5 things I have learnt from the book of Judges

As a part of my Bible reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Judges.

Forgetting the Lord Leads to Sin

After finishing the book of Joshua, you can’t help but be optimistic. God has provided Israel with the laws and they ways they ought to live in order to prosper in the long sought – after Promised Land. However, quickly, realisation dawns that life in the Promised Land will not be quite so simple. In fact, it’s extremely convoluted and chaotic, not to mention somewhat sickening and gory.

Despite first appearances, there is a clear literary structure to the book of Judges. It goes something along the lines of the following:

  • Israel ‘does evil’ in God’s sight. This is usually prefaced with phrases like ‘And Israel forgot the Lord their God’, which is the author’s perpetual reminder about the true cause of Israel’s sin, regardless of the other circumstances.
  • God hands Israel over to be conquered and oppressed by other nations as a judgement for their sin.
  • The Israelites finally decide to remember God and cry out for help.
  • God raises up a member of the nation of Israel as a Judge to deliver them from their oppression.
  • There is peace for a time under the Judge.
  • Israel then ‘do evil’ in the sight of the Lord as they ‘forget the Lord their God’ once more, and the cycle begins again.

The root problem with the horrific scenes in the book of Judges is found here. They forget the Lord their God. They chase after idols – not just the physical carvings and statues they worship, but the idols self – gratification, greed, and power. This pattern is excatly replicated in our own lives – we enter into sin because we forget, either deliberately or through neglect, the Lord our God.

“Everyone did what was right in their eyes”

After reading through the law of God in the first five books of the Old Testament, these words evoked a sense of foreboding. In fact, when we consider they way the Bible portrays the moral judgement of mankind, these words are nothing but chilling. Yet, the quote that ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes’ is a common refrain of the book of Judges. Invariably, the author of the book uses it as an epitaph in the decline of the moral state of Israel as they slide into evermore egregious acts of violence.

Specifically, we see:

  • The story of Ehud (Judges 3:15 – 30) who fashions for himself a dagger to assassinate Eglon, king of Moab on the pretence of giving him a message from God.
  • The story of Jael (Judges 4:17 – 22) who harbours Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, in her tent. She gives him a bottle of milk for his thirst before driving a tent peg through his skull.
  • The story of Gideon (Judges 6 – 9) who, initially a coward, overcomes his fear by faith in the Lord. However, he then leads Israel into idolatry by his own arrogance and then starts an inter – tribal civil war.
  • The story of Jephthah (Judges 10 – 12, see below), who ends up sacrificing his daughter in order to earn favour from God.
  • The story of Samson (Judges 13 – 16), who slaughtered Philistines for fun, and slept with a prostitute, Delilah, before going back on his promise to God and revealing to her the source of his supernatural strength. After being delivered to the Philistines, and having his eyes gouged out in captivity in the Philistine temple, he single – handedly demolished the temple, killing everyone in the temple, including himself.

However, this particular phrase should not be confined to the nation of Israel in the time of the book of Judges. If one could write an appendix of this current age of subjectivism and postmodernity, it could so easily be ‘everyone did what was right in their eyes.’ Those in the secular world would consider this a successful moral guide for society, but the book of Judges teaches us that it leads to some horrific scenes, justified by a twisted understanding of morality. If the book of Judges teaches us anything, it is what happens when a society allows its memebers act according to what is right in their own eyes.

The Judges Point to Christ, the Judge

It would be an understatement to say that the judges of Israel in the book of Judges were flawed people. They acted corruptly, selfishly, and sometimes violently. It was clear that they knew precious little about fulfilling their God – givened role and how to serve Him. They provided some deliverance from Israel’s oppression, but the nation quickly lapsed back into idolatry. God uses them to save His people temporarily, but not permenantly.

With all these flaws and shortcomings of the judges, it might be difficult to see where they fit in the Bible’s overall narrative. However, one thing that jumps to mind is that Christ is frequently alluded to as the Judge of humanity in the New Testament (c.f. John 5:22; Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1, etc.) The judges of Old Testament Israel were but a pale shadow of the true Judge of Israel, Jesus Christ. He, like the aforementioned judges, will deliver His people from oppression. However, He, unlike the others, will judge with righteousness, justice, and mercy, rather than sinful corruption.

Christ is the greater Samson. Instead of opening his arms to demolish a temple to kill his enemies, He opened His arms on the cross, to save His enemies.

Christ is the greater Gideon. Gideon won a great battle against Israel’s armies without an army, yet Christ won a greater battle against the enemy of His bride, Satan, without a sword (Judges 7:16 – 23). He is the true Bread that will strike down His enemies (Judges 7:9 – 15).

It is Christ to whom all the judges are point. They were the imperfect judges who oversaw partial deliverance for God’s people, but on the last day, the perfect Judge will shepherd in an eternal deliverance for His Church.

The Heart is a Factory of Idols

The book of Judges shows, as much as anything else, how easy it is to fall into idolatry. It is the systemic problem; a root problem from which many other issues blossom.

Yet it is not as if their own propensity to idolatry was not pointed out to them repeatedly by God. They were instructed to drive out all the people from the lands, lest they be enraptured by the idolatrous gods of the native peoples. However, we know this does not happen (Judges 1:27 – 2:3) and God makes it clear that the Israelites’ disobedience has led them into idolatry. The reason that God knew that the idols of the Canaanite gods would ensnare Israel is because humanity’s sinful nature is always lusting after idols; new and old. It is in our fallen nature to honour ‘the creation rather then the Creator’ (Romans 1:25) and to be trapped by idols in our hearts.

It’s not as if our hearts are any different! In fact, the parallel statement in the New Testament is found in Romans 12:2:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In other words, instead of driving an idolatrous people from the land, drive out the idolatrous influences of your mind. This is a spiritual conquest of Canaan, with the battleground swapped for the spiritual influences of heart and mind for the land of Palestine.

Why Not To Make Foolish Vows

I am sure that everyone has made promises and oaths that were unwise. Promises we never expect to keep, or even promises we know we can never keep. Indeed, God had instructed Israel as to how sacred vows are (Deuteronomy 23:21 – 23) and explicitly mentions that vows are not to be broken (Numbers 30:2). Of course, this reflects God’s character completely: His word is completely sure; He is unendingly and perfectly faithful and so His law to His people reflects that. God’s high view of keeping vows corresponds to His own guarantee of His faithfulness.

With that in mind, it would have been innate in the Israelite psyche that oaths and vows were simply not to be made lightly, for if they were made, then their word would bind them. Thus, when we read Judges 11:29 – 31, it leaves a chilly sense of foreboding:

“Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors 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.'”

Jephthah made this vow living, as he did, in house where animals would often wander through the house and its courtyard. In fact, animals would often occupy the ground floor, and the family would live on the first floor. Expecting, no doubt, that an animal would be first to leave his house on his return, Jephthah made this most tragic of vows. The hauting question, of course, would be: what if it is not an animal? Verse 34 provides the answer:

“Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.” (Judges 11:34)

Horrorstruck, Jephthah tears his robes in sign of grief (Judges 11:35) but says that he must carry out his vow. This shows incredible selfishness on the part of Jephthah. He knows that God requires vows to be kept, but Jephthah must also have known that human sacrifice was also viewed as a most repugnant sin (Deuteronomy 18:10 – 12). Therefore, he chooses to try and save himself, claiming he is doing God’s will by keeping his oath at the expense of his daughter’s life, rather than repenting before God and acknowledging that his hasty vow has led him to something immoral.

Jephthah did not understand God’s nature. He did not see God as a God who fogives the penitent but only as a slave master whose law must be followed. He separated God’s law from God’s character (the very essence of legalism) and in doing so he, and his poor daughter, paid a terrible price.

We learn from Jephthah, then, to humble ourselves rather than blunder on in our folly; throwing ourselves on the mercy of God the Father, who does not, ultimately, take pleasure in burnt offerings (epsecially human ones), but rather a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16 – 17).

Of course, there is much more to the book of Judges than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Judges in 2020. Enjoy reading it for yourself!