Philippe R. Sterling
JUDGES: Judges reveals the failure of the theocracy under the Judges and the subsequent necessity of kingship.
The Western world is experiencing an enormous spiritual, moral and political crisis. We have what Gary Inrig describes as a cut-flower civilization. While an appearance of life remains, we have cut ourselves off from our biblical roots and the petals are beginning to droop and fall. It is not too much to say that we are a society without standards.
One of the most significant parallels to our time is found in the Book of Judges which is named after its main characters. The “Judges” were military leaders empowered by God for tasks of deliverance. After the military threat was over they continued in leadership roles, though none of them established a royal dynasty except for the failed attempt by Abimelech. They functioned in a time of spiritual, moral and political chaos, whose spirit is captured in a thoroughly modern phrase found twice in the book: Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25; see also Deut 12:8). The root cause of Israel’s decline was disloyalty to God and disobedience of his commands. Lacking strong national leadership and neglecting God, the nation imploded.
Judges is a book which speaks to our time. It presents us with living examples of imperfect men and women who served God and who succumbed to the wave of sin in varying degrees. There is failure and there is faith. Several of the people of faith enrolled in Hebrews 11 come from the Book of Judges. From their successes and failures we can learn some great lessons of spiritual survival in a society without standards.
Literary Structure and Content
I. Two Part Prologue – The Cause of Decline: Failure to believe and obey God leads to spiritual, moral and
political decline (1:1—3:6).
The prologue explains how the conditions of the period came about. It has two sections. The first section presents the historical causes: the partial conquest of Canaan by Israel and their broken covenant with God (1:1—2:5). The second section provides a theological analysis of the time of the judges (2:6—3:6).
A. The Historical Causes: The Israelites drift from fellowship with God by incomplete obedience (chap. 1) and
reject the Word of God (2:1-5).
Israel failed to exterminate the Canaanites and allowed for the Canaanites to corrupt them. Imperfect obedience in our lives opens us up to the corrupting influence of the world around us. Israel began to look at life the way the Canaanites did. Instead of following the truths of Scripture, they followed the impulses of their sinful natures.
B. The Theological Analysis: Sin produces a spiraling descent into corruption that can be slowed by imperfect
men and women of faith (2:6—3:6).
A faithful and obedient person can help prevent corruption and preserve purity (2:6-10). Joshua and the elders associated with him influenced the Israelites to remain loyal to God during their lifetime. Joshua and the faithful followers of God of all the ages are the salt of the earth, preventing corruption and preserving purity. But each generation must enter into its own living spiritual experience. It cannot continue in the spiritual strength of its past models of faith.
Judges 2:11-19 synthesizes the recurring pattern of the 300 years period of the Judges. The narratives of the main Judges will illustrate the recurring cycle of events with the narrative of Othniel illustrating it most clearly: (1) the sin or rebellion of Israel, (2) the servitude of Israel to foreign peoples due to retribution from God, (3) the supplication or repentance of Israel, (4) the salvation and restoration to favor by God through a Spirit-empowered deliverer, and (5) a period of silence when the people and the land had rest. Before long, however, the pattern repeats itself. It is more than just a cycle. It is a descending spiral. Each successive cycle descends into greater apostasy and corruption and a more superficial repentance than the one preceding.
This process is consistent with our modern experience. The voice of conscience becomes dull with successive acts of sin, and repentance becomes more and more superficial.
God uses the ungodly to discipline His people (2:20—3:6). God allowed the Canaanites to remain for two reasons: (1) to test Israel’s faithfulness (see 2:22; 3:1, 4), and (2) to give Israel experience in warfare.
God permits us to be tempted for these two reasons today. He tests our loyalty and He prepares us to reign with Him through our experience of spiritual warfare.
II. Main Body – The Course of Decline: Spiritual, moral and political decline follows a descending spiral that can be
slowed by imperfect men and women of faith (3:7—16:31).
The main body of the Book of Judges develops the descending spiral. It speaks successively of twelve judges or deliverers: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah (with Barak), Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. The story spirals down seven successive apostasies and servitudes of Israel: six times to outside oppressors—Cushan-rishathaim the king of Mesopotamia, Eglon the king of Moab, Jabin the king of Canaan and Sisera his army commander, the Midianites and Amalekites, the Ammonites in the east, the Philistines in the west; and once to an internal oppressor—Abimelech. Variations of the literary construct “And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 8:33; 10:6; and 13:1) signalize the seven major apostasies. By the time we finish looking at the Book of Judges, we will be thoroughly sick of the spiral of sin.
A. Cycle One: Othniel delivers Israel from the oppression of the Mesopotamians (3:7-11).
The cameo description of Othniel’s judgeship gives in full the literary structure of the cycle of sin, servitude, supplication, salvation and silence. Othniel was a man of proven ability, superior character, and spiritual depth from the finest background (see 1:11-15). He is a model Judge. The Holy Spirit worked through this godly man and God’s people had rest for forty years.
B. Cycle Two: Ehud delivers Israel from the oppression of the Moabites (3:12-31).
The downward spiral began as “once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD.” Ehud delivers the people from the oppression of Eglon and Shamgar from the oppression of the Philistines. Ehud was a man with a physical limitation. Prominent, courageous, capable, but with a defect! God used Ehud’s limitation to bring about the deliverance of His people. God then chose Shamgar, a peasant from a paganized family, and worked through him.
C. Cycle Three: Deborah and Barak deliver Israel from the oppression of the Canaanites (4:1—5:31).
Deborah was a woman in the Bible who had a major God-given leadership role. She was the only woman called by God to be the national leader of His people.
D. Cycle Four: Gideon delivers Israel from the oppression of the Midianites (6:1—8:32).
Every other time in Judges when God’s people called on Him for help, He immediately sent them a judge to bring deliverance. Not this time! God first sent a prophet because He had a message He wanted His people to hear. There is a great difference between a cry for help from trouble and a cry of repentance for sin. Israel called on God but they had not dealt with their sin. So God’s prophet came to confront them with their sin (6:7-10). But God did not leave them there. He was going to deliver them. But first He had to prepare the deliverer.
One of the great truths of Scripture is that when God looks at us, He does not see us for what we are, but for what we can become as He works in our lives. He takes weak people and transforms them. The life of Gideon vividly portrays the transforming work of God.
Gideon delivers the people from the oppression of the Midianites. His judgeship receives the most extensive narration in the Book of Judges—100 verses in 3 chapters. The story of Samson is comparable with 96 verses in 4 chapters.
Unfortunately, Gideon’s life ends with compromise and carnality. He makes a golden ephod which leads the people to spiritual unfaithfulness. He then takes many wives and a concubine. The concubine bears him a son who will oppress the nation.
E. Cycle Five: Abimelech oppresses Israel (8:33—10:5).
The remaining judgeships are not said to result in a period of peace. This fits the pattern of progressive moral and social decline in the book. The event that launches the greatest declining phase of the period of the Judges is the usurpation of Abimelech. Abimelech, a son of Gideon by a concubine, is not called a judge. His oppressive rule ends by his death and is followed by the positive judgeships of Tola and Jair.
F. Cycle Six: Jephthah delivers Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites (10:6—12:15).
Judges 10:6-16 is an expanded introduction to the judgeships of both Jephthah (10:17—12:7) and Samson (chaps. 13—16). Three minor judges, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, follow Jephthah in various areas of Israel (12:8-15).
Jephthah was a man rejected by men, but accepted by God. Sometimes we think that before God can use us in His service we must have the right family background, social standing, or educational training. That is without the proper credentials we are not the kind of people that God can use. That is not the pattern with Jephthah. God takes him from being an outcast and transforms him into the deliverer of His people.
Jephthah also illustrates the danger of spiritual ignorance. It is startling to find this ignorance in a man who had a great zeal for God. Zeal without biblical understanding can be tragic. Jephthah makes rash vow that results in the sacrifice of his daughter and he also cold-bloodedly executes Ephraimites.
G. Cycle Seven: Samson delivers Israel from the oppression of the Philistines (13:1—16:31).
Israel’s downward spiral climaxes with the judgeship of Samson. Though Samson had great ability and physical power by the Holy Spirit, he gave in to temptation several times and suffered the consequences.
A single sentence tells much about the character of Samson, “Get her for me, for she looks good to me” (Judges 14:3). Samson is very much a modern man. If there is a phrase that characterizes our day it is “If it feels good, do it.”
Samson was largely a failure. The failures of his life are instructive. He also teaches us that God can restore a failure.
III. Two Part Epilogue – The Chaos of Decline: Decline ends in spiritual, moral and political chaos (17:1—21:25).
The epilogue fittingly illustrates the spiritual apostasy and social degradation that characterizes the period of the Judges. Two events form an appendix to the book and transpire early in the history of the Judges.
Spiritual apostasy characterizes the decline of a society. Chapters 17—18 interweave stories of the household idolatry of Micah the Ephraimite who hired the Levite Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, as his personal priest, and the migration and tribal idolatry of the Danites.
Moral and social collapse characterizes the decline of a society Chapters 19—21 narrate an atrocity perpetrated on a Levite’s concubine at Gibeah and the ensuing civil war against the tribe of Benjamin, leading to its near annihilation.
Judges 17:6 and 21:25 give the defining characteristic of the period of the Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” God had previously forbidden the nation to do this in its spiritual life, “You shall not do at all what we are doing today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8).
When God’s people do what is right in their own eyes rather than what is right in God’s eyes, they experience defeat and failure. God brings on the curses of the covenant when his people defect from the covenant.
We are prone to sin. As we observe Israel’s apostasy and the consequences, we should take notice and be careful that we not fall into temptation with a similar fate befalling us (see 1 Cor. 10:1-13).
God is gracious and long-suffering. In contrast to our multiplied sin there is the faithfulness of God who is always ready to hear the cries of His wayward people and to intervene on their behalf. The wonderful possibility of a new beginning through God’s grace strikes a glad note in this book.
God uses people who step out in faith. As we consider the moral character of the individual judges we don’t discover much to inspire us, but we do often observe faith which cooperates with God and achieves mighty things. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews notes this fact when he includes many of the judges in his catalogue of people of faith, “And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah . . . who by faith conquered kingdoms” (Heb. 11:32-33).
As significant as the Judges of Israel were in delivering Israel at different times, they proved to be an insufficient means by which Israel would overcome her aggressors and her sinful tendencies. The problem was the continual tendency of the people to turn from God and the progressively deteriorating character of the Judges. The cycles reflect a progressive degeneration so that by the time of Samson we wonder about the value of a Judge altogether. The narrator probably wished to convey that impression. The epilogue appears to support that. By the time we reach the end of the Samson narrative, we realize that another Judge would not be the answer to the nation’s problem. The narrator uses the twofold epilogue of Judges 17—21 to further the transition from a theocracy utilizing Judges to a monarchy and the crowning of a king in 1 Samuel. He states four times, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The Judges were a disappointment. The Kings will also disappoint.
We all are sinful and prone to wander. We need a better Judge or King to deliver us permanently from the bonds of sin and death. The Angel of the LORD who appears several times in the book (Judges 2:1; 6:11; 13:3) may be the pre-incarnate Christ who will be that ultimate Judge and King. The book also focuses on the empowerment of the Judges by the Spirit of the LORD.
One of my favorite hymns is Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. It is a great hymn and there is a sad story related to it. Two strangers were riding in a train – a gloomy man and a joyful woman who was reading the hymn. She showed the hymn to her fellow passenger and told him how much the words meant to her. The man looked at it and suddenly broke into tears. Sobbing, he said to her, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feeling I had then.” Robert Robinson had drifted out of fellowship with God, and he knew the awful bondage that sin brings.
The third stanza of the hymn brings out the application of the Book of Judges for us, O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness like a fetter bind my wand’ring heart to Thee; Prone to wander – Lord, I feel it – Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart – O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.
Set your mind on the things above that you may do what is right in God’s eyes.