The last few chapters of Judges describe professing followers of God committing some of the most horrific acts in the Bible. What happened, and what are we to learn from this? One thing is clear, the problem didn’t happen overnight.
Like the books of Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, Judges reveals our desperate and constant need for Christ.
Until the time of the judges, the Lord had shown the certain hope of His absolute sovereignty over His people. From their chains in Egypt through the barren wilderness, to the enemy strongholds of Canaan, He had sovereignly secured their mountaintop experiences of salvation when they were clearly powerless and undeserving doubters and complainers. They could contribute nothing to their rescue. However, to enjoy the blessings of His covenant, they were to obey Him fully. Thus, the responsibility of God’s people is one of the major themes in the book of Judges. And there is no contradiction.
The Apostle Paul encouraged God’s people in God’s sovereignty and human responsibility when he said, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) Jesus Himself taught both when He said “ For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22) And the Lord was just as present in the times of the judges as He was during their exodus and journey. But in Judges He emphasizes their need to be faithful to show that we always need Him as our King.
There are at least five reasons the Israelites struggled in times of physical and spiritual trials 1) They failed to drive out the nations as God had commanded them (Judges 1:19 – 2:2). 2) After Joshua died, the next generation did not know the Lord or what He’d done for Israel (Judges 2:10). 3) They paid no attention to the judges (rulers) God gave them except to rescue them from immediate attacks by neighboring enemies (Judges 2:16-19). 4) The Lord left some nations to test them – to teach them how to war against enemies (Judges 3:1-2) and to test them to know whether they would obey Him (Judges 3:4); but the most foundational and concerning reason is stated repeatedly as the end of Judges: 5) “In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1 [implied], and 21:25, I’ll summarize to shorten this section.
1) When we leave immediate temptations in our daily lives – no matter how hard it would be to rid ourselves of them – we merely postpone inevitable spiritual attacks. 2) When we depend on one leader to tell our families and neighbors the good news of what He’s done for us, we fail as local leaders in our generation and set up the next generation for failure. 3) When we only call on the Lord and His leaders in times of crisis, we can’t expect Him to bless us as if we have a real daily relationship with Him. 4) When we try to avoid God’s intentional trials by asking others to fight our battles for us, we remain weak against future fights requiring spiritual strength. And 5) when we continue trying to define “good” for ourselves, just like Adam and Eve”, we will reap natural and supernatural consequences.
Before we look at that last point in the gruesome details of Judges 17-21, consider the same resulting lesson in the lives of the four who receive most of the focus in the book: “we need a King better than these guys.”
Barak trusted in Deborah more than in God Himself. Gideon started poorly and ended much worse, leading his fellow Israelites not to the Lord but to idol worship and some illusions of personal grandeur (probably one and the same). Jephthah seems to have overcome his poor self-esteem only to race to the other extreme of rash vows and following through to kill his own daughter as a foolish act of “faithfulness” to God That’s what he thought, anyway. And Samson lived and died as a drinking, womanizing, vengeful brawler – physically blind and spiritually blind most of the time, too. These men were Israel’s “hope”.
It’s no wonder that Judges 17-21 ends as it does. For generations, there had been no reigning King for the horizontal duties to protect, provide, and expand the kingdom, and to reward and discipline the people accordingly. The last chapters reveal that the vertical duties of the priests are completely corrupt, and the prophets were completely missing. As we’ll see later, in times like these the Lord sends His prophets to restate His covenant curses to the kings and priests who’ve abandoned His flock and are living off them instead.
Notice that the scandal of Judges 17 starts with a priest in Ephraim, the tribe whose name ironically means “fruitful”. But the only fruit they were bearing was spiritually bug-infested and rotten. The ensuing scandals of 18-21 involve Dan (the northernmost tribe) to Benjamin (one of the southernmost tribes), and Benjamin almost lose their place in the land of promise. The big picture message is that, without the Lord ruling over us a sovereign, gracious, intervening King, we will continue to rebel, redefining “good” for ourselves. And we will reap the progressive horrors of our progressive rebellion. I’ll leave you to read the sad details.
We dare not skip their story, though, or it may become ours.
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