The Days when the Judges ruled (1)
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
The design of the book
Among the many words of wisdom in the book of Proverbs, there are some which serve both as statements of fact and at the same time provide a word of warning. Chapter 13 verse 15 is one such example, where the wise man reminds us that ‘the way of transgressors is hard’. The Lord Jesus, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, expressed similar truth when He said, ‘Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin’, John 8. 34. Both of these statements find a practical expression in the book of Judges. We must be careful therefore, not to consign these events to history, for ‘all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come’, 1 Cor. 10. 11. We do well to observe and learn lessons from the experiences of the children of Israel.
Chapter 2 verses 7-19 provide a concise and pertinent summary of the whole book. We are presented here with three generations. First, there were those who were prepared to make a stand and fight against the enemies of the people of God in order to protect the inheritance and maintain the worship of the one true God. This generation had respect for the standards expected by God, in contrast to the idolatry which surrounded them. The following generation were prepared to live in the shadow of those who had laboured and fought to uphold spiritual truth, often at great cost. They just sat back and enjoyed what others had won for them! This attitude prepared the way for a third generation who fought for nothing, had little appreciation of the inheritance, and eventually lost the benefits and blessings which came from the hand of God to those who obeyed His word. History shows that these three generations are not restricted to the days of the Judges. Through the years of Christian testimony, up to our present day the characteristics which mark each generation have run concurrently, resulting in appropriate blessing or retribution.
The repeated cycle, which brought the Judges to prominence, is detailed in chapters 3 to 16. Each sequence began with a downward spiral of rebellion against the specific commandments of God, usually involving idolatry. This inevitably brought retribution as a just response from heaven, and Israel was made subject to one or more of the surrounding nations. When the effect of their sin took its toll, there was a cry of repentance. A longsuffering and merciful God then raised up a deliverer, and there was a measure of recovery, followed by a period of rest, before the next cycle began!
A distinct contrast
If we take time to compare the book of Joshua, the contrast is quite startling! The theme of that book is victory through faith, whereas in Judges we see failure through compromise. In Joshua the motivating force among the people of God is the Spirit of God, in Judges, the flesh is given prominence. Joy, victory and progress are evident throughout the book of Joshua; sorrow, defeat and decline mar the record of Judges. Faith and freedom in Joshua give way to unbelief and bondage in Judges. With such an outline the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Judges is a very negative book. Far from it! In these chapters we can learn valuable and positive lessons of leadership; and lessons in faithfulness, both of God and to God; the importance of obedience to the word of God, and the practical reality of living for God in a corrupt society.
We learn also what God is able to do with small, seemingly insignificant things in the hands of those who see hearts are right: an ox-goad; a homemade dagger; empty pitchers and trumpets; and the jaw-bone of an ass! The book of Judges divides broadly into three sections. Chapters 1 and 2 form an introduction and reveal the apathy which had gripped the people of God; a condition of heart in which the seeds of apostasy will germinate and bear fruit in chapters 3 to 16. This in turn produces the dreadful anarchy which prevails in the closing section, chapters 17 to 21. Moral restraint was abandoned and ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’, bringing the challenge of Judges right into our twenty-first century society!
The dangers of compromise
It may seem that failure and decline came rather suddenly and almost unexpectedly as we enter chapter 1, yet departure from the word of God seldom happens overnight! The seeds had been sown some years before when Israel sought to possess the land. As both Judah and Ephraim were allocated their inheritance, they failed to ‘drive out’ the idolatrous Jebusites and Canaanites, but allowed them dwelling places, Josh. 15. 63; 16. 10. Their insidious influence weakened the resolve of the people of God, and the effects spread to other tribes. The Jebusites were allowed to occupy part of Jerusalem, a place which should have been wholly for God, where later He would record His name! The Canaanites were merchants, traders who represent materialism, and how often do we allow such things a ‘dwelling place’ in our affections? May our hearts be in accord with William Cowper when he wrote:
The dearest idol I have known,
What’ ere that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
Judah and Ephraim had reached a compromise with the inhabitants of the land, but compromise is infectious, and causes weakness! Within a few brief verses in chapter 1, six other tribes have failed to drive out the occupants of the land. It is worth noting also that such was the powerlessness of the tribe of Dan that ‘the Amorites forced the children of Dan into the mountain’, 1. 34; a place without pasture, water or shelter; the consequence of compromise!
The divine comment on these events is seen at the beginning of chapter 2. There is a significant moment when ‘an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim’, v. 1. From the place of victory, to the place of weeping; from triumph to tears! The people are reminded of the Lord’s faithfulness in spite of their failure, ‘I will never break my covenant with you . . . but ye have not obeyed my voice’, 2. 1-2. We should consider the many blessings which are ours in Christ; the incalculable value of the inheritance we have; the debt we owe to His great faithfulness; the promises we have which ‘in him are yea, and in him Amen’, 2 Cor. 1. 20. How often, because of our weakness and failure, our proneness to sin, does He have to say to our hearts as He did to Israel, ‘Why have ye done this?’ Judg. 2. 2.
Twice over in chapter 2 we read, ‘they forsook the Lord’. Then in verse 14, the Lord ‘sold them’. That tells us there was a price to be paid. Israel had tried to incorporate the ways of Canaan into their own society. They thought they could handle it; they wouldn’t be adversely affected by it! How wrong they were! The first, seemingly insignificant, steps of compromise had led to disappointment, frustration and defeat. It would prove to be very costly!
Throughout the following chapters we will see the response of a loving God to the waywardness of His own chosen people. Men and women will be brought to our attention who ‘out of weakness were made strong’, who ‘waxed valiant in fight’. Lessons can be learned and applied which will enable us to live for God in a morally bankrupt society.
The downward path
In the final section of the book, chapters 17 to 21, the curtain is drawn aside to reveal the moral and spiritual abyss into which the nation had descended. These chapters are not necessarily placed chronologically, but instead give us an insight into the character of the days when the Judges ruled. There was a veneer of religion as seen in the man Micah and his involvement with the tribe of Dan. But the words of Isaiah, later quoted by the Lord Jesus, are most appropriate, ‘This people . . . honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me’, Matt. 15. 8. Theft, idolatry and self-seeking ambition spiralled downwards to such heinous sins as rape, murder, genocide and civil war! And where did it all begin? A departure from the word of God; a failure to obey His commands; a desire to please self, rather than to please the Lord!
The recurring sin which caused Israel to stumble was idolatry. Some believers today may think that such a sin belongs to a past age of ignorance. An idol, however, can be anything, or any person who claims my devotion, my time and attention in preference to the Lord Himself. The passage of time has not diminished the need for John’s closing exhortation in his first epistle, ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’, 1 John. 5. 21.
To be continued.