|Judges - 04 Early Departure and Ephesus|
Early Departure and Ephesus
Judges opens with a description of new conditions that had never before existed in Israel. Prior to this point, they had leaders such as Moses and Joshua who God had clearly raised up to deliver them from their enemies and to give them Divine guidance. Now, after the death of Joshua (Judges 1:1), God expected them to seek guidance directly from Him. They began by doing so, and if they had continued to do so, they would not have ended by doing what was right in their own eyes (ch. 21:25). Even though there was no king in Israel, God never intended to leave them with no source for Divine authority or means of giving clear direction to His people.
Why the Judges?
It helps us in our study of this book to seek to understand why the events of this book follow the possession of the land rather than God immediately giving the people a king. We need to understand that God’s ideal government for His people (and eventually for the universe) is a theocracy, which is a form of government in which God personally controls His world. That form of control is what He also desires in any local assembly; it is the rule of heaven through the men that He has raised up in that assembly (Matthew 18:18). In the beginning He exercised that control through a man when God instituted a man to rule over creation (Adam, Psalm 8:3-8, Hebrews 2:5-8) but God always intends that man will rule as a representative of God. Through Adam’s disobedience, he fell and all creation fell with him, but God’s initial purpose is still His ultimate purpose. He will have a man who will rule directly under His authority, and that Man will be Christ.
For them to look to God directly for their guidance (through the priesthood) would result in His people acknowledging His supreme position of authority. When they failed to do so, due to their sin and departure, God raised up the men as judges who acted to deliver them and to lead them back to a right relationship with God. The element that ruined God’s purpose in this way was their sin that came between them and God. They continually departed from allegiance to God and turned after false gods of the nations around them.
As time went on in this book, we see that the departure and rejection of God’s authority increased so that eventually, God allowed them a king and raised up David to sit on the throne. A monarchical form of government, as ultimately resulted in Israel, was farther removed from that under which God initially tested His people. It was farther removed from a theocracy. For one thing, it involved a man who continued to rule until he died, whether he was good or evil. Instead of a temporary work as that which the judges accomplished to answer a particular condition, theirs was a permanent position that could continue regardless of the results.
This is not to say that God could not nor did not remove wicked kings, viz., Ahab and Manasseh. A true theocracy knows no earthly king at all. Only if the king actively sought guidance from God and acted accordingly would it approximate Divine rule over God’s people. Saul was rejected by God from being king over Israel for the fundamental reason that he disobeyed the commandment of the Lord (three times we read that God rejected him in 1 Samuel 15:23, 26; 16:1 and in each case it is because Saul rejected the word of the Lord). David was likely the king that came closest to fulfilling that ideal in that he was a “man after God’s own heart” and sought to obey the Lord. It is noteworthy that the kings that followed David on the throne of Judah were compared with him, whether or not they walked in his ways.
Dr. Leon Woods, in his book (Distressing Days of the Judges) has stated the differences well and we give a partial quotation from that book:
“The form of rule substituted (a monarchy) was not only a “second-best” from God’s viewpoint, but also from the people’s viewpoint, and this in two respects. The first concerns the matter of potential blessings and consequent advertisement for God… they would have enjoyed the finest blessing under this “best” form of rule…Second, this change of government called for heavy taxation of the people. Under God’s “best” form, there had been no need of taxes to support a civil government. There was no king or expensive court, no civil programs or authorities; the people could live tax free…God’s instruction to Samuel…is noteworthy. God told him to accept the request but to warn the people that this change would come; the king they would get would make severe demands of taxation upon them (1 Samuel 8:9-18).”
The judges were not elected by the people, nor was judgeship a hereditary position (as was kingship). They were not official men in the same sense as the kings were. We notice that Gideon, when offered the position as king with his sons to follow him (Judges 8:22-23), rejected their request with the response, “the LORD shall rule over you.” Evidently, Gideon recognized the principle of a theocracy among the people. It is sad that one of his sons (by a concubine) was only too eager to take the position that his father had rejected. The leadership of the judges depended on the people recognizing that God had raised them for that purpose. It also depended on the quality of their leadership and their ability to bring about deliverance of the people from their oppressors. They were men who gave evidence that God had raised them for that purpose, in that they came to that place at a time when the people were ready to accept their leadership accompanied by the evidences of spiritual ability (usually, though not in all cases of the judges). Their work was an extension of God’s rule over His people and expressed His desire to bring them back to Himself.
Who were the Judges?
The word that is translated “judges” is one that indicates “one who leads, or judges” among the people. The first mention of judges among Israel is in Numbers 25:5, “And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baal-peor.” So judges existed prior to this period of time, and they evidently refer to men who had a position of leadership under Moses (Exodus 18:21-22, 25-26).
Those who are called judges in this book were also those who were “saviors” (deliverers) of the people. In Acts 13, Paul recounts the history of Israel in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, and the judges are listed in the context of those that God raised up as saviors of His people. We see that in this book, in the main, the work of deliverance was the first work they undertook, followed (in some cases) by judging the people and maintaining right conditions for God. Samson as a judge would be an exception to that; it is never recorded that he actually judged Israel though he fought against their enemies.
There were a total of fourteen judges including Eli and Samuel, both of whom judged Israel prior to the days of the kings and during the period of the judges. To these could be added the two sons of Samuel (Joel and Abiah, 1 Samuel 8:2). However, God did not raise these up, but they were appointed by their father and they failed to rise to the same standard of character that marked the others. We omit Abimelech, of course, since he was not raised up of God, neither did he present any spiritual or delivering qualities that would qualify him for any position among the judges. His was a position of domination maintained by force and cruelty.
Of these fourteen, only twelve are listed in the book of Judges. Out of this total, six are generally considered to be “major” and the remainder were ‘minor.” That distinction primarily depends on the relative space devoted to the history of each judge and the extent of their judgeship. In the case of the “major” judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah/Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson), they were also those who effectively delivered the people from oppression, while the minor judges, apart from Shamgar, are not so listed. The other relatively “minor” judges include Tola (10:1, Jair (10:3), Ibzan (12:8), Elon (12:11), and Abdon (12:13).
We conclude that the leadership role of these men was two-fold: in the first place, they were called of God to deliver His people from oppression as an expression of His mercy toward them (Judges 2:16). The word used in most cases is that they “delivered” the people, or “saved” them. Secondly, they also functioned as judges who ruled for God for the period during which they were alive following their victory.
This two-fold role would also relate to the men that God raises up over His people as spiritual leaders in a local assembly. They are called upon to deliver God’s people from every oppressing form of bondage and they are to lead the people under God’s authority. This always results, when properly exercised, in a period of rest for the saints (Judges 3:11, 30; 5:31).
Difficulty of Allowing God to Lead
It is much more difficult to seek God’s mind directly and wait on Him for guidance than it is to follow human leadership. Is that at least part of the reason why men have risen to prominence in the church age, even from the earliest days? Paul predicted to the Ephesians elders in Miletus that “also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them,” (Acts 20:30). It was not long before that actually took place, as we read in church history when ecclesiastical positions and orders began to be sought after and practiced very early after the death of the apostles. We find that even those who had known the apostles and survived them began accepting positions of authority over groups of churches contrary to what those apostles had taught.
Miller writes, (Church History,)
“Scarcely had the voice of inspiration become silent in the church, than we hear the voice of the new teachers crying loudly and earnestly for the highest honors being paid to the bishop, and a supreme place being given to him. This is evident from the Epistles of Ignatius, said to have been written A. D. 107.”
Along with this a distinction between the “clergy” and the “laity” began to be made, a distinction that only deepened and solidified over time. This has resulted in the plethora of denominations today, as men have followed human leaders into dividing one from another (1 Corinthians 1:12). Such a sad state has its beginnings in the example established by those who followed former men of God.
Seeking God’s Guidance
We do see an exercise to know the will of God at the beginning of this book (ch. 1:1). However, it is also interesting that we do not read this or similar expressions in the book until the end, (ch. 20:18, 27) during the battle with their own brother Benjamin. Was this the root cause of the prevalent problems during this time? Not seeking to know and obey the will of God will always result in spiritual departure and degeneration in life and testimony. Had Israel sought and followed God’s will, continuing to move in fellowship with God and one another, they would have been preserved from the sorrows and servitude that resulted.
And in the church age, had men sought God’s will by simply studying and obeying God’s Word, adding nothing to or taking nothing from it, they would have been preserved from instituting ecclesiastical practices or establishing organizational systems in local churches or among groups of churches. The majority of the outward expressions of religious practices in churches today are only the result of men not seeking to know and follow the clear guidance of God’s Word. “If a man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine…” the Lord Jesus said (John 7:17). This is always the preservative for God’s people, now as well as then.
Israel was surrounded by enemies, the original inhabitants of the land and those around it. These seven nations, along with the others, represent spiritual principles that always seek to inhibit and prevent the progress of God’s people. It is notable that in 1 Kings 11, we find that Solomon was led astray from his first love by his involvement with wives from the nations surrounding them. These nations were not those of the Canaanites, but they were those from the nations on the borders of Israel. As such, though he might have thought that they were not of the same category as the forbidden ones, yet God records that He had told them not to do this thing. It seems to represent an attempt on his part to compromise Divinely-given principles and to circumvent the prohibition of God’s Word, but it led to his downfall. We are told in Ephesians 6:10 that we are in the midst of a warfare, even though seated with Christ in the heavenlies. Wherever there are Divinely-granted possessions to inherit, there will also be opposing elements that will do everything possible to prevent the people of God from enjoying them. One could suggest different spiritual identities of these nations, and perhaps that will become clear as we look at them individually.
God said in Judges 2:3, 3:1-4 that He would not drive these nations out before them due to their disobedience. He left them so that these nations might prove Israel’s faithfulness to His Word and so that each generation might learn how to fight the foe. We read in Exodus 17:16 that the Lord swore that He would have war with Amalek from generation to generation. Thus, there is and will be an on-going warfare in which God enables His people to oppose every element that seeks to hinder them from going forward to enjoy His blessing.
Early Aggression against Enemies
Judah took the lead to fight the Canaanites. These were the original and dominant people of the land. They were characterized by a religious system that was evil and immoral. These people descended from Canaan, the son of Ham and dwelt in the lowlands toward the sea and in the valleys (Numbers 13:29). They had evidently mingled with people from previous migrations into the area, including the Amorites and the Hurrians, both coming from the northeast. At times the Amorites are seen as a separate people (Numbers 13:29, Joshua 11:3), but at other times, the name is used to include the Canaanites (Joshua 24:15, 18).
The Canaanites were prosperous merchants with strong armies (“chariots of iron” 4:3), and had much that naturally would be envied, thus “Canaanite” came to mean “trader, merchantman.” They worshipped Baal, the sun god who also controlled the storms, the rain and affected the harvest. This worship was characterized by religious practices that were “terribly licentious” (Fausset) and evil. Ashtaroth was the female deity of this religion.
Dr. Wood suggests that if the worshippers of Baal had better crops than the Israelites, or if Israel’s crops failed while the pagan worshippers of Baal had good crops, this would have been a strong inducement to forsake Jehovah. Since “Baal” means “lords, or masters,” these people could have claimed to the Israelites that they, too, worshipped Jehovah, but only under a different name. We think of the experience of the psalmist in Psalm 73. He “was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked,” v. 3. His only solution was to flee to the presence of God that he might receive a clear understanding of their actual position and that his soul might be refreshed and strengthened by God. He had almost slipped and fallen, but he was strengthened in the Lord (v. 23-26). This is what we need to preserve us from becoming “like them that go down into the pit.” (Psalm 28:1).
Do we not encounter many today who are like Canaanites, claiming to worship God truly and yet with only a form of religion that seems right to them? We remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy concerning those who are characterized by having “a form of godliness but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5). The wise writer of Proverbs 16:25 warns us “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Those warnings hold true today and we dare not disregard them if we desire to continue in a faithful pathway for the Lord.
Canaanites seem to represent the tendency toward commercial activity with a view to becoming rich, which has ensnared many of the saints. Paul reminds Timothy (1 Timothy 6:9), “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” In the next verse, we learn that it is the love of money (not money itself) that is (a) root of all evils. What has occurred in the past is still true today. Many a saint that had potential for God has been ruined in the very thing that God has entrusted to him to use as a stewardship in His service.
We learn that Ephesus was a very wealthy city, with three trade routes entering it, thus making it a commercial center for the area. In addition, the temple of Diana (Artemis), located in this city, made it a depository for much of the wealth of the world at that time. The saints of Ephesus, where the first opposition to the gospel came from prosperous artisans of the Diana craft (Acts 19:23-27), would have to overcome the love of money and the desire to be wealthy in order to maintain faithfulness to God and His Word.
It is not hard to see, even in our day, that when there is materialism and when the saints are well off financially, there is often a decline in their spirituality and exercise for the things of God. Material riches tend to stifle the desire for spiritual riches. Therefore, at the beginning, this was an enemy to be conquered by Judah.
Judah as the Leader
Judah took the lead by Divine selection. Judah had been given the place of leadership from the beginning (Genesis 49:10) and had led through the wilderness journey (Numbers 10:14). Now God gave them primary responsibility to lead the attack against the Canaanites. It is commendable that they invited Simeon to participate. Fellowship in the work of the Lord is always right and best, so we find these two tribes fighting side by side in this chapter (1:3, 17). However, though this demonstrates fellowship in the work, fighting enemies is more an individual matter, and this act of Judah seems to indicate a lack of confidence in God to give the victory. God had promised that they would be victorious (Judges 1:2), so they needed no help from another tribe. In times when God expected them to fight and work together, it seems that they often failed to do so; however, in this case, God had not directed Simeon to go to the battle with Judah.
It is sad to note that in this case, the Lord directed Judah to go up first against the enemy to drive them out. At the end of the book, however, the Lord again directs Judah to go up first to battle, but this time it is against his brother, Benjamin (20:18). Simeon, the tribe to the south, accompanied Judah at the first, but in the end of the book, Judah led the way into battle against the tribe directly to their north. It seems that the pathway between the two references is, with its ups and downs, a pathway of degeneration and sad decline. Such is also the history of the professing church since the beginning, so that we look back on a course that has mirrored the experience of Israel.
This initial indication of weakness is amplified in ch. 1:19, where we read that Judah “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” That could hardly have been the case, since Barak and Deborah defeated a mighty force of Canaanites in Judges 4, and that host had 900 chariots of iron (ch. 4:3). The problem was not the force of the enemy; it was rather the inability of Judah to realize and depend on the power of God, now more severely seen than at the beginning. They had limited the Lord’s power at the first, with the result that they lacked sufficient strength when they needed it most.
In the case of the assembly in Ephesus, we find that they had power to overcome the foe and to judge those who had false claims to be apostles (Revelation 2:2). They had maintained outward fidelity to the truth and had fought against evil. How commendable to see this at the beginning! It represents for us the contentions of the “church fathers” against early appearances of evil doctrines and practices that sought to infiltrate the church in those days. We owe much to their contending for the faith and thank God for their fidelity to the Word in these vital doctrines.
Victories resulted, because the Lord delivered the Canaanites into their hand (1:4). Adoni-bezek, one of the kings of the Canaanites, was captured and brought to Jerusalem. He suggests, by his past practices, the desire and power of the flesh to dominate and control others. His name seems to mean “lord of Bezek,” or “lord of lightning,” and it may suggest the dazzling effect of the devil’s allurements that conquer men and bring them into subjection. He had humbled and maimed 70 kings so that they ate food like dogs under his table. Mephibosheth, responding to David’s grace in 2 Samuel 9, expressed his gratitude by voluntarily being willing to eat from under David’s table, but he sat at the table as one of the King’s sons. This is our position in Christ, but this man represents an element that is far different. He, now under God’s judgment, receives what he had sown (Galatians 6:9) and died in Jerusalem in that condition. Does this suggest that men, who act under the influence of the flesh to dominate and control others, will eventually receive in God’s time the same results in themselves? This enemy constantly has to be overcome by each of us, for he unceasingly motivates desires to rise up to dominate others.
Victory at Hebron
Judah defeated the Canaanites who inhabited Hebron and possessed that ancient city of many memories for Israel. Signifying “communion,” it would be a very important point in the experience of the saints. That fellowship, which is centered alone on the Person of Christ and that forms the basis of our assembly gatherings is vital and must be possessed and enjoyed by all in fellowship in an assembly. There are elements that would oppose this important principle, either by undermining the terms of it (allow anyone to participate in assembly fellowship because they claim to be a Christian) or by minimizing the importance of it and acting contrary to it. We are exhorted by Paul in Ephesians 1:1-3 to “endeavor (give diligence) to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” May we do all we can to foster and strengthen the cords of fellowship that bind us to the saints of God and may we enjoy fellowship with God!
It is a delightful picture that we see in Judges 1:11-15, where Othniel, motivated by love for Caleb’s youngest daughter, went against Kirjath-sepher and possessed it, changing its name to Debir. We understand that Kirjath-sepher means “City of the book,” but that name was changed to Debir, meaning “oracle,” or “sanctuary.” Both meanings of Debir indicate something more particular to the revelation of God’s mind and Person than just a book; it is a personal, direct expression of God manifesting His person and speaking to His saints through the power of His Word. The book becomes something with life and vitality, and surely this is what we need in our own lives that we might be sustained and guided in life and service.
Another lesson we learn from Othniel and Achsah is the importance, essential in every day, of believers seeking partners for life who are godly and spiritual. We are told nothing about her beauty externally, but it is evident that she was beautiful internally, spiritually, and that she was a great help to her husband in the things of God. Is it possibly due to her influence on him that he became the first judge of Israel who delivered them from the hand of the enemy (ch. 3:9-10)? It seems that young people (older as well?) have a tendency in some cases to enter into a marriage relationship without considering the impact that relationship will have on their spiritual life or their future usefulness for God. May this be an example to us in our decisions of this nature.
Then Achsah moved him to ask of her father a field, that is, possessions in the land linked with a man who was a constant overcomer, Caleb. The gift of the land caused a request for the springs of water, and she received both the upper and nether (lower) springs. The upper spring might suggest the work of the Spirit to bring Divine refreshment and blessing, while the lower suggests the work of the Spirit to enhance our fellowship with other saints. Both are a blessing to our souls and serve to strengthen us in our pathway of faithful service for the Lord in His absence.
Applying this to the early days of the church, we observe that there was something evidently lacking, we understand, about the writings of those who followed the apostles in church history. That is, in those writings “we do not find the recognition of the presence and power of the Spirit.” (C. A. Coates). We read in Andrew Miller’s “Church History,” that these men “seem to have completely forgotten – judging from the Epistles which bear their names – the great New Testament truth of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the assembly.” This failure to realize the need for the work of the Holy Spirit would cause the failures seen in Israel and also in believers beginning early in this church age. If Judah had appreciated the power of God by His Spirit in them, they would have thought little of the chariots of iron and would have defeated the Canaanites nonetheless. If believers of any age fail to take into account the infinite power of God’s Spirit at their disposal to use in this battle, they will not overcome the enemy and go on to possess their spiritual inheritance from God.
Increasing Power of Enemy
As the chapter progresses, we easily detect the increasing power and influence of these nations. Instead of driving them out and destroying them, Israel began to accommodate them, became accustomed to living among them, and accepted them. Note the change as the chapter proceeds: v. 4, Judah destroyed 10,000 of the Canaanites and Perizzites; v. 17, Judah and Simeon “utterly destroyed” Zephath and then took Gaza, Askelon, and Ekron (only to lose them later); v. 19, Judah “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron;” v. 21, “Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites… but they dwell among Israel unto this day;” and then v. 33, Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Bethshemesh nor Beth-anath, “but he dwelt among the Canaanites.” Then in v. 34, the Amorites would not suffer the children of Dan to come down into the valley. So we see that the initial power of Israel over their enemies began to diminish and the power of the enemies seemed to increase.
This change was due solely to their lack of confidence in their God and their unwillingness to obey His Word. They ended up compromising with them, and these nations did exactly what God had told them they would do: they were thorns in their sides (2:3) and their gods were a snare to them. Instead of every generation learning war and how to fight (3:2), they learned, instead, how to compromise and get along. This change was insidious and occurred gradually, but its result was sure.
We compare this with the early activities of saints as recorded in 1 Corinthians and other epistles, and we find that this tendency has always been seen. When it prevails, there is weakness and conformity to the world that surrounds us. Today, we must acknowledge, that instead of believers being in the world but not of it, they are becoming more and more like the world. We are bringing the pleasures of the world and its entertainment into our homes. This will only break down the resistance of our children to its enticements and develop an appetite in them for worldly pleasures. Perhaps we do not realize what the future will be if this is the pattern of today. If we rear our children on a diet of worldly amusements, their appetite will only be whetted for more as they grow older, with the result that a subsequent generation will be even weaker spiritually than the present. May God preserve us and reinforce in our hearts the importance of raising our children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
We note in ch. 1:18 that Judah had early victories over the Philistines, but those victories were incomplete. These people, representing religious men who occupy the land that rightfully belongs to God’s people, were a constant threat and obstacle to the peace of Israel. Here, the victory was partial in that they failed to take Gath, and later in David’s life, this city was the home of the giant Goliath. In addition, this enemy was the last enemy recorded in Judges and the period of Philistine bondage was the longest in the book. We also note that these cities were only occupied temporarily, since they were again in Philistine hands later in the book. It shows us the importance of getting complete victory over spiritual enemies that are so near and who have such a strong effect on our spiritual life. It is the thing that is near, “sin that doth so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1), that causes us the greatest and longest-lasting problem.
Compromise at Bethel
Coming to ch. 1:22-26, we find that in seeking to take Bethel, formerly Luz (“departure, bent, perverseness”), the spies (sending spies was always an indication of lack of confidence in God, i.e., Deuteronomy 1:21-22) encountered a man from the city. In return for his information that showed them the entrance, they let him go free. Bethel was a vital place in God’s purposes, full of sacred memories of Jacob’s experience with God in Genesis 28 and also later. This place, “house of God,” had to be possessed and its character changed from a place of departure to a place signifying subjection to God’s control where God’s people would gather. In seeking a man’s help, the spies allowed him to perpetuate the system that he represented, something God wanted destroyed. Again we see the early departure indicated by their action, displaying a lack of confidence in God to work and overcome the city without man’s help.
Many, who have presently seemed to have escaped God’s judgment, continue to perpetuate religious elements that are contrary to His will and purpose. The name, Luz, in relation to God’s Word, seems to speak of those who pervert the truth and bend it to their own desires. There is no lack of men who are willing to use God’s Word in this way; we must always seek to handle and use it reverently and honestly, “rightly dividing” it as to its proper interpretation and right application (2 Timothy 3:15). The truth of God’s Word is always true and straight, and it would lead one to the house of God represented by a local assembly today. However, when believers seek the help of the world, an apparent victory may be obtained, but what has been done only allows the evil system to be continued in a different place.
We note, with thanksgiving, that the assembly in Ephesus had “tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars,” (Revelation 2:2). They recognized those who were trying to warp and twist the truth and, the Lord says, “canst not bear them which are evil.” However, there were those, even in those early days of church history, who were compromising the truth and failing to allow it to have its full effect to guide God’s people in their practices. Conditions are no different today, and we need to be careful in our handling of Divine truth so that it will continue to preserve and direct God’s people.
Angel of the Lord and God’s Appeal
God mercifully moved to intervene and to recall them to Himself so that they might respond in self-judgment to be preserved (2:1-5). This angel of the Lord came from Gilgal, the place of circumcision in Joshua 14:6. Apparently, from the written record, they had not been to this place that signifies the cutting off of the flesh, i.e., judgment on that evil element that opposes God’s work in our lives. His coming from Gilgal to Bochim to meet the people emphasizes that Gilgal is a place to which saints need to return constantly. The flesh always seems to grow of itself and repeatedly has to be dealt with in its various forms. Because they had not been to Gilgal spiritually, they were now in a place of weepers, which is what Bochim means.
The Angel reminded them of God’s promise and God’s work in the past through which God had brought them to the land. God had fulfilled His promises, but they had not obeyed His voice. Therefore, they would have to reap the results of their failure and experience the disciplining hand of God. This would result in them having to overcome or be overcome by their enemies.
Sadly, their only response to this searching message was two-fold: they wept and they offered sacrifices to the Lord. We do not know whether this was a burnt offering or a sin offering, but apart from that record, we are shocked to see that there was so little indication of any exercise to correct their actions. Maybe we should not be so shocked after all. Are there not times when God convicts us of failure in our lives, disobedience in our service, lack of responsiveness to Him, and lukewarmness on our part as in Laodicea? But while there may be weeping with determination to present our worship to God or to correct our lives, the effect doesn’t seem to continue to bring about a lasting change for the better.
Left their First Love
What was the problem? It seems that it was the same in their day as the problem that afflicted the saints in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4: they had left their first love. Their hearts were not fervent and warm toward God, they were not as responsive to Him as they might have been in the past, and as a result, they were soon attracted to objects other than the Lord. Peter warns the saints in His day, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: having a good conscience...” (1 Peter 3:16-17a). If Christ is not set apart, given the preeminent place in our hearts, then He will not have that place in our lives.
The Lord tenderly but severely challenges the saints of Ephesus to search their hearts. Peter was challenged by the Lord in John 21.. “lovest thou me more than these?” Jude warns us in his short epistle, verse 21, “keep yourselves in the love of God.” We note, by way of contrast, that John warns the saints “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21). It is always a healthy exercise on our part to search our hearts to determine the depth of our love for the Lord. If our hearts are not settled on the Lord and those things that pertain to Him, idols will always attract and take us away. The last words of God to Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy were intended to touch and effect the condition of their hearts (Deuteronomy 5:29), “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” This they, like us, had failed to do. In Revelation 2 we learn that this was a problem that began at the very start of the church age and continued throughout, causing all the problems that ensued.
Keep Thy Heart...
The life will always reflect the condition of the heart. Solomon failed to follow his own advice in Proverbs 4:23, when he said, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” Our actions flow from our heart condition, and if the heart is truly right with God, then our ways and walk will reflect it. Some tell us, “God knows my heart,” when their life and behavior is not according to God’s Word. Surely He knows, but if the heart is in true fellowship with and in love with the Lord, the outward appearance and behavior will follow the pattern of seeking to please the Lord and to honor His Name. Sadly, we also know that in Israel’s history (and in ours), “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) and it is an important work to make sure of the condition of our hearts in relation to the Lord.
This appearance and appeal of the angel of the Lord corresponds with the Lord’s appeal to Ephesus: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works:” (Revelation 2:5). This threat of the lampstand’s (candlestick) loss was real and imminent. This is the case in Judges 2 as well; the remainder of the chapter summarizes the subsequent history of Israel in those days. The rising of a generation that knew not the Lord nor the works that He had done for Israel followed that condition; serving Baalim and forsaking the Lord, with all that accompanied that action, was the result (verses 10-13). Whenever God’s people turn away from Him, lacking true, fervent love that motivates and controls the life, they will inevitably turn to something of the world or self.
Baal was an imitation of the true God, one who claimed the title of “my lord, or master” and thus pretended to be the true God. The plurality of the word (Baalim) indicates that there were many forms of this god that were found in different localities, according to the particular desires of the people. This could suggest that there are many objects of our lives that vie with the Lord to control and master us; it may be one thing for one and another thing for another. Evil and error can take many forms, and they all must be resisted. Whatever they are, the result is loss of spiritual power and lack of victory over enemies, resulting eventually in the disciplinary hand of God.
Mercy of God in Discipline
The servitude to enemies that resulted from this departure was, in one sense, an expression of the love of God for His people and was another aspect of His mercy. It was because He loved them and wanted them to realize the results of their departure from Him by experience that He sold them into the hand of these nations. It was for their recovery that He allowed it, and it was beneficial when it caused them to turn to Him in repentance and to call upon Him for deliverance.
We would think that the conditions that God allowed in sequential periods of the church history in Revelation 2-3 were for the purpose of correcting a previously existing condition. In other words, to correct their having left their first love in Ephesus, God allowed the extremity of persecution in Smyrna to restore His people to Him. They were delivered from that condition of heart by suffering, then they were delivered from suffering by the favor of the world that is seen in Pergamos, etc. God only brings discipline on His own true children; this is the teaching of Hebrews 12:3-13. He disciplines every son whom He receives and He does it out of love for them and through a desire to receive their complete affection. This should curb any inclination on our part to quickly assume that someone suffering affliction is not a child of God. It would also prevent us from thinking that such experiences are due to sin in every case. It may be, but it may not be as well.
We also learn from 1 Peter 1:6-7 and from Hebrews 12, that such discipline is sometimes developmental, in order to enhance the features that God wants to augment in our lives. It may be preventative, so that we might be kept from departure in the future. It may also be punitive, in the form of punishment, as a father would chasten his child. Whatever the reason, the motive on God’s part is His love for us and His desire to have His people in complete harmony with Himself out of love for Him. May He preserve us in this day, when “the love of many shall wax cold” (Matthew 24:12). Once again the exhortation of Proverbs 4:23 is applicable, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.”
It is remarkable that in ch. 2:19, we read that “when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers,” as if to say, the correction that God brought and the revival effected by the judge was short-lived and temporary. It seems that this is often the case; promises and vows made to God during times of duress and trial often turn out to be not much more than words and without any lasting effect in our lives. God intends that His hand upon us in allowing circumstances to touch us would have a lasting, life-long result in our lives to cause more subjection to Him. We can also see this as the case for the larger aspect of the professing church in this age; revivals and recoveries are usually temporary, with a lapse afterwards bringing a worse condition than existed before. It is as if the discipline had never been felt nor the voice of God been heard.
It is worth noting that as often (7 times) as we read that “the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord,” we also read that the Lord “sold them,” or “delivered them,” or “strengthened” the enemy against them. This emphasizes that the enemies around them could not touch or conquer them unless the Lord allowed them to do it. Even their ability to overcome Israel and to bring them into subjection was only possible as God permitted it. If they had been obedient to His Word and faithful to Him personally, no surrounding enemy could have brought them into bondage.
We live in an enemy land, and we also are surrounded by spiritual foes, desperately wanting to overcome and subdue the people of God. What is the key to our survival and victory over them? It is not in the force of arms, nor in the strength of the ballot box. Neither is it in our personal, innate ability or intelligence. It lies solely in our obedience to God’s Word and in our fidelity to the Person of Christ. When anything comes between us and the Lord to interrupt our communion, or when we relax our exercise spiritually and become occupied with other things, the result is inevitable and we will be overcome by them. Peter says in 2 Peter 2:19, “for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage.” This is spoken relative to those who have forsaken the right way and have deliberately gone astray, but the principle applies in every case. Many believers have begun well in their Christian life, but have failed to end well because of their lack of consistent determination to seek only to do “the will of God from the heart, Ephesians 6:6.
Servitude to Mesopotamia
The first enemy that came to dominate the Israelites was Mesopotamia under Chushan-rishathaim. It seems that this enemy likely came from some area in upper Mesopotamia, possibly an enemy properly called Habiru that lived in the northern part. This would put them nearer to the land of Israel and more likely to seek to invade the area. Since Israel had served the groves (Asherim) and Baal, God sold them into servitude to what they represented. Mesopotamia was the location of Ur and Babylon. These false gods were derived from that old worship, Babylonianism, and represented it in this particular form. This was the country, or area, from which Abraham had been called out in separation to God. They had failed to maintain that separation, so now they were under its domination. They didn’t go back to that country, and these Israelites had actually never been there; rather that country and power came in to dominate them.
There is a resemblance between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Both were like “oases” in a desert and owed their existence and attractiveness to rivers that flowed, these being expressions of God’s mercies to people living under the oppressive effect of a burning sun. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia had descended from and were linked in Canaan, their forefather, and in the case of Mesopotamia, Nimrod, (“the rebel”) stands out in its history. One could see “the god of this world,” (2 Corinthians 4:4) pictured by Chushan-rishathaim, (“blackness of double wickedness”) who still wants to overcome the child of God and oppose God’s purposes of grace in us. Nimrod was descended from Cush, who was a son of Canaan (Genesis 10:6), so he was descended from the one who was associated with God’s curse through Noah (Genesis 9:25).
The number “eight” in Scripture is linked with a new beginning, one more than a complete cycle of seven, so these years of servitude would bring them to a new beginning. It is also a number linked with resurrection, in that it was on the first day of the week, a new start after the old had passed, that our Lord rose triumphantly from the dead. Our ground of receiving power to live for God is through being raised from the dead to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4, 11). It is good to see that they only took eight years to come to the point of crying out to God for deliverance in contrast to the longer periods of time we see in their servitude later in the book. This would teach us that the people, at this stage of their experience with God, were more sensitive to the fact that they were not enjoying the liberty as God’s people, so they were quicker to cry out to God.
We can become accustomed to conditions that are not God’s will for us at all, and thus we become insensitive to the fact that we are actually under bondage. That may be bondage to wrong teaching, or it might be under the control of wrong habits and practices. Whatever it might be, we need to “awake out of sleep” (Romans 13:11) and be delivered from that condition to serve the Lord afresh. We see God’s work to deliver as we move to the next chapter and look at Othniel, the first judge.
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