MORNING MESSAGE – John Cline
Judges 3:31; 10:1-5; 12:8-15
Before we read from specific passages, let’s have a quick recounting about the history and message of the book of Judges, so that we can understand what was going on at that time. The Book of Judges is the account of how Israel behaved in the 350 years between the death of Joshua and the establishment of the kingship over Israel (starting with King Saul). The approximate time span of the judges was about 1400 – 1050 B.C., ending when the reign of King Saul began. The author of the book most likely lived during the time of Saul’s successor as king, David, or during the time of King David’s son, Solomon. Those 350 years with the Judges were filled with declining morals and spiritual purity and the author of the book wrote a descriptive history, not a proscriptive one. In other words, he wrote down what happened, without commenting on it, even though he did not approve of it. We are not instructed to follow the practices that the people did during that time. Instead of remaining loyal to God and following His laws, those generations of Israelites wandered in their faith, worshiping idols, indulging in violence, and descending into chaos.
It is important to know that the 21 chapters making up the Book of Judges were not written in a chronological fashion, but thematically.
The book of Judges falls into three large sections, each of which has some mild overlap: the introduction (chapters 1-3), the judges themselves (chapters 3/4-16), and an appendix of stories that show the state of the nation (chapters 17-21). The introduction in chapters 1-3 briefly lays out a few challenges that the nation of Israel faced following the death of its leader, Joshua. To succeed Joshua as leader, YHWH God raised up 12 individuals who were called “judges” to lead the people at different points during those 350 years of national existence. This kept on happening until the advent of the kingship that came with King Saul. Chapters 3 and 4 through to 16 tell the judges’ stories with a repeated pattern told of the Israelite people falling into deep trouble due to their sin of forsaking God and His law, then calling out to YHWH for help, God raising up a judge who would lead the people out of oppression and into peace, and then once that judge died, the same cycle would repeat. Judges ends in chapters 17-21 by chronicling the moral descent after the life of the final judge, Samson, a period of time which featured the most despicable behaviours of all: rape, murder, mutilations, and the like. The book ends with the statement that, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit”, a particularly revealing phrase describing what happens to a society when there is no moral compass of a righteous leader or the worship of God.
As Christians reading the Book of Judges, we can easily be baffled that the people so blatantly forgot their earlier pledge to worship YHWH God alone and to keep His law. But we need to understand that the commoners in the land did not have access to the book of the Law.
The Law of Moses was forgotten. The priests of the Ark of the Covenant at Shiloh may have known the Law but no one else seems to. The people were left to their own devices. So, that time was not quite the same as today in that modern people are without excuse in not knowing the Law of God nor desiring to worship Him alone, let alone know Him. Bibles are so plentiful, as well as online commentaries, books and magazines, as are Christian radio and television shows that people’s ignorance today about God or His laws is simply due to their apathy or laziness or pride. That was not the situation back in the time of the judges. Then, the people truly had no access to God’s law. Only the priests guarding the Ark of the Covenant in which the book containing the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was kept. The priests were given the charge of reading the book of the Law daily and of teaching the people. But, if they did read it daily, they certainly were not teaching it to the people, the masses, the commoners. Thus, the spiritual apathy, ignorance, and ignorance, as well as the embracing of other ways of living and thinking was largely the fault of the priests not doing as they had been told to do by Moses, Joshua, and YHWH God. Then there was this additional fact which led to Israel’s downfall: The influence of the Canaanite people groups who survived Joshua’s conquest of the land cannot be overstated. Though the people may not have known the particulars of the book of the Law, of the Pentateuch, of God’s commands, they all knew this one by YHWH: “Drive the Canaanite people out of the Promised Land or they will lead you astray by intermarrying their children with your children, and by teaching you to worship and serve their gods.” But the Israelites didn’t keep that one basic commandment and thus the Canaanites kept their cities, their cultures, and their religious practices – and they led the Israelites astray into accepting all of those realities. The Israelite people adopted the despicable customs of the Canaanites – such as child sacrifice – as their own. Their worship of YHWH only was replaced by worship of different Canaanite male gods named Baal and female goddesses named Ashtoreth, and on and on. When the Israelites worshipped other gods, the Lord revoked his protection, until things reached such a bad place that the people cried out to God for help. When they did this, God sent deliverers (the judges). At least one of these “judges”, Deborah, actually mediated disputes between people but mostly the “judges” were military leaders used by YHWH God to free the Israelites from the specific Canaanite groups who were tormenting the Israelites at that particular time. However, aside from believing in YHWH God and attempting to be faithful to Him – which was the reason He chose them to lead His people, none of these “judges” were naturally born leaders or rulers. There was nothing special about them as individuals. Indeed, the judges were very ordinary people who were empowered by the Spirit of the Lord. Later in the Bible, we read that the Lord works through people not by their own cleverness or abilities or physical strength or power, but through His Spirit in them. “This is the word of the Lord…: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)
This was certainly the case with the judges. They were ordinary people who did extraordinary things when the Spirit came upon them. Four examples of this we read in the following verses:
Othniel – The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge. (Judges 3:10)
Gideon – Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. (Judges 6:34)
Jephthah – Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. (Judges 11:29)
Samson – Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. (Judges 14:9)
This was the Lord’s modus operandi. He would choose a humble person who was attempting to live in the right way and in an attitude of faithfulness to Him. And, then God would send His Spirit upon them, thus raising them up to take on the responsibilities of being a “judge”. Again, the Lord used very ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Again, there were 12 judges in all, a final tally corresponding with the number of tribes in Israel, 12. Now, the names of six of those judges remain familiar to people today: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson, but six of the judges were truly unknowns about whom we have very little information. Yet, the Lord used them.
Shamgar – After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel. (Judges 3:31). An oxgoad was a 6-8 foot long wooden stick with a sharp blade on the end of it, used to prod into action an ox pulling a wagon or plough. This was not exactly the kind of weapon one might typically choose to use to kill 600 Philistines, but Shamgar made it work just fine, no doubt due to the presence of the Spirit of the Lord in him. You don’t have to have great resources in order to be a hero in God’s Kingdom, you just need to faithfully answer God’s call to serve. Going on, there was: Tola – After the time of Abimelech, a man of Issachar named Tola son of Puah, the son of Dodo, rose to save Israel. He lived in Shamir, in the hill country of Ephraim. He led Israel twenty-three years; then he died and was buried in Shamir. (Judges 10:1,2)
We then read that next, Tola was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys. They controlled thirty towns in Gilead, which to this day are called Havvoth Jair. When Jair died, he was buried in Kamon. (Judges 10:3-5)
After Jephthah, Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem. (Judges 12:8-10)
After Ibzan, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. (Judges 12:11,12)
And, finally, after Elon, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites. (Judges 12:13-15)
Did you notice that there was nothing remarkable mentioned about any of those male judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon? This is in line with the oft-quoted teaching in Scripture, that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
God lifts us and exalts ordinary people into doing extraordinary things.
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
Consider the example of our Lord Jesus himself: Jesus was not born into an important family, but to a humble, insignificant one, and was born in a stable in Bethlehem. He did not grow up in power or having money. He had no earthly influence and yet, through him, Satan’s unchallenged kingdom reign on earth came to an end and people were given salvation and set free to serve others and worship God. Through Jesus, that humble servant, God’s light now shines into the darkness.
Billy Graham was once asked, “Why was Jesus born in such humble circumstances? Wouldn’t people have been more likely to listen to Him if He’d been born in a palace instead of a stable? I’ve never understood why God arranged it this way.” And, he answered, “Let me ask you a question: ‘If Jesus had been born in a palace, would you feel like He could really understand the struggles and heartaches of ordinary people like you and me? I doubt it. But Jesus was born in the most humble circumstances imaginable, and all His life, He lived like most of the people around Him – only poorer. Think of it: From all eternity His home had been heaven, surrounded by all the glory and power that were rightfully His as God’s only Son, but He willingly left all that behind and came down to share our lives on this earth – and even our temptations. Because He did this, we know He understands what our lives are like. This is why you can bring every burden you have to Him in prayer, because you know He loves you and understands your needs. The Bible says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The real question, however, is this: What place does Jesus Christ have in your life? Have you committed yourself to Him, and are you seeking to follow Him every day? The Bible says, ‘To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’” (John 1:12)
In closing, let me just say that I have mentioned male judges, ordinary men that God used to do extraordinary things, but in this week of International Women’s Day, consider three ordinary women from the time of the judges that God used to do extraordinary things. Kehinde Olabimtan, on April 3rd, will be giving a Lenten Devotional on the judge named Deborah so I won’t spend time now speaking about her. But I will mention Naomi and Ruth who lived at that time. Naomi was an Israelite woman from Bethlehem who moved with her husband Elimelech to the east side of the Jordan River, to Moab. Their two sons married Moabite women while there. After Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, as well as their two sons, had all died, Naomi told her two surviving daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their ancestral families for she was going to return to her hometown of Bethlehem. Orpah agreed and bid her farewell. With Ruth, though, we read,
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God YHWH will be my God YHWH. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord YHWH deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16,17)
Ruth had become a worshipper and follower of YHWH God. She put her life in His hands and thus moved with her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, serving and trusting in YHWH. There, the two widows eked out a living gleaning the leftover grain from farmers’ fields but God heard their prayers for help and provision and gave to Ruth a faithful Israelite man named Boaz as her husband. Boaz and Ruth prayed with Naomi for a child for them, and God sent them a son named Obed, who ended up becoming the father of a boy named Jesse, who grew up to become the father of eight sons, the youngest of whom was David, who became the king of Israel. Thus, from those two ordinary women, Naomi and Ruth, extraordinary things occurred as from them came the Messiah, the one who changed everything for everyone for all time. From ordinary people God can do – and does do – extraordinary things.
The Book of Judges may be my personal least favourite book of the Bible but that is only when I read it at its surface level. When, I dig deeper, I find remarkable stories of courage, grace, and hope. The time period of the judges truly was a dark era in Israel’s history but the book shows us that while Israel was persistent in forgetting or ignoring YHWH God, He was faithful in preserving His people. The different judges, and then reaching into the book of Ruth and the stories of those two faithful women, Naomi and Ruth, shows us that Israel need a Messiah and God was at work in creating the proper and necessary family line in which that Messiah would be born, the line of Ruth down through David and on to Jesus. God was at work all along!
We are blessed to have these accounts of ordinary men and women who were used by God to do extraordinary things. God is always preparing His workers in advance; and when the time is right He rises them up onto a platform in life where they can make a difference. He is preparing His heroes still. Who knows? Perhaps, you and I are some of them. May we be faithful to Him in this day and age which so needs to have His Spirit moving in power, touching and changing our world. Amen.