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In the second Millennium BC, the place to live was called Canaan. The estate agents described it as “a land flowing with milk and honey”. After 400 years in Egypt and another 70 wandering around in the desert, God’s people were keen to muscle in on the Promised Land. They would literally kill for it. They promised God and Joshua, everything under the sun if they could just get their hands on it. On our journey through the Old Testament we have arrived in the Promised Land. In case you have not been with us this Autumn, a word of explanation.
For many people the Old Testament is a closed book, rarely read, even less understood. This Autumn series on Sunday mornings is intended to show how important the Old Testament is in making sense of our faith in Jesus Christ. In this series “Christ in all the Scriptures” we are discovering that Jesus is at the heart of every book of the Bible. God’s rescue mission did not begin in Bethlehem nor even Calvary, but way back in the Garden of Eden. So far in our journey as we traced God’s plan from Genesis to Joshua. Today we find ourselves in the Promised Land. So where does the Book of Judges fit into this story line? And where does Jesus appear in Judges? Judges describes the life of God’s people from the death of Joshua to the rise of the monarchy.
A. M. Hodgkin describes Judges as “one of the darkest periods in the history of God’s people… There is something startling in the swiftness with which the Israelites degenerated.”
1. The Need for a Deliverer
The purpose of the Judges is best expressed in 2:16.
“Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. (Judges 2:16)
Since it was God who permitted the oppressions and raised up seven judges to deliver God’s people, he himself was their ultimate Judge and Deliverer. Many of the covenant promises God had given to the patriarchs in Canaan and through Moses in the desert had now been fulfilled. The Lord’s good promises concerning the land had been fulfilled; it remained only for God’s people to claim their inheritance, and cleanse the land of idolatry and paganism. The time had come for Israel to demonstrate God’s rule on earth. But in Canaan Israel was having too much fun. They quickly forgot how God that had delivered her out of slavery and established her in the land. Consequently she lost sight of her unique identity as God’s people, chosen and called to be a light to the other nations.
They settled down and began to find the life style of the local people rather attractive. They embraced Canaanite morals, gods, and religious beliefs with gusto, in preference to those revealed by the one true God.
In the days of the Judges they were called Dagon and Baal. Nowadays they are called anything from New Age Pantheism to the free market forces of macro-economics. Throughout Judges the fundamental issue is one of the lordship of God. His kingship over Israel had been uniquely established by the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19-24), which was later renewed by Moses on the plains of Moab (Deuteronomy 29) and then by Joshua at Shechem (Joshua 24). The author of Judges accuses Israel of having rejected the kingship of the Lord again and again. The recurring lament, and indictment of the Judges, one after another is this: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6; 21:25) Remarkably descriptive of our society as well don’t you think? I’d like us to notice three brief principles that typify Israel’s experience in the promised land. If we learn from them we are less likely to repeat them.
1.1 They forgot what the Lord had done
“After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. 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. Joshua… died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance… in the hill country of Ephraim… After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:6-10)
At that point in Israel’s history, Joshua stood next to Moses as a great hero, and yet the new generation didn’t recognize who he was or what he had done. In his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Once they got in control of the present, both Hitler and Stalin rewrote history so they could control future events; and for a time it worked. The lesson? – Forget history and you will repeat it. Remember or like Israel, you will forget what the Lord has done. They forgot what the Lord had done.
1.2 They forsook what the Lord had said
“Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the LORD’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.” (Judges 2:11-13)
Had they remembered Joshua, they would have known his “farewell speeches” given to the leaders and the people of Israel (Joshua 23-24). Joshua emphasized the covenant God had made with Israel and the responsibility the leaders had to teach it and the people had to obey it. When we forget the Word of God, we are in danger of forsaking the God of the Word. This explains how Israel could turn so easily to the vile and vicious worship of Baal.
It is one thing to read God’s word, it is quite another thing to live it, to apply it, to keep it. They forgot what the Lord had done. They forsook what the Lord had said. And so,
1.3 They forfeited what the Lord had promised
“In his anger against Israel the LORD gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.” (Judges 2:14-15)
When they went out to fight their enemies, they were defeated, because the Lord wasn’t with them. This is precisely what Moses had warned would happen (Deuteronomy 28:25-26).
As in Egypt, so in Canaan, Israel’s enemies became her masters. God permitted one nation after another to invade the Land and enslave His people. When Israel turned away from the Lord to worship idols, he chastened them; and when in their misery they cried out in repentance, he liberated them. But as soon as they were free, they went right back into the same old sins. They forgot what the Lord had done, they forsook what the Lord had said and so they forfeited what the Lord had promised. The need for a deliverer.
2. The Provision of a Deliverer
Judges records over a period of 300 years, seven departures from God and seven deliverances by seven judges or saviours.
They were Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. In each of these ‘saviours’ of Israel, we can see a foreshadowing of the ultimate Saviour who was to come. The One who would break this cycle of rebellion, sin and suffering. Even in this dark period, God did not leave Himself without a witness. Of the seven Judges God sent, I’d like us to dwell briefly on Gideon. We read his story in Judges 6.
“The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash … where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:11-12)
As Gideon was beating his stalks of wheat, a man approached, sat down and watched. Two things are significant about this person. First, Gideon didn’t know that he was an angel, so there could have been nothing supernatural or out of the ordinary about his appearance. He didn’t have wings, wear a halo or carry a harp. It took Gideon some time before he realised whom he was talking to. Second, notice this was not just any angel. This was “The” angel of the Lord. A careful study Lord convinces us that this was the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus. He is separate from the Lord, “The LORD is with you” (6:12), but at the same time he speaks as the Lord, verse 14:
“The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14)
God’s peace comes through personal contact. God’s peace is not a substance. It is not a concept, its not even a belief. God’s peace comes through nothing less than his transforming presence. Whenever and where ever God comes, everything is transformed. And so the Angel of the Lord declares, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12). If there is anything that Gideon was not at that moment, it was a valiant warrior. Gideon probably looked around thinking the angel was speaking to someone else. But that was precisely what he was going to become, because the Lord was with him.
It is always the same way, whether it’s a geriatric Abraham or a tempestuous Peter, the presence of the Lord always brings a transformation. The Lord was saying to Gideon, “I know what you are, better than you know yourself. But I am more concerned with what you can become than what you are now. I am with you Gideon and that makes all the difference.” Other people look at us and may only see our flaws, and we all have plenty of those. But God looks at us and sees our possibilities. God’s peace comes when we acknowledge his presence; when we trust his power to transform our potential into reality. The need for a deliverer. The provision of a deliverer.
3. Our Response to the Deliverer
If we study Judges simply as past history, we’ll miss the message completely. Judges is about God’s people today. Judges is for God’s people today. If Canaan was the place to aspire to live in the 2nd millennium BC; if NY10021 is the place to aspire to live in the USA, where is the place people aspire to live in Great Britain today? Where is the land flowing with milk and honey? A land flowing with golf courses and designer clothes shops? A land flowing with airports to international destinations? A land flowing with access to the world’s money markets? A land flowing with excellent public schools?
For many people it is Virginia Water. Living in leafy Surrey is heaven on earth. But the lesson of Judges is simple. The land flowing with milk and honey is a gift from God. Unless we acknowledge that and put him first, we will not enjoy long life in the land. Fulfilment is not be found in aspiring to the life style or aping the social mores of the locals – here, any more than it did in Canaan. With any life style there are costs and the people of Surrey, as you know only too well, pay a high price for theirs. Perhaps, like the Israelites, a price too high. The cycle of disobedience, discipline, despair, and deliverance is seen today whenever people turn away from God and go their own way. The people of Israel found themselves enslaved to one pagan nation after another as the Lord kept His word and chastened His people. So will we unless we break free of that spiral and learn the lesson God intends. The mistake many people make today is to believe life will go on forever. To believe they can enjoy God’s good gifts without saying thank you.
To believe they will never be held accountable, that shares will never go down in value, that house prices will always rise above inflation, that equities will always bring a guaranteed income. They believe that moving into a bigger house with a wider entrance, in a smarter road, with a newer car and a younger wife will make them happier. Most people are too busy trying to get into their designer land flowing with milk and honey that they forget who it is who has provided it. And so they never enjoy life the way God intends. They forget to put God first and so fail to enjoy the greatest blessings God intends – a clean slate for the past, a clear conscience in the present and a secure future in eternity. Christ is indeed in all the Scriptures. We have encountered him in Judges today and seen, the need for a deliverer; the provision of a deliverer; and the necessity for a response to the Deliverer. With Israel’s experiences in the Promised Land in mind, Hebrews says to us
“It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today…, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:6)
For Jesus promises,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-30)
May you experience that rest today. Lets pray.
6:1 The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. 3 For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. 4 They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. 6 And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.
7 When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord on account of the Midianites, 8 the Lord sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage. 9 And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 And I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”
11 Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” 13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” 17 And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. 18 Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay till you return.”
19 So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them. 20 And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” And he did so. 21 Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes. And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. 22 Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” 23 But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” 24 Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord Is Peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites. (ESV)