An Unhappy Ending

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When I was doing my GCSE English exam (all those years ago) I studied a book called 'the Lord of the Flies' by William Golding.  I don't know if you've ever read it.  It's the story of a group of British boys who get stranded on a desert Island.  To begin with everything is great - they pull together and have a fantastic adventure.  But soon things go very very wrong.  They boys begin fighting amongst themselves.  One of them is killed and another two, called Piggy and Ralph end up as fugitives on the island - hiding for their lives.  In the end Piggy is killed by Jack, and the book ends with Ralph running for his life through a blazing forest, pursued by what is little more than a pack of 12 year old savages.

The smoke attracts the attention of a naval ship, who come to investigate, and this is how it ends:

"'I should have thought,' said the officer 'that  a pack of British boys - you all British aren't you? - would have been able to put up a better show than this - I mean...'

'It was like that at first' Ralph said 'before things...We were together then.'

The officer nodded helpfully: 'I know, jolly good show.  Like coral island.'

Ralph looked at him dumbly.  For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once been the island.  But it was scorched up now - Simon was dead - and Jack had...The tears began to flow and sobs shook him.  Affected by his emotion all the other boys began to sob too, and in the middle of them all with filthy body, matted hair and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of that true wise friend called Piggy.

Ralph has come to realise, when there's everyone's been doing as he sees fit - and chaos is the result.

I wonder if Wiliam Golding had Judges in mind when he wrote this?  Tonight we've reached chapter 21 - the final chapter of Judges, and a final chance to look at what it was like in those days with no king.  So if you haven't already, do find Judges 21 in one of the Bibles, page X, and follow along with me as we go, and before we go any further, I'm going to pray:

So, lets get started in Judges 21.  And as we do I've got three headings, Problems and Solutions, The Real Problem, and The Real solution.  

Problems and Solutions

If you weren't here last week and didn't hear about chapters 19 and 20, it might be easy to get confused about what's going on here, and I don't have time to cover it all now, but Rob did a great job of that last week - so the best thing you can do is get onto the website - and have a listen.

Even if you were here last week, it's still easy to get confused in chapter 21 though, so let's try and get a handle on what's happening.

The story in chapter 21 starts back in chapter 19 where we hear about an utterly horrendous crime by the men of a town called Gibeah.  They end up raping and abusing a woman to death, and then, when Israel want to bring them to justice the rest of the tribe of Benjamin decide to protect them, showing at best complete indifference, at worst approval of their crime.  And so in chapter 20 the other 11 tribes unite to fight their brothers.  Thousands die, but eventually Benjamin is defeated.  Have a look at chapter 20 verse 46:

On that day twenty-five thousand Benjamite swordsmen fell, all of them valiant fighters. But six hundred men turned and fled into the desert to the rock of Rimmon, where they stayed four months. The men of Israel went back to Benjamin and put all the towns to the sword, including the animals and everything else they found. All the towns they came across they set on fire.

Israel never sunk so low.  They're supposed to be God's people.  They're supposed to be the nation to show the rest of the world what God is like.  But the writer of Judges shows us that instead, Israel have become just like the other nations around them.  If anything they're even worse.

So, by the end of chapter 20 Benjamin have been destroyed except for 600 fugitives hiding in a cave for four months.

Then after all that, comes chapter 21, follow it with me:

The men of Israel had taken an oath at Mizpah: "Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite." The people went to Bethel, where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly. "O LORD, the God of Israel," they cried, "why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?"

Before the battle Israel were so keen to destroy Benjamin, they swore an oath to stop any survivors getting wives.  Now, they've won, but they're not celebrating are they?  It's like they want to wake up from a bad dream.  They're supposed to be God's people.  He promised to keep them, but now 1/12 of them are missing.

There's just 600 men left, but no wives means no descendants so give it a few years and there'll be just 11 tribes in Israel.

So that's the problem: How can Israel fill the Benjamin shaped hole?  How can they find wives for 600 Benjamites when they've made an oath not to?

So they sit down and have a think, and someone has an idea.  What about that other oath we took?  Surely there's some way we could use that isn't there?

Look at verse 5 with me:

Then the Israelites asked, "Who from all the tribes of Israel has failed to assemble before the LORD?" For they had taken a solemn oath that anyone who failed to assemble before the LORD at Mizpah should certainly be put to death.

Then jump down to verse 8:

Then they asked, "Which one of the tribes of Israel failed to assemble before the LORD at Mizpah?" They discovered that no one from Jabesh Gilead had come to the camp for the assembly. For when they counted the people, they found that none of the people of Jabesh Gilead were there.

"Aha!  No one from Jabesh Gilead came to help us fight, and we also promised to kill any one who didn't come."  Let's read on from verse 10:

So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. "This is what you are to do," they said. "Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin." They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan.

Convenient isn't it?!

Israel use their consistency in keeping one oath to find a way round the other oath they want to break without technically having to break it!

But the problem's not over yet - Jabesh Gilead only provides 400 wives.  So they get together again and have another think.  How can we find another 200 wives and not break our oath? 

Then someone else has another idea - look at verse 19 

But look, there is the annual festival of the LORD in Shiloh, to the north of Bethel, and east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and to the south of Lebonah."  So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, "Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the girls of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, then rush from the vineyards and each of you seize a wife from the girls of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin.  When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, 'Do us a kindness by helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war, and you are innocent, since you did not give your daughters to them.' "

Perfect!  If the Benjamites kidnap women from Shiloh, then the men of Shiloh haven't given them.  That way they can have wives and no one gets their hands dirty having to break any oaths.

And so Judges ends.  Israel seem pretty content: in verse 24 everyone goes home, even disgruntled fathers and brothers in Shiloh.  It's as if they're saying "It's OK, the Benjamin episode is over, we can all breath a sigh of relief."

But it's not a very comfortable ending is it?  Yes, Benjamin haven't been completely destroyed, and are at least on speaking terms with their brothers again, but the way Israel have sorted out the problem leaves a sour taste doesn't it?

So I guess the question is: what are we to make of all this?

And that question brings me to my second heading:

The real problem

If we're honest, it's difficult to know.  On one hand Israel are right to weep.  To begin with it looks like the promises of God have failed.  Their oaths may have been a touch foolish, but they're oaths all the same and need dealing with somehow.  You could even argue that the attack on Jabesh Gilead was justified because their failure to turn up for battle spells indifference to Gibeah's crime. 

But then, did you notice that Israel don't actually ask God what they should do?  They ask why this has happened but then come up with elaborate plans of their own, designed to look superficially obedient whilst actually heading into deeper moral chaos.  So, whilst they're so keen to keep their oaths, they sanction the kidnap and rape of 600 women to sort out the problem caused by their reaction to the rape of 1. 

Some of chapter 21 looks kind of right, but lots is still horribly wrong.

And I think that ambiguity is the whole point of this chapter.  Look at verse 25:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes...

Do you see?  At each turn, Israel try to figure out what they think is right.  But, every time they do what's right in their own eyes.  God is king, but everything in these chapters, is done ignoring His authority. Whether that's the horrendous crime of Gibeah, or some of the more the kind-of-acceptable bits of chapter 21.  We mustn't get this wrong and think what Israel need here is to be put back on the straight and narrow by a strong king.  No, the problem here is much deeper than that, because in their hearts they're consistently ignoring God's authority.

In fact, chapter 21 reminds me a bit of MPs and their expenses:Remember when that scandal first broke.  MP after MP was being named in the papers.  It was a complete mess.  And MP after MP defended themselves saying "But we haven't broken any rules.  We've played it by the book."  And society went mad didn't it?  Because however well they'd stayed within the rules, it didn't matter.  They made the rules in the first place, then, when they were careful to look superficially obedient, underneath it all they were doing whatever was right in their own eyes.  Whether that was paying a mortgage, building a moat, or buying a duck island...

And there's the difficulty for us.  It would be easier for us if we could just condemn Israel for chapters 19 and 20 and hold all this at arms length.  But it gets a bit uncomfortable when Israel try and look obedient by keeping their rules, but deep down are still ignoring God doesn't it?

But we shouldn't be surprised if we're uncomfortable when we see that.  Because the thing about these chapters of Judges, as Rob said last week, is that they show us our own hearts.  This is what we're like.  Ignoring God's authority and doing what I want is the definition of sin.  And its what we're all like.

So this is the challenge to: Are we living under God's authority?

Is everything we do because God is our king or do we try to live by our own home-made rules?

Deep down we'd much rather have a list of rules that we can follow to look obedient - a list of 10 rules I can maybe cope with, but a heart fully devoted to God as king is a tough challenge and I don't know about you but I fall into that trap all the time.  How many times have you aimed to read your Bible regularly, or come along to church, not because God is your king but because, it will make your life go better, or because you want to impress your friends? 

Are we living with God as king or are we in danger of superficial obedience?  Israel here struggle to keep their oaths but sanction rape and kidnap.  Are there areas of your life where you know you're ignoring God's authority but doing nothing about it because you think you're "being good" in other areas?

The point of Judges 21 is that whatever happens, if you don't have God as king over all of you, then you don't have him at all.  All you end up doing is what's right in your own eyes, however acceptable that might look.

And that brings me to my final heading:

The real solution

You've probably noticed the title I was given this evening is "An Unhappy Ending."  But when you read verse 25 it doesn't feel like an ending does it?  It's like it's supposed to have three dots after it:

In those days Israel had no king, everyone did what was right in his own eyes dot..dot..dot!

What kind of ending is that?

The kind that points beyond itself.  This is the kind of ending that's supposed to make us sit up and go - so what now?  That can't be the end!  What about your promises God? You can't just leave it like that can you?  You can't just leave the people who are your representatives just behaving like everyone else. What about your authority?  What about your glory?

Judges throws up more questions than it answers.  What is God going to do about all this?  If the people around Israel deserved destruction, then that's what Israel deserve too isn't it?  So what happens next?

Well turn over one page in your Bibles. The very next book of the Bible is Ruth (Women's fellowship know it) - and who was she?  David's great grandmother.  And who was David?  The king of Israel.  The king they didn't have in the days of judges.  He was the one described as a king after God's own heart - a representative of God's authority, and he was the one who pointed forward even further to the real king.  The real solution to this problem.  Jesus.

God hasn't given up on Israel.  They might run as far away from him as we can imagine, but he won't let them go.  Even through the period of the judges, then the kings, then the exile, God's promise to save his people remains.  And by the time Jesus comes, after the exiles in Assyria and Babylon, it's significant that although there's only two complete tribes left in Israel, one of them is Benjamin.

That's what our God is like!  He won't let his authority be ignored forever, but will pursue people who treat him like as if he's some domesticated pet, giving him the odd cursory nod every now and then, and bring them back under his authority.  All for his glory because he's King.

So for the last few minutes of our time I want us to turn to that New Testament reading we heard earlier - Revelation chapter 19 verses 11-16.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron scepter."  He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

Now that's what I'd call an ending!  And actually that's the ending.  This is Jesus.  Not gentle Jesus meek and mild.  Not Jesus a good buddy to have in a tight spot, but King Jesus.  He sits on a white horse.  He's dressed in white. He administers justice. He rules.  This is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  This is a king who's authority is not going to be questioned.  This is a king who's not going to let his people ignore him.

And that's where we're headed.  Towards the return of this king.  The one who's authority we so easily forget or ignore.  One day every knee will bow to this king, how much better then to stop doing what's right in our own eyes, and bow willingly in joyful submission to his authority?

Because we know don't we.  The reason He came, the reason he died and the reason he rose is so that we could be free to do just that!

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