God is on the lookout for people of faith who will step out to effect change. Such people tend to be inspirational folk who buck the trend for the sake of both others and the good news about Jesus. I am reminded of examples from history such as William Wilberforce who fought tirelessly to abolish slave trade, Corrie Ten Boom who hid the Jews in her home to escape the Nazi’s, William Tyndale who fought to print the Bible in English and Mother Teresa who have her life to caring for the poor/needy.
The book of Judges in the Bible is a somewhat curious book which describes a fairly unlikely set of heroes who are known as ‘Judges’. They were people God raised up to save his people Israel but the stand-out example is a woman called Deborah. In fact her story includes a number of people who heeded God’s call to action and worked in faith to effect change in and through their lives. The story is recounted in Judges 4-5 which includes both a historical narrative (chapter 4) and a poetic song (chapter 5). Both chapters work together to give us deep insight into a life of faith in the LORD.
1. The Repeating Cycle (4:1-3):
The book of Judges is set after Joshua had led God’s people into the Promised Land and before the the life of the prophet Samuel & the subsequent monarchy. It is a story about a cycle that repeats itself and begins with the people wandering from the LORD. We read: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead” (v1). In fact, there is a repeated verse in Judges which summarises this period in Israel’s history:
“In those days Israel had no King. Everyone did as they saw fit” (NIV) or “what was right in their own eyes.”Judges 17:6, 21:25 (NIV and ESV)
Under Joshua’s leadership, God had instructed Israel to completely drive out the inhabitants of the land. Yet they had failed in this task and it is these nations who rise up against Israel during the time of the Judges! Life for Israel’s was pretty tough at this point:
6 In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned; travellers took to winding paths. 7 Villagers in Israel would not fight…”Judges 5:6-7
God gave them over to the Canaanites (v2) who were one of the nations who inhabited the land. They were ruled by King Jabin and his military commander Sisera. For 20 years they oppressed Israel (v3), until Israel cried out to God. Their enemy was effectively the superpower with all the latest technology – 900 chariots fitted with iron. To answer their cry, God raises up Deborah (v4) to rescue His people and through her comes a time of 40yrs of peace (5:31b).
2. The Crisis of Leadership (4:4-10)
During the life of Moses, we often see Joshua learning on the job but there is no indication that Joshua himself trained a successor. After his death and the elders who outlived him, the people begin to drift from God (2:7-11). Things go off the rails in this vacuum of leadership, but as ever God is always at work behind-the-scenes. God raised up Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar and now somewhat shockingly a woman. Perhaps this doesn’t seem a big deal to us, but it really was. Deborah was the only female judge, and she shines brightly throughout the Old Testament. Many of these so-called ‘Judges’ were warriors and military leaders as well as being tasked with settling the people’s disputes. There is however little to suggest that Deborah was a military leader or warrior. No, she was a prophetess who led Israel with godly knowledge and wisdom as she settled their disputes (v5).
Her first recorded words are to instruct Barak that God was commanding him to take 10,000men to war against the Canaanites. He was to lead the people to Mt Tabor (575m), God would lead the Canaanites to the Kishon river and then God would deliver them into their hands. Was this confirmation of a command already given to Barak or a fresh prophecy from God? Either way, God made it clear what He wanted Barak to do, and the stage was set for God bring the victory. Barak however responds to Deborah:
“If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”Judges 4:8
I see two possible interpretations of these words: The first interpretation sees Barak willing to obey, but only if Deborah goes with him. It is not therefore until he is charging down Mt Tabor that he displays the faith for which he is commended in Hebrews 11:32-34. There were strings attached to his obedience which was on his terms only! Of course asking Deborah to go with him doesn’t seem like a bad move, but was he demanding it? Was he trusting less in God and more in Deborah and her relationship with God. Deborah agrees to go with him, but the way that the NIV translates her response suggests a rebuke:
“But because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”Judges 4:9 (NIV)
The alternative interpretation sees Barak much more positively and seems to rest on an alternate translation of v9:
“Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”Judges 4:9 (ESV)
This sounds much less a rebuke and more a statement of fact that he is not going to get the honour for it. It is therefore less a verdict on his faith, and allows us to see him as more of a hero. His desire for Deborah to go with him was not disobedience, but simply a recognition of her godliness.
There are strong views either way and the commentaries are split. My leaning is towards the second view which paints Barak much more positively as a man of faith and seems to fit much better with how he is described in Hebrews 11:32-34.
3. Seeing the Lord’s hand at work (4:11-24):
Sisera finds out that Barak had gone up to Mt Tabor and summons his army to fight. Deborah however calls on Barak to “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands” (v14). Barak and his men charging down from Mt Tabor must have been quite the sight. They faced a clearly superior adversary, but we’re told that they routed the Canaanites. In a note of irony, Sisera himself abandons his chariot and flees on foot! Barak continued to pursue them and all of Sisera’s troops fell by the sword (v16). King Jabin was subdued before Israel (v23) and in time they pressed harder and harder until they destroyed him (v24). All of this begs the question, who is the hero is in this story?
Was it Barak who had courageously led the people into battle? Yes, there were those questions he raised, but it was still no mean feat to lead the people out against this fearsome enemy. Or was it the people of Israel who had been remarkably transformed from fearful spectators into a courageous army ready to jump right in? Or was it Deborah, the God-focused woman who every time she speaks mentions the LORD (v6-7, 9 & 14). Or what about Jael, the wife of Heber who had separated from his people (v10-11) and made an alliance with the Canaanites (v17). She was the one who gave Sisera refuge, before unexpectedly plunging the tent peg into his head! She is described as most blessed of women (5:24-27), but there are some big question marks about her own motives, methods and actions! The answer is of course ultimately God Himself. When Deborah spoke of victory it was always about God routing their enemies. Without God they had no hope against a superior army who for 20 years had outclassed and outgunned them with their superior tech. Yet God fought for them and therefore any glory was ultimately due to Him.
4. The Challenges of this story (5:1-31):
Lesson #1: God is always at work
The LORD is mentioned only four times in chapter 4 but in chapter 5 it seems that He is everywhere (the name ‘LORD’ is used 14 times). Deborah & Barak sing praise to God for all that He had done (v2-3) and then in v4-5 we hear the following :
4 ‘When you, Lord, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. 5 The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.
20 From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. 21 The River Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the River Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong!Judges 5:4-5, 20-21
Yes, Israel marched out against the Canaanites, but God demonstrated His power as the mountains quaked and rain poured out from the heavens. It says that the River Kishon (4:7,13) swept them away. Sisera most likely escapes on foot because his chariot had become unrideable amidst all this water! God acted in such a way that the glory would be His and Barak/Deborah are only too eager to sing His praise. I wonder how God is at work in your life? We can be sure that He is at work because He is always at work. Often, we get stuck in a chapter 4 mindset – caught in the nitty gritty of what is going on around us, but we also need a chapter 5 mindset – seeing God’s hand at work! We need to open our eyes to what God is doing in our midst!
Lesson #2: God is still looking for people to step up.
The challenges we face today are not so different from the time of the Judges. In our country is in yet another transition of leadership as the Governing party chooses its new leader! In our society people are still doing what they see fit and putting their hope in things other than God. So, God still looks for people who will step up and step out in faith. Barak, Deborah & Jael each trusted God and stepped out in faith. God could have sent legions of angels to rescue His people, but He chose to work through ordinary and inadequate people like them. Deborah says in 5:7-8 that people held back until she “arose, a mother in Israel”. God wants to use all of us whatever our context! How is God asking you to step up and step out? It is time for people of faith to arise and see what God can do in you and through you! Some did not step up and were rebuked (5:13-18), while others risked their lives!
Lesson #3: We also are engaged in a spiritual battle:
All of Scripture finds its climax in the life of Jesus Christ. The story of Deborah is a remarkable high point in a book that depicts God’s people’s faithlessness. She called the people back to God and into action against their enemies. People like Deborah, Barak and Jael, who each demonstrated faith in the promises of God, find their salvation in Christ just as we do. They looked forward in faith, while we look back. All that Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection makes it possible for everyone to be made right with God.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.Ephesians 6:10-12
He too calls into what the New Testament describes as a spiritual battle – a battle against the desires of the flesh, the ways of the world and the schemes of the devil. Amidst this spiritual battle, we are called to go and make disciples of all nations, helping them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. We too need to step up and step out in faith! Each of Barak, Deborah & Jael, stepped out in faith. God used each of them in bringing about the victory which ultimately only He could and did deliver. God loves it when we step out in faith. He wants to use everyday people like us to work out His purposes and grow His Kingdom.