Preached by Pastor Benjamin Vrbicek
This morning we are continuing our sermon series through the Book of Judges. When we began our study, I mentioned that in preaching through this book, in a way, we are going to a foreign land, a land largely unvisited by modern Christians. And that’s a shame because the land, while precarious, is filled with vistas from which to behold the grace of God in the gospel.
Typically, Jason and I begin our sermons with a short induction, and then read a Bible passage, and then we pray, and then spend time seeing how the passage applies to us and spend time beholding the grace of God that is on display in the passage.
However, because the passages in the Book of Judges we are going to be covering are so long, this morning I’m going to break from that pattern a little. Rather than frontloading the reading of Judges 4-5, which takes about 10 minutes to read, I’m going to pray and then read smaller chunks throughout the sermon, making observations as we go along in it.
We just celebrated Independence Day; that’s a good thing. But at the same time, we’ll see in this passage that Israel was always, ever dependent upon God. They needed God to win. They needed a gospel. Just as we need God to win and we need the Gospel.
So, let’s pray and we’ll get to work.
Many of you know already know that I greatly enjoy cycling, and every bike ride that I have done in the last 3 years has been logged with a program called Strava, which tracks how frequently, how far, how fast, and how high I ride.
People all over the world use Strava. It even has the ability to create, what they call, “segments” where you can race other riders whenever they go out and ride the same segments. In fact, some of the Tour de France riders, which started yesterday, will post their data from the race, and all of us recreational cyclists will only be further in awe.
Anyway, I want to show you one such segment (here). I’m not sure if you can see it, but the red line is the path up the mountain; you can see the switchbacks on it. My favorite segments to race on are up mountains; they’re painful, but rewarding. This is one of those segments.
This segment is about the size and steepness of riding up Blue Mountain Ridge behind Linglestown. As of early this week, this segment has been ridden 324 times. I, however, am not one of them.
This mountain is Mount Tabor. It’s in northern Israel, just west of the Sea of Galilee. You can see the mountain better, perhaps in this picture as well (here).
Why do I bring this up? Well, this mountain features prominently in our passage in Judges this morning. It was here, on the top of this mountain, that 10,000 Israelite soldiers assembled. And it was from the top of that mountain that they rushed down into the nearby river valley into, what likely seemed their certain defeat. They were bringing, as we say, a knife to a gun fight, and they were in trouble. That is, except for one detail: God. What changed everything was God.
But let me back up. Let’s read the opening verses of Judges chapter 4.
And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died. 2 And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. 3 Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.
In these verses we meet Jabin and Sisera. Jabin is the King and the commander of his army is Sisera. They are a superior army. They have tanks, or what one commentator called “smart bombs and drones” (Keller, Judges, 53). The bulk of the story focuses on Sisera and his defeat, and in defeating him, Jabin is defeated as well.
Notice that it says the “Lord sold them into the hands” of this enemy. Jabin and Sisera are like the rumble strips on the highway that Jason spoke of last week—an annoyance designed to keep us moving in the right direction. In this case, Jabin and Sisera were far more annoying than rumble strips. It says they “oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.” These were hard times.
Let’s keep moving. I’ll read vv. 4-7. Here is where Mount Tabor shows up.
4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. 7 And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?”
The first section introduced us to the two main Canaanite opponents. Now we meet the two main characters of Israel: Deborah and Barak. Barak is a strong and gifted leader in northern Israel, but he is also, it seems, reluctant and needs some chiding (v. 8-10). Deborah is from southern Israel and is clearly a very respected leader, as well.
To us, the term “judge” implies that someone holds court and decides disputes. Deborah is the only judge in the Book of Judges to do that (vv. 4-5). The other judges were primarily military leaders.
Some of you might like me to make a few comments on the Bible and the church and women’s roles and how they relate, and that’s a helpful thing to do, but I’m not going to do much of it. In passing, I’ll just say that she is an odd figure in that she neither fits in the traditional or liberal “camps.” On the one hand, (from the liberal view) she clearly has great leadership and authority; she is acting as a judge and a prophetess. So therefore we might ask, Is the Bible then putting her forward as an example that we should follow in the Church? Some think so.
On the other hand, in the traditional view, some would point out that, yes she is a wonderful example of leadership, but it’s to the shame of Israel not it’s honor. In other words, the men were so bad, it’s great that such a good woman stepped up, but in the process she is shaming the men who were supposed to be leading. And they might point out that if you look at the rest of the passage closely, Deborah is not the one who goes into battle, the men do that. So it’s not everything a man can do, she can do as well.
Additionally, to complicate things, what do we make of the matrix of the civil government and the religious system in the Old Testament? This isn’t exactly like the church at all. In other words, we could draw make some reflections on this, but I don’t think this is the main point of the story and we have much to cover still, so let’s keep moving.
In v. 7, Deborah tells Barak that Sisera’s army will be drawn out into battle by a river, and Deborah and Barak and the army had to trust. They had to step out with faith in their God.
Well, Sisera hears of this, and we’ll pick up in vv. 13-16
13 Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.
And just like that, Israel has won the war. But this raises questions. I’ll just mention three of them.
First, in v. 15 it says that Sisera and his tanks were “routed.” Yes, I know Israel had a large army, but they were significantly out gunned. The first question is “how—how did they win?”
Second, we learn that Sisera fled on foot. That’s confusing to me. Why not ride away? Surely if anyone had a horse, it would be the leader. But he runs away on foot. Why?
Third, what of these men? Israel kills all of them? Doesn’t that sound cruel? Well, yes, maybe it does.
We’ll have to wait until chapter 5 for fuller answers to these questions. For now, the story zooms in on a non-Israelite named Jael who Sisera forces her to give him shelter vv. 20-24.
20 And he said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’”21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24 And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.
So, what are we to learn from this story? What sermon applications should I make? Should I tell you that if a very dangerous and evil man ever shows up at your door and demands that you give him shelter, well you should—and get your hammer. Is that application #1?
No. But we can learn something. We should learn something. We can see principles and patterns in the ways of God with his people. But let’s get chapter 5 in front of us first. Chapter 5 is a song to celebrate what God did in this story, but in the process, it gives us more information.
Let me read vv. 1-3.
Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day:
2 “That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
that the people offered themselves willingly,
bless the Lord!
3 “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
to the Lord I will sing;
I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.
You can see that this is a song that Deborah and Barak compose, although through the song, as in the story, it’s Deborah who takes the lead.
Notice two things: First, the opening line says, “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes.” I believe these are the foreign kings and princes. This a victory song that is to be sung so that outsiders can take note of it.
When I was in middle school and high school, we had this stupid chant that we would do when we won a sporting event. As we would leave the parking lot of the opposing team, out of the window of our bus, we would sing it. I’ll spare doing that for you now, but I think it worked like this song. It’s a song to remind the people of Israel who really won the battle but also a song to invite outsiders to consider it as well.
Second, notice the phrase also in v. 2, “to the Lord I will sing; I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.” This is a song, and this is a story, that gives glory to God for the victory. Whatever else happened, it was God that won the battle. We’ll come back to that at the end.
Let’s read vv. 6-8. In these verses, we’ll learn just how bad it was.
6 “In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath,
in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned,
and travelers kept to the byways.
7 The villagers ceased in Israel;
they ceased to be until I arose;
I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.
8 When new gods were chosen,
then war was in the gates.
Was shield or spear to be seen
among forty thousand in Israel?
Here Israel is reminded just how bad it was; they are not to forget it. Look how bad it was. Vv. 6-8 say that is was so bad that people didn’t even use the highways. Commerce had stopped. It was too dangerous to travel. And they had few, if any, weapons.
And it reminds Israel why it happened as well. They sing in v. 8, “when new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates.” Israel needed to not forget that this trouble was because they had forsaken God.
This is not to say that if you are experiencing trouble it MUST be because you have sinned: job lose, rebellious children, cancer, relationship troubles, they much because of sin. It’s not saying that. But we have a tendency, don’t we, to look at our problems and point to everyone except ourselves. This song won’t let them, nor us, do that.
Let’s read vv. 15-18 to see who does what, and who does not.
15 the princes of Issachar came with Deborah,
and Issachar faithful to Barak;
into the valley they rushed at his heels.
Among the clans of Reuben
there were great searchings of heart.
16 Why did you sit still among the sheepfolds,
to hear the whistling for the flocks?
Among the clans of Reuben
there were great searchings of heart.
17 Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan;
and Dan, why did he stay with the ships?
Asher sat still at the coast of the sea,
staying by his landings.
18 Zebulun is a people who risked their lives to the death;
Naphtali, too, on the heights of the field.
I know in a passage like this, many of the names of cities and tribes are foreign to us; thus it’s hard to tell what is going on—who’s doing what and who is not. In short, I’ll tell you that some tribes, they joined the battle. And other tribes, they did not. And what’s interesting is that it’s mostly the northern tribes that joined the battle, which is where the war and oppression was. In other words, several tribes said, “Nah, it’s not our fight; were doing okay over here. Let them do it.” In other words, some were too busy to be bothered, they were busy with sheep, ships, and surfing.
This was to the shame of Israel. They were to be one. Joining the battle to fight for others. And so ought to be of the church; it ought to be that we would be unable to look at our friends and our brothers and sisters in Christ and say, “Ahh, you’ll figure out it. I’m kinda busy over here.” May that not be true here. Perhaps you are currently not struggling, but you know of someone who is. Help them.
Look at what it says in vv. 4, 20-22.
4 “Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled
and the heavens dropped,
yes, the clouds dropped water.
20 From heaven the stars fought,
from their courses they fought against Sisera.
21 The torrent Kishon swept them away,
the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon.
March on, my soul, with might!
22 “Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs
with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.
Here we get an answer to one of our questions from before. Before we asked how Israel won? And we asked why Sisera ran away on foot and not a horse. The answer to both questions is the same: God.
That river in the valley by Mount Tabor. It’s a small river, that is unless, during the dry season there is a thunderstorm. And a little creek becomes a raging river.
What happens to your chariots if you parked by Paxton Creek and in a moment it becomes the Susquehanna River? You lose the war.
And what if you are the general on a horse—what happens to you? You flee on foot.
God is fighting, they sing in Chapter 5.
And the song ends by highlighting two women, two very different women: Jael and her tent peg, and Sisera’s mother waiting for the return of her son. I’m going to skip the part that celebrates Jael and pick up in v. 28 with Sisera’s mother.
28 “Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice:
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’
29 Her wisest princesses answer,
indeed, she answers herself,
30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?—
A womb or two for every man;
spoil of dyed materials for Sisera,
spoil of dyed materials embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’
31 “So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!
But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.”
And the land had rest for forty years.
The other question we asked in chapter 4 was don’t you feel sorry for these men that lost the war? Well maybe, but they were cruel. When v. 4:3 said, Jabin oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years,” it was not an exaggeration.
In v. 28, Sisera’s mother stands at the window in her hometown lamenting why it is taking so long for her son to return from war. One of the princesses pipes up and says, “O, don’t worry. They are just doing what they do—you know, rapping women and plundering the property of those that were conquered.”
These were ugly times. But in the midst of them, God was delivering his people. And throughout the story, both the narrative (in Ch. 4) and the song (in Ch. 5), the author is at pains to show that it’s only God that wins. Not the 10,000 men, not Barak, not Deborah, and not Jael, this non-Israelite. That God gets the glory is seen overtly, subtly, and ironically.
God is given the glory for the win in an overt way when it says, “bless the Lord!” (v. 5:2), calling attention to the Lord’s victory (cf. 4:7, 23). That’s overt.
And God is given the glory for the win in subtle ways, by the fact that only God could perfectly time the flooding of a river that wasn’t supposed to flood. That’s subtle.
God is given the glory for the win in ironic ways, in the way that this mighty, evil general—while he was supposed to be capturing women—was killed by one. That’s ironic.
This story is the story about how—in a very dark time, when God’s people were exceedingly sinful—God wins. And this is the story the entire Bible sings. God wins. And the crescendo of this song of God’s victory, comes from another unlikely place. Another savior, who—like Jael—wasn’t a mightily warrior, who was also from the wrong town. The story of Jesus dying on the cross for his people. And rising victoriously on the third day, defeating death. That’s the crescendo of the song of God’s victory.
I want to come back to the first sentence of the Chapter 4.
And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died.
One summer during college, I worked at a Christian sports camp, and every week or two you’d get 24 hours off. They called these your “2-4s.” You’d get cleaned up, go into town, do all of your laundry, eat desserts, and hangout with other counselors.
There was a saying around camp that the older, wiser, veteran camp counselors would say to us younger counselors. They would say, “Don’t choose your wife [or your husband] on a 2-4.”
In other words, it’s better to see who people really are, without external constraints. In other words, for a short window of time, all of us can fake it.
As is the pattern in the Book of Judges, when they had a leader, a judge—when they had outside constraints, on a 2-4—then they followed God. But as the passage says, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died.” We’ll see that phrase again and again until they quit saying it around Chapter 16. The spiral downwards in Judges leads them to simply begin to say, “They did what was right in their own eyes.”
Their problem, sadly is our problem. It’s the human problem. We may be able to watch our words in the presence of certain people, but who of us would want our thoughts written down in a book and published. And we may work really hard when the boss is watching or the teacher is watching, but when they are gone. Come on, you know how it is. If you are a teacher, you know. When outside constraints are removed, we are shown our need for a savior. Without him, we are God’s enemies. The story of the Bible, however, is the story of how enemies become friends through Jesus Christ. It’ the story of how God comes to our rescue.