I guess many of us know the hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness.’ It goes:
Great is thy faithfulness,
Oh God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with thee –
Thou changest not,
Thy compassions they fail not;
As thou hast been
Thou forever will be.
And it goes on, ‘Morning by morning new mercies I see... Blessings all mine with ten thousand aside.’
Well I wonder if that rings true for you tonight? Because it’s not always obvious that God is being faithful, is it? Eg, look at the state of the church in this country – with so much decline over the last generation. Is that God being faithful to his people? Or look at your own life. Maybe you’re living in the consequences of some sinful action or compromise and don’t really feel blessed at all right now. Is that God being faithful to you?
Well, the Old Testament (OT) book of Judges was written for people doubting God’s faithfulness. It was written sometime during Israel’s decline into disobedience which ended in God sending his people into exile. And if you’d been one of those exiles, you’d have wondered, ‘How can God be faithful if he promised to bless us with a land of our own, and now we’ve lost it?’
So that’s the topic of our Bible passage tonight – God’s faithfulness. And in a nutshell, what God is saying to us through it is this: ‘Don’t misunderstand my faithfulness as if it were a commitment to bless you, regardless of how you respond to me.’ Let me just say that again. God’s message to us through this passage is: ‘Don’t misunderstand my faithfulness as if it were a commitment to bless you, regardless of how you respond to me.’ Because God hasn’t promised that we’ll enjoy his blessings however we respond – as if our faith-and-obedience, or otherwise, had nothing to do with it. Israel needed to learn that back then; and we do, today.
So would you turn in the Bibles to Judges 2. Let me remind you of the context, in case you feel lost in this part of the Bible. God had promised to give his people, the Israelites, a land of their own. The previous book of the Bible tells how Joshua led them into the promised land and began the take-over of it. And now if you look at Judges 1.1, this book begins:
After the death of Joshua... (1.1)
And Judges 1 tells how Joshua’s generation continued the take-over – but failed to do it completely, as God had told them to. So, eg, look at 1.27:
27 But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. (1.27)
Now, like we do with our own compromises, I’m sure the Israelites said to themselves, ‘We can still be faithful to God – letting the Canaanites live among us won’t affect us spiritually.’ But God gives his own verdict on that at the beginning of chapter 2. Look at 2.1:
1 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, 2 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. Why have you done this? 3 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." (2.1-3)
Which is the story of the rest of chapter 2...
First, GOD’S ABANDONMENT BY HIS PEOPLE (vv6-12a)
Or you could call this, ‘Spiritual adultery.’ Look on to 2.6:
6 After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to his own inheritance. 7 The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel.
8 Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten. 9 And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.
[So that’s a kind of reprise of Joshua’s generation. Read on, v10:]
10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers [ie, died], another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. (vv6-10)
Which is a shocking verse, isn’t it? Because I doubt that Joshua’s generation failed to teach their children about the Lord. It’s a stark reminder that, unlike information, faith in the Lord does not pass automatically down the generations. And even if we created the best possible parenting courses and youth and children’s work here, it wouldn’t guarantee that our children come to faith. Because faith is God’s gift. So as well as doing all we can to teach and model the faith to our children, we’re ultimately thrown back on prayer and asking God to create faith in him in their hearts, as he’s done for us.
And for some of us – maybe in CYFA or the student crowd – v10 is a reminder that being born to Christian parents doesn’t make you a Christian. It gives you the enormous privilege of knowing about Jesus and his forgiveness and his Lordship. But you have to receive his forgiveness and receive him as Lord of your life for yourself. So can I get you to ask yourself, ‘Have I done that, yet?’ Read on, v11:
11Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. (2.11-12)
Now the danger is to sit in judgement on them and say, ‘How on earth could they do that?’, when in fact our hearts have just the same capacity to turn from God – as we know from our most wilful sins.
So let’s try to learn from their failure. We need to know that Baal was the fertility god the Canaanites believed in. They carved life up into different departments (fertility, war, and so on) and believed that different gods controlled each department – which is basically like Hinduism. And the Canaanites believed that Baal controlled the weather and the crops, so they looked to him to put bread on their tables. And a bit later, this chapter mentions Ashtoreth. She was a female god and Baal’s mistress. And they believed the way rain came for the crops was that Baal and Ashtoreth jumped into bed together in the heavens and had sex – which somehow sent fertility our way.
So why would you abandon the Lord and turn to Baal? The answer is: if you don’t believe the Lord can do agriculture. You’ve been taught he can do miracles like the exodus and spiritual things like forgiveness. But the issue in the promised land is the hard reality of putting bread on the table – and the Canaanites are saying that’s Baal’s department. And you’re thinking: maybe the Lord can’t look after you in that department; maybe you have to take meeting that need into your own hands by worshipping Baal.
A Christian friend of mine worked for a while in a bank in London until he became aware of some unethical dealing. He reported it to his senior and, to his horror, this guy basically said he didn’t like being unethical either, but that’s how the bank worked. And my friend asked him, ‘So why haven’t you left?’ And the guy replied, ‘I used to think I should, but now I’m so mortgaged and stuck into London living, I can’t risk losing this job and not finding another.’ Well that conversation led to my friend resigning. And he reflected that he could do that as a Christian because he trusted that the Lord is Lord of all departments, including jobs – so that if out of obedience he binned one job, the Lord could look after him and find him another. Whereas the other guy reckoned the only way of getting his needs met was to worship Baal in the form of the bank.
But the truth is: the Lord is God of all departments and completely able to meet all the needs we feel right now. And the temptation is to disbelieve that and take the meeting of our needs into our own hands by acts of disobedience and compromise. So, eg, another Christian I know ended up marrying a non-Christian – a step the Bible says is not God’s will for a believer. But she said it was because she just couldn’t trust any longer that God could either find her a Christian partner, or enable her to live OK singly. Which illustrates what someone has said: ‘Beneath every act of disobedience lies an act of unbelief.’
The other reason you might abandon the Lord and turn to Baal was that sex was involved. You remember they believed that fertility on earth came through Baal and his mistress having sex in heaven. And as if to encourage him to get on with it, Baal worship included having sex with temple prostitutes – as if to give Baal something to copy. And I’m sure the average Israelite male was drawn into Baal-worship not by studying their 3-volume manual of beliefs, but by jumping into bed with one of their women. And that reminds us that our beliefs are so often driven by our behaviour. So that just as, ‘Beneath every act of disobedience lies an act of unbelief,’ it’s also been said, ‘Beneath every intellectual turning from God lies a moral turning from God.’
So be warned by God’s abandonment by his people.
Secondly, GOD’S ANGER FOR HIS GLORY (vv12b-15)
Look down to v12 again:
12 They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the LORD to anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them [that is, in the promises of judgement on disobedience that he’d made back in Deuteronomy – eg chapter 28]. They were in great distress. 2.12-15)
Now if you’re uncomfortable that the Bible speaks of God’s anger, you need to realise that righteous anger is the other side of true love. Just look on to v16:
16Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them... (2.16)
The Bible often uses that bold language of sexual relations as a metaphor for our relating to God. And it sees sin as spiritual adultery. So for those of us who profess a relationship with God, sin is not just rebellion against his authority; it’s an offence against his love. And at its extreme it’s like a wife abandoning her husband for another man.
I remember talking to a woman whose husband had just left her for someone else. And her response was just the same as here: anger. Anger that was jealous for the love that she’d been promised. Anger that was devastated by the implication that she’d been an inadequate wife. And that kind of anger is right: if an abandoned husband or wife just shrugged their shoulders something would be desperately wrong.
And God is acting here as a husband jealous for his glory – because he’s been dishonoured, because in turning to Baal his people have basically said to him, ‘You’re an inadequate husband. We don’t believe you can meet our needs or fulfil our desires, so we’re turning elsewhere.’ And to uphold his glory, God has to express his anger in the form of judgements on their circumstances.
So, going back to the state of the church in this country, which I mentioned at the start – it’s just like the situation in vv14-15. The church in this country has been under the judgements of decline and marginalisation. Why? Because there’s been so much turning from God within the church. And if God were to do nothing, or even to allow the churches where that’s happening to prosper, it would dishonour him more. So paradoxically, to uphold his glory, he’s had to act against his church – or rather, parts of it. Now at first sight, that might not look like God being faithful. But we need to realise that God being faithful means God being faithful to himself, to his character of love and holiness, to his promises of both blessing and judgement. And God is being faithful to himself by judging parts of his church: he’s acting for his glory; he’s cutting out dead wood that dishonours him. And God have mercy on us and forbid that we’re ever part of what needs cutting out.
Thirdly, GOD’S COMMITMENT TO HIS PEOPLE (vv16-19)
Look down to v16 again. End of v15, ‘They were in great distress’ under God’s judgements, v16:
16 Then the LORD raised up judges [or the footnote says ‘leaders’], who saved them out of the hands of these raiders.(2.16)
And those ‘judges’ give this book of the Bible its name and we’ll learn from them on Sunday nights to come. But why does the Lord raise them up? Why in his anger doesn’t he just give the Israelites completely over to the Canaanites and make an end of them? The answer is: because they are his people, and he’s committed to them. So the judgements of vv14-15 are not God permanently giving up on them, but temporarily chastising them, so that they’ll see sense and turn back to him.
And God still does that today. In the book of Revelation the risen Lord Jesus says this to those of us who trust in him:
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline, so be earnest and repent.” (Revelation 3.19)
And if you’re a Christian you’ll know something of the Lord’s chastising when you sin. You’ll know he uses conscience to chastise us, to bring home to us the sinfulness of our sin – which is why, whatever it promises, sin is always a miserable business for a Christian. As someone’s put it, ‘There’s no-one less happy than the Christian who’s too disobedient to enjoy Christ but too Christian to enjoy disobedience.’ Is that you tonight? If it is, then listen to the words of the risen Lord Jesus calling to you: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline, so be earnest and repent.” Then the Lord also uses the consequences of our sin to chastise us. And as I said at the start, maybe you’re living in the consequences of some sinful action or compromise right now. And the Lord also uses our fellow-believers to chastise us – whether it’s through public teaching of the Bible like this, or the private rebuke of another Christian who cares enough to speak to you about your Christian walk.
And what we need to grasp is this: God’s chastisement is a sign of his love, of his commitment to us. Satan always wants us to interpret it as a sign that God’s against us. But in fact it’s a sign that God is for us, and working to wean our hearts off sin and onto him – which is the only way we’ll ever be truly happy. And part of the way he does that is to make sin painful. So just read on from v17 to see how God is for us even when it feels like he’s against us. V17:
17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the LORD's commands. 18 Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. (2.17-19)
So v18 tells us what the Lord’s attitude to us is even when he’s chastising us. It is: compassion. Love. Pity. A desire for our good. So let’s not misinterpret God’s chastising as if it means he’s against us and unfaithful, when in fact it’s part of his commitment to us, and to making us more like himself.
Now as we read on in Judges, we’ll see this pattern again and again: of sin – then God’s anger – but then God’s commitment to his people – and then more sin and so on. Which begs the question, ‘How can God be committed to sinful people? How can he resolve the tension between his anger against sin and his commitment to us?’ And living this side of Jesus’ first coming, we know the answer is: the cross. Because that’s where God’s anger against our sin was fully expressed. But in his commitment to us, his love, that anger was expressed on himself, in the person of his Son, in our place, so that we might never face it if we trust in him. And that’s why God can live in us by his Spirit, without ever withdrawing because of our sin.
Fourthly, GOD’S TESTING OF HIS PEOPLE (2.20-3.6)
Let’s read the end of the passage. Look at v20:
20Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, "Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has not listened to me, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. 22 I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did." 23The LORD had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.
Chapter 3.1 These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan 2 (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience.): 3 the five rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath. 4 They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the LORD's commands, which he had given their forefathers through Moses.
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 6 They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. (2.20-3.6)
So we began with Israel’s disobedience in not driving out the Canaanites completely, which left them living side by side. And the Lord chastised Israel for that. But these last verses say he then left things like that, as a test which would show up where individual Israelites really stood with God.
Now God doesn’t need tests to show him where people stand in relation to him – God can see into every heart in this building. He knows whether you’re really for him or against him. It’s us who need tests, to show us the truth about ourselves. And God’s test for his people back then was: would they resist the Canaanites and their godless beliefs and practises (like child sacrifice) – which for the Israelites did involve a degree of literal ‘warfare’? Because an Israelite who could live among the Canaanites with no experience of conflict or resistance, was clearly not on the Lord’s side.
And something similar can be said about us who profess Christ today. God has left us for now in a world whose beliefs and practices are at point after point at odds with Christ. And the test for us is: are we resisting? Because even in the week ahead, from parties we may go to, to situations we may encounter at work, to be Christian will mean having to resist the way the world operates at certain points. And if we find we can live in the world this week with no experience of conflict or resistance, then we may not really be on the Lord’s side, either.
So we began with our question about God: ‘Is he faithful?’ And the answer is: yes, he’s utterly faithful – to himself. But the passage ends with God’s question about us: are we faithful – to him? Are we really his people? And the answer is: as we go out into the world for another week, our resistance, or otherwise, will tell us.