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The book of Joshua is linear. God supplied a faithful leader to Israel, and he took them into the land, conquering it, and they all moved from left to right. The book of Judges is quite different—it is a book of cycles, a book of ups and downs. It is a book that contains astonishing heroism and appalling grotesqueries both.
“And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions . . .” (Heb. 11:32–33).
Summary of the Text
The verses following our text go on to itemize some of the great works of faith that the great heroes of the faith performed. We all know that the Bible describes the flaws of most of these heroes—but the Bible describes them in heroic terms nonetheless. Some of these exploits were acts of triumph and conquest, and others were acts of sacrifice and martyrdom, but all of them were empowered by faith. The point of selecting this text is that it tells us that Gideon, and Barak, and Samson, and Jephthah, were all men of faith. Because the book of Judges is so grim, and because there is so much unfaithfulness in it, we sometimes fail to recognize how much actual success was achieved in the book. Ehud gave the people peace for eighty years (Judg. 3:30). Gideon gave them peace for forty years (Judg. 8:28).
The book of Judges spans approximately three centuries (from roughly 1382 BC to 1065 BC). Although it is unattributed, the most likely author for the book is Samuel.
The history of Judges gives us an account of six periods of oppression. The first was from the Hittite portion of Mesopotamia (Judg. 3:7-11). The second was the oppression of Moab, under their king Eglon (Judg. 3:12-31). The third was the oppression of some local Canaanites, from which Deborah and Barak delivered them (Judg. 4:1-5:31). The fourth was from the Midianites, and Gideon was their deliverer (Judg. 6:1-8:32). The fifth was the only home-grown oppression, that of Abimelech (Judg. 8:33-10:5). The sixth round came from the Ammonites to the east and the Philistines to the west, and the people were delivered by Jephthah (Judg. 10:6-16:31). Samson was also used to deliver Israel from the Philistines.
To this outline of this period of Israel’s history, we see the author added an appendix outlining two stories in greater detail. One of them concerns a Levite named Jonathan, who was hired by a man named Micah as a priestly hireling. This Jonathan was, according to some manuscripts, a direct descendant of Moses (Judg. 18:30). The next story concerns the Benjamite outrage, and we have to say the behavior of an unnamed Levite with his concubine was scarcely any better.
Despite the name judges, the only one of them we see actually discharging that particular function of the office was Deborah (Judg. 4:5). Overwhelmingly, we see these judges functioning as Spirit-anointed deliverers or saviors (Judg. 2:16). We would be better off to render this office as that ofwarrior-ruler. These were charismatically appointed saviors (Judg. 3:9).
The Deuteronomic Pattern
The predominant motif in this book is that of the cycle. There is a consistent pattern to it, and it is as follows: First, the Israelites do evil in the eyes of the Lord (e.g. Judg. 2:11). Second, God disciplines Israel by bringing in (usually) foreign oppressors (e.g. Judg. 2:14). Third, the Israelites cry out to God in their repentance (e.g. Judg. 3:9). Fourth, God shows mercy and raises up a deliverer (e.g. Judg. 2:16). Fifth, a period of peace follows until the death of the deliverer, after which the people fall again (e.g. Judg. 3:10-11).
Right in Their Own Eyes
A tagline for the book of Judges could be “when every man did what was right in his own eyes.” “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). The fact that there was no king introduces the two appalling stories in the appendix (Judg. 18:1; 19:1). And then the same line is used to conclude the book. “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Right after everyone says yikes, the observation is made that everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
So this is not an idyllic utopia; this was no libertarian paradise. The political chaos meant that heroism was possible (and frequently necessary). The political chaos also meant that atrocities were just around the corner.
The Libertarian Temptation
When you are ruled by Eglons, as we are, it is very easy to see where the problem is. That being the case, it is too easy to yearn for an ideological “solution,” that of no government at all. Given what the Bible says about it, why would anyone want to live under such conditions? When you live in a time of chaos and anarchy, it is almost impossible to assign responsibility—and this is one of the great attractions of pure libertarianism, which is profoundly anti-Christian. Beware of systems that have universal explanatory power, like hyper-preterism and libertarianism.
When we read the book of Judges, we should be mindful of three fundamental realities. The first is that God judges sin (Judg. 2:11,14). The second is that God is extraordinarily merciful to people who manifestly do not deserve it (Judg. 2:16). And the last is the sinfulness and ingratitude of the heart of man. After each deliverance, once the judge in question was dead, they veered back and behaved more corruptly than their fathers had done (Judg. 2:19).
But God is full of tender mercy, and Christ has died and risen in such a way as to deal with the treacherous hearts of men forever. We can therefore concentrate on His mercy. “Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them” (Judg. 2:16).
Even the trials that God sent them were motivated by His grace:
“Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to prove Israel by them, even as many of Israel as had not known all the wars of Canaan; Only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at the least such as before knew nothing thereof; Namely, five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites that dwelt in mount Lebanon, from mount Baal-hermon unto the entering in of Hamath. And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses” (Judg. 3:1–4).
The Lord Jesus fights for us, and He is our ultimate Judge. And this is what it means for God to judge—He delivers us. When God intervenes to judge, this is good news. “Let the floods clap their hands: Let the hills be joyful together Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: With righteousness shall he judge the world, And the people with equity” (Ps. 98:8–9).