Old Testament Passages Good for Every Christian to Know, Part 11

Old Testament Passages Good for Every Christian to Know, Part 11

Old Testament Passages Good for Everyone to Know, Part 11

by Doug Jacoby

After Joshua's time (the late 1200s BC), the people of Israel wander. Nor are Israel's leaders spiritual, for the most part. Not to say there were no good judges—Deborah and Othniel were godly—but most of the other leaders had serious faith issues. The thought that leaders must be humble, accountable, and godly as they serve the people seems not to have occurred to them.

There are a dozen "judges" (leaders is a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew word). They are followed by Samuel, the last "judge," who appears in 1 Samuel. In Judges, Judah takes the lead, while Dan, Ephraim, and Benjamin disappoint. This equally well describes the dynamic after Israel broke in two (1 Kings 12), c.931 BC—the period of the Divided Kingdom—and in all likelihood Judges is alluding to this time.

No single "judge" leads all the tribes of Israel, only a few here and there. Moreover, their terms of leadership are overlapping, so we can't lay them end to end to establish any hard chronology. Overall, this was a terrible time in the history of God's people (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:9; 21:25). They seem unable to trust the Lord, and eventually opt to imitate the pagan nations in having a king. They thought that consolidating power under an autocrat was the safest route forward—echoes of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). Samuel anoints Saul, even though insisting on a king is displeasing to Yahweh (1 Sam 8:1-22).

The Lord works with the Israelites and allows a monarchy—just as there are times he answers our prayers even though what we pray for is somewhat out of line with his good and perfect will. Whereas the king was to provide spiritual leadership, as ordained in Deut 17:14-20, the Israelites sought instead national, political, and military leadership. Saul, their first king, is not a spiritual man. David does better, though his son Solomon's success is more worldly than spiritual. (Deut 17:14-20 seems to have been specially written for him!)

This week's O.T. passage is important because it clearly portrays the repeated cycles of sin and compromise that characterize the generations between Joshua and Samuel. And, as we will see, such unhealthy patterns tend also to characterize the church, as well as our own lives.

... The Israelites did evil in the eyes of Yahweh and served the Baals. They forsook Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them...
     In his anger against Israel Yahweh gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them... Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of Yahweh was against them... just as he had sworn to them.
     They were in great distress.
     Then Yahweh raised up leaders [traditionally, judges] who saved them out of the hands of these raiders.
     Yet they would not listen to their leaders, but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Whenever Yahweh raised up a leader for them, he was with the leader and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the leader lived...
     But when the leader died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways (Judges 2:11-19).

Here's the crazy cycle:

  • Tempted by the world, the people slide into sin (idolatry and faithlessness).
  • Negative consequences follow (a divine response): spiritual malaise as well as oppression by foreign powers.
  • The people cry out to Lord—yet these are cries for deliverance, not cries of repentance.
  • Yahweh provides a deliverer.
  • The people fail to give thanks and glory to God, embracing the ways of the world. They have forgotten the lessons of Deut 8:1-9:6.
  • The leader's death is followed by massive relapse.

So what does this have to do with us? The applications are numerous, and obvious—especially since there are times when we too fail to deal with sin. The cycle of Judges illuminates at least three arenas:

  • Cycles in our own lives: How often do we promise God never again to ____ (fill in the blank), yet we end up in a vicious circle (Jer 2:22; Prov 30:12). To break the cycle of unrighteous living, we need Christ. Only through his power can we break free. The Lord calls us to walk in the light and walk as he walked (1 John 1:7; 2:6)—a double walk, not a double life, grounded in his own life and teaching.
  • Cycles in our congregations: Vibrant growth gives way to multiple distractions, selfish living, reduction of numbers (2 Kings 10:32)—then, eventually, introspection, critique, and reform. Failing to stay anchored in the Word and focused on the mission, we drift (Heb 2:1). Yet no congregation can thrive on fumes—on the reputation of past victories (Rev 3:1). Let's step out in faith.
  • Cycles through the centuries of church history: Revival... flash-in-the-pan change... loss of conviction... the rise of a strong leader... a movement flourishing for a generation... worldliness creeps in... everything withers... All flippancy aside, "Wash, rinse, repeat..." will not save us. The depth of conviction, and the appearance of holiness, is dubious (Rev 3:14-22). 

For all these problems, the solution—which Judges both illustrates and frequently hints at—is allowing God to be our king. Give up control. Stop acting as though everything depends on us. As the entire Old Testament constantly encourages us, let's live by faith.  

Next week: A key passage in Ruth