Today we're beginning a series from one of the most disturbing and yet one of the most hopeful books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Judges. It's one of those books that makes you shake your head at times and wonder how they could have got it so wrong. Things get bad in this book, and they only get worse. If you were to try to find a book in the Bible that illustrates that people are sinful, this would be your book.
As dismal as this book is, it's a book in which we see ourselves. One Old Testament scholar says that Judges may be one of the most relevant books for the North American church at this time. Why? We're going to see a little bit of the answer today.
We will probably go through the following experience a number of times in reading this book. First, we'll read a passage and say, "They're so bad. I can't believe they did that." Then, after thinking for a minute, we'll realize that in some ways we're just the same. Judges hits uncomfortably close to home at times, because we are often like the people we're going to read about.
And yet it's also a book of hope. No matter how bad things got at the time of the Judges, God never gave up on his people. This book shows us that God is gracious, and he often treats his people "not according to what they deserve but out of his boundlessly merciful heart" (Daniel Block). The book of Judges reminds us that God's people often disappoint, human leaders often disappoint, but God's purposes will prevail, not because people are great, but because God is great. "The true hero in the book," someone has said, "is God and God alone."
Let's take a look at the beginning of the book of Judges, which sets up the rest of the book. Then let's look at the core question which we need to answer, and we'll have to answer again and again in this book.
A Hopeful Beginning
At the start of the book of Judges, Israel was in the process of taking possession of the land that God had promised them. Judges 1:1-2 say:
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, "Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?"
The Lord answered, "Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands."
There's some background to this passage. Years earlier God made a covenant with Abram in Canaan, saying, "To your descendants I give this land" (Genesis 15:18). Generations later God delivered Abram's descendants from slavery in Egypt. When God did this, he told Moses, "I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8). In Exodus 23, God promised, "My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land…I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River" (Exodus 23:23, 31). Again, God said in Deuteronomy 1:8, "See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them." God had given them the land. God promised this repeatedly.
In this first chapter of Judges we have a crisis – the death of Joshua – but we also have lots of hope. We have God's promises given over and over. You have people who have seen and heard of all that God has done to deliver them. And you have the people of Israel inquiring of God what they should do, which is much better than happened earlier, like in Joshua 9 when it says that they "did not inquire of the Lord" (Joshua 9:14). They were ready to obey God's will, and they understood what God's will was. Things in the book of Judges start out on a very hopeful note.
They get results too. Verse 4 says, "When Judah attacked, the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands, and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek." Verse 8 says, "The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire." This was a promising start.
You and I know what this is like as well. Most of us can think of a time in our lives when we were aware of God's saving acts and power. We felt like we were right on the verge of something. God's Word really seemed crisp and alive. We were prayerful and had a real sense of relationship with God. And for many of us, that's not where we are today. So what happened?
First Signs of Trouble
Just to warn you, it's almost all downhill from this point. There's a hint of a problem even in the first few verses. God had told them, "Completely destroy them…Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
Now, this is a hard command – but it's a clear command. A lot of people have grappled with what looks like a holy war or genocide. How could a good God command the elimination of a whole race, including men, women and children? Is this not genocide of the worst sort? This is a hard question. I've included in insert that tries to respond it.
But as we wrestle with this issue, we also need to wrestle with this: they don't do it. And the reason they don't do it isn't because they're more humane. Read verses 5-7:
It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes.
Then Adoni-Bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them." They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.
They're not being more humane. They're actually being more barbaric. Instead of killing Adoni-Bezek, they mutilate him and bring him to Jerusalem as a trophy of war where he later dies, maybe from an infection. They're already acting like the Canaanites.
After starting out really well, they start to get into some trouble. Verse 19 says, "The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron." You almost feel sorry for them. They were facing superior military equipment.
Then verses 27 and 35 say:
But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land…And the Amorites were determined also to hold out in Mount Heres, Aijalon and Shaalbim.
Not only did they face superior military technology. They now faced people who were more determined to live there than the Israelites were to defeat them. It's not necessarily that the Canaanites had better technology this time. They just had more chutzpah.
Then verses 28 to 35 mention that many of Israel's tribes enslaved the Canaanites and pressed them into forced labor. It seems to have been more economical and convenient to make them slaves than to drive them out. They may have thought that it's such a waste to destroy the nations when they could instead be exploited.
Chapter 1 ends at this point. It doesn't give us an evaluation of what's happened. It just reports the facts. But at the end of chapter 1 you're left with the realization that, for a number of reasons, they haven't done what God has asked them to do.
Most of us live in the real world. We're prepared to accept that things don't always turn out the way that we had hoped. But I mentioned that chapter 1 sets us up for the rest of the book. They end up living with the consequences of not doing what God told them to do for a very long time. The rest of this book is, in a way, the result of what happened in chapter 1.
What's Wrong With the World?
G.K. Chesterton once wrote a book called What's Wrong With the World. It's a social commentary on his times, examining capitalism, socialism, education, and many other issues.
Given that we too live in a broken world, and like the Israelites in Judges 1, are not experiencing life the way that God said it would be, we too need to ask what is wrong with the world. If God is good, then there are really only two possibilities for why our obedience is less than complete, and why we live with the consequences of our lack of obedience. The first is:
The Israelites faced some pretty tough circumstances. It's not easy to go to war against people who have chariots fitted with iron when you don't. These were pretty powerful weapons. It's also hard to go against people who are determined. Everywhere the Israelites looked, they had circumstances that made it difficult for them to do what God told them to do.
The same thing happens today. God has clearly said to do certain things, but circumstances often get in the way. God says, "Do this," and we say, "We'd like to, but we can't because of circumstances."
Let me give you some examples. God says, "Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses" (Proverbs 28:27). I don't know many people who disagree with the principle behind this verse. I think I know a lot of people who say, "I would like to give to the poor, but you don't understand. My money is tight right now. If I made more money, then I would give to the poor." In other words, our circumstances keep us from doing what God tells us to do with the poor.
Or, few disagree with what Jesus says in Matthew 6:14: "For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." But who here has a hard time forgiving someone because they are special cases? We agree with Jesus, but circumstances make it very difficult to do what he says.
Or, what about temptation. We know that something is wrong, but we say, "I can't resist doing it even though I know it is wrong." In a sense, we're right when we say this. We can't stop sinning through sheer willpower. But on the other hand, it is possible to humble ourselves and to get help. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it."
When we ask what is wrong with the world, then we have to admit that in the end, circumstances are not the problem. Circumstances are never ultimately the reason why we fail to obey God, because God is always able to deal with any circumstances that we face. God has the power and the money to deal with any circumstance.
Iron chariots aren't a problem for God. God had told Israel, "The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised" (Joshua 23:9-10). Joshua had told them earlier, "Though the Canaanites have chariots fitted with iron and though they are strong, you can drive them out" (Joshua 17:18). Later in the book of Judges, we see Israel defeating armies who have iron chariots.
Our problem is never ultimately our circumstances. Our circumstances are never an excuse for disobedience. The real problem actually runs a lot deeper.
God himself tells us what the real problem is at the start of chapter 2. Listen to what God says in Judges 2:1-3:
The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, "I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.' Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, 'I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.'" (Judges 2:1-3)
The Times in London invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton's contribution took the form of a letter, and was probably the shortest and most accurate reply they received. What's wrong with the world?
G. K. Chesterton
God says in these verses that the failure of the Israelites in Judges 1, and our failure today, is not a failure due to circumstances. It is ultimately disobedience. Verse 2 says, "Yet you have disobeyed me." Of course, the ultimate reason for our disobedience is our sinfulness. But God gives us two particular reasons why we are disobedient in verse 1.
He says, "I brought you up out of Egypt." In the Old Testament, God's greatest saving act was the exodus, when God brought Israel out of Egypt. God says that their problem is that they have forgotten God's saving acts. In the New Testament, God's greatest saving act was the cross, where God "rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Colossians 1:12). When we are disobedient, it is always because we have forgotten the gospel. It is because we have forgotten his saving acts.
God says that there's something else we've forgotten. He says in verse 1, " I will never break my covenant with you." God says that you have forgotten his holiness and faithfulness. Anytime we are disobedient, it is because we have forgotten the character of God. We essentially fail to remember who he is.
If the people of Judges 1 had remembered God's saving acts and his unchanging character, then the Canaanites would not have been a problem. If we remember what God has done for us in Christ, and that "no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20), then our circumstances would never be a problem. Our disobedience does not come from circumstances. Our disobedience comes as a result of forgetting who God is and what he has done for us.
We are the people of Judges 1. We have forgotten the victory that Jesus has already won. We are like the people that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones described who have been set free, but still cower because we forget that we've been set free. But there's hope for us. That hope comes when we remember who God is and what he has done for us.
So let me pray for us this morning. Let me pray for us together as a church for the times that we don't obey. Let me pray for you individually as well. Let's learn from Judges 1. What's wrong with the world? What's wrong with the world is me. What's wrong with the world is that we've forgotten who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.
Father, we bring before you all the areas of our lives in which we are just like the people of Judges 1. We have not done what you have told us to do. What is even worse is the way that we haven't taken responsibility. We haven't confessed that our disobedience is due to our sinfulness, that we have sinful hearts and are not capable of doing what you have called us to do.
Indeed, Father, the problem with the world is our hearts.
But we thank you for Jesus. We thank you for your divine power that has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Remind us today of your character – your holiness and your faithfulness. Remind us of your saving acts. And allow us to live in light of your character and your saving acts. We pray in the name of the one who died to set us free from both the guilt and the power of sin. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.