17. Redeeming Israel – the Judges

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 17. Redeeming Israel – the Judges

Jud 2:15,16 They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders

 Redemption and Israel: The thrust of these studies, I hope you will have seen, is that redemption is not only about the initial event but also the Lord’s ongoing activity to ensure we run the full course. Nowhere is that clearer in the Bible than in the story of Israel. It is not a mere account of a special nation, it is a story of redemption – ongoing redemption, redemption at the hands of a God who is determined to help His faithful people survive, and therein was the problem – so often, so many of them were not faithful and in that they simply reflect the human race as a whole.

The Ongoing Story: Yesterday we finished in Judges 2. Let’s examine verses 10-14: and there we see time moving on:

  • After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, (v.10a) i.e. times moves on
  • another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.” (v.10b) i.e. a sign of poor teaching, not passing on the faith
  • Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.” (v.11) General statement
  • They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them.” (v.12a) Detail of their folly
  • They aroused the Lord’s anger,” (v.12b) – the effect, “because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.” (v.13) contrary to all Moses’ teaching.
  • In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.” (v.14) God’s form of disciplinary judgment to bring them to their senses by lifting off His hand of protection so they were attacked by pagan neighbours.

The Cycle: Then comes what we see happening again and again in Judges: They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders (v.15,16) Whenever the people came to their senses, the Lord sent deliverers. The summary verses that follow spell it out so clearly:

  • “Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands.” (v.17)
  • Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.(18)
  • But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.” (v.19)

Overview of Judges: The book of Judges is essentially a record of how this happened again and again and each of the named judges was someone raised up by the Lord to deliver Israel when they cried out under the present disciplining following their yet again turning away from the Lord:

  • Othniel (3:7-11)
  • Ehud (3:12-30)
  • Shamgar (v.31 – no mention of the cycle).
  • Deborah & Barak (4:1-24 – a longer story + a song of triumph to follow)
  • Gideon (6:1 – 8:35 – note the stories get longer)
  • (a period of internal strife – Ch.9)
  • Jephthah (10:6 – 12:7)
  • Ibzan, Elon and Abdon (12:8-15 three judges in uneventful time)
  • Samson (13:1-16:31)
  • Unsettled times (ch.17-21)

Key Points: Again and again throughout these accounts we see the cycle rolls out starting with, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  For the expression ‘did evil’ see 2:11, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1 i.e. seven times this condemnation comes. Again and again, to bring discipline on Israel, the Lord lifted off His hand of protection and allowed the neighbours to attack Israel: Moab, Ammonites and Amalekites (3:12,13), Canaan (4:2), Midian (6:1), Philistines and the Ammonites (10:7), Philistines (13:1). The deliverers the Lord used we have listed above. What should also be noted of these deliverers is that they were not always the godliest of people, indeed far from it sometimes. The truth is that the Lord used whoever (presumably) He saw would respond and become a deliverer.

With some, the motivation was clearly to deliver Israel and yet that motivation was not always clear, for Gideon was certainly a reluctant deliverer and Samson was a carnal deliverer concerned more for his own pleasure, so deliverance was almost an accident! Yet clearly the Lord knew all these shortcomings but also knew the individual in question could achieve the deliverance that was required.

The closing chapters of the book show what a confusing and unsettled time this was in this embryonic nation. Although these judges were mostly warriors of some kind or another, with one exception (a woman) there was virtually no prophetic input at this time which suggests, what we have been considering so far, that their state of almost universal rebellion prevented such a thing, yet Deborah shows that it was not impossible.

Reflections on Redemption: We have observed in the previous studies how the Lord delivered Israel out of Egypt, how He persevered with them through their desert travels to Sinai, how He dealt with them at Sinai, how He persevered with them on their travels to the border of the Promised Land and how He dealt with them when they refused to enter that land. It was one long struggle to keep Israel on the right track and involved a number of disciplinary judgments along the way. We may wonder why the Lord tolerated this and didn’t wipe them out. I suggest, because the story, which has continued on so clearly in Judges, shows two things:  a) the sinfulness of mankind even when God is there to help, and revealing a need of a redeemer, and b) the incredible grace of God which persevere and perseveres, in the face of that ongoing sinfulness, to work to discipline, correct but preserve the nation.  But it doesn’t end there, the rest of the Old Testament follows with a similar picture which we’ll see in the next two studies.

Lessons for Us?  I find the book of Judges tends to have a depressing effect upon me because it is such a catalogue of failures, if not by the nation, by individuals. And yet, there must be this massive lesson that screams out from it: if Israel could go through this long period of continual failure despite all the Lord’s efforts to get them back on track and then deliver them, and He keeps on with them and doesn’t reject them, there is hope for you and me when we get it wrong. This must be the message that keeps coming through. God is there to redeem us – and go on redeeming us! Our failures will not put Him off. Having saved you, you can be assured that He will be there on your case, constantly working to deliver you. Rejoice in that – and purposefully join in with it!

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22. The Son who Judges

Short Meditations in John 5:  22. The Son who Judges

Jn 5:22  Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the So

What we have here is a remarkable statement – very well, most of Jesus’ statements are remarkable! – but this one is perhaps more remarkable than most in that in the Bible, God is seen as THE Judge (e.g. Jas 5:9) Who else has all the abilities required of a perfect judge than the Lord? Who knows everything about every person, every thought, every motive and every deed but God?

But, cries the cynical atheist, why should we need a judge, why does everyone have to come under scrutiny? And there we stumble over a strange feature of the human race and therefore, presumably, even bigger than the human race, and that is the whole idea of justice. The modern world with its relativism shies away from the concept until it becomes personal and then with the rest of us cries, “It isn’t fair! That is unjust!”  Justice is possibly one of the strangest concepts known to the human race, the desire, no, the insistence, that wrongs be righted, that offenders be made to face up to their misdeeds. But what are misdeeds? Anything that goes contrary to God’s design for us! We shy away from it when the spotlight shines on us, but when another offends us we cry for the Law to step in and remedy my injustice, hypocrites that we are!

And so there is justice and there is A Judge but, says Jesus, He gives all judgment to the Son. Why should that be?  It is because clearly from the outset, when the Godhead were planning the coming of the Son, they agreed for the Son to oversee God’s kingdom on earth. (Does God have other worlds that He rules over directly and is the earth the only one that the Son rules over?) There is a reference by Paul to the end of all things when the Son hands back the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor 16:24). The rule of the kingdom includes judgment.

But what is the basis of his judgment, who is declared guilty and who is declared innocent? For that answer we have to go to Paul’s writings in Romans 4 and 5 where he speaks about justification. Justification is all about being put right in God’s sight and that only comes about through belief in Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate basis for assessment, how we respond to him.  The records are simple and straight forward and even a child can read the Gospels easily. No one can claim they are difficult to read. We may not understand everything but the person of Jesus shines through brightly – his life, his death, his resurrection and his ascension. It is all there and obvious. The seeking heart finds what it has been looking for and gladly receives him and immediately the Judge declares, “Not guilty!” and a new life begins.

13. Judges

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 13.  Judges

Judges 2:16   Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders.

Perhaps to call the above verse a ‘highlight’ is a misnomer, for the truth is that it comes at the end of a paragraph that explains the whole of the book of Judges, and indeed explains one of the main ways that God deals with people and nations. Having studied the judgments of God in depth for several years, I conclude that here in this book we have example after example of what I have come to call ‘disciplinary judgments’ because their prime goal is to bring change of behaviour, as against what I have come to call ‘terminal judgments’ or ‘judgments of the last resort’ because they result in death because the Lord sees that nothing else will save the situation.

Scripture is clear that the Lord wishes to avoid death. We see that in his many declarations that He would drive out the inhabitants of Canaan and their death would only occur in the last resort if they stayed and fought Israel. It is also declared prophetically three times in Ezek 18:23,32 & 33:11 and in the New Testament in 2 Pet 3:9.  We find in the book of Judges a process that takes place again and again and is summarised in these verses in chapter 2. Observe the stages:

Stage 1: Israel turn from the Lord: After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them.” (2:10-12a) Israel demonstrate the tendency seen in the whole of mankind, a tendency to turn away from God, hence my definition of Sin that we are all infected by – self-centred godlessness. There is no other way to explain the folly that is seen in Israel whereby they completely forget all that they have heard or seen of the Lord within the last forty or so years.

It is the thing called ‘Sin’, this inherent propensity to turn away from God that we all have. The Lord may have given the wonder of His word, His salvation through His Son, and His Spirit, but still there is always a war against Sin within us. This is what the apostle Paul dealt with in his letter to the Romans and why he tells us, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires,” (Rom 6:12) and confesses his own struggles, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out,” (Rom 7:18) and concludes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:24,25)  and “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit.” (Rom 8:9) We are only freed from the power of Sin as we let Jesus, by his Spirit, work in us.

Stage 2: The Lord responds: “They provoked the LORD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them.” (2:12-15a) It is important to see that this is a specific act of disciplinary judgment by the Lord. He either lifts off His hand of protection from Israel and His hand of restraint from their enemies, or He specifically gives permission to their enemies to rise against Israel. It is intended to put Israel under pressure and it always does.

Stage 3: Israel anguish and cry to the Lord for help: “They were in great distress.” (v.15b) in this first instance they do not appear to cry for help but in most other instances throughout this book, they do, even though sometimes it may take many years for them to come to their senses.

Stage 4: The Lord brings a saviour and delivers them: “Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders.” (v.16) In this respect, this verse 16 is indeed a highlight. It shows the Lord who, again and again, desires to bring His people to repentance.

Perhaps to make the point we need to quote those three sets of verses from Ezekiel that perhaps underscores all that takes place in this book:

Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and

Ezek 18:31,32 “Rid yourselves of all the offences you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel ? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and

Ezek 33;11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel ?”

What is true of Israel, is true of us. Does He discipline us? Yes, because He loves us (Heb 12:5-11) and knows that sometimes this is the only way we will change. Do our occasional failures annul our salvation? Definitely not. He will continue to work in us to bring us back to Him. It is only when someone has so clearly set their heart to turn away from Him, there is doubt. The fruits of salvation for the present may be lost but that does not mean the Lord will not continue to work to bring His lost sheep home again. Hallelujah!

3. Law Administration

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 3 :  Law Administration

(Focus: Deut 1:9-18)

Deut 1:9,10,12,13 At that time I said to you, “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone. The LORD your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky. But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.”

We have seen in the first two meditations how all that Moses is about to say, which is recorded in this book, is grounded in history. There is an historical context which shows why Israel are where there are, to the east of the river Jordan, and why Moses is speaking to them. In the previous meditation we saw how Moses reminds them of the start of their walk with the Lord, back at Mount Sinai, which in itself is founded on promises that the Lord made to Abraham four hundred years beforehand!

While they were at Sinai something had happened and Moses now goes on to remind them of that. It actually had been at the prompting of his father-in-law that he had appointed judges for the people (see Ex 18:13-26). Moses had referred this problem back to the people and had asked them to choose wise, understanding and respected men from each tribe who could act as leaders and judges to share the load. That appealed to the people and so that was what had happened and Moses had charged those leaders, “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it.” (Deut 1:16,17)

Now what we have here is a simple recounting of what had happened and it is legitimate to ask the question, why was Moses bothering to include this account in this book now? We can make several suggestions.

First, as we have gone to some lengths to show, Moses is setting everything in the context of history so that Israel can see that everything about the Law and everything about how they should live is set in the context of all of their dealings with the Lord – except this is more about Moses than it is about the Lord.

Second, it is possibly a gentle attempt by Moses to show the people that he had not been a domineering leader but had always had their welfare at heart and had sought to share the burden of leadership among the tribes.

Third, it is an explanation of how the nation is now being run, and why it is being run like it is. We may take this for granted but Moses is speaking to the many older people and their younger family members and is seeking to put everything in context. There is a reason that they are a people ruled by judges, and it goes back to that time at Sinai when Moses alone was their leader and he wanted to ensure they were better cared for.

Fourth, although we have said this passage is mainly about Moses it does bring a reminder, as we saw above in verse 17, that judgment and justice are essentially things that belong to God or, if you like, all such judgment is answerable to God. They ARE a people under God and answerable to him. The very application of the Law, or its administration, if you like, is through the judicial system that Moses established back at Sinai. It is still like that and nothing has changed! These judges are the means of applying the Law that Moses will go on to expound.

There is, within all this, an implied duty laid upon those judges to uphold the Law rightly and wisely before the Lord. What starts out appearing a rather mundane passage about Moses not being able to carry the burden of Israel alone, produces a legal system through which the Law will be administered. Without it, the Law could not be administered in the years and centuries ahead. This actually becomes a vital reminder, a foundation stone, for the administration of the Law.

Yes, it might have started out as a means of lifting the burden from Moses, but it has resulted in raising up a large number of judges from each tribe who are now responsible for applying that Law. Moses brings the Law and it will be down to them to apply it in the centuries to come. This comes as such a gentle recounting of history that many of us miss the significance of this.

This is Moses saying, very gently, this is the administrative foundation that was established right back at Sinai to help you administer all the laws that I have brought you from the Lord. Again, we may take the laws for granted, and they do bring the greatest thrust through this book, but unless these appointed judges fulfil their roles, these laws will not get to be applied. This is the primary significance that lies just below the surface of these verses!  So, no, they are not a mundane recounting of history, they are a foundation stone for the life of the nation.

6. Superstition Removed

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.6

Isa 2:6,9 They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines….. man will be brought low and mankind humbled

For many years I have preached, “God loves you so much that He loves you exactly like you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than you are now.” Here is a central truth of the Bible. That God loves us – and He takes us just like we are. That has always amazed me; that God takes imperfect people in the Bible and enters into a relationship with them while they are still very imperfect. But what has amazed me even more is that He has put up with them while they are imperfect and has worked to bless them and bless them again until they are changed by His blessing into something more wonderful, men and women of faith, living righteously. That is God’s objective and so when He comes across us in a mess, He doesn’t just leave us in it; He works to do something to get us out of it.

Now there is a further truth that we really do need to take hold of. Blessing from God doesn’t just come like a wave from a magic wand, it comes with the very presence of God Himself. In other words, it comes out of a living relationship with Him. God doesn’t want to bless us from afar, He wants to come close in a personal relationship so that He can help us, care for us, protect us, guide us and inspire us – close up and personal. That’s why He has put His Holy Spirit in us when we came to Him and were ‘born again’ (Jn 3).

So, when we get into a mess, it is almost inevitably because we have lost contact (is how we feel it) with God and gone and done our own thing which has got us into trouble. God’s objective therefore, is to get us back into relationship with Him. When that happens, everything else will fall into place. Now the difficult bit is how do you get someone to come back to God? Well, when someone has listened to the enemy and drifted or specifically turned away from the Lord, the very nature of their going away means that they will need a strong nudge to come to their senses and turn back. What the Lord does is either take away the protection or restraining factors that keep us safe and secure, or He specifically nudges detrimental circumstances into being. The result of both is that we find ourselves in deeper and deeper water and it is only as we realise that we are drowning that we call out for the Lord to come and help and save us, and He restores us.

We see this happening again and again in the book of Judges. The people turned away from the Lord, they got into trouble with their enemies, they cried out to the Lord, and then He sent them a saviour to rescue them and restore them to God. This same principle is seen when the apostle Paul speaks to the Corinthian church and says, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved.” (1 Cor 5:5) i.e. put him out of the church so he no longer has its protection and will be subject to God’s discipline through Satan that will bring him to his senses. That clearly had effect because in his second letter Paul is able to speak about restoring him (2 Cor 2:6-8). Now we need to say all this to understand Isaiah.

Isaiah describes Judah’s state: they are superstitious, practicing so-called spiritism and worshiping idols (v.6,8) which are nothing. He doesn’t spell this out at this stage but elsewhere in Scripture we are reminded that idols are simply models made by the hands of men and therefore are utterly powerless and lifeless. This people have turned to superstition and the Lord needs to draw them back, but it is a tough job because they have allowed their hearts to be so entrenched in this belief in manageable ‘gods’ that it will need something quite drastic to change it. It will need something so dramatic that it will remove the idols and drive this foolish people out of superstition back into reliance on the Lord where, once again, they can receive the blessing of the Lord.

Something is going to happen! God is going to do something dramatic to bring this about! At the moment men are stuck in their pride. In their folly they have settled in a place where they think they know best and they are in control. To bring them back into relationship with Him, the Lord is going to have to do something dramatic. Isaiah describes its outcome: “man will be brought low and mankind humbled” (v.9) and “The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” (v.11 and following verses). At the end of it, “the idols will totally disappear.” (v.18).

How will this happen? “the splendour of his majesty.” (v.10) and “the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” (v.11) and “dread of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth.” (v.19) i.e. the Lord is going to come and reveal Himself in such a way that all of this stupid worshipping of idols will be seen for what it is, and it will all be swept away in the glorious presence of the Lord. Do we see this as harsh, or as wonderful? Your answer will reveal your state of heart.

Walk into Oblivion

WALKING WITH GOD. No.14

Ruth 1:2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

This is the start of a disastrous story and a glorious story, and as such it tells us many things about walking with God. The story starts with a famine in Israel, which suggests a time of low spirituality (in the Law God promises blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience [which includes famine] – Deut 28). The times of the judges had been a time when the nation drifted from God and had to be rescued by Him in the form of those judges. But there is something else about the times of famines, they are times of testing and times of opportunity. Abram hadn’t done very well when a famine occurred in his new country (Gen 12:10 -). Isaac fell into the same trap for the same reason; only the Lord intervened and stopped him going to Egypt (Gen 26:1-6).

So, there was a famine in Israel and an Israelite from Bethlehem takes his family to Moab. Historically Moab was to become an enemy of Israel, a frequent thorn in their side. Instead of seeking God, this man rationalises the situation and moves into the world to cope. How many of us get into difficulties and seek the world’s way out instead of the Lord. This walk from Bethlehem (which means ‘house of bread’) to Moab (which means ‘child of its father’ – and Moab‘s father was Lot who drifted right into the world – Sodom) is a walk of flight into the world.

In Moab the man dies and later on after they have married two Moabite women, their two sons also die. The only person left of the original family is Naomi, the wife. Then Naomi sets out on the walk of restoration back to Israel. At Naomi’s urging one daughter-in-law returns home but the other one will not be put off and so goes to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law. For her, this is a walk into a new life and was to become a walk into the history books. For this family, the walk to Moab was a walk of death, and in what follows we might consider the walk back a walk of resurrection. God is going to do something very significant through this family. To cut a long story short, Naomi returns home with Ruth her daughter-in-law, and Ruth eventually marries Boaz and becomes part of the messianic family line (see Mt 1:5 for the place of honour that Ruth is given, being the mother of King David’s grandfather.)

So what again have we seen here? A man from Israel goes with the low spiritual level of the nation and when a famine comes, flees the land and goes to Moab. A poor response – a walk of unbelief. Then he and his sons die. It has turned out to be a walk into oblivion for this man, yet from it, Ruth is drawn into the nation of Israel and joins the family tree of King David, the family tree of the Messiah. There seems nothing spectacular about this story; it is the story of normal, if tragic, family events, yet somehow at the end of it we see how the family was used to draw a foreigner into God’s plans.

So what does it say? First of all, it warns us to hold firm to our faith in the face of difficult circumstances. In fact, the circumstances may indicate a low level of spirituality and the call is to rise up and return to God. Instead of fleeing into the world in a walk of unbelief, we are to stay where we are and seek the Lord.

Second, it shows us that the often invisible hand of God can yet bring about good, and He will take and use even those from the most unlikely backgrounds who will allow their hearts to be stirred by the Lord, to become part of His plans.

Perhaps we might consider are we an Elimelech, a Naomi or a Ruth? Elimelech baulked in the face of difficult circumstances and failed to seek God for provision. Are you in such a place? Seek Him. Naomi was faithful to her husband and was led into a bad place, but as soon as she had the chance, she returned to a place of blessing. Do you need to take steps to get back to the place of blessing? And then there was Ruth, an outsider who allowed her heart to be touched so that she joined the people of God and entered into God’s purposes. Are you someone who has been touched by what you have read, and something in you tells you that you want to have a sense of destiny, of being part of God’s plans?

A disastrous walk into oblivion, or walk of restoration, or a walk of destiny? Those are so often the options before us in our walk through life. The good news is that as long as we are alive, it doesn’t have to end as a walk into oblivion. The only trouble is that we don’t know how long we will live. If we have the courage to face the failure, it can turn into a walk into restoration and that so often becomes a walk into destiny. Make sure you make the right choice.