Tonight we begin a new series in the Old Testament book of Judges.
But why study the Old Testament? Why study Judges – at first sight a barbaric book? Don’t you there learn about the “holy war” where the aim is to annihilate groups of people and destroy whole cities? This, of course, is a major factor in what is called “the problem of the Old Testament”. It is not, however, a new problem. And there have been four basic ways of dealing with it.
First, some have said, “Reject the Old Testament as not worthy of the God and Father of Jesus Christ.” Soon after the Apostles’ time, Marcion suggested the rejection of the Old Testament. But this proposal was then and still is opposed by the mainstream of the Christian Church as heresy. The fact is Jesus and his Apostles endorsed the Old Testament. So must we. It was their Bible. In the first days of the Church the New Testament had not been written.
So when Jesus says in John 5.39,
“the Scriptures testify about me”
, he is referring to the Old Testament. Its history of salvation culminates in Christ. The predicted new covenant – following the 4th of God’s Old Testament covenants - came with Christ. The negative human response in Old Testament times to God’s saving action shows the need for the forgiveness and strength of Christ. And Old Testament “wisdom” points to Christ’s wisdom. Christ fulfils and completes the Old Testament.
Paul also is referring to the Old Testament when he writes in 2 Timothy 3.16 and 17:
“All Scripture [ie the whole Old Testament ] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
We all should be working for God’s kingdom. And God’s kingdom is where God’s will is done. True, Gods’ will now is sometimes different to what it was in Old Testament times. But trusting, obeying, teaching, persevering in, being opposed for doing God’s will is the same now as it was then. Of course, you cannot reject the Old Testament. You must learn from it.
Secondly, some have decided to pick and choose the bits they like. They don’t reject all the Old Testament - just some of it. But as Paul says, it is “all Scripture” that is “God-breathed”. And Jesus speaking of the Old Testament “law” said:
“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Mat 5.17-18).
So, thirdly, other people have tried to allegorize the Old Testament to avoid what they see as embarrassing. But as the 16th century Reformers saw so clearly, that is hardly the best way to understand the Old Testament.
How, then, do you understand the Old Testament?
Well, the fourth way is spelt out in Article VII on the Old Testament of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. It first teaches that Christ was active in Old Testament times. Certainly Romans 3.25 suggests that his death was retrospective and related to people like “Gideon, Barak, Samson [and] Jepthah – Old Testament judges”. Hebrews 11.32 speaks of them and says they were commended for their faith for all their faults. And remember that God in Old Testament times was the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But Article VII goes on to say that,
“although the law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites [ie the ritual law] do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof [ie rules for corporate or political activity] ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”
Jesus Christ fulfilled the ritual sacrificial law when he died for our sins on the Cross bearing our guilt. So his “once for all” sacrifice means other ritual sacrifices are no longer required.
And God’s revelation is progressive. Remember, then, that before Christ the church and state were, so to speak, all one. So politically something required centuries before Christ is not “of necessity” for after Christ’s coming when the church and state are separate. That is true of the Holy War. Yes, learn from its principles but not its practice. When Jesus was not welcomed in a Samaritan village, his disciples, James and John, thought they could be like Elijah in ancient Israel. So they asked (Luke 9.54):
"’Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’" But Jesus turned and rebuked them.”
Another example is forbidding the charging of interest in Exodus and Leviticus. What protects a borrower at one stage of an economy, such as Israel’s economy in the desert, can be a hardship at a later stage. A borrower can only be too glad to borrow at reasonable interest for a business project in which both the lender and the borrower profit. So Jesus can endorse interest in his Parable of the Talents. There it was not naked robbery.
But fundamental moral principles like the wrongness of robbery you have in the Ten Commandments. They do not change. Indeed, Jesus applies these Commandments in a radical way in the Sermon on the Mount.
So you must interpret the Bible as a whole – the Old in the light of the New and the New in the light of the Old.
Well, so much by way of introduction. Can we now look at Judges chapter 1? And my headings tonight are first, THE CHALLENGE THEN; secondly, GOD’S ACTION AND HUMAN RFESPONSE; and thirdly, THE CHALLENGE TODAY.
First, THE CHALLENGE THEN
Look at verse 1:
“After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, ‘Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?’”
This is a key moment in the life of God’s people. Freed from Egypt they spent 40 years in the desert as nomadic pastoral people – food gathering with some sheep and cattle. Then at last they crossed over the Jordan under Joshua into the Promised Land. And they were now in, to them, a new world. It was so new. It was the beginning of the iron age. Verse 19 speaks of the Canaanites having “iron chariots”. Iron now could be smelted economically. And the Israelites were also discovering the science of agriculture. Life was changing.
But the people in this new world that (to the Israelites) would have seemed so sophisticated were utterly pagan and wicked. Here is how the book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha describes them (I quote the New English Bible translation):
“the ancient inhabitants of thy holy land were hateful to thee for their loathsome practices, their sorcery and unholy rites, ruthless murders of children, cannibal feasts of human flesh and blood; they were initiates of a secret ritual in which parents slaughtered their defenceless children” (Wisdom 12.3-6).
Child sacrifice was an essential part of the local fertility religions. These people believed that their rituals (involving sex as well as child sacrifice) would mean good harvests and prosperity. And with a chance at prosperity, you can be enticed whatever the folly - witness the lottery or fruit machines with us. Here were temptations for the people of God with a capital “T”.
And being so evil the Old Testament makes it clear that these Baalistic fertility religions must be destroyed. The Holy War, therefore, and the destruction of the Canaanites was a judgment of God on gross wickedness. But God did not want this judgement. He gave time, we are told, for repentance (as Genesis 15 verse 16 says). And Deuteronomy 9.5 says:
“It is not because of your righteousness or integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God will drive them out before you to accomplish what he swore to your father, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
So the challenge now in Judges to God’s people is this: will they oppose this new culture – not the new science of agriculture or iron smelting, but this evil belief system? Or will they compromise over child sacrifice being seduced by the sexual immorality in a false hope of prosperity?
And the challenge was all the greater now they were without a clear leader. Joshua, Moses’ successor, was dead. He had been a rallying point for all the tribes.
How like to today and the situation in the evangelical Christian world. The three great leaders of the second half of the 20th century are passing. Billy Graham is now 90 and infirm. John Stott is frail and in a retirement home. Jim Packer is still active but elderly.
Yes, God raised up various “judges” to save his people from the various messes they got themselves into, as we shall see. However, these were not men like Moses or Joshua. So too, today, God is raising up new leaders. Let’s pray that they avoid the mistakes of some of these ancient Judges. There was indeed a challenge.
Secondly, GOD’S ACTION AND HUMAN RESPONSE
The great message of the book of Judges is that God is in control of history and that even though God’s people failed him and were faithless, God remained faithful. He was continually acting for them and to save them through the Judges.
Under Joshua the people of Israel had gained a measure of control in the land. But there was still, in military terms, a mopping up to do. Look at verses 1-4:
“After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, ‘Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?’ The LORD answered, ‘Judah is to go; I have given the land into their hands.’ Then the men of Judah said to the Simeonites their brothers, ‘Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.’ So the Simeonites went with them. When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek.”
God was faithfully at work. He had given the land into the hands of Judah (verse 2).
Chapter 1 verses 3-18 then tell how the men of Judah and the Simeonites were generally successful.
But then there is an ominous verse – verse 19:
“The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.”
Was this due to faithlessness? Psalm 20 verse 7 says:
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”
Remember God is always greater than the latest scientific invention. Maybe the men of Judah did not believe this. You then read in verse 21 that …
“The Benjamites … failed to dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem.”
But verse 8 has already told us that Judah had taken Jerusalem. Obviously they hadn’t taken it completely.
Similarly you read in verses 22 - 26 of the success of the House of Joseph and that (verse 22) “the Lord was with them.” God was acting.
But then verses 27 – 36 tell how the tribe of Manasseh and other northern tribes were failing to drive out the Canaanites. Verse 27 says that “the Canaanites were determined to live in the land.” And verse 28 says that even when Israel was strong they “never drove them out completely.” And the result? The people of Israel allowed themselves to live side by side with the Canaanites.
But the divine command at Sinai years ago had been clear - Ex 23:33:
“Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.”
These Canaanites were not a military but a spiritual problem. God knew that if there was no firm action, his people would soon be worshipping the Baals and getting into all the Canaanite evil practices. But like bad surgeons his people were only removing part of the cancer.
And the result was dire as you can see from verses 1-5 of chapter 2:
“The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, “I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.” Yet you have disobeyed me [they were allowing all these terrible religious practices – such as child sacrifice to continue when they had a chance to stop them]. Why have you done this? Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’ When the angel of the LORD had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, and they called that place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the LORD.”
God somehow, through a spokesmen, made things quite clear. God would allow his people to have what they wanted – the Canaanites living with them. Nor would this lead to material well being but the opposite - “thorns in your sides” (verse 3). And there would be spiritual corruption – verse 3:
“their gods will be a snare to you.”
So the people wept aloud.
But was that just remorse (not liking the mess they were in or going to be in) or genuine repentance (a real change of heart)? God alone knows.
Who tonight is in a mess through something you have done wrong; but you are only feeling sorry for yourself? Rather, pray as David did after he sinned for true repentance towards God and a change of heart. David’s Psalm 51.10 says:
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
So God was active – giving his people the power to defeat their enemies. Their response, however, was to cosy up to these enemies and not defeat them.
What then …
… thirdly, is THE CHALLENGE TODAY.
Our situation is like the Judges’. We have a form of child sacrifice – abortion on demand and, of course, rampant sexual immorality encouraged in our schools, our clinics and even in some churches.
The book of Judges warns us of compromise. You see, Judges is not primarily a history book, though it contains history.
The Jews called it, as they did, all the Old Testament historical books, “prophecy”. These books through lessons from history are God speaking to warn us against evil, to encourage us to trust and obey him, and then, in the light of Christ, to seek his forgiveness and the strength of his Holy Spirit. Who needs to do that tonight – perhaps for the first time?
And Judges challenges us today to fight evil. By Jesus time it was clear that the real enemy was not human but supernatural. That is where the spiritual war fundamentally has to be fought. So Paul says (Eph 6.12):
“our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
So the question is: are you compromising with “the spiritual forces of evil” or fighting against them? How is your spiritual fight in the big moral issues of life? And what about the little acts of care and concern? Are you a disciplined soldier or sloppy and slipshod?
The Book of Judges warns us against spiritual sloppiness and compromise. It encourages us to fight well; but it also reminds us that God hears us when we cry to him when we know we’ve failed. God saved then – he saves now.
As we will be learning, in those ancient times he sent Judges to save the people from their enemies. Our side of Easter we have an infinitely greater Saviour – the risen and reigning Jesus Christ.
So be his faithful soldier and servant until your life’s end.