Judges 4 & 5
When does God get involved?
How bad do things have to be, before God gets involved?
Maybe that’s a question that you’ve asked before.
Perhaps as you stand amidst the debris of broken dreams and crushed hopes, you’ve wondered at what point God could have or should have, got involved.
“Where was God?”, is a cry we often hear in the face of some tragedy? We’ve heard it again in the events of this past week, with small children being killed by their parents in both Sydney and Perth.
And it’s certainly an understandable question to ask
But the answer to that question in Israel’s experience in Judges 4 and 5, might surprise us.
You might know that in the book of Judges there’s a pattern, a cycle or spiral of behaviour, where the people turn their backs on God, and start to worship the false gods of the nations around them.
And so God hands them over to those other nations who oppress them,
The people then cry out to God, and God hears, and raises up a deliverer, a saviour, who defeats the enemies, and leads the people in repentance back to God.
And you’ll remember from the story of Samson earlier in the year, that sometimes, the people were so lost, and so caught up in their idolatry, that they can’t even see how bad things are, and so they don’t even cry out to God to intervene.
They’re so tolerant of their own sin that they don’t even want God to deliver them.
But in the story of Deborah, at least, the people do cry out to God to get involved.
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.
So it seems that Israel are on the front foot, taking the initiative, and asking God to , get to work.
God has already raised up a saviour for his people
And so we meet Deborah. Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.
Deborah was a prophet, someone who spoke God’s authoritative Words to his people, before the Scriptures were written down.
We’ve met other people who are prophets in the Old Testament. Moses’ brother Aaron is described like this. God says “the job of the prophet is to say everything that I tell you.”
And in fact, Moses himself is described as a prophet.
And the narrator seems to actually be going out of his way to picture Deborah as a little version of Moses.
Think, for example, if I was to describe a man as aggressive,
If I said he treats women appallingly,
He can’t control his Twitter outbursts,
And he has fly-away hair that looks like an out of control toupee!
You would think, “hey that sounds like someone else I’ve heard of!”
The original readers of the book of Judges, would hear this description of Deborah, and think, “that sounds like somebody else we know.”
Moses himself had said to the people of Israel, in Deuteronomy chapter 18, verse 15, The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among you, from your fellow Israelites
Now, we get to the New Testament, and we find out that the ultimate fulfilment of this is Jesus.
But one of the things that we see over and over in the Scriptures, is that while God is working towards the great salvation that he achieves for his people in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, along the way, God gives mini fulfilments,
Reminders that God is working towards his ultimate goal of victory over his enemies and salvation for his people.
So in presenting Deborah as a kind of , mini Moses, God is reminding his people that he is still working towards his promises. He gives his people just a small taste, of what it will be like when his promises are fulfilled.
And this reminds us, as readers of Judges;, God hasn’t forgotten his people,
God keeps his promises.
Maybe we’re tempted to think God’s forgotten us.
Maybe we find it hard to trust in God’s promises.
The narrator doesn’t want us to feel that.
And perhaps, most significantly, did you notice when God does this?
Is it when the Israelites cry out for deliverance from Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army,
Is it once the people recognise the sin and the folly of their behaviour in doing evil like the nations around them, is that when God goes around looking? “Oh, who can I send in?
Who could I raise up?
There must be somebody here somewhere!”
No, God’s already stepped in, hasn’t he?
Deborah’s already there!
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.
God didn’t wait for his people to cry out before went looking for someone to lead them.
God’s already got involved, before his people even know their need.
Deborah has been leading Israel, but now she comes a “judge”, but not quite!
Deborah is a unique case among the Judges of this book.
The other Judges, lead the army,
They fight God’s battle,
They deliver the people,
They bring salvation.
The judges were saviours;, saviours with a lower case “S”, not a capital “S”. The salvation they won was only temporary. It was physical and geographic, and their salvation could undo some of the consequences of sin, but could never deal with the cause of sin, in people’s hearts.
But nevertheless they saved God’s people, and, again, gave a foretaste, of the salvation God was working towards.
God can use even an unwilling rescuer
And for that role, God can use even an unwilling rescuer.
Deborah calls in Barak, from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun, and lead them up to Mount Tabor.
7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’ ”
There’s some geography here for us, isn’t there?
Barak comes from Kedesh in Naphtal
Jabin reigned in Hazor.
And guess where Hazor is!
Right in the middle of Naphtali,
Right next to Kedesh!
The person God raises up to lead his army, is already right in the middle of it!
Barak is one of the people who would be feeling the oppression of the Canaanites most clearly!
It may even be that Barak has been one of the most vocal in crying out to God to do something, to rescue Israel from Jabin.
And he’s the one God chooses for this role.
Sometimes we can see a need,
And we can pray and pray, asking God to do something. And then the way that God chooses to act,
The person that God chooses to use, to answer our prayers,
Might be us.
It makes you think carefully about your prayers, doesn’t it?
“Dear God, please bring that person to faith,
Dear God, please raise up people to serve those who have needs in our community,
Dear God, please make people generous in providing for our church financially.”
Those can be dangerous prayers to pray.
If we actually expect that God might change people, and move people, maybe the people God will change, and move, will be us.
Barak though, doesn’t really want to get involved in what God’s doing.
Deborah tells him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.
Deborah’s told whim who’s speaking,
What he is to do,
Who else is to take the key roles,
God’s strategy for winning,
And what the outcome is going to be,
But that’s not enough for Barak. He wants Deborah to go and hold his hand.
If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
He wants to make deals with God,
He wants more than to be told God’s plan,
He wants more than a promise of God that guarantees victory.
He wants to dictate the terms because he doubts God’s promise.
But Deborah graciously accepts his conditions, doesn’t she?
She doesn’t have to, but God condescends to the weakness of the person he’s chosen for this task, and Deborah will go along too.
We see it plenty of times through the Bible;, God calls someone to a task, but that person is unwilling,
Or , just weak and ordinary! And God in his kindness allows for their weakness, and even accomplishes his purposes through that weakness.
And please, let that be an encouragement to you, if ever you feel you’re a bit slow on the uptake.
God doesn’t write you off, just because you find it hard,
Just because you’re weak,
Or because you struggle to believe that God could really be calling you into his plans and purposes.
But because Barak was a special case, specific commands through God’s prophet, there will be a consequence, unlike the other judges, Barak won’t get the honor for this victory. because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”
And because we’ve already read it, we know this honour will go to a foreign women, Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite.
After the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army, verse 15, Sisera the enemy commander escapes on foot to Jael’s tent. And because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite, Sisera expected that he’d be well looked after.
So he lets his guard down. He thinks all his Christmases have come at once! Did you see, he asks for water, in verse 19, but she gives him milk!
Happy and full, he falls asleep! But verse 21, Jael, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him, She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.
When I worked in the anatomy department at Adelaide uni, in the Anatomy Museum, was a big poster detailing the case of Phineas Gage, a railway construction worker, who was injured in 1848, when an explosion drove an iron bar, up through his jaw, and out the top of his skull, taking with it a fairly large part of his brain.
Amazingly he survived, but Gage’s injury became the measuring stick against all other injuries of brain penetration were measured.
But this one, well this one was plenty worse, wasn’t it?
Phineas Gage survived, and went on to become a stage coach driver in Chile, but Sisera doesn’t.
God judges him for his wickedness, and with the commander of the army defeated, verse 23, God subdued Jabin king of Canaan.
So let’s take a step back, and think about how this episode helps us understand how God acts, and specifically, how this helps us understand how God acts in Jesus.
How does this help us understand how God acts and how he acts in Jesus?
God defeats his enemies and saves his people
Firstly, God is the one who acts, defeating his enemies and saving his people.
Notice God is described in 5 verse 5 as the One of Sinai.
It’s God who acted back then, still acting now.
And Deborah acknowledges that she’s not the hero of the story, but that God is. That’s the point of the song, isn’t it?!
“Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers!
I, even I, will sing to the LORD;
I will praise the LORD, the God of Israel, in song.
The poetry gets pretty picturesque, say, down in verse 20 of chapter 5. From the heavens the stars fought,
Verse 21, The river Kishon swept them away,
We saw kayakers being rescued from a flooded river a couple of weeks ago, didn’t we? And if kayakers can get into trouble in a river, then iron chariots even more so!
Deborah doesn’t want us to think, “well, what a nice coincidence that the river was in flood.”
No, God uses the natural world, to do his bidding.
It’s God who saves his people.
But also, let’s not forget, God is judging sin in this episode. Look at how the song finishes in verse 31,
“So may all your enemies perish, LORD!
But may all who love you be like the sun
When the Bible talks about God’s enemies, it pictures people in active rebellion against God. And while we sometimes understandably struggle with the concept of God killing people, we got a couple of glimpses last week, at just how appalling wicked and depraved the Canaanites were
I mean, did you notice how Sisera’s mum comforts herself at the end of the song?
Why is his chariot so long in coming?
, indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
a woman or two for each man,
, highly embroidered garments for my neck
“He’s running late, but it’s OK, because he’s probably just raping the girls and women.
He probably just lost track of the time, when he moved on from raping the first woman, to the second one.
And as he’s tearing the clothes off them, he might bring me something nice to wear.”
It’s the Nigerian Chibook school girls all over again isn’t?
This victory, in all its confronting violence, is God’s right and just judgement on sin and wickedness.
And we’re reminded by this small localised example, on what God’s ultimate judgement of sin and wickedness looks like, what God’s judgement of our sin and wickedness looks like.
Because it’s easy to point the finger at Sisera, and think “Well, I’ve never carried off women as spoil from battle”,
No, our expression of rebellion against God probably looks much more polite, but it nevertheless required a penalty, a judgment.
God couldn’t just let our sin slide, any more than he could let this utter wickedness go unpunished.
Our sin cost Jesus his life.
God will not let sin go unpunished. Either we let Jesus take the punishment for us, or we elect to take it ourselves. But this episode shout to us “Don’t think you can take it yourself!
Take up Jesus’ offer.”
God’s victory is total
Because we also see here how total God’s victory is.
We’ll just go to one example, verse 27 of chapter 5,
At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.
Is there any escape?
Is there any part of God’s judgement left undone?
Do we think that Sisera might have escaped?
That he could have talked his way out of God’s judgement? “Hey God, let’s make a deal!
I’m not really such a bad person”,
He sank, he fell,
He sank, he fell,
He sank, he fell,
There is no part of God’s judgment of sin left undone.
Which means there is no escape from it,
But also, the good news is, there’s nothing left to be paid, when the judgement’s already been poured out on Jesus.
If you’ve trusted in Jesus, then God’s not going to come after you, asking you to pay, as if Jesus’ cheque has bounced.
Satan has been defeated, and will one day be entirely powerless.
God’s victory is total.
God celebrates faithful servants
We also see, especially in the song of praise in chapter 5, the celebration of faithful, obedient servants of God.
It’s how the song opens in fact, isn’t it?
The first thing that’s celebrated in this song is the people’s willingness to hear the Word of God and obey it.
When the princes in Israel take the lead,
when the people willingly offer themselves—
praise the LORD!
Here’s a picture of people who hear what God’s calling them to, and they respond eagerly and willingly. They are totally committed to what God wants them to do.
The same idea comes up again in verse 9, My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers among the people.
These are the 10,000 men from Zebulun and Naphtali, who went up under Barak’s leadership because they’d head God’s command,
They’d heard of God’s promise of victory, and the fact that God’s prophet is there with Barak in verse 10 of chapter 4, seems to be enough for them to think “we need to obey.”
And Deborah’s own obedience gets celebrated in the song. In 5 verse 6, we get a sense of just how bad life was in Israel at the time,
the highways were abandoned;
travelers took to winding paths.
7 Villagers in Israel would not fight;, maybe better translated as “village life ceased, they held back until I, Deborah, arose,
until I arose, a mother in Israel.
You can’t walk down the main road, for fear of your life.
You can’t live in the villages.
The only place offering any degree of safety, is the city, and even that doesn’t keep you safe from war.
Think of Aleppo, in 2016.
There’s no semblance of any kind of normalcy , until, Deborah, arose, a mother in Israel.
A mother’s concern for her children, we understand that image don’t we, that’s how Deborah feels towards Israel.
Some of the other tribes of Israel, their obedient response to the call of God is celebrated also.
Jael’s part in God’s victory is celebrated in 24 to 27, Most blessed of women be Jael,
Some of God’s people, heard God’s Word, they responded in obedience, and their faithfulness is celebrated for all generations.
They risked their very lives, verse 18, because of their commitment to obeying God’s command.
That’s a pretty good example, for us, isn’t it?
Obedience doesn’t normally mean we risk our lives. But it might. And this song od Deborah and Barak invites us to join with God in celebrating the faithfulness of those among us who hear God’s Word and obey.
I’m sure we can think of people like this. There are many like this in our own church family. It’s good for us to celebrate, like God does, the fact that they hear God in his Word, and respond in obedience.
God rebukes those who choose comfort and ease over obedience
Because we can’t miss the fact that in this song , some don’t.
There are some among God’s people, who choose comfort and ease, over obedience to God’s call.
See in verse 15, In the districts of Reuben
there was much searching of heart.
Why did you stay among the sheep pens v
to hear the whistling for the flocks?
Those in the tribe of Reuben, who would have been expected to lend a hand, that was how Israel were to inhabit the land, by working together, but in Reuben, they procrastinate,
there was much searching of heart, much wringing of hands.
They set up a committee.
“We’re not really sure we feel called to this.
“Sure there’s a significant need, we can see that, and we’ve got the ability, but it’s not really a ministry we feel passionate about,
We’ll leave it to someone else.
Ever heard that in a church.
Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan.
And Dan, why did he linger by the ships?
Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.
Gilead would have had to drive all the way down the Freeway into the city! “Gosh that trans-Jordan traffic! That’s enough for me not to go, even though I’ve heard God’s Word!”
Shipping was Dan’s trade, so they were just too busy at work It was the over-flowing in tray that kept Dan from obedience.
“Gosh, responding to God’s word might cost me money!”
And Asher, well, Asher just wanted a day at the beach.
“Can’t come, won’t obey, I’m too busy enjoying my long weekend.
If it was more convenient, I’d be there.
If what God required of me, fitted in more neatly with what I want for myself, you know I’d be there.”
This is a stern rebuke, of those who count themselves among God’s people, who just cannot be bothered, or who make excuses for disobedience.
What do they say? The only thing better than learning from your mistakes, is learning from someone else’s mistakes!
Friends, let’s learn from their mistake, and today , if necessary, take steps to ensure that comfort,
Do not get in the way of us, responding obediently to God,
Playing whatever part in God’s plans that he calls us to,
Bringing aid or assistance to those we’re able to help,
Or hearing God’s Word and putting it into practice.
God chose an unlikely saviour.
As this episode helped prepare people for the ministry of Jesus, we’re reminded that God chose an unlikely saviour.
Women play an unexpected role.
Barak is flawed and doubtful,
None of these three have “likely saviour” written across them, and yet these are the ones God chooses to achieve this salvation.
Similarly Jesus didn’t look like what you’d expect a saviour to look like.
At God, Church & Me, our course for new members here at TMB, we ask people, “If humanity were to come up with a solution to the problem of sin, what would it look like?”
And whatever answers we get, it’s not “Jesus”!
Intriguingly, Jesus spent most of his public ministry, right in this area of Naphtali, around the sea of Galilee. And because of all the invasions over the years, the real purist Jews in Jerusalem thought of Galilee as a backwater populated by half-breed mongrels
Jesus was an unlikely saviour; born into a humble setting, in the backblocks of Israel.
And both here, and when we look at Jesus, the means by which rescue is achieved is a surprise.
At the start of this story we don’t expect Sisera to be , taken down a peg or two, like this, do we?
And, by a woman. There was shame in the ancient world in being killed by a woman.
And even Jael’s method, putting up tents was women’s work!
This salvation is brought about by a woman, doing what was considered women’s work, with the tools that were considered women’s tools!
Now, I am wise enough, not to try and draw any parallel to today, with what might be considered women’s work, and women’s tools, but there’s no doubt at all, that this is a surprising method of salvation.
But even more so, because what Jael does, is really an act of treachery. Remember verse 17, there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite
I was reading during the week about Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Spies during the Cold War. When it was uncovered that Philby was in fact not just a high-ranking officer in British Intelligence, but also a Soviet spy, there was an outcry right up to the highest levels of government.
To betray your people into the hands of their enemies was seen as a particularly heinous crime.
But here’s God’s sovereign hand at work.
Even this deceptive act on Jael’s part, can be brought into God’s plans.
And it’s what we see when we look at the cross. A terrible act of betrayal, leads to victory.
What looks like a defeat, for God, to die, for his people, that was unheard of. That doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. And yet that’s how Jesus achieves the rescue that he does;, the perfect God, standing in the place of rebellions people, as a willing substitute.
It’s not how we would do it.
It’s not how we would expect it.
But that’s the rescue that God brings.
God chose a willing saviour
Of course, I’m sure it’s clicked for you, that there is one significant difference between Barak, as the little model of Jesus, and the real Jesus, and that is that Jesus is a completely willing saviour.
The picture of Jesus that we get in the New Testament, is of him deliberately driving events towards their completion, setting his face towards the cross, not letting anything distract him from achieving the salvation that he knows he’s been sent to accomplish.
Think of Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he’s crucified, as he considers the sheer weight of what lies before him;, taking on himself his Father’s righteous anger at the sin of the world.
If anyone ever had an excuse to invoke Barak and say, “I’m not really keen on doing this”, or trying to attach conditions, it would be Jesus , at this moment, but instead he says, as Matthew records, Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Friends, don’t ever think that what Jesus offers you he offers begrudgingly, or unwillingly.
Jesus was a willing Saviour, choosing to take the punishment for rebellion against God that you and I had earnt.
And if that’s what Jesus is willing to do for you, he’s not going to withhold anything else, is he?
Nothing that we need.
Faithful obedience means you don’t seek your own honour
Let me close by pointing out a couple of positive things, that we see in Barak’s faith. This episode doesn’t reflect well on Barak, but there are some lessons for us.
Firstly, faithful obedience means you don’t seek your own honour.
Our society, is all about seeking your own honour, putting yourself first, making sure you get recognised for your efforts.
You’ll know the story about Ernest Shackleton putting an ad in the newspaper for men to join his Antarctic expedition. “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in event of success"
And supposedly over 5000 men applied to join his crew.
Historians don’t actually think he ever put that ad in the paper, but “Honour and recognition in event of success”, that’s still a huge motivation for people today, isn’t it?
But notice Barak, even after Deborah tells him in verse 9, the honor will not be yours, He still goes, doesn’t he?
He still obeys.
He does all that he’s told, even though he knows the honour for this victory will go to someone else.
There’s no glory in it for him, but he’s still in, boots and all.
I remember someone once saying to me, “Clayton, the way to tell, if you’re in something for your glory, or for the glory of God, is to ask yourself the question, ‘would I be just as happy with the outcome, if someone else got the credit for what I did?’”
Ah, that’s a helpful question isn’t it?
And, even with his failings, Barak is an example of faith, in that with no chance of any glory going to him, he obeys.
That might change what our lives look like a bit, mightn’t it?
If we always acted in faithful obedience to God, without any expectation of glory for us.
What might we do, because God wants us to,
Commands us to,
Because it’s honouring to God, even if, there’s no public upside for us?
Faithful obedience might mean tackling what is humanly impossible
The second lesson of faith that Barak gives us, is that faithful obedience might mean tackling what is humanly impossible.
It doesn’t always mean that! A lot of the time faithful obedience to God looks very ordinary and pedestrian!
But here, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against Barak, from a human point of view.
10,000 men are no match for 900 iron chariots. Some scholars talk about a 20:1 ratio of the effectiveness of chariots against foot soldiers.
Which means Barak’s men are outnumbered 2:1.
Yet in faithful obedience, he goes into the fight, and sees God win a decisive victory.
I wonder what God might call us to, that seems impossible.
Working towards some issue of justice in which there seems no human chance of success,
Starting a new church somewhere in our region,
Seeing those around us come to faith in Christ,
Turning around our church’s finances,
Putting behind us the sin that so easily entangles.
Maybe faithful obedience today, means committing ourselves in faith, to what seems impossible, but which is possible, because God has called us to it.
Barak actually gets named in Hebrews 11, alongside the heroes of the faith among God’s people.Here is a great story of a remarkable woman, and her part in God’s plan to save his people in her day, and the part she plays in God’s much bigger plan that culminates in Jesus.
And yet even her flawed and weak sidekick, can probably teach us a thing or two, about obedient faith.