Judges: The Meaning of History

Sermon by Cory Brock on May 10

Judges 2-3:6

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Well last week we started a new series on the book of Judges. We looked at Judges chapter 1. And this week we are in Judges chapter 2. And as a preacher, as we together go deeper into the book of Judges, you find out more and more that there’s no protection from the grittiness of this book; there’s no buffer between polite, modern society and the places that this book goes, the places that a preacher doesn’t want to go, except God’s Word brings us there. Today is really a set up to understanding those twelve gritty stories that are going to come really starting next week. And like Genesis chapter 1 and 2, Judges chapter 1 and 2 is similar in that in Genesis 1 you have the history of creation and in Genesis 2 a closer interpretation of that history. In the book of Judges, in Judges 1, you have the history of the twelve tribes of Israel moving into Canaan and possessing land and then in Judges 2 the author steps back and interprets everything that’s going to happen in the rest of the book of Judges.

And when you look at a passage like this it’s less of a tug on the heartstrings and more of offering us an interpretive framework for this book and for really the whole Bible, especially the Old Testament. But in an unexpected way even. There is the fact, there is the truth here that it teaches us about how to think about all of human history including our lives. And so let’s dive in, let’s pray, and we’ll read it together. Let’s pray.

Lord, we do ask for help as we come to Your holy Word. We confess that this is Your Word and we desire, we long for You to open it before us. So we ask that the Holy Spirit would meet us now as we read it and think through it, in Jesus’ name we ask it, amen.

So we’re going to read chapter 2 verses 11 to 19 and we’ll get into a little bit more of the chapter as well, but if you’ll read with me chapter 2, verses 11 to 19.

This is God’s Word:

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What we just read, commentators typically call the cycle of the Judges, and this pattern, it’s a pattern or a cycle that makes Judges really easy to outline. First, in the book of Judges there’s always peace in the land, peace in Canaan, and then the Israelites sin against God through idolatry and God judges them and gives them over to those sins and they are oppressed by a foreign nation, a different people group. But then God unexpectedly comes in and sends a judge, a rescuer to save them. There’s a brief peace in the land again and then it starts over. That’s the cycle of Judges. And it says at the very end of the book that this is happening because “in those days there was no king in Israel.” That’s Judges 21:25. So we’re looking – the whole point of the book – we’re looking for a king to make a stop to this cycle.

And the number 12 becomes incredibly important throughout. There were 12 tribes of Israel that came into the land of Canaan in chapter 1. There are 12 cycles of judges throughout the whole book. And that’s because the number 12 is a number in the Bible that means totality and fullness and completeness. And by the end, there’s 12 cycles and it just ends in total failure, meaning we’ve reached the number 12 – 12 failures; the totality of Israel’s fall. That’s how the book ends. And the question is, “What is God saying here?” And there’s so many sermons in chapter 2 that could be pulled out and different things to think about, but here, what we just read in this cycle, 11 to 19, is really the meaning of the Old Testament. It unlocks not only the outline of the book of Judges but of the whole Old Testament. And I want to say even more than that, this cycle of Judges is actually about the meaning of history itself, of all of human history. And so let me just say, let’s just dive in and ask, “What is the meaning of history that we read about here?” and then we’ll look at three aspects of that history as it’s offered us in this short passage.

The Meaning of History

So first, the meaning of history. After Judges chapter 1, the historical narrative of the tribes moving into the land that we looked at last week, I mentioned that the narrator, the author here, is living after all of the events of the judges have taken place and he’s looking back and writing this book and saying “Let me interpret for you everything that happened. Let me tell you what all twelve instances of this really was.” And he gives us the cycle. And in doing that, he’s being a good historian. He’s not only giving us a raw timeline, he’s giving us an interpretation because that’s what good history offers. If you read a contemporary writer, history writer, you know let’s say somebody is writing a history of World War II, it doesn't just say, “In 1888 in Austria, a baby was born named Adolf Hitler and then in 1907 he moved to Vienna and in 1914 he fought in World War I. In 1933 he was elected in a coalition government in Germany. In 1940 he started a war and then he died at the end of the war.” That’s a timeline; it’s not a history. Histories interpret timelines. They give us meaning to events. They tell us why it matters and what it means for us today. And that’s because human beings know by instinct that history is not just a series of random events colliding with each other; there must be a principle to history, a meaning to all of history, a purpose behind all of history – something that’s bringing all of history together.

And Friedrich Nietzsche was the greatest atheist thinker in all of history; the great atheist philosopher of the late 1800s. And even as an atheist and a materialist, he talked about his own struggle with reconciling his view of history with the potential meaning of history. He said that atheism, the materialist worldview, without something bringing all of history together, makes history into all trees and no forest. And he was wrestling with the fact that atheism doesn’t fare well over time amongst humans, even in a modern, secular world because it forces us to say that all of history is really just the random collision of particles that we call eventually events. And one day when the sun explodes, the world existence is going to end and none of it, nothing that ever happened in all of human history will have any meaning at all. There won’t be any mind around to interpret it. It will all have been ultimately meaningless. Human beings know that there must be a meaning to history, to all the events that happen in the world. And Christianity and the book of Judges in this cycle is saying there is one meaning to world history; there is something that brings it all together. Human life in all of history is defined in one particular ultimate way and we read it. It’s ultimately the relationship between God and humanity and the pattern that we see in the Bible playing out for what that history looks like.

And let me just show it to you briefly. And two, we didn’t read this paragraph, but in 6 and 7 when Joshua dismisses the people, the people go out and take possession, inheritance of the land God had given them, and for a while they are in the land with peace and rest with God. So the first piece of that history is that there was, there was peace in the land at home with God. But then 10 and 11, the people nevertheless do what’s evil in the sight of the Lord, it says, and they serve the idols, the Baals. And so first there’s peace in the land and then there’s idolatry, sin against the God in whose land we live. And then the third thing you see in 2:14 is that God gives them over in justice to what they deserve. He gives them what they choose, the lifestyle that they choose. And that’s what we call judgment or curse.

So first, think about it – there’s peace in the land with God. You're at home with God. And then, there’s sin against God and then there’s a curse on humanity. And then in verse 16, unexpectedly, God comes and says, “I’m going to redeem them anyway. I’m going to pull them up from the pit. I’m going to save them despite the fact that they still don’t worship Me; they still don’t love Me, they still don’t call after Me.” We call that redemption. And for a moment, there is peace in the land again with God until they do it all over again, twelve different times in this book. 

And not only is this the big picture of the book of Judges, what we just read about there is actually a microcosm of the work of God in all of human history. The giant work of God. This is it. We read about it. And we have a shorthand way of talking about it. And if you study the Bible, if you study the Old Testament, you know this shorthand way of talking about it. First, there is peace in the land with God. That's the time of creation. Then, there is sin against God through idolatry. That is the time of the fall. Then, there is God’s curse upon humanity. That’s the curse. And then God comes and redeems and brings about peace in the land as new creation. We say – creation, fall, redemption, new creation – the paradigm of all of human history through the Christian perspective, and here it is right here in the cycle of Judges playing out on a microcosmic scale twelve times over and over again. 

And so there’s two just brief lessons from this. And one is this. Christianity says that the meaning of history, the principle of history, the unifying fact of all of history is objective; no matter how we feel about it or what we even believe, Christianity makes a claim that says history is ultimately God’s act of creation, human sin against God, God’s act of redemption and new creation. That’s the meaning of all of human history. But the second thing is that that cycle and the cycle we just read about teaches us actually how to read the Bible because what we see across the Old Testament is this pattern of creation and fall and curse and redemption and new creation happen over and over again as shadow narratives. They’re real histories and simultaneously shadow narratives pointing to the grand story, the grand history that we see throughout the whole narrative of the Bible, out of all of human history. 

Creation: Humans Were Made for Peace in the Land with God 

So let’s look then, briefly, at just three movements in this passage that talk about that history and the details here in Judges. Basically, they are creation, fall and redemption. So let’s look at how they play out here. And the first one is this. Humans were made, we were made for peace in the land with God. And we see that right here. We don’t have enough time to develop this with all the details of chapter 2, but if you jump back to 2 verse 1, you see that it says that it’s the angel of the LORD, the angel of Yahweh, that brought the people out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery, and into the land of Canaan that they’re possessing now in this book. And if you do a study of the angel of the Lord in the first five books of the Bible and also, I think, in the New Testament, what you come to see is that the angel of the Lord bears the name of God in a way that other angels do not. The angel of the Lord is given the power in Exodus 23 to forgive sins and ultimately judge sins. And what you see is that, as many, many theologians throughout history have said and commentators, is that the angel of the Lord is more than just an angel. He is the Son of God come down, even before the incarnation, even before the little baby of Bethlehem. 

And so what we see here at the beginning when Israel is being brought into the land that they are to possess, it is the Son of God doing what He always does in history, and that is mediating salvation. At the beginning of history He mediated creation and here already before the middle of history He mediates the salvation of the Israelites into a new land, a new hope, a new place, a place of rest potentially. And there’s three words in verse 6 and 7 that tell us, give us clues as to exactly how we’re supposed to interpret what’s going on here.

And the first is that the angel of the Lord, and then through Joshua, gives them, verse 6 says, “an inheritance.” And that’s incredibly important because this land is not just land that they’re occupying; it’s not just land that they’ve settled. It’s an inheritance. And think about it. What is an inheritance? An inheritance is what you get from a father. It’s when a father takes what is his home, his estate, his property, and gives it over to you. And the inheritance that the Israelites are receiving is actually God’s. It’s saying, in other words, in a roundabout way, this is God’s home. That God has decided in Canaan to come down and to make His home. And so this, in other words, is to be taken, to be seen, to be thought of by the reader, by us, as a new Eden. Is this the new Eden? Is this God bringing Eden back again? And you see that in the fact that it says “Take possession of the land.” That’s a reference to Genesis chapter 1 and the cultural mandate when Adam and Eve were called to possess and have dominion over the land of Eden. And then finally, just the simple fact that it mentions the land over and over again, it’s the land that God gave them in Genesis 2 and 3. It’s the land that was cursed in Genesis chapter 3. Canaan is meant to be a picture of Eden in this book, in the book of Judges. 

And so what that means, the lesson for us even in this small picture of creation, this symbol of the new Eden is that there is absolutely salvation in a narrow sense. We talk about salvation as the forgiveness of our sins through Christ and absolutely that’s true. There is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ; God forgiving us of our sins through Jesus. But also here, we are being told that salvation also has a fuller sense, a macro sense, a bigger sense. And that’s that salvation – what we are looking for from the meaning of history – is that God would give us rest with Himself in a real land that is something like the new Eden. True salvation is about being with God in a place where there is farming, where there is food, where there is human life at peace. That is the big picture of salvation and we’re even being taught about it in these little words about taking possession of the new Eden in Judges chapter 2.

Fall: Humans Engage in Idolatry 

The second movement to notice here in this passage is that nevertheless, in the midst of peace in the land, this new Eden, there is also – the nature of sin has not changed. The fall, the curse is still present. We still see it that humans keep doing the same things. And you can see in verse 11, 12, 13, 17 that the people of Israel, even though God had given them an inheritance, a new Eden, they served idols, 12, they went after other gods, they served the Baals and the Ashtaroth – which is a reference to male and female gods – and in verse 17 it classifies their idolatry as prostitution. The text calls it, in other words, spiritual adultery. 

And so what we see here, if this really is the microcosm of the big picture of human history, then what this passage is saying to us is that their sin hundreds and thousands of years ago, my sin today, Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, all sin and all of time is ultimately reducible to the fall as spiritual adultery, as worshiping idols, as going after other gods. And that – you’ve got to be careful here – that’s defined even more carefully than you might first notice in this passage because in verse 10 it says that the generation after Joshua’s generation forgot about God. They did not know God, and so they began to serve the other gods, the Baals, and this is what caused that cycle. But by the time you get to Judges chapter 17 you realize that that does not mean that the second generation here did not know about God. It literally says that they did not know God. And that word for knowledge is referring to an intimate relationship, serving God above all else. Because what we learn as the Israelites, as many commentators put it, Canaanized throughout these 12 stories, is that that does not mean that they completely forgot about Yahweh, the God of the exodus, the true God, the God of the Bible. Instead, what it means is that they tried to serve their Lord as one God among many. So they thought of the true God, Yahweh, as another one of the Baals. In the Canaanite cultures, you would worship, you would serve a baal of agriculture, a baal of war, a baal of fertility. All the different baals, all the different gods served a different purpose. And what we see throughout the book of Judges is not that they completely ignored the God that saved them from the exodus, it’s that they thought of God as one among many. That that’s the true nature of idolatry – it’s a mix and match type of religion where a person has multiple masters.

And that means from Eden to here to today, even though the Baals and the Ashtaroths seem so far away and so ancient, and so foreign to our modern minds, all idolatry really is, all Baalism really is, all Canaanitism really is, is subordinating God to a compartment of life. The real sin here is compartmentalization. And so when we have the baal of careerism and the baal of financial security and the baal of our children’s resumes and our reputation and our successes and our fears of our health and any master that controls our lives, that’s polytheism, that’s Canaanitism, that’s baalism! And there is, in the midst of that, a call to do an idolatry assessment as we work through this book. An idolatry assessment is when you ask questions like, “What is it in my life that means more to me, day to day, than God Himself does?” Or, “What do I find so precious in life that if I lost it, it would feel as if I lost living itself?” Those are the types of questions, those are the questions that trace the breadcrumbs down into the witch’s house deep in your heart to find the true nature of the idols, the mini masters that we might be serving; the polytheism we might be living out as Christians, even though we talk about serving Yahweh, the God of the Bible, wholeheartedly.

There’s a subtle lesson here I just want to mention – a connection to Deuteronomy chapter 6 about the next generation. You know, two times in this passage, in 10 and 16, 17 it mentions that the children of each generation forgot God, did not know God, more and more over time. And again, that’s not about not knowing about God; it’s about not knowing God. And that’s partially because the Israelites, the parents of that first generation forgot what Deuteronomy 6 says; the famous passage that tells the Israelites that as they go into the land to teach the children, to talk to the children about the mighty deeds of God. 

And there are just two little principles in Deuteronomy 6, and I can only list them and move on, for how we fight for the hearts of our children as they grow. The first is in verse 6 and 7 in Deuteronomy 6 and it says as you sit, talk about God, as you walk, talk about God to your children, as you enter into your house, write it on the doorpost, write it on their foreheads. And those are all metaphors for saying that even as we struggle with sin, the Christian life before children is to be fought to live wholeheartedly; that our children have to see us attempting, striving, longing for the holiness that is wholehearted service of the living God, of self-sacrifice. Heather and I, we learned this really early on when we first had children that our kids were really good at sniffing out hypocrisy in our lives. And what verse 6 and 7 of Deuteronomy 6 is saying is that even when we are failing to live wholeheartedly for the living God, our kids have to see us repenting, walking, striving to walk in a manner that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

And the second principle that it lists is in verse 20 to 25 in Deuteronomy 6 and it says simply, “Tell the stories of the great deeds of God to your children.” Tell them what God has done. Talk to them about your personal testimony. But ultimately if this history that we’ve read about in Judges 2 is a microcosm of all history – creation, fall, redemption and new creation – it means that I, we have to own today that at base, our sin is spiritual adultery before the living God; the God who sees all and knows all and cuts down to the heart and sees the heart.

Redemption: God Redeems By A Judge-Redeemer 

And so the third and final movement here is that God redeems by a judge. Now remember that the stories in this book, this cycle, is both real history and symbol at the very same time. It both happened and is a shadow pointing to something more. And the reason the author is giving this to us here is because he wants us to know at the outset that by the end of this book in twelve failures ultimately of Israelite judges and the Israelite people, of these temporary messiahs, that’s it’s not going to work out; that they are going to abandon their first love. They are going to abandon the Lord. And nevertheless, if you look at all 12 judges you see that there are three qualities that every one of them possess that I think the author is saying we’ve got to be on the lookout for.

And here they are very quickly. First, he says we are looking for a judge. All 12 of the judges are called a judge. And that’s the Hebrew word, “shofet.” And the literal meaning of that term is something like “one who removes people from a land and puts them in another land.” And so when you read the word “judge,” literally the word is almost identical to the definition of redeemer – one who pulls out of bondage and puts into freedom. These are judge-redeemers. And so the stories, they’re asking us, “What if there was a judge-redeemer who wasn’t temporary, who actually could deliver the people fully and finally out of their slavery?” 

The second quality that we see, every single judge, it says, was enabled by the Holy Spirit to rescue the people of God. But in stories like Samson, we see that the Holy Spirit leaves Samson because of his failures, because of his sins, because of his rejection of God. And the question. “What if there was one who was not only a judge-redeemer who lasts, but also had the fullness of the Spirit?” 

And then the third, the third characteristic. The main bookend of the book in chapter 17 and 21 is that it says the reason all this is happening is because there is no king. “Well what if there was a judge-redeemer who was not temporary? What if he also had the fullness of the Holy Spirit? What if he was at the same time not just a monarch but the King?”

This cycle, this is about a shadow. This is a real history that is about a shadow of the history, the macrocosmic history of the entire world. This book is written centuries before the Gospels, but you can hear it. And what I’m saying, it so clearly puts on display a hope and longing and search for the characteristics of the Man in the Gospels that we read about. Jesus Christ came with the fulness of the Spirit, He was named the Judge and the Redeemer, and He is called the King. The King of the universe. The King of all of history. You know, history has a beginning, it’s got a middle, and it’s got an end. And Jesus Christ – what this book is trying to get us to see – is that Jesus Christ is history in itself. He is the Mediator of creation at the beginning. He is the Mediator of redemption in the middle of time. And He will mediate the new creation at the end of all of history. One theologian puts it like this. “Jesus Christ is the turning point of the ages and the core of history. Without Jesus, there is no history at all.” 

Judges today, tonight, is a witness to that fact that was written hundreds of years before this Man would ever touch foot on the ground as the boy of Bethlehem. There is a reason that humanity was so inclined to separate history into BC and AD in the middle of time. “The year of our Lord,” “Anno Domini” – He is the center, the core of all of human history. Paul said Jesus is the cornerstone. And that’s not only of salvation; that’s of history itself. Now this, for us, becomes gospel. Let me say this as we close. This becomes gospel, good news, when we realize that the core of history, Jesus Christ Himself, can be my history. His life; my life. Everything that was true of Him can be true of me. I can be known by God through His history. I can be called “just” because He was just. And look, that’s not achieved by just trying to avoid your idols. That’s not achieved by just simply trying to put away your sins. It’s something way more than that. It’s something completely unexpected. 

And it’s even here hinted, I think, in chapter 2 verse 17. Chapter 2 verse 17 says that every time God sent a judge-redeemer to the Israelites they listened only for a moment, but they did not ultimately listen to their judges and prostituted themselves to the other gods. You see, 12 times the redeemer comes and the people don’t listen. And God saved them anyway. And nothing changes, because in the center of history, Peter himself in Acts chapter 2 when he’s preaching that first sermon says to the crowd, the international crowd that was not there at Jesus’ crucifixion, he says to them and to me and to you and to all of us, “You crucified the Son of God. You put Him on the cross.” We all put Him on the cross. You see, the Redeemer came and nobody listened. We, Peter himself, all of us, we said, “Be quiet, Judge-Redeemer. Be quiet. Get on your cross and die! We don’t want to hear Your rescue. We don’t want to hear your words of deliverance. We don’t want Your salvation!” We treated Him like they treated all the redeemers that God ever sent. You see, we never stopped being idolaters. The nature of sin has always been the same because the Gospel is not us; it’s all Him. It’s completely unexpected because it’s by our spiritual prostitution, by saying, “Put Him on the cross,” that God ultimately in radical mercy delivers us from our adultery, from our spiritual adultery. It’s the most unexpected good news. In my idolatry, He, the ultimate Judge-Redeemer, became the Judge who was judged in my place.

And so let me just say two things that that means for us very finally. It means, first, the calling on us now is that as Christians, Christianity, we cannot say that salvation is really that we were just living our own lives and at some point we accepted Jesus Christ into our hearts as a personal Savior. Oh boy, we don’t just let at any point let Jesus come into our lives. That’s not it! That’s saying that this is my story and I invited Him into it! And what Judges is saying is that He is the owner of all of world history. He defines reality. We are not walking in our own stories. We are walking in the story of Jesus Christ – the beginning, middle and end of all of history. And Judges is telling us we could never accept Him. We are full of sin. But the Gospel, in the middle of time, God came to rescue us from idolatry and now He’s calling us tonight to confess the reality of the Judge-Redeemer King and rest fully in what He did. That’s the call of the Gospel.

And then lastly, this passage in Judges is just a reminder, this microhistory pointing to the macrohistory is that life is not about me. This is God’s world and it’s all about Him. And you know, Heather mentioned to me as we were talking through some of this, my wife, she reminded me of that book, The Purpose-Driven Life. You know, you remember The Purpose-Driven Life? It’s probably not a book that was selling out in the First Presbyterian Church bookstore, but Rick Warren does open it with this line. He says, “It’s not about you. The purpose of life is not your own personal fulfillment in your career, in your peace of mind, or even in your own happiness.” And whoa! Idolatry starts with me looking at me. Herman Bavinck says that the first sin of Adam and Eve was egocentricity – turning in towards self. And the truth, the secret of life, is that whenever we turn into self and strive for our own happiness through our own successes, it always fails. And the truth here is that when we say everyday, “Life is not about me. It’s about God. I’m walking for God in this world, living a life of self-sacrifice to the purposes of King Jesus,” that, that is what makes us really happy. That is the secret to joy. 

And so let’s ask for it now. Let’s pray.

God, we ask that You would, by the work of the Spirit, help all of us to know, to awaken to the fact that the world was not made by us and that it’s not our own and that this is Your world and that Jesus is King of all of history. And we ask, Lord, for so many that might be watching that are wrestling with the truths of the Gospel, that You would help awaken their heart and wrestle with this both intellectually and emotionally and spiritually and in all the ways You’ve made us. And we pray for so many that are Christians, that we would be helped to reawaken to the truth that we are not our own; we were bought with a price. And we ask for that help in Jesus’ name, amen.

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