Judging the Judges (Part 8)

Samson.

His name still stirs up images on a Herculean man, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding hay day.  Samson is probably the most popular of the Judges of Israel.  His story is riveting.  One wonders why Hollywood has not latched onto it, as it would make for a blockbuster!  I mean this dude tore lions apart with his bare hands and killed 1,000 enemy soldiers with the jaw bone of a donkey.  Impressive.

In this man we see both human greatness and human weakness.  But more, we see the great power and grace of God at work on behalf of his sinful people.  Samson’s whole life, really, points to the sovereign determination of the Lord to bless and save His people, in spite of their wickedness.  And, in Samson, though he himself is often sinful, we catch a tiny glimpse of the ultimate salvation to come through Jesus.

Even Samson’s birth is miraculous.  His mother was barren, but God opened her womb.  God brought into existence what was not.  He spoke life where there was death.  In order to rescue His people from their enemies.

Samson was to be set apart for the Lord from the womb.  If we are paying attention, the summary of his youth points us forward to Christ the Savior in His youth:

And the woman bore a son and called His name Samson.  And the young man grew, and the Lord blessed him.  And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him (Judges 13:24-25).

She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins . . . And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:40).

But we dare not press this comparison too far!  For quite early in Samson’s life we see fatal flaws.  The Book of Wisdom compares a man who gives himself to forbidden, sinful women to an ox going to the slaughter (Prov 7:22).  If ever a man fit the description, Samson does.  His determination to have a wife of the Philistines (which was forbidden by God’s Law) is a classic example of God’s sovereignty alongside man’s evil and accountability.  Though God was working to defeat the Philistines through it all, Samson’s actions spring from his evil heart.  This guy has a blatant disregard for God’s Law.  He eats defiled food, and ignores purity laws, and causes others in his family to become ritually unclean without a care in the world (see Judges 14).

Yet, God is mightily at work in and through Samson!  God’s determination to bless His people and do good to them far exceeds Samson’s evil desires.  Samson’s plot backfires, at least from his own human perspective.  He loses his wife.  (Maybe calling her a “heifer” wasn’t the best idea?)  But behind the scenes, God has kindled the flame that will free Israel from foreign domination.  Amidst unspeakable acts of evil that so often characterize war, Samson seems to grow stronger both spiritually and physically.  After slaying 1,000 Philistines, he exclaims:

“You [Lord] have granted this great salvation by the hand of Your servant, and shall I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?”  And God split open the hollow place that is at Lehi and water came out from it.  And when he drank, his spirit returned and he revived (Judges 15:18-19).

Once again, we see our Lord so mercifully caring for a very sinful man.  We see God’s goodness overriding man’s rottenness.  And we leap forward to One greater and stronger than Samson who said He had living water.  Samson got thirsty again.  So did Israel.  But O what grace is ours as New Covenant Christians?!

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).

Move over Samson.  We have found our true Deliverer and Source of Life!     

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Judging the Judges (Part 7)

If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word.  He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Numbers 30:2).  

Enter Jephthah.

A “mighty warrior” and “the son of a prostitute” (Judges 11:1).

Hardly the description we would expect of a man of God.  Jephthah’s brothers cast him out of the family because of his illegitimate status.  But God has a way of finding the outcast and turning the tables.  In time, the Ammonites were wreaking havoc on the Israelites.  They needed a warrior to lead them and deliver them from the oppressors.  Hmm. Where to find such a warrior?

O yeah, I remember, let’s go get Jephthah!  After chiding them for mistreating him and using him only for what he can do for them (Judges 11:4-11), Jephthah cuts a deal and agrees to lead the fight against the Ammonites.

When the Ammonite king accused Israel of seizing his land unfairly, Jephthah recounts an accurate history of Israel’s dealing with Moab and the Ammonites, refuting the king’s false claims.  This also shows us that Jephthah is very familiar with the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy), aka The Law.  Irony of ironies, at a time when most of Israel cares not for God’s Law, an outcast son of a prostitute has obviously been reading and/or hearing the Law quite regularly.  So, the Spirit of God comes upon Jephthah to enable him to defeat the Ammonites in battle.  But just before he goes off to war, Jephthah makes a vow.  A tragic vow.

If You [God] will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

Good gravy!  What did he expect to come out of his house?  I guess, like many today, he lived with lots of animals?  Pets perhaps?  Hard to imagine, though, that the typical animal sacrifice, such as a goat or ox or sheep would be living inside Jephthah’s home!  And yet, his vow stands.

And upon returning victorious from the battlefield, the first creature to rush out of his house to greet him is . . . his daughter.  Yikes!  And though some more liberal and/or squeemish scholars have tried to play down the text, it seems quite clear that Jephthah actually follows through and kills his daughter as a “sacrifice” to God.

Whoa.  Sickening.  What in the name of all things unholy are we to make of this?  Is this an endorsement of human sacrifice, in the Bible of all places?!  Was it right for Jephthah to make, much less keep such a vow?  A few points to guide our thoughts here:

  • Jephthah’s vow was rashStupid.  And God, knowing how stupid we all can be sometimes, made a provision for such vows in Leviticus 5:4-13.  There the Lord commands a man who realizes he has made a rash vow to bring an appropriate sacrifice to the priest who would then offer it to make atonement for the sin of making a stupid vow.
  • That Jephthah was familiar with the Law seems clear from Judges 11.  So we must assume he was well-versed in Leviticus 5.  The fact that he didn’t follow the path of atonement for his rash vow provided so graciously to him by the Lord only shows us the depth of sin in Jephthah’s heart. 
  • Even if no such provision existed, why not cry out for mercy?  Why not ask God to accept your life in the stead of your daughter’s?  This kind of love and compassion we see flow from Moses (Exodus 32:32).  But no such love resides in Jephthah’s heart.  No!  He is a cold-blooded killer.  By murdering his daughter, he only adds to his guilt.  Two sins instead of one.  And human sacrifice is a sin that never even enters God’s mind, it is so unthinkable to Him (see Jeremiah).
  • The account of Jephthah only serves to reinforce the overall story line of the Book of Judges.  This is how bad things have gotten in Israel.  This is what it looks like when a people forsakes God.  When people do “whatever is right in their own eyes.”  Even God’s good Law gets twisted and turned into an occasion for evil.

So what lessons are there for us in the account of Jephthah?

  1. God can use whomever He wants to do whatever He wants, even evil people to accomplish His good purposes.
  2. The way we treat people matters.  Do we seriously think Jephthah’s family abusing him and casting him out for something he had no control over (his birth mother) had no effect upon the trajectory of his life?
  3. Knowing God’s Word is not enough!  We must be given grace to be not just hearers, but doers of God’s Word (James 1:22).
  4. We should interpret Scripture with Scripture.  Jephthah had an epic fail precisely at this point.
  5. When people neglect God’s Word, reject His good rule, and forsake the worship of the One True God, a devaluing of human life is inevitable.  Little wonder, then, that America murders its children by the millions each year.  [Makes me wonder how pro-abortion advocates would view the account of Jephthah.  Would they recoil in horror at his child sacrifice?  While continuing to support Roe v Wade?]
  6. It is, of course, commanded of us as New Testament believers in Jesus that we still be people of our word.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  But we, too, must always fall back upon mercy when we realize we have uttered a rash vow, or made a promise we cannot keep.  We must confess that sin and plead over it the blood of Calvary, even as we seek grace to grow into people whose tongues are bridled by the Holy Spirit, that we might not speak rashly.
  7. Jesus is light years better than Jephthah!  Jesus never spoke a rash word.  Never made a vow He did not keep, and all his vows were holy and good and pure.  He vowed to give His life for all of us stupid Jephthah’s.  And He did!  What a Savior!                                
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Judging the Judges (Part 6)

Gideon.  Fleece.

The two words go together like butter and biscuits.

Gideon is one of the more well known of the Judges of Israel, for two main reasons:

  1. His laying out the fleece to obtain confirmation from the Lord that he was to lead the battle against the Midianite oppressors.
  2. The famous scene of God reducing his army to a mere 300 men, telling Gideon to cull all those who knelt and lapped water from a stream, rather than using his hand to bring the water to his mouth.

Rather than recount the entire story (it takes 3 chapters of the Book of Judges), I want to focus on the first point above, which tends to get the most attention in today’s Christian circles.

How many times have you heard a Christian speak of “putting out fleece” when trying to discern God’s will, or make a key decision in life?  I have not only heard it, I have tried to do it myself!  Now, by the phrase “putting out fleece” we do not mean we literally do what Gideon did.  We are not sneaking into the neighbor’s pasture at night to sheer off some wool from his sheep so we can lay it on the ground outside our bedrooms at night.  (At least I hope you aren’t.  That would just be weird and good luck even finding a sheep unless you live in a very rural area.)  What we mean, of course, is that we are asking God for a “sign.”  We want the Lord to give us some obvious clue that can be ascertained by one of our five senses, most especially our audio-visual senses.  We want to see or hear something from God that will nail down for certain what He desires in regards to the situation we are facing.  And it matters not what kind of decision we are facing.  I have heard of Christians seeking a sign to help them choose a car off the dealer’s lot, to pick which movie to watch on a Friday night, and to know if that girl I am dating is “the one.”

But is this what we are supposed to have gleaned from the account of Gideon?  Is the big point or lesson of the life of Gideon really reducible to “seek a sign when making a big decision?”  I, like so many other Christians, once thought so.  But that was before I learned how to really study a Bible passage in its context in order to mine the meaning.  And it was before I learned some key differences in the way God chose to reveal Himself in the Old Covenant as compared to the New Covenant in Christ Jesus.

Gideon’s putting out the fleece was an act of unbelief! 

You heard me correctly.  Gideon showed a lack of faith by demanding these repeated signs.  He is small-faithed.  His “show me a sign” method of discernment is not commended.  It is, rather, merely described by the author of Judges.

God had already told Gideon that he was to lead the battle against the Midianites (6:14).  And in response to Gideon’s excuses (much like Moses), God even promised, “I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man” (6:16).  Even with such clear Divine guidance, Gideon immediately asked for a sign, which God mercifully obliged (see 6:17-24).

So when it comes time to muster the army, you would think Gideon has his marching orders and is full of courage.

Not.

He asks twice more for signs (wet fleece one morning and dry fleece the next).  And rather than strike Gideon dead for his unbelief and cowardice, the Lord kindly obliges.  Which leads to the whittling down of the army from tens of thousands to only 300.  Which leads to the great victory over the army of Midian (Ch. 7).

The grand result of all this was the humbling of Gideon, and the glory of God.  When Gideon first spies out the camp of Midian, what he hears brings him to worship (7:15).  When others in Israel get in on the hot pursuit of the fleeing Midianite army, then begin to grumble about Gideon not initially including them in the fight, rather than recount the whole story of God trimming his army down, and his laying out of fleece, he simply says, “What have I been able to do in comparison with you?”  Humble.  Willing to deflect the credit.  And as the war rages on, Gideon just grows stronger and stronger.  So much so that the men of Israel ask him to be their king (8:22).

I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you (8:23).

Gideon has gone from a whining, trembling idolater (see 6:13, 25-26) to a humble leader of men who gives glory to God Almighty!  Only a Holy Sovereign God could perform such a miraculous transformation.  And only our Lord could use such a little-faithed, weak-kneed man to accomplish His purposes.  Gideon is not great.  God is. 

And we see this same truth hammered home even in Gideon’s final days.  It seems  Gideon just couldn’t get over his fetish with signs.  He took the golden jewelry from his troops and made an ephod (this was something only the priest was authorized to use to discern God’s will for His people).  Now, it doesn’t seem his intention was to cause the people to commit idolatry by making the ephod.  He probably just wanted to attempt to give folks something to see a sign from God when making decisions.  Nevertheless, it backfired on him.  Big time!

And Gideon made an ephod of the gold and put it in his city in Ophrah.  And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family (8:27).

Wow.  Idolatry is never far from men’s hearts.  Which is why we must tread very lightly in the matter of seeking signs.  God’s Word (the Bible) is sufficient to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).  It is highly significant that after casting lots to select Matthias to replace Judas (which notably happens before the Holy Spirit comes to indwell believers at Pentecost), we do not see the church leaders ever again making decisions using those Old Covenant, “sign-type” methods.

And evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah (Jesus as recorded in Matthew 16:4).

Jesus has come.  Jesus has lived righteously in our place.  Jesus has died for our sins.  Jesus has risen.  Jesus has ascended to heaven and poured out the Spirit on His Church.  The eye-witness testimony to Jesus has been completed.  We have all we need to make godly decisions, be they big or small.

Let us not be small-faithed like Gideon; for our God has already spoken!         

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Judging the Judges (Part 5)

Deborah.  The only female judge of Israel.  A prophetess who spoke God’s words to Israel. 

Hero of all feminists, evangelical or otherwise!  Some well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ have tried to use the story of Deborah (Judges 4-5) to justify ordaining women as elders and preachers.  My intent here is not to tackle such issues, though I do want to insist that whatever we are to make of Deborah, we cannot interpret her role in such a way that it directly contradicts the clear teaching of the New Testament regarding the formal teaching office of the church being reserved for only men (1 Tim 2:8-15).  God cannot speak out of both sides of His mouth, and the principle of Christ-like male headship in the home and church is firmly ensconced in the New Testament (1 Cor 14:33-34; Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim 3:1-2; 2 Tim 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9).

Indeed, even the story of Deborah holds up the Divine expectation for men to lead and protect women!  The commander of the army of Israel is mocked by Deborah for not being willing to obey God and go to war with Sisera and his iron chariots unless Deborah went with him.  This is not godly male headship.  Putting a woman in harms way is never extolled as a manly virtue in the Bible.  In response to his cowardice, Deborah says,

I will surely go with you.  Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman (Judges 4:9).

We are supposed to audibly gasp. 

Original Bible readers would have.  Unheard of, that a commander of warriors would need a woman to go out to war with him.  I realize this view is horribly unpopular and even mocked and derided by our overly-feminist culture today.  But it is the view of the Bible, especially in Old Covenant Israel (note the mocking tone of Isaiah 3:12, for example, when speaking of women ruling over Israel).

And yet Deborah is not the only hero of this story.  We might expect she means that God will deliver Sisera into her hand.  After all, she does strike us as a very strong and perhaps even physically imposing woman!  She shows no hesitation at all about going into battle with Barak.  I served in the Marine Corps with just such women.  Physically able and trained well.  I respected them and have no issue at all with women being physically fit, or using athletic skills on the fields of play,  etc.  But all that aside, God surprises us as we keep reading the account of Judges 4.

Sisera’s army is smashed.  And he escapes on foot, finding refuge (or so he thinks) in the tent of a woman named Jael.  Jael gives him milk to drink and hides him under a carpet.

But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand.  Then she went to him softly and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness.  So he died (4:21).

Well shut my mouth!  The fierce warrior-leader of iron chariots was taken down by a housewife So now we have two amazing women doing the work men should have done, all for the greater glory of God; for God has always been and will always be the only true Hero of the Bible:

So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel (4;23).

And Deborah’s song (Judges 5) exalts God as she repeatedly sings, “Bless the Lord!”  She mentions her role.  And she even mentions Barak’s role.  But humanly speaking, it is Jael’s role that takes center stage in the song:

Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed . . . she sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workman’s mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.  Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still (5:24-27).

Then the conclusion of the song: “So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!”  Well, praise God.  What foreshadows we see here.  The head-crushing language harkens back to Genesis 3, doesn’t it?  There God promised a seed (male offspring) of Eve would crush the serpent’s head.  And Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).  On the cross, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities, putting them to open shame by triumphing over them” (Col 2:15).  We see much of our Savior in Sisters Deborah and Jael, don’t we?

And we get glimpses through them of the great leveling of the playing field that was coming.  That day has come.  The day when all who trust Christ alone for salvation, male, female, slave or free, are “all sons of God” and “heirs according to promise” and “an heir through God” (Gal 3:26, 29; 4:7).  Judges 4-5 point us forward to the day when “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet,” O church (Rom 16:20).  What a day, when we will all gather around God’s throne from every tribe, tongue and nation and see Satan sink between our feet! 

The story of Deborah and Barak and Jael remind us that no man or woman, no matter how strong and heroic, can put the tent peg through the temple of the true enemy of our souls.  Sure, there are lots of other “lesser lessons” regarding manhood, womanhood, Old v. New Covenant, physical v. spiritual warfare, and so on.  But we dare not miss the Big Lesson.  The Big Hero.  Who Stands Over it All.

For if Deborah and Barak and Jael could stand before us and speak directly to us and sing for us today, they would no doubt shout, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”  For by His death and resurrection life, death itself finally dies.

Who could have guessed that pegs driven through the Son of God could be the very means by which a peg is driven through the temple of Satan, the world, and our sin? 

 

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Judging the Judges (Part 4)

Having now set the backdrop with the first three posts in this series, let’s take a look at a few judges.  Some well-known.  Others not so much.

Othniel. 

Not so well known.  But since he is the first named judge in the Book of Judges, we should expect to perhaps see a foreshadowing of things to come.  And indeed we do.

But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them (3:9).

Lesson #1 – Salvation, deliverance is for God’s special, chosen people.  Notice the repetition of the phrase “the people of Israel.”  This deliverance had nothing to do with Israel’s merits.  They were committing flagrant idolatry!  Yet in compassion God sent a savior to them.  Are you making a bee-line now for John 3:16?  Or Romans 5:8?  Or Titus 3:1-8?

Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.  The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel.  He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand (3:10).

Lesson #2 – Deliverance comes by the Spirit of the Lord.  This pattern will hold in Judges.  It is the Holy Spirit of God that empowers and enables these men to accomplish the deliverance and feats of greatness.  Indeed, nothing truly great in the spiritual realm happens apart from the all-powerful presence of God who is Spirit (John 4:24).  Jesus said, “You must be born again . . . born of the Spirit” (John 3:1-8) if you would enter and enjoy His kingdom.

Lesson #3 – Deliverance demands a warrior who is able to conquer our evil tyrants.  Our captors must be taken captive.  The strong man must be bound (Luke 11:14-23).

So the land had rest forty years (3:11).

Lesson #4 – Deliverance from our Oppressor brings peace.  Rest.  We cannot help but think of the words of our Savior, can we?  “Come to Me, all who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died (3:11).

Lesson #5Othniel is not the Messiah.  He is not the longed for King who would conquer all the enemies of God’s people forever.  By God’s power, Othniel handled an earthly king, but could not vanquish Satan, nor finally satisfy the wrath of God against the sins of Israel.  Othniel went the way of all sinners.  “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).  Like so many judges, as we shall see, his deliverance was temporary.  But what Israel really needed, and what we still really need today, is a Deliverer who can conquer ALL our spiritual enemies: our sin nature, the devil, and the God-hating world around us.

Othniel was great.  But he’s no Jesus.  Not even close!             

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