The Good, the Bad, and the Oxgoad
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
Benjamin and I both just finished long family trips back to the Midwest. During the Abbott family trip, there were a couple encounters with “rumble strips” or grooves cut into the shoulder of the highway so as to vibrate your whole vehicle and make a loud annoying hum sound. Each time I drifted onto the rumble strips, everyone in the van would get jarred awake, and that’s most especially unpleasant when your 2 and 4 year-olds were previously asleep.
Now, when rumble strips suddenly wake my peacefully sleeping children from their naps on a 15 hour drive across the country, I must say that I hate them! Yet, in the grand scheme of things, when I am thinking about my family’s safety, when I’m thinking about the overall good, I find that, in fact, the opposite is true—I’m thankful for them! For, as unpleasant as they may be when they wake my kids, rumble strips are really an annoying grace to us, keeping us from a greater danger, warning us away from destruction.
Friends, as we begin today to see Israel encounter oppressor after oppressor, it would be really easy for us to miss seeing these repeated periods of oppression for what they are: namely, God’s divinely and graciously provided rumble strips for his people—mercifully waking them up from their dangerously wayward drive away from him and into idolatry.
Well, let’s see how God sovereignly provides these wakeup calls for Israel. I’ll first read the passage and then pray that God would teach us from it.
7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died.
12 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 13 He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel. And they took possession of the city of palms. 14 And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.
15 Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, and the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people who carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the idols near Gilgal and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. 22 And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them.
24 When he had gone, the servants came, and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “Surely he is relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were embarrassed. But when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them, and there lay their lord dead on the floor.
26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and he passed beyond the idols and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim. Then the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was their leader. 28 And he said to them, “Follow after me, for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites and did not allow anyone to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about 10,000 of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.
31 After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel.
As we move forward, we’ll want to drive toward two thematic destinations: (1) the good and the bad, and (2) the oxgoad. Now, these may seem strange points, but I hope to make each clearer as we go along. So please bear with me.
1. The good and the bad (vv. 7-30)
It might be tempting to think of a biblical passage like this one (and others) too simplistically—in only black and white terms. When it comes to good and bad, we are tempted to read a passage like this one thinking—Israelites were good, Canaanites were bad. Or, a more nuanced example might be something like—Othniel was a good judge, Ehud was a bad judge.
However, friends, such readings of the Bible are not merely too simplistic but are also potentially very dangerous. In fact, I believe they’re often the first step away from the gospel and into moralism. What do I mean?
Well, reading the Bible this way tends to make heroes and villains of people. It tends towards sermons offering Three steps to being a godly leader like Othniel or Three character flaws of Ehud to avoid. Dwelling on Bible characters as heroes pushes towards performance based justification before God.
And friends, this is merely moralistic religion—good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. This is not good news!
Rather than this moralistic, bad news reading, we must read more deeply. There are no truly good human characters in this drama. There are only sinful ones. There are bad people who are not God’s people and bad people who are his people. There are flawed and sinful villains, and there are equally flawed and sinful heroes. There are better, bad judges and worse, bad judges, but there are no good judges! Are you starting to get the point?
Often, when people encounter the story of Ehud, in particular, they worry—How could God use such a man?! He’s a deceptive and brutal murder of a man! But, to such objections, I’d simply remind those objecting that God uses such liars and murders all the time in the Bible. Both Moses and David lied and murdered, but nobody usually objects to God’s use of them.
Let me take us one very uncomfortable, further step in this same direction. When we read the Bible like this, we often do so (I believe) for selfish reasons. You see, if we can neatly organize the men and women of Scripture into categories of good and bad then we can do the very same thing with men and women today. He’s an atheist so he’s bad. She’s a conservative Presbyterian; she’s pretty good. She’s a liberal Democrat; she’s bad. He’s a conservative Republican; he’s good. He’s a Libertarian…who knows?!
Friends, we must not do this when reading our Bibles or reading our papers. We mustn’t do it in the secret thoughts of our heart or in our very public postings on Facebook or Twitter. We must evermore see all those we come in contact with as sinful people (just like us!) in desperate need of the only good man—Jesus!
This is how we must live our lives and read today’s passage.
Notice how the only good player in this drama equally uses this sinful cast of characters for his good purposes.
- Israel does evil (v. 7); God gives them to Cushan-rishathaim (v. 8).
- Israel cries out to God so he gives them a deliverer, Othniel (v. 9).
- And God gives Othniel the victory over Cushan-Double Evil1 (v. 10).
There are no good players (outside of God) in this scene. You might object: What’s so bad about Othniel? The text doesn’t indicate anything bad about him!
Except it does:
Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died (v. 11).
Here, we don’t have a truly good hero. This is a son of Adam. This is a man. And verse eleven is confirmation that he will not ultimately do as Israel’s savior—since, there, he collects the wages of his sinfulness (Romans 6:23).
What about Ehud? Any truly good heroes in that one? Once again only God:
- Israel does evil so God raises up Eglon the gluttonous king (v. 12).
- Then, Israel eventually turns to God so he gives them Ehud (v. 15).
- Ehud uses brutal deception to kill Eglon (vv. 16-23).
- Yet, despite Ehud’s seemingly despicable tactics, God gives him victory over oppressive Eglon and the Moabites (v. 28).
At this point, you might object again: Okay Jason, I get there’s evil enough to go around, but isn’t God all wrapped up in it too for using such evil people? Here I’d simply respond to such an objection with Scripture.
In the book of Genesis, Joseph has all kinds of evil perpetrated against him by his brothers (and many others!). Consequently, at the very end of that book, Joseph’s brothers come to him concerned that he’s going to seek revenge on them for what they’ve done. Joseph responds this way in a moment of inspired clarity. He says to them:
Do not fear, for am I in the place of God [to punish you]? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:19-20).
Friends the Bible is clear about this—even though we may not understand—we are fully responsible for the sins we commit and, yet, God uses even those sins for his good purposes without being (in any way!) made complicit in those sins.
This is how Paul can write to believers, facing the worst kind of persecution, the tremendously encouraging words that assure them that all things—in the end—work together for the good of those who are in Christ (Romans 8:28).
I know a pastor who right now faces severe criticism for the sins of his past. This pastor had a daughter before he was married and before he was a Christian who now is publically questioning his ability to pastor a church because of that; she’s very bitter and an unbeliever!
My friend has never denied his sins and has confessed his wrongs to God. He’s been forgiven! So why this? Is it just instant karma?! Some cosmic payment for past sins?! No, that’s not a Christian view. Rather, there is hope for my friend!
Perhaps, God will use these past sins to bring my friend’s daughter to faith. Maybe, God will use this to deepen his congregation’s love of God and amazement at the forgiveness they’ve been granted in Christ. Who knows? Only God knows! Nonetheless, the Bible tells us that God can (and will!) use it for the good of those who love him. Amen.
Well, how appropriate—after just discussing our folly and God’s wisdom—that we would now turn to our last point and last verse.
2. The oxgoad (v. 31)
Here we find old Shamgar. Poor Shamgar! No one ever mentions him much. Old one verse Shamgar. Well, let’s remedy that today. What do we know of him? Not a lot but a little:
- He was probably a farmer thus the oxgoad—a long spear like tool used for driving oxen.
- Shamgar was likely not an Israelite since his name appears to be Hurrian in origin.
- Yet, he killed 600 Philistines and saved Israel like an oxgoad ninja.
If we were to sum these details up, we would probably want to say that Shamgar was an odd savior. He doesn’t look at all like the hero you or I’d pick out. He’s not a military guy. He doesn’t have high tech weaponry. Shamgar isn’t even from the right place!
Yet, nevertheless, through Shamgar (this atypical hero, this common dude) God saved Israel. You see no one like Shamgar wins on his own. That’s the point. Only God could bring victory in that way! I love what Psalm twenty says:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, / but we trust in the name of the Lord… / They collapse and fall, / but we rise and stand upright (vv. 7-8).
In a sense, this is the main lesson of Judges. In a nutshell, only God saves! All the Judges are really Shamgar-esque choices for saviors of Israel. All oddballs in their own way! All foolish heroes in our human thinking.
All pointing to another foolish looking hero who came from the wrong town, who didn’t fight like a military man, who died on a Roman cross to save us!