Readings: Judges 4
Judges 4 opens in a less than pleasant manner. By now we have come to expect it, but here at the beginning, it is confinedthe Israelites just do not get it. Think back to the covenant ceremony of Mounts Gerizim and Ebal (Deuteronomy 27 and 28). How much more clear could God be than Deuteronomy 28: 15ff? “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all His commandments … then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” Again in Deuteronomy 28:25: “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies.” Israel was warned again throughout the book of Joshua and again in Judges 2. Three times already in Judges this curse had been fulfilled. The people of God kept sinning and God kept handing them into the hands of their enemies. They just did not get it. How often we are we the same way! How many times have we fallen into the same sin over and over again with the same results over and over again? We are just as dense as the Israelites were. We are totally depraved, sinful human beings. We love our sin and are perfectly happy to live in it, even when we full well know that it will result in nasty consequences.
Even after we have been caught and punished, we can not resist the overwhelming temptation to return to our sinful pleasures. Think of the alcoholic who is caught driving drunk and given some jail time or a ticket. The sobered drunk apologizes, swearing to join Alcoholics Anonymous, follow the nine steps, give up drinking for good, etc. A few months later, he gets home after facing a tough day at work. He is depressed, lonely, and sad. Where does he turn but right back to the bottle, knowing full well where it will lead him? We are not this way only with the “big sins” like drunkenness, fornication, pornography, and the like. This is the way we act with the little “comfortable sins” like white lies, cheating on tests, and stealing from work. Those little sinful habits that really “won’t hurt anyone in the long run”, or so we think. These sins are a direct rebellion against God. Every sin is an attack on God. By sinning we set ourselves up as our own little deities over our own daily lives, playing right into Satan’s hand. We become just like Israel trapped in a downward cycle of self-deception and sin.
In Judges 4:1 we are informed that Ehud, the lefty who delivered, died. His days of judging were over. Israel was in a mess again. The cycle of Judges has gotten back into gear. The first step is summarized in verses 1 and 2. Israel sinned and was sold into bondage. This time, their oppressors were the Canaanites under the rule of Jabin. Jabin’s commanding general was a man named Sisera, who terrorized the Israelites with his iron chariots (900 of them) and his iron fist. For twenty years, he cruelly oppressed Israel, verse 3 says. After those twenty years, Israel cried out to the LORD. Their response time is really slowing down here. With Othniel, it was eight years. With Ehud, it was eighteen years. Now it took them twenty years. This is just one evidence of the downward spiral Israel was taking already so early in the book. Once more Israel cried out in repentance. We have seen steps one and two of the cycle. The next thing we would expect in the narrative is a deliverer. And what do we get in verse 4 but a deliverer named Deborah?
Wait! Deborah? A prophetess? The wife of Lappidoth? A woman?! We are expecting an upright man like Othniel, or at least, a somewhat tricky man like Ehud, or even a non-Israelite like Shamgar. No matter what we are expecting, we are expecting a man. Not a woman. What happened to the men? Here is a woman judging Israel! Prophesying! This passage clearly tells us that Deborah is sitting in judicial role, prophesying, and generally being a leader in Israel, the covenant community that we have been taught typifies the church of Christ.
This passage is often overused by evangelical feminists to say that there is nothing wrong with women pastors, elders, and deacons. However, this is a very non-contextual reading of the passage. Contextually, this whole scenario is seen as a disgrace for Israel. If women in office is an uncomfortable idea for a biblical Christian in our day, it was absolutely unheard of—in fact, horrendous—in the days of the judges. And yet, here is Deborah. As I have said before, the book of Judges is a downward cycle. Each time the “cycle” is repeated, the scenarios get worse and worse and the laundry comes out dirtier and dirtier.
The fact that a woman was leading the nation is supposed to be read as a shame. This is not meant to sound chauvinist or rude to women. But think, why do women end up as elders and pastors in the first place? Because men-those whom God has placed into roles of authority fail to take the lead. This is not the right and biblical way to run things. However, when men fail to fulfill their roles, who else is going to provide the leadership? This does not make it right, only irregular. Deborah did not do wrong to judge Israel.
Living in a fallen world, we do not always do things the right way. And Deborah knew this. As we keep reading, notice how many times she tried to force Barak into the leadership position. She led because all of the men of her day were like Barak-afraid to take the roles of leadership God called them to. Deborah had no choice but to take on the role of leader, but with the goal of making things right. This does not make female leadership right. It is seen as a last option, a humiliating option, an improper option, but unfortunately here, the only option for the furthering of God’s kingdom and glory.
This is not a call to women to move into positions of leadership. It is a call for men to be men, to stop being wimps like Barak and move into the roles of leadership God has made for them. Here, in the sad case of a nation of wimpy men, where no one was doing anything, the women stepped in. The women (Deborah and later Jael) fully knew that this was not the regular course of action. Their goal (as our goal should be) was to get beyond where they were and move closer and closer toward the right.
So the problem in this passage is not women in office, it is the lack of appropriate male leadership. Men, be men! Take your place in the church ofChrist as leaders! Young men, aspire to be elders! Check out I Timothy 2. It is not wrong for you to want to be an elder. Prepare yourself for it. Read good theological books, study the Scriptures, build good relationships, become a disciple. I can not stress enough the importance of this to young men. Go out and find an older, wiser man in the church and ask him to mentor you. Whether it be your father, an elder, or an older godly man, find someone to give you advice, to help you along. Young people today are too group focused. All of our spiritual lives seem to take place at Youth Group, at a Youth Convention, or in groups with other people our age. Although these things are vastly important and good, it is not enough. We, as young men, need to learn from those who have gone before us. What the church needs is a group of godly leaders—leaders in the home, leaders in society, and leaders in the church. So men, take up your roll as leaders and stop being so wimpy!
Back to the passage. It is clear that God is setting up to do something very dramatic. On the one hand, we have Jabin and Sisera, with all their chariots of iron and lots of men. On the other hand, we have Deborah, a woman. This is very similar to the story of David and Goliath—the most unlikely and unexpected of heroes.
In verses 6 and 7, we are headed in the right direction. Deborah, the prophetess, summoned Barak and told him that he, a man, would be the deliverer. Deborah then gave him the LORD’s command to go and gather an army and promised him that the LORD would be with him and lead him to victory. Barak is not going to sneak around like Ehud. He is going to gather troops and fight good and proper. We are feeling a lot better about this situation, are we not?
But then we get to verses 8–10. This is a major plot complication. Barak responded to the LORD’s command by saying to Deborah, “I will only go if you come with me. If you do not go, I will not go.” Barak seems to have had reservations about the whole idea of “God has a plan.”
Deborah replied that she would go, but that there would be no glory in the battle for Barak. Rather, the glory would go to a woman. At first reading, one may think that the woman this refers to is Deborah, but the reader is in for another plot twist. Deborah went with Barak and gathered ten thousand men, a decent sized army, but not when up against nine hundred chariots of iron. In verse 14, Deborah, not Barak, was giving the pep talk to the army. Deborah was still providing all of the leadership. Deborah asked “Does not the LORD go before you?”
This reminds us (and should have reminded Barak) that there is someone greater than Deborah who we should want to go with us. The promise of the LORD’s help was not enough for Barak—he wanted Deborah to go with him. Likewise, we often do not trust the LORD for help, even though He has promised to be with us and not to forsake us. Rather, we trust men for help. We look to pastors, elders, friends, etc. God seems invisible and distant to us, so we use men that we can see as crutches … It seems a lot easier to trust a professor, a teacher, a pastor, or a close friend for spiritual matters than to trust God. Even if these men are good and holy men who can legitimately lead us closer to God, the act of relying on them more than God bespeaks a lack of faith on our part. Instead of being like Barak and trusting these “Deborahs” in our lives, we must learn to rely fully on God. Does He not go before you? Verses 15 and 16 tell us about the battle. There is not really much to describe-not a man of Sisera’s army is left. Israel was victorious because God was with her.
Then verses 17–21 tell us another deliciously detailed story of salvation, rather similar to the story of Ehud. Sisera fled on foot from the battle he was losing. Eventually, he came to the tent of Heber the Kenite. Sisera thought that he would be safe in Heber’s tent. What he had not taken into consideration was Jael, Heber’s wife. Jael treated Sisera with the utmost of hospitality. Sisera asked for water; she gave him milk. He wanted a place to hide; she gave him a bed to take a nap. She even went in to tuck him into bed. Then she agreed to go and stand guard while Sisera slept.
However, Sisera had not reckoned with Jael’s philosophy to “speak softly and carry a sharp tent peg.” Verse 21 describes in intricate detail the bloody death of Sisera, general of Canaan. The narrator relishes every bloody detail. Why? Because this is salvation! This is great news for the Israelites! This is justice. Jael went in and drove the tent peg entirely through his head. Every pounding blow with her hammer shouted out salvation for God’s people.
Verses 22–24 wrap up the story of Deborah and Barak. Barak came running up into the camp of Heber, searching for Sisera. Jael happily took him into her tent to show him the man he was seeking, now lying dead on the ground. It was to Jael that the glory for killing the great general of Canaan would go, not Barak, just as Deborah had prophesied. The passage goes on to tell us that the Israelites had a complete victory over their oppressors, pressing them until they eventually killed Jabin, their king.
In verse 23, we are reminded that this victory was the work of God, not man. A central theme in the book of Judges is the question “Who gets the glory?” Who gets the glory in this passage? For surely it is not Barak—he was too hesitant. Deborah gets some glory. Jael gets some. But ultimately the glory should always go to God. Even when His people were horribly sinful, God was faithful to send a judge. Israel sins, suffers, shrieks, and shouts, and the LORD saves.
Barak was reluctant and only went into battle because Deborah went with him. Contrast him with Jael! Barak had a clear word from the LORD. God’s prophetess said “You are the man—you are the deliverer!” How we would love to have such a clear word from the LORD about our lives! But Barak waited. Jael did anything but wait. She pounced on Sisera with her tent peg the moment he fell asleep! There has been a progressive downgrade in the leaders thus far in the book of Judges. They had gotten so bad that a woman had to do the work that Ehud did in the last chapter. Barak did not become the magnificent leader of Israel that Ehud was or that Othniel was. But the end was the same. The LORD saved His people and brought glory to His name. God saved His people with reluctant heroes and bizarre situations.
One thing in the paradigm never changes: God’s covenant love and faithfulness remained present in every story. It goes beyond our deserving. This is the central thread in the book of Judges: God’s grace and undeserved favor are shown to a sinful people in spite of their failure. As the downward spiral gets deeper and deeper, this message becomes starker and more shocking. How can this be? It is all through Christ.
Christ, our Deliverer, is the reason that God’s grace can be shown to us, even when we keep falling into sin, even when we keep on being wimpy Christians. Barak was slow, hesitant, and would not go unless Deborah went with him. Jesus was completely alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was alone, without any aid, and yet He still prayed, “Not my will, but Thine.” He went without fear into the ultimate battle—the cross. He faced the battle alone; not even God was there to help Him as He cried out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Never was there any reluctance to follow His Father’s will. He entered that conflict for us. Even when we are wimpy, even when we fail, Christ has fulfilled all righteousness for us. He has won the ultimate victory over chaos and death.
Lesson 5: Points to Ponder
- What temporary resolutions (like the judges) do people use to keep from falling into the same sin again and again? How can a person gain control over his sinful desires?
- Do you think Israel’s cry of repentance was genuine or was it simply because they wanted relief from their oppressors? Do we often cry out in confession and repentance only to be relieved of the crisis into which our sin has brought us? Give examples.
- Can Deborah be used as an example of a woman’s right to hold an ecclesiastical office? Does she give men the right to sit back and “let a woman do it”?
- Do you know of someone who turned down a position of leadership only to be upset when someone less qualified was appointed in his place? Is it ever right to turn down a position of leadership when called upon to serve?
- Reflect upon times in Scripture, history, and in your own life where God has used a reluctant hero to bring glory to Himself.
- How can churches avoid being group-focused? At what age should teenagers begin to attend “adult” Bible studies? Have you ever encouraged a young person to become a part of your Bible study?
- How can you become a spiritual mentor to someone in your family or church?