Judges Sermon # 1 Judges Introduction
“Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.” May 7, 2017
Pastor Louis Prontnicki Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church
What comes to mind when you think of the book of Judges? If you are not familiar with this book of the Old Testament, you might be picturing some people in black robes, like Supreme Court justices, issuing legal decrees…. but that’s not what the book of Judges is about. If you are somewhat familiar with this book from Sunday School lessons on men such as Gideon and Samson, what comes to mind might be the stories of a few flawed but heroic men whom God used to defeat Israel’s enemies. That’s closer to the truth, but not the whole story. Perhaps the most memorable line from the book is found at its very end (21:25), as the King James puts it, “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Also in 17:6). But we are going to see in this series of sermons on Judges that this book of the Bible is not only historical and biographical; it is also evangelical. That is, it points us to the Good News of Jesus Christ as the ultimate Judge and the only true Deliverer of His people. I think you will find that the book of Judges is a treasure chest waiting to be opened and marveled at! Let’s dig in.
Historically, the book of Judges covers some 300 years, after Moses and at the end of Joshua’s life (the initial conqueror of Canaan), to the beginning of the monarchy in Israel, under Saul and then David. We are looking roughly at the years 1400 – 1100 BC. However, keep in mind that the rule of the 12 judges in this book are not always strictly chronological; that is, the author is more interested in giving us certain theological truths, and therefore some of the judges might overlap one another. (We see the same principle in the gospel accounts as times). The theology of the book is more important than a strict chronology.
Note that there is generally one judge from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. We might say, therefore, that the 12 judges represent the 12 tribes of Israel, whether the judge was historically important or not. For example, Tola and Shamgar get only one verse each, while Samson gets four chapters! The point is that all of Israel is represented in the judges; all Israel did what was right in their own eyes; and all of them –as all of us – need a Savior to rescue us from our self-centered sin and rebellion.
Structurally, there are three main sections to the book of Judges:
First, the initial two chapters serve as an introduction and explain the transition from Joshua as leader to the individual judges;
Second, chapters 3-16 present 12 judges, one from each tribe of Israel – except Levi;
Third, chapters 17-21 deal with the wickedness of the people, and they further expose the depravity of the people and their leaders. Things and people go from bad to worse in these 21 chapters. Sin increases, as they move further and further away from the gracious covenant which the Lord made with them at Sinai, after rescuing them from their bondage in Egypt.
We will also see a four-fold cycle occurring repeatedly in chapters 2-16:
- Rebellion: Apostasy (falling away from God) – Sin
- Retribution: Enslavement to a pagan nation – Suffering
- Repentance: Praying to the Lord for help – Supplication
- Rescue: The Lord raises up a judge to deliver them – Salvation.
Yet even this four-fold cycle slowly spirals downward, as they people sink deeper into sin and slavery. For example, Judges 8:28 marks the last time in the book that Israel has peace.
So how are we to read and understand this book?
(I am indebted to the insights of a former student of mine from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship days at Drexel University, George Schwab. George went from engineering to get his M.Div and PhD from Westminster Seminary, and he wrote a fascinating commentary on Judges called “Right in their Own Eyes.”)
We should understand Judges not merely as history, though it is that. Our five year old grandson Joel likes to write stories, but he is careful to label those that are true as a “Real story.” Well, Judges gives us “Real stories.” The stories of Gideon and Samson are real history.
Yet at the same time, we should see the stories in Judges more like paintings than photographs. That is, each account has nuances and deeper shades of meaning that we are to explore and ponder, just as we might with a magnificent painting. (Compare, for example, the narrative account of Judges 4 with the poetic song describing the same story, in Judges 5).
Furthermore, we shouldn’t read Judges as stories for Sunday School lessons, meant only to inspire. Rather, we should understand this book as a sermon, a message from God, whereby He uses historical people and recurring patterns to teach us and warn us, that we might hate sin and love the Lord. We should read Judges as a commentary on Deuteronomy, as lessons drawn from Israel’s history to illustrate the warnings God gave to His people, if they forsook Him. Remember that Deuteronomy is the book of God’s covenant with His redeemed people; promising covenantal blessings if the people are faithful and trust the Lord, but warning of curses if they are faithless and idolatrous. The story of Judges is to illustrate how God’s covenant drives Israel’s history. This will ultimately point us to the ultimate Judge, Jesus Christ, the true deliverer of His people!
Theologically, the Book of Judges is a lot deeper and more sophisticated than might appear at first reading. For while it appears to be a collection of the rag-tag men that God graciously raised up to rescue Israel out of the hands of their various enemies, there are also a number of deep theological sub-plots running below the surface.
For example, one sub-plot is seen in chapter one, which moves from the military success of the tribe of Judah (1:17-20) to the military disgrace of the tribe of Dan (1:34). At the same time, the overarching story of the twelve judges moves from the success of Othniel who is of the tribe of Judah (3:7-11) to the moral failure and sad ending of Samson, who is of the tribe of Dan (chapters 13-16). (Then see more moral failure from Dan in chapters 18ff.)
Throughout the book, the tribe of Judah is presented in a positive light, while the tribe of Benjamin is shown in a negative perspective. Why is this? “Israel needs leadership of the sort that that only Judah has supplied; and the very last thing they want is a king from Benjamin….” Judges argues that Israel’s problem was the lack of a king (21:25). Judges yearns for a king, the right sort of king, a king unlike the leadership the 12 tribes has yet produced. In fact, he must be David… (and that points us to the Greater David, Jesus Christ.)
George Schwab notes: “The overarching message is that to forge a worshipping, unified community in Israel, the people will ultimately need a Sprit-endowed leader, and that can only be Jesus Christ (Isa. 11:1-3 and Matthew 3:16-17.)
Here’s a crucial way to read Judge: As God raised up these 12 men to be deliverers, or saviors of the people, to rescue them from their bondage, we see a foreshadowing of God sending His precious Son to be our Savior, to deliver us from bondage to sin, Satan, and death. We are also pointed to Jesus as the coming King, for just as each judge defeated of one God’s enemies, so in a much greater way, Jesus Christ will return from heaven as the conquering King, and He will do away with all those who are His enemies: sin, death, and Satan.
What practical applications can we look for as we study this book that God has given us? Here’s one: Think of Judges as a book illustrating “Grace abounding to the chief of sinners.” That is, despite the faithlessness, idolatry, and immorality of God’s people, the Lord continued to pour out His grace upon them, by hearing their cries for help, by sending deliverers, and by sustaining His people for these three centuries. Note that this book is not about how wicked the pagans were; no, it describes how ungodly and wicked the people of God were! The book of Judges is a vivid illustration of God’s grace abounding to the chief of sinners. Hallelujah!
In the period of the Judges, the people of God can no longer blame Moses or Joshua; nor can they pass the buck to any kings. They can’t blame a republican president or a democratic administration. They have only themselves to blame for the mess they get themselves in. God wants them to “judge with right judgement” (John 7:24), and to think God’s thoughts after Him (Isa. 55). Their success or failure in this, and the consequences of it, are what the book describes. (Like a young adult off to college, “free’ from her parents’ control.)
This is a sobering picture of much of the evangelical church today. We can’t blame a pope or a bishop. Most professing Christians do what they want to do, what they feel is good for them to do.
Michael Wilcock in his helpful commentary writes that the helplessness of the people… and the faithfulness of God, in delivering and persevering His people – in spite of their sins – is what makes the Book of Judges an outstanding witness to the truth that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. (Romans 5:20 – The Law came in…. but where sin increased, Grace abounded all the more).
Think with me about the famous ending of the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? And yet we could say that the book ends with an implied sign of God’s grace. How is that? Well, it implies that at the time the book was written, God indeed had given Israel a godly king (David), who did do what was right in God’s eyes…and furthermore, that one day God would raise up a greater king, indeed, the greatest king, to be the Savior and Deliverer of a people who were the chief of sinners.. like you and me.
So the Book of Judges was not written simply to fill in the 300 years between Joshua and King Saul. It was not given to us to be a collection of Sunday School stories. No. It teaches us that where sin increases, God’s grace in Jesus Christ abounds all the more! 1 Tim. 1:15 “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I am the worst of them all.”
What about you this morning? Do you see yourself as a sinner before God? Are you ready to cry out to God, as you turn from your rebellion against Him and turn in full reliance upon Him? May Jesus Christ be your judge, your savior, your king, your treasure and your joy!