Deborah, the Judge (4:1-5)
The fourth chapter of Judges opens with the people doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord. The summary of this book was found in the very last sentence: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). We are learning that doing what we think is right and what think is best is to do evil in the sight of the Lord. Our ways are not the ways of the Lord. The way that we think is right is always the sinful way until our ways have been transformed and retrained into the ways of God. Verse 2 shows that God will deal with sins the same way as he has before. The Lord turns Israel over to King Jabin, the king of Canaan. His commander over his armies was named Sisera. For 20 years they oppress the people with great cruelty. The power of Jabin and his armies is strengthened with the note that he possessed 900 iron chariots. This is a significant number for that day and time. To help us feel that number, a parallel perhaps would be having the ability to send 900 tanks against a nation or 900 fighter jets. That is a significant number of power to go to war. So for 20 years the people of Israel are cruelly oppressed.
We are introduced to a statement that is shocking and jarring. At that time there is a woman named Deborah. She has many roles for her life. She is a prophetess of God. She is a wife to Lappidoth. She is a judge for Israel. We noted when we started the series that a judge did not always mean the person was a military leader but included a person who would settle disputes for the people. This appears is what Deborah is doing at this time, as verse 5 clarifies. She is prophesying and she is resolving disputes for Israel. Now today verses 4-5 are not very jarring to us. We read about a woman judging Israel and we are used to this also because we know about Deborah the woman judge. But this is a shocking statement for its time.
Failing Barak (4:6-10)
Deborah is also attempting to move Israel to obedience to the Lord. We see this in verse 6 where she calls Barak and tells him to obey the command of the Lord. God had commanded Barak to 10,000 men to battle and God would draw out Sisera and give the army into his hands. But it seems that Barak has not been doing what God said to do. So she tells him that he needs to do it. Barak responds that he will not go and do this unless Deborah goes with him. Some have tried to vindicate Barak’s response by saying that this was a faithful response because he wanted God’s messenger with him. So Barak is being faithful according to some. But the text will not allow this interpretation of Barak’s words. Not only has Barak not obeyed the voice of the Lord and Deborah must prod him to do so, her response to Barak’s request in verse 9 shows that this was not a faithful request. She does not say that it is good that he has asked this. Rather, Barak is not going to receive the glory for God’s victory but a woman will. Deborah is undoubtedly critical of Barak’s request. Barak is drawing back from God calling him to be Israel’s deliverer. We need to carefully see what is occurring. God has called Barak to be the deliverer and savior of the people, and Barak is refusing. Even when Deborah prods him to obey, he still refused unless she will go with him.
Now we are able to get a sense of why Deborah is prophet and judge over the people of Israel at this time. Barak represents the situation, which is growing worse as we study through the book of Judges. The men are refusing to be spiritual leaders in Israel. Barak is the man tasked by God to give the victory to Israel and Barak refuses. He does not have faith in the Lord’s command that he will win in this effort, even though God and a prophet have told him that the Lord will give him the victory. It is his lack of faith that is being noted at this moment. So Deborah goes with Barak and gathers the 10,000 men for battle as the Lord instructed.
God’s Victory (4:11-16)
When Sisera finds out that Barak has come out with his army of 10,000, he gathers his 900 iron chariots and all his army to prepare for battle. This is going to be a lopsided victory for Sisera according to human evaluations. This looks bad for Israel. So much so that Deborah must tell Barak to go up now and fight (4:14). Verse 15 makes a powerful declaration about the hand of the Lord. “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.” The Lord wins this battle and Barak and his army put Sisera’s army to the edge of the sword. What happened?
Notice an important detail in verse 15. Sisera gets off of his chariot to escape. Now think about this for a moment. If you are trying to get away, why would you leave your chariot? The chariot would be the fastest and safest way to escape. The Song of Deborah, which is recorded in Judges 5, tells us what happened. Notice Judges 5:4. “The earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped with water.” Now we might think that this is only a metaphor for the victory given at this battle. But notice Judges 5:21. “The torrent Kishon swept them away, the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon.” Go back to Judges 4:7 and 4:13 and note that this was the name of the river where Sisera would meet Barak for battle.
Now we can put the pieces together. The reason Sisera had to flee on foot was that God made it rain so torrentially during this battle at the river floods, causing the iron chariots to be stuck in the mud. That is why he leaves his chariot behind to escape. It is stuck in the mud. God has brought the victory to Israel again, not the people of Israel themselves. God has done this again so that all will glory in the Lord and no one can glory in themselves.
Jael’s Success (4:17-24)
Sisera escapes on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber. Heber has separated himself from Israel and has a peace accord with Jabin, the king of Hazor. So this tent seems to be the safe place for Sisera to hide after his defeat in battle. Jael welcomes Sisera into her tent. She gives him a skin of milk to drink and covers him with a rug. While Sisera slept, Jael quietly takes a tent peg and hammers the tent peg into his temple until it went down into the ground. Thus God subdued the oppressors before Israel and victory was given through the hands of the woman, Jael, not Barak, just as Deborah prophesied.
The Song of Deborah and Barak (5:1-31)
The song describes the victory God gave to them and describes some of the details of the oppression that occurred by the hand of Jabin and Sisera. Some think Jael does something unbiblical and gruesome. But Judges 5:28-30 tells us not to think this way. The song pictures Sisera’s mother looking out the window waiting for her son to come home. Here is what she thinks he is doing. Taking as the spoils of victory all the expensive supplies and material of Israel and their women. Notice verse 30, “A womb or two for every man.” They are capturing girls and brutalizing them. But this becomes the point of victory. This did not happen to Jael. Jael crushed Sisera’s head and pierced his temple (5:26-27) and he fell between her feet.
Faith Steps Up
The focus of the account is on the women doing what the men of Israel refused to do. This teaches such an important lesson by God to all, and especially to godly women. Dear Christian women, you must do what is right even when the men are weak, unspiritual, or lacking. Jael did the right thing, even though her husband was in an alliance with Jabin. Even if your husband will not do the right thing, you must do the right thing before the Lord. Submission to your husband does not mean not doing what you know is spiritual and right in the eyes of the Lord. If your husband will not follow the Lord with all of his heart, lead the family in the ways of the Lord, and faithfully serve the Lord, that does not mean that you should not or have an excuse not to. We are reading about Deborah and Jael stepping up by faith into the void left behind by men who would not fulfill the Lord’s calling. We see a wonderful example from Deborah who encouraged Barak to do what God has called him to do. Women have a great opportunity to encourage their husbands and men of the congregation to step up to the work of the Lord.
We must be willing to get on board with the work of the Lord and do the work of the Lord. This is not just a couple of men who would not obey. Whole tribes did not go out to battle as the Lord commanded. The tribes of Reuben, Asher, and Dan are condemned for not joining in the victory God was going to give. We must be willing to do what others refuse to do. We must be will to step up when others falter in faith. We must not falter just because others falter, even if it is your husband or wife, your parents or children, your elders or your preacher or spiritual leaders. Faith steps up and works for the Lord. What do you see that you can do for the Lord? Do not look for others to do it. You are called to do the work.
Second, after reading this account the declaration of the writer of Hebrews is useful for our consideration.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced 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 foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:32–34 ESV)
Barak is listed of those who followed in faith. Even with all his hesitancy and uncertainty, Barak finally goes and fulfills the command of the Lord. Barak pursues the chariots and puts all the army to the sword. We may have failed at having faith at the beginning of our walk with God but it is not too late to step up now in faith. For Barak to be listed as a conqueror through faith and not a failure for lack of faith tells us about the gracious God that we serve. God will receive our faith and accept our obedience even if we have abysmally failed in the past. If you have not been a spiritual leader in your home, it is not too late to step up. If you have not been a spiritual leader in the church, it is not too late to step up. We need more men and women of faith stepping up to the challenges of working in the kingdom of the Lord. Faith can be grown in us. We begin weak and hesitant. But God can use this and build faith in you. God’s grace remains for us to go forward in faith though we have failed in our faith previously. Step out in faith and step up in faith.