Christ in You: The Hope of Judges
First Things First
This series is not for the faint of heart. The book of Judges is one of the most disturbing narratives in Scripture, chronicling some of the most provocative people who have ever lived, doing some of the most violent things imaginable (This is probably why most churches choose not to preach it).
The book of Judges is the continuing story of God laboring to gather a community of worshippers, for Himself, from within an evil and rebellious world. The repetitive theme of, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” not only sets the tone for the culture, but describes the attitudes of some of the darkest “heroes” in God’s story of redemption. We must all fight the temptation to “judge” the judges for, in truth, we are no different. We are equally unfaithful and fully convinced of our own “rightness”. In truth, when we read about the ever-rebellious Israel with its misguided leaders, we see ancient versions of our own present-day idolatry—individual and corporate.
In our study, we are confronted with the injustice that sinful idolatry invariably brings. We are also confronted with a God too big to explain. His methods of using sinful men to deal with sin, and His relative silence regarding the sinful ways in which they do it, leads some to question or deny God’s character. Without question, God does raise up evil men (there are no other kind) to do His work; but he does not commend every decision they make as they work. Some of their decisions are foolish, rash, and contrary to God’s Word. If nothing else it proves that those who know God, even those who are used by God, cannot escape the effects of sin. Yet, we see that our God is sovereign; He accomplishes His mission, not despite sinful men, but through them.
God is faithful though men are not. Although we sin and fail, God uses us to advance His kingdom by the power of His Spirit. So, as we come face to face with our own unfaithfulness, our prayer is that we will be driven to despair, but to the cross—where God proved His faithfulness to us.
A Brief History: The Prequel to Judges
When (If) we read the Old Testament, we often make one of three mistakes in our approach:
- We misunderstand the Old Testament as only a series of stories and events that teach good principles for today;
- We dismiss the Old Testament as only applicable to Israel as a nation, and not to the church today;
- We ignore the Old Testament completely because it is difficult to understand.
Without the Old Testament, the New Testament makes little sense. That is because Old and New Testaments are both part of one larger story with Jesus as the hero. The entire purpose of the Old Testament is to point towards a future redemption when God will save His fallen chosen. Gods’ covenant people, the people of His promise, hope in the coming of Jesus Christ—God’s salvation. In the Old Testament His covenant is lived out in the life of Israel until Jesus comes, and in the New Testament in the life of the church until Jesus comes again. A review of what has happened before Judges will help us to understand what place the narrative has in the overall meta-narrative that is Jesus’ story.
To begin, the first five books of the Old Testament are called the books of the Law or the Pentateuch. They include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
The Book of Genesis (The promise made):
Genesis is the book of beginnings. It begins with the Creator. What follows is a description of the beginning of God’s creation. Ultimately, this important narrative provides insight into the nature of relationships between God and creation; man and creation, man and God; and man and man. This book alone establishes the foundational theology and understanding of God’s designs beginning with creation being perfectly FORMED. Tragically, the pinnacle of His creation, mankind, causes the DEFORMATION of all of creation through rebellion. Sin enters the world when Adam decides that what is good, right, and truthful does not rest with God’s Word alone. In love, God removes them from the garden so that they won’t eat from the tree of life and continue to live in their sin. The plan to save men had already begun.
Although sinful man is utterly destroyed by a flood, sin lives on and mankind stupidly attempts to build a self-glorifying culture without God. He then chooses Abraham, a Babylonian who is not a moral man, perhaps even a godless man. God selects him by Grace and makes a covenant with him, promising to make His seed a great nation that will, in turn, bless the world. The remainder of Genesis follows his family line to establish the Covenant people (Israel) through Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob. It ends with one of Jacob’s (Israel) youngest of 12 sons (12 tribes) named Joseph, providentially saving Egypt and taking care of the family during a famine.
The Book of Exodus (Freed to worship):
Eventually, Joseph dies and everything he did for Egypt is forgotten. Blessed by God, the “Hebrews” are made to be slave laborers in Egypt. The word “Exodus” means departure as the book tells the story of the redemption of God’s people from enslavement, led by God through a man named Moses. Exodus records God declaring his “name” through a series of miracles ending with the parting of the Red Sea. The book provides foundational theology with regard to who God is, and what He expects from His people. It records God establishing His written law, the sacrificial system, and the building of the Ark of the Covenant (a representation of God’s presence—not, in fact, His presence).
The Book of Leviticus (The way of holiness):
The book of Leviticus is about holiness. As Israel travels toward the Promised Land, the book of Leviticus records a series of divinely given laws and regulations for worship and living (e.g. birth, bodily discharge, sex, food, diseases, etc.) including the specifics concerning offerings. As God’s covenant people, Israel stands as God’s earthly representative; therefore, God establishes authority over every aspect of their religious, communal and personal life as a means of attaining holiness and glorifying Him.
The Book of Numbers (The rebellion in the wilderness):
The book of Numbers continues to follow the travels of Moses as he leads Israel toward the promised land through three different areas. Their goal is to travel from Sinai to the plains of Moab on the border of Canaan. In Jewish terms, the Book of Numbers is known as the “Rebellion in the Wilderness”. This is because Israel proves unfaithful when, as they approach the border of the Promised Land, instead of excitement and faith, there are murmurings of rebellion among God’s people. Instead of a response of gratitude, faith, and obedience, they respond with unbelief, climaxing in their refusal to enter the Promised Land after a report from scouts. Instead of fearing God, they fear men. Instead of living out their identity as God’s redeemed covenant people, their lack of faith condemns them to live out their lives in the desert. In short, God waits for a generation to die (anyone over age 21) so He can start with their kids plus two faithful spies named Caleb and Joshua. Even Moses himself, through his own disobedience, forfeits his right to enter the promised “rest” of God.
The title means ‘repetition of the law’ due in part because the Law of God is re-recorded. The entire book is a review of the different promises, commands, and mighty acts that reveal God’s character. Written in the form of a treaty between a king and his vassal state, it calls on Israel to remember what God had done for them. In response, the people are called to a complete and total commitment to God; but the book ends with God telling Moses that they will ultimately fail. However, even with His people’s failure, God is true. It makes sense then that Deuteronomy, as the capstone of the five books of the Law, takes us to the edge of the Promised Land but, like Moses, not into it. With the death of Moses, we see that the Law can only take us so far. While in some sense it can lead us in the way of God, it cannot lead us into His presence.
The Book of Joshua (The Promise Kept):
The prequel to Judges is the book of Joshua. Meaning, “Salvation from God”, the book of Joshua is one of the most controversial, action-filled, and seemingly blood-thirsty books of the Bible. It is not a story about man’s ability to wage war, but is God’s commitment to fight for purity of worship and fulfill His covenant promises. It provides a historical look at Israel as they enter the land promised to Abraham. The first half of the narrative records the military conquest of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. With relatively few setbacks, General Joshua follows God into battle and subdues the land through faithfulness to His word. A sense of peace saturates the second half of the narrative, as the land is divided and the spoils of war distributed among the tribes. Having possessed the land fully, Joshua ends by charging Israel to live in the land faithfully. With the death of Joshua, there is a sense that the next generation is now responsible to keep the peace in the land that the people have entered.
The story of the Judge and the judges
Bookended by the conquering of the Promised Land under Israel’s first General (Joshua) and the establishment of the monarchy under Israel’s first king (Saul), the book of Judges records what happens after Joshua and his generation has died. Their failure to do as God commanded now has its consequences - “... you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”” (Judges 2:2–3, ESV) What they had failed to do was to completely destroy God’s enemies so as to purify the land. They had forgotten Moses’ promises, disregarded Joshua’s warnings, and thus failed to obey God’s commands. Instead, they accommodated the sin in their land, rebelled, and eventually loved false gods and hated their brothers and sisters. The priests, charged with protecting the purity of worship in God’s family, are barely mentioned in the book of Judges because they have utterly failed to do their job.
It appears that God has given up on His people. Somewhat passively, He seems to allow men to do “what is right in their own eyes” as He allows a generation of people to forget Him. But he does not forget. The book Judges is where God demonstrates His perfect memory; where He actively makes good on His promise to curse any covenant infidelity in his people. God, the one true Judge, judges his people’s sin. And, to punish His guilty people, He raises up foreign nations, the enemies of His people, to act as His executioners of his judgments. He punishes their sin through oppression.
Yet, in the midst of the just punishment of His unfaithful people, God proves faithful to his covenant. In response to the cries (not the prayers) of His people, He raises up an unlikely series of “broken men” described as judges (or deliverers) to throw off the enemies, save His people and, ultimately, bring glory to our covenant-keeping God. All of God’s “heroes” are sinful, imperfect, and dark. The hopeless situations God places His people in and the often miserable leaders God uses to save them, only serve to further demonstrate that God’s redemption is essentially a story about Him.
The Cycle of Sin in the book of Judges
The record of God’s people in Judges is a cyclical tale of worship and rebellion. God is consistently faithful to his promises while man is consistently unfaithful to his obligations. This pattern not only helps organize the relationship between God and his people in the narrative, but it also parallels the experience of our own relationship with Him. Throughout the various stories, the following pattern of sin, suffering, supplication, and salvation appears:
- The Israelites sin by worshipping false gods.
- The Lord gets angry as this violates the covenant.
- The Lord hands them over to their enemies.
- The Israelites cry out to God for deliverance from their oppression.
- The Lord raises up a military deliverer (judge) to rescue them.
- The Israelites experience a period of peace under the judge.
- The Israelites forget God’s salvation and begin another cycle.
In summary, the book of Judges reads like an epic miniseries, each episode more or less disturbing than the last. The unifying theme for the whole narrative is simply God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people.
The Different Ways to Read Judges
Understanding the book of Judges begins with determining who the author is. The Book of Judges is an anonymous writing. Jewish tradition holds that Samuel wrote the book. Scholars disagree about this, though Samuel’s authorship best fits the evidence of the book. The book probably was compiled during the early monarchy. The recurring expression “in those days Israel had no king” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) indicates that the book was written from a later period when there was a central authority in Israel.
Regardless of who wrote it, we believe the Bible was, “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3.16), meaning, it contains the actual Words of the one true eternal God. Not only does this make it authoritative, it makes the meaning somewhat inexhaustible. In other words, the same Scriptures have the power to teach us new and deeper truths every time we read them. As such, there are a few different approaches to consider as we study each part of this book. Some passages may emphasize one approach above another. Rather than diminishing the value or veracity of the record, these different approaches only prove the depth of riches contained therein:
- The History: This book cannot be read as a pure historical chronology—the numbers simply don’t work out. More than likely, some of the judges were contemporaries and most of them were localized. Wherever and whenever these events take place, the book of Judges is a record of events that actually happened.
- The Politics: Some scholars believe that the book of Judges was written as political defense for the current King. Specifically, it may have been written as an apology for the house of David (Judah) over the house of Saul (Benjamin) during the civil war that ensued after Saul’s death. From the beginning, the tribe of Judah is elevated while Benjamin is relatively diminished.
- The Covenant: The “right in their own eyes” theme that drives the narrative is first found in Deuteronomy 12. There are other connections with Deuteronomy including the various commands regarding the land that Israel fails to fulfill. Just as obedience to the commands has promise of blessing, disobedience has promises of punishments. As such, we will need to contemplate Judges as a prophetic lesson on covenant fidelity as expressed in Deuteronomy.
- The Church: In Romans 15:4 and again in 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paul writes that the stories of Scripture were written for our instruction. The book of Judges is not just history, apology, or theology. The stories are written to build our faith, teach us to love, and fill us with hope. God’s faithfulness serves to encourage our own faithfulness and Israel’s idolatry serves to warn us against unfaithfulness as the people of God.
- The Messiah: Hebrews 11 tells us that the book of Judges ultimately points to Christ. The judges themselves are empowered by God’s spirit to step out in faith, without fear, and save His people. 12 different times, we see God save through an anointed individual man who trusts God. As these 12 individuals lead Israel, we are led toward the Messiah, a word that means “anointed”—the true leader God will raise up to save His people eternally. According to Luke 24, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus affirms this as the perspective for all of Scripture.
The 12 “judging” Israelite Deliverers
Today’s judges are well-educated individuals who hold court to hear complaints or make legal decisions. They are given the responsibility to interpret the law and the authority to pronounce guilt, innocence, punishment, and/or retribution. The judges do not represent themselves; rather, they represent the authority of the state. In the Old Testament, Moses functioned in this kind of capacity for Israel. He judged disputes among the people until he was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task (Exodus 18). As a result, Moses identified different leaders to help make judicial decisions. Similar to our Supreme Court, only the most important or difficult cases were brought to Moses.
There was a clear mantle of leadership passed from Moses to Joshua. When Joshua died, there was not a particular man identified to lead Israel as the new “buck stops here” judge. From all signs, men failed to lead their families, chiefs failed to lead their tribes, and priests failed to lead their nation. So, to help lead Israel against their enemies, the LORD stepped in and “raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” (Judges 2:16, ESV). At the same time, there is not a single individual ever directly called a “judge” in the entire book. The only time the term is used is when it refers to God as “The Judge” (Judges 11:27, ESV).
Under the one true judge, the LORD, different men and women rise to “judge” and “deliver” Israel from their enemies. The judges in the book of Judges are entirely different than Moses or Joshua. Most, if not all, of these judges serve a military function—some less formal than others. Far from heroic, these individuals appear disturbed and disturbing. They do not fit the stereotypical protagonist. On the contrary, they are bad men often doing bad things… in the name of the Lord. Sinful men cannot save anyone, but our God is faithful and powerful enough to save despite (and even through) unfaithful men. Lastly, we must also fight the temptation to self-righteously criticize these judges as “unholy” tools for holiness as we fight to remember that God has only sinful broken tools (men) to work with.
The Theology in the book of Judges
Theology can be simply defined as the study of God. Our Creator has revealed much about Himself in all of creation, everything from His existence to many of His divine attributes (Romans 1:18-23). This revelation is given to everyone in the world generally. The Scriptures, however, are God’s special revelation to His people. The Scriptures not only protect us from worshipping the creation, but they also reveal to us who our Creator is, what He is like, and what He wills. Ultimately, this revelation points us to His Son Jesus Christ, the complete revelation of Himself.
God uses every biblical author, whether a king, peasant, or fisherman, and every written word, whether song, history, or building plans, to reveal something about Himself. The Book of Judges is no exception. Throughout our study, we will learn something about:
God’s Faithfulness: Throughout the book of Judges, God faithfully pursues and responds to his people. Like a loving Father parenting an incorrigible child, He remains faithfully consistently and responsive to men. But God’s faithfulness, as with God’s entire story of redemption, is not about men. God’s story is about God. To that end, the book of Judges reveals a God who is faithful to His own name—His character. He is faithful to His holiness and hatred of sin. He is faithful to His promised blessings. He is faithful to His promised cursings. And, ultimately, He is faithful to His own name and own glory.
God’s Grace: God’s faithfulness is contrasted starkly with man’s unfaithfulness. The “heroes” of the book of Judges are not momentary glimpses of man’s faithfulness as much as they are demonstrations of a gracious God. Israel does not deserve to be saved or loved. They reject God then cry for his help when things go poorly. Like a gracious Father, God responds, only to be rejected soon after saving them. Despite their constant rebellion and pursuit of other gods, God does not abandon them. Equally, if not more so, deserving of destruction, God chooses to show grace.
God’s Wisdom: God is perfectly wise. God does the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, always. God has not revealed all of his ways to us (Deuteronomy 29:29), and even those that He has revealed, often seem foolish to our finite minds. Though His methods may be confusing, strange, or even disturbing, through faith we trust that His ways are right. In his letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that “... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29, ESV)
God’s Silence: God is silent throughout most of the book. There are no prophets to be heard. The priests are nowhere to be found. There is no king to be followed. God’s own people do atrocious things and yet, God remains silent. Just because God doesn’t tell us what He thinks about these events, doesn’t mean He doesn’t think about these events. God’s silences make us pay careful attention to the few times He does speak—the words we do hear. God’s silence in Judges helps us to accept the silences we experience today. And God’s silences remind us to look harder for where He is already acting.
God’s Spirit: Throughout the Book of Judges, we observe three different figures: Yahweh, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit. While God may be silent for most of the book, the sending of His Spirit on various individuals gives us insight into His will and His ways. God not only raises leader, he anoints them with His Spirit to accomplish His work. Even with his anointing, it is difficult for leaders to avoid the effects of sin. In other words, all human leadership ultimately falls short of God’s glory. The giving of His Spirit not only teaches us how God anoints men to lead his people but, ultimately, their failure points us toward His “anointed” (Messiah) Son Jesus Christ.
God’s Sovereignty: Men and women are raised up by God to lead. These individuals act as God’s agents to deliver His people from evildoers. These individuals punish, and sometimes they do so sinfully. We quickly learn that God is in control of everything. That means that God is even in control of sin. He allows, ordains, and/or purposes the sinful choices of man as tools for His work. God’s sovereignty does not take away from man’s responsibility; rather, it clearly reminds us that God is the true hero of the book of Judges.
God’s Humor: Though many of the stories in the book of Judges do disturb us and make us wince, there is also much to entertain us and make us laugh. At times, the writers employ humor with their use of names and in how the stories are structured—they’re funny. We are not celebrating or minimizing sin through our laughter at a humorous story, but we are learning something about God by the way He tells the story.
The Bible does say that God laughs, usually at the wicked who go after false idols, revealing that laughter did not result from the fall of man—it was a part of God’s creation. We have all experienced laughter as a powerful tool that can bring both joy and healing. The Bible also says that Jesus was fully human and it’s difficult to believe that, after three years with blue collar workers, that he never laughed or joked about anything. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21, ESV) indicating the anti-thesis of weeping is laughing.