God and Messes (Judges 3:7-31)
Today we're looking at a passage from a disturbing and yet hopeful book. We've been looking at Judges, which is a story about how bad things get with God's people. Things keep getting worse and worse. There seems to be no limit to the way God's people sin in this book, and they get themselves into all kinds of trouble. But Judges also gives us hope because no matter how bad things get, God doesn't give up on his people. God is the real hero of this book.
I said that Judges is a disturbing book. Even with that in mind, today's passage is extra disturbing. Few stories in the Bible are more crude or bizarre than the one we're looking at today. It's been called a literary masterpiece. It's an ancient literary cartoon that has a bit of fun at someone's expense. It has everything: plot twists, foreshadowing, plays on people's names, satire, humor – bathroom humor at that. You could say that today's story is related at least PG, and it's not for the squeamish.
Besides being rude – there's no way around it – we're also left with questions about the morality of what happens in this passage. Strangely, this passage doesn't resolve all of our moral questions as we finish it.
So let's look at what happened and ask three questions:
- What happened that's so rude and disturbing?
- What does it tell us about us?
- What does it tell us about God?
First, what happened that is so rude and disturbing?
In this chapter, we have the stories of 3 of the 12 judges in this book. If I didn't know better, I'd think that we were about to be bored. Why? Because almost all of the stories of the judges fit into a formula or structure with six parts. 2 of the 3 judges in today's story fit that pattern perfectly. The pattern goes like this:
- The people do evil in the sight of the LORD
- The LORD gives them into the hands of their enemies
- The sons of Israel cry out to the LORD
- The LORD raises up a deliverer
- The LORD gives the enemies into the hands of the deliverer
- The land has rest for X years
For a minute it looks like we're going to be reading a bunch of formulaic stories. It's a little like going to an art gallery and looking at a bunch of paintings that came from paint-by-number kits. If that's what you think, then we're set up for a surprise. The first two stories follow the formula to a T, yet there's nothing boring about them at all.
Take Othniel in verses 7 to 11. It's probably the cleanest cycle. It fits the formula perfectly, and it hardly wastes a word. It's all downhill from here: none of the remaining cycles are anywhere near this clean or perfect. But even here, there's a twist. Who is Othniel? Verse 9 says that he is "son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother." We read in Judges 1:13 that Othniel was both Caleb's nephew and son-in-law. Who was Caleb? He was one of the spies who explored Canaan and, in faith, said, "We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it." He was a hero of the faith.
But here's what you need to know about Caleb. Joshua 14:6 calls him a Kenizzite. Here's the thing about Kenizzites: they're not really Israelites. Caleb's name literally means "dog." No self-respecting Israelite would ever call his son "dog" – just like you wouldn't. So the first judge, even though he follows the formula perfectly, still breaks the mold. The first judge to rescue Israel isn't even an Israelite, and he's probably not all that young. God uses outsiders to get his work done.
The third judge mentioned in verse 31 also breaks the mold. Verse 31 says, "After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel." Shamgar completely breaks the formula. It has none of the six elements it's supposed to. From what scholars can make out from his name, it appears that Shamgar was an Egyptian mercenary working for Pharaoh. God uses someone who not only isn't an Israelite to deliver Israel. He uses a pagan foreigner – a complete outsider who doesn't even believe in God.
In both Othniel and Shamgar, we see that God uses outsiders. He uses people that we wouldn't think of as options. You'd never expect God to use these people. God often uses the most unlikely people to get his work done.
A Real Mess
But nothing prepares us for the story that's sandwiched between these two outsiders, the story of Ehud in verses 12-30. I have to warn you. This isn't a story you'll want to tell to your kids at bedtime.
Ehud's name means, "Where is the glory?" As we begin reading his story, we're meant to ask, "Where is God's glory?" What happened to Israel that they are in so much trouble? This story gives us the answer – but it's a different answer than you may be expecting.
You have this man named Eglon, king of Moab, who conquers Israel for 18 years. Eglon's name means "calf." You have a surprising detail about Eglon's physical appearance in verse 17: "he was a very fat man." Biblical narratives never throw in random comments about someone's physical appearance. Whenever it does, it's always for a reason. The reason here is that the narrator is having some fun, and foreshadowing what's going to happen. This king, who has been ruling over Israel for 18 years, is really a fattened calf.
But you also have a physical description of the judge who comes to the rescue. Verse 15 says that he's "Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite." If you do a study in the Bible about being right-handed, you'll find that it's all positive. No offense to those of you who are left-handed. The right hand in the Bible is a symbol of power and authority. God swears by his right hand. Pleasures lie at God's right hand. Jesus is sitting at the right hand. It's all good. But here you have a man who is left-handed, from the tribe of Benjamin which means "son of the right hand." You have a left-handed man from a right-handed tribe. So you have a fattened calf as king, and a left-handed man from a right-handed tribe – the last person you would ever expect God to use.
Then you have this crude and disturbing series of events. Ehud pays tribute to Eglon in Elgon's palace in Jericho, a place where he came to collect his tributes. Archeologists have discovered a structure, by the way, that the think might have been the palace in this story. In any case, Ehud leaves, and then comes back with a "secret message." In the Hebrew, message can mean a word, a matter, or a thing. In his case, it's a different message than Eglon was expecting. He was probably expecting an additional gift or word about a traitor. But look at what he got.
We read in verse 19 that Eglon dismisses all the guards. Why would he ask to be left alone with a member of the enemy? Probably because nobody thought a left-handed man could be a threat. Probably because they had searched everywhere they normally looked for weapons.
You can almost sense the excitement. Eglon dismisses the guards, and with some effort given his size rises from his seat. Ehud approaches him and again says, "I have a message from God for you." He then takes his left hand, draws the dagger from his right thigh where they probably wouldn't have frisked him, and plunges his dagger into Elgon's body where it's swallowed up in all of the fat. Ehud escapes. The guards begin to wonder what's happened, but from the smell they guess that Ehud is relieving himself. They eventually can't wait any longer, and so they go in and find that Eglon had been killed. As a result, ten thousand Moabites are killed, Israel is delivered from its enemies, and they have peace for eighty years.
The writer is making a number of statements. He's making fun of Eglon, the fattened calf. The king that God had strengthened, according to verse 12, becomes a pile of oozing excrement, a pile of smelly feces and a corpse. Ehud, the left-handed man from a right-handed tribe, is the last man that people would have expected to deliver Israel, but he does so with cunning treachery.
On top of that, you have the moral ambiguity of what happened. There's no question that God used Ehud to deliver Israel, but what do you think of his treachery? It's interesting that the narrator says nothing about God's involvement in the assassination. The silence is deafening. Is Ehud a hero or a villain or both? We're left wondering at the end of the story.
You'll hear all kinds of people talk about how it's good to be like Gideon or like many of the characters in the Bible. You'll never hear anyone talk about "Dare to be an Ehud. Dare to stand alone. Dare to take a hidden knife and dare to make it known!" You'll never hear the kids singing that in Sunday school, and if you ever do, let me know. We'll get right on top of that.
So we're left wondering – what does this all mean? Let me try to answer this with two questions. What does this story tell us about us, and what does it tell us about God?
What does this story tell us about us?
A New Yorker cartoon shows a grandfather, father, and grandson walking together down a city street. The grandfather is declaiming loudly, to the others' annoyance, "Everything was better back when everything was worse!"
I think some of us have these airbrushed ideas of times back then – whenever then is – of when God was alive and well, and people were godly and had their acts together. We think, "If only we lived at that ideal time!" We think, "If only we lived at the time of the Puritans!" or whatever time we think was a golden age. We read some of the worst types of biographies, in which there are no rough edges, everything was cleaned up, and everyone was above average.
By extension, we think, "If only we could get our acts together! If only I could arrive at a time when I am finally free from doubt, when my schedule is clear, and when everything I do comes from a pure heart." There are only two problems with this view. First, there has never been and never will be a time when God's people had it altogether. Second, if there was, then it would be all about us and not about God. We wouldn't need grace. We would be the heros instead of God.
Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, says that we sometimes read the Bible and say, "Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! These are supposed to be moral exemplars, aren't they? What kind of people are these? I don't want to read about this!" When we do this, we're misreading the Bible. Keller says:
If you ever feel that way about reading the Bible, it shows that you don't understand the message of the Bible. You're imposing your understanding of the message on the Bible. You're assuming that the message of the Bible is "God blesses and saves those who live morally exemplary lives." That's not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it.
Here, according to the Bible, is who God uses: complete mess-ups; completely unqualified people; people with glaring personality and character defects; people that we would say are completely unusable by God; sinners.
Are any of you here today sinners, mess-ups, completely unqualified? Anybody here have glaring personality or character defects? Feel unusable by God? Improbable characters are almost the norm in the Bible. It doesn't justify the mess or the sin, but it doesn't stop God from working either. God uses mess-ups. He uses the most unlikely people. He can even use you. And when he does, it won't be because of how great you are. It's always about how great God is. Whenever God uses us, it's in spite of ourselves and only because of his grace.
That's why Tim Keller says that the biggest question for us isn't our capabilities or our resume. Keller says:
Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.
It is all about grace. It is all about grace. That's what you need to know about you. He uses people who aren't all clean and nice. God always gets his work done, and he doesn't use cardboard cut-outs. It's not always clean and nice.
That doesn't even justify all of Ehud's actions. But somehow God weaves his deliverance into human choices, even when those choices aren't the best ones. God gets his work done, and he often uses ways that we wouldn't imagine.
Some of you need to hear this. God can use Ehuds. God can use you. It's never because we have it all together. It's always because of God's grace.
But here's the final question:
What does this story tell us about God?
What we most need to understand in this story is, I believe, the character of God. The reason why Israel flirted with other gods is that they had domesticated the living LORD, the one who had saved them and brought them out of Egypt and given the land of Canaan to him. They presumed on his mercy.
God had every reason to give up on Israel, yet he never did. He had no reason to rescue them yet again, and yet in his mercy and grace he delivered his people from the hands of their enemies.
And when he did so, he didn't use someone who had his act together. He used methods and people that we would never expect. Just like when God acted to save the world, his method of salvation was the last that we would have predicted. One commentator writes:
Who would have predicted that when the Judge came himself in the flesh, he would come as such a "left-handed" person, with "no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him…despised and rejected…" (Isaiah 52:2-3) (Michael Wilcock)
But, as Isaiah writes, "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 52:5)"
How would we live if we really understood that God is greater than anything we see around us; that he never breaks his promises; that in his grace he never gives up on us. How would we live if we believed that he works through the most unlikely people, situations, and even the most unlikely churches, and that in Jesus and through the power of the Spirit he has given us everything that we need?
How would our lives change if we believed that God is at work even in the messes? That God – not us – God is the hero of every text and every situation? Imagine if we didn't just believed this, but we actually lived it out.
Do you remember what Ehud's name means? "Where is the glory?" This story answers that question. The glory of God can be found even in messes. It can be found when God goes to work even in the most unlikely of places.
Salvation comes, my friends, not through great human triumph or through our skills and our victories. It doesn't come like it does in the Hollywood movies. "It will come from outsiders born in mangers, through weakness, not (what the world calls) strength, through defeat, not (what the world calls) victory, through folly, not (what the world calls) wisdom." (Tim Keller)
A lot of us really misunderstand the way that you work. We think that we approach you and can be used by you on the basis of having our acts together.
But you are the God who relates to us not on the basis of our qualifications. You use the most unqualified and the most unlikely people. And you work even in messes, absolute messes. You relate to us on the basis of grace. And you always get your work done, even through ways that we would never imagine.
Today we repent again of worshiping idols. We pray that you would deliver us from our captivity to them. May we realize that we are delivered from idols not by our own effort, but by the salvation that was won by that most unlikely of Judges, Jesus Christ. May your grace show up in our messy lives. And may Jesus Christ be glorified as the Spirit does his work in our lives and in this church. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.