Monday, May 25, 2020
One of the many activities that people have given themselves to over the last couple of months is cleaning up in and around their homes. The quarantine and self-distancing measures have caused people to stare down messes of all shapes and sizes and do something about it. Perhaps in the place of the mess, renovations have taken place and other changes have been made where people live that have resulted in something better. In many cases, this has involved the dismantling and trading the old, obsolete, or outdated, for the new, preferred, or better. This concept of clearing away what is in one’s way so that real progress can be made transcends domestic living. In fact, there are spiritual applications for this concept that God’s people should not ignore. This is what is witnessed in Judges 6:25-32. Before progress can be made and deliverance can be achieved for God’s people in this cycle of the judges, the Israelites had to clear some things out of their lives—junk that was keeping them from living the lives that God intended for them. Gideon is called to lead the clearing effort in this passage and two series of events provide the room necessary for a spiritual overhaul to commence.
1) SERIES #1: The Errand -6:25-27
After the confirming miracle and the private worship service held on a newly constructed altar Gideon built, God decides to send his chosen deliverer on an errand—“Now on the same night the Lord said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it,…” (6:25). God wastes no time in calling Gideon to act in view of his call (perhaps he is concerned that if given the opportunity to sit still too long he will require more coaxing to get going again). Typically in Judges, once the deliverer is called, the deliverance is executed. However, in this case, the natural progression of things is interrupted to deal with an abnormality.
God has a bone to pick in the form of an idol that has been erected on Gideon’s dad’s estate. This shrine needs to be torn down and it is time that Gideon live up to his name (“hacker” or “hewer”). Just what would Gideon be cutting down? An altar to Baal and an Asherah pole. Though these constructions were on his dad’s property, the response seen later from the townspeople suggests that they served as a community shrine to pagan Gods (yes, pagan shrines among God’s people). This particular shrine had an altar for Baal and an Asherah pole celebrating these Canaanite gods/goddesses. Such was an offense to God who is jealous for his glory and demands exclusive worship from his people. In this case, it was not enough for Gideon to build an altar to the Lord (see 6:24) if there was an altar of a competing god standing nearby (6:25). That simply would not do.
How would he go about taking down the altar to Baal and the Asherah? Using a seven-year-old bull from his father’s herd. Though the description given suggests that two bulls were involved, the task probably involved one bull that was vividly described in this unusual way. God does not just want any bull to be used in this effort, he has a particular animal in mind—the prize seven-year old stud. This, no doubt, was one of the best in daddy’s herd and, as we will soon see, a fitting sacrifice for the one true God.
In the place of this pagan shrine, Gideon is next instructed to “build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner” (6:26a). “By commanding Gideon to build the altar on this pagan site, Yahweh is order him to reclaim this paganized land for himself” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 267). Notice, God does not want some altar to be thrown together haphazardly. He wants a proper altar placed in this conspicuous location “in an orderly manner” so that everyone in the community can see what should have been there to begin with.
Finally, God commands Gideon to really seal the deal by using his dad’s best bull, the very same one used to tear down the altar, as an offering to the Lord. He even wants Gideon to use the wood of the demolished Asherah pole as the fuel—“ and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.’…” (6:26b)! This would prove to be the “ultimate indignity against the pagan cult” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 267).
God wants to send a message, loud and clear, to Gideon’s town and all of Israel: “I am the only one worthy of worship and it is time to clean house! Those false God’s you have endorsed have no place in my land and, in fact, they will be made into fuel for the sacrifices you ought to offer to me alone.” What a powerful statement this would be at the beginning of this cycle of deliverance. For God’s people to move forward, they had to get their junk out of the way and redirect their worship to God alone!
In their initial encounter the Lord forced Gideon to recognize his presence and power (see 6:19-24). Here, he pushes Gideon one step further by tasking him with this important errand and Gideon complies—“Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the lord had spoken to him” (6:27a). However, before we rush to congratulate Gideon on what looks like immediate faithfulness, as the description continues, we see ambiguities in his character.
The text reveals, “and because he was too afraid of his father’s household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night,…” (6:27b). On the one hand, we might say that before the night was over—the very same night the Lord appeared to him with this task—Gideon rushes to the place where his servants slept, woke them up, and employed them to complete the mission. However, on the other hand, we learn that the motivation for Gideon was NOT that he could not stand seeing this pagan altar any more than God could. Instead, he is fearful of the potential consequences from the citizens of Ophrah once they see what he has done. He would rather do God’s will under cover of darkness than in the light of day. This betrays that while Gideon feared the Lord to a point, he also feared man. The fact that Gideon is fearful of the response of the townspeople is tragic. After all, there was no good reason that God’s people, should be outraged by the destruction of a pagan shrine and rush to its defense. This shows just how rotten things were in the state of Israel during the days of the judges.
2) SERIES #2: The Aftermath-6:28-32
Gideon’s fears are realized in the aftermath described in verse 28-32—“When the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was torn down, and the Asherah which was beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar which had been built…” (6:28). Everything God had asked Gideon to do was accomplished by him and his band of merry men on that busy night. The message was sent, the goblet was thrown down, and the response from the people was as sad as it was expected.
Rather than be jarred into righteous worship and recognize this corrective step for what it was, “they said to one another, ‘Who did this thing?’ and when they searched about and inquired, they said, ‘Gideon the son of Joash did this thing’…” (6:29). Gideon’s nighttime activities could not be hidden and immediately the people seek to get to the bottom of the renovations that took place in their community without their approval and without their consent.
Once they learn who is responsible, “the men of the city said to Joash, ‘bring out your son, that he may die, for he has torn down the altar of Baal, and indeed, he has cut down the Asherah which was beside it’…” (6:30). These words are woefully ironic and betray the very real problem the people had with apostasy. What Gideon did was compliant with the law of God (Exod. 34:13; Deut. 7:5; Judge 2:2)
Exodus 34:13-“But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim.”
Deuteronomy 7:5-“…you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim,…”
Judges 2:2-“…you shall tear down their altars,…”
However, it is plain to see that the Israelites had either forgotten their own law or acted in voluntary defiance of this law (or some combination of the two) as they were ready to kill Gideon over what he did.
This is proof positive that being faithful to the Lord and doing what He requires does not always win popularity contests, even among those who claim to be the people of God. There is such a thing as suffering for doing what is right (1 Pet. 3:17) and Gideon was experiencing that after completing his errand.
The next to speak is Joash. As the community leader, if there was anyone who could stave off a riot, it was he—“But Joash said to all who stood against him, ‘Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? Whoever will plead for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar,…” (6:31). The questions that Joash raises suggest that Baal should not need men to fight his battles for him (that is, if he is real to begin with). Joash also intimates that anyone who tried to vindicate Baal by hunting down Gideon would be dead by morning. Is Joash threatening to kill anyone who goes after his son? Or, is this Joash’s way of suggesting that Baal doesn’t need help? Did this betray Joash’s feigning confidence in Baal given that his altar had been destroyed? Regardless of the motivations guiding Joash, he concludes that if Baal is a god, let him contend for himself. This is a bold statement that brought people face-to-face with idolatry. After all, how good was Baal at defending his own altar to begin with? Not very good. Might this mean that confidence in Baal is misplaced? Something for Israel to consider before God delivers them from the hand of Midian.
The passage concludes with “Therefore on that day he named him Jerubbaal, that is to say, ‘Let Baal contend against him,’ because he had torn down his altar” (6:32). If the people trusted in Baal, they could also trust that Baal would take care of Gideon for them. However, as we will soon learn, Baal’s subsequent failure to defend his honor would demonstrate his weakness and unworthiness to be worshiped by Israel (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 277).
For the Israelites in Ophrah, a pagan shrine distracted God’s people from their worship of the one true God and stood in the way of their deliverance. What distracts you? What stands in your way? Perhaps today is a day to clean house, dismantle the idols, and in their place build altars to the one true God. Many people crave deliverance from this or that or believe they are ready to receive God’s blessing and answers to their many prayers. However, many of those same people are unwilling to remove the trash from their lives and clear out those things that God is displeased with. Friends, God is not content to be one of the many things to which you give primacy. He wants all of your worship and all of the glory from our lives. Today is the day to tear down the altar to Baal and the Asherah pole and in that space construct whatever will help us better worship and glorify the Lord.
Keep in mind that this task of idol dismantling does not always win you points with those around you. People, even those who claim to be God’s people, may have grown accustomed to that thing in your life that has stolen focus from the Lord so much so that they might miss it when it is gone. However, do not let this deter you from the errand that God would have us all run. It is time to tear some things down. It is time to clear the trash. Its time to redirect our affections and worship to the Lord Alone so that we might be better suited for what God would have us do in the next chapter of his story.
I don’t know about you but I’m the type of person who enjoys figuring things out. I analyze, and over analyze all the time and find it difficult to function when things simply don’t make sense (at least to me). Imagine how frustrating this proves in the season we find ourselves in with this pandemic! To wear a mask or not to wear a mask. To open or not to open for in-person gatherings. To travel or not to travel. To go to the store or order for delivery. The decisions and rationale behind them are endless. However, one thing I’ve learned and relearned over the years that has brought me much peace happens to be taught in the passage that we find ourselves in today in Judges 6:19-24 and that is this: one must not have everything figured out, one must simply obey the Lord and do as he says. Let’s watch as 5 actions are taken that will prepare Gideon for his task in Judges.
1. Preparations are Made-6:19
Last time we left Gideon he had gone home to prepare an offering to bring back to the angel of the Lord who had interrupted his chore of threshing wheat in the winepress. This he did to see whether the Lord had really chosen him to be a part of the deliverance of the people of Israel. Gideon’s idea was that if this messenger was still there when he got back, that was confirmation of God’s choosing. As we pick things up in verse 19, we learn that instead of what many might associate with a traditional offering/sacrifice, Gideon prepares a meal—“Then Gideon went in and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour,…” (6:19a). Perhaps this what Gideon believed was an appropriate offering in this troublesome period of Israel’s history. Remember, the people of God are far from the Lord and one cannot assume that many have a thorough understanding of what to present to the Lord in such a situation. That said, the fact that Gideon selects a “young goat” means that he is not just randomly choosing something to offer. Also, an ephah was a massive quantity of flour—probably capable of making ten flat cakes of eight or ten inches in diameter each. These clues suggest that Gideon is doing the best he can to bring something presentable and high quality to this heavenly messenger.
The text goes on to say that Gideon “put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot, and brought them out to him under the oak and presented them,…” (6:19b). Again, it is not absolutely certain what Gideon believed he was offering in this scenario. Is this supposed to be a tasty meal (Gen. 27:9), a valuable gift (Gen. 38:17), a sign of renewed devotion (Judg. 15:1), a worthy sacrifice (Judg. 13:19), or some combination of these options (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 274)? The confusion surrounding what Gideon brought betrays one of two things. Either this is all Gideon had to offer in place of what he knew would make good sacrifice (i.e. the best he could do with what he had) or it is a reflection of Gideon’s ignorance concerning sacrifices (demonstrating just how far from God the Israelites had fallen during this period). Regardless of what this is, Gideon brings something and makes good on his promise to return. A perfect/expected/normal offering it is not, but an offering it is.
2. Instructions are Given-6:20
As Gideon presents the food, the messenger of God makes the most of the humility and vulnerability that Gideon demonstrates and assumes a more authoritative role in the narrative. He commands Gideon “Take the meat and the unleavened bread and lay them on this rock, and pour out the brother” (6:20). These instructions make it clear that no matter what Gideon thought he was bringing to the angel of the Lord, it would now be a sacrifice as rocks were often used as altars (1 Sam. 14:32-34) (Walton, Matthews, Chavalas, IVPBBC, 254). Here, God demonstrates his ability to take what is being offered—no matter how peculiar—and turn it into something pleasing to him. In this case, he takes a meal of peculiar proportions and decides to transform it into a sacrifice.
After receiving the instructions to place what was brought on the impromptu altar, Gideon dutifully complies (“and he did so”) (6:20). It is worth noting that this is one of the ONLY times in Gideon’s saga that he immediately and willingly obeys instructions without any hesitation, reassurance, or added coaxing. Perhaps he does not perceive this messenger as a threat or cannot possibly imagine what harm there is in putting some food on a rock. While it is a small act of obedience with very little risk, it is worth commending Gideon here for quietly following orders (because Lord knows it is a rarity in Israel in this book).
3. The Sacrifice is Received-6:21
What happens next is the “main event” of this passage—“Then the angel of the Lord put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened bread…” (6:21a). Though this sign may be peculiar to us today, in the ancient world when a presumed deity consumes something a worshiper brought, this was a sign that the one offering the meal had found favor in sight of that deity.
As far the Old Testament is concerned, the presence of fire is often associated with the presence of Yahweh. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Exod. 3:2), Sinai was ablaze with God’s presence (Deut. 4:11; 5:23), God sent fire down on Elijah’s offering on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:25), the wrath of God is compared to a fire (Psalm 21:9; 58:9), and the list goes on and on. These references, along with what takes place here in Judges 6, demonstrate that God often manifests himself as a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29)—at times to confirm his presence and power and at other times to project his wrath. By miraculously setting fire to Gideon’s meal, the Angel of the Lord confirms that Gideon has, in fact, received undeserved favor from the Lord. This would have gone a long way in answering any questions Gideon had (see 6:17) about God choosing him as Israel’s next deliverer.
Before we see what happens next, let us appreciate the implications of what has just occurred in this pivotal moment in Gideon’s life. He offered what he could, though peculiar and imperfect, in obedience to the Lord, and the Lord, by setting fire to it, confirmed that he was pleased with what was brought. This reveals that even here—deep in the Old Testament world—it was not ultimately about what was brought to the Lord, but that it was brought and faithfully offered. Consider this. What did Noah have? His Family? And yet he showed up when called and was used of God to build an ark to save humanity. What did Abraham have? Old age and a barren wife? And yet he showed up with his wife and was used of God to start a nation. What about Moses? He had a rap sheet, studder, and staff. Nonetheless, he showed up to Pharaoh’s palace and God used him to lead his people out of Egypt. How about David? He had seven older, stronger, brothers. And yet it was David who showed up to the battlefield and was used of God to kill Goliath. In each of these cases, God was not looking to these people to be a savior (God was going to take care of that). He was simply looking for them to show up! God had already promised to more than make up for Gideon’s weaknesses (see 6:11-18) as he would be used to deliver his people. God just wanted Gideon to follow his instructions. In this first test, Gideon had passed and a miraculous and confirming sign emerged.
Following this confirming act “the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight” (6:21b). Just as miraculous as the fire coming forth from the staff, this angel of the Lord conducts a disappearing act, further confirming his divine origins and message for Gideon.
4. Reassurance is Granted-6:22-23
Having received the sign he requested, Gideon now realized that he was speaking to the Lord himself and had seen him firsthand through this pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ. This does not engender confidence in his calling as much as strike paralyzing fear into Gideon’s core—“When Gideon saw that he was the angel of the Lord, he said, ‘Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face,…” (6:22). The first words from his mouth following this experience were “Oh no!” “followed by a variation of “I’m going to die because of what I’ve seen!” Certainly, while Gideon’s reverence for the Lord’s presence is understandable, the conclusion he reaches does not make sense—i.e. that he was now going to die because he had seen the Angel of the Lord face to face. After all, wasn’t he still alive after the disappearance of this figure? Hadn’t the Lord called him to a task that had not yet been completed? You were doing so well Gideon in bringing what you had and receiving confirmation from the Lord and now you are already too scared to move forward. Yikes!
Thankfully, before Gideon can retreat back into the winepress from whence he came, the Lord speaks from heaven saying “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die’…” (6:23). Here, “Gideon is encouraged to interpret the encounter with God in the most positive sense possible” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 264). Three clauses confirm that nothing will happen to Gideon until God says so. 1) “Peace to you” is a blessing conferred upon Gideon that he could take seriously knowing that God had found favor with him and was on his side. 2) “do not fear” is a command to walk in the confidence that is his because of God’s presence that goes with him. 3) “You shall not die” is a promise that Gideon would be invincible up to and until God was done using him for his glorious purposes. Talk about reassurance!
5. An Altar is Built-6:24
Gideon, at least for the time being, is brought down off the cliff by these reassuring comments. “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and named it ‘the Lord is Peace.’…” (6:24a). Gideon responds to the Lord’s words with genuine worship. He erects a proper altar in the spot (where the rock that had been set ablaze originally sat) and names it “the Lord is peace” (echoing the words of God himself in the previous verse). Gideon can say such about the Lord because he had found favor in the Lord’s sight. For anyone who has found favor in the sight of the Lord, the Lord is a friend and this is a great encouragement.
Gideon’s act of building the altar places him among other ancient patriarchs and Moses who also built altars to the Lord as acts of worship (Gen. 8:20; 12:7-8; 13:18; 26:25; 33:20; 35:7; Exod. 17:15) (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 275).
The author ends the passage with a footnote asking readers to confirm his report by going and investigating the spot for the altar that still stood at the time this was written—“To this day it is still in Ophrah of the Abiezrites” (6:24b). What a testimony of God’s favor this must have been for the Israelites! Like Gideon, they too had received unmerited favor and were called to an important task on the world’s stage.
Ultimately this passage reveals that it is not necessarily about who is called or what they bring to the table, it is that they answer the call and obey the Lord. In this case, Gideon, a scared man in an oppressed village, brings a peculiar meal in his best efforts to please this messenger. Neither Gideon’s appointment nor his meal may make sense, but God’s confirming fire demonstrates that it was more than enough to work with. This ought to encourage God’s people today. After all, we may not understand why God would show us his great love by sending his Son to die in our place and make us right with him and why we have found undeserved favor in God’s sight. We also may not believe we or this church may have much to bring to the table. However, God is not looking for us to understand everything, he is simply looking for us to be obedient. What act of obedience do you need to take today? What is it that you need to offer to the Lord right now? You do not have to have it all figured out, you just need to dutifully obey what the Lord calls you to do this day, and everyday thereafter.
Romans 12:1-“Therefore, I urge you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship”
This was the first step of obedience for Gideon, and it is a step we all must take if we want to be used of God today as we join him in what he is doing.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
The relative isolation that many of us have experienced of late is a phenomenon that would not be lost on many of the characters in the Bible. Joseph spent 7 years in prison in Egypt, Moses was in the wilderness of Midian 40 years, Elijah was hiding in a cave before he called Elisha (his successor), Jonah spent 3 days and nights in the belly of a fish, Jeremiah was imprisoned in a pit for several weeks, Daniel spent the night in a lion’s den, Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years, John was isolated on the island of Patmos, and the list goes on. In each of these examples, isolation was interrupted by the movement of God to carry his story into the next chapter. The same is true for the character we are going to meet today—Gideon. Gideon, an Israelite suffering under the oppression of Midian in the days of the judges, had adjusted well to the new normals his people faced in the land. This included isolation. However, in Judges 6:11-18, this isolation is interrupted by a conversation that will call Gideon to be involved in what God is doing. It is a conversation that I hope will inspire us to join God in what he is doing today—no excuses.
1. The Characters are Introduced-6:11
The first participant in the conversation that takes place in verses 11-18 is identified as “the angel of the Lord”—“Then the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite” (6:11). Several different interpretations of this messenger are possible. First, it might be the same angelic messenger the reader has already been introduced to in 2:1-5 (who, it seems, also accompanied Israel when they left Egypt and when they entered the Promised Land—see Exod. 14:19; 23:20). Others speculate that this could be a pre-incarnate Christ who, both in Judges 2 and here in Judges 6 intervenes in the lives of God’s people in physical form to lead, encourage, inspire, and call. In Judges 2 this figure claims “I brought you up out of Egypt” and “I will never break my covenant with you.” Later, in the context of Judges 6 he will say “Have I not sent you?” and promises “I will be with you.” These self-referential claims seem to argue in favor of the latter option—that this angel of the Lord was God made flesh—i.e. a pre-incarnate Christ. Whether it is an angel or a pre-incarnate Christ, this personality appears with all the authority of heaven (either as God’s representative or as God-made-flesh himself), and will be used to share God’s will and message with his chosen servant in response to the cry of the Israelites in verses 6-7 (Block, Judges, Ruth, 259).
The second personality we are introduced to in this context is the son of Joash, the Abiezrite, named “Gideon” (or “hacker” or “hewer”—a name that he would soon live up to as he will be asked to cut down and destroy an altar to Baal on his father’s property in 6:25-27). Gideon is found busying himself with a common chore that has taken on a whole new significance in the days of Midianite oppression—threshing wheat.
Under normal circumstances, wheat would be threshed on a threshing floor—large areas of dirt or stone that were out in the open so that a light wind could be used to separate the chaff from the wheat. Farmers would throw the wheat up in the air and the lighter chaff would blow away. Threshing floors were often public spaces used by an entire community for the same purpose. In contrast, a winepress was a square or circular pit hollowed out of a rock and only big enough for a few people to walk around in. While threshing wheat in a winepress would have been less conspicuous as it could provide cover from surrounding enemies, the winepress probably made the threshing process far more difficult. Gideon, no doubt, believed he had to thresh wheat in this peculiar manner to keep his family’s crop from being stolen along with everyone else’s when the Midianites would lodge their attack on the Israelites (see 6:3ff).
I imagine this winepress was something of a “secret spot” for Gideon who probably was alone to do his task. This makes what happens next all the more startling for him.
2. A Complaint is Voiced-6:12-13
“The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior” (6:12). This exclamation probably shocked Gideon for several reasons. First, who is this guy? Second, where did he come from? Third, valiant warrior? The claim on Gideon’s character is what is in focus here. “O valiant warrior” probably had Gideon looking around him to see if this messenger wasn’t talking about someone else—“you talking to me?” The title “valiant warrior” carries with it either a strong military connotation of a war hero or refers to a community leader (as it is used of Boaz in Ruth 2:1). Neither could have possibly been true of Gideon, at least not yet. In this shocking interjection, the angel is not commenting on what he sees before him in the winepress as much as he is making a prediction of what God can do in and through this man once he gets a hold of him. It is a foreshadowing comment intended to inspire confidence in this would-be hero, that is, if he would accept it.
I wonder how often our perception of ourselves is different from God’s. After all, when God looks upon his people, he sees not only what they see (weaknesses, warts, and all); he also sees what they can become when he get’s a hold of them and uses them for his glorious purposes. When God calls anyone, just as it was for Gideon, he recognizes who she will become, not merely what she is now. Gideon may not believe it yet, but when this messenger calls him a valiant warrior, he isn’t lying. Gideon will be what God says of him here. You may not always believe it and struggle at times to accept it, but you too are/are becoming what God says of you—forgiven, cherished, useful, uniquely gifted, etc. These things we are not because of anything we bring to the table, but, just as with Gideon, because of God’s power in us. Perhaps this passage might be used of God to remind you to listen to what God says about you, not what the world says about you or what you have convinced yourself you are.
It is clear from Gideon’s response that he has a long way to go to accept what has been said here. Like Moses, Gideon balks at the idea that God might want to or could use him as his instrument (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 272). In fact, in his response to this startling interruption to his day, he questions the reality of God’s presence altogether—“ Then Gideon said to him, ‘O my lord (i.e. pardon me sir), if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian’…”. Gideon looks at the oppression around him and all of the difficult “new normals” he is having to deal with and reaches the conclusion that God has abandoned him and his people. He recognizes the perceived reticence from heaven and even questions the truth of the stories he’s heard about how God came through for his people in the Exodus. In his mind, the suffering he was currently experiencing was evidence that God was no longer with them. However, Gideon failed to remember that God had dealt harshly with his people because his people had sinned against him. And, little does he know, God has sent his messenger to break heaven’s silence and begin the deliverance for which Gideon so desperately craved.
Like Gideon, as we face the issues currently plaguing our world and deal with personal problems in and around us, we can become convinced that God has abandoned us. We can even begin to question if he has ever really been there to begin with. However, our issues and the struggles we face do not prove the inexistence of God as much as the existence of sin and brokenness—the sin and brokenness God seeks to redeem us out of. Just as God broke his silence here with Gideon to bring deliverance for Israel, God broke his perceived silence in the world with Christ to bring deliverance for those who will believe in him and what he did.
3. A Commission is Given-6:14-16
The messenger is undeterred by Gideon’s comments—“The Lord looked at him and said, ‘Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?’…” (6:14). The reader ought not take from this statement that Gideon is in any way qualified or prepared to do what he is about to do in and of himself. Instead, one should read the statement with this in mind—“Go in this your strength (what little strength you have) and do this awesome thing I’m sending you to do in spite your limitations. After all, if I’m sending you, I will more than make up for your weaknesses.” These words were no small thing for Gideon to hear for they are some of the same words of assurance (or reassurance) offered to Moses in Exodus 3:12, Joshua in Joshua 1:5, and the patriarchs (in Genesis 26:3; 31:3).
Exodus 3:12-“And He said, ‘Certainly I will be with you,…””
Joshua 1:5-“No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”
The comment the messenger offers here demonstrates that while Gideon may not understand exactly HOW this is all going to work out, he could trust in WHO was going with him to see him through. Was this too tall an order for him to accomplish on his own? Yes! But could he trust that he would be successful knowing that God was going with him? Yes!
However, instead of being inspired out of his despair and hesitancy, Gideon adds excuses to more questions to avoid participating in the very miracle for which he so desperately longed—“He said to him, ‘O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house” (6:15). Like Moses in Exodus, Gideon does not want to be a part of the solution as much as he wants to complain and go about his business as usual. He cites his “lowly family” and birth order as reasons for his disqualification from being used by God (it’s pathetic). In fact, despite his protest that his family was the least significant in the entire tribe of Manasseh, history suggests that Joash (Gideon’s dad) was a man of considerable wealth and standing in the community (Block, Judges, Ruth, 259). Add to this Israel’s own history of God using others besides the firstborn (Jacob, Judah, etc.) and the fact that Gideon is the youngest does not really hold much weight either. The truth is, there is NO good excuse not to participate in what God is doing, especially when what he is doing is the very thing you’ve prayed/longed for. This is true in Gideon’s case and it is true whenever God calls us today.
In response to these protestations, “the Lord said to him, ‘Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.’…” (6:16). To push Gideon over the edge, God promises and incredible victory and again reminds him of his presence that would go with him. God’s people today need to remember what Gideon cannot seem to get through his mind here. After all, we too have been called to an impossible task of going into all the world and making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). While we may not always understand exactly HOW this is supposed to be done given different circumstances and obstacles, we can trust in WHO is going with us –“and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Is our mission too tall an order for us to accomplish on our own? Yes! But can we trust that God will see us through, knowing that he is with us every step of the way? Yes! Does victory appear bleak and/or far-removed in certain seasons? Yes! However, can we cling to the hope of victory in the end? Yes!
Matthew 16:18-“…I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Revelation 12:18-“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony;”
Isn’t it about time we take these promises seriously?
4. A Concession is Requested-6:17-18
Unfortunately, Gideon requires even more convincing than he has already received—“So Gideon said to Him, ‘If now I have found favor in Your sight (i.e., If I’m really the one you want to use), then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me. Please do not depart from here, until I come back to You, and bring out my offering and lay it before You.’…” (6:17-18a).
Ah the old, wait here until I get back ploy. Don’t you know that Gideon probably took his precious time hoping that this messenger would finally give up waiting and find someone else. 😊
However, the messenger responds, “I will remain until you return” (6:18b). We will have to wait until next week to see what happens. However, the reader has no reason at this point to take anything this heavenly messenger has said less than seriously (and neither does Gideon).
The conversation underway between Gideon and the angel of the Lord in this passage is compelling for several reasons. Like Gideon, we find ourselves in unusually difficult times and like Gideon we are craving for God to move in mighty ways. Perhaps like Gideon, you have grown discouraged by what you perceive to be silence from heaven in spite of your many prayers and petitions and, as a result, perhaps you have grown doubtful, bitter, and comfortable with your new normal. However, what if God’s mission is not being thwarted at all? What if God has not taken his hands off the wheel in the least? And, what if God wants to enlist you in the exciting next chapter of what he is doing? You, yes YOU! You might say, “not me. Not little ‘ol me. I’m not qualified, I’m not good enough, I’m not ready, etc.” Perhaps, like Gideon, you, I, and the church need to begin believing what God says of us and become less convinced of what we tell ourselves or what the world claims. Perhaps, like Gideon, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the presence of God that goes with us every step of the way, wherever he leads. Perhaps, like Gideon, we need to believe that the same God who calls us promises ultimate victory. Is the order a tall one? Yes! Are we woefully incapable in and of ourselves? For sure! But can God move in mighty ways regardless and more than make up for our weaknesses? Absolutely! I love the words of Augustine: “God bids us do what we cannot, so that we may know what we ought to seek from him” (Augustine). Let us stop seeking excuses for why not to do what we’ve been called to and start seeking the Lord so as to join him wherever he leads.
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
One of the labels that you hear a lot these days is “the new normal.” Many use this phraseology to speak of what life, relationships, jobs, sports, gatherings, etc. will be like following the pandemic. Though one might question what “normal” really ever meant anyway, the assumption is that many behaviors will be different following the many implications of COVID-19. Certainly, some changes might be good while others might prove annoying. Either way, life will suffer changes and require us all to adapt. Interestingly, this concept of a “new normal” finds its way into the passage that we are going to be looking at today in Judges 6:1-10. Israel endorses a pattern of disobedience (something of a norm in the days of the judges) and finds herself dealing with a troubling new normal. As a result, she cries out to the Lord for relief. Let us look at 5 events that successfully depict what was taking place in Israel’s own crisis and learn how to avoid dangerous new normals in our spiritual lives today.
a. EVENT #1: Tribulation Strikes-6:1-2a
As we continue through our trek in the Book of Judges it should come as no surprise what is revealed as we begin the next cycle/story in Judges 6:1a-“…Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,…”. The pattern is unmistakable. Once a victory is given by God and celebrated by his people, it does not take long for the people of God to disappoint their Savior by proving idolatrous (following after other gods) and disobedient (disobeying the one true God’s commands).
As has become typical in these situations, the Lord disciplines his people by handing them over to oppressors. In this case, “The Lord gave them into the hands of Midian seven years,…” (6:1b). You might say, “seven years, that’s not too bad” and, compared to the eight, eighteen, and twenty-year periods of oppression the reader has already come across in the book, this is a relatively short time-frame. However, the nature of the oppression Israel experienced at the hands of Midian was more severe than any before.
The Midianites were a seminomadic people in the region and were distant relatives of the Israelites. In fact, this isn’t the first time Midian is mentioned in the Bible. It was the Midianites who were involved in the sale of Joseph to Egypt in Genesis 37 and the Midianites that provided safe haven for Moses when he fled from Pharaoh. In fact, Moses’ wife was the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod. 2:15-22). Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, even helped Moses organize the leadership of God’s people in Exodus 18. That said, what began as an overwhelmingly positive relationship with this people group quickly soured once God’s people left the Sinai region and entered the Promised Land. In Numbers 25:6-18 an anti-Midianite stance became official after many Midianites tried to lure God’s people into idolatry. This policy eventually was used to justify war again Midian in Numbers 31. From that point on, the two people groups were enemies (Background taken from Block, Judges and Ruth, 252).
The important take away is that Midian was the next in a long line of nations used by God to teach his people a lesson—a lesson of faithfulness and obedience to the one true God over and above all other false Gods. Here, it would be “the power of Midian” that “prevailed against Israel,” (6:2a). This prevailing power of Midian over Israel leads to what you might call a tragic new normal for God’s people that is described in verses 2-5.
b. EVENT #2: The New Normal Sets In-6:2b-5
The first element of the new normal described in the text involved where Israel was made to live during this period—“Because of Midian the sons of Israel made for themselves dens which were in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds,…” (6:2b). Historians and scholars have surmised that Israel’s only protection during this time was to hide out in the hills (probably those flanking the Valley of Jezreel on the southwest side) given their lack of fortified cities (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, IVPBBC, 252). This was no doubt an uncomfortable existence, especially when one learns what would routinely happen at various intervals of the year in verses 3-5.
The writer reports, “For it was when Israel had sown, that the Midianites would come up with the Amalekites and the sons of the east and go against them…” 6:3. Every year the Midianites would join forces with Amalekites and lodge a programmed attack when the harvest was ripe for the picking. All the work that had gone into sowing the crop would prove to be for naught.
The added detail of the Midianites joining forces with the Amalekites bites with irony given than Moses had instructed Israel to annihilate the Amalekites because of the way they had treated God’s people may years prior (Deut. 25:17-19). Failure to be obedient to the task back then was now coming back to haunt God’s people in the present.
Exactly what would happen is described in verse 4—“ So they would camp against them and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel as well as no sheep, ox, or cattle,…”. Perhaps now the reader can catch a glimpse of how long these seven years really proved to be. The timing of the invaders is important. If harvest had already passed, the Israelites would have had time to hid away their produce and withstand the devastation more easily. However, if the oppressors attacked before the harvest could be brought in, the villages would be easily deprived of that year’s supply of things like grain. Just imagine, everything you had planted, tilled, and grown, taken away from you along with your livestock on a regular basis.
Added insights to the nature of this is given in verse 5 when it says, “For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, they would come in like locusts for number, both they and their camels were innumerable; and they came into the land to devastate it,…” (6:5). The verb for “devastate” is the same for “destroy” in verse 4 and can be translated “devoured.” This word repetition along with other context clues suggest that not only was the produce taken, but the field would be trampled, jeopardizing future seasons (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, IVPBBC, 253). Like a plague of locusts, the Midianites and Amalekites would “move in” enjoy the spoils of the harvest, and leave the area after the fact in terrible shape.
c. EVENT #3: The Cry is Voiced-6:6
This pattern that characterized the “new normal” for Israel during this period took its toll on God’s people—“So Israel was brought very low because of Midian, and the sons of Israel cried to the Lord,…” (6:6). This verse distills the response of Israel to her desperate plight with a single word—“brought very low”—which translates also to “impoverished” or “became small.” The truth is, Israel was economically and emotionally paralyzed during this time and all they knew to do was to cry out to the Lord—the same Lord they were prone to leave—for help. This they did not out of contrition or repentance, but out of a desperate longing for relief.
d. EVENT #4: The Reminder is Given-6:7-9
Typically the accounts in Judges follow the same arc: 1) Israel “does even in the sight of the Lord” 2) God hands Israel over to oppressors 3) Oppressors oppress 4) Israel cries out for relief 5) a deliverer is called 6) and so on. However, in verses 7-9 this pattern is interrupted and where we would typically find the calling of a deliverer we have, instead, God sending a prophet to confront the nation with the reason for its troubles. This God does before announcing his intentions to deliver them—"Now it came about when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord on account of Midian, that the Lord sent a prophet to the sons of Israel, and he said to them,…” (6:7-8a). Fun fact: this is the first unnamed prophet in the biblical text and while very little is known about his identity and background, the message his gives is unmistakably clear and ends up taking center stage.
“…’Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “It was I who brought you up from Egypt and brought you out from the house of slavery. I delivered you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hands of all your oppressors, and dispossessed them before you and gave you their land,…”’” (6:8b-9). What the prophet offers here is a reminder. Hey! Israel! Remember me? Remember when you were helpless and inexorably trapped in slavery for over 400 years and I raised up Moses to lead a program of plagues and other miraculous events that led to your freedom? Remember after that when under Joshua I did more cool stuff so that bigger and stronger people got out of your way and you could enter the much-anticipated Promised Land? These events that God draws the people’s attention to through the prophet are intended to remind Israel of the Lord’s faithfulness to the covenant that he made with them. Throughout this covenant, God was the unmistakably faithful party. It was Israel that continued to run off in spite of all that God had done to set Israel up for success (both in the Exodus and Conquest narratives). The many signs and wonders recalled here were the evidence of God’s great love, devotion, and plan for his people, a plan that was repeatedly jeopardized because of Israel’s many failures.
e. EVENT #5: The Indictment is Read-6:10
The Prophet concludes his message by reading an indictment against Israel—“and I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed Me’…” (6:10). So, not only had God’s people seen, time and time again I might add, mighty acts of God done in their favor; they also had received the explicit Word of God expressing his desires to see them remain faithful to him. Despite these things, Israel failed, landing them once again in a messy predicament—oppressed by pagans in their own land.
Ultimately, this presentation of the situation Israel faced in Judges 6 demonstrates that idolatry and disobedience before God cannot become a “new normal.” Time and time again, Israel was disciplined and placed under oppression when they reverted back to patterns of the world and a disregard for God’s Word. As a result, they were paralyzed and kept from fulfilling God’s wondrous will for their lives. While we can be critical of God’s people in the days of the judges, unfortunately, many suffer from similar patterns today. In our world of ever-changing seasons and tribulations, we cannot divert our worship of God nor show disregard for what he has said. If/when we do this, we too run the risk of being rendered useless and placed under spiritual and/or existential oppressions of all kinds. How do we combat these debilitating patterns? How do we prevent these dangerous new normal? Heed the words of the prophet in Judges 6 and remember God’s faithfulness in your life and the clear instructions he has given. You see, idolatry—i.e. treating something/someone other than God as ultimate (even it is yourself)—demonstrates a failure to remember that God is, has always been, and forever will be, more than enough. Remembering how God has come through for you in countless examples goes a long way in cultivating the trust that results in right worship (“Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast”-Psalm 119:90).
Likewise, disobedience ultimately betrays a disregard for God’s revealed Word. Reading, studying, and appreciating what God has revealed goes a long way in staving off disobedience that always results in the destruction of something/someone (“I have hidden God’s Word in my heart that I may not sin against God”-Psalm 119:11). As God’s people today, let us remember faithfulness of the Lord in all seasons and remain obedient to his commands. Let these behaviors be our norm so other dangerous new normal don’t set it. If faithfulness to God and obedience to his commands is foreign to you today, may these, in God’s grace offered through Jesus Christ, become a new normal for you.
Saturday, May 9, 2020
I struggled to give this message a title as I was preparing for this Sunday. Given what we will be looking at, I wasn’t sure whether or not to call this sermon “Celebrate good times, Come on!” or “Facing the Music.” The truth is, songs can hit different people in different ways and create different responses. The same is true in the tune recorded for us in Judges 5. As Deborah and Barak celebrate the victory God gave them over Canaan, their celebratory stanzas communicate important and powerful principles that will have us singing along with great joy, or quietly considering what is being said in a spirit of conviction (or some combination of the two). This makes for an especially compelling piece of music! Therefore, let us press “play” and pay careful attention to six celebratory stanzas contained in the song of victory found in Judges 5:1-31.
a. CELEBRATION OF LEADERSHIP-5:1-5
Following the high of their victory over Sisera and the Canaanite army, Deborah and Barak break out into song—"Then Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day,…” (5:1). While Barak is introduced as one of the singers in verse 1, he, given his hesitancy in battle and absence during the demise of Sisera, is conspicuously absent from the stanzas that will be heard. This fulfills what Deborah predicted in 4:9 when she revealed that because of his lack of faith, the glory of victory would be kept from him. That said, he is not kept from singing and celebrating here. Their song begins as follows: “That the leaders led in Israel, that the people volunteered, Bless the Lord!” (5:2). From the very beginning, God is given the credit that he is due for the victory provided. Leaders may have been involved and people may have volunteered, but these components were only present because of how the Lord moved and empowered. Make no mistake, the same is true in every episode where God’s people are successful.
The celebration of God’s leadership continues in verses 3-5-“Hear, O kings; give ear, O rulers! I—to the Lord, I will sing, I will sing praise to the Lord, the God of Israel. Lord, when You went out from Seir, when You marched from the field of Edom, the earth quaked, the heavens also dripped, even the clouds dripped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the Lord, this Sinai, at the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel.” This song of praise is unmistakably directed “to the Lord” (a phrase repeated twice here in the same breath!). He is celebrated as the God of Israel (as opposed to the inferior/false gods just exposed as weak and feckless in Canaan). Evidence of Lord’s leadership is witnessed in the theophanies listed in this stanza—i.e. physical manifestations/demonstrations of God’s power. Things like the earth quaking and the “heavens dripping” with rain illustrate that God was on their side.
Like the “Tiger roar” on the hills of Augusta in the spring, the earth quaking and the heavens dripping demonstrated that something big, unmissable, and especially intimidating was approaching—the God of Israel. While the world saw a relatively small and weak set of tribes, God’s leadership and all the power and provision that was associated therewith, rendered Israel a force to be reckoned with. This is what is celebrated here.
Today’s church ought to appreciate this as she is about her mission. Though the body of Christ may be looked upon as “unnecessary” or “inessential” by those in the world, she must remember that she has the backing of God himself. He is the power and provision behind all she does and he promises her victory in the end. Many institutions will come and go but the body of Christ will endure forever.
b. CELEBRATION OF INSPIRATION-5:6-11
Next, there comes a celebration of the inspiration given for meeting the challenge of the Canaanites. First, the stanza provides an account of where the inspiration came from—God speaking through Deborah—“ In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, In the days of Jael, the highways were deserted, And travelers went by roundabout ways. The peasantry ceased, they ceased in Israel, Until I, Deborah, arose, Until I arose, a mother in Israel…” (5:6-7). In this account Deborah emerges in a difficult situation. The writer paints a picture of desolation and danger in Israel during the days of the Canaanite oppression. Travel was restricted and roads in Israel were unsafe. Some speculate that trade was disrupted or rendered too expensive or difficult to engage in, leaving people taking routes off the beaten path. That said, things took a positive turn when Deborah, the prophetess emerged like a protective mother “passionately committed to Israel’s well-being” (Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen, 43).
Not only was their economic unrest due to dangerous roads and tedious trading routes, the writer reveals “New gods were chosen; then war was in the gates. Not a shield or a spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel…” (5:8). Idolatry and conflict were the order of the day for Israel during this time and, worse yet, the people were ill-prepared for such. No weapons were available to Israel’s population, leaving them defenseless from the pressures that surrounded them. Things were dire and it would take much inspiration to move beyond this “new normal.”
This inspiration is what is given in verses 9-11—“ My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel, the volunteers among the people; Bless the Lord! You who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets, and you who travel on the road—sing! At the sound of those who divide flocks among the watering places, There they shall recount the righteous deeds of the Lord, The righteous deeds for His peasantry in Israel. Then the people of the Lord went down to the gates…”. Celebrating after the fact, Deborah remembers the commanders and volunteers who were inspired to act. She then calls upon those looking on to “bless the Lord” for the victory given to Israel. After all, one consequence of Israel’s victory was the reopening of the trade routes and roadways, allowing safe passage to travelers and merchants abroad. Those experiencing the positive benefits of the victory given Israel are encouraged to recount the righteous deeds of the Lord who paved the way for their blessing. God had used the humble people of Israel—“his peasantry in Israel”—to provide for their well being too. In other words, a victory for Israel was also a reason for the world to celebrate.
When God blesses his people, he does so, in part, to bless the world around them. This is true today. When God sustains a body of believers through crisis, he does so, in part, for the benefit of those in the context around that congregation. Both Israel and the Church were to be agents of blessing to those around them. It is when they forget this or neglect this that they get into trouble.
c. CELEBRATION OF PARTNERSHIP-5:12-18
Next, the song celebrates the partnership God used to bring the victory to his people. First, “the originals” are identified—" Awake, awake, Deborah; Awake, awake, sing a song! Arise, Barak, and take away your captives, O son of Abinoam….” (5:12). Let us go back to the beginning of chapter 4. Israel is in the dire straits mentioned above and there is no courageous leadership in the land. The people of God are under the oppression of Canaan and there is no deliverer to be found. It is in this situation that God speaks to a prophetess—Deborah—who then convinces Barak—(a “lightning bolt” not living up to his name)—to lead a coalition against Canaan’s mighty army. These two form the nucleus of the coalition that God puts together to wipe out Israel’s enemy in this cycle of the judges.
Added to these two are the tribes of Israel who join their ranks, forming an army—“Then survivors came down to the nobles; The people of the Lord came down to me as warriors. From Ephraim those whose root is in Amalek came down, Following you, Benjamin, with your peoples; From Machir commanders came down, And from Zebulun those who wield the staff of office. And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; As was Issachar, so was Barak; Into the valley they rushed at his heels; Among the divisions of Reuben There were great resolves of heart…Zebulun was a people who despised their lives even to death, And Naphtali also, on the high places of the field…” (13-15, 18). These courageous tribes are commended for their participation in God’s program of victory. These are the ones who rose to the occasion amidst difficulty, responding positively to the call of God and his chosen leaders.
However, interrupting the commendations voiced of these faithful tribes in verses 13-15 and 18 is the identification of those tribes who remained on the bench and decided not to be involved—“ Why did you sit among the sheepfolds, To hear the piping for the flocks? Among the divisions of Reuben There were great searchings of heart. Gilead remained across the Jordan; And why did Dan stay in ships? Asher sat at the seashore, and remained by its landings…” (5:16-17). These pointed questions lodged against the non-participants are intended to convict these tribes for their apathy. Regardless of their reasons for not joining the cause of God, their lack of solidarity contributes to their shame in this episode, shame that this song calls attention to and shame that echoes whenever this song is read (even to this day).
Oh that this would not be said of the church in general or of individual churches in particular—that they did not participate in the mission of God or contribute to what God was doing in this season or that! May we never be caught apathetic toward what has been called of us! May we never relegate ourselves to the bench when the game is on the line! There is no compelling excuse for not joining the Lord on his mission and contributing to the calling he has placed on us. When we don’t participate with God on his mission, we bring shame upon ourselves.
d. CELEBRATION OF VICTORY IN BATTLE-5:19-23
Following the acknowledgement of the active players (and the benchwarmers) is a celebration of victory in battle—“ The kings came and fought; Then fought the kings of Canaan at Taanach near the waters of Megiddo; They took no plunder in silver...” (5:19). To put this in context, you have, at most, six tribes coming together (not a full dozen as was possible) against the formidable forces of Canaan led by Sisera, complete with 900 iron clad chariots. This hardly seems like a fair fight. And yet, what looks like a sure bet in favor of Sisera and the Canaanites turns into the upset of the ages when God comes through and provides in Israel’s weakness.
God’s involvement is described as follows: “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent of Kishon swept them away, The ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon. O my soul, march on with strength. Then the horses’ hoofs beat from the dashing, the dashing of his valiant steeds…” (5:20-22). Though this is a figurative retelling of the battle raged, this description provides us with some clues as to how God came through on his promise for victory. It sounds as though the Lord caused a torrential downpour to overwhelm Israel’s enemy. The stars of the heavens, associated with the Lord’s assembly elsewhere in the Old Testament, were viewed as sources of rain in the ancient, rain that would pour down on the enemy (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 239). If this happened, the mud this possibly created no doubt would have rendered the chariots useless and the army perched atop them vulnerable to attack. After recollecting this vulnerability, the singer remembers the sound of the Israeli horses that overwhelmed this enemy.
While those who showed up enjoyed a victory, those who decided to sit this one out were issued a curse—“’Curse Meroz,’ said the angel of the Lord, ‘Utterly curse its inhabitants; because they did not come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the warriors” (5:23). While only one town that didn’t contribute to the campaign is mentioned, it is probably serving as the representative of all who did not join Deborah and Barak in this episode. While the Lord certainly didn’t need/require their help to bring victory to his people, when God comes calling, the only appropriate answer is “yes.”
This causes me to wonder, is my “yes,” is your “yes,” is the church’s “yes” on the table? Let’s be perfectly clear, just as it was in the days of the judges, while God certainly doesn’t need us to do his bidding, he invites us to be a part of the adventure and we would do well to join him when he comes calling.
e. CELEBRATION OF THE DEATH OF SISERA-5:24-27
Following the celebration of the victory in battle is the celebration of the death of the enemy commanding officer. In case you forgot or didn’t hear last week’s message, the song reminds the reader of how it all went down in verses 24-27—“Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; Most blessed is she of women in the tent. He asked for water and she gave him milk; In a magnificent bowl she brought him curds. She reached out her hand for the tent peg, And her right hand for the workmen’s hammer. Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head; And she shattered and pierced his temple. Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay; Between her feet he bowed, he fell; Where he bowed, there he fell dead…”. As predicted by Deborah, Jael, the wife of a descendant of Moses, finished the job Barak started and killed Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army who fled the battle scene once he started losing to Israel. This proves that God can use anyone to do his will and often moves/works in peculiar ways. This is worth celebrating.
Just as is done here, we ought to celebrate when God moves, regardless of exactly how it happens or whom he chooses to use. Victories that God brings for his people do not always come as expected, but when they do, they ought to be celebrated nonetheless. Do we celebrate the victories that God brings, even if we aren’t directly involved or even if it comes in a most unexpected way? Something to consider as this song continues into its final stanza.
f. CELEBRATION OF GOD’S VICTORIES OVER HIS ENEMIES-5:28-31
The last verse of the song is a celebration of God’s victories over his enemies. This comes in the form of a taunt and then a concluding remark. Listen to the faux consideration that Israel exhibits in verses 28-30 after their victory—“Out of the window she looked and lamented, The mother of Sisera through the lattice, ‘Why does his chariot delay in coming? Why do the hoofbeats of his chariots tarry?’ Her wise princesses would answer her, indeed she repeats her words to herself, ‘Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A maiden, two maidens for every warrior; To Sisera a spoil of dyed work, A spoil of dyed work embroidered, Dyed work of double embroidery on the neck of the spoiler?’…”. Here we are taken in our minds to Sisera’s palace where a worried mother eagerly awaits the return of her son from war. While at first glance we may be sympathetic to her anxiety, as we read, we realize that she is more concerned about the potential plunder he would be bringing than she is about his safety. Little does this mother know that another woman was tucking her son in bed and giving him a glass of milk to drink (playing the part of mom). This Jael did only to end Sisera’s life in a most brutal way. It is a taunt that wreaks of irony and disdain for Canaan.
God’s unusual victory over Sisera and his army brough on by Deborah, Barak, and Jael sends a powerful message to anyone who would prove to be an enemy of God and his people. This message is communicated in verse 31—“Thus let all Your enemies perish, O Lord; but let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might…”. This is similar to a promise given in the days of Abraham—“I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you” (Gen. 12:3). Here, the sentiment is repeated, reminding the world not to test God by oppressing his people.
Quite a lyric, isn’t it? Equal parts celebratory and convicting depending on who is tuning in to hear it. I wonder how these stanzas hit you today. If you are a believer, does this song confirm the joy you have of victory in God as you obediently follow him and his calling upon your life or is it a bit convicting as perhaps you have benched yourself from being involved or on mission for him due to this or that? Does it give you confidence knowing that God is ultimately in control and working to bring about His will or does is create anxiety because you realize you’ve been relying on yourself to get you through? For those of us who are in the family of God and members of his church, my prayer is that this song might engender confidence, knowing that God is our leader. It is also my prayer that this song might inspire us to think outside of ourselves and seek victories not just for our own sake, but for the sake of those around us. May it also encourage us to partner with God and not sit on the sidelines when there is much work to be done. Finally, I hope that this tune generates a culture of celebrating God’s victories, regardless of how he chooses to accomplish them and through whom.
Maybe you are without a relationship with the Lord today? You are not yet a part of his family and, as such, an enemy of his cause. Perhaps this song does not engender joy or confidence at all. Instead, it creates an awareness of future defeat. You might say to yourself, I’d love to be a part of God’s family and contribute to his plan, but he would not want me given who I am or what I’ve done. My friend, if he can use a leaderless Israel and hesitant deliverer to take care of a formidable enemy in judges, certainly he can more than make up for your weaknesses, failures, and limitations. He loves you and wants you to join him and his mission all the way to ultimately victory.
Monday, April 27, 2020
Have you ever been asked to do something that you believed you were ill-prepared to do? Perhaps even now you wonder whether you are up to the challenges we are all facing. Added to simply “making it” and keeping sane are the callings upon us as God’s people as found in his Word. It is a lot and given the present circumstances, you might be led to wonder if it isn’t too much or if you should even try. These thoughts and feelings, while understandable, can be overcome if we remember what Barak was reminded of in Judges 4:11-24. In this passage, God hands three victories to his people despite their many limitations and reminds us of the confidence we all can have when we recognize that God’s presence, power, and promises go with us in whatever season we may face.
Remeber from last week (in Judges 4:1-10), Deborah, a prophetess, has called Barak, a hesitant deliverer, to assemble a coalition of troops to drive out a Canaanite general, and his army. Now that the coalition has been formed, the plan can be put into action that would ensure victory for God's people.
However, the narrative of this cycle is interrupted by what appears to be an unrelated detail that is awkwardly inserted in verse 11—“Now Heber the Kenite had separated himself from the Kenites from the sons of hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh,…” (4:11). The original audience and today’s reader might wonder, “okaaaay? Sooooo?..... can we get back to the story?” Little do people know that what appears to be a literary red herring is actually a piece of foreshadowing that will be satisfied in just a few verses. For now, all we know is that a man connected to the family of Moses left his homeland to “pitch his tent” on the outskirts of the region.
1. Victory over the Iron Chariots-4:12-16
As the author moves back to the unfolding action, the bait is set in verse 12—“Then they told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor,…” (4:12). Remember, Deborah had called Barak on God’s behalf to assemble troops and lead an insurrection against Sisera and his army. Hesitant at first, Barak finally concedes once Deborah is willing to hold his hand and go with him. They form a coalition, and by this point, they have made it to their post. Remember, the plan was recorded earlier as follows: “I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troop to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand,…” (4:7).
Sisera takes the bait in verse 13—“Sisera called together all his chariots, nine hundred iron chariots, and all the people who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon,…”. Confident in his military advantage and excited to prove his might against what appeared to be inferior Israelite forces, Sisera lead his huge brigade through a valley that was well-suited for his brad of warfare. “Verse 13 is written from the perspective of the casual observer, who sees the massive Canaanite force moving into a strategic battle location, but does not detect the invisible hand of God drawing it to its demise” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 229).
That said, you wouldn’t know that Sisera and his men were vulnerable at all if you took your cue from Barak. While Sisera proved decisive in the initiative he exhibits to meet the threat the Israelites posed head on, Barak has to be reminded of where he is, what he is doing, and who called him there, before he is willing to execute the plan. Thankfully, Deborah is there to jolt this “lightning bolt” to action—"Deborah said to Barak, ‘Arise! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the Lord has gone out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him…” (4:14). Notice what Deborah says to get him moving. First, she wakes him up with “arise!” Then she reminds him of who is really handling this for them all—“this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera you’re your hands” (because Lord knows that Barak isn’t going to earn/achieve this himself). After reassuring Barak of God’s power, promise, and presence, and only after this reassurance, “Barak went down.”
Barak’s behavior here has me considering how some of us fail to answer the call of God until we are convinced of God’s presence in our lives. If you are paralyzed today or just a bit hesitant concerning what God has called you to do, let the words of Deborah also serve as a reminder to you: God is with you, he goes before you, and the victory is dependent on HIM not YOU! What are you so afraid of? Why are you discouraged? Get going and let God do his work!
This theme of God granting the victory to Barak is verified in the very next verse when it explains that “The Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot” (4:15). Like a skilled fisherman reeling in a “keeper,” God leads the army of Canaan into the ambush laid before them. While the pagan army suffers fits that leads to disaster at the hands of Barak and his coalition, Sisera, the army’s commander, flees the scene.
When Sisera leaves his army behind, it is almost as though he and Barak switch roles. Sisera goes from the decisive and bold leader to the coward who leaves his men to die. Barak, the hesitant leader, turns into a successful military commander. What explains this change?—the hand of God. God picks the winners and losers on the worlds stage and can determine the outcomes despite the players involved. In the battle between Barak’s coalition and Sisera’s legions, God saw to it that “Baraka pursued the chariots and the army as far as Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not even one was left,…” (4:16). This account demonstrates that when God comes through for his people, he does so completely. Now for that pesky Sisera who escaped.
2. Victory over Sisera-4:17-22
“Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kennite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite” (4:17). Remember that odd interruption offered in verse 11? Here is where we see/learn a bit more about who was introduced there. Some have speculated that perhaps Heber—that distant relative that moved out of town—was a Canaanite sympathizer and that Sisera believed that he would find friends in this tent that would help him hide out until Barak and his forces passed by. After all, because there was peace between Heber and Jabin (the ruler of the Canaanites and Sisera’s boss), Sisera probably believed that fortune was smiling down on him as he stumbled upon this dwelling. Little does he know that God is orchestrating his demise.
Sisera is greeted, not by Heber, but by his wife Jael. The text reads, “…Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him…” (4:18-19). Notice to what lengths Jael goes to make Sisera feel welcome and comfortable in his new hide out. In fact, according to historians, her offering of hospitality was something that the man of the house typically took care of, illustrating that Jael is transgressing cultural norms with her friendliness. Readers have already been tipped off that something else may be going on here. Remember what Deborah told Barak in verse 9—“For the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.” This prediction along with the glass of warm milk and a warm blanket, demonstrates that Jael is offering more than what is asked for so that she might have the opportunity to take care of Sisera herself (and I mean that sarcastically). I mean, come on, the only thing missing here is a bedtime story!
Right before catching some shuteye, Sisera has the wherewithal to ask for Jael to keep on the lookout for Barak’s men who are currently searching for him. If approached, she is supposed to divert their investigation and have them look elsewhere—“ He said to her, ‘Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ and you shall say, ‘No.’” (4:20).
However, instead of taking care that nothing happened to Sisera, “Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died” (4:21)—well I guess he did! Vulnerable and defenseless Jael does what Barak and his army hadn’t yet had the chance to do and she kills Sisera, the leader of the Canaanite army.
The victory over Sisera concludes with Barak showing up too late—"And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple,…” (4:22). Much as Deborah took the initiative at the beginning of this cycle, Jael takes the initiative here by being the first and only speaker upon Barak’s arrival. Before Barak can get a word in, Jael invites him into her tent to see that she has already “taken care of business” (to put it mildly). The reader is left to wonder how Barak would have responded to such news. The author seems to cast Jael as the agent of divine deliverance, the fulfillment of Deborah’s prediction in verse 9. Jael’s husband probably marveled at the fact that his wife had transgressed so many ancient cultural norms not only in offering hospitality to this stranger but also in carrying out this shocking act. To Barak, Jael had triumphed in a masculine role, and in so doing had shamed and robbed him of the glory of victory. No matter how she was perceived and by whom, Jael had all but guaranteed Israel’s victory over Jabin’s regime by assassinating his decorated general (Block, Judges, Ruth, 209).
3. Victory over the Jabin-4:23-24
The destruction of Jabin and Canaan is described in verses 23-24—“So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the sons of Israel. The hand of the sons of Israel pressed heavier and heavier upon Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin the king of Canaan” (4:23-24). This is the third victory described in the passage. First there was the victory of Barak’s coalition over the 900 iron-clad chariots. Then there was Jael’s victory over Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite forces. These two victories inevitably lead to the third—Israel’s victory over Jabin and, by proxy, Canaan.
In the midst of the many victories, fascinating characters, shocking brutality, and peculiar details of this story, there is a clear principle that readers ought to glean: God’s people have every reason to believe that He will keep his word to them and this confidence ought to result in obedience. In this particular case, God called Barak to lead his people to victory and promised him that he would be successful doing so. When he was hesitant God brought Deborah to be by his side. When he was slow to start, God reminded Barak of the promise of victory and that he would go with and ahead of him. Despite the situation and players involved, God came through and executed his will.
That was Barak’s story. What is yours? What has God called you to do, me to do, the church to do? I can think of at least one commission we’ve all been given regardless of where we are or in what situation we find ourselves: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a). In lieu of such a tall order and all the circumstances around you, perhaps, like Barak, you are a bit hesitant or doubtful. Maybe you are tempted to put this calling off until things return to relative normalcy. However, let me assure you, if there was ever a time to be obedient to the mission at hand, it is NOW. Feeling a bit like Barak today and need a little reassurance? Consider the very end of verse 20 of Matthew 28 when Jesus says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." God goes with you and ahead of you whenever we are on mission for him. He does not give us a commission without the promise of his power and presence. Need a little more to push you over the edge? Consider that you are one member of the body of Christ called the church and God himself has promised that the gates of hell itself will not prevail against it! Friends, if the gates of hell are no match for the church, certainly COVID 19 isn’t either, certainly physical distancing isn’t either, certainly whatever we may face today or tomorrow isn’t either. The same encouragements Deborah offered Barak--the promises, power, and presence of God-- are available to you today. Embrace these, rise, and be obedient to the call on your life and watch what God can do!