Readings: Judges 5
Judges 5 presents a song, an epic poem by Deborah and Barak. In his commentary on the book of Judges, K. Lawson Younger Jr. points out that Judges 4 and 5 really give us two accounts of the same events. Judges 4 gives us the traditional “logical” account. It presents the facts, “the way it was,” in typical narrative prose, just like everything else in the book of Judges. Judges 5 then gives us an “emotional and more figurative account” in the form of a lengthy song. Both accounts present the same events, but with different themes and ideas. One important thing to notice about Judges 5 is that it is a song. Review biblical history and you will find that whenever God intervenes to redeem His people, they respond with a song. Look at Exodus 15, I Samuel 2, I Samuel 22, almost all of the Psalms, Luke 1 (there are two of them in that chapter), and most chapters in Revelation. These are just a few examples. Each of these songs specifically reflects the new works of deliverance that God had given to the singers. This is related to the Psalms’ constant command to “Sing a new song to the LORD.” These songs show the centrality of worship via song in our lives.
A few months ago, I was asked, “Why do we sing in the worship service. It seems kind of pointless. We could just read some passages and get the same effect. That way, we could avoid all the ‘worship wars.’” Singing in worship is not just “stuff that goes on before the preaching.” It is not just a “warm-up, so that we don’t pull any theological muscles before we get to the sermon.” Singing is not an extra; it is a central part of worship , part of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. Dr. lain Duguid points out that when we get to heaven, there will be no preaching or listening to sermons. It will be all praise and song. Just look at Revelation. We need to praise and worship well, just as we need to listen to the sermon well. Singing is an important part of biblical worship. The fact that this passage is a song affects the way we should read it. Picture the scene with me. Israel had just enjoyed a smashing victory by the power of the LORD. This song was a celebration of that victory. One can imagine a lot of dancing, backslapping, hugging, waving hands in the air, and a lot of music. This would certainly have been a marvelous celebration. Keep this in mind as you read through this passage. Try to place yourself in an Israelite’s sandals and enjoy the beauty of this song. It is profound, humorous, dramatic, and heart-warming all at once. Let yourself swell with pride at the recounting of Israel’s victory, laugh with joy at the story of Jael, and most importantly, praise God for His covenant faithfulness to the Israelites. Remember that this chapter, being a song, uses poetic language to relate its point. So recall your high school English class and enjoy the metaphors, similes, and images that Deborah and Barak created with their song. Read this passage through carefully and slowly; let the words wash over you; imagine all the pictures that they paint with their words. Hebrew poetry relied not on rhyme or meter like poems in English, French, and most other languages. Rather, Hebrew poetry relied on parallelism. Repeated words mean a lot in Hebrew writing. Ifa certain word was repeated multiple times in a chapter, it was repeated for a reason, to cement a point. The same is true of ideas. Think of all the times in the book of Psalms where the Psalmist said something in one line and then instantly rephrased or repeated it in the next line. What makes a Hebrew poem beautiful and skillful is its use of parallelism to make a point. C.S. Lewis pointed out that this shows the sovereignty of God over the writing of Scripture, for no matter what language you translate Hebrew poetry (like the Psalms) into, it retains its literary beauty because it relies on content, not words and rhyme, for its beauty. K. Lawson Younger Jr. divides this poem into seven stanzas to help us understand the text. There are many different views on how to divide the text into stanzas, all bases on a greater understanding of Hebrew than I possess. If you are interested in the matter, I recommend Younger’s commentary (part of the NIV Application Series) or Dr. lain Duguid’s excellent commentary, which will be coming out to the general public in 2011. For the purposes of this study, we will use Younger’s stanzas.
The first stanza contains verses 2–5. This passage deals with the powerful and terrible coming of the LORD into battle for His people. Over and over, this stanza issues a call for Israel to praise the LORD for His care. Verse 5 references Mount Sinai, which recalls the Exodus. Jewish culture has always looked on the Exodus as the central moment in redemptive history. This reference to Sinai brought to mind the great deliverance, and invited readers to see the current deliverance of God’s people in light of God’s deliverance in the past, inviting them to meditate on the covenant faithfulness of God.
The second stanza, verses 6–8, presents the main problem of the narrative; it reports a need in Israel. It echoes chapter 4:1–3, where the narrator told us that Israel was “cruelly oppressed” for twenty years. Times were bad in those days. Before Deborah arose, there was no safety. The streets were dangerous-travelers had to take back roads in order to avoid the thieves and thugs on the highway (verse 6). Israel had no weapons to defend themselves (verse 8). Verse 8 clearly reminds the people once more of the reason why this judgment came upon them—it was only when new gods other than the LORD were chosen that war appeared in their gates. This stanza recites the troubles of Israel.
Dr. Dale Ralph Davis points out that this stanza is meant to be a contrast to the first. In the first stanza, we are introduced to the LORD as a sufficient and powerful God. Compare that to this second stanza, where we are given a portrait of pre-Deborah Israel as insufficient and weak, totally helpless. Davis points out that a “desperate people and sufficient God are placed side by side that the former might rest in the latter. The apostle makes the same point in II Corinthians 1:8–9. Surely God’s afflicted people should derive great comfort from knowing that the God who came to Sinai (or, in our case, Golgotha) is the God who comes repeatedly to His people in distress.”
Verses 9–13 comprise the third stanza. This stanza is similar (in fact, perfectly parallel in structure) to the first stanza. In this stanza, Israel is called to praise the LORD. This praise is inspired by the numbers of volunteers there were in Israel. Special attention is given to the leaders who volunteered,just as in verse 1 of this chapter.
The fourth stanza, verses 14–18, contains a long list of the tribes of Judah, telling us which ones came into battle, and which ones ignored the call. As a side note, it is important to note in a study of Judges, that most likely, the judges were tribal leaders, not national leaders. The stories in Judges probably happened on a smaller scale, involving tribes or groups of tribes instead of the whole nation. The book starts out with the whole nation united under Joshua and then breaks down until we reach the climactic civil war at the end of the book. None ofthe events in Judges included the whole nation. This stanza focuses on who was involved in this particular battle and who was not.
Duguid points out that there is a logic to who does and who does not get involved. Consult a map of the tribal lands in Israel. None of the tribes on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea got involved. They probably had a strong trade relationship with the Philistines, who also lived on the coast. They would not have wanted to hurt their friendly relationship with these gentiles by going to war as allies with their cousins. This illustrates how much interrelating was going on between Israel and the pagans in those days, even though God had clearly warned against it.
The trans-Jordan tribes also did not get involved. They must have considered themselves too far away geographically to help out Naphtali, Issachar, and Zebulun. They probably had troubles of their own that they thought were more important than helping their troubled kin. Reuben, in verses 15 and 16 waffle back and forth. They knew that they should go to the aid of their brothers, they discussed the pros and cons amongst themselves, but in the end, they decided that they could not leave their sheep. Often, we act like these unfaithful tribes. We become very much like the coastal tribes when we get comfortable with our sin. We like our little sinful habits, they make life convenient for us, they add to our prosperity. We enjoy the power that comes with intimidating our coworkers, the wealth that comes from cheating on our taxes. So we ignore God’s call to battle against the sinful world, our depraved flesh, and the devil. Or, we become like the trans-Jordan tribes and simply think that spiritual warfare is too much of a hassle. It sounds very similar to the people in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:18. These people are invited to a wedding feast, but all decide that they were too busy. But in that passage, and here in Judges, God rebuked those who did not get involved; He cursed those who ignored His call and praised those who remained faithful to Him. Stanza five (verses 19–23) gives us the information we were curious about in chapter four—the details of the battle. In chapter four, the battle only got one verse (verse 15). Here we are given the details of how the LORD won the victory. Quite literally, He rains on their parade. Verse 4 tells us about the rain, verse 21 tells us about the flooding of the Kishon. Most scholars agree that this must have been a mammoth storm of epic proportions. Remember how Sisera had all those nine hundred chariots? If the ground gets muddy, the chariots rust and get stuck and are of no use. The storm served a second purpose, as well. Baal, the god of the Canaanites, was the god of rain, the god of weather, the god of water. To have the rains and floods working against them would truly demoralize the Canaanites. It is God who was in control. He was superior to all other gods. Whereas the fourth stanza focused on the people of Israel and their involvement, this stanza makes it abundantly clear that the victory was of the LORD, not of any human endeavor.
Verse 23 is a mysterious little verse about the town of Meroz. No one really knows where Meraz was, but it seems like this was a city whose inhabitants were either Israelite or allied to the Israelites. Davis suggests that Meroz was a town near the battle scene. Israel had every right to expect aid from its militia. Instead, Meroz wanted to save its life and therefore lost it. The Angel of the LORD cursed this city for its lack of faithfulness. Davis suggests that this passage was put here so that the curse on Meroz would be specifically linked with the blessing on faithful Jael in the next stanza, serving as a stark contrast.
Stanza six is made up of verses 24–27. This is a dramatic retelling of the story of Jael and Sisera. Deborah and Barak were obviously relishing every minute detail of this event. This is very graphic. It does not just say “she killed him,” she “smashed his skull,” “pierced and shattered his temple.” Verse 27 keeps repeating the joyful news that the enemy died over and over again. Younger describes it as a “tantalizingly slow sequence of verbs”—sank, fell, lay, sank, fell, sank, fell-and then verse 27 ends with a resounding “DEAD.” This is not being vicious or gory. This is being pious. God has brought about a smashing salvation.
And then we come to the last stanza, stanza seven, verses 28-31. This stanza deals with a very interesting character—Sisera’s mother. She was sitting in her palace waiting for her son to get home from a hard day’s work of fighting and pillaging. It was starting to get late, so she peered out the window and asked her princesses whatever could be taking him so long. Verse 29 tells us that her “wisest” (and crassest) princess answers, “Oh, he must be busy raping some women. The spoils of war are a ‘womb or two.’ Rape and plunder take a while, you know.” Wow. This is the kind of home Sisera was raised in? The Canaanite culture was a culture where these princesses talked of rape, murder, and plunder like an everyday thing. No wonder God wanted these people destroyed! But, you and I are in on the secret these ladies were going to be waiting a long time, because where was Sisera? Yes, he’s in the tent of a woman, but not in the way that his mother and others thought he would be. He was lying in the tent with a big stake pounded through his head! The song ends, “So may all your enemies perish, Oh LORD, but your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.” And we are told that Israel had peace for forty years.
Wow, what a song! Does Judges condone the violent behavior we read in it? Is this justification for us to go out and take out all of God’s enemies in the bloodiest way possible? Of course not. We are in a different phase of redemptive history. Israel was called by God to destroy Canaan. Israel was called into a holy warfare against the world. But with the coming of Jesus, that era ended. Now we are called (in Matthew 28:19) to go out into the world to make disciples, not to start bloodbaths of Jael-esque proportions. There is a day when Jesus will come again, in glory, to judge. But our holy warfare was completed and fulfilled in the death of Jesus on the cross.
This passage again touches on the main stumbling block for the ancient Israelites-idols. Those little gods also are a constant stumbling block for us, as well. John Calvin aptly pointed out that the human heart is a constant “idol-factory.” Idols of popularity, good grades, athletics, success, attractive women, and many other dominate our lives. But in this passage, God clearly showed that He is more powerful than Baal. God controlled the rain and the water, not Baal. He is also infinitely superior to any of our idols. Anything these idols can do, God is sovereign over. Whatever fulfillment they seem to offer is false. All of our idols promise blessing, but true blessing is from the Lord’s hands. He is able to provide everything we need for body and soul, to bless us beyond compare. He also is a good and wise Father who knows what is best for you. Jesus says “Seek first the Kingdom and all of these things will be added”—added not in the way that we might selfishly want, but in the way that is best. If you spend your life pursuing success, fame, wealth, or any other idols, you probably will not attain them, and if you do, you will find that they are hollow. If you achieve the power of 900 iron chariots, you will find that they do not always work. True and ultimate victory comes to those who trust in the LORD.
We have discussed a lot of things in this passage. Notice something that is missing. There is hardly any focus on Barak. When he is mentioned, it is just in passing. This is a fulfillment of Deborah’s words in 4:9, where she foretold that none of the glory would go to Barak. Yet, Barak is mentioned in Hebrews 11 :32 as a hero of faith. Barak was a wimpy, untrusting man. His faith was weak and minuscule, but he still had faith. He acted on his faith, weak as it was. Hebrews 11 is not a generic list of good, moralistic heroes, of people we can put up on a plaque as a great role-model. The main theme is faith. The one thing that links these people in Hebrews 11 together is that they are surprising people of faith, no matter what the amount of faith. Barak does have faith. He does, in the end, go to battle. Of course, there are other people in Judges 4 and 5 whose faith is stronger and greater, but the focus is not on the faith, but on the LORD and His power.
And is that not a comfort? The LORD works with unwilling people. If God can use wimps like Barak, then there is a little hope for us, too. God gives encouragement to us when we struggle with our faith. He does not just leave us hanging. He shows grace to Barak through Deborah. He does not say to Barak, “Your faith is too weak; you are fired.” No, God gives comfort. There is still a rebuke; people with small faith still miss out, but God does not give up on you. God’s faithfulness and love go beyond our deserving.
Let’s face it, none of have strong faith. I would dare say that Barak’s weak faith is still stronger than mine. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed would move mountains. A mustard seed is pretty small. Still, I have never seen a mountain moved. So, I would dare say that most of us have pretty small faith. That is because most of us think of faith as something that comes from ourselves. We almost treat “faith” as if it is a work unto salvation. But our salvation is only of grace, the unmerited favor of God. It is not as if we, by our show of faith, encourage God to add His grace to us. Dr. James Bibza points out “the only thing we contribute to our own salvation is our own sin.” If we deserved our own salvation, it would be called “wages,” not grace. But we know full well that the wages that we have rightfully earned is death, not eternal life. We are completely helpless in our own salvation. We do not contribute even the most minuscule bit to our own salvation. We are all tempted to think “Yeah, I know I’m a sinner, I’m bad; but not as bad as…” Obviously, this is a very dangerous attitude. The smaller your view of your own sin, the smaller your view of grace. No one deserves to be forgiven by God—no one earns forgiveness. We have an overwhelming need for grace—we are all helpless. And that is precisely why we need Christ. Look to Christ when you are weak; look to Christ when you feel wimpy and struggle with doubts. He fulfilled all righteousness for us, and by looking to Him, you will have stronger faith, not of yourself, but by Him working in you through His Holy Spirit.
Mr. James Oord is a Christian Thought major and a Junior at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Lesson 6: Points to Ponder
1. In light of this passage, the Psalms’ command to “sing a new song to the LORD,” and the evidence of other songs celebrating salvation, what does this say to the place of hymns in worship? Since we have been a witness to the greatest act of redemptive history—the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, should we not sing of this in the form of lively new hymns? What about new hymns celebrating subsequent events in biblical redemptive history (like Pentecost, for instance)? What about new hymns celebrating subsequent events in history (like the Reformation)?
2. How do stanzas one (vss. 2–5) and three (vss. 9–13) apply to the Christian’s life? Do we too often find ourselves in the second stanza (vss.6–8)?
3. In verse 7 Deborah refers to herself as “a mother in Israel.” How is this appropriate for the role she takes in Judges 4? In what ways do we often ignore the call to battle against sin? Are we guilty of often thinking that the spiritual warfare is not worth the effort?
4. How does God gain the victory over the Canaanites? How was Canaan destroyed?
5. What kind of “blessing” do false gods of today offer? What does the true God offer?
6. What “things” are added to those who seek after the kingdom of God?
7. Are there times when you felt your faith was weak? How can your faith be made stronger?