14 March 2017

Three lessons from Judges

We've been reading through the Bible as a church family since the beginning of the year, and yesterday we concluded the book of Judges.  This is one of the more challenging sections of the Old Testament, largely due to its gruesome content, spiritually destitute characters, and unabashed warfare.  The central theme is  found in the repeated refrains, "Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD" (Judges 2.11; 3.7; 3.12; 4.1; 6.1; 8.33-35; 10.6; 13.1) and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17.6; 21.25), clear indicators of the spiritual temperature of the nation that was supposed to represent God to the world.  The book's horrific conclusion alone, five chapters of utter depravity, paint a stark picture of the darkness and self-deception of which men are capable.

Here are a few observations to be gleaned from such a heavy, poignant text.

Ultimately, God is THE Judge.  Though God raised up men and women alike to lead the nation of Israel and rescue the people from oppression at the hands of their enemies, ultimately God Himself is the judge.  Jephthah's words to the king of the Ammonites in 11.27 make this point clear: "The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon."  Jephthah's own personal story -- despite the great victory he won as Israel's judge -- is a tragic reminder of this very fact: that the Lord alone rules with equity and flawless judgment.

One of the larger, undergirding themes of the book of Judges is therefore the insufficiency of man's leadership.  You and I wholeheartedly acknowledge this truth at the same time we deny it, because we all have our heroes as much as we have our scapegoats.  The guy I vote for is the only candidate worthy of the job; the guy who gets in instead is inept and unqualified.  The last boss knew what he was doing, but the new guy is a joke.  Moreover, when we find ourselves in leadership roles, we are even more likely to forget the reality that human leadership is flawed, because we envision ourselves to be fair, moral human beings perfectly capable of (and entitled to the right of) meting out justice.

While the Judges of Israel were men and women chosen specifically by God, they were still sinners who exhibited critical lapses of judgment.  Sometimes, it's difficult to find even a shred of godliness in these figures (i.e. Samson).  And we sometimes struggle with understanding why God empowers some and not others.  But all of this points to the reality that God alone is perfectly just, and that He alone rules with perfect holiness.  This fact reminds us that, although we are subject to imperfect human institutions and required by God Himself to honor them, those who hold power in this world are not above error or worthy of our unwavering allegiance.

Israel's repentance was genuine (if short-lived).  And therefore, God's mercy and restoration were genuine as well.  God would not have called the judges to restore the people had their cries of contrition not been in earnest.  Unfortunately, it was only after they'd tried everything else, endured oppression for as long as they could on their own power, and clung to the false gods of the surrounding nations that they would finally remember the Lord and His goodness.  Out of their sorrow, they would cry for help, and God -- impatient to rescue His people from their plight (10.16) -- would respond.

This is a powerful reminder that, though we often fall repeatedly into the same sins, God's mercy remains.  One of my favorite worship lyrics comes from Laura Story's "Indescribable": "You see the depths of my heart, and you love me the same."  I can take confidence in the fact that, though I am weak and still subject to temptation, my status as His child is unchanged, and His grace is never rescinded.

While it's impossible to identify a singular root cause of the pattern of rebellion we see in Judges, it seems to me that the cycles are largely generational.  One generation does what is evil in the sight of the LORD, comes to repentance after a decade or so of oppression, and God raises a judge to defeat the enemy and give the people rest, but then they ultimately fail to impart to their children the importance of sacred devotion to the Lord.  And so, 18-20 years later, this new generation -- poorly taught and still beset by the foreign nations their forefathers failed to eradicate -- is doomed to walk the same path as their parents.

Certainly not every single member of the previous generation had died off by the time of the next rebellion, nor were they  immune to the allure of temptation.  Furthermore, every man and woman is ultimately responsible for his or her own sin (Ezek 18.20; Jas 1.14).  But in a similar situation to the wilderness wanderings of the Mosaic era, the parents ultimately failed to teach their children well, setting them up to repeat their own failures.  This is what prompted Moses to deliver the series of speeches just outside the Promised Land that comprise the book of Deuteronomy, because the children had no "knowledge of good or evil" (Deut 1.39), despite the miraculous experiences of their parents in the wilderness.

We would do well to take this indictment of parenting to heart: we should endeavor to teach our children well about the Lord's goodness as well as our own failures, so that they are prepared for the temptations they themselves will face and will (hopefully) seek the Lord's will rather than their own.

The life lessons we give to our children should be saturated with Scriptural truth, not just practical wisdom.

God does not condone human violence.  This is especially difficult to grasp when reading the Old Testament, the pages of which drip with the blood of slaughtered peoples, families, and nations -- Israeli and Gentile alike.  In the book of Judges alone there is enough brutality to satisfy Game of Thrones audiences.  However, the violence in Judges is always directly connected to the people's sin.  God had promised repeatedly that, were the Israelites to walk in worshipful obedience, they would live in peace and prosperity with His sovereign protection shielding them from their enemies.  Instead, Israel first failed to complete the conquest of the land, and then descended into all kinds of depravity as a direct result.  The judgment for this was the oppression of the foreign nations, which in turn necessitated war to free the people of Israel once they acknowledged their error.

Even within that framework, most of the violent activity we see in Judges is excessive and not God-sanctioned.  For example, cruelty such as the severing of Adoni-bezek's thumbs and big toes (1.6), the killing that resulted from Abimelech's power struggle (Ch. 9), Gibeah's crime and the Levite's grotesque response (19.22-30), which in turn prompted Israel's civil war with the tribe of Benjamin (Ch. 20).  These, amongst other examples, were not done at God's command, though the perpetrators were often the very men He called to lead the people (for more on this, see point #1).

Did God command the conquest of the Promised Land, in which Israel was expected to fully eradicate the peoples living there?  Yes.  Moses and Joshua both make this case very clear (e.g. Deut 7.1-2; Josh 3.10).  And the reason is that the Canaanite tribes were wicked people groups who viciously slaughtered their own neighbors and engaged in abominable practices such as child sacrifice in worship of their false gods.  They were perverse tribes who hated God and His people, and God's decisive judgment of them was as much the reason for their eradication as was fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Gen 15.16; Lev 18.24-25Deut 7.10; 9.5).  As John MacArthur put it, "The question is not why God chose to destroy these sinners, but why He had let them live so long, and why all inners are not destroyed far sooner than they are."

In the pages of Joshua, we see God's hand leading Israel to victory over wicked peoples whose iniquity was a stench upon the earth.  In Judges, it's a different story -- a worst-case scenario that unfolds again and again.  The wars that ensued after the death of Joshua were direct consequences for the people's wickedness and their failure to permanently depose the Lord's enemies.

A fuller discussion of why God commanded literal war for Israel yet requires peaceful coexistence of His church is beyond the scope of this post, but what we must remember is that even in the conquest era God never condoned human violence.  In fact, the Word attests that He hates hands that shed innocent blood (Prov 6.17), claims just vengeance for Himself (Deut 32.35Rom 12.19), and prohibits the taking of human life (Ex 20.13; 1 John 3.15).  Leading the people to seize the land promised to Abraham was an act of sovereign judgment that is in no way to be imitated by Christians in any capacity.  Frankly, no legitimate follower of Christ will commend the Crusades.  Our responsibility as His children today is not to determine for ourselves who is worthy of judgment, but to communicate the gospel message in our best, compassionate effort to -- in Paul's words -- "overcome evil with good."

In a day and age when everyone is again doing what is "right in his/her own eyes," understanding the concepts put forward in the book of Judges is more than just a lesson in ancient history.  These truths are pertinent to understanding the complexities of sin in the world, as well as embracing our own God-given responsibilities for walking in righteousness.