Judges: A Half-Hearted People in the Promised Land

Sermon by David Felker on May 3

Judges 1:1-2:5

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Please turn with me in your Bible to the book of Judges. We’ll be looking at Judges chapter 1 and chapter 2 tonight. And before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text tonight. Some of you may have heard that there have been a number of articles recently that have pointed out the strange similarities between the 2010 Disney film, “Tangled,” and our current situation. “Tangled” is a fun, updated take of the fairytale Rapunzel and it takes place in the kingdom – get this – the kingdom of Corona. And the story involves a young woman being isolated for a very long time. And the fictitious story begins with a princess, Rapunzel, who is kidnapped in infancy by an evil woman, Mother Gothel, who draws strength from Rapunzel’s magical hair. And so she hides Rapunzel away in a tower for nearly eighteen years. And in the opening song of the film, Rapunzel sings a song of isolation. She sings a song of social distancing. And she sings, “So I’ll read a book, or maybe two or three; I’ll add a few new paintings to my gallery. I’ll play guitar and knit and cook, and basically just wonder when will life begin?” 

And if you’re familiar with the story, you know that Rapunzel forgets. Rapunzel forgets who she is. She forgets that she is a beloved daughter of the great king. And every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, her real parents, the King and Queen of Corona, who desperately want her back, they release lights in the sky, this cluster of lights, these beautiful lights, and hundreds of them. And they release them in an attempt to draw their beloved daughter home.

And finally Rapunzel escapes. She escapes on her eighteenth birthday to get a close up view of the annual lights in the sky, her birthday present. But it’s as Rapunzel sees the lights, the pattern of the lights, that she remembers who she is. The suppressed information, this knowledge deep down of who she is, rises up as she sees the lights and the lights guide her home. 

Well this has been the strangest of times, and so this summer on Sunday nights we are starting a new sermon series on perhaps the strangest book in the Bible – the Old Testament book of Judges. And it’s hard to know as a reader, “What are you to make of some of the strange things in this book?” One minister said, “This book doesn’t so much need a catchy illustration at the beginning as much as it needs a parental warning,” because if you walked in and your kids were watching this book made into a movie, a movie that graphically showed the pages before us, you would turn the movie off. You would send your kids to their room as you discerned how to severely punish them. But this is the Word of God. And so why Judges this summer?

The book that we are about to enter into is visceral and violent. It’s a book of destruction and death. It’s bleak and full of so much brokenness. It is, as one of my seminary professors put it, “chaos.” It’s chaos in the Promised Land. And it’s precisely for those reasons, it’s for those reasons that I find the book of Judges to be one of the most oddly hopeful books in the Bible. And it may be that no other book gives us a bigger view of our desperate need and sin, and maybe no other book gives us a bigger view of God’s grace to us, His people. The deep, deep love of Jesus; vast, unmeasured, boundless, and free. In fact, seven times – this number of wholeness – seven times the book of Judges says, “They did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” And so if you have ever wondered, “What happened to the Israelites? What causes them to disintegrate? What happened to them?” – and that is an open question to us all – “What makes a life unravel?” And that is a question that the book of Judges will answer. It gives us a big, big view of our desperate need and sin. And it’s also a book that gives us a big, big view of God’s grace.

I think this is interesting. The word for “deliverer” is found ten times from Genesis to Joshua. Ten times. Those are six, pretty thick books in the Old Testament. Ten times. But in this one book, in the book of Judges, that word is found twenty times. In other words, it’s as if you look up. It’s as if you look up and you see a cluster of lights here. This cluster of lights in the Old Testament – the book of Judges. This cluster of lights around the idea of deliverance, of saving. And don’t you see, the lights will help you remember who you are – that “You are more flawed than you ever dared believe, and more beloved than you ever dared to dream or hope,” – the famous Jack Miller quote. The lights will help you remember who you are and the lights will guide you home.

And so tonight we are going to open and look at Judges chapter 1 and just the first part of Judges chapter 2. And so before we jump in and read, let me pray for us and ask for God’s help. Let’s pray.

Our great God and heavenly Father, I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts would be pleasing and acceptable to You, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Judges chapter 1. This is God’s Word:

“After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’ The Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.’ And Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.’ So Simeon went with him. Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek.”

And then in verse 19:

“And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.”

And then in verse 21:

“But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem.”

And in verse 27:

“Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants.”

And verse 29:

“And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites.”

And verse 30:

“Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants.”

And verse 31:

“Asher did not drive out the inhabitants.”

Verse 33:

“Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants.”

And chapter 2 verse 1:

“Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, ‘I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’ As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord.”

Amen. This is God’s Word.

So we’re looking tonight at a half-hearted people and a whole-hearted God. And because starting a sermon series in the book of Judges is kind of like picking up The Chronicles of Narnia halfway through. It’s like starting to watch the “Star Wars” movies in the middle of the story. You start reading or you start watching and you think, “How in the world did we get here? What is going on in this story?” Because that’s the case, we’ll consider first the place of Judges in the story of the Bible. And so how did we get here? So first, the context, the historical context of the book of Judges. Second, a half-hearted people. And then third, a whole-hearted God. 

Historical Context of the Book of Judges 

So first, how did we get here? What is going on in the story of God’s people? Where are we in the Bible? I want you to notice – take your Bible and notice – that the beginning of the book of Judges is purposely framed like the beginning of the book right before it, the book of Joshua, where we read in Joshua chapter 1 verse 1, “After the death of Moses.” And then look here in Judges chapter 1 verse 1 – “After the death of Joshua.” And so you see, it’s purposely framed to introduce not only what’s coming. You see, the death of Joshua is going to be very significant for what we are about to consider. It’s purposely framed not only to consider what’s coming, but it’s also a contrast or a looking back to the former work, the former events that occurred in Joshua’s day. The death of Joshua is really a boundary event in the Bible. 

And you see this here in Judges chapter 2 verse 1. We read, “The Lord said, ‘I brought you up from Egypt. I brought you into the land I swore to give your fathers.’” And so you remember, that’s a reference there to Genesis chapter 12 when God promised Abraham this land; the land sword to Abraham. And you had the patriarchs throughout Genesis who led God’s people – Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. And then there’s this reference there as well in chapter 2 verse 1 to the exodus where you had Moses liberating the people from up out of slavery in Egypt and leading them to the edge of the Promised Land. He led them to the doorway of the Promised Land, but God prevented Moses from going into the Promised Land because of his sin. So Moses laid his hands on Joshua. And Joshua, as the new leader, he began bringing God’s people into the land of Canaan onto the other side of the Jordan and fighting the battle of Jericho. 

But the only problem with the Promised Land was that it was inhabited by a number of pagan nations who we will collectively call the Canaanites. And God told Israel in Deuteronomy chapter 7, he said, “When you go into the land, you are to dispossess them from the land. Dispossess those pagan nations from the land, drive them out, and destroy them. Complete destruction.” In fact, it says in Deuteronomy 7, “Show no mercy on them.” And maybe you read this and you ask, “How can I trust the character of God who would command this? How can I trust His character, especially when two chapters before, in Deuteronomy chapter 5 in the Ten Commandments, God said, ‘You shall not murder. You shall not steal.’ And then two chapters later in Deuteronomy chapter 7 He says, ‘Go in, dispossess them from their land, and show them no mercy.’ How do I reconcile this and how do I trust the character of God?”

And those are questions that we will continue to unpack as we go, but I do think it is important to say at the beginning this military campaign that God commanded is not carried out on the basis of race. This is not ethnic cleansing. And so it’s not racial. And it’s not economical. They’re told that they cannot keep any spoils or any slaves. And so it's not racial, it’s not economical, but it’s theological. You see, they are to drive out pagan worship and pagan practices like child sacrifice and other Canaanite evils. God is using His people as an instrument of justice to drive out this evil. And it’s not a warrant. It’s not a justification for holy war today because God spoke once for all, uniquely and definitively through Moses and through Joshua for the Israelites to do this. And God does not speak to people today in the same way He spoke to Moses and Joshua and the prophets and the apostles. But today, God speaks in His complete and final revelation of His Word, the Bible. 

And so, Joshua, remember, led God’s people into Canaan and they started the conquest. They started the conquest in the Promised Land and they have the central and the southern and the northern military campaigns and they essentially broke the back of the Canaanite armies. They have some measure of peace, but they don’t fully possess the land. And so this is mid-story. There’s work left to do. And after 110 years, Joshua’s work is done. And so this is a boundary event. Judges chapter 1 verse 1, “After the death of Joshua.” And so who will lead them? Who will lead them now? And it’s up to the individual tribes of Israel to go in, to do the mop-up work, to finish the battle, and to take possession of the land, of their part of the land that God had given to each tribe. And so this is a new part of the story. We have a new world. This is where we are. It is a key moment. 

Now we call the book Judges. And we know there are twelve judges that show up over every tribe. And you may have your favorites – Ehud and Gideon and Samson. But what is a judge in this book? Is a judge like Simon Cowell in American Idol? Or is a judge a legal authority – someone with a black robe and a gavel presiding over court? What is a judge? What we’ll see in the book of Judges again and again and again is this cycle where God’s people reject God and they rebel against Him. And their enemies conquer them and that drives them to their knees and they cry out to God. And again and again and again, God gives them a deliverer. He gives them a rescuer. He gives them a savior. And do you know who the deliverer, the rescuer, the savior, do you know what they’re called? A judge.

We actually have a definition in chapter 2 verse 16. We read that “The Lord raised up judges who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” And as we’ll see, one of the things that will become very clear is these judges are at best flawed heroes. They are, at best, flawed heroes. In fact, do you remember the book’s refrain? The key note of the book – it shows up over and over again in different forms, and it’s this – “In those days, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” And so do you see the point of the whole book? Judges is meant to prepare you and to create in you a longing for a king, a true king, who would lead God’s people according to God’s Word. Judges tells the story of what it was like when there was no king. And so that’s where we are in the story. That’s the context.

Half-hearted People 

But second, the half-hearted people. Is there anything in your life that you set out to do halfway? Is there anything that really works like that, that you set out to do where you go halfway? And actually, I think there are a few things. For example, if you run a half marathon, you don’t run a full marathon; you run a half marathon. And that’s something to be proud of. People put “13.1” stickers on their car for accomplishing that. That’s a big deal. Or how about if you make a half- court shot in basketball; not a full court shot but a half-court shot. And sometimes – maybe you’ve seen this before – in college basketball games they’ll get a student on the court, maybe during a TV break or at halftime, and they’ll have the opportunity to shoot a half-court shot. And if they make it, they win maybe a semester’s tuition. If you’ve ever seen a student make that shot there’s great excitement. That’s a big deal.

But generally, we’re not setting out in life to do things halfway. We don’t want to be half-hearted. And so what are the characteristics of the half-hearted people of God? What are the characteristics of the half-hearted people in this passage? And we can only skip a rock across this but there are so many points of relevance. There are so many points of connection between them and us. But Judges is about the Israelites being Canaanized. Judges is about the Israelites being Canaanized as they are half-hearted in their faithfulness, half-hearted in their remembering, and half-hearted in their repentance. 

Half-hearted in Their Faithfulness

And so first, they’re half-hearted in their faithfulness. They’re half-hearted in their obedience to God. Their attempts at faithfulness to God and His Word are flawed. Look with me at the text. Chapter 1 is essentially a field report. It’s essentially a field report of how things are going with the individual tribes in the conquest of the land. And there’s some good news and then there’s some bad news. And the first few verses open up with so much promise that they ask the Lord, “Who will go up for us?” And so the people, they’re seeking the Lord’s face; they’re seeking the Lord’s will. And in verse 2, the Lord says, “Judah will go up.” And so Judah goes up, and you see Judah takes one of the weaker tribes, Simeon, and we read in verse 19, “The Lord was with Judah.” The Lord was with Judah. And one commentator noted, “If the chapter ends there, it would be almost completely good news.” But the chapter doesn’t end there, because later on in the chapter – seven times, actually – starting at the end of verse 19, the text tells us, “They did not drive out the inhabitants.” And so they were half faithful. They were half faithful in their obedience. And so verse 27, “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants.” And then verse 29, “Ephraim did not drive out the inhabitants.” And you skip down further and Zebulun and Asher and Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants. And in fact, a couple of times – verse 28 and then verses 33 and 34 – you see that the inhabitants of the land were subject to forced labor, which shows that the Israelites could have driven them, from a military perspective, could have driven them out, they had the capacity to do it, but they chose not to. 

And if you notice after verse 30, notice the change in the language. And so first, you have the Canaanites and they’re allowed to survive and they’re allowed even to flourish at times at a distance. And it says the Canaanites are living with the Israelites. But notice the shift in the language. After verse 30 it says what? It says the Israelites are now living with the Canaanites. And so you see, the way the story is told, the structure, the literature and the language emphasize the downward spiral of their half-heartedness. And even in Judah in verse 19, even Judah, the kingly line, even Judah, the tribe that displays so much faithfulness in this chapter, even in Judah we start to see the half-heartedness. We read that “Judah could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.”

Now, no doubt this was a dangerous thing. And no doubt it was a fearful thing; no doubt the people were tired. But do you remember any time in the Old Testament where God said, “You will possess the land of the Canaanites, except in those places where they have iron chariots”? Do you remember that? No, because God never said that. And so this is a failure. This is Judah’s failure to trust in God’s strength and in God’s promise. So where are you tonight? Is this story familiar to you? Does any of this hit home? They were half-hearted in their faithfulness.

Half-hearted in Their Remembering 

And then second, they’re also half-hearted in their remembering. Really let’s just say they’re all the way forgetful. And I’ll be brief here. This is in the next chapter, but it provides helpful context for us where in chapter 2 verses 6 to 10 we read a second introduction to the book of Judges. It’s a summary of the book. And the narrator gives the reader, in a sense, a mini-eulogy of Joshua’s life. But chapter 2 verse 10 may be the saddest and the scariest verse in the book. We read that “There arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work He had done in Israel.” And so the former generation, they were half-hearted. They failed in passing down a living faith to their children. Their kids might have heard the stories, their kids might have heard the stories – the plagues, the Passover, the Red Sea, the manna in Jericho, but they forgot God. They abandoned God; their hearts were far from Him. They forgot how much He had done for them. They had spiritual amnesia. Is this a familiar story? Where are you tonight? So they were half-hearted in their faithfulness, and they were half-hearted in their remembering. 

Half-hearted in Their Repentance 

And they were also – what that produced in them – they were half-hearted in their repentance. And you see this in chapter 2 verse 4. We read, “They wept and offered sacrifices.” You see here this place is called “the place of weeping.” But the sad thing about this, the sad thing about the weeping and the sacrifice as we see it in its context, especially in the mess of chapter 2, this was all just a shock of being found out. The sadness, the worldly grief, the lukewarm repentance of being caught and suffering the consequences of their failure. This is an exercise of looking at one’s self. The kind of grieving that Paul says leads to death. Is this familiar to you? Where are you tonight? A lot of words, but is this a familiar story?

Don’t you see? The Israelites are a half-hearted people, and that has to be one of the main reasons God is calling the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites. God knows that His people are half-hearted. He knows they are weak. And friends, can we not admit – so are we. This is every one of us. Is this familiar to your heart? Do you see this story in your life? If you don’t see it, it becomes a crisis. If you don’t name it – “I am fickle. I am lukewarm. I am half-hearted.” If you don’t confess it, if you ignore it long enough, it becomes normalized; it becomes your life. And you’ll either become superficial or you will withdraw. It becomes your life, so you’ll just fake it or you’ll burn out. 

You see, prayerlessness is a crisis and spiritual amnesia, forgetting God, is a crisis. And lukewarm repentance is a crisis. And just the flow of traffic, the status quo of half-heartedness is a crisis. Believing the way that you feel God looks at you, “He must be ashamed of me,” that is a crisis. What is wrong with these people? After all they’ve seen, after all they have heard, what is wrong with these people? Full of faith one minute, full of lukewarmness the next – what is wrong with them? Well, they’re just like us. This is a familiar story. 

I remember a few summers ago we were on vacation and this particular summer my dad made the decision to retire, to retire from coaching football. And so we decided on this vacation to record my dad talking about some of the highs and lows of his coaching career. And this was such a fun evening for me because I grew up the biggest fan. I knew all of the players. I knew all of the coaches. I knew the rosters. I knew the schedules. I knew the plays. This was such a fun project for me. And I’ll never forget one of the questions that we asked him was, “Who were some of your favorite players to coach?” And one of the players that he talked about was a quarterback of the 1995 Arkansas Razorbacks and the quarterback’s name was Barry Lunney Jr. And my dad was his offensive coordinator and his QB coach. And Barry was a coach’s kid from Fort Smith, Arkansas. And in 1995, after starting at quarterback for three years, Barry Lunney got beat out at fall camp. He got beat out before the season started and so he started the year on the bench. And I don’t know if he was playing every third series or every fourth series, but in the first game he was in and it was the end of the game and they were on the goal line with a chance to win and Barry Lunney fumbled the ball and they lost to SMU. But Barry Lunney won the job back. He eventually became a team captain and he eventually led that team to their first ever SEC West Championship. And as my dad said, “Barry Lunney learned his weaknesses, he learned from his failure, and that proved to be his strength.” 

That proved to be his strength. You see, seeing and knowing your weaknesses, your fickleness, your half-heartedness, helps you learn where to place your trust. Knowing this tendency about yourself – up and down and full of faith one minute and full of lukewarmness the next – knowing this tendency about yourself helps you learn where to place your confidence. Learning the inconstancy of your strength trains you to sing, “The Lord is my strength,” and for that to be your song. You see, your half-heartedness and my half-heartedness is a failure. Halfway faithfulness, halfway remembering, halfway repentance is a failure. It is a valley. But this is where your life can change for the better. It’s a valley, but let it be a valley of vision. Is this story familiar to you? Then, see and know and let the soil of your faith, let it be the soil of your faith where you see “The Lord is my strength and He has become my salvation.”

Whole-hearted God

Now stay with me for a minute. We’re almost done. They are a half-hearted people and so are we, but this is not the best part of the story. The best part of the story, the best part of the passage is the third and last thing that we’ll see. There’s a whole-hearted God who shows up here. And so you see, in chapter 2, God comes to His people in their failure, in their half-heartedness, and He’s recounting His promise to His people. And He says in verse 1, “I said I will never break My covenant. And so I am committed to you. I will never ever stop loving you. I am the faithful God, the God of grace upon grace.” That is verse 1. But then He says in verse 3, right after He said, “I will never break My covenant,” He says, “So now I say I will not drive them out before you.” In other words, God is saying, “I am holy and I cannot tolerate or live with or bless what is evil.” 

And many commentators have pointed out the tension here between verse 1 and verse 3. Verse 1, “I can’t stop loving you. I am gracious to you.” Verse 3, “I hate your sin and I can’t tolerate your disobedience.” Verse 1, “I have sworn to bless you as My people.” Verse 3, “I have sworn not to bless you as a disobedient people.” There’s a tension here. And this tension doesn’t get settled or solved in the book of Judges, but it’s at the cross. It is in Jesus that the tension finally comes to its head. And so the lights, the cluster of lights in this book, are signals that they signal our heart to Him, to the ultimate Deliverer. 

And so God is holy and demands obedience, but on the other hand, He’s full of grace and mercy. And so will God finally give in to His people? What then of God’s justice? And will God finally give up on His people? What then of God’s grace? That is the tension and it’s not only the tension of this story; it’s the tension of our lives. God, what are You going to do with me? What are You going to do with the contradictions and the half-heartedness and the twists and turns of my life? What is God going to do with you? He says, “I’m going to die for you. In your place.” You see, God in Christ became one of us. He was obedient to death on a cross and on the cross God is faithful to His promise to punish sin and all that His justice demands – the complete destruction came down not on us, but on Jesus Christ. He poured it out on Jesus. And so He’s faithful to His promise to punish sin, but He’s faithful to His promise to never abandon His people as Jesus Christ gave Himself as a substitute. And so in Jesus Christ, all of our questions are answered. “What am I going to do with you? Well, I’m going to die for you, in your place.” Don’t you see, this is a love that will not let you go.

But could God really care about me? And He says, “I have committed Myself. I have bound Myself to you. I love you as you are and so you can be honest about your half-heartedness. You can be honest about your wanderings and the twists and turns of your life and your heart.” And because God loves you so much, He won’t leave you where you are. “God, I’m stuck! God, I can’t change! God, I’m tired of myself!” Beloved in Christ, He knows what He’s doing with your story. He’s turning you into a holy person, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. He doesn’t love you because you are holy. But because He loves you, He will make you so. And so you persevere as you look to King Jesus, as you sing, “The Lord is my strength.”

Let me close with this. Many of you will have seen that there is a famous actor and entertainer, John Krasinski, who has started a show in this pandemic called, “Some Good News.” And I saw a clip on his show a few weeks ago of an old man living in Alabama and he was visiting his wife in an assisted living facility. And of course we know that assisted living facilities and nursing homes right now are closed to visitors. And can you imagine that? Can you imagine what it would be like to have a spouse that you dearly love in an assisted living facility where you cannot see them, you cannot hold them, you cannot remind them of what is true, you cannot tell them that they are not alone? And in this particular case, it is especially sad because this man’s wife had Alzheimers and he did not want her to forget. He did not want her to forget his love or to forget the love of God. And so this man, even to this day during this epidemic, is going to her nursing home and he’s standing outside her room, in love, and singing to her and singing with her songs like, “Jesus Loves Me” and songs like “Amazing Grace.” 
Don’t you see, that is what we will see week after week after week this summer in the book of Judges. This cluster of lights; God coming after His people. And the call is for us to live into that great love and then to live out of that great love. And so is this the God that you know? Then worship Him with your whole heart. And if you don’t know this God, come to Him and He will never leave you or forsake you. Amen. Let me pray for us.

Our great God and heavenly Father, we pray tonight that You would give us the courage and the faith to admit that we are all too often half-hearted. And so make the song of our heart tonight, “The Lord is my strength and He has become my salvation.” Amen.

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