Downward Spiral: The Message of Judges
August 5, 2012
We took two weeks off of the book of Judges for both listening to Spencer and to commission our Serbia team, but we are back to the book of Judges, as far as I know, from here to the end.
And let me tell you the thing that has surprised me the most as I’ve studied for these messages–it’s the thing about Judges that I was not prepared for.
I was prepared for Judges to be depressing. I’ve read it before.
But I wasn’t prepared for how depressing the judges themselves would be to me this time.
I mean, I knew that they weren’t perfect people. I’ve read the book before.
But I still had this mental image of the judges as godly deliverers of Israel.
Now, they were God’s deliverers of Israel.
But they weren’t always godly.
They didn’t just have feet of clay–some of them seem to be made of clay up to their necks!
Othniel was great.
Ehud wasn’t too bad.
Shamgar, it’s hard to say.
Barak, after his initial hesitation did well.
Deborah was stellar.
And I guess Gideon had his moments.
But it’s been pretty downhill most of the way.
And today, believe it or not, it’s going to get worse. Much worse.
In fact, today, we’re going to study 6 more judges, and we’re going to call the message, “Downward Judges.”
Not just Israel went downward, but the judges did, too.
“Downward Judges: Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.”
Don’t worry, that’s only three chapters in our book.
But it is 6 judges. If there are 12 judges (putting Barak and Deborah together), these are numbers 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.
We’ll leave #12 for next week. He’s the most famous judge of all.
But this week, it’s “Downward Judges.”
And we’re going to learn at least three downward lessons from them.
#1. YOU CAN’T MANIPULATE THE LORD.
#2. YOU SHOULDN’T FIGHT WITH YOUR BROTHERS.
#3. YOU AREN’T THE LEAD ACTOR IN THE DRAMA OF YOUR LIFE.
The last person to lead in Israel was not a judge at all.
Do you remember what his name was? Abimelech. And he was Gideon’s evil son.
He died and then someone named Toal came next. Chapter 10, verse 1.
“After the time of Abimelech a man of Issachar, Tola son of Puah, the son of Dodo, rose to save Israel. He lived in Shamir, in the hill country of Ephraim. He led Israel twenty-three years; then he died, and was buried in Shamir. [Keep going.] He was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys. They controlled thirty towns in Gilead, which to this day are called Havvoth Jair. When Jair died, he was buried in Kamon.” Stop there for a second.
Now, we aren’t told very much at all about Tola and Jair, so we don’t want to speculate and draw too much from their stories, short as they are.
But let’s note 2 things.
First, up until Gideon, the book of Judges always tells us how long the land had rest in the cycle of the Judges.
The Israelites did evil. They anger burned against them. They cry to God for help. God’s sends a deliverer/judge. Peace follows and the land has rest.
But ever since Gideon, who saved them from Midian but then basically started acting like a king himself, the land has no rest.
These men, Tola and Jair, save Israel, as well, but all it says is how long they led Israel, not how long there was peace.
And, secondly, that second one, Jair, seems to be cast in the mold of Gideon who had 70 sons.
Jair only has 30, but that almost certainly means that he had a harem and they ride on donkeys, which sounds funny to us like donkey basketball, but these were probably more rare and expensive and royal so that it’s like saying, he had 30 sons and he gave them 30 Mercedes. And they were the mayors of 30 towns.
You could conceive of this as blessing, but it seems more like self-serving pseudo-monarchy to me.
A downward slide.
Israel is certainly on a downward slide. V.6
“Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the LORD and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and the house of Ephraim; and Israel was in great distress.”
Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?
Living out the cycle. Again and again.
What’s the next step.
Cry out to God. Right on time. V.10
“‘Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD, ‘We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals.’ The LORD replied, ‘When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!’ But the Israelites said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’ Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel's misery no longer.” Stop there for a second.
This is a different side to the Lord than we often think about or like to talk about.
God talks back to these people who are crying out to Him for help.
And He says in effect, “Didn’t I do that already?”
“I’m done. You have given up on me. I will give up on you.”
“Go see if your other lovers, these other gods, will save you.”
“But I’m hanging up on you now.”
Downward Lesson #1. YOU CAN’T MANIPULATE THE LORD.
God knows what’s going on here.
He knows the score.
You can’t fool the Lord!
These guys have gotten themselves into trouble, and they want a BAAL-OUT.
Get it? A Baal out?
That was a bad one, I know.
But that’s what it is.
They think they’ve figured out how to get God to do what they want.
Ok. “We’ve sinned. We’re going to get rid of our gods now. Watch us do it. See us put them away?” Big crocodile tears. “Sorry, God, now can you save us?”
How many times have you and I acted like that?
“We’re asking God to forgive us as we plan to sin again!”
God is not fooled.
God will not be mocked.
You can’t manipulate the Lord.
But He does love His people. Look at verse 16.
“And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.”
Now, that actually could be translated to mean that He was impatient with Israel’s apostasy, which would fit with His words here.
But I think it shows His heart.
Even though His people have not repented, and even thought He knows that, the LORD still has compassion on them, and is moved to help.
You can’t manipulate the Lord, but He is amazingly gracious. V.17
“When the Ammonites were called to arms and camped in Gilead, the Israelites assembled and camped at Mizpah. The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, ‘Whoever will launch the attack against the Ammonites will be the head of all those living in Gilead.’”
And the man that gets the job is named Jephthah.
It’s interesting to note that though God uses Him to save His people, it doesn’t say that God raised Him up the way it did for the other judges.
And I think that’s because they are choosing a leader downward. Chapter 11, verse 1.
“Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead's wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. ‘You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,’ they said, ‘because you are the son of another woman.’ [And who knows if we really even have the same dad!] So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. [These are worthless fellows. He joined a gang and became their leader.] Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.
‘Come,’ they said, ‘be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.’ Jephthah said to them, ‘Didn't you hate me and drive me from my father's house? Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble?’
[Notice the parallels between how Israel treats God and how Gilead treats Jephthah.]
The elders of Gilead said to him, ‘Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.’ Jephthah answered, ‘Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me–will I really be your head?’ [Notice what’s important to Jephthah.]
The elders of Gilead replied, ‘The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.’ So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the LORD in Mizpah.”
[Notice: Not a word from God, so far. V.12]
“Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: ‘What do you have against us that you have attacked our country?’ [Starts with diplomacy.]
The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah's messengers, ‘When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.’
[v. 14] Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying: [No, No, No, No. That’s not how it happened.] ‘This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the desert to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, 'Give us permission to go through your country,' but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh. ‘Next they traveled through the desert, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.
‘Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, 'Let us pass through your country to our own place.' Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his men and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
‘Then the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his men into Israel's hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
[Now, here’s the takeaway from this little history lesson. V.23]
“‘Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess. Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn't you retake them during that time?
I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.’”
Now, Jephthah gets some things wrong in this little history lesson.
For example, he calls the god of Ammon “Chemosh,” but the Bible says that their god was Milcom. Perhaps, he’s getting it wrong to egg them on. “Whatever your silly god’s name is” or perhaps he doesn’t really know. He’s a warrior, not a theologian or a diplomat.
Even more wrong is the theology that Chemosh has any land to give. All the land is God’s to give.
But he gets the most important thing right. V.27
“The LORD” is the judge. And He will decide between the Israelites and the Ammonites.
Interestingly, this is the only time in the book of Judges when the judge is named, as in, the “the judge was...” And here we know who the Judge really is.
You can’t manipulate him. Get that straight.
V.27 is why Jephtah makes it into the “Hebrews Hall of Faith” in Hebrews chapter 11.
He gets a lot wrong, more than I can believe.
But He trusts God to rightly judge.
Jephthah has faith.
And God uses him. V.28
“The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. [Divine power.] He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites.
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: [Oh no. He opens his big mouth.] ‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’”
A tragic vow. Right in the middle of being used the Lord, Jephthah makes a major, tragic mistake.
He tries to manipulate the Lord.
The very thing he was saying you can’t do.
‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’”
If you bless me, God, then I’ll do this for you.
If you scratch my human back, I’ll scratch your divine back.
If you promise to hold up your end of the bargain, have a got a deal for you.
That’s not how our God works.
That was the deal with the pagan gods. But not with the real God.
God is looking for faith and obedience.
Not for kickbacks.
You can’t manipulate the Lord.
In what ways have you and I been trying to manipulate God?
What little deals have we been trying to make?
If I give this money, God, will you do this for me?
If I volunteer for that ministry, God, will you give me this thing I want?
If I ... then ...?
You can’t manipulate the Lord.
The fact is that God has a better deal for you than you could ever come up with if you trust Him.
He can’t be manipulated, but He’s amazingly gracious.
“Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.”
“When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, ‘Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.’
‘My father,’ she replied, ‘you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.
But grant me this one request,’ she said. ‘Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.’ ‘You may go,’ he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.”
That is so tragic.
First of all because God does not delight in human sacrifice.
There is only one time in the whole Bible when God calls for it, and that’s just a test of Abraham with Isaac. He calls it off when He sees Abraham’s faith.
And of course, Jesus is a human sacrifice, but even though that is His will, He never commands it. It is a great injustice even as it is the Lord’s will.
Jephthah should not have promised this and should not have carried it out.
Jephthah should have known God’s will better. God wouldn’t ask for that. God says that it would have never entered His mind to ask for that!
And He should have known that the Law includes provisions for getting out of rash vows. Read Leviticus 27.
God didn’t hold him to this stupid action.
Be careful what you promise, and don’t compound a stupid sinful promise with carrying it out in a stupid sinful faithfulness.
Do you see the downward slide of the judges?
Othniel would have never done this.
And he wouldn’t have done the next thing either. Chapter 12, verse 1.
“The men of Ephraim called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We're going to burn down your house over your head.’”
Does this sound familiar?
They Ephraimites said something very similar to Gideon, and he replied very diplomatically.
Not Jephthah. The downward slide continues. V.2
“Jephthah answered, ‘I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn't save me out of their hands. [No evidence that he really did call.] When I saw that you wouldn't help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?’
Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, ‘You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.’
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead asked him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he replied, ‘No,’ they said, ‘All right, say 'Shibboleth.'’ If he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.”
Now, this would be a funny story about pronouncing words wrong from region to region.
Your accent will really give you away.
But 42,000 men is no joke.
Downward Lesson #2. YOU SHOULDN’T FIGHT WITH YOUR BROTHERS.
This is civil war.
There had to be a better way.
There had to be a way out of this conflict.
These were brothers. Israelite on Israelite warfare.
Needless shedding of brotherly blood.
I think there is a take-away here for the church.
So, often Christians fight over things they don’t have to fight over.
Our adult Sunday School classes are studying Christian Community right now, and we’ve been talking about how Christians need to learn to get along.
Not that we can’t have differences.
And not that we can’t disagree over those differences.
But we need to pursue brotherly unity with all of our might.
Never compromising the gospel, but being longsuffering and bending over backwards to show honor and respect for each other.
You shouldn’t fight with your brothers if you can at all help it.
Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
That’s a Bible verse to memorize.
Yesterday, I had a long conversation with someone who had been fighting with another Christian but really didn’t want to and was looking for help in knowing how to, as far as it depended on them, to live at peace with another Christian.
Is there a battle that you need to drop?
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
You shouldn’t fight with your brothers and sisters if you can help it.
And now, let’s finish our story for today. V.7
“Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in a town in Gilead. After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died, and was buried in Bethlehem. After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. Then Elon died, and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. After him, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. Then Abdon son of Hillel died, and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.”
We want to get the Lord’s table, so we won’t spend much time on these verses, but there are a few things to notice.
First, again, the land has no rest. Just these kind of kings.
Maybe they were warriors. Maybe they saved Israel, but it doesn’t say that.
It looks more like they tried to be little kings with their harems and progeny.
And the Bible doesn’t say much about them.
Maybe there wasn’t much to say.
Or maybe, the point is that they are not the point.
Downward Lesson #3. YOU AREN’T THE LEAD ACTOR IN THE DRAMA OF YOUR LIFE.
We learned that lesson back in the book of Genesis.
Maybe the point of the Judges is not the judges but the Judge. Capital J.
All of these judges just pointed towards the Judge who was to come.
All of these leaders pointed towards the Leader who was to come.
All of these deliverers, these Saviors, pointed towards the Savior who was to come.
The only thing they really had in common was that they died.
V.7 “Jephthah the Gileadite died.”
V.10 “Ibzan died.”
V.12 “Elon died.”
V. 15, “Abdon died.”
They all showed promise. They all were going to be something for their people.
But they died. And another took their place.
But there is one Judge, one Deliverer, One Savior who died and then came back to life once more.
And He is Who we celebrate at this table today.