The first three Judges

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Let me remind you immediately that when you hear the title ‘judge’ in this context you shouldn’t think of a long wig and a wood-panelled courtroom. Rather, a judge was a ruler, a leader, often a warrior. The Book of Judges tells the stories of twelve of the judges of Israel. In our passage are short accounts of the first three judges. They were Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar.

Now I doubt you will hear many sermons on Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar in your lifetime, so make the most of this. It’s a very rare and exciting occasion. It reminds me of an episode of the Antiques Roadshow I saw the other day. A lady brought along an ugly looking lump of a glass vase that she’d bought for £1, because she wanted the plant that was in it. The expert was trying to contain his excitement as he examined it. He pointed to a name on the base: Lalique. By the way, if you have a vase you don’t like that has the name Lalique engraved on it, don’t stick it in the bin. He valued the vase at £25,000.

Judges 3.7-31 is, you might think, a rather ugly looking lump of antique history. Truth is, though, as long as we don’t just throw it out, it can be immensely valuable to us. If we take heed of the warnings and take heart from the encouragements we can find untold spiritual wealth here. Because God hasn’t changed, we can grow in our knowledge of him. And that’s priceless.

I have three headings this evening, each relating to one of our three judges. They are, first, ‘The slippery slope of sin’. That relates to the story of the judge Othniel in verses 7-11. Then, secondly, ‘The saving grace of God’. That’s Ehud in verses 12-30. Then, thirdly, ‘The unsung servant of God’. That’s Shamgar in verse 31. And that’s our trio of judges of Israel. So:

First, The slippery slope of sin

Take a look at verses 7-11, and the story of Othniel. This is really the story of the whole Book of Judges in miniature. This is the pattern that’s repeated again and again.

Slippery slopes are exciting but they are also dangerous. All the long, tall slides that as a boy I used to throw myself down with glee on the Recreation Ground along the road from our home have long since been replaced with little low things on bouncy rubber mats. Not such fun but safer. The Israelites didn’t believe in health and safety. Over and over they hurled themselves into spiritual danger. Here’s verse 7:

'The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and Asherahs.'

Now I call it a slope, but it’s not a straight slide this. It goes round in a circle. There is in these verses a cycle. And it isn’t just a cycle they go round once. They go round again and again. What is more, this is not a roundabout. This is a helter-skelter. This is a downward spiral, because every time the Israelites go round it, when they start the cycle again they are more deeply mired in sin. The sin gets progressively worse and worse. This is not my speculation. This is spelled out back in 2.19. Glance across to that:

'But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshipping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.'

What’s their sin? It’s not just thinking, it’s doing. It’s not just believing, it’s behaving. It’s both idolatry and immorality. Idolatrous thinking inevitably leads to immoral acting. When as a society we forget the Lord our God, as the Israelites did, as night follows day our moral behaviour slides into the gutter. And individually too we need to be clear that what we believe and how we relate to the living God has a profound effect on how we live.

The narrative of the Book of Judges is packed with significant detail. One example is in that little phrase ‘in the eyes of the Lord’.

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.

They didn’t just do evil. They did evil ‘in the eyes of the Lord’. Us too. When we sin, we too are doing evil ‘in the eyes of Lord’. We are doing that which God says is evil, and we know it – just as they did. And when we sin it’s not only wrong (which it is). It is a personal affront to God, who sees what is done. God says what is right. God sees what is done. When we sin, we forget the Lord our God.

What are the next steps in the cycle once the Israelites have sinned? Verse 8:

'The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years.

The sin is followed by God’s anger in response. As Dale Ralph Davis comments, this is not bad news (though it might sound it), nor is it good news (how could it be?) but it is good bad news. Why? Because such anger is the response of love. As Davis puts it:

'The covenant God who has bound himself to his people will not allow them to become cozy in their infidelity. [Dale Ralph Davis: ‘Such a Great Salvation’]

So the judgement falls and (irony of ironies) the God who rescued them out of slavery ‘sold them’ back into slavery to a king whose name means ‘Cushan the doubly wicked’. God’s judgement is always a fearful reversal of his covenant blessings.

But he is merciful, and he sees not only the sin of the Israelites but their suffering. Verse 9:

But when they cried out to the Lord he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.

Whether the cry of the Israelites was just an expression of their anguish or whether it represents a real repentance is not clear. But it is ‘to the Lord’ that they cry. They’re not forgetting him any more. Even though their motives may be mixed, they realise that the Lord is the one they need. And when we come to our senses and realise that the sinful path we’re on is leading to disaster, we too need to cry out to the Lord. There can be no experience of salvation without repentance and faith.

And when we cry out, God acts to save us. To the Israelites he sends Othniel, the warrior-judge. He has a powerful pedigree, being related to Caleb. Remember Caleb? He was one of only two Israelites who were allowed to enter the promised land…

… because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly…

… as God says (that’s Numbers 14.24). We’re not told much about Othniel, but we’re told enough to know that he displays the characteristics of one of God’s deliverers. He receives God’s Spirit. He rules over God’s people. He engages the enemies of God’s people. He overpowers those enemies. And he is victorious.

Who does that remind you of? Othniel is in a long line of deliverers who foreshadow the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus. Othniel is just a very, very pale shadow of our deliverer, who destroys Satan and all his works and rescues us from sin and death. But Othniel points us to Jesus and for that we can be thankful.

And what is the result of Othniel’s deliverance? Verse 11:

'So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died.'

There is an extended era of peace – a generation of blessing. When we obey the Lord, we benefit. When a society increases in obedience to God, the whole society benefits.

But such peace and prosperity brings with it danger, because our sinful tendencies are deep-seated and tenacious. So they were in the hearts of the Israelites. As a result, the story of the next judge, Ehud, begins with the tragic and terrible words (this is verse 12):

Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…

And on they go round and down the helter-skelter, the vicious circle, the downward spiral of sin. They are a powerful warning to us. We must not forget the Lord our God – or we find ourselves on the slippery slope of sin. That’s the first judge’s story – Othniel. What of Ehud? We come then to my next main heading:

Secondly,The saving grace of God

Again it is the evil committed by God’s people that gets them into deep trouble. But that’s not so much the focus now. In the account of Ehud in verses 12-30, the focus is on how God rescued his people. It’s not sin but grace that dominates.

Admittedly it’s an extraordinary, bizarre, even shocking story – though undoubtedly gripping and unforgettable. I think that’s part of the purpose of these graphic Old Testament accounts. They take a vice-like grip on our imaginations and drive into our stony hearts and minds the truths of God’s word in a way that we simply cannot dislodge. And this story isn’t without its own variety of black humour either.

The simple truth here is that the Lord is a God who graciously and undeservedly saves us. And he does it in unexpected and even shocking ways. Ehud is no model for us. But once more, like Othniel, he is a judge who points us to the Saviour Jesus. Jesus, too, rescues us in a way that, if we could hear about it afresh, we would think unexpected and shocking.

As it is, we can’t forget the story of the cross of Christ once it’s gripped us. And I challenge you to forget this rescue of God’s people once you’ve heard it. I think you’ll find it hard. Let me read the account to you, and throw in a few comments as we go. From verse 12:

'12Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and because they did this evil the LORD gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13 Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms.'

Let me say there that we shouldn’t miss the fact that the City of Palms is Jericho. What was the first city that the Israelites were given after they entered the promised land? Jericho. And their victory over Jericho was miraculous as its walls collapsed at the sound of their trumpets. Jericho was a trophy of God’s grace and saving power. But again the downward spiral leads to a terrible irony. The Exodus blessing is withdrawn and undone. The enemies of God’s people overrun Jericho, the symbol of the Israelites’ entry into the promised land. And they are enslaved again. Verse 14:

'14 The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.'

Notice too who this victorious enemy of the Israelites was. It was Moab. Now Moab, out to the east of the Jordan river, was the last nation they would have expected to cause them aggravation. Yes, they had been seduced by Moab’s women back in the days before they crossed the Jordan into Canaan. But they’d never been opposed by Moab’s soldiers. Far from it. Numbers 22.1-2 tells us that the king of Moab back in those days…

… saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites.

Not any longer! Piling insult on injury, the very nation that once had trembled at the sound of their name was now their overlord. And it was God who gave king Eglon of Moab that power over them. God humbles the arrogant sinner who thinks he’s invulnerable. So Israel’s suffering starts all over again. Back to verse 15:

'15Again the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite.

Why are we told that Ehud was left-handed? Benjamin, the name of his tribe, actually means ‘Son of my right hand’. Being left-handed was often seen as a disadvantage – even became the pretext for prejudice. A bit like being a northerner and coming from Nazareth as Jesus did. Ehud, it seems, was not a natural hero. Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, even less so. But Ehud had a scheme to rid Israel of Eglon their oppressor.

'The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a foot and a half long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. 17 He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man.

You can think of Eglon as one of those tyrants who would have been a figure of fun had he not been so frightening – like, say, Idi Amin of Uganda.

18 After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way the men who had carried it.19 At the idols near Gilgal he himself turned back and said, "I have a secret message for you, O king." The king said, "Quiet!" And all his attendants left him.

So picture the scene. King Eglon is now alone with Ehud the harmless emissary from Israel. Not a good move, though little does he realise it.

'20 Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his summer palace and said, "I have a message from God for you." As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king's belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.'

Yuk. (That’s not in the text.)

23Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.

The black humour is just warming up. Listen to what happens next. We’re at verse 24:

24 After [Ehud] had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, "[King Eglon] must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house." 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their Lord fallen to the floor, dead.'

Fallen. Dead. Forget any hints of humour now. Ultimately it is the fate of all the enemies of the living God to fall and die unless they turn from their rebellion and cry out to him for mercy.

'26 While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah.27 When he arrived there, he blew a trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went down with him from the hills, with him leading them. 28"Follow me," he ordered, "for the LORD has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands." So they followed him down and, taking possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab, they allowed no one to cross over. 29 At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites, all vigorous and strong; not a man escaped.'

The Moabite army might have been powerful, but one plus God is a majority. When God is with us, we’re on the winning side. As the apostle Paul puts it in a New Testament context in Romans 8:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

The wonderful truth is that nothing and nobody is able to separate us from God’s love in Christ.

We are more then conquerors through him who loved us.

Back to Judges 3.30:

'30That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years.

Ehud’s rule as judge brought peace. Peace for two whole generations. But only partial peace, only temporary peace, and only earthly peace. The peace that Jesus brings might be incomplete in our experience now but one day it will be total; and it is eternal; and it is not only earthly but heavenly too. It is perfect peace. Not like Ehud’s peace. If we take a sneak preview into 4.1, we see these tragic words:'

After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord.

Round the helter-skelter of sin they go again. They are a warning to us. Heed the warning. But their deliverer Ehud – bizarre and shocking though his methods might have been – is a signpost to us. He points to the saving grace of God given to us in Jesus.

Amazing grace. How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me. [John Newton]

But we mustn’t overlook the last verse of chapter 3, and my final heading. So:

Thirdly: The unsung servant of God

Don’t make the mistake of forgetting our third judge, Shamgar. Take one last look at our passage, at verse 31: '

After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad. He too saved Israel.

It seems to me we can learn from the judges in two ways. When they deliver God’s people, they point us to Christ. But they also give us lessons in discipleship. Sometimes they’re examples of what not to do. But sometimes they’re positive role models. What are we supposed to learn from this ever so brief account of Shamgar? I’m not sure. But let me simply and briefly say this. Shamgar gets one verse. He might have been famous at the time. Now his life is reduced to just twenty words in this translation. But notice those last four words:

'He too saved Israel.'

Shamgar also played his part, by the grace of God. Let him be an example to us. We need to be content for our lives to be summed up in twenty words. We need to be content to be one-verse-disciples, as long as the last word is this: ‘He too served Christ’; ‘She too served the cause of the gospel’. We need to be content to be unsung servants of God like Shamgar.

Let’s bow our heads to pray.

Heavenly Father, we’re sorry that so often we get on to the slippery slope of sin. We praise you for your saving grace. Help us to be ready to be your unsung servants. Amen.

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