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Understanding Judges

The book of Judges covers a period of over 350 years, beginning in 1400 BC after the children of Israel have conquered Canaan under Joshua and ending in 1052 BC when Saul, the first king of Israel, is appointed.

It is possibly is one of the most neglected books in the Bible - the lives of Gideon and Samson provide some exciting stories for Sunday School lessons, but judges like Shamgar, Deborah and Jephthah rarely figure in sermons nowadays.

One of the reasons for the neglect is that many people think that the period of the Judges is the dark ages of Bible times. Distressing sins are depicted. Violent deaths are described. Strange vows are made. Even the heroes of the book seem at first glance to have fatal flaws. For many the book is about dismal times when the people had poor leaders. The titles of books written on Judges seem to confirm this view: “The Distressing Days of the Judges”; “Even in Darkness”; Hard Words for Hard Times”.

Some conclude that the only purpose of the book of Judges is to show the spiritual decline of the Israelites after the death of Joshua and the necessity for God to introduce the monarchy. But is that analysis necessarily correct? (1)

First, let us remember that after their arrival in the Promised Land God chose to rule his people without the intermediary of a king for 350 years. Justice was administered by family heads and by the priesthood. We read in Judges 2:16 that the judges were raised up by God when the need arose.

Second, remember that it was the people who asked God for a king and that it was a sin to do so. We have to ask ourselves the question: which is the better way to be ruled - God’s way or man’s way?

Some would argue that that Israel was a much more godly land under the kings than under the judges. I have to disagree. The book of Judges tells the tale of 111 years of oppression, but it also speaks of 286 years of peace and quietness. During the period of the kings the percentages are almost exactly reversed (2) Some think that the judges were at best flawed and at worst not even saved. But remember it was God who raised up the judges. They were God’s appointed deliverers. Are we justified in thinking that such people were not saved?

Let’s just think about Hebrews chapter 11, which is the great hall of fame of the faithful. How many of the twelve judges are mentioned in Hebrews 11? The answer is no less than five. How many of the 41 kings of Israel are mentioned? Just one – King David!

Look at Hebrews 11:32 ‘And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets.’ I believe that all the judges were godly, saved men. How many of the kings were saved? Probably less than 25%.

So when we examine the lives of the judges and the choices they made, we must always bear in mind the estimation of Hebrews 11: 32. Yes they had their flaws but who doesn’t? Even David, the man after God’s own heart was an adulterer and murderer.

So how then can we sum up the period of the judges? Many would quote the last verse in the book: Judges 21:25. ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ But is this necessarily the right verse to use?

I believe the better summary of the 350 years of the judges is given in Judges 2:16-21. ‘Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do so.

And when the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them.

And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.

Then the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel; and He said, “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not heeded My voice, I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died.’

There was a cycle. The people fell into sin and apostasy. The Lord raised up oppressors. The people cried out for deliverance. The Lord sent a deliverer or judge. The people were liberated and during the lifetime of the judge they turned back to God to a certain extent.

It is true that the author of Judges tells us that the general trend was downwards: Look at Judges 2:18-19. But the situation was not 100% gloom and doom. Judges is about sin and salvation, not just sin!

At this point you may be thinking that I am not taking into account that key verse at the end of Judges mentioned above (21:25). It is true that we cannot just ignore it, but does it really sum up the whole period of the judges?” There are four reasons why I think this would be a wrong position to take.(3)

1. The author uses this phrase three times in the book, but it only appears in the last five chapters: (17:6, 19:1 and 21:25). Chapters 17 to 21 appear to be an appendix to the book (2). They tell the sad story of Micah and his idolatry, the stealing of his idol by the Danites, the gruesome death of a concubine and the battles that followed.

When did the events described in chapters 17 to 21 happen? Judges 20:28 tells us that Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, was high priest.

We know that Phinehas was alive when Moses was leading the Israelites (numbers 25:1-7) and that Phinehas’ father Eleazar died around the same time as Joshua (Joshua 24:33). We can therefore assume that Phinehas was high priest at the beginning of the 350 years covered by the book of Judges. Therefore the events of chapters 17 to 21 took place soon after the death of Joshua before the first judge was appointed. The story of Micah fits in to the period described in Judges 2: 11. It is a picture of how quickly people turned from God and started to do what was right in their own eyes.

2. The second reason is that the book gives us examples of seasons of light, when the people did behave in a totally different way, in other words they did what was right in God’s eyes. For example:-

Judges 4:4-5 – the people were taking advice from Deborah, God’s appointed prophet.

Judges 6: Under Gideon the army obeyed God’s instructions to the letter in order to defeat the Midianites.

Judges 11 – the people ask Jephthah, a man of faith, to be their leader.

3. In addition, there is in fact one other detailed account of what life was like in the time of the judges. We find it in the very next book of the Bible, which is the book of Ruth.

This account paints a very different picture. Here we have a beautiful account of life in a village. We do not read about prostitutes or idol worship, but instead we find at the centre of the story a godly man who is keeping God’s law. That man’s name is Boaz.

What is interesting is that the events detailed in the book of Ruth took place in the middle or towards the end of the period of the judges. So we have two detailed portraits of life during this period: one from near the beginning of that time when things were universally bad, and one from later on in which the situation is generally good.

If we want to understand what life was like we should read Judges 17 to 21 and the book of Ruth together.

4. There is one final point to show how this period was not universally bad. There is an overlooked phrase that occurs throughout the book of Judges. It occurs five times and can be found in chapters 3 (twice), 4, 6 and 10. We read it first in Judges 3:9 “the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord”.

What is the first and best evidence that people are turning back to and following the Lord? When they cry unto the Lord! This happened again and again during the period of the Judges. If you woke up tomorrow and the news headline was “The people of Britain cry out to God because of their sins” would you not think that revival had started in the UK?

So although there were periods when the people did what was right in their own eyes, there were also periods when God had mercy on the people and when some repented and turned back to God.

It is important to see that the Judges role was not just as military leaders. The very title “judge” should alert us to that. In 1 Chronicles 17:6 the Lord tells David that He commanded the judges to shepherd his people. Their purpose was therefore also to lead and guide, not just to fight and war. It is significant that in the case of one judge (Jair) we do not read of any military campaigns.

The period of the judges was not a golden era. But it was not the deep dark era that some paint it either. Instead it is an era of decline, fall, oppression, confession and restoration, followed by another period when the same cycle was repeated, over and over again.

This means that the book of Judges is very relevant for the church today. Surely we can see that the church of God has gone through and is going through the same cycle? Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of church history will know this.

As a church we need to learn the lessons of the period of the judges. We need to see the importance of the church staying faithful to God, faithful in worship and faithful in doctrine. We need to see afresh the importance of appointing godly leaders who give us a godly example to follow.

And what about us? If we are honest, don’t we all have to admit that we see the same scenario repeated time after time in our own lives? Surely we too need to learn the lesson that sin does not pay but that it leads to ruin.

Most of those reading this live in a time and in a country where it is very easy to be a Christian. There is no real persecution on a day to day basis, and the danger can be that as a result our faith becomes flabby and lukewarm and we allow idols to creep in. This happened time and again to the Israelites and if we are not careful will happen to us as well.

Think for instance of the general attitude to the Lord’s Day. Has not a causal attitude slipped in so that many Christians treat Sunday just like any other day once the service is over? Think about attendance at prayer meetings. Has not our easy and peaceful life meant that those who attend the prayer meetings of the church are a small fraction of those who attend the Lord’s Day services? Think about Christian service. Do not many churches now find it difficult to find those willing to lead mid week young people’s meetings, Sunday School or even to undertake a simple task like cleaning the church premises?

The book of Judges will give us the reasons why this is happening in many churches and the way back to God. But more important than all this is the fact that the twelve judges all point to the greatest Judge of all - the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our great deliverer. As we look at the lives of the judges we will be able to see how they all in some reflect his life, his work and his saving power. Judges is supremely a book about salvation, God’s salvation. It is all about God rescuing undeserving sinners from the mess that they have created for themselves. It is a book about God’s long suffering patience, about God’s grace and mercy. What more important theme can there be for us to meditate on and grasp for ourselves?

(1) I am indebted in my interpretation of the book of Judges to the analysis found in chapters 13 and 14 of Not Like Any Other Book by Dr. Peter Masters, published by Wakeman Trust.

(2) Not Like Any Other Book page 110

(3) Not Like Any Other Book pages 157-159

Thank you for reading this message. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc.

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