Judges: Disappointed Expectations

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Judges 1-21

What are we supposed to learn from Judges with all its strange characters and stories? What can this book teach us? It can teach us that the Lord is willing to deliver if his people are willing to repent and return to him.

I would like to look today at the book of Judges in the Old Testament. It’s a book with some very familiar stories – Gideon and his fleece, Samson and Delilah – as well as many that are not so familiar. I hope to talk about some of those stories in future messages, but for now I’d like to consider Judges as a whole, looking at its overall pattern, and thinking about the themes that emerge as we take an overview of the entire book. What message does the book of Judges send to us?

If I were to give a sub-title to the whole book, I think I might call it “Disappointed Expectations.” Listen to this passage from Judges chapter two that gives us a sense of the book’s general outline, a pattern that is repeated again and again throughout the course of Judges.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . . They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. . . . So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and . . . he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies . . . And they were in terrible distress.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. . . . For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. . . . So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel . . . .

Judges 2:11-23, esv

Now put this sad story into context: this is life in the Promised Land! The children of Israel have finally made it, they have left the wilderness behind and crossed the Jordan into Canaan. They are now living in the land of milk and honey. They are experiencing the reward God had held out to them, the vision of prosperity, comfort, and peace that had kept them going all those years of wandering in the wilderness and through all the tough battles of Joshua’s campaigns.

And what is it like in the land of promise? How does it feel to reach your goal and live your dreams? It doesn’t feel like a dream; it feels more like a nightmare. The land of Canaan doesn’t look like a paradise in the book of Judges; it looks more like present-day Iraq: a violent mix of feuding tribes, a constant series of bloody skirmishes between mutually hostile ethnic groups, with no strong central authority to impose order and keep the peace. As we turn the pages of Judges we see them arise one after another, the contestants for territory and power in the land of Canaan: Arameans, Moabites, Canaanites, Midianites, Ammonites, Philistines. One after another these enemies of Israel gain the upper hand and oppress, rob, and enslave the people of God. Yes, disappointed expectations. Life in the Promised Land wasn’t what the people expected. Reading Judges is like coming to the end of the fairy tale and instead of reading, “They lived happily ever after,” finding out that Prince Charming had an affair, Cinderella became an alcoholic, and their kids turned out badly.

But there is another side to the book of Judges. For with every enemy comes a deliverer for the people of God, a champion. That’s what the Hebrew word for “judge” really means. When you hear the word “judge” in this context, you shouldn’t think of wigs or robes or court rooms. You should think of somebody like the Terminator, a strong man (occasionally a strong woman) who can rally the people and defeat the oppressors. This produces a wave-like pattern for the whole book. God’s people slide away from the Lord and down into disobedience and idolatry. When things get bad enough, when they reach rock bottom, then the people cry out to the Lord for help, and he raises up a Deliverer who sets them free, and life swings upward again. Things are good for a while, but with peace and prosperity comes unfaithfulness once more, and the whole sorry cycle is repeated again. In the words of Cotton Mather, “Piety begets prosperity, and the daughter devours the mother.”

Strange People, Strange Stories

When we actually begin to read the book, moving beyond the few familiar chapters, we find an astonishing variety of characters and stories. There are, in fact, twelve judges in all, a few of them major, well-known figures (Gideon, Samson), but most of them merely unfamiliar names (Othniel, Tolah, Ibzam, Abdon). As we listen to their stories, we find that the judges themselves are a very mixed bag.

Consider, for example, Samson, the strong man, the heroic scourge of the Philistines, the most famous judge of them all. Samson is strictly a loner, with a huge appetite: for food, for sex, and for violence. Samson started well – a miraculous birth, a godly up-bringing, blessed with wonderful spiritual and physical gifts. In his beginnings, Samson is a foreshadowing of the Messiah. But watch his career unfold and Samson begins to look more like a criminal than a Christ figure. I mean, how else would you describe a man who leaves his own wedding reception, goes out and murders 30 innocent bystanders for their clothing, in order to pay a bet that he’s lost? To the Israelites, Samson was a tragically flawed hero who in life, and especially in death, wreaked havoc on their enemies. But let’s be honest; he was also a man consumed by lust and rage, and, not to put too fine a point on it, he was a mass-murderer.

Or how about Jephthah? He’s the judge who vowed that he would sacrifice the very first thing that came out of his house if God would only give him victory in battle. It turned out to be his innocent teenaged daughter. Jepthah also slaughtered 42,000 of his fellow Israelites in an inter-tribal conflict. There’s a lot of that in Judges too.

Then there is Abimelech, Gideon’s illegitimate son. He’s not technically a judge, but his story does take up 57 verses right in the middle of the book. He murdered his 70 half-brothers – all but the youngest one, who got away – and set himself up as a king. He also destroyed the city of Shechem, his mother’s hometown, when the leaders of the city turned against him. Abimelech butchered all the inhabitants, and when a few last survivors retreated into a tower, he simply burned it down with the people in it. But Abimelech got his in the end. When he tried to repeat this trick later in another town, a plucky woman dropped a rock on his head from the top of the tower and so he died.

Even the good judges have some very strange adventures. Deborah, the lady judge, is the most admirable character in the book. She sends an Israelite general named Barak out to fight the Canaanites. Barak is so frightened that Deborah has to hold his hand the whole way, and though he wins the battle, the Canaanite general escapes. But this guy, the Canaanite, half dead from exhaustion, runs into another fierce lady, one Jael, the wife of Heber. Jael feeds the Canaanite general, gives him a nice glass of fresh milk, soothes his jangled nerves, lulls him to sleep – and then pins his head to the ground by driving a tent stake through his temple with a hammer. Whereupon the Hebrew poets sing her praises.

That’s gross, and a little creepy. If Judges were a movie, it would definitely not be rated for children’s viewing. But the story of Ehud, the left-handed judge, is even grosser. I won’t go into the rather disgusting details of how Ehud assassinated King Eglon of Moab, Israel’s oppressor du jour, but take my word for it, it’s not a pretty story. Yet the author of Judges seems to find it rather funny.

The Committed Few

So what are we supposed to learn from this book with all its strange characters and bizarre tales. What in the world can Judges teach us? It can teach us that the Lord is willing to deliver if his people are willing to repent and return to him. And that he brings revival and renewal through the leadership of the committed few, sometimes of the committed one. And that those few don’t have to be especially gifted, or even very good! Pretty good can be good enough. The curious thing about so many of the judges whom God raised up and used is how marginal they were. Ehud was left-handed, with the implication that perhaps he couldn’t use his right. Deborah was a woman in a man’s world. Gideon was a coward and a doubter, and he seems to have remained frightened much of the time.

Oswald Chambers reminds us that God’s call to service comes as a request for volunteers. We see it again and again in the pages of Scripture and the annals of the church. He does not use the best and brightest, the most talented or brilliant, the smartest and strongest, to accomplish his purposes. What the Lord asks for in a servant is not necessarily great ability, let alone perfection. What he asks for is the willingness to be used. He asks for volunteers: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8).

And still today he asks. Who will preach to a western church so desperately in need of revival? Who will go to a society where spiritual indifference poses as tolerance, to a culture with much superficial spirituality but where the real religion is entertainment? Who will incarnate the gospel in words and actions, so that the world can not only hear but see the love of Christ?

For all these needs God’s invitation stands. And the key is to answer, “Here am I, Lord, send me.” That’s what makes a judge, a deliverer, a champion for Christ.