The Return of the King

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Judges 21

The closing chapters of Judges contain some of the most disturbing stories in all the Bible. And one refrain runs through them all: there was no king in Israel.

As we approach the closing chapters of the book of Judges, we find ourselves reading an increasingly disturbing narrative. If you thought some of the stories of the judges themselves have unsavory elements (just think of Samson’s history as a clear example), what comes at the end of the book is downright offensive. After all these strange tales of the various judges come five chapters which give an account of a bizarre and gruesome series of incidents. These are chronicles of a time when Israel’s tribal confederacy is descending into lawlessness and civil war. The tales told here are full of dark and macabre events.

Beginning in Judges 17 and 18 we read the story of a man called Micah, who admits to his mother that he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from her. She is so overjoyed at his belated honesty that she blesses Micah in the name of the Lord and then dedicates the money to the Lord. As an expression of this she has a silver image made with part of the treasure, and her son sets up a shrine for it in his house, hiring a Levite to tend it. And Micah concludes that now the Lord will surely bless him because he has a genuine Levite as his own personal priest (17:13).

Later on we read that the whole the tribe of Dan, having left their home territory, passed through Micah’s town as they are migrating northward. They steal both Micah’s idol and his priest from him, and then settle in a place called Laish, to the north of the Sea of Galilee where, after massacring the local inhabitants, they set up their own idolatrous worship and hereditary priesthood (18:30-31). And we wonder, how could these people, people who have God’s Law and who had pledged to obey it, do such things? And the chronicler records by way of an answer these words, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6).

It only gets worse. In the next chapter, Judges 19, we read about another Levite. “In those days,” reports our narrator, “when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite . . . took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah” (19:1). This man, who lives in the hill country of Ephraim, has an argument with his concubine. She runs away, back to her father’s house in Bethlehem. Eventually the man follows her to reclaim her. The Bible doesn’t say anything about whether he became reconciled with his common-law wife (let’s call her), but he did get along famously with her father.

These men sit around eating and drinking together for five days. Each time the Levite gets up to go home, his father-in-law persuades him to stay and get drunk with him that night as well. Finally, on the fifth day, the man insists on leaving, even though it’s already late in the day. Nightfall overtakes them, still on the road. They stop in a town called Gibeah, in the territory of Benjamin, and wait in the town square for someone to offer them hospitality. But no one does, a terrible breach of the ancient customs of that time, until a fellow Ephraimite who has been living in Gibeah sees them and brings them home with him.

But during the night the men of Gibeah surround this man’s house and insist that he surrender the visiting Levite to them so that they can use him sexually. The Levite instead shoves his concubine out to them — such gallantry! — and in the morning her abused corpse is discovered lying outside the front door.

Now the Levite thinks this offense should not go unpunished, so he takes a knife and cuts his wife’s dead body into twelve pieces, then sends them round to the various tribes of Israel as a kind of call to arms, a call for justice. The other tribes all agree that the crime must be avenged, and Judges, chapter 20, tells the story of their bloody civil war against the men of Benjamin, which finally ends with that tribe being almost completely wiped out.

Finally, in the last chapter of the book, we read how Israel provides for the perpetuation of the remnant of the tribe of Benjamin. Because they had taken a vow not to give any of their women as wives for the few surviving Benjaminites, they come up with a plan whereby the men of Benjamin manage to steal women for themselves from one of the Israelite towns. Thus the book of Judges ends, with one more repetition of the by now familiar refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

So, what in the world are we to make of all this horrible history? The closing chapters of Judges tell of genocide, fatal gang rape, corpse dismemberment, the near extermination of a tribe, and the mass abduction of women for the survivors. And we read it all and think, “What are these stories doing in the Bible, and what could they possibly mean for us?”

What’s It All About?

I think that one clue to the meaning and message of the book of Judges is found in that phrase which recurs repeatedly in the closing chapters. In fact, four different times the writer states that in those days, “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Clearly, he sees the social, political, moral, and above all spiritual problems that he chronicles as stemming from a lack of strong, godly leadership.

Each of the judges was, at best, only a limited and temporary solution to the leadership problem of Israel. Often the rescue and renewal won by an individual judge affected only one or two of Israel’s tribes. And even there the people soon fell away from the Lord again. Over and over the pattern re-emerges: God’s people turn to idol-worship; judgment comes in the form of oppression by an enemy; when things get bad enough, they cry out to him for deliverance. Then God raises up a leader, a champion, who delivers Israel from her enemies, and a time of blessing follows.

But then spiritual coldness and decline, which inevitably follow material wealth, set in again, and the whole sad cycle is repeated. We see this pattern dominate not only the book of Judges, but the whole Old Testament, and, for that matter, the whole of church history as well.

The chronicler who wrote the book of Judges clearly believes that this pattern can only be changed by strong and effective leadership for the people of God. Hence his repeated references in these dark closing chapters to the lack of a king in Israel. His hope and expectation is that a king, a single, strong, godly leader, will make a difference, and he was right — to a point. Leadership is critically important for the people of God.

As we turn the page in the Old Testament and close the book of Judges we learn that just in this dismal time of moral chaos and random violence the Lord is preparing to do something new for his people. A new prophet is called, Samuel, who will bring a new revelation from the Lord and cultivate a renewed spirit of devotion to the Lord. And Samuel will eventually be called upon by God to anoint a king for Israel.

But even this isn’t a permanent solution to the social and spiritual problems confronting God’s people. We know better, for we know the rest of the story. For the king, the earthly king, wasn’t the ultimate answer either. After a failed attempt to establish a godly monarchy with Saul, Samuel anointed David to reign over Israel. Under King David and his son Solomon, the power and glory of God’s people would reach their zenith. But it wasn’t the final answer, and it didn’t last.

Even the rule of a great and good king like David was not free of injustice. Even the glory of Solomon’s reign, climaxing with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the establishment of the worship of God there, was short-lived. The kingdom soon was divided, and the various kings of Israel and Judah largely failed to provide the kind of faithful, just, godly leadership that would promote spiritual health and bring blessing for the people of God. What was needed, in fact, was a new and better ruler, a different kind of king.

The Once and Future King

God promised that one day just such a king would come. The Lord appeared one night to David in a vision, and promised that his throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). The rule of David’s house would be eternal. The prophet Isaiah confirmed this promise in his announcement of the coming of a child whose name would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:7

And so it shall be! For great David’s greater son is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who reigns even now in heaven at the right hand of God, whose coming in glory we await with eager expectation, whose kingdom shall have no end.

I know it seems sometimes as if conditions in our world are as chaotic and evil as they were in Israel in the days of the judges. We can and should give thanks to God for stable governments and the rule of law in our societies, if we live in places so blessed. We must pray for our leaders in church and state, that they would be inclined to seek justice and to lead in righteousness. But we know that these are only partial and temporary solutions to the problem of evil in the world. For the final triumph of good, we are looking and waiting, praying and longing, for just one thing: the return of the King. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.