By Victor Knowles
America, a relatively young nation, will turn 240 years old in 2016. Compare that with the book of Judges, which covers a period of about 325 years. Death had taken Israel’s spiritual leader, Joshua, and they were entering Canaan without a champion. George Washington said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” Israel was about to find that out.
Judges 1:7-11 paints a mixed picture of Israel that was repeated over and over again: Israel did evil in the eyes of God; they forgot God and served idols; God allowed their enemies (Syria, Moab, Canaan, Midian, Ammon, and Philistia) to take them captive. Then they cried out to God and he raised up a deliverer who saved them. The land had peace from as few as 6 years to 80 years. Then the judge died and the people reverted to sin, starting the vicious cycle all over again. In fact, “The people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors” (Judges 2:19). This vicious cycle included intermarriage with pagans (3:6).
Of Assassins and Battles
Just as there were twelve sons of Jacob and twelve tribes of Israel, there were twelve judges. Othniel, Israel’s first judge, pressed the Canaanites hard but never succeeded in completely driving them out of the land (1:28-36). The angel of the Lord told the young nation that because they had broken the covenant they had made with God at Mt. Sinai, and because they had not driven out the Canaanites completely, they would be “a thorn in their side” and their gods would be a “snare” to Israel (2:1-4, English Standard Version). The people wept aloud at their failure.
When we fail to drive sin out of our own lives, the results can be devastating and long lasting. God gives us his Holy Spirit to judge our thoughts and motives and help us gain the victory.
The judges were anything but spiritual giants, yet God used them to fulfill his purpose during this period of time. The first three were known for their military prowess. Ehud was a daring left-handed assassin. Shamgar struck down 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. Deborah was a “warrior prophetess” who held court under a palm tree and won a great battle over Sisera.
Our battles today are not against flesh and blood enemies, but against “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). It is crucial that we “put on the whole armor of God” (v. 11).
Of Fleeces and Vows
Israel’s fifth judge, Gideon, was a military genius who defeated the Midianites (Judges 6, 7). He literally put out a fleece before God and received guidance that caused him to narrow his fighting men down from a force of 32,000 to only 300. God explained why: “Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me’” (7:2). In a daring midnight attack, Gideon’s mini-army of 300 shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” (v. 20) and routed the enemy.
Putting out a fleece may not be the best thing to do, but putting up a prayer to God is always good. “And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:15.)
But, “No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. . . . and did not remember the Lord their God who had rescued them” (Judges 8:33, 34). However God remembered Gideon, and he is included in the great faith chapter of Hebrews 11.
And God is not going to forget your efforts. He “will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10).
Sir John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), English historian and writer, said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That maxim was proven true in Judges 9 when the people decided to try a king for a change—Abimelech, one of Gideon’s 70 sons. It is one gory story. He promptly executed his 69 brothers. His ignominious three-year reign ended when a woman dropped a millstone on his head, cracking his skull. His ego caused him to cry out to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him’” (Judges 9:54). The servant ran him through and he was through.
The bell then tolled for Tola, who judged Israel for 23 years, and Jair who served for 22 years. Then comes Jepthah, “a mighty warrior” (11:1), known to this day for the rash vow he made (11:31). What was he thinking? Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.” Still, some vows are noble and good, including Hannah’s vow (1 Samuel 1:9-11), David’s vow (2 Samuel 9:7), and Job’s vow (Job 27:2-6). God takes note when you and I say “I will” and “I do.” Jepthah, in spite of his foolish vow, is also included in the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:32). For the next quarter-century Israel was ruled by three judges: Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (Judges 12:8-15).
Of Lions and Lust
After 40 years of Israel being delivered into the hands of their archenemy, Philistia, God raised up Samson. The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah’s wife and told her that she would conceive (though she was barren) and bear a son (Judges 13:3). He would be set apart to God from the moment of birth, to be raised as a Nazirite, and would deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines (v. 5). When Samson was born, “the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him” (Judges 13:24, 25). For example, one day a young lion sprung at Samson. “The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands” (Judges 14:6).
The Holy Spirit can help us in our struggles with Satan, who is described in 1 Peter 5:8 as a “roaring lion” who seeks to devour us.
However, we are also told in Scripture that the flesh wars against the Spirit (Galatians 5:17). Samson was no stranger to lust. He married a Philistine woman and later gave her away to the best man at his wedding (Judges 14:1-8, 20). One day he went to Gaza and gazed upon a prostitute. He went to her “like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose” (Proverbs 7:22). He spent the night with her and managed to escape his enemies in the middle of the night.
Sometime later he fell in love with Delilah. He told Delilah the secret of his great strength, and he was finished. How sad the words: “But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). The Philistines gouged out his eyes, put him in shackles, and made him grind grain in the prison. However the story did not end in a dungeon of gloom but in a temple of doom—for the Philistines!
Of Prayer and Grace
Samson was brought out to entertain and perform as the crowd cheered Dagon, their chief god, and jeered at Samson. The blinded hero of Israel asked the servant leading him to position him where he could feel the two supporting pillars of the magnificent temple. On the roof above were about 3,000 reveling men and women. The people were mocking and the place was rocking—but not for long. “Then Samson prayed to the Lord, ‘Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please God, strengthen me just once more” (16:28). His source of strength returned and he brought down the temple of Dagon, killing many more when he died than while he lived (v. 30).
Samson was a trophy of God’s amazing grace. “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about . . . Samson . . . whose weakness was turned to strength” (Hebrews 11:32, 34). Samson, the last judge of Israel, discovered that in spite of his sin, God was not through with him.
God is not finished with us either. His grace is greater than our disgrace. He turns our weakness into strength. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri.