For a great summary of the Book of Judges check out this video by The Bible Project guys.
Some people think that lifeguards have an easy job. They just have to wait until something bad happens, and if nothing does, they can sleep. If you have every watched a lifeguard in action, you know this isn’t the case. They are set up high so that they can survey the water. Every swimming pool has certain rules: no running along the edge, no diving in the shallow end, no rough-housing, no urinating. The lifeguards are to keep everyone safe, ensure that people follow the rule or they will be kicked out.
I remember as a child not liking those lifeguards very much. My friends and I just wanted to have a little fun, and what is fun without the potential for getting hurt? There is nothing better than catching girls in the pool unawares with cannonballs inches from their heads. It’s even better if there are some on the edge dangling their feet in the water and the splash is big enough to soak them. If there are enough girls watching, a belly flop from the high dive sounds like a good idea. See, as a young boy I was a real Casanova!
I wasn’t only interested in girls, though. Sometimes it was just my buddies and I horsing around, trying to see who could keep the other guy underwater the longest, or who could climb the furthest up the water slide. But each one of these antics was met with a whistle and a warning. All is fun and games until someone gets hurt, and those lifeguards were there to prevent it. The policemen of the waves!
Moses was the policeman of the Red Sea waves, and Joshua after him took charge of the Jordan River, great men given leadership over an entire nation. They read the poolside rules and told the people to follow, but just like the generation before Joshua, the one that came after thought God’s rules were no fun. They were charged to drive the people out of the Land of Canaan and possess it for themselves… but they didn’t follow the rules.
Judges 1:27-33 walks tribe by tribe through the people, showing that everyone of them did not do what the LORD had commanded them to do.
Vs. 27 – “But Manasseh did not take possession of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; so the Canaanites persisted in living in that land.”
Vs. 33 – “Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land…”
Without an earthy leader, a lifeguard to continually remind them of the rules they wandered from God’s ways. They went out way past the sandbars and forgot how to come back… and as a result they start to drown.
Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals, 12 and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them.
There was a reason why God told them to drive these people out, and this is it. He warned them many times that this very thing would happen if they didn’t do what He said. But they thought, that rule doesn’t make sense. There doesn’t seem to be any harm in ignoring it. They forgot their Heavenly LORD and sought to make lords of themselves in the new land. They enslaved the Canaanites, became masters over them almost as if Egypt wasn’t still hanging in the dust clouds of their desert trek. They became the very thing that God freed them from in Egypt. Once again they needed a saviour, but not from their oppressors… from themselves. They were undeserving of God’s grace, but God loves to use the unexpected to save the undeserving.
God sends 12 judges to them over a period of time: 12 cycles of disobedience and return. If we can learn anything from Chapter 8 of The Story it that we are human. Despite everything that God has done for us, we so easily walk away. We twist what he says to justify our sin, or neglect it all together. We, like the Israelites need a constant reminder of our saviour, who didn’t just save us from the world around us, but from ourselves. God’s grace is greater than our failures.
The 12 judges God sends are 12 saviours. The Old Testament understanding of a judge was not a guy in a wig with a gavel. They were more like lifeguards to a drowning people. They came in and reminded the people of the rules, pulled them back to the shore, and conquered the waves. They were saviours, war heroes, great leaders. See, every time the people turned away from God, he did not preserve them, but gave them over to a life without his favour. A great summary of this reoccurring cycle come in Judges 2:16-22.
16 Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do as their fathers.
18 When the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways.
20 So the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He said, “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers and has not listened to My voice, 21 I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not.”
These judges acted as temporary saviours to a drowning people, but they aren’t the leaders you would expect. We don’t have time to look at all twelve judges this morning, but their stories are much the same. Unexpected people “raised up” to do unexpected things and save the undeserving Israelites, who constantly turned away from God. God’s work within us is mighty not because of the people he chooses, but the power he uses.
Gideon was one such judge. He wasn’t born to be a leader. He didn’t inherit a crown from his father or carry his family’s sword. He was a farmer… and a scared one at that. Most men would grind their wheat up on the hilltops to let the wind carry away the chaff, but not this farmer. He hid inside, crushing the wheat with a wine press; not because it made sense or was any easier, but because he was afraid of the Midianites. This lowly man full of fear and trembling is met by an angel who is obviously mistaken regarding his nature.
12 The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.”
Gideon, startled, looks around. The angel can’t be talking to Him. Valiant warrior he was not.
Then Gideon said to him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 The Lord looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?”
15 Gideon said to Him, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.”
Manasseh was one of Joseph’s sons, and so the tribe that follows in their name are small. The half-tribe of a family reject. Not only that, he is the least, and more than that the youngest. He is putting himself down every chance he gets. How can this scared farmer be called to hold such a mighty office. Surely God must be mistaken. So, Gideon tells the angel, “I don’t believe you.” He asks for a sign that the angel he is talking to is actually from God, but even after this Gideon is afraid.
Not only was Gideon just a simple farmer of a half-tribe, but his father was an idol-worshipper. What an unexpected man for God to choose! As a judge, Gideon must do many things he is uncomfortable with, but he must face his fears with God’s strength, not his own: his own strength was less than most. The first thing that God does through him reminds the people of the rules. He reminds them of the very first rule at the top of the board by the swimming pool, but instead of a board it is tablets of stone, ten rules written out by the finger of God. “You shall have no other gods before me.”
25 Now on the same night the Lord said to Gideon, “Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it; 26 and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner, and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.”
The people had turned to worshipping the gods of those Canaanites they let remain in the land, just as God said would happen, and God uses this unexpected man to tear down the idols and bring the people back to himself. As we have been seeing time and time again, God’s greatest desire to be with us, and when we fail he seeks us out to draw us back to him. These people had turned away from God, lost his favour, spat in his face, and are now, as a result, are being oppressed by the locals they were instructed to drive out. God enters the scene, redirects their attention back to him, and says “despite all you’ve done, I still want to save you.”
But Gideon was scared. What would the people do if he did this thing? They worshipped these idols. Such an act had the weight of assassinating a king, no—killing a god. Fear was Gideon’s greatest weakness, and so he does the deed in the dead of night.
27 Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had spoken to him; and because he was too afraid of his father’s household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night.
Despite Gideon’s fear, God uses him to redeem the undeserving. He shows them the powerlessness of the foolish idols they had been worshipping, then reveals his power once again. Gideon complained that God had abandoned them. He said, “Where are all those miracles we heard about from Egypt?” God is about to answer his question. He is not done with Gideon.
Once the people began to turn their hearts back to God, seeing how easily their idols were torn down, the enemy shows up. They gather together to face the Midianites in battle. God had promised Gideon that he would save the Israelites, so this man with the war tactics of a mouse gathers the people together and they head for the hills.
God says, you have too many people. Gideon tells them, “If anyone is afraid, go home,” and all the while this farmer turned unexpected leader is fighting to not walk out himself. If anyone was afraid, it was him. More than two thirds of his army leave and Gideon is left to wonder if the remainder will be enough, but God says, “you still have too many.” Starting with 32,000 people following the shaking of his boots, the man is now left with a mere 300 as God cuts the army down for a second time.
Not only was the army small, but God’s army plans didn’t make them feel very big. He told them to surround the camp, smash come clay pots, blow trumpets, and shout. God has done this before. At the battle of Jericho he weakened his people and gave them a ludicrous plan, because it’s not about the strength of the warrior but the strength of the commander.
Gideon does what God says, and they defeat the enemy. God saves his people once again, though they didn’t do anything to deserve it, and he doesn’t use a great leader, or mighty warrior. God chose someone so weak and an army so small that it had to be supernatural power which won the victory. Even after such incredible victory and the 40 years of peace that followed, the people’s faith in God faltered. They showed how undeserving they were once again by turning back to worshipping idol.
33 Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god. 34 Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side.
After God conquered the Midianites through Gideon, and Israel turned away, God again allows their enemies to conquer them. This time it in the Philistines, but God never sends judgement without redemption. He raises up another judge, a saviour named Samson.
If Gideon was weak, Samson was not. Where Gideon showed fear Samson showed power, and when Gideon was humble Samson was proud. He was a man known for his great strength, but also dedicated to God from birth.
We are reminded of Abraham once again as the promised nation with which we now walk came from a barren couple. Samson’s story is much the same. His parents had no children, and try as they might the blessing did not come. That is until an angel showed up and said
“Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. 4 Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. 5 For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”
A deliver, a saviour, a Nazirite. This is a Hebrew baby dedication. Nazirites were people set apart for God’s work, and because of this there were certain things they were not supposed to do: No drinking, no hair cuts, and no touching dead things.
Samson, just like Gideon, had his own flaws. He threw out these three Nazirite vows, and abused the power God gave him—taking three vows of his own. “I will take what I want, live how I want, and I will have my revenge.” Though God used Samson, he has his flaws, and they didn’t hide in wine presses and rock-clefts like Gideon. Samson flaunted his failures. He acts like a thug towards his women and a menace to everyone else.
His first encounter with a woman is a Philistine, an enemy, but Samson doesn’t care. Why does he want to marry her? He spies her out, comes back to his parents and says, “get her for me.” When they ask why their son wants to sleep with the enemy he says, “She looks good.” So Samson fulfils his first vow to himself, “I will take what I want.” And no one can get in his way, not even a roaring lion which he encounters along the way. Judges 14 shows a strange encounter where the spirit of God comes on Samson and he kills the lion with his bare hands. A few verses later, this strange verse comes up.
8 When he returned later to take her, he turned aside to look at the carcass of the lion; and behold, a swarm of bees and honey were in the body of the lion. 9 So he scraped the honey into his hands and went on, eating as he went.
Why is this important? It makes for great entertainment later during his wedding feast, a strange encounter turned into a riddle, but that’s not the reason. The lion was dead. A Nazirite, someone dedicated to God is not supposed to touch dead things. Samson doesn’t care. He thinks he is untouchable, and so while breaking another one of his vows to God, he fulfills one of his own, “I will live how I want!”
Samson is a beast, but every beast has a weak spot. For Samson it was women. His first wife tricks him into telling her the answer to his wedding feast riddle, and she tells her Philistine relatives. Samson is so enraged by this that he kills thirty of his new wife’s family members. As a result, Samson’s wife is given to his brother, and when he hears about he he catches 300 foxes, ties torches to their tails, and lets them loose in the Philistine’s fields.
This is only a few of Samson’s rampages, but each one of them fulfills the third vow he made to himself, “I will have my revenge.” His final downfall is the most famous. He grows to love a woman name Delilah, who tricks him into cutting his hair. With this final failure, he breaks the third and final vow between him and God, and with that the incredible strength that God has given him leaves. God’s Spirit turns away.
You may be thinking, this man sounds awful! He doesn’t sound like a judge. He surely isn’t a saviour to his people. He doesn’t show them the error of their ways, but flaunts his sin for all to see! This man may be a menace, but God uses him just the same. He uses Samson’s pride and thirst for vengeance to destroy many Philistines, and eventually saves Israel from slavery.
After Samson’s hair is cut and his awesome strength is no more, he comes to a low point in his life. The Philistine’s imprison him, take out his eyes, and make fun of him. They have him come to their banquets to entertain them. When they see him standing there, naked of strength and devoid of eyes, they remind him of what he once had. And Samson, with nothing left but whatever sliver of faith he once had, prays.
28 Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29 Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. 30 And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.
Samson is far from a model citizen, but not far from being able to be used by God. Such a man filled with hatred, lust, and pride is not who we might expect God to use, but he loves to use the unexpected to save the undeserving.
The judges may have been temporary saviours, but after they died, the people forgot about them and the God they served, but God doesn’t forget about them. The people were full of sin. Even the judges that God called to saver his people were so far from ideal, it can almost make you sick… or it can encourage you. If God can use someone as fearful as Gideon and hateful as Samson, why can’t he use someone like you? God doesn’t care for us until we fail him, but his undying love follows us into our sin and calls for our return. He loves us despite our sin.
It is Jesus, our saviour, who comes to us in the midst of our sin. He loves us when we least expect it and saves us when we least deserve it. Sometimes we may need a saviour from the world around us, but sometimes he saves us from ourselves.
The story of God’s people following him ended with the death of each judge. The people turned away. This shows us the need for a different answer to the people’s sin problem. A few temporary saviours won’t suffice. A permanent saviour had to come.
Enter Jesus, a new saviour, judge, and king. But, when He died, the story didn’t end. Instead of his saving work being complete with his death, it is only beginning. He loved us so much that he walked a path no one expected him to—the path to the Cross. He didn’t come so imperfectly like the Old Testament judges to save a few people and then die, but he saved the whole world through his death. His love does not die, and though we fail him, turn away, sin, he gives it unexpectedly, freely, and completely.