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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Judging the Judges (Part 3)

Leadership Matters.

Big Time.

A seminary professor once told me “Nothing of consequence happens in the church apart from leadership.”  I thought that was a bit hyperbolic.  Surely people do not need leaders that badly.  Do they?

Well, over a decade of gospel ministry experience and pastoring now confirms my Prof’s pithy prophecy.  And so does the Bible.  God has ordained leaders to shepherd His people, to teach His people the Scriptures, to cast vision for His people, and to call His people to account.

The crazy sin cycle of Judges (see last post) was due primarily to a leadership failure.

And Joshua, the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years” (Judges 2:8).

Joshua was the undeniable leader God had ordained for His people to conquer the Promised Land.  But Joshua did not just appear out of nowhere!  He was identified, raised up, and poured into by Moses (see Num 27:18-23; Deut 1:38; 3:28; 31-34).  God ultimately commissioned Joshua to be the new leader, but we dare not neglect the fact that Moses had personally invested in him for over forty years! 

But we see no such transfer of leadership with Joshua.  He dies.  And that’s it.  No new leader is introduced, and as far as we can tell, he did not do for another man what Moses had done for him.  For all of his battlefield prowess, Joshua was, in the end, a leadership failure.  He did not raise up and train a new leader, much less new leaders.

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers.  And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).

This is Leadership Failure #2.  And it is even worse than Joshua’s personal failure to pass the baton.  The Jewish parents who conquered the land did not obey the Great Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children.”

They did not love the Lord with all their hearts, therefore they did not think it all that important to pour God’s Word into the hearts, minds and lives of their children.

Parenting Matters.

Big Time.

So, pastors and church leaders, how are we doing in training the next generation of leaders?  Parents, how are you doing in teaching your children the Word of God?  As one well-known preacher has said, “The church is always just one generation away from losing the faith.”  May God help us!  God strengthen our hands!  God embolden our hearts!  God give us resolve to love You most, and live for You first.  And that will propel us to raise up leaders.

“And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

“Fathers [parents], do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

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Judging the Judges (Part 2)

 

  • God saves and preserves His covenant people.
  • His people sin against Him.
  • God judges His people for their sin.
  • His people cry out for help.
  • God gives mercy and restores His people.
  • Repeat process starting at Point #1.

This is what many scholars have called “The Judges Cycle.”  This is exactly the pattern we see repeated throughout the period of history covered by the Book of Judges.

 

Early on, we read, “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals” (2:11). “So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them” (2:14).  “Then the Lord raised up judges who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (2:16).  “For the Lord was moved by 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 . . . they did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways” (2:18-19).

So right away, we learn some massive truths:

  1. God is good and merciful beyond compare.  “All day long I have held out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21).
  2. People are sinful to the core and unable by their own volition to break sinful habits.  “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).
  3. God judges sin.  “For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30).
  4. Our rescue from the bondage of sin relies solely upon God’s mercy.  “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:4).
  5. The deliverance of human judges is insufficient; We need a better Judge / Deliverer!  “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12-14).

There is a whole lot of gospel in the Book of Judges!  God give us eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to love and obey the gospel truth being so obviously fore-shadowed in Judges.

But the question that should haunt us as we read the first few chapters of Judges is “How did all this happen in the first place?  What brought about this crazy Judges Cycle anyway?”

Stay tuned . . .

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