It's been said that the events of these chapters are without exception the sort of thing on which sermons are never preached, even among Bible believing Christians. Dale Ralph Davis writes: "Their hearts whisper softly and tenderly that there's no need to wrestle with such Scripture when they can be meditating on Philippians." Yet these chapters should be wrestled with, especially, perhaps, at such a time as this, and tonight we come to these last three chapters of Judges, under a heading from the very last verse of the book – everyone did as he saw fit.
It's a verse which is still so relevant for today's church and state. Listen to what's been in the news over the last month.
The House of Lords vote to allow civil partnership ceremonies in churches, following an amendment by a gay Labour Muslim peer Lord Alli. The Bishop of Newcastle votes for the amendment.
Civil partners of clergy will get pension rights from the Church of England.
The Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, says the church must agree to disagree over homosexuality.
The Bishop of Washington in the USA has authorised his clergy to solemnise gay civil marriages.
A practising lesbian, Mary Glasspool, has been elected and approved as Assistant Bishop of Los Angeles by ECUSA.
Crisis grips Catholic Church as sex abuse allegations widen, largely cases of sexual abuse of boys. Cardinal Sean Brady has allegedly admitted attending meetings where two 10 year old boys were forced to sign vows of silence over complaints against Father Brendan Smyth, who continued abusing children for a further 18 years.
RBS Bank chief retires with £13m pension – an annual pension of £582,000. Yet the bank had to borrow billions of tax payers' pounds just to stay afloat.
Fifteen year old boy stabbed to death in London allegedly by a gang of teens.
Everyone is doing as he sees fit.
And these final three chapters of Judges are about morality, about ignoring God and his laws, about each person doing what is right in their own eyes and especially about God's people doing so. Chapters 17 & 18 were about that in terms of 'religion' and it would be typical of Israel in the time of the judges to say that surely 'religion' is more important than morality? But the truth is you learn more about whether someone is right with God from the quality of his life than from the style of their religion. And in these chapters we see how the people of God actually live when they have to follow his authority for themselves instead of having an intermediary to tell them what to do. But we must also ask that question of ourselves – how do we behave when we're on our own? It's said that more porn channels are switched on in hotel rooms when church ministers are gathering for a conference than at any other time. What about us when we're home alone or when we're on the internet or when we're away? Is our weekday life very different to our Sunday life?
The events of chapters 19-21 are truly dreadful. Here we see a morality adrift from its moorings just as we see today. In this account of a Levite or priest the rules of holy living, which is true worship, are broken wholesale and lead to others being broken. Sin and its consequences are dire, all of which brings us to my first point:
1. EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT - THE DEPRAVITY OF GOD'S PEOPLE Judges 19
1…Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2But she was unfaithful to him.
Everyone did as he saw fit. A Levite, a priest, taking a concubine suggests he was polygamous and even though this happened at that time it wasn't God's intention. She was then unfaithful to him and went back to her father. The Levite then went back to Bethlehem to persuade her to return. Now relations with the girl's father went well at first. V3&4:
3…when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him 4[and] prevailed upon him to stay; so he remained with him three days.
But hospitality then became pressure to stay (v5-9). The Levite (v10) then felt he simply couldn't stay any longer even though he and the others wouldn't be able to get very far before nightfall. So his father-in-law's pressure and thoughtlessness was then compounded by his own folly. They came to Jebus, later to become Jerusalem, but the Levite (v12) didn't feel confident about stopping at an alien city. Instead they stopped at Gibeah in Benjamin. But ironically they might have been better off back in Jebus. V15:
They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night.
What had happened to hospitality? It was important for God's people to show hospitality not only to people they knew but also to strangers; just as it is for God's people today. Hebrews 13:2:
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Which is part of 'loving your neighbour', the commandment that is second only to loving God. And, of course, your neighbour could be anybody, a visiting traveller, for example. So hospitality to visitors or strangers is very near the heart of morality. It's one reason why our welcome to newcomers and visitors is so important as a church. And also to our mission partners when they're visiting. And each one of us has a role to play in that. But we're not to be thoughtless and pressurise as the Levite's father-in-law did! Otherwise the newcomers and visitors might feel they have to leave rather like the Levite and of course our mission partners also need some space!
Anyway here at Gibeah it was the lack of hospitality that was the issue. Only a visitor to Gibeah spoke to them and offered them accommodation. V20:
"You are welcome at my house," the old man said. "Let me supply whatever you need. Only don't spend the night in the square."
So what was going on at night in the square? What was going on was truly shocking. The only comparable passage in the whole of the Bible is the description of what led to the Lord's obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. They were heathen cities, but Gibeah was Israelite. It was meant to be different. Just as today the church is meant to be different. Yet everyone did as he saw fit.
It wasn't just that the wicked men of Gibeah got together for an orgy at night, that they came out into the town square to enjoy it openly, that it was going to involve rape and even male rape; and that it led to the death of the concubine. All that was incredible enough. It was that all this was expected and even accepted as part of the regular night life of the town! And all this among God's people!! V22:
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him."
Clearly they wanted homosexual sex in the form of gang rape. An abomination to God several times over. The wicked men of the city were offering exactly the opposite of hospitality – gross sexual immorality and, as we'll see in a moment, murder. They did not care what happened to the visitors as long as their own sexual desires were met. It's what can happen in this country in terms of sex trafficking, prostitution rings and pornography. It's the 'welcome' and 'hospitality' some visitors to this country get.
Even the old man had a perverted sense of hospitality. The Levite was his guest, so he couldn't possibly hand him over – that would be a vile thing. But he's prepared to allow his daughter and the concubine to be disgustingly abused. The old man said to the mob (v23-24):
23…"No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. 24Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing." 25But (v25&26) the men would not listen to him. So the Levite took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.
The men were wicked but the Levite, the priest, behaved cowardly and wickedly too. He allowed and contributed to all that happened. Rather like those Anglican and Catholic bishops and priests I mentioned earlier. Now his concubine was dead (v28). The priest had forced her outside to be abused and killed. Did her murder bring him to his senses? Well (v29) his last gruesome act perhaps suggests that the one who committed such an outrageous act is at last now outraged himself. V29:
When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.
You see sending her body parts to each of the 12 tribes of Israel was intended to awaken Israel from its immoral state, to appeal to whatever might be left of her conscience and to encourage the tribes to face up to their responsibility.
What will it take to awaken us – the church today? You see this horrendous account reminds us what immoral times we are living in, what depths of depravity we are plumbing, with the church following suit and even taking a lead in some areas, calling evil good. Everyone did as he saw fit. And in the context of Judges 'everyone' is Israel. It's those who've been called to be a people for the Lord's own possession who are refusing to be subject to his covenant law! They will not have God rule over them! Is this not a word for the church today, especially in the west? And what about us – what about you and me? Are we not outraged at what is going on? If not are we compromising with it? Are we becoming de-sensitized to sin? Are we battling the world, the flesh and the devil in the power of the Spirit or just giving in? Surely there needs to be a peaceful Christian uprising, and we need to be a part of it, but it's one which begins on our knees in repentance and faith. 2 Chronicles 7:14:
…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Will we wake up, repent and play our part in being salt and light for this and the next generation? Israel did wake up to an extent and came together in an uprising against Gibeah and so against the Benjamites. It wasn't peaceful on either side which brings us to
2. THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD'S JUDGMENT – Judges 20
Israel's unity (v1-11) against Benjamin is impressive. But it's also tragic in that it's a unity of Israel against Israel. Why couldn't Israel ever get that united against the Midianites or the Philistines? Why is it that when Israel can really get itself together it's against – Israel? And it can be the same with us – with God's people today. We should be united in the gospel in our witness to the world proclaiming repentance and faith in Christ as well as in our commitment to the reform of God's church. Benjamin was also united (v13). And at first they were unbeatable until their cockiness got the better of them (v31-32) and they were left with just 600 survivors (v47). But you might be asking in all the setbacks and slaughter what was God doing? Was he even present at all in all the chaos? And if so what could he possibly be doing in such a mess? Well v35a is key to our understanding of what God is doing in chapter 20:
The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel…
That is how we're to understand this wild bloody episode. Benjamin's defeat was the manifestation of God's judgment. God used Israel to bring his judgment on Gibeah and Benjamin. Now there are still questions that we may have about the events of this chapter such as if that was so why did Israel suffer the two defeats of v18 & 24? One possible answer is that God was judging Israel in those two defeats. After the second defeat they are certainly far more repentant – v26: they weep, sit before the Lord, fast and offer sacrifices. Then (v28) the Lord says to them, "Go up, for tomorrow I will give him into your hand." So there's a warning here to us – to our pride which can grow most obese when it gazes on the more blatant sins of others. We must remain humble trusting in Christ.
Even so God's favour was on Israel. Yes they were eventually victorious but throughout they receive divine guidance (v18, 23 & 27-28). And Israel had access to God's guidance through the high priest. Israel had the means of grace. But Benjamin had none of that – they already stand under judgment. And what judgment can be worse than having no counsel from God, no access to his presence, no way through the divine silence? Is this not divine judgment – that he leaves us alone? He left the Benjamites to themselves – to the grand isolation of their own wits and they fell.
And as Davis says, "Some Christians will delude themselves by thinking this sort of judgment could fall on OT Israelites but never on God's people in this age. But see what Jesus says in Mark 4:24-25. On the other hand, we may be veritably crushed and yet have hope, because, in the middle of all our scourges or afflictions, we simply have access to the Father through Christ our great high priest (Hebrews 10:19-22)."
3. THE GRACE OF GOD – Judges 21
Israel had intended to eradicate Benjamin (v48 of chapter 20 and v1 of 21). But after their victory they weep and are devastated that one tribe is now missing in Israel (v3). Their solution involved taking retribution on Jabesh-Gilead, justly because that group had failed to provide troops for Israel and so had colluded with Benjamin and had failed to spare virgins so that they could be given as wives to Benjamin (v8-14) to help rebuild the tribe. But Israel also acts unjustly in all this as they unnecessarily wipe out the women and children (v10) and then trample happily on the rights of the Shiloh girls and their families (v19-22). Israel became as urgent to preserve Benjamin as they'd been rabid to destroy him and resorted to injustice to maintain their own consistency. It was another example of everyone doing as he saw fit. We can so easily do the same even if we're keen to do what's right. Ephesians 4:26:
In your anger do not sin.
So what does chapter 21 say to Israel and to us today? Well it declares the tenacity of God's grace – that God's people get what we don't deserve. Just think about it. Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed back in Genesis 19. But at least a remnant of Benjamin survived and help was given to restore the tribe. Does the near annihilation of Benjamin suggest that God's grace is reluctantly slow to allow the stroke of judgment to fall in all its severity? You see it's not strictly true that 'one tribe is missing in Israel' (v3). Even in wrath God remembered mercy. And it's of God's mercies that we are not consumed - that we don't get what we do deserve for our sinful rebellion – through trusting in Christ, in his death and resurrection.
But surely Israel was in as much need of God's grace as was sinful Benjamin, just as we are today – there's no room for self righteousness. And none of us are or can be moral enough to be accepted by God. We can only be saved by grace through faith in Christ. Yes by Israel's actions the tribe of Benjamin was preserved. But they'd tackled the problem in a cocky, conceited and high handed way. It's a miracle anything came of Israel.
So Judges ends with a miracle. You see how after chapters 19-21 could there still be an Israel? It can only be because the Lord wished to dwell in the midst of his people in spite of its sin. It can only be because God's grace is far more tenacious than his people's depravity and insists on still holding them fast even in their sinfulness and their stupidity. So we too, his people, those of us who have put our faith in Jesus, can give thanks to God for his grace in Christ in spite of our sinfulness. What a Saviour we have! In response let's trust him, obey him and follow him, shine and make a difference for him, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whatever the cost, strong in the grace that is in him.