The book of Joshua is the account of Israel by the power of God conquering the land of Canaan. Joshua is the leader of Israel after the death of Moses and successfully leads the people in conquering the land. The book of Judges picks up at the death of Joshua, as Judges 1:1 reveals. But the book of Judges should not be consider an account of what happens next. We must not approach the scriptures as if each book is merely a historical account of what took place a long time ago. Rather, every book and every narrative has a theological purpose. The book of Judges is no different. As we read and study the book of Judges we must approach it, not merely looking at what the people in the account are doing, but what is God doing through all these events. As we study we are going to notice some important themes. The first theme is stated at the end of the book and will be observed throughout the book of Judges. The very sentence of the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25 ESV)
Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. This is the theme of the book of Judges. It is not hard to see the relevance of this book today since this is the motto of our society. “Do what seems right to you.” “Follow your heart.” “Do what you think is best.” This is the world in the days of the Judges and we are going see what is the problem with this way of thinking. This leads us to the second important theme of the book. God has to save us from ourselves. This is the tag line of our series. This book will explain to us why God has to save us from ourselves. When left to our own devices and doing what seems right in our own eyes, disaster happens. With these thoughts, let us begin our study of Judges and learn about our great Lord.
A Successful Beginning (1:1-18)
The dye is cast quickly in the book of Judges. When Joshua dies, the people of Israel want to know who is going to go up to fight against the Canaanites. The Lord declares that Judah will go up and be victorious because he has given the land into Judah’s hand. Curiously, Judah gets another tribe, Simeon, to go up and help them with this battle. We are not sure at this moment if this is a symbol of a lack of faith or if this is just the reality of the conquest that the land allotment for the tribe of Simeon was within the borders of Judah. In either case, Judah goes up and the Lord gave them a great victory, as recorded in 1:4-18. Just as the Lord promised, the land is being given into the hand of the people of Israel. The tribe of Judah is successfully destroying the Canaanites. God is faithfully giving the victory.
Before we can move forward, I believe we must address what God is doing in the destruction of the Canaanite people. Many will read these words and charge God with being a vicious killer. They will ask how God could have so many people killed. They will ask how God could do something like this. But this destruction that we read about in the books of Joshua and Judges are not surprises if we have studied the scriptures.
4 “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6 Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4–6 ESV)
Deuteronomy 18:9-14 records some of the sinful practices of the Canaanites as God instructs his people when they come into that land to not adopt the same practices. The reason for their judgment and destruction is because they are violating the laws and ways of God. The decree of destruction is not some sort of favoritism for Israel. God argued that this was not the case. Rather, it was time for the Canaanites to fall because of their sinfulness. The time of judgment has come. Nations rise and fall by God’s hand when the time for judgment comes for their sins. The peoples are worthy of the judgment falling on them.
Partial Faith Results In Failure (1:19-36)
Verse 19 is a curious verse. We read that the Lord is with Judah but Judah cannot drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had iron chariots. What is happening here? How could it be that God is with the people but they are unable to be victorious against the inhabitants because of their iron chariots? Is not God greater than iron chariots? Is God incapable of overcoming human weapons? Joshua told the people that they could have this land and it would be given to them despite the fact that these people possessed iron chariots (Joshua 17:16-18).
The problem is obvious to the text. The people have their eyes on the physical rather than on the all-powerful God who can conquer anything. They are looking at the iron chariots rather than looking to God who can give the victory in any circumstance. They are not trusting in the strength of the Lord. They are relying on their own strength. They are calculating that they cannot be victorious. The people are right if they are to rely only on their own strength. But God said that the land and the people would be given into their hands. But they do not believe in the word of the Lord. Friends, we miss out on a blessed life in Christ because we lack faith in God’s strength, choosing to rely on our own strength instead. This is why God calls us to rely on the strength of the Lord and not our own strength (Ephesians 6:10-18).
The rest of the first chapter of Judges reveals the continued faithlessness of the tribes. Each tribe is described as failing to drive out the inhabitants of the land in their given allotment. The people of Benjamin did not drive out the inhabitants (1:21). The people of Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants (1:27). Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites (1:29). Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants (1:30). Asher did not drive out the inhabitants (1:31). Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants (1:33). Verse 34 is interesting because not only did the people of Dan not drive out the inhabitants, but they are being driven back by the Amorites (1:34). Not only did the tribes not drive the people out as God commanded, but some of them made covenants with the people to dwell together. Some of the tribes enslaved the inhabitants rather than driving out the people, making a decision of convenience and economics over obedience.
Here is what I want us to consider. It is not that the people did not try to drive out the inhabitants of the land. The text tells us that these tribes went up in various conflicts and battles. So the people are not rebelling in total rejection of the Lord. The problem is that they are showing half-hearted obedience. They have partial faith which is leading them to partial obedience. The people cannot understand why they are failing. But the reason is obvious. They do not fully believe in the promises and the power of the Lord. Partial faith leads to partial obedience, which God rejects.
Partial Faith Is Full Disobedience (2:1-5)
Therefore, the angel of the Lord comes from Gilgal, the place where the people made a covenant with God (Joshua 5:9), and makes the Lord’s declaration because of their partial faith. There are two powerful messages God makes to the people.
First, God says partial obedience is not obedience at all. God says, “You have not obeyed my voice” (2:2). In Judges 1:19 the text says that the people could not drive out the inhabitants. God’s perspective is that the people would not drive them out. The people would not obey. God takes our “could not” and says that we “would not.” Humans like to make excuses for why they could not obey. We say that we could not do obey or could not do something for the Lord. God looks at it and calls it what it truly is. We made the choice that we would not obey. How often our “can’t” is really “won’t.” God does not put us in a position where we cannot obey. The sad thing is that we think we are doing so well having partial faith and partial obedience. But God says our partial faith and partial disobedience is actually full disobedience. Partial faith is actually a lack of faith. We see this truth illustrated in the New Testament. We read about Peter getting out of the boat to walk on water and think he shows great faith. But he sinks when he sees the wind, which is a lack of faith, as Jesus declared. Partial faith is no faith at all.
Therefore, the people are going to deal with the consequences for their partial faith and partial obedience. God’s message is simple. Essentially God says, “I told you to do it. You did not, so now it will be your problem.” Verse 3 tells us that these people will not become thorns in their sides because they did not drive out the inhabitants as God commanded. This is one of the great consequences of sin. We choose to not fully drive out sin and choose to not have full faith in the Lord and there are life consequences that come from this choice. Our sins, vices, and idols become thorns in our lives. We become enslaved to our sins and struggle to break free from their grasp. They rule over our minds, our actions, and our decisions. This is another reason why God wants us to turn away from sin because it is for our own good. Disobedience causes the forfeiting of God’s blessings. The writer of Hebrews makes that point often in his sermon (Hebrews 4:1; 6:11-12; 10:23; 10:36-39). We need full faith which will lead to a greater determination for full obedience.
Second, God keeps his promises. Even though the people utterly fail in keeping the commands of the Lord, notice what God says in Judges 2:1. “I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you.'” This is God’s gracious covenant. Even when we exhibit a lack of faith God does not break his covenant. God continues to call his people to faith and obedience, even when they repeatedly fail. Think about how this was shown at Mount Sinai. The people are worshiping the golden calf while Moses is on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments. Moses breaks the two tablets of stone when he sees the people’s disobedience, symbolizing how the people broke the covenant with God. What does God do? God gives them the covenant again. God gives the two tablets again, maintaining his part of the covenant. The New Testament declares this same truth to us.
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:11–13 ESV)
God remains faithful to his promises and to his covenant even though we are faithless. God is gracious with his covenant and calls us to return to him and enter into a relationship with him again. He is faithful to his covenant. When we remember who God is and the grace he continually shows toward us, then we will serve him wholeheartedly and joyfully. Seeing the amazing love and faithfulness of God will move us to full faith in his promises. This display of grace leads to our obedience. Partial faith is incomplete. Partial obedience is not praised by our Lord but is considered disobedience. Full faith in the Lord is the expectation and his grace is how we are moved to that kind of trust.