Monday, July 27, 2020

Major Transition: Judges 10

Expositional preaching (the kind of preaching we entertain here behind this pulpit week after week) does not allow me to skip over what some might deem are “interludes” or “transitional” passages that are often unnoticed or glossed over at other places. I am not going to lie to you. There have been times where I go into my sermon preparation, see what passage is next, and begin working with a little hesitation and trepidation (wondering what God could possibly say through that passage or how it could possibly translate in our world today). However, I can honestly say that by the end of my time in preparation, I am always amazed and, often more excited than ever, to preach that following Sunday. I should not be surprised given that 2 Time 3:16 says “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…”. Today’s transitional chapter of Judges 10 is one such passage—a passage for which I began preparing with questions and hesitation but am so very excited to preach to you today. In this passage Israel is in-between major storylines (Gideon’s and Jephthah’s) and yet, Judges 10 has an incredible message to communicate about both the nature of man and the nature of God—a message many need to hear today.

a. The Seniority in Israel-10:1-5

After the crazed tenure of Abimelech (illegitimate and bloody) the people of God were led by two “minor” judges (this is not a biblical designation, but a designation many scholars assign to them today). Though these are not given much attention in the Bible, they are use of God to carry his people through the next couple of seasons. The first of these transitional judges is Tola—“Now after Abimelech died, Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, arose to save Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried in Shamir…” (10:1-2). With a name like Tola (meaning “worm”) you can only hope for so much as a reader 😊. His leadership during this period is described by means of three phrases: 1) He “arose to save,” 2) he “ruled” (“saved”), and 3) “23 years” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 338). Given the lack of an identified threat that Israel needed saving from, one can only guess just how chaotic things were in Israel upon Abimelech’s death. In other words, Israel needed saving, perhaps, from herself! Also, it is interesting to point out that there is no mention of Yahweh here in this account, perhaps indicating that the Lord, as in the case of Abimelech’s reign, was relatively uninvolved and unsought-after. Thank you Tola, next please!

“After him, Jair the Gileadite arose and judged Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities in the land of Gilead that are called Havvoth-jair to this day. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon…” (10:3-5). Yahweh remains un-referenced in the account of this next leader. As far as the narrator is concerned, what makes Jair’s leadership worth reporting on is not his own accomplishments, but his many sons and the inheritance he left them (a Gileadite town and donkey for each) (gee, thanks dad!). While the description of this legacy is peculiar, the best understanding to walk away with is that Jair’s descendants enjoyed relative peace (the donkeys help illustrate that) over a region that included 30 small cities for 22 years.

This is one of the rare occurrences of relative peace in the Book of Judges and proves telling given the very next verses. Relative comfort and peace can be just as problematic/troubling spiritually than oppression and heartache. Satan and his forces are able to manipulate both contexts to accomplish their aims. Here, the peace enjoyed under the 22 years of Jair’s family produces self-confidence and spiritual boredom leading to a familiar evil that strikes God’s people once again.

b. The Sin of Israel-10:6-9

The sin of Israel is introduced in verse 6—“Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the sons of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines;…”  (10:6). Why choose only one idol when you can collect them all? This cycle in Israel’s history opens “with the most elaborate description of Hebrew apostasy in the book and thus signals the (rock bottom) of Israel’s degradation and the climax of their process of Canaanization” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 344). Rather than live according the ways and will of the one true God, like the many pagan nations in their context they were devoting themselves to all kinds of false gods. The list of these gods (seven in number) goes out of its way to illustrate just how far Israel has fallen in this 22-year period of relative peace and comfort. The seven-fold list corresponds to the list of Canaanite nations listed in Deut. 7:1 and highlights the total and complete corruption of the nation. Israel have successfully blended into its ancient pagan neighborhood so much so that you might not even be able to tell the difference between her and the polytheists surrounding her. The summary statement at the end of verse 6 is especially incriminating—“…thus they forsook the Lord and did not serve him.” Here, Israel once again exchanges devotion to the living God for a collection of lifeless idols.

Understandably, “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel and He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and into the hands of the sons of Ammon…” (10:7). This the same response we have seen from the Lord time and time again in the book of Judges and it is brought about by the same tired transgression. If you want to anger the Lord, the quickest way is through idolatry—granting something/someone else the glory that is due his name.  With white-hot holiness God seeks to discipline his people severely for their gross sin and his method of choice here is selling them into the hands of both the Philistines and the sons of Ammon.

The Philistines were a sea-faring people who immigrated from southern Greece to the coastland of Canaan during the time of the judges. Once their beachhead was formed in this region, the Philistines proved to be an enemy of the Hebrew people between the time of the judges until the divided kingdom following the reign of King David. Like a terrible case of chronic bronchitis, this unclean people would prove especially problematic for Israel for many years. In this chapter of Israel’s history, it was not just the Philistines from the west, but the Ammonites from the north east that oppressed God’s people. The Ammonites had settled the territory north of the Moabites during the wilderness wanderings and now that Israel was vulnerable, they wanted to move in to rule over God’s people.

The severe oppression God allowed these two nations to bring upon Israel is described in verses 8-9—“They afflicted and crushed the sons of Israel that year; for eighteen years they afflicted all the sons of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in Gilead in the land of the Amorites. The sons of Ammon crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah, Benjamin, and the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was greatly distressed…” (18:8-9). It is one thing to be “afflicted” and quite another to be “crushed.” To be “afflicted and crushed” sounds really awful. In Hebrew, words like “very” or “severely” demonstrating varying degrees of an emotion or result do not exist the same way they do in English. Instead, to increase the severity of an emotion or state, you must compound related descriptors on top of each other. Like multiplying two integers together to yield a large sum, these words multiply the emotion by several factors when they are brought together in this way. This is why by the end of verse 9 it reads “Israel was greatly distressed.” Such distress leads Israel to call upon the Lord as they have done time and time again when facing agony. (In fact, with this track record, one wonders if comfort/peace is not more of an encumbrance than a blessing and distress/heartache preferred as it keeps God’s people seeking and dependent on him).

c. The Supplication of Israel-10:10-16

“Then the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against You, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served the Baals.’…” (10:10). Nothing like a little distress to cause you to return to the one true hope in a world of imposters. Here, the cry of Israel is described in more detail than anywhere else in the book. For the first time in the book, a confession is heard from Israel along with a recognition of the wrongs they have done. On its face, it sounds like a good first step in the right direction. However, one must note the absence of any appeal for forgiveness and plea for grace. We must continue reading to see if this is genuine or if Israel is just not becoming more sophisticated in their attempt to manipulate God into providing them the relief for which they desire.

Another unique thing about this particular episode in Israel’s history is the back and forth that God entertains once he is called upon. In previous cylces, this kind of dialogue between the two parties is left out—Israel calls out and God raises a deliverer. However, here, God engages the people in a back and forth. In so doing, he appears to see through his people’s supposed confession and reminds them of how the breakdown of their relationship does not fall on him. In fact, God has done anything and everything he can and more to preserve their covenant relationship—“The Lord said to the sons of Israel, Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the sons of Ammon, and the Philistines? Also when the Sidonians, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, you cried out to Me, and I delivered you from their hands…” (10:11-12). The particular cases of deliverance are not as important as the sheer enormity of the list. God has repeatedly come through for his people and yet they have repeatedly deserted him. You have heard it said that it takes two to ruin a relationship. Well, in God’s case, he is innocent, and his people are the sole responsible party for any issues they may be facing.

God’s indictment against his people reads as follows: Yet you have forsaken Me and served other gods; therefore I will no longer deliver you. Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress,…” (10:13-14). On the surface, it appears as though God’s patience has run out. He is sick and tired of being sick and tired. He even mockingly calls upon his people to seek their help from their impotent suitors—salvation from idol playthings—for which he knows (and they know) there is neither help nor salvation to be had. Israel has made her bed and now, as far as God seems concerned, she can lie in it.

In response to the people’s expression of distress, he recognizes and exposes their true motives. They have repeatedly used him to get out of difficult circumstances with no intention of remaining faithful to him afterward. God sees past their supposed confession and at least in this moment communicates that he is unmoved to help them.

What else can Israel do in this moment, genuine or not, but throw herself on the mercy of God—“The sons of Israel said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned, do to us whatever seems good to You; only please deliver us this day.’…” (10:15). The duplicity of Israel is witnessed even here as on one hand they appear to submit to whatever God’s will may be for them but on the other hand they insist that he deliver them. A moment’s reflection might have helped Israel understand that God always does what seems good to him—even if that means placing his people in distress. Just because it hurts does not mean God has not allowed it.

What speaks far louder than their pleas and platitudes is the putting away of their idol playthings in verse 16—“ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord;…” (10:16a). Not only do they put their idols away, but they serve the Lord instead. We are not told what form the service of the Lord took, but what we do read is God’s response—"and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer,…” (10:16). Scholars are divided as to whether any of this on Israel’s part is genuine or, again, is just their more sophisticated way of trying to get what they want (and what they want is relief). However, it does not matter. The hero of this story is not, nor has it ever been, Israel. The hero is the unconditional love and grace of God who has made promises to his people that he intends to keep. God is not, nor has he ever been, a pawn that we can play to do our will, he is an absolute sovereign who does what he wants and, in this case, in keeping with his absolute goodness, he wants to make good on the promises he has made and demonstrate his matchless love and glory by extending these people unmerited/undeserved grace. He will deliver his people again, but through whom?  
d. The Search in Israel-10:17-18

A search begins in Israel for the next deliverer in verses 17-18—"Then the sons of Ammon were summoned and they camped in Gilead. And the sons of Israel gathered together and camped in Mizpah…” (10:17). The search is instigated after some of Israel’s oppressors—the Ammonites—gather in Gilead for battle. The Israeli troops respond by gathering nearby at Mizpah.

However, they are still without a leader. That is the question on everyone’s mind—“The people, the leaders of Gilead, said to one another, ‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the sons of Ammon? He shall become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’…” (10:18). We will have to wait until next week to see who is called.

So What?

But until then, this transitional text shines much needed light on the nature of God and the nature of mankind. As has already been said in the context of Israel’s history, God is not, nor has he ever been, a pawn that can be played to do what we want. Instead, he is an absolute sovereign who does what he wants and. The good news is that in addition to being absolutely sovereign and holy is that he is loving and good. In keeping with his absolute goodness, God wants to make good on the promises he has made and demonstrate his matchless love and glory by extending unmerited/undeserved grace to those who are in desperate need it. This includes you and me. Regardless of where you come from or what may have been perceived from the outside, before you receive the unmerited grace of God in salvation, we were not unlike the Israelites in this passage. We too, like those in these verses, entertained many idols and placed out hope in either ourselves or in our many playthings. At some point, we had to learn that these were impotent to give us the help and salvation for which we desperately long from the brokenness and darkness of this world and in our own lives. It is only at this low point, just as it was for Israel in this text, that we learn to cry out to the one true God for deliverance and it is only because he is loving and gracious that he even entertains such cries with an answer. His answer is a deliverer and while Israel waited to learn who their next deliverer way, we do not have to wait. His name is Jesus and he alone restores the broken relationship between a holy and sovereign God and a broken and sinful people. Those who trust in him lay down their idols and serve the Lord with their lives. Is this something you have yet to realize? Is this something you have yet to do?

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