk his life for his gods! After all, a man must protect his gods! What a sad state of affairs. When God goes, everything and anything goes. Since the Danites outnumber Micah and his neighbors they have to turn around and go home defeated.
The Danites continue on their merry way and destroy the people of Laish as they are minding their own business. Chapter 18 concludes with the Danites experiencing no visible consequences, apart from their idolatry (18:27–30). Yet, this is not the end of the story.25 In the Book of 1 Chronicles, when the list of the tribes and families in Israel is given, Dan is the only tribe which is totally ignored. They had vanished into obscurity, probably because of intermarriage with the Philistines. Dan did not take what God had given to them, and they took what God had not given them. In the process, they lost all that they had. Furthermore, in Rev 7, we are introduced to the 144,000 Jewish believers who will carry out a special ministry for God in the Tribulation. In that list of tribes, Dan is not mentioned. They refused to follow God’s mission for them in the land of Israel, and they chose the easy way. Therefore, God refused to give them this special ministry of blessing for Him in the future.26 The lesson here is that there is pleasure in sin for a season (Heb 11:25), but eventually God brings His discipline (Heb 12:5–11). If you are thinking about divorcing your spouse, having an affair, sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend, stealing from your employer, or walking away from the church, don’t do it! The consequences may not hit at once, but when they do they will be devastating! Interestingly, the sin of Micah, his mom, and a Levite priest profoundly affected those around them. In the end, the Danites were eliminated from usefulness. What a powerful reminder of the consequences of sin! One person’s seemingly inconsequential actions can carry a hefty price tag. The converse is also true: A righteous person’s obedience can be a blessing to others for generations to come.
Scene 2: The violent Levite (19:1–21:25). These three chapters are hideous! In these closing pages of Judges there is wife abuse, blatant homosexuality, gang rape leading to murder, injustice, brother killing brother, and even kidnapping. Yet, if you watch the news or scan your newspaper, you will see that the Book of Judges prophetically describes the sad state of affairs in our country as well. The author begins 19:1 for the third time with the familiar phrase “Now it came about in those days, when there was no king in Israel...” The rest of the chapter then tells the story of another Levite. If you thought that the Levite Jonathan (17:7–18:31) was bad, then you’ll probably conclude that this next unnamed Levite is the worst of the worse. This fellow is living temporarily in the hill country of Ephraim. He, too, seems to be unemployed or displaced. He is not at Israel’s legitimate place of worship—Shiloh (see 18:31). He has acquired a concubine27 from Bethlehem, but she is sexually unfaithful and runs home to her father in Bethlehem for protection.28 She is gone for four months and her husband misses her; so he travels to Bethlehem, forgives her, and reconciles. He and his father-in-law discover they enjoy each other’s company and spend five days eating, drinking, and being merry. Little did the Levite realize that he really has nothing to be happy about because tragedy is stalking his marriage (19:1–9).
Finally, after five days the couple decides to leave. As they journey, the Levite’s servant asks to spend the night at Jebus (Jerusalem). Since Jebus is not an Israelite town at the moment, the Levite wants to press on until they are in Israelite territory. So they travel another four miles until they arrive at Gibeah—a town in Benjamite territory. They arrive at Gibeah in the darkness29 and come into the town square, where they expect to be greeted and offered hospitality.30 Finally, an elderly fellow passes by who is returning from the fields. He is not a Benjamite; his home is in the hill country of Ephraim, but he is living temporarily in Gibeah. When the old man sees the weary travelers he invites them to his house for the night, insisting that he provide food for them. After they have just finished eating, the men of the city come to the door and insist that the old man send out the Levite, so that they can sexually assault him. The men of Gibeah turn out to be as wicked as the heathen around them! In 19:23–26 the author writes, “Then the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, ‘No, my fellows, please do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not commit this act of folly. Here is my virgin daughter and his concubine. Please let me bring them out that you may ravish them and do to them whatever you wish. But do not commit such an act of folly against this man.’ But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and brought her out to them; and they raped her and abused her all night until morning, then let her go at the approach of dawn. As the day began to dawn, the woman came and fell down at the doorway of the man’s house where her master was, until full daylight.” Our hearts revolt at the thought of a man so insensitive to the feelings of a human being made in the image of God, so indifferent to the sanctity of sex and the responsibility of marriage, and so unconcerned about the laws of God, that he would sacrifice his wife to save his own skin. Was he punishing her for being unfaithful to him? If so, the punishment was far greater than the sin. It is also incredibly disturbing that this Levite was able to lie down and go to sleep while they were abusing her in the street! How calloused can a man become? This is Sodom relived (Gen 19)! The covenant nation had fallen to the level of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead of driving the Canaanites out of the land, Israel becomes like the Canaanites. But before we point the finger at these Israelites and say, “What a bunch of sickos; I would never do anything like that!” we need to recognize that there have been plenty of times we have failed to love and respect our spouse the way God intends.
We return to this awful account in 19:27–30: “When her master arose in the morning and opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, then behold, his concubine was lying at the doorway of the house with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up and let us go,’ but there was no answer. Then he placed her on the donkey; and the man arose and went to his home. When he entered his house, he took a knife and laid hold of his concubine and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout the territory of Israel. All who saw it said, ‘Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, take counsel and speak up!’”
What a despicable account! The Levite desecrates and mutilates his wife’s corpse by cutting it into twelve parts and fed-exing one part to each of the twelve tribes of Israel.31 Of course, he wants to mobilize the support of the tribes and punish the men of Gibeah who have killed his wife, but in fact, he was the one who had let them kill her! Surely there were other ways to call attention to Gibeah’s crime. Had the Levite gone to Shiloh where the tabernacle stood (18:31), and had he consulted with the high priest, he could have dealt with the matter according to God’s law and avoided causing a great deal of trouble. Once tempers were heated in Israel, however, it was difficult to stop the fire from spreading. The outrage escalates into a full-scale civil war that almost destroys the tribe of Benjamin.
In chapter 20, the tribes of Israel gather together in unison and prepare to pour out their wrath on the perverts of Gibeah.32 They take three vows: (1) No one will go home until Gibeah is attacked and destroyed. (2) Anyone who does not join against Gibeah will be killed. (3) No one will allow his daughter to marry a Benjaminite. Ironically, Israel is finally unified as “one man.” However, they are unified in their quest for vengeance. Unfortunately, the Levite testifies against the men of Gibeah without owning his sin. Naturally, not knowing the full story, the Israelites are all the more infuriated. When the Israelites approach the Benjamites, they refuse to hand over the men who committed the atrocity.33 Instead, they decide to go to war with Israel. So 26,000 plus Benjamites go to war with over 400,000 Israelites! While this civil war is certainly not God’s will, the men of Gibeah are evil men and have to be punished before the Lord could be pleased with His people and cleanse His land. When sin isn’t exposed, confessed, and punished, it pollutes society and defiles the land. The wicked men of Gibeah are like a cancerous tumor in the body that has to be cut out.34 When God’s people refuse to obey God’s Word, the results are always tragic. The spiritual life of a church is crippled and eventually destroyed when the congregation shuts its eyes to sin and will not discipline offenders. There can never be unity among the people of God as long as some of them cover up sin and allow it to infect the body.
At the Lord’s instruction, Judah leads the charge against the 26,000 Benjamite warriors. The Benjamites manage to kill 22,000 Israelites the first day of battle. The Israelites weep before the Lord because of their loss and question whether they should continue their attack. Perhaps this was one reason why God permitted the Israelites to lose that first battle. It gave them an opportunity to reflect on the fact that they were fighting their own flesh and blood. The Lord instructs them to attack, but the Gibeonites kill 18,000 Israelites that day. The whole Israelite army went up to Bethel where they fast and weep before the Lord. They offer sacrifices to the Lord and inquire once again if they should continue to attack. The Lord instructs them to attack once again, but this time He assures them of victory (20:28). The Israelites set an ambush and then feigned defeat, so that the Benjamites pressed their attack, leaving the safety of the city. The retreating forces then turned around and went on the attack. The battle was fierce, but when the day was over 25,100 Benjamite warriors had been slain in battle. The Benjamite army was decimated. Only 600 soldiers survived and fled to the rock of Rimmon (20:47). The Israelites then completely destroyed the Benjamite cities, just as they had annihilated the Canaanites (20:48).35 What a price the tribe of Benjamin paid for refusing to obey the Law of the Lord!
In chapter 21, it appears that Israel develops a hint of a conscience. They weep over the fact that the tribe of Benjamin will be eliminated from Israel. So instead of consulting the Lord, they develop a scheme to preserve Benjamin. But instead of getting directions from the Lord, the eleven tribes depend on their own wisdom to solve the problem. The 600 men who were left from Benjamin would need wives if they were going to reestablish their tribe, but the eleven tribes had sworn not to give them wives. Where would these wives come from? The Israelites solved the problem by killing more of their own people! Nobody had come to the war from Jabesh-gilead, which meant two things: They hadn’t participated in the oath, and the city deserved to be punished.36 The executioners found 400 virgins in the city, women who could become wives to two thirds of the soldiers on the rock. These men had been on the rock for four months (20:47), but now they could take their brides and go home. What a price was paid for these wives!
The elders held another meeting to discuss how they could provide wives for the remaining 200 men. Somebody remembered that many of the virgins from the tribes participated in an annual feast at Shiloh. If the remaining 200 men of Benjamin hid near the place, they could each kidnap a girl and take her home as a wife. The tribes wouldn’t be violating their oath because they wouldn’t be giving the girls as brides. The girls were being taken. It was a matter of semantics, but they agreed to follow the plan. Thus, the 600 men got their brides, the eleven tribes kept their vow, the citizens of Gibeah were punished, the tribe of Benjamin was taught a lesson, and the twelve tribes of Israel were saved. The 600 men of Benjamin, with their brides, returned to their inheritance, cleaned up the debris, repaired the cities, and started life all over again (21:19–24). In some ways, it is a fitting end to this record of such a tragic period in Israel’s history. In the end, the Israelites are no better than the Canaanites whom they were to dispossess.
For the fourth time (17:6; 18:1; 19:1), the writer tells us that “there was no king in Israel;” and for the second time (17:6), he adds that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Today, there is no king in Israel because the nation chose Barabbas instead of Jesus (Luke 23:13–25). They said, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). Because there’s no king in Israel, people are rebelling against God and doing whatever pleases them; and it will be that way until the King returns and takes His throne on earth. All of this carnage and destruction happened because one Levite didn’t have the courage to stand up for what was right and treat his wife honorably. Once again, as with Jonathan, Micah, and the Danites (17:1–18:31), the problem started in the home, among God’s people. When God goes, everything and anything goes.
1 Corinthians 5:6–8
1. Why did Micah choose to have idols in his home (17:1–13)? Note: Micah’s idols became an impetus for worship in northern Israel for hundreds of years (1 Kings 12:25–33; 2 Kings 17:22–23). What are the repercussions of my sinful decisions? How has my past sin haunted my family and those within my sphere of influence? What will I do today to avoid sin and put a stop to future consequences for my family and me?
2. How do little compromises lead to disastrous results? Read 1 Corinthians 5:1–13. Is there a sinful area in my life that I have been dismissing or justifying? Perhaps I am not in sin, but am I abusing a good gift from God? If so, who will I enlist to help me overcome my sin or reprioritize my life? Will I be honest with this individual and ask for accountability?
3. The Levites, the priestly tribe, led Israel into sin. How could this have been avoided? In what ways are contemporary Christian leaders responsible for the health of the church? Read Luke 12:48; James 2:13; and Hebrews 13:17. Why is it so difficult to be a faithful leader? How can I support and encourage my leaders? How can I be a more effective leader over those God has given me influence?
4. The clause that summarizes the Book of Judges is “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). How does this typify our country? In what specific ways has this mentality crept into the church? What can I do to help my church remain committed to a biblical world view? Will I lovingly challenge believers who refuse to adopt and live out biblical doctrine?
5. Is God an angry God? If so, when and how does He become angry? Read Isaiah 1 and Nahum 1. In what specific ways does God reveal His anger in Judges 21? How can I balance God’s wrath with His love? Is there a balance or are both attributes equally important aspects of God’s character? Why or why not? How can I avoid God’s discipline in my own life?
2 PreachingNow Vol. 8, No. 11: May 16, 2009.
3 See Paul’s words in Eph 4:15: “…but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”
4 As Waltke states, “The tribe that the Lord chose to preserve Israel’s piety and morality proves to be unfaithful.” Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 613.
5 There is a spiritual vacuum throughout the Book of Judges. In fact, the only individuals who rebuke Israel for her sin are: an “angelic messenger” (2:1–4), God Himself (2:20–21), the prophetess Deborah (4:4ff.), and one unnamed prophet (6:7–10). Where are the priests or the prophets? Is there no man who will stand up for God? The Book of Judges is strangely silent in this regard. Bob Deffinbaugh, “Israel’s Dark Ages” from the series From Creation to the Cross: http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1482.
6 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 613.
7 Gary Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 285.
8 What goes around comes around, for in Judg 18:17 Micah is stolen from.
9 This is the same amount each of the Philistine governors had given Delilah as a reward for delivering Samson into their hands (Judg 16:5).
10 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 614.
11 This genuine lack of repentance is typical of God’s people throughout the Book of Judges.
12 The same two Hebrew terms for idols occur together also in Deut 27:15.
13 Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay, 269; Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 480.
14 Block, Judges, Ruth, 476.
15 Eaton writes, “Almost everything in this story is wrong.” Michael Eaton, Judges and Ruth. Preaching through the Bible (England: Sovereign World, 2000), 97.
16 The son didn’t honor his mother; instead, he stole from her and then lied about it. First, he coveted the silver, and then he took it. Then he lied about the whole enterprise until the curse scared him into confessing. Thus he broke the fifth, eighth, ninth, and tenth commandments; and he broke the first and second commandments by having a shrine of false gods in his home. According to Prov 30:8–9, when he stole the silver, he broke the third commandment and took the name of the Lord in vain. Breaking seven of the Ten Commandments without leaving your own home is quite an achievement! Micah’s mother broke the first two commandments by making an idol and encouraging her son to maintain a private “shrine” in his home. According to Deut 12:1–14, there was to be but one place of worship in Israel; and the people were not permitted to have their own private shrines.
17 The stupidity of idolatry is discussed in Isa 44:9–20.
18 He compromised in departing from one of the forty-eight cities God gave for Levite service to Israel (Josh 21; cf. Num 35).
19 The narrator saves the best irony for last: Jonathan is Moses’ great-grandson. (Judg 17:10–11; 18:30). What a sad reminder that godly ancestors do not necessarily guarantee godly offspring. Every generation must make its own personal decision to follow the Lord and His Word.
20 Not only were the Levites to assist the priests in their ministries (Num 3:6–13; 8:17–18), but also they were to teach the Law to the people (Neh 8:7–9; 2 Chron 17:7–9; 35:3) and be involved in the sacred music and the praises of Israel (1 Chron 23:28–32; Ezra 3:10).
21 The tribe of Dan descended from Jacob’s fifth son, born of Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah (Gen 30:1–6). Though not a large tribe (Num 1:39), it was given choice territory when the tribal boundaries were assigned (Josh 19:40–48). The Danites, however, weren’t able to defeat and dispossess the enemy (Judg 1:34), thus they decided to go north and relocate. Most of the other tribes were able to conquer the enemy, dispossess them, and claim their land, but the Danites coveted somebody else’s land instead and took it in a violent manner.
22 See James 4:1–3.
23 See Matt 7:1–5.
24 The tribe of Dan was the first tribe in Israel to officially adopt an idolatrous system of religion. Even though there was a house of God in Shiloh, they preferred their images and idols. Years later, when the kingdom divided, Jeroboam I of Israel would set up golden calves in Dan and Beersheba and encourage the whole nation to turn away from the true and living God (1 Kgs 12:25–33).
25 Unfortunately, what Jacob prophesied about the tribe of Dan came true (Gen 49:17).
26 Inrig, Heart of Iron, Feet of Clay, 279.
27 A concubine was a lawful wife who was guaranteed only food, clothing, and marital privileges (Exod 21:7–11; Deut 21:10–14). Any children she bore would be considered legitimate; but because of her second-class status, they wouldn’t necessarily share in the family inheritance (Gen 25:1–6). If a man’s wife was barren, he sometimes took a concubine so he could establish a family. Though the law controlled concubinage, the Lord did not approve or encourage it; yet you will find several OT men who had concubines, including Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Saul, David, and Solomon.
28 See Lev 20:10.
29 During the period of the Judges, it was dangerous to travel in the daytime (Judg 5:6) and even more so at night.
30 Hospitality is one of the sacred laws of the East, and no stranger was to be neglected. God’s people are commanded to practice hospitality. It’s one of the qualifications for a pastor (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8). Heb 13:2 states, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
31 See Judges 1:5–7 for the corresponding Canaanite example of mutilation.
32 The penalty for rape was death, and gang rape would be even more serious (Deut 22:25–26). Perhaps the tribes were citing the law concerning wicked men in a city (Deut 13:12–18) and using that as the basis for their action. Whatever law they were obeying, the tribes were concerned to “put away evil out of the land,” a phrase that is found at least nine times in Deuteronomy.
33 Some people may have interpreted the stubbornness of Benjamin as an act of patriotism: They were only trying to protect their own citizens. But their refusal to cooperate was definitely an act of rebellion against the Lord.
34 See 1 Cor 5:6.
35 The account of the battle with the Benjamites (20:1–48) shows remarkable similarities with the battle at the city of Ai (Joshua 7–8) and the initial conquest of the land after the death of Joshua (Judg 1:1–36). It is significant that these passages stressed the people’s failure to obey God and conquer the land. By casting these narratives to resemble the times of past failures, the writer shows that during the time of the judges, the people are unable or unwilling to obey the Lord, that’s repeating the sins of their fathers. It is not hard to recognize in this a warning drawn from the lessons of the Pentateuch: “You shall not make for yourself an idol… (Exod 20:4–5). John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 212.
36 It’s possible that when the twelve parts of the concubine’s body were sent throughout Israel, a warning was issued that any tribe or city that didn’t respond and help fight Benjamin would be treated the same way. This is the kind of warning King Saul gave when he used a similar approach (1 Sam 11:7).