For 20 years the people of Israel have been cruelly oppressed by Jabin, king of Canaan. This oppression was allowed because of Israel’s disobedience to God. This has been the cycle throughout the book of Judges. For a time the people obeyed the Lord while spiritual leadership was intact. But once their leader died, Israel returned to their sin and idolatry. For 20 years the people have been oppressed because of this sinfulness. Since we live in a very peaceful area of the world, we don’t easily relate to this type of suffering. Imagine what it would be like to experience the horrors of oppression since 1993. Crops are stolen so people are hungry. Friends and family die in raids. Women and children are taken. Fear becomes your new reality. Sisera was the commander of Jabin’s army and he has been oppressing Israel with cruelty. Sisera had 900 chariots of iron at his disposal – a force Israel cannot match. So Israel cries to the Lord for deliverance from their suffering. In the past God had given Israel men like Ehud to deliver them. But after 20 years of cruel oppression, who will stand up for the Lord’s will? Who will lead into battle with faith in God’s deliverance?
Oppression and Deliverance (4:1-24)
We are told that a prophetess named Deborah was judging Israel at this time. The people would come to Deborah for judgments. As a prophetess, Deborah would have been a spiritual leader as well – telling people the judgments of the Lord. Though judges normally led Israel into battle, it seems a man named Barak filled this role.
The story begins with Deborah giving Barak orders from the Lord. “Behold! The Lord has commanded you to gather 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. The Lord will draw out Sisera’s army and deliver them into your hand.” Barak was located within the tribe of Naphtali – right in the midst of the fighting. Violent oppression had wrecked Barak’s tribe and surrounding cities for 20 years. Now the Lord called him to lead 10,000 men to certain victory? Barak responded to Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go. But if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Since the Lord has commanded Barak to lead Israel into battle, this is a shocking response. Though Deborah is a source of comfort as God’s mouthpiece, Barak is sadly willing to be disobedient to the Lord’s command. Deborah affirmed she would go with Barak. “But know that taking this path will not lead to your glory. The Lord will give a woman victory over Sisera.”
Barak and Deborah went up to Mount Tabor with 10,000 men ready for battle. Sisera called out his men and 900 chariots of iron to fight against Barak’s army. Deborah again encouraged Barak into action, “Up! For this day the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go before you?” Barak responded by leading his men into battle. The Lord fulfilled his promise and wiped out the entirety of Sisera’s army – except Sisera himself. Sisera fled from the battle on foot.
Sisera was able to put a significant distance between him and Barak. There was a man named Heber who had peaceful relations with Jabin, the king for whom Sisera fought. Consequently, Sisera felt comfortable seeking refuge in Heber’s household. Jael, the wife of Heber, came out of her tent to meet Sisera and eased his fears by offering him a place to rest. Sisera accepted the offer. Jael did everything she could to make him comfortable. She covered him with a blanket. He asked for water, but she hospitably opened a skin of milk. Exhausted, Sisera asked Jael to stand watch while he slept.
Reading this story is confusing initially. What are Jael’s intentions? Once Sisera fell asleep, Jael’s intentions become clear. Jael grabbed a hammer and a tent peg and moved softly over to Sisera’s sleeping body. She used the hammer to drive the tent peg into Sisera’s temple until the tent peg went all the way through his head and into the ground. Sisera was dead. We are given no explanation or motive for Jael’s actions. All that matters is that the Lord gave Sisera into Jael’s hands. Some time later Barak showed up seeking Sisera. Jael showed Barak Sisera’s dead body. The Lord conquered Sisera at the hands of a woman as Deborah had prophesied. Israel continued to defeat Jabin and their oppression ended. Though Israel was initially without strong leadership, they were able to overcome through the boldness of two women to do what needed to be done. There are a few things we can learn from Israel’s response to their leaderless nation upon Ehud’s death.
Leaderless: National Disobedience (4:1-3)
Though this story ends on a positive note with Israel’s deliverance, the first verse of this story is troubling. “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died.” When Israel’s leader died, the people returned to their wickedness. Judges 2:19 alerts us to this disappointing cycle ahead of time. “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.” For a time, Israel’s disobedience was tempered by the presence of a God-sent leader. The end of Ehud’s life brought the same resurgence into disobedience seen throughout the book of Judges. This causes us to wonder – How true was Israel’s little obedience while Ehud was alive? Was Israel really devoted to the Lord in their hearts?
Lack-luster dedication when there is no leadership seems to be a universal problem. When there is no leader, people often do what is right in their own eyes. As an ex-waiter I’ve seen just how real this problem is. All the hosts, servers, and cooks would act a certain way when they knew the woman in charge of quality control was in the building. It was amazing how fast everyone worked and how clean the restaurant looked! As soon as she left, everyone returned to normal behavior.
We are at risk of succumbing to the same danger Israel succumbed to in our spiritual lives. Do you ever find yourself acting in a different way when you know spiritual leaders, friends, or family in Christ are watching? Let’s be honest. Do we talk differently? Do we start praying and studying with more intensity? Do we start avoiding sins we like to keep behind closed doors? Israel’s obedience during Ehud’s lifetime was probably a façade. The genuineness of our faith is revealed when nobody is watching and no leader is pushing us along. If this is who we truly are without leadership, our souls are in jeopardy. Furthermore, the Lord’s work will be left undone when there is no leadership.
The answer is not to always make sure we always have someone watching us. Romans 2:16 tells us we will be judged by our secrets. Leaders and spiritual family help us stay on the right track. But if we only obey the Lord when our spiritual family is watching, are we serving the Lord or are we serving man? When we practice such obedience we are not seeking the Lord’s pleasure, but instead the reactions of people around us. When we disobey the Lord we are not dreading his disappointment, but the reactions of our spiritual leaders.
It is time for a change. If we want to have faith-filled congregations, we must be disciplined in our obedience to the Lord now as if there were no one else pressing us along. First, we must take responsibility for our own study and prayer. If the only time we are fed with the word and conversation with the Lord is at our “appointed times,” we will not have the personal zeal and connection to the Lord that keeps his work going when leaders aren’t pressing us. Second, we need to personally identify which behaviors we avoid and promote when certain people are around. Privately write it down so you are more aware of your private sins and public righteousness. This will help us see what is truly in our hearts. If the Lord’s work is really going to be accomplished, we must start fighting for it with personal discipline in our lives now. Don’t settle for a feigned relationship with the Lord that dies without leadership.
Leaderless: Faithless Men (4:8)
Joshua, Caleb, Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar had been strong leaders for Israel in the past. In the midst of a faithless nation, these men stood up and did the unpopular thing: they had faith in a God nobody trusted. With Ehud dead, Israel disobeying the Lord, and oppression crippling the nation, who would step up to lead? The Lord called Barak to lead 10,000 men into battle.
Though Barak eventually goes to battle and shows faith, notice his initial response to Deborah in verse 8. “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” When the nation was in trouble, Barak initially displayed no courage. Barak would have disobeyed the Lord’s direct command had Deborah not accompanied him! A portion of Deborah’s song in 5:16-17 could lead us to believe the problem might have spread beyond Barak’s own faithlessness. Where are other men standing up to lead and fight? Why did the tribe of Reuben stay with their sheep? Why did Dan stay with his ships? Gilead didn’t help. Though Asher was located miles from the fight, they did not come either. The men in these tribes acted like there was no battle to be won! When the nation was left without leaders, the men didn’t have the faith to step up.
Is this lack luster attitude towards standing up to lead an isolated incident? Sadly, this seems to be a widespread problem that is only multiplying in our culture. So few men have a love of souls. People were hungry, hurting, and dying under cruel oppression, yet Barak was okay with not going to battle and other tribes busied themselves with other jobs. The men in Reuben are with their sheep while the Lord’s work was left undone. Satan is similarly destroying lives left and right. Men, we may have busy lives, but our world desperately needs more teachers, shepherds, and servants.
To do this, we need righteous priorities and an increase in faith. Barak would not lead unless Deborah followed. Often a lack of faith keeps us from stepping up to lead. We are scared nobody will follow when we take the initiative to teach a class, minister to those in need in our congregation, or make recommendations to stir growth. This is a real fear. Strong faith learns to only place hope in the fact that God stands behind our work. True leaders throughout history are memorable to us because they were dedicated to doing the right thing when it wasn’t popular. It is time to look around and see what needs to be changed and what work is left undone. The men from the other tribes knew about problem but decided to do nothing. Do not wait to be told to take action. Lead by taking initiative. It’s time to take loads off the shoulders that are overburdened. Churches are dwindling and society is growing increasingly evil. Men, we cannot hunker down and act as if there is no fight to be fought. It is time for us to lead with courage. The Lord stands behind you. Work with faith in his power to bring success.
Leaderless: Faith-Filled Women (4:9)
In a wicked nation with men who aren’t leading, two unexpected women stepped up. Though Barak eventually showed faith, Deborah and Jael are the ones that stand out as prominent characters of action. Deborah’s presence convinces Barak to obey. Deborah’s urging in verse 14 sparks Barak to action. When Sisera escaped on foot, Jael took matters into her own hands. Despite her husband’s peaceful relations with Jabin, Jael took action against Sisera. Jael came out to meet Sisera and made him comfortable. Jael smashed the tent peg through his head. When it was unpopular to have faith, women stepped up and accomplished victory through the strength of the Lord.
This is an opportunity to appreciate the powerful effect women can have on the work of the Lord. In a time where men did not step up and lead, the Lord called Deborah to be a prophetess. Without overstepping her bounds in the role of a woman, she was a spiritual leader to Israel and encouragement to Barak in a dark and leaderless time. In a situation where nobody else was able to end Sisera’s oppression, Jael did what few would have the faith to do. She invited the enemy into her tent and killed him. Women have the ability to be powerful, influential tools for the Lord. Men and women both are equally called to strive side by side in the work of the Lord.
Because of women’s more passive nature, women are so often underappreciated in ministry. If you’ve ever watched a woman do work for the Lord, you know how talented and courageous some women are. However, I’m afraid many women do not see how needed they are in ministry. I hope Deborah and Jael’s examples show you how much you are needed and how great an affect you can have. Watch other women’s examples. There are people within our congregation that need your service. Women have the amazing ability to see unmet needs and serve in vital, yet humble capacities. Many women can learn to use their social habits to get contacts for classes. My father’s greatest evangelistic asset when he started a church as a young man was a woman named Bernice who couldn’t stop talking about what the Lord had done for her. There are also many people within our spiritual family that need your teaching and encouragement. As we saw in with Deborah and Barak, a woman has the powerful ability to encourage a man from inactivity to action. Don’t passively stare at the dark world without leaders. Do not assume someone else will do the work. Rise to action.
When the nation of Israel was without a leader and filled with sin, there were few people that were willing to stand up in faith and do what was necessary. Leading men were almost non-existent. But two women rose to the occasion through faith in God and brought victory. Our families, churches, and communities are so often absent of strong spiritual leadership. We need people willing to stand up and do what is right, regardless of its popularity. We need the men to rise up and be men – have faith and lead. We need the women to believe in the Lord’s power as Deborah and Jael did. A woman of faith can accomplish great things for the Lord’s work. While we fearfully look for the perfect opportunity, the Lord is fully ready to go before us. Though nobody follows, though nobody else leads, though nobody else sees – let’s stand firm and be God’s nation of followers of his truth.