Judges & Ruth: There is a Redeemer
I hope that you have made a step or two – even if just tiny ones – into our new study, and are excited about what the Lord will teach us as we venture into our study of Judges and Ruth. I have been praying for all of us that in the midst of this busy season, we will take time to enjoy and delight in our greatest gift – the gift of salvation that is ours through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ – and that we will pursue and richly benefit from time sitting at his feet in his word.
I know this new study will stretch some of us to venture into less familiar territory: we’ve started a new study and need to learn a new rhythm, the book is different, we’re in the Old Testament, etc. Thank you for honestly communicating those things that present challenges for you as we begin Judges! I have to confess that it makes me smile to realize that we are a bit like the Israelites we’re studying about (aren’t we always?). We’re looking at new and unfamiliar territory that the Lord has graciously given us, but we’re a little intimidated by the challenges in possessing and inhabiting it. I hope we will gain confidence that he is with us and promises to lead us in the fight to “win the land” if we will trust and obey, to borrow a phrase from an old hymn.
I love how our study of Ephesians – ending with our consideration of the armor of God, and the battle we are called to as his people – perfectly sets us up to look back at the warfare God required of his people in order to fully take possession of the inheritance of land He gave them and secured for them. God promised to lead Israel in victory, but not without their effort in battle. At this point in their history, Israel was not united under a patriarch, national leader, or king, but God continues to be their help and strength. He is not absent.
As we study, though, you might find yourself asking this question posed by Dr. Henrietta C. Mears:
“Sometimes we wonder why God didn’t remove all the enemies from the Promised Land before He let the children of Israel go in. But God had a definite reason (which we’ll discover when we get to Judges 3:1-4!).
God wanted the chosen people to realize that they were a holy people. They must not mix with the wicked nations about them. They must continually separate themselves. God knew that separation makes a people strong. Christians today must remember that they cannot mix with the world. They must keep close to God and war against sin and unrighteousness. God wants us to be good warriors, [and put on] the armor He provides.
And so we see that an uncritical toleration toward a people so utterly corrupt resulted in the undoing of God’s chosen people.” (pp. 109-110, What the Bible Is All About)
This will be evident as we make our way through our study. I hope it encourages each of us to keep putting on God’s armor and doing battle with the enemy of our souls!
They Did Not Drive Out the Inhabitants…
I hope that you are resting in and enjoying Christ as the treasure and joy of Christmas this week, whether all is quiet in your heart and home or you’re racing to accomplish a long to-do list! I am praying for each of us, too, as we embark on this new study that requires us to adjust in a variety of ways. I am confident that it will be well worth our efforts to lean into this study and trust the Lord to give understanding and insight as we consider the Israelites’ failure to fully secure the land the Lord had promised them. It sounds like mostly bad news, I’ll grant you, but against the backdrop of the Israelites’ disobedience and apostasy, we will see quite clearly the faithfulness of our covenant-making, covenant-keeping God.
The portion of scripture we looked at this past Tuesday is an introduction, of sorts, to the book as a whole. Its prevailing theme is found in the repeated use of the words “did not drive out.” God’s clear command for his people was to “devote to complete destruction” the seven nations they were dispossessing of the Promised Land. (Read Deuteronomy 7!) God’s purposes in this were both to JUDGE those wicked nations and to PROTECT his chosen people from being drawn away to the lesser gods of these wicked, pagan people. What we will see as we work our way through the book is that the people of God, though provided by God with his presence and power for expelling the enemy, fail to do so, spiraling downward into disobedience and idolatry. However much we understand of the details of this passage – and there are many opportunities for continued study! – there is ready application for us in these first verses of Judges, particularly for those of us just coming off of the Ephesians study that ended with our consideration of God’s armor in chapter 6. We, too, are provided by God with his presence and power for expelling the enemy from our lives. Where have we settled comfortably to “dwell in the land” with those [sins of the world] God has commanded us to drive out? Where have we failed to engage in the battle to which we’ve been called? And what will be our response?
The consequence for God’s people as recorded in the book of Judges was grave. The angel of the Lord declared, “…you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” The Lord had warned his people repeatedly, but they did not take his commands to heart. Like most children, though, they wept and cried out when faced with the consequences of their sin. We see, too, that they made sacrifices to the Lord. But they failed to bring to the Lord truly repentant hearts. Consider David’s words from Psalm 51: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Sorrow over consequences isn’t the same thing as sorrow over sin, is it? We’ll be giving that further consideration in the near future.
Lather, Rinse Repeat: The Cycle of Judges
It’s good to be getting back into the flow of things with you as we get into the meat of our Judges study. For those of you who haven’t been able to join us, or feel disinclined due to the graphic nature of the subject matter, could I please encourage you to join us?
Whether you struggle with getting into (or back into) routines (check!), managing transitions (check!), or wondering what to do with difficult passages of scripture (check!), I think you will be greatly encouraged by the discussion time and the clear and overwhelming evidence of God’s faithfulness and mercy in the book of Judges. Perhaps you would be surprised to realize that the misery of sin and rejection of God that we see in the world around us is neither “worse than ever” nor outside of the umbrella of God’s sovereign plan of redemption. We are certainly no less in need of a deliverer than God’s people were in the time of the judges, but this side of the cross, we can look back to the fulfillment of that need in Christ and look forward to our ultimate deliverance and salvation at his final return.
Why look further back? Because “all Scripture is breathed out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” However distasteful and mystifying the events of Judges might be to us, they have been selected and preserved for us by God in his word, which is his revelation to us of himself and his work in his world. Those truths encourage us to mine these (even these!) portions of scripture for a fresh look at God’s character and work related to his plan to redeem a people for himself.
What we learn in Judges becomes very real to us as it causes us to examine our own walk with and relationship to the Lord. What does genuine repentance look like? What is God’s heart toward me when I’m floundering in the consequences of my own sin? What do I need to know of God when I am walking through painful circumstances and suffering? Is it appropriate for me to look to the Lord for help and deliverance when my suffering is the result of my own disobedience?
These questions, among others, are those we’ll grapple with in our study. So what on earth is “lather, rinse repeat?” For those of you not with us today, the cycle of the judges (we’ve covered three of twelve so far) follows a consistent pattern – one that might remind you, as one of our members put it today, of what you read on the back of a shampoo bottle:
- Israel disobeys God
- Israel is oppressed
- Israel cries out in distress
- God raises up a deliverer
- Israel is delivered and experiences a period of rest/peace
- The deliverer dies
- and…Israel disobeys God (see top)
Today we were pointed to the fact that Israel continually returned to her sin when the deliverer died, as all of them did. The deliverers we read about in Judges were raised up by God to do his work, but the effect of their influence was temporary. However noble or incongruous the deliverer was, the deliverance achieved was temporary. The rest they experienced was temporary. But Israel’s stubborn, persistent sin and disobedience called for a permanent solution and a permanent deliverer. And God had a plan, in the fullness of time, to meet that need – their greatest, and ours – in Christ Jesus.
Next week, we’ll look at the cycle again. I imagine it will become quite familiar over the next many weeks. I trust, though, that our understanding and awe of our deliverer will increase and change us as we look to Him who alone is faithful.
What a Mess! Deborah, Barak, Jael & the Glory of God
I’m glad we were able to dig further into the book of Judges this week, though I confess it seems to get stranger and crazier the more we delve into it. I am quite confident that the word of God IS for the faint of heart, but at first glance, the book of Judges may tempt you to think otherwise! I am grateful every time we come together for your diligent study, your thoughtful questions, and your careful consideration of God’s word as we collectively try to come to a better understanding of it.
I have a confession to make: I don’t like mess. Not that you’d know it to look at me (or my house), but it’s true. If I’m cleaning a space, I like to orient myself toward the clean, the tidy, and the neat, turning my back on the still messy, unfinished, and sometimes overwhelming disheveledness that is the rest of the space. (Sometimes I have to stand in a corner.) Not only do I not like a physical mess; I find it uncomfortable mentally, as well. My brain seems to be wired to try to neatly summarize, categorize, and synthesize information to produce from it tidy paradigms by which I can think and live. While my words and thoughts may be meandering and messy, they’re constantly employed toward this end. Go ahead and laugh.
I find, subject to my own faults and frailties, that I imagine God to exist (and act and think) in settled opposition to mess, too. After all, he IS holy, perfect, and righteous in all of his ways. And he calls us to be holy as he is holy. And as we see clearly in the Old Testament, he hates and punishes wickedness. He was faithful to both his covenant blessings AND his covenant curses in his dealings with his people Israel, right? And so…
Here we are in the book of Judges. I honestly can’t tell you all the things you should think about Deborah, Barak, and Jael. (Thankfully, I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to anyway!) That’s not to say we shouldn’t have questions. I think our questions are great, to the extent that they’re always pushing us toward a greater understanding of God’s word IN ORDER TO bring us to a greater knowledge of and delight in the Lord. While I’m grateful that we live in a time when we can bring our understanding of all that God has done for us in CHRIST through his work on the cross to our understanding of scripture, this book is still doing a number on my pursuit of those tidy mental paradigms I mentioned. I’m sure some of our questions will be answered as we continue to study. They’re not unimportant. More significantly, though, I think that all of this MESS is highlighting some important and beautiful truths about God – a God who graciously pursues His people right into messes of their own making to deliver them.
The book of Judges doesn’t present us with tidy heroes or three-step plans for deliverance. God himself is the hero, and all the glory is His. The best of the characters we encounter in Judges displays some trait or quirk (at best) that causes us to wonder at God’s choosing them. The worst of characters, well….
- Othniel – Is he an Israelite, or isn’t he? Is it acceptable for him to be a judge/deliverer, if he’s a proselyte? Is this a good development, or not? He seems to be a good guy, but….
- Ehud – What’s with all the violence? What are we to make of the despicable, treacherous means of this deliverer that “the Lord raised up” for Israel?
- Shamgar? The Hebrew writer of Judges certainly wasn’t impressed with him. He gets one verse in scripture (and a mention in the song of Deborah and Barak, as well, so make that two). Commentators indicate he wasn’t an Israelite at all, and may have been a mercenary in the service of Pharaoh’s army. That doesn’t hinder the LORD from using him to “save Israel,” though.
- Deborah is consistently praised by commentators, and there is nothing in scripture to indicate that this prophetess of Yaweh did anything other than walk in bold obedience to God.But what are we to make of her strength in relation to the timidity of Barak? What are we to make of her strength as a woman in the service of the Lord?
- Barak is raised up by God, and called by him through Deborah to lead the men of Zebulun and Naphtali into battle against Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army. He appears, initially, to be reluctant, and the Lord sells Sisera “into the hand of a woman,” which would have been a great humiliation.
- The “hand of a woman,” belonged to Jael, whose Kenite husband was bound by treaty to peace with Jabin, king of Canaan. As such, Sisera could have expected to find safety in Heber’s camp. Jael’s initial words and actions would only have increased the expectation, though Jael’s actions go on to provide for us a display of “hospitality” unlike any we’ve ever before encountered in a women’s Bible study! Warm milk and a tent peg? What on earth!?
Foreigners, women, the faithful, the faithless, the ungodly, the unlikely…. What comfort can we draw from any of this? What hope? Is this even worth reading? (Trick question.)
The presence of these men and women in God’s story of the deliverance of his people in the time of the Judges should give us great hope. Do the “leaders” that you see in the world around you cause you to despair? Does the state of the church concern you? Do you know that God is ABLE to work through sinful men and women but doubt his probability and willingness to do so? Do you picture God as distant, at best, and near with wrath, at worst? (Even though we KNOW his wrath was fully poured out on Christ at the cross. Don’t forget that part, and don’t think that the God we encounter in the OT is somehow different from or unrelated to the God of the NT.)
Judges (here in the Old Testament!) shows us that in the midst of keeping his covenant promises (which included, in this case, curses for the disobedience of idolatry), GOD was faithful to draw near to his people in their misery, to deliver them using the unlikeliest of means, and to give them rest from their distress and oppression – even when they didn’t repent. Their idolatry was perennial. So was his compassion. Their rebellion was constant. So was his mercy.
As we considered last week, the deliverance Israel experienced was always temporary. But in Christ, God has raised up the ultimate, final, once-for-all-time sacrifice and deliverer to rescue US from sin and death (and idolatry). There IS a redeemer, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! God’s use of temporary deliverers provided temporary relief. God’s ultimate deliverer provides us eternal life, rest, and redemption!
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” Psalm 103:2 – 6
Judges 6: Misery, Masters & Miracles
I hope that you are finding our study of Judges profitable and thought provoking, as I am. While I understand completely if it’s a book you’ve skimmed (or even avoided) in the past, I am grateful for what it adds to my understanding of the Lord’s great mercy and compassion toward us, and am praying that growth in understanding is shaping my response to him and others.
We got halfway through our look at Gideon this past Tuesday, and will discuss the rest of his story as a judge/deliverer of Israel this coming week. You’ve likely already realized that Gideon is not the hero we’re looking for. You probably knew that before we started this study, but if you’re anything like me, there may be a tendency to search for goodness in humanity, forgetting that where it exists, it is a reflection of the goodness of God in those made in his image. It’s not that we shouldn’t note and appreciate it, but where we encounter it should turn our gaze and gratitude to the One who is, in and of himself, good. When we set our hopes on earthly (or false) heroes and deliverers, it’s only a matter of time before we’re disappointed. Our help comes from the Lord, who, in His own wisdom and mercy, is gracious and merciful to make frequent use of flawed and faulty humanity for his own glory and for our good. Even (and often especially!) in his use of men and women to bring deliverance for His people, God himself is always the ultimate deliverer.
There are several things for us to note in Judges 6:
- When Israel cried out to the Lord in misery because they were “brought very low because of Midian,” the Lord sent them a prophet. I love what Dale Ralph Davis had to say about this: “Here Yahweh does the strangest thing; in fact, it appears ludicrous. Israel cries for relief, ‘and Yahweh sent a prophet to the sons of Israel’ (v.8). That would be like a stranded motorist calling a garage for assistance and the garage sending a philosopher instead of a mechanic. Israel needs deliverance and Yahweh sends a prophet; Israel asks for an act of God’s power and he sends them a proclaimer of his word who rehearses Yahweh’s grace (vv.8b-9), repeats Yahweh’s demand (v.10a), and levels Yahweh’s accusation (v.10b). Hence Yahweh sends a prophet because Israel needs more than immediate relief; they need to understand why they are oppressed. They must see that ‘Yahweh gave them into the hand of Midian’ (v.1) because ‘they had not listened to [his] voice (v.10b).” Davis goes on to say “Like Israel, we may want escape from our circumstances while God wants us to interpret our circumstances. Sometimes we may need understanding more than relief; sometimes God must give us insight before he dare grant safety. Understanding God’s way of holiness is more important than absence of pain. We may want out of a bind, whereas God wants us to see our idolatry. God means to instruct us, not pacify us.” (Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 92)
- Where we would expect the Lord to pronounce judgment (following his rebuke of Israel’s disobedience), Yahweh brings deliverance (in the call of Gideon).
- The Lord’s presence with us is sufficient answer to our own inability and inadequacy(vv.12,16). It puts (or should put) to rest all questions and objections related to our abilities and capacities for the work the Lord has called us to do. However…
- The Lord’s presence doesn’t mean that we will move forward without fear(vv.27, 36-40). Even so, we are to move forward, putting greater confidence in the presence of the Lord than in our pounding hearts and anxious minds. Referring to Gideon’s choice of obedience under cover of darkness, Dale Ralph Davis says “Evidently, obedience was essential and heroism optional.” (p. 98, Judges)
- Our idols must be torn down, as we cannot worship God rightly while they stand. (vv.25-27) “No man can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24a) Dale Ralph Davis likens the cleansing from idolatry to the cleansing of a wound before a Band-Aid goes on (p. 97, Judges). None of us in our right minds would leave the dirt in place, lest infection set in.
- Idols make lousy deliverers. They can’t even save themselves. (vv. 28-32) We, however, worship the One who, though leveled with this same accusation, willingly sacrificed himself to conquer sin and death, that we might know his salvation.
- If we don’t believe God’s word, we don’t believe God. (vv. 36-40) Gideon’s “If you will…then I shall know…” request of God in verses 36-37 is false. Because Gideon WILL NOT “know” from God’s response. He’ll turn around and ask for another sign. Gideon doesn’t get any new information about God or his promises from his gracious and merciful responses to Gideon’s requests. And, in fact, Gideon has already had the sign of v. 21. Gideon will remain fearful. But Godwill remain faithful. Though Gideon continues to express his doubt, God continues to respond in mercy, providing reassurance.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?…For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-34, 36)
Better off Weak?
Ahhhhh…weakness. That quality we all delight to embrace, right?
I write to you today, if I’m honest, frustrated by physical weakness (not that I can’t lay a claim to other areas, too!). My head is foggy with congestion, and I’m not exactly bursting with energy, though I got a good night’s rest. I turned down opportunities to work outside the home today in anticipation of accomplishing much on the home front, and here I sit, hoping that physical action (typing) will serve to crank the mental gears that produce coherent thought. I’d like to write to you and get a little done around the house, too. I don’t like being weak. Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, weakness is hardly a trait we’re looking to cultivate. We associate strength with health, vigor, beauty, power, courage and confidence, and the world around us is quick to affirm this message. Yet, we need our understanding of weakness and strength to be shaped by scripture.
Gideon, as we see him portrayed in Judges 6-8, provides us with a helpful case study. Throughout Judges 6 we observe a fearful Gideon who asks for multiple signs from the Lord and obeys the Lord’s commands under cover of darkness. At the beginning of Judges 7, Yahweh pares Gideon’s force of 32,000 men down to 300(!), “lest Israel boast over [the Lord], saying ‘My own hand has saved me.'” Ironically, though 22,000 fearful Israelites have been sent back to their tents, our protagonist, Gideon, remains. The Lord mercifully guides him to confidence with yet another sign to bolster his courage. Finally (we think) Gideon gets a clue, worshiping the Lord immediately upon hearing a dream and its interpretation while eavesdropping on the enemy camp. The news is good, for even the enemy confirms that “God has given into [Gideon’s] hand Midian and all the camp.” Clothed in the Spirit of the Lord, Gideon and his divinely winnowed force of 300 men blow trumpets, break jars, wave torches and stand in place around the camp of 135,000 “Midianites, Amalekites and people of the east” while the Lord sets every man’s sword against his comrade. By the Lord’s hand, Israel’s oppressors decimate themselves, and the remaining few take flight. Is all this due to Gideon’s great strength?
While the angel of the Lord called Gideon a “mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12) and instructed him to “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian,” it is important to note the accompanying encouragements provided when the address is considered in its entirety:
“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” And Gideon said to him, Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” and the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian.; do not I send you? And he said to him, Please Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house. And the Lord said to him, But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”
Gideon doesn’t exactly ooze self-confidence in this passage. And he seems to find little comfort and assurance in the word of the Lord or the promise of his presence. But rather than bolstering Gideon’s courage by taking away his fear or providing an abundance of fighting men with which to face the enemy, the Lord diminishes Gideon’s forces. Gideon, and Israel with him, needs to learn to trust the Lord and to be confident only in his strength. Like them, we need to see that weakness submitted to the Lord in faith is not a liability, but an opportunity to experience the Lord’s gracious power on our behalf. Strength, however – that quality we so often admire – actually does become a liability when NOT submitted to the Lord. This, too, we learn as we see the events of Judges 7 & 8 unfold. Describing the changes that take place in Gideon, L. R. Klein, in The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges, says this:
“The coward has become confident; he directs far-flung mopping up operations which are effectively carried out. But the voice of the LORD is stilled, not to be heard for the balance of Gideon’s narrative. And the spirit of the LORD, which brought the courage to fight a far greater military force, seems to slip from Gideon’s shoulders in the process.” (pp. 57-58)
The Gideon of Judges 7 & 8 is less fearful than the one we initially encountered, to be sure. But is he better off? In Judges 7 & 8 we see him pursue the enemy army, defuse the anger of the Ephraimites with flattery, threaten his (fearful?) fellow Israelites for failing to provide bread for his exhausted, pursuing men, come back to make good on his threats by bringing injury and death to the men of Succoth and Penuel, order his son to kill the kings of Midian in an act of vengeance (in the end doing so himself, because the boy was afraid), and rule over the people of Israel during forty years of rest. Though Gideon gives lip service to Yahweh’s rule in Judges 8:23, his subsequent actions exhibit none of the right kind of fear: fear of the Lord. Gideon is no longer weak, but of what benefit is his newfound strength? Ultimately, he goes on to receive gold from the spoils of war. “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” (Judges 8:27) Commentators differ on the nature and meaning of this episode with the ephod, but its final impact is clear: it drew both Gideon and the nation of Israel away from the Lord. Alas, Gideon’s strength is no strength at all.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” Ephesians 6:10-11
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” Zechariah 4:6b
Where do you need to trust the Lord in weakness today? How might a scripture-informed perspective on strength and weakness adjust your understanding of a particular circumstance you may be walking through? Is there an area of your life where you see yourself as inadequately provisioned for a particular task? How might Gideon’s story change how you pray about this matter?
Remember the Lord Your God
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed* be your name.” Matthew 6:9
(*Let your name be kept holy, Let your name be treated with reverence)
As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side… Judges 8:33-34
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10
“And [the leaders of Shechem] gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him. And he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself. And all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.” Judges 9:1-6; See also Judges 9:7-20
“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Matthew 6:11-13
“Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.” Judges 9:56-57; See also Judges 9:23-55
The actions of Israel, Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem have been running through my head for the past few days, particularly with respect to the extent to which they are directly opposed to all that Jesus teaches us to pray and pray for in Matthew 6. The episode of Abimelech is yet another display of what Daniel Block calls the ever-increasing “Canaanization of Israel.” Rather than enjoying the protection and provision of Yahweh in rightful worship and obedience as the called-out, holy and separated people of God, Israel compromises, blends, associates, adapts, adopts and eventually ends up looking very much like the Canaanites she was called to drive out for their wickedness.
All the good that God intended for His people in His commands, His presence, and His provision was rejected over and over again throughout the book of Judges. If we trace the story line of Judges 6-9, we see a rapid cycle of moral and spiritual decline. Abimelech, a son of one of God’s chosen deliverers appears, more than anything, to be the product of apostasy. Though the voice of Yahweh is silent throughout his story in Judges 9, we clearly see his hand of judgment and mercy.
What are some lessons we might learn from this latest chapter of Judges?
- We are to remember the Lord our God, our deliverer. Our thoughts and actions should be shaped by the remembrance of who He is and what He has done for us.
- Failure to rightly remember all that God is and has done for us will negatively affect our worship.
- Godly leadership is a gift to be cultivated and appreciated. It seeks to protect, serve, and steward the resources that belong to our Heavenly Father. As Christians, we bear a responsibility before God for both how we lead and the leaders we choose.
- Vengeance is the Lord’s. (Romans 12:19)
- “Ruin can come from within as well as from without.” Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 117
- We can trust our faithful God to be at work even when circumstances are bleak and evil seems to rule the day.
Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!
Relief or Relationship?
It’s difficult to know what to make of the darkness of the book of Judges, isn’t it? It’s certainly not what comes to mind when we think of drawing encouragement or comfort from scripture, and spending time studying it may be reinforcing that perception.
Judges 10-12 paints a sobering portrait of Israel’s spiritual condition. At this point in her history, she has fully embraced the gods of the nations among whom she resides – the very nations Yahweh had commanded them to drive out. Instead of embracing all of the blessing and abundance promised them (see Deuteronomy 7), God’s people (continually) spurned His goodness and brought upon themselves unbearable misery, this time in the form of eighteen years of oppression under the Philistines and the Ammonites.
Are God’s people repentant in Judges 10? Their words seem right, since we see for the first time in the book an acknowledgment of sin, but the actions appear to fall short of an emphatic display of heartfelt contrition. God’s own response in verses 11-14 suggests that He is not impressed with their confession, and commentators point out that “their surrender is belied by the following demand [in v.15] to rescue/deliver them immediately.” (Daniel I. Block, The New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth p. 348) Though we are told in 10:16 that “they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord,” we don’t see any evidence of their seeking guidance from Yahweh when the Ammonites come spoiling for a fight. In fact, many of the following details surrounding Jephthah’s call and activities as deliverer leave us scratching our heads.
Jephthah, like most of the other deliverers, isn’t exactly a clear-cut paragon of virtue. Knowing that each of these individuals were God’s people raised up for God’s work empowered by God’s Spirit, I find myself expecting more from them. Just like the Israelites, I want deliverance to bring relief and the deliverer to be enough. Enough to end oppression forever. Enough to bring lasting peace.
We, like the Israelites, need to see that God’s mercy is supposed to do something more than bring relief from our misery. The tragedy of embracing relief is that it doesn’t draw idolatrous hearts away from the true instruments of oppression and grief. The increasing darkness of the book of Judges points to the fact that Israel needed to see that her greatest enemy was the enemy within. She didn’t need saved from her oppressors, she needed saved from herself; her deliverers no less than her people. Deliverance from our oppression is inadequate. We need deliverance from the sin that causes it.
It comforts and encourages me to fast forward to the book of Hebrews, which offers helpful commentary on these deliverers who leave us with so many questions. “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (Hebrews 11:32-34)
In the end, these deliverers are numbered among the people of faith; all of us who, by grace, through faith, have been rescued by the Great Deliverer who came to save His people from their sin. In him alone is found the rescue, the deliverance, and the lasting peace that we long for.
Lord, help us to trust you for the true deliverance that we need. Please give us spiritual eyes to see that so often the cause of our misery is not so much the circumstances that we are in, but the sin and spiritual dullness that is in us. Please deliver us from the temptation to turn toward and trust in the remedies and solutions of the world around us and of our own imaginations. Please forgive us for presuming upon your goodness, failing to recognize that it is your kindness that brings us to repentance. Please help us to see the abundance of grace, provision, and protection intended for us in your commands, that we might seek not simply relief from misery, but delight in our relationship with you as your treasured possession.
In Jesus’ Name,
Samson, Sin and Salvation (Judges 13-16)
As we consider Samson, savior of Israel (Judges 13:5), I appreciate Dale Ralph Davis’ words, and find myself needing to heed them: “We must not allow our focus on the savior God raises up to eclipse the God who saves.” (Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 157)
Samson’s story is filled with action, activity, and interesting characters, giving us much to consider, question, and puzzle over. Samson himself is such an interesting figure (whatever conclusions you draw) it would be easy to spend our time and energy focused on him. But as Dale Ralph Davis suggests, we should take care not to be so preoccupied with our thoughts of Samson that we fail to consider God’s activity and purposes in his story.
What do we learn of Yahweh, Israel’s covenant-making, covenant-keeping God, from Samson’s story?
- God planned for Samson to “begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” even before his birth. (Judges 13:5)
- God’s intention in raising up Samson is to deliver his people, Israel, a people who:
o Are not only unrepentant, but no longer even cry out to the Lord for deliverance from their misery (note the absence in vv. 1-2)
o Seems to be comfortable in their relationship with the Philistines and satisfied with the status quo of living under their rule as opposed to Yahweh’s (Judges 15:9-13)
o Is willing to hand over the deliverer God provided to keep from rocking the boat with the Philistines (Judges 15:9-13) – interestingly enough, it was the men of Judah who handed Samson over to the Philistines. Remember Judah’s initial zeal and obedience? See Judges 1.
- God’s kind intention to save his people – the people briefly outlined above (of whom we know much more, and much worse, from the rest of Judges) – is a reflection of his amazing faithfulness, mercy, and grace.
- God brought forth his deliverer from an unnamed, barren woman. God’s salvation is always HIS salvation, and is not dependent upon our contribution or inherent strengths or abilities.
- The Spirit of the Lord was upon Samson more than any other deliverer in the book of Judges. (Judges 13:25, Judges 14:6, 19, Judges 15:14)
- The sovereign Lord of Israel had his own plan for Samson’s foolish, self-centered choices. (Judges 14:4)
- The Lord God ultimately vindicated his own name in granting Samson’s final prayer request. While Samson asked the Lord to remember him so that he may “be avenged on the Philistines for [his] two eyes,” Samson’s final feat of great strength brought death to the Philistine celebrants gathered to offer sacrifice to Dagon, their god. In the midst of revelry and rejoicing that their god had given their enemy Samson into their hand, the Lord God of Israel had the final say on the matter through Samson.
So if God himself is the main character of these chapters, what do we make of Samson? Dale Ralph Davis’ words again provide a helpful guide:
“Samson was intended as a mirror for Israel. In Samson Israel was to see herself…. Samson is a paradigm of Israel: one raised up out of nothing, richly gifted, who panders around with other loves and yet, apparently, always expects to ‘have’ Yahweh. So Israel has received grace on top of grace yet persistently carries on her affairs with Baal (see 2:11ff.), utterly ignorant of her true condition (cf. Hos. 7:9), blithely assuming that all is well (Jer. 2:34b-35a) and Yahweh is always at her disposal (Jer. 2:27b)….How tragic when God’s professing people cannot see that they are ‘wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked’ (Rev. 3:17). Whether to ancient Israel or contemporary church, Samson’s tragedy still speaks: watch out, lest you abandon the divine call, leave your first love, and forfeit the divine presence.” (Judges: Such a Great Salvation, pp. 186-187)
Samson, for all we might have anticipated from the promise of chapter 13, turns out to be a very disappointing deliverer, indeed. At the very least, he leaves us wondering at God’s methods. Samson the strong man was blind long before the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes. Samson’s blindness is evident in his disregard of his Nazirite vow, in his pursuit of a Philistine wife, in his emphasis on personal vengeance, and in his relationship with Delilah that ultimately led to his bondage and death. Samson, as we have seen, is a one-man portrait of Israel’s spiritual condition at the time.
Samson may not have been the savior/deliverer we hoped he would be, but he was granted a salvation greater than we’d ever have expected.
Samson’s story in the book of Judges ends with these words:
“Then his brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He had judged Israel twenty years.” (Judges 16:31)
But that is not scripture’s last word on Samson. Hebrews 11:32-34 says, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
In the final say on the matter, Samson is commended for his faith. Did you see it as we were reading through Judges? I’m not sure I did, either. But we can know that it was there, because God’s own word tells us so. Our faith doesn’t need to be amazing, because our Savior is. Backing up to the beginning of Hebrews, we are told that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” Samson’s faith wasn’t the most notable thing about him. But in the end he must have seen what – and who – was most important after all. How great must our Savior be, to receive those who by faith – however small and imperfect – cast themselves upon his mercy!
Let’s rest in the hope that is ours because of the greatness of our Savior this week.
What are You Looking For? (Judges 17-18)
Micah sought prosperity and favor from the hand of the Lord.
Jonathan, the Levite (a descendant of Moses!), was looking (and open to looking some more) for contentment in his place of employment.
The tribe of Dan “was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in.” (Judges 18:1)
Each of these was looking for something, which is not necessarily sinful in its own right. But a second look, a careful reading, and a consideration of the answers to a few basic questions exposes hearts of disobedience, rebellion and apostasy. Let’s not move on from Judges 17 and 18 without considering the warning provided for us in these chapters (1 Corinthians 10).
Micah (an Ephraimite) stole from his mother, returned the large sum of money under fear and threat of the curse she uttered, received her blessing in the form of a “carved image and a metal image” which he set up in his shrine (house of gods), and despaired of having nothing left when his household gods and his priest were taken by the Danites. This last item in the chain of events must have come as quite a shock to one who had declared confidently a bit earlier in the story, “Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because I have a Levite as a priest.”
Jonathan, the Levite (a descendant of Moses!), wandered from station to station as the enticements increased. He left Bethlehem in Judah “to sojourn where he could find a place” and landed a pretty sweet deal in the household of Micah, who invited him to be to him “a father and a priest” in exchange for “ten pieces of silver a year and a suit of clothes and [a] living.” This was an amazing job offer for a young man (17: 7, 11, 12), in light of the fact that strict age limits were set for service in the tabernacle (see Numbers 4:3, 30, and Numbers 8:24 – 26). Ah, but Micah’s Levite wasn’t serving in the tabernacle, was he? Daniel I. Block points out the many discrepancies between Moses’ instructions for Levitical priests in Deuteronomy 18 and the actions of this young man:
“…This young man’s conduct will violate those instructions in several vital respects. (1) His intended destination is not the central shrine of Yahweh but any place where he might find…(2) He does not join other Levites but displaces another unauthorized priest. (3) He does not serve in the name of Yahweh but in the name of Micah. (4) He does not serve at the place of Yahweh’s choosing but at a place chosen by a man. (5) He does not receive the honorarium prescribed in Deut. 18:1-5 but room and board and garments agreed upon through negotiation.” (Judges, Ruth: The New American Commentary, pp. 486-487)
How tragic is the unorthodoxy of this descendant of Moses! Sadly, its effects spread beyond himself and beyond Micah’s household.
The Danites were given an inheritance in the land of Canaan (Joshua 19:40-48), but we are told that their territory “was lost to them” in Joshua 19:47. Judges 1:34 says “The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain.” As we noted earlier in our study, the repeated failure of the Israelites to drive out the inhabitants of the lands allotted to them represented not only (or even primarily) a geopolitical failure, but a spiritual one. Indeed, Joshua 18:1-3 reflects this reality:
“Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them. There remained among the people of Israel seven tribes whose inheritance had not yet been apportioned. So Joshua said to the people of Israel, “How long will you put off going in to take possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers has given you?”
Apparently, the Danites were looking to correct the failures of the past. Five scouts of the tribe of Dan, reporting back to their brothers, encourage them with this report on the quiet and unsuspecting city of Laish:
“Arise, and let us go up against them, for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good. And will you do nothing? Do not be slow to go, to enter in and possess the land. As soon as you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people. The land is spacious, for God has given it into your hands, a place where there is no lack of anything that is in the earth.”
This might sound like wise and God-honoring counsel based on the earlier verses from Joshua. But where did they get the idea that God had given them this land? Could they have construed this interpretation of events from their interaction with Micah’s unauthorized priest in Judges 18:5-6? After (seemingly) balking at the effort necessary to take possession of their rightful inheritance, they now seem satisfied with the ambiguous “blessing” of Micah’s self-ordained priest as sufficient endorsement for stealing unholy and unauthorized accouterments of worship (along with the priest himself), using threats of violence for preventing their return to their original owner, and justifying the slaughter of “a peaceful, helpless, undefended people” (Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 200).
Micah’s mother, Micah, and the Levite all invoke the name of Yahweh – Israel’s covenant God – as they go about their unholy actions. The Danites use the less personal “Elohim” in seeking a word from God – and in relaying their invented (or favorably interpreted?) message of encouragement to the brothers of their tribe, but they, too, seem to be looking for an endorsement for their actions from the God of Israel. It seems that each of the characters of the text of Judges 17 and 18 wants God’s stamp of approval on their actions and activities. To the undiscerning eye, their successes could even, perhaps, be framed as the “blessing” of God upon his people. Micah’s mother gets her money back, Micah escapes the curse she pronounced on the thief, is the recipient of her later attempt at a mitigating blessing from the Lord and receives the gift of a household god for his personal shrine. After ordaining his own son to act as personal priest, Micah gets a real Levite to replace him, which he takes as an assurance of promise of the Lord’s favor.
The Danites happen upon Micah’s compound on their way to scout the land, accept his priest’s word as the favor of God, and end up returning to steal him away from Micah. Dan’s “successes” land them a Levite for a priest, some objects to use in setting up a place of worship in the new city they build on the ruins of Laish, and a place (finally!) to call home, a place taken from “a quiet and unsuspecting people” with nary a word from the Lord of command or encouragement.
From our study, we can look at this mess and see the tragedy of it:
- the broken commandments of Yahweh, Israel’s covenant, God (See Exodus 20)
- the disregard for holiness or obedience
- the perverted and corrupted ways of worship coexisting with a blind, superstitious trust in holding to one or two right elements (a Levitical priest, for example)
- contentment with material ease and comfort over concern for faithfulness to and trust in the Lord
- the appropriation of God’s promises and commands (to go in and possess their inheritance) for unholy and unauthorized pursuits (the taking of Laish)
I wonder, though, if we had watched these events unfold, what our response might have been? Would we have recognized the tragedy of apostasy and syncretism, or would we have been envious of the “success” of our fellow Israelites? Would we have mourned the tragedy of our fellow countrymen’s rejection of fellowship with Yahweh, or would we have been similarly blinded, subject to the same spiritual and moral decay that is the certain outcome of neglecting relationship with our covenant God by disregarding his promises and commands?
What might this look like for us today? How might we apply the lessons of Judges 17-18 to our own hearts?
- Consider your influence. Micah’s mother wasn’t responsible for his sin, but she was influential in his life. How did she use that influence at the critical moment of being faced with her son’s disregard for the Lord’s commands? How are you using the influence the Lord has allowed in your various relationships?
- Consider your calling. The Levite had specific options and opportunities open to him by virtue of his birth, but those options were constrained by the word of the Lord. Sadly, he sought material ease and contentment over service to others and obedience to to the Lord. He was able to be bought, and appeals to his ego appear to have played a part in his decision making. Where am I susceptible to choosing comfort over obedience? Where am I vulnerable to stepping outside of the will of the Lord due to my own pride or ego? Where am I using a veneer of “serving the Lord” as an opportunity to make myself comfortable and secure?
- Consider your contentment. The Levite was “content to dwell with the man” who satisfied all of his material needs and made him a flattering job offer. Sadly, his acceptance of these circumstances ran counter to the Lord’s communicated requirements for the priesthood in a variety of ways. In what am I finding contentment? Is this consistent with the promises of God, or counter to them?
- Consider your confidence. Micah was confident that the Lord would prosper him for installing a Levite as priest in his personal place of worship. What personal practices, commitments, or convictions are you trusting in as a means of securing favor from the Lord? Ask the Lord to reveal to you where you have transferred the ground of your confidence to these things from Christ alone.
- Consider your perspective. The Danites seem to have heard what they wanted to hear from Micah’s priest, and they moved on to do what was right in their own eyes. In both of these chapters it’s hard to tell whether the main characters even recognize their rebellion as they invoke the name of the Lord in the course of their activities. It’s possible to think we’re following and obeying the Lord and yet be blinded to our disregard for his holiness, our ingratitude for his mercy, and our hardness of heart in the face of his amazing grace. Let’s ask the Lord to “enlighten the eyes of our hearts” once again that we might see whether the path of our choosing is the course of his blessing, or one we’ve devised for ourselves.
Everyone Did What was Right in His Own Eyes… (Judges 19-21)
The picture above is from the blog post linked immediately below it. (I apologize for the limitations of formatting!)
My guess is that most of you haven’t come across this image before, but it goes with a helpful post by Jen Wilkin (whose book Women of the Word was the foundation for our women’s retreat a couple of years ago). The idea behind the post (I hope you’ll read it!) is related to the encouragement and gratitude I want to convey to you ladies who have labored through studying the book of Judges. I know it wasn’t easy.
As you sat down to this study, you may have been tempted more than once to doubt 2 Timothy 3:16. (“All scripture? Even THIS? Breathed out by God and profitable? Are you kidding me? What teaching, reproof, correction or training in righteousness am I supposed to glean from THIS?) I understand this probably isn’t the study we’ll all look back on and remember as a daily source of comfort, encouragement, or exhortation, like we might experience studying Paul’s letters, where those benefits are more readily available to us. From experience, though, I would encourage you to trust that the Lord isn’t done working the book of Judges into our lives and our understanding. There will be other passages, other themes, and other parts of the history of God’s people that we will understand better in the future because we’ve spent the time working through Judges that we have. While I am all for our daily encouragement and the helpful placement of a verse of scripture before our eyes or impressed on our hearts, the whole counsel of scripture is not reducible to the pretty passages and single verses that lend themselves to Instagram posts and coffee mugs. In persevering through an in-depth study of Judges, you gave yourself to the hard thing, and I am grateful and confident that the Lord will bless in an ongoing way the reading and study of his word. Even the perplexing and ugly parts.
Now that we’ve made our way through Judges, what are some things we should note from the book as a whole? What are some cautions we might take away from Judges 19-21 and the preceding chapters? What encouragements can we take away from our study?
- I appreciate the reminder from one commentator that “most of what transpires in the Book of Judges is not intended to be interpreted as normal or normative” (Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: The New American Commentary, p. 543). As we look back on the horrific sins of the people of Israel it is helpful to keep in view that this is a compilation of Israel’s ugliest transgressions during a specific time period designed to show us the depravity that results from indifference to the Lord and a disregard of His commands.
- While the book of Judges leaves us with a sobering display of what it looks like when everyone does “what is right in his own eyes,” we should ALSO note the abundance of grace God pours out on his people. In spite of, rather than because of their actions and attitudes, the Israelites – all twelve tribes – are preserved.
- We should note that chosenness does not automatically yield righteousness. God’s people cannot claim the moral high ground merely by virtue of their being called and chosen. They must give themselves to walking in obedience and faith. Faith does not merely acknowledge God as true, but relates and responds to Him as such.
- Beware the slippery slope. Outrageous depravity is usually the end result of incremental compromises with sin. Sin is not something to be trifled with. “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” (John Owen)
- We do not want to emulate (on an individual or corporate level) the sin of the Benjaminites, who refused to give up the men of Gibeah in order that evil might be purged from Israel. May the Lord grant us wisdom and boldness to fight for righteousness and justice in ways that honor him and bring him glory.
- Judges encourages us to walk by faith and not by sight. It reminds us that when events and relationships are painfully beyond our comprehension and we see no way to address the sin issues that wrought them, our covenant God is NOT absent. Even if we cannot readily see His hand in the midst of our circumstances, we can trust that he is there. May the Lord grant us power and clarity to fight the sin in our own hearts and cling to him who is the hope of our salvation, even when we are tempted to despair the fruits of sin in the world around us.
Dale Ralph Davis, speaking of Judges 19-21 says this:
“The problem is not so much with what ‘each man is doing’ but with the standard that governed him (‘in his own eyes’). Hence, 21:25b expresses the ultimate perversity of every man, demanding the right to be his own lord, insisting on following the dictates of his own glands. The problem is not sins but sin, that declaration of independence – whether stated viciously or politely – which says, ‘Yes I do want to be like God, calling my own shots’ (see Gen. 3:5-6).” (Judges: Such a Great Salvation, pp. 211-212)
In summary, consider this perspective-giving encouragement from Dr. Davis:
“What then does chapter 21 declare to Israel and to us? I have already proposed that it proclaims the tenacity of Yahweh’s grace….And the sign of that grace that refused to let go of his people is that in the writer’s own time a fresh act of Yahweh’s grace had occurred – he had given Israel a godly king (21:25), so that Israel might do whatever was right in Yahweh’s eyes (cf. Ps. 78:70-72).”
“So the Book of Judges ends with a miracle. How after chapters 19-21, indeed, after chapters 1-21, can you account for the fact that there is still an Israel? It can only be because Yahweh wished to dwell in the midst of his people in spite of its sin. It can only be because Yahweh’s grace is far more tenacious than his people’s depravity and insists on still holding them fast even in their sinfulness and their stupidity. Nor is he finished raising up saviors for them (Acts 13:23)!” (Judges: Such a Great Salvation, pp. 222-223)
The ultimate savior, redeemer, deliverer and king, WOULD come, and from our vantage point in history HAS COME, as promised!
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
In case you missed it: http://jenwilkin.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-instagram-bible.html
In the Days When the Judges Ruled…
“In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land…”
So begins the book of Ruth.
For those of us just coming out of the study of the book of Judges, this catches our attention immediately. As we noted recently, the book of Judges is breathtaking not for its beauty, but for its frank depiction of the ugliness and devastation of everyone doing what is right in his own eyes. And here in Ruth 1:1 we see that the beautiful story that we are entering into takes place during the days of the Judges.
Hope restored. A promise of redemption.
Reading through Ruth again this morning, I can’t help but notice the many hints of encouragement. Not miracles per se, they are nevertheless miraculous.
- The providential kindness of Yahweh toward his people, put on display in the life of this one family (a couple of widows, at this point).
- The foreshadowing of redemption. “Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man…whose name was Boaz.”
- The Lord’s providence in (seemingly) ordinary circumstances. “…and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz…” “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem.” “And behold, the redeemer of whom Boaz had spoken, came by.”
- In the end, we see that the Lord was ultimately behind it all: “And the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.”
Ruth delivers us the story of a foreigner who becomes a member of the family of God and an ancestor of the promised redeemer, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It shows us the beauty of hesed lovingkindness: of God toward his people, and of his people toward one another. It is a historical short story packed with gospel-saturated themes:
- Foreigner to family member.
- Barrenness to fruitfulness.
- The despair of death to the hope of new life.
- Bitterness to blessing.
- Emptiness to fullness.
- Vulnerability to safety.
Ruth reminds us, coming out of the book of Judges, that the plan and promise of God are in no way forgotten by Him, even if his people have become confused and lost in their disobedience and sin. He is acting, intervening, and bringing to fruition, even when we cannot see where or how. He is faithful.
“Now these are the generations of Perez…” so begins the last paragraph of Ruth. While Perez’s name may not be immediately recognizable, the last name of this short genealogy is surely familiar: David. David the King. David the King whose descendant is CHRIST JESUS THE KING. Another foreshadowing of a greater redemption.
Yahweh was faithful to Naomi, whose friends blessed the LORD for a provision of a redeemer in Obed.
Yahweh was faithful to Ruth, in the provision and protection of a husband and a son, and not only an earthly family, but a spiritual one.
Yet, more significantly, Yahweh was faithful THROUGH these women TO his people – a people then and still being called, gathered, brought, welcomed, rescued, redeemed, and united by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Returning – Ruth 1
Ruth is a lovely book of scripture, isn’t it? I am enjoying it and noticing more each time I read through it. Looking back over Ruth 1, we see Naomi’s return to Bethlehem. She had heard that “the Lord had visited his people and given them food,” so after ten years or more sojourning in Moab, Naomi decides it’s time to go home. The Naomi who returns is not the Naomi who left Bethlehem with her husband and sons. According to her own words, she went away full and the LORD brought her back empty (v. 21). It seems the famine-induced emptiness her family left to fill was nothing in comparison to the emptiness of returning without the husband and sons who accompanied her when she departed. The loss had taken its toll on Naomi. “Do not call me Naomi,” she says. “Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Naomi wants a change of name to reflect the change of circumstances she has experienced. While she rightly recognizes the sovereign hand of God, Naomi appears to see in her circumstances only his justice and nothing of his mercy. At least not yet.
The narrator doesn’t grant us omniscience in the book of Ruth. We are, at times, left to wonder what might have been taking place in the hearts and minds of the main characters by observing their actions and listening to their dialogue. What do these things teach us? What questions might we ponder as we watch the events of the book unfold? What do these events tell us of Lord’s disposition toward his people?
- We should note the irony in Elimelech’s having left Bethlehem – the “house of bread” – due to a famine in the land. Famine was one of the divine curses promised by the Lord should his covenant people disregard his instruction and choose to go their own way – which we know they did. (Deut. 28:15 – 68)
- The fact that Naomi decided to return home when she heard that the Lord had visited his people and given them food suggests that Naomi – whatever the state of her understanding and practice – still identified as one of the people of Yahweh.
- We witness a noteworthy and mutual affection between Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law. Though we can’t fully understand what Naomi was thinking when she encouraged them to return to their mothers’ homes, we can be confident that she desired only good for them, a good that included the steadfast lovingkindness (hesed) of Yahweh and rest in the home of a husband.
- Naomi seems to be a pragmatic woman. Her pragmatism is more readily apparent than her faith at this point in our story. Though she is returning home – and that is a good start! – her words convey a perspective not too dissimilar from what we saw in the opening verses of the chapter: a problem is presented, and human thinking and decision making are employed toward finding the solution. Coming home from Moab is a promising start. But Naomi’s return will involve more than a change of location. The LORD who visited his people and gave them food has much more in store for Naomi’s return that she could possibly hope for (or ask or imagine!).
- Though Naomi returns to Bethlehem bereft of husband and sons, she has a curious and committed companion in Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law. Against Naomi’s protests and, perhaps, against better (human) judgment, we see Ruth leave everything behind, pledging herself firmly and forever to Naomi and Naomi’s God. Again, we can’t be fully certain of what Ruth understood of Yahweh – but we can be certain Yahweh understood and knew her perfectly, and was committed to working his plan in her life not only for her good, but for the good of many and for his own great glory. The very God who gave specific and express prohibitions regarding the Moabites (Deut. 23:3 – 6) was preparing a welcome for Ruth beyond anything she might have dared to think possible. This foreigner, forsaking everything left behind in Moab to cling to Naomi and her God – will be brought into Yahweh’s family in a breathtaking and beautiful way.
- I think what ambiguity exists in the characters may well be intentional. We aren’t told their thoughts, but we see their actions. Return. Come home. Commit yourself to the covenant making, covenant carrying, covenant keeping God who acts so outrageously as to welcome and include as family even the foreigner and enemy who will leave everything behind to come to him by faith.
- “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” (Ruth 1:22)
Like any good writer, the narrator crafts his language to draw us forward, offering words pregnant with promise, if we will notice them. The widows returned at the beginning of barley harvest. They may have come back empty, but the LORD has abundance in store for them.
What is the place of your wandering?
Have you left (or do you need to) a Moab of your own?
Where are you trusting in your own efforts, thoughts, and decision making to solve a problem that you need to entrust to the Lord?
For what burden or loss do you need the Lord to give you fresh faith in his ability to provide an abundance of provision?
Has the Lord provided a Ruth for whom you need to give him thanks and praise?
Let’s ask the Lord to help us not only understand the story of Naomi and Ruth, but to give us eyes to see that he is still the same God, welcoming family members and foreigners, and filling empty hands (and hearts) with abundance because of his great mercy. The book of Ruth is a historical book. Its events have a historical, chronological, geographical reality to them. But as is often true, those realities parallel and point us to spiritual truths and realities, as well. As we delight in the mercy and grace he extends to these two widows, may we see and enjoy afresh that which he has extended to us – even (or perhaps especially) if doing so requires us to return to the place of our inheritance.
Isaiah 30:15a “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning* and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength.'”
Refuge – Ruth 2
In Ruth 1 we witnessed Naomi’s return to Bethlehem after an extended sojourn in the land of Moab. Both her return – and whom she brought with her – created quite a stir in Naomi’s hometown. Ruth, Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, had committed herself to Naomi and Naomi’s God in a concise but beautiful speech, the two of them arriving in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. While we lack explicit details regarding the full extent of each widow’s spiritual state at this time, the narrator skillfully infuses the women’s return with hope and promise. We know that “the LORD had visited his people and given them food,” resulting in the women’s return to Bethlehem.
Ruth 2 continues to build our anticipation with the mention of a worthy man named Boaz, of the clan of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband. The writer of Ruth employs irony in a delightful way: Ruth has gone out to glean, and “by a stroke of luck” has happened upon the field of Boaz. And wouldn’t you know it, Boaz shows up shortly thereafter, greeting his workers with words of blessing, which they return in kind. Boaz immediately takes notice of Ruth, and is told of her diligence in gleaning. Though on the surface we are witness only to human agency in this unfolding scene, the LORD is clearly at work in and through Boaz. “His tone exudes compassion, grace, and generosity. In the man who speaks to this Moabite field worker biblical hesed becomes flesh and dwells among humankind.” (Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: The New American Commentary, p. 659)
In this second chapter of Ruth we see this Moabite woman making good on her promise to her mother-in-law by putting herself at risk to go out and provide for them both by gleaning in the fields. The LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings she has come to take refuge, providentially provides for them in the person of Boaz. We see clearly that these women are blessed not sparingly, but abundantly through his generosity and compassion. Isn’t that the way of our Lord, as well? This foreign woman, whose ethnic origin put her distinctly at odds with the Hebrews, had committed herself to her Hebrew mother-in-law and forsaken her native people, land, and gods. The people of Bethlehem could have claimed to be “supported by scripture” in their rejection of her, yet in Boaz’ words and actions (and with a knowledge of how her story unfolds), we see the welcome of Yahweh extended toward her – lavishly, abundantly, and without reproach. She eats and is satisfied. She goes home with food for Naomi – not just for the day, but for weeks to come. She is promised protection from those who would do her harm. Ruth, and Naomi, through her, is offered refuge – shelter and protection from danger or trouble.
You and I are offered refuge, as well. We who were the enemies of God have been reconciled to him if, by faith, we have trusted in the work of his son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But we who have found eternal refuge in the work of Christ still struggle to find our daily provision and protection under his wings, don’t we? If you’re like me, you might also struggle to welcome and encourage others into the refuge that has been provided for us. The Lord’s provision and protection of Ruth was for HIS plan and purpose in her life – a plan that both considered her personally AND extended well beyond her as an individual. Likewise, the Lord has a purpose and plan for all who belong to Him. Let’s ask the Lord to help us learn from and apply what we see in Ruth in the following ways this week:
- To recognize where we are seeking provision and protection out from under the shelter of his wings, and to repent and return to looking to him alone. Am I trying to manipulate my own circumstances? Am I spending more time pondering or planning than praying? Planning is fine, and can even be a good thing, but it isn’t the answer to the issues I’m facing if I pursue it on my own apart from the wisdom and provision of God.
- To recognize and receive with humility and gratitude what the Lord has already provided. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” The words of the Psalmist echo Ruth’s words to Boaz. Do they also echo the words of my mind and mouth?
- To receive outsiders and foreigners with encouragement and welcome – looking to care for them because the Lord has cared for us. Where do I need to reach out to others unlike myself within the church? Outside of the church? Am I expectant and excited about the diversity of those the Lord would bring into his family, and into ours? I need to ask the Lord to expose within me any bias or assumption that runs counter to his plan to bring those from every tongue, tribe and nation to himself in salvation. (Rev. 7:9)
- To grow in hesed lovingkindness toward others, that my words, actions, and attitudes might increasingly evidence the steadfast graciousness of God.
- To share Ruth’s attitude of amazement, humility, and wonder. The grace and mercy of God toward us in Christ Jesus are lavish in their abundance. Scripture faithfully records our tendency to forget all that the Lord has done for us. May our continual remembrance of the hesed lovingkindness of the Lord toward us fuel growth in gratitude that changes us and affects others for their good and God’s glory, rightly reorienting our perspective on a routine basis. (Because we need it!)
What insights and areas of application would you add to these?
REST (Or: A Daring Proposal) – Ruth 3
“My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?”
Ruth chapter three opens with these words from Naomi to Ruth. In them we see a continuation of the display of hesed – steadfast, loyal, self-sacrificing love – that has been evident throughout the book thus far. Naomi, like Boaz in chapter two, desires to see Ruth’s kindness and commitment toward her repaid and rewarded, so she devises a daring scheme to bring about a more permanent solution to the impoverishment of Ruth’s widowhood. As we have seen, the LORD had provided refuge for these widows through provision from Boaz, whom Naomi identifies as one of their redeemers, a relative of her deceased husband, Elimelech. This gracious, generous, godly man had personally welcomed Ruth to his fields, offered her protection among his workers, generously included her at his table, sent her home with food for the day and ensured that her gleaning in his fields would yield sufficient grain to provide her and Naomi with sustenance for many weeks more. Boaz had been lavish in both his praise and provision for Ruth, but for all of his generosity, Ruth’s future remains uncertain. She is in need of rest, and the security that comes with it, and it is this concern Naomi sets out to address in her unorthodox plan.
Carefully following her mother-in-law’s detailed instructions, Ruth proceeds to the threshing floor where Boaz will spend the night. The end of the harvest has come, and Naomi has pressed Ruth to act. Ruth, for her part, “did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her.” Scripture gives us no indication that Naomi’s instructions are rooted in the cultural norms of the day. On the contrary, Daniel I, Block, in Judges, Ruth: The New American Commentary indicates that “Naomi’s scheme is obviously a gamble,” (p. 687) as Boaz might have interpreted Ruth’s actions in one of three ways:
- Boaz might have interpreted Ruth’s actions as that of a prostitute, and responded to her accordingly. Obviously, this seems highly unlikely based on all we have seen of his character in the book thus far, but these were the dark days of the judges, and we are not unmindful of man’s propensity to sin.
- Boaz might have interpreted Ruth’s actions as that of a prostitute and run her off, consistent with the character and virtue we have seen him display in his earlier actions. (Prostitution was common on the threshing floor during this period of history.)
- Boaz might have awakened, rightly discerned the noble intent and meaning behind Ruth’s actions, and responded favorably to her.
When we stop to consider the possible options, the potential for Boaz’ misunderstanding of Ruth’s actions makes this a daring proposal indeed! That makes the response we witness all the more surprising. Boaz not only receives Ruth’s proposal graciously, he calls her actions a kindness (hesed) toward him, honoring her as a worthy woman and declaring his eagerness to marry her, fulfilling the role of the redeemer and providing the rest Naomi has prayed for. Boaz’ response is not that of a starry-eyed, lovestruck man. He sees clearly what marrying Ruth will mean – he knows her backstory, her nationality, her commitment to Naomi and what that will mean for him. He also knows her character and her faith. I have to wonder at this point in the story what role Boaz’ own ancestry played in his gracious concern and care for Ruth. It is clear that her being a Moabite is of little concern to him, though since he appears in every way to be an upstanding Israelite, we might expect her nationality would give him pause. But Boaz isn’t any old Israelite. Boaz is the son of Rahab. Remember Rahab? Her story is found in chapters 2 and 6 of Joshua, though it’s not until Matthew 1 that her significance in God’s unfolding plan is ultimately revealed. Boaz’ mother was a Canaanite woman, a foreigner brought into the household of Israel by faith.
All of the details seem so perfect. Surely this is God’s good plan for Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi! Yet Ruth has received a bit of unsettling news. Boaz, in keeping with the integrity of his character, informs Ruth that there is a nearer redeemer who must first be approached and given the opportunity to redeem her and take possession of Elimelech’s land. Boaz tells Ruth that he will see to the matter first thing in the morning, and then he sends her home to Naomi with a gift of barley (so she won’t go back to her mother-in-law empty-handed). That’s quite a place for the curtain to close on this scene, isn’t it?
Ruth chapter three opens with a flurry of activity and ends with waiting. “Wait, my daughter,” says Naomi, “until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.”
REST for Ruth has been entrusted to the hands of another, one who will not rest until the matter is settled.
Like Ruth, your rest and mine has also been entrusted to the hands of another. Our redeemer is the one who settles all matters! Yet…
Do we trust him? Are we confident of the rest he provides? Hebrews 4, speaking of the promise of entering God’s rest says that “we who have believed enter that rest.”
Those who know the rest that the Lord offers:
- Believe Him.
- Obey Him.
- Listen to Him.
- Rest from their own works.
The REST of the LORD is an active striving. It results in a doing that is not desperate, but dependent. Though I may act, and am required to do so in many ways, the outcome of my activity and efforts is entrusted to my gracious Savior and Redeemer.
Ruth sought a redeemer in Boaz, boldly and audaciously proposing marriage. May the Lord grant you and I that same boldness to pursue him in response to his invitation:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11: 28 – 30
Ruth Chapter 4 – Redemption and Reward
Just as the first chapter of the book of Ruth had a theme of returning (evidenced in 12 appearances of some form of the word in 18 verses), the fourth chapter of Ruth carries a theme of redemption (13 occurrences of the word in some form).
What does it mean to be redeemed? This is one of those words we often use in church circles, but are not always careful to define. In The Gospel for Real Life, Jerry Bridges says that in biblical usage, “To redeem is to buy back or secure the release of someone from slavery or from captivity by the payment of a ransom” (p. 70).
Daniel I. Block, in Judges, Ruth: The New American Commentary (p. 674) says of “go’el”, the original form of the verb redeem used throughout Ruth 4, that it “…functions as a technical legal term related specifically to Israelite family law. As a kinship term [redeemer] it denotes the near relative who is responsible for the economic well-being of a relative, and he comes into play especially when the relative is in distress and cannot get himself/herself out of the crisis.”
Certainly a household of two widows in the time of the Judges was characterized by economic distress and crisis! And we know that this was only one aspect of the distress that they were experiencing. The loss that Ruth and Naomi, in particular, had experienced permeated every area of their lives.
So as we come to Ruth 4, we see a need for redemption and we know that Boaz is willing and eager not only to fulfill the role and responsibilities of the kinsman-redeemer, but also to marry Ruth and provide an heir who will carry on not his own name, but that of Elimelech and Mahlon, provided he can do so with integrity by ensuring that the rights of the nearer redeemer have first been honored in the proceedings. While we admire Boaz’s character, we can also sense the potential temptation to fear it presents Ruth and Naomi, can’t we?
I wonder if these women were tempted to think that Boaz’s integrity might jeopardize, rather than secure, the desired outcome of marriage for Boaz and Ruth. To act with integrity, honoring the Lord in how we conduct the affairs of our lives, requires us to entrust ourselves to the Lord with humility and faith. There are often times when the outcome of a situation is completely out of our hands (or perhaps, more accurately, when it SHOULD be out of our hands, but we’re unwilling to release it!). In these times integrity is proven or tested. Will we honor the Lord, who is consummately trustworthy in his integrity, in the details of our circumstances through our actions and attitudes, entrusting the outcome to Him? Or will we seek to control, manipulate, prevent, direct, (etc!) in an effort to secure the outcome we believe we must have? Are our eyes on what we hope will happen, or on Him who is our Hope?
As we saw in chapter 3, Naomi gave Ruth many detailed instructions in the attempt to secure rest for her, but in the end, the women were left to wait and watch to see how the matter of redemption would turn out.
Consistent with the rest of the book, Yahweh is no less active in this culminating chapter, though we primarily see him at work in small “coincidences” as opposed to mighty miracles. Mr. So-and-So, the nearer redeemer, just happens to come by as Boaz enters the city to settle the matter of redemption. Boaz quickly gathers the necessary witnesses and skillfully lays out the issue: will Mr. So-and So buy the land of Naomi as is his right? Were we not aware of how the story ends, we would be crestfallen at his answer: “I will redeem it.” Boaz’s immediate response informs Mr. So-and-So that “the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” (Ruth 4:5) To this the nearer redeemer replies, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption for yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” (Ruth 4:6) It seems that any temptation to fear the outcome of this situation was unwarranted all along.
Boaz, unlike the nearer redeemer, was willing to go beyond the letter of the law to honor the principle of levirate marriage, though he was under no obligation to do so. He will not just do the legally specified thing, or even simply the right thing. He will humbly do the honorable, noble thing at great personal expense. He declared his willingness to do so before the nearer redeemer and all the witnesses who had been called. In so doing, by the very integrity that might have caused us concern for the outcome of this matter, Boaz most likely affected (by the providential hand of God, of course!) the desired result.
When the opportunity to acquire the rights to Elimelech’s land was the only thing on the table, Mr. So-and-So was ready to act on his right as the nearer redeemer. He was not, however, prepared to go above and beyond acting upon the rights and privileges of the kinsman-redeemer to lay down his own inheritance – or life – in sacrifice for another (or two others, in this particular case) by taking Ruth as his wife. He wasn’t willing to potentially see his own name perish in order to raise up that of another. Boaz, having declared his willingness to do those things, gains the rights to the land and a worthy woman as his bride when the nearer redeemer counts the potential cost as greater than the reward.
When Boaz closed the legal proceedings at the city gate by repeating his desired intention to marry “Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon…to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place,” the witnesses responded with an extraordinary prayer of blessing that the Lord would prosper Boaz’s household and bless Ruth (a foreigner!) according to the manner in which he had blessed Rachel and Leah, “who together built up the house of Israel.” The prayer of the witnesses for the prospering and renown of Boaz’s household was fulfilled when “the LORD gave [Ruth] conception, and she bore a son.”
In the birth of this son, Obed, we see the hesed lovingkindness of each of the main characters rewarded by Yahweh, of whom it is a reflection. But beyond the reflection, we see the substance. Through this shorter tale of redemption, neatly concluded in four chapters, we are treated to a concise but true story that takes place within and points to the larger true story of redemption in Christ. “The birth of Obed symbolizes the convergence of these two themes: piety and providence. But the narrator is aware that in the providence of God the implications of a person’s covenantal fidelity often extend far beyond the immediate story. In fact, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz does not end with the birth of Obed. It simply signals a significant turn in the history of this family and the history of Israel, down a course that leads directly to King David….Significantly, although Boaz’s role in the story is to redeem the line of Mahlon and to raise a son to carry on his name, Obed enters this line as a son of Boaz, not the son of Mahlon. Authentic lines of blood have won out over legal fiction.” (Daniel I Block, Judges, Ruth: There is a Redeemer, p. 736)
Ultimately, the significance of Obed’s birth “does not lie in the resolution he brings to the personal crises of the characters in this book,” but in the fact that “he lives on and achieves his significance through the lives of his son Jesse and particularly his grandson David. Through David the blessing of the male witnesses to the court proceedings is fulfilled; Boaz’s name is ‘called out’ in Bethlehem. And through David the prayer of the female witnesses to the birth of Obed is fulfilled; Obed’s name is “called out” in Israel. Indeed to this day their names and the names of Naomi and Ruth are ‘called out’ all over the world as their story is read. In the providence of God the genuine piety of all the major characters is rewarded, and the divine plan for Israel and her kings if fulfilled.” (Block, p. 732)
The book of Ruth closes with a genealogy. “This book and this genealogy demonstrate that in the dark days of the judges the chosen line is preserved not by heroic exploits by deliverers or kings but by the good hand of God, who rewards good people with a fulness beyond all imagination. These characters could not know what long-range fruit their compassionate and loyal conduct toward each other would bear. But the narrator knows. With this genealogy he declares the faithfulness of God in preserving the family that would bear the royal seed in troubled times and in rewarding the godliness of his people.” (Block, p. 736 -737)
While the narrator was privileged with the task of recording God’s faithfulness in the lives of Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi, he could not have imagined the glorious plan that Yahweh was working out for a greater redemption through their “deep and sincere devotion to God and to one another, expressed in self-sacrificial acts of kindness toward one another.” (Block, p. 736) God sovereignly raised up a king in Obed’s grandson, David, whose lineage would lead to the King of Kings and the great Redeemer, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. HE is the one who would ultimately and finally give his own life as a ransom for many, that all who would put their faith in him might be bought back from their enslavement to sin and death and freed from their distress to live a life of abundance in his protection, provision, and presence.
That’s good news!!