Judges: The Stars Fought From Heaven

Sermon by David Felker on May 24

Judges 4:1-5:31

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Please turn with me in your Bible to the book of Judges, Judges chapter 4. This summer on Sunday nights we are in a sermon series in the Old Testament book of Judges and a few weeks ago I quoted a minister who said, “This book doesn’t so much need a catchy illustration at the beginning as much as it needs a parental warning.” And that is certainly true tonight as we will be looking at Deborah, Barak and Jael in Judges chapters 4 and 5, “The Stars Fought From Heaven.” 

And before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text tonight. For most of my childhood there were two professional baseball teams that were the two-sided coin of baseball heartbreak – the Boston Red Socks and the Chicago Cubs. But in 2004, something historic was unfolding as the Boston Red Socks came back from a 3-0 deficit against their rival, against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship. And they went on to win against the Yankees and then they went on to the World Series and they swept the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series victory in 86 years. And then, 12 years later in 2016 after generations grew up believing that the Chicago Cubs would never stop being the loveable losers, they would never stop being the loveable franchise unable to end their World Series drought, in 2016 the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. 

And here’s what is intriguing about these storylines. The 86 year streak that was broke by the 2004 Red Socks team and the 108 year streak that was broke by the 2016 Cubs team had a common denominator. You see, on the surface, it looked like just these incredible stories of these incredible players coming together. Guys like Orlando Cabrera and David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez for the Red Socks, and guys like Chris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo for the Cubs, on the surface they were working together as a team to snap the streak, to end the World Series drought, and that is all true. But did you know that there is a common denominator? The general manager behind the Boston Red Socks team in 2004 and the general manager behind the Chicago Cubs team in 2016, the man in charge of building those teams’ rosters was the exact same guy – Theo Epstein. In other words, behind the players on the field there was someone working and someone orchestrating and someone putting it all together to bring a championship home.

I think we’re going to see something similar in our text tonight in Judges chapters 4 and 5. We see here the different players. We see Deborah and Barak and Jael. We see the great victory they accomplish, it’s a great victory, and yet, in all of the tension of this story, in all of the tangled threads, in all of the loose ends, in all of the detours, in all of the questions, in all of the seemingly random events, it is the Lord’s doing. In every detail of the story what we see is that God is the great Deliverer. He is the great King and the great Hero of this story. And so Judges chapters 4 and 5, “The Stars Fought From Heaven.” And before we jump in and read, let’s pray and ask for God’s help. Let’s pray together.

Our great God and heavenly Father, we pray tonight that You would come and give Your Word success so that You would work through my lisping and stammering tongue. 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 4, beginning in verse 1. This is God’s Word:

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, ‘Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?’ Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ And she said, ‘I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.

Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.
When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. And Deborah said to Barak, ‘Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. And he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. And he said to her, ‘Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’’ But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.”

And then chapter 5 verse 20:

“From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.”

Amen. This is God’s Word.

Well this is a great story and through this story we learn something about how to read our own stories, especially amidst the twists and the turns, the complexities and the chaos in which we often find ourselves. This is a great story. And I think it’s important to say at the beginning, this story is describing the situation in the land of Canaan, it’s describing life in Canaan; it’s not prescribing life for us. There are places in the story where we have to look to all of the Bible to wrestle with our questions here and we can’t unpack them all tonight because of limited time, but also and more importantly, because those questions aren’t the focus of this great story. And so this is where we’re headed tonight – how to read this story, and then through this story we learn something about how to read our own stories. We’re looking tonight at Deborah, Barak, Jael, and the God who governed and guided the stars, the stars who fought from heaven. 

This is one of those riches places in the Bible where a narrative is followed by a song. And so you see, don’t you love it, where chapter 4 gives us the story of the battle and it’s immediately followed by chapter 5 which gives us this song. This is unique in the book of Judges; it’s not unique in the Bible. It’s much like Exodus chapter 14 where the Israelites are delivered, we see the splitting of the Red Sea – that’s chapter 14 – and then Exodus 15 is the song of Moses. It’s much like Jonah chapter 1 where Jonah finds himself in the belly of this great whale and then Jonah chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer. It’s much like that. 

And tonight, we’re going to look at Judges chapters 4 and 5 and I want to do it in two acts. So first, act one, Judges 4, which gives us the narrative; it gives us what everyone could see. And then act two, we will look briefly at Judges chapter 5, which gives us the song. And it tells us that more was happening than anyone could see, that more was happening than meets the eye. “The Stars Fought From Heaven.” Another way to say this – act one, we will look at the great story and act two, we will look at how through this great story we learn something about how to read our own stories. And so act one and act two. 

Act One: The Story 

Act one, geography has shifted a little bit. We were in the southern part of Canaan; we’re now moving north. But verse 1 is familiar to us. “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died.” And it’s familiar to us because if you’ve been with us you know that we have been down this road. This is the pattern. This is the cycle in the book of Judges. Judges is a very repetitive book where the Israelites again and again and again, they do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, they abandon the Lord, they give their hearts to other gods, they fall into slavery, the slavery of sin, and then they cry out to the Lord and He delivers them. Again and again and again, this is the pattern and it has always been the pattern. As Cory talked about a few weeks ago, this cycle is a shorthand way of talking about all of human history, including our own hearts. And so each week we’re given a different episode that repeats this cycle. And after Judges chapter 2 verse 11, and then after Judges chapter 3 verse 7, tonight, Judges chapter 4 verse 1 is the third great failure of the Israelites in the book of Judges.

We’ve got twelve tribes of Israel, twelve great failures, twelve deliverers, twelve judges. And so we see that the Israelites relapsed into this same pattern of behavior, they turn away from the Lord, and so the Lord in His sovereign discipline gives Israel over to the powerhouse of King Jabin and his evil commander, Sisera, whose 900 chariots rule the day and whose reputation was brutal. Reputation, chapter 5 verses 28 to 30, provides for us a reputation for enslaving and raping women. Kill the men, rape the women. And in the midst of this cruel oppression, which verse 3 tells us lasted 20 years, the Israelites again cry out. And so the question is, “Who will deliver them?” The question is, “Who is going to come and fight for them?” And God delivers them in dramatic fashion through these three key figures – Deborah, the judge and prophetess of Israel, Barak, the commander of the Israelite army, and then Jael, this unlikely and unexpected woman. And so let’s follow the action through each of these figures. 

Deborah 

First, there’s Deborah. Deborah is a very skilled woman. Verse 4 tells us that she is a wife. Chapter 5 verse 7 calls her a mother in Israel. And verse 4 tells us that Deborah was a prophetess, which means that she was the mouthpiece of God, that she speaks on behalf of God to the people of God. So she’s a wife, she’s a mother, she’s a prophetess, and a judge. In fact, she’s the only female judge of the twelve judges. And I think it’s worth noting that Deborah is the first judge who isn’t a leader of the army. So one commentator says that “Deborah is very different from all the other judges before and after her. She led from wisdom and character rather than sheer might.” And so Deborah is not a general; she’s not a warrior, but she’s godly. She leads beyond the battlefield. Verse 4 tells us that she’s judging, she’s leading the people. And we see this, don’t we, in the verses that follow. 

And so in verse 5, in her wisdom she’s holding court; she’s settling cases. We see in verse 6 she says to Barak, “The Lord, the God of Israel commands you, ‘Go, gather your men, 10,000 men from these two tribes to Mount Tabor, because there the Lord will draw out Sisera and his forces and give him into your hand,” which sounds like a suicide mission – to be surrounded by 900 iron chariots. But again, she’s speaking for God. And then she says down in verse 14, she says, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera” – “has given Sisera,” past tense. “The Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does the Lord not go out before you?” And so Deborah, she announces to Barak and all of God’s people the promises of God, that God has secured this victory. So Deborah, she is faithful, wise, godly; a wife, a mother in Israel, a prophetess and a judge.

Barak 

Second, there’s Barak, the Israelites’ general, their military commander who, after hearing God’s charge through Deborah in verses 6 and 7, “Go, gather your men; battle Sisera to meet with his chariots, his troops, and I will give him into your hand,” after hearing that, Barak seems hesitant. And who would blame him? I think that would make sense right? How would he go up against 900 iron chariots? How could he lead this weak army against an evil, commanding general who had ruled the day for 20 years? 

And there are pessimistic and optimistic views out there of Barak’s response. With some, Barak is characterized pessimistically. He is a weak man. He’s timid. He’s full of fear and is faithless. Because you see, he responds to Deborah in verse 8 and says, “If you go, if you go with me then I will go.” And some say he’s punished for his lack of faith and the evidence is in Deborah’s words, which some say is a rebuke. She says back to him in verse 9, “You will not get the glory but the glory, God will send Sisera into the hand of a woman.” It’s a rebuke, some say, for Barak’s supposed lack of faith in verse 8. But I believe it’s the exact opposite. Because you see, it’s not Deborah the woman that Barak is crying out for; it’s Deborah the prophet of the Lord. Deborah represents the presence of God and so this seems to be Barak’s statement of faith. “If you go, I will go.” This was his crying out for the Lord, “Don’t leave me! Don’t abandon me! Don’t let me go alone! I don’t want to go without you,” as he confesses his own dependence, his own weakness, and his great confidence in the Lord’s promise and in the Lord’s strength. 

And Deborah says to him, verse 9, “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will send Sisera, the Canaanite commander, the Lord will send him into the hand of a woman.” And so Deborah’s words were, as one commentator said, “a prophetic statement of fact.” “The road will not lead to your glory” – that’s a statement of fact and not a verdict of a lack of faith in Barak. And so “Barak,” she’s saying, “this is not going to be a glorious battle for you. You will not get the honor. You won’t get any medals pressed on your chest after this.” And yet, what is his response? What does he do? 

Well if you’ve not been living under a rock and you are a sports fan, then you’ve heard of or watched the recently released ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance.” And there’s a family friendly version on ESPN2 as well. But this documentary follows the dynasty of the Chicago Bulls basketball team in the 1990s and particularly their last dance, their last title run in 1998. And the documentary bounces around some from the late 1980s to that ‘98 season. And as I was watching it, one of the things I had forgotten was when the great Michael Jordan retired the first time, after the ‘93 season, the Bulls really were set up to be Scottie Pippen’s team. He had been the right hand man, he had been Michael Jordan’s “Robin” in their first three NBA titles from ‘91 to ‘93. But in the first season without Michael Jordan in 1994, they were set up to be Scottie Pippen’s team. But in a critical playoff game at a critical moment, the Chicago Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, draws up a play, but the player he intends to take the last shot to get the glory, it’s not Scottie Pippen but Toni Kukoc. And if you’ve seen it, you’ve seen that after the timeout, Scottie Pippen is crushed. He is so upset that he stayed on the bench. He refused to go back into the game because he wanted the glory. 

Is that what you find with Barak? You see, that line here, “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory,” I’ve thought about that line all week – “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory.” That is a reminder of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who laid aside His own glory. This is like Jesus. The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory. And the question that I can’t get over is, “What would I do with that? What would I do with that?” “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory.” What would you do with that? “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory.”

But what’s Barak’s response? What does he do with that? He has the humility to take on this role, “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory,” he has the humility to take it on and he has the courage, he has the faith, to go into battle, to lead this army into battle against the mighty Sisera and his 900 chariots. He follows the Lord. “Has the Lord not commanded you?” and he goes! “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory.” And yet, in the New Testament, if you go to the Hall of Fame of faith in Hebrews chapter 11, there is one character from this story and it’s not Deborah, the godly judge; it is not Jael, whatever it is that we say about her. But Hebrews 11:32, “For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets who, through faith” – listen to this – “conquered kingdoms and forced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put armies to flight. For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, and Barak.” And then I love this line – “of whom the world was not worthy.” Barak – “The road on which you’re going will not lead to your glory,” and yet the world was not worthy of this man.

And did you catch what happened in the battle? The armies meet in verse 12, Sisera was told that Barak had gone up to Mount Tabor and he calls out all of the chariots and all of the men who were with him and they begin to fight against these 10,000 troops. And then in verse 15 you see it – the unthinkable happens. “The Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army.” And what you’re beginning to see now, if you’re reading this story with open eyes, you’re saying, “Yes! Jabin’s general Sisera, the evil Sisera, is about to die! God’s people win!” because that was the promise – that Sisera was going to die. But then you read verse 17, “Sisera fled away.” Sisera fled away on foot and you think, “But God made a promise. Will God fail us? Will God fail to keep His Word? Can I trust what He says?” And it is at that moment that Jael enters the story. The most unlikely. And that has always been the theme – the most unlikely. 

Jael

And here’s what we know about her. The text tells us that she was the wife of Heber, a Kenite. A Kenite was not an Israelite but a Gentile. The Kenites and the Canaanites were in league with one another; they were allies. And so because of that, as Sisera is running for his life, he’s looking for somewhere to hide, and he arrives at this tent and assumes that he’s safe. And did you catch verse 11? Did you notice verse 11? What seems to us as a throwaway line, as a throwaway verse, it’s not. You see that God is beginning to set this up, that He is putting into place Jael who apparently did not go along with her husband’s allegiance to the Canaanites and to King Jabin; that Jael is going to act very much like Rahab breaking from Jericho. She’s going to act as a turncoat. She’s going to be faithful to the purposes of the God of the Bible over and against the Canaanites and over and against her own people. 

And so in verses 17 to 22, Jael came out to meet Sisera and as he comes up to her tent she says in verse 18, “Come in, do not be afraid,” and extends this motherly presence of hospitality. You see that she puts a blanket on him. He asks for water; she goes further and nourishes him with milk to drink to help him rest. And as one commentator said, one commentator put it this way – “She duped him and doped him.” She duped him and doped him and then what happens? As Sisera falls asleep she goes and grabs a tent peg and grabs a hammer. And as a woman in that society she would have been accustomed to putting out tents into the ground, but this time she drives the tent peg through the skull of the mighty Sisera, the great enemy of God and the great enemy of His people. And the end of verse 22 gives, I think, three pretty obvious words. It reads, “So he died.”

And maybe you’re asking, “Why does she do this? Why does she betray her husband who, verse 17 tells us, had peace with King Jabin and had peace with the Canaanites?” She deceives Sisera; she violently murders him. What in the world are we supposed to do with this? One commentator says, “Sometimes these dilemmas can be solved by remembering that we must distinguish between what the Bible reports and what it recommends. There’s not a moral commentary on the action of Jael. Our ethical bones cry out for some hint, but the writer includes no avert judgment. Neither rationalization, condemnation, nor exoneration. Perhaps, our text, moral questions are not the central concern of the passage.” In other words, it’s easy to get caught up in Jael’s deception, in her violence, and miss what we’re being taught here – that God keeps His promises; that what God promised through Deborah in verse 7, “I will give Sisera into your hand,” that God made good on His promise. And the agent of deliverance was not a judge, it was not a prophet, it was not a man. In fact, it was not even an Israelite. The agent of deliverance was the wife of a man allied against the Israelites. There’s no way! The most unlikely. And that has always been the theme – that God accomplished His purpose powerfully through weak and unexpected instruments. This has always been the theme.

Act Two: The Song

And so, we’ve looked at the great story, act one. And now very brief, act two. Let’s look at Judges chapter 5, at the song, which tells us that more was happening, that more was happening than meets the eye. And so we’ve looked at the great story; now, let’s look at act two, at how to read our own story through this great story. And so in chapter 4, the Lord is named only four times. In verse 6, verse 9, verse 14 and verse 15. But here in chapter 5 you learn that in every detail of the story God goes before His people. He was the Hero of it all. He was the Deliverer. Because you might think, “How did that happen? How did they win that battle? How did they defeat all of those chariots and the evil commander, Sisera? How did that happen?” Well in chapter 5 you learn that the Lord sent a massive rain. Chapter 5 verse 4, “The clouds dropped water.” Chapter 5 verse 21, “The streams of water flooded the plain and rendered the chariots useless.” As the wheels of these 900 chariots were stuck in the muck and the mire, they were thrown into chaos. The overflowing river literally swept through the Canaanite army. As the infantry of God’s people came off of the mountain and finished them off, they put them to the sword, the rest of the army of the Canaanites. 

You see, on the surface, on the surface it looks just like a military victory. But when you read chapter 5 you find out, as Deborah says, “The stars fought from heaven against Sisera,” this reference to the angelic host. The stars are often a reference to the angels. Don’t you see that in every detail of the story, God goes before His people. He moved Heber for Jael to be at just the right place at just the right time. He opened up the clouds, He opened up the skies and dropped the rain. In every detail of the story, in other words, Judges 5 is teaching us how to interpret Judges 4. Don’t you see, this is the Lord’s doing. The stars fought like His foot soldiers. The stars fought from heaven. Don’t you see that He is the same God? This is the same God that fights for you and fights for me. He is not, as Ralph Davis put it, “He is not stuck in historical concrete.” This is the same God. He comes, He keeps His promises; we see it again and again and again.

And so here’s the question. How do you interpret your life? How do you interpret the story of your life and what you’re going through right now? How do you square your experience on the one hand with His promises on the other? How do you square your experience with His promises? Don’t you see, this has always been a part of the story. It’s always been part of the story of God’s people. And I have my questions, and I’m sure that you do too – “Are You there, God? Do You care, God? Why did You let my loved one get sick? Why does my wife have chronic pain? Why are we not able to have children? Why am I not married? Are You there, God? Do You care, God? Why then, this path? Why this way? Why this road? God, I do not understand. Can I trust this God with my real life, with my real questions?” 

Don’t you see, when you feel like that, when you look at your story and you say, “I don’t see how He can keep His promise. I don’t see how He cannot fail me in this. Don’t you see? It looks like 900 chariots. Don’t you see? It looks like Sisera running away. Don’t you see? It looks like Joseph in the bottom of the pit? Don’t you see? It looks like Daniel in the lion’s den. It looks like Jonah in the belly of the whale. It looks like a young dead man on a cross on a Friday afternoon. Looking at my story, there’s no way; I don’t see any way that He can keep His promise in the midst of this. I cannot see how He won’t fail me.” 

And what do these stories tell you again and again and again? In all of the tension, in all of the tangled threads, in all of the loose ends, in all of the long nights, in all of the darkness, all the detours, all the questions, even in the seemingly random events – what do these stories tell you? That more is happening, more is happening than anyone can see and it is the Lord’s doing. And so maybe today you look at your story and you cannot say, “It is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in my eyes,” you cannot say that. Can you see here, can you see in this story that God is redeeming your life? He is rescuing you. And just because you can’t see a way doesn’t mean that God isn’t making a way, that more is happening. And it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been leading you all this time. How do you interpret the story of your life? “The stars fought from heaven.”

Let me close with this. There’s a question game that I used to play with my mom when I was a child that I now play with my own kids when I tuck them in at night and it goes something like this. I’ll ask them, “Do I love you on Sunday?” Like, “Do I love you on Sundays?” and “Do I love you on Mondays or Tuesdays?” And my six year old son, Marshall, or my three year old daughter, Finley, will say, “Yes, Dad. Yes, you love me.” And I’ll go through all the days of the week, and I’ll go through all the months. “Do I love you in the month of May? Do I love you in the months of June? Do I love you in the month of July?” And I’ll go through all the months. And I’ll go through all the seasons. “Do I love you in the summer? Do I love you in the fall? Do I love you on the rainy days and on the summer days and on good days and on bad days?” And I pepper them with a series of questions to press home, “In all of the twists and in all of the turns of the days of your life, all the days of your life and all the days of your story, I’ve got you and I’m never ever going to stop loving you.”

Where do you interpret your life? Where are you in the story? Do you hear God saying to you in this great story that in all of the tensions of your story, in all the twists and turns and tangled threads, in all of the long nights and the loose ends, “More is happening, and My purposes may be long, My purposes may be hidden, but I’ve got you and I’m never ever going to stop loving you.” “The stars fought from heaven.” And let’s go and learn what that means for our lives. Let me pray for us. Let’s pray.

Our great God and heavenly Father, in all of our questions, in all of our confusion, with our own lives and with our own stories, we pray that You would use this story to help us to believe. Give us faith to believe that You keep Your promises and that You will deliver us again. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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