Human beings insist on running our own lives and having our own way. That seems to be a main reason why God instituted government in the first place. We all chafe under oppressive rulers but some government is better than none (anarchy). The Apostle Paul explains this all carefully in the 13th Chapter of Romans. Order is better than chaos. See God's Strange Servants by Ray Stedman.
Government directly by God, as in a theocracy, is best of all, but we human beings don't like that either. Israel enjoyed a season of Kings for about four hundred years from about 930 to 586 BC, but very few of these guys in charge were good kings! See The Kings of Israel and Judah. Back before there were kings in Israel, and before King David united the twelve tribes, Israel experienced a four-hundred year period of government by Judges. This happened after their charismatic General Joshua died.
Samuel wanted the people to allow God to run the country, at that time but that option was refused.
"When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.” (1 Samuel 8)
In Joshua, the land of Canaan is the picture of the Spirit-filled life. The land signifies the understanding and application of the principles of victory over sin through the risen life of an indwelling Lord. God's whole purpose for the believer is to get him out of Egypt -- the world and its ways, the place of slavery and bondage -- through the wilderness with all its defeat, barrenness and fragmentary enjoyment of God's resources, into the land with its promise, supply and victory.
This is brought out so clearly in the book of Judges. While Joshua is a book of victory (under Joshua -- which means Jesus -- there was consistent victory when the Israelites faithfully obeyed him). Judges is a book of defeat and of failure. It is the first in a series of books which sets before us the warning spots, the danger signals, and the perils that lie along the pathway of a believer. The pattern of defeat that is described in the book of Judges is presented to us over and over again.
The principle that always meant defeat in the lives of the nation of Israel is given to us in the very last verse of the book. If you miss that, you miss the key to the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)
Notice that it does not say, "Every man did what was wrong in his own eyes." These people were not trying to do wrong. They were not essentially rebellious people determined to thwart the will of God in their lives. At this stage of Israel's history these people were very determined to do right, but they were trying to do what was right in their own eyes. The pattern of peril in this book of Judges can be simply put this way -- they were given over to the folly of consecrated blundering. They were consecrated, dedicated blunderers -- meaning to do right but ending up all wrong.
I can tell you that no pattern repeats itself more frequently in my counseling sessions than this. Many, many times I have heard people say, "Oh, I don't know what went wrong. I meant to do right. I did what I thought was best. But everything seemed to go wrong." This was the problem with Israel in the book of Judges. As the verse says, there was no objective authority in their life. There was no king in Israel in those days. Actually they did have a king; Jehovah was their king, but they did not take him seriously. And when they did not take him seriously, they had nothing else to do but to take themselves seriously. So they did what they thought was right, guided by their conscience, dedicated to an earnest effort to do what was right, but always ending up wrong.
In the first two chapters of the book we see the pattern of defeat that will repeat itself again and again, in cycle after cycle of frustration. Each time God in his grace comes in and delivers the people, only to have them enter another cycle of defeat. It begins in the first chapter:
Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Bethshean and its villages... (1:27)
The discouraging story of defeat contained in the book of Judges also takes place in the land, which is simply an indication that victory in the Christian life is not an automatic thing. Just because you know the great truths of deliverance through a risen Christ doesn't mean that you automatically enjoy them. This is one of the greatest problems Christians struggle with. They think that because they have come to a place where they understand, perhaps for the first time, the great delivering truths of Romans, chapters six through eight, that these truths are automatically working in their lives. It is a great shock to them to discover that although they know the truth, it isn't very visible in their experience. There can be a great gap between what we know and what we actually experience.
The tribe of Manasseh failed to obey God when he had commanded them (as they came into the land) to drive out all the tribes of the Canaanites. Look at verse 29:
And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer; but the Canaanites dwelt in Gezer among them. Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; but the Canaanites dwelt among them. (Judges 1:29 RSV)
Again in verse 31:
Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, (Judges 1:31 RSV)
Or the inhabitants of other villages. Look at verse 33 referring to Naphtali (that's not soap; that is the name of a tribe of Israel):
Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Bethshemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath... (Judges 1:33 RSV)
The Amorites pressed the Danites back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain.
That was just the beginning of the story of the defeat of Israel. They did not take God seriously about the threat their enemies posed to them. but instead, moved in among them. God had said that they were to drive out every inhabitant of these Canaanite villages. They were not to mingle with them or have anything to do with them. They were not to marry with them or associate with them.
But when Israel came to some of these villages, instead of mounting armed warfare against them, they went in and investigated the towns. What they saw seemed quite innocuous. The villages did not seem particularly dangerous and the people seemed to be very fine people. So they said, "We will let you stay in this village. We'll start another town right next door." They allowed these tribes to retain their villages in among the cities and villages of Israel. They settled for less than total victory.
Have you ever done that? As a Christian, have you ever settled for less than total victory in your life? Did you stop smoking, for instance, or drinking. or wearing overshoes in bed, or all those other terrible habits that you had as a non-Christian? But when it came to other matters such as a hot temper, or worry, or self-confidence, or pride, you said to yourself, "Oh, I have improved so much over what I used to be that by comparison these are just trivial things. Surely God is not going to make an issue out of these." And you allow. them to stay there, with defenses protecting them. "After all, I am Irish," or "I am only human." Or "My whole family does this. This is just the way I am. and you are going to have to accept me this way." You are settling for less than total victory.
Now look at the next step in this process. In chapter two we see God's grace as he warns them about results of this practice:
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, "I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land which I swore to give to your fathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.' But you have not obeyed my command." (Judges 2:1- 2a RSV)
God warns them. He continues:
"What is this that you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you." (Judges 2:2b-3 RSV)
And what did Israel do?
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were round about them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. (Judges 2:11- 12 RSV)
The next step was open idolatry. The Baals and the Ashtaroths were the gods of the Canaanite tribes. Baal was a male god. Ashtaroth was a female god. These were fertility gods. You can almost see how easily this idolatry came about. The Israelites didn't mean to do it. They knew that God had commanded that they were not to bow down before any idols. They knew the Ten Commandments. They didn't intend to get trapped like this.
But what happened? They had been farmers in Egypt where irrigation was a means of watering the land, so they weren't used to dry land farming. They didn't know quite how to handle the crops nor what to do. When their crops came up the first spring, then, they were of rather poor quality and scraggly. In contrast, the Canaanite tribes had wonderful fields of grain. The Israelites said to them. "Well, what do you do? What is your secret?" The Canaanites said, "It is very simple. We have certain fertility gods and we bow down to them and offer them sacrifices. Then they bless our crops. If you ever expect to get abundant crops in this land. you are going to have to adjust to our ways." Have you ever had any pressure like that put on you? Does anyone ever say to you, "Look, if you are ever going to get ahead in this company, you are going to have to give up some of your religious ideas. You'll have to come around to our way of doing things"? So the Israelites gave in.
Of course, along with this advice the Canaanites taught them how to plant their crops properly, how to fertilize the soil and so forth, so that next spring, sure enough, after they had bowed down to the gods of the Canaanites, they found the crops were wonderful. The Israelites said, "There must be something to this fertility business. We'd better worship these gods after all." They forsook the God of Israel and bowed down to the Baals and Ashtaroths. Now what is not recorded here is that these were sex gods and worshipping them involved not only bowing down before dumb idols that could not speak, act or think, but also involved the Israelites in licentious practices. Thus they gradually drifted off into idolatry.
The next step in the cycle is God's grace again. The whole pattern is of man's unutterable folly in disobeying the simple word of God. God in his arresting grace puts block, after block, after block in the path of these people trying to alert them to what is happening. In chapter two we read how God dealt with their disobedience:
They forsook the Lord, and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them; and he sold them into the power of their enemies round about, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them; and they were in sore straits. (Judges 2:13-15 RSV)
Have you every had the Lord's hand against you? Have you ever sensed that he was against you in everything that you did? What you thought you were doing in dedication and sincerity was so against what he had said, that since you hadn't taken him seriously, you discovered his hand was against you. This is what Israel discovered; nothing seemed to work out right. They found themselves in bondage. One after another of the tribes around them was allowed to rule over them. These tribes came in and made slaves out of them -- subjected them to servitude and bondage for year, after year, after painful year.
But God's grace comes in again for deliverance:
Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them. And yet they did not listen to their judges; for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed down to them; they soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; (Judges 2:16-18a RSV)
That is why this book is called Judges. Over and over this story is repeated. God raised up Othniel; and then Ehud; and then Shamgar -- judge after judge until you come to the last judge, Samson. Twelve judges altogether, all representing God's intervening grace in attempting to keep these people from the folly of their own senseless disobedience. God will intervene continually. again and again, in our own lives to stop us from the folly of not taking him seriously about these enemies that afflict us.
The revelation of man's perpetual folly is seen, as we continue in chapter two:
But whenever the judge died, they turned back and behaved worse than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them; they did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2: 19 RSV)
The total result is that the book of Judges is nothing but a record of Israel's continuous decline. Look at the first verse of the book, where Israel is calling out:
"Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?" The Lord said, "Judah shall go up..." (Judges 1:1b-2a RSV)
They were saying, "Lord, we are here to do battle against these enemies and we want you to say who is to go up first against them." In the last chapter of the book they are asking exactly the same question under exactly the same circumstances, except this time the enemy is no longer the Canaanites, but their own people, the tribe of Benjamin:
The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel, and inquired of God, "Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?" And the Lord said, "Judah shall go up first." (Judges 20:18 RSV)
This marks the decline of the people from battling against their enemies, who were also the enemies of God, to battling against themselves. This happens so often in Christian experience. As you read through this book you'll find in each cycle the pattern is exactly the same, bringing them lower and lower until they finally come out at that black and revolting episode which is described in the last two chapters, the perversion of the Benjaminites.
If you take this book and lay it along side the first chapter of Romans you will find that exactly the same pattern is followed. First there is idolatry. Paul says, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." They had no excuse, but what did they do? "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles." (Romans. 1:19-23) -- idolatry. Then you will find that they turn so far from God that, as it is said, God gave them up. Three times it is repeated that they gave themselves to their own licentious practices until they learned to practice perversions among themselves, marking the lowest stage of human folly.
The great lesson of this book, then, is that we must take God seriously about the enemy. Jesus Christ has come to save us from our sins -- not to allow us to settle down to live all our lives with them. He has come to drive them out from us and to separate us from them. If we do not take God seriously about these things that we call trivial we will experience an inevitable sequence, taking us step by step away from the intervening grace of God, onward to a course that brings us at last to moral collapse. I think this is the answer to those sudden moral collapses of men and women who have apparently been outstanding leaders for God, who present, on the outside at least, a fair and happy prospect that looks as though their spiritual life is strong. Then suddenly we read of some terrible moral collapse. What has happened? There has been an inward deterioration, exactly along the pattern of the book of Judges.
I think there is not one of us who isn't asking himself as I am asking myself, "Is this happening to me? Am I kidding myself?" In some area of my life am I saying, "Well Lord, this really isn't very important. Why do you bother me with this matter of an impatient spirit, of an unforgiving spirit against someone, or a tendency to dwell on lustful things?" Or we say, "In this matter of my confidence in my own ability to do something -- after all. there are lots of Christians you bless with that kind of a spirit -- this isn't very important, is it Lord?" If this is my attitude, I am exposing myself to peril and will discover that unless I heed the intervening grace of God, and listen to his warning voice, I shall discover sooner or later that, as in Judges, so in my life there will be moral collapse.
Now I trust that as we read this book as God intended, we will see ourselves here. But let me remind you also that the book of Ruth is the next book. Ruth, one of the loveliest books in the Bible, took place during the very same time as the book of Judges. (Ray Stedman: Judges: The Pattern of Defeat)
“Then the Angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. ‘And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? “Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’ ”
So it was, when the Angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voices and wept. Then they called the name of that place Bochim; and they sacrificed there to the LORD. And when Joshua had dismissed the people, the children of Israel went each to his own inheritance to possess the land. So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel.
Now Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died when he was one hundred and ten years old. And they buried him within the border of his inheritance at Timnath Heres, in the mountains of Ephraim, on the north side of Mount Gaash. When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel.
Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.
And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel. So He delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went out, the hand of the LORD was against them for calamity, as the LORD had said, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were greatly distressed.
Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do so.
And when the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them.
And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way. Then the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel; and He said, “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not heeded My voice, “I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, “so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the LORD, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not.”
Therefore the LORD left those nations, without driving them out immediately; nor did He deliver them into the hand of Joshua.“ (Judges 2)
LET me give an outline of the chapter, that we may put the text into its proper setting. God had brought his people out of Egypt, and divided Jordan that they might march through dry-shod into the land which he had promised to their fathers. He charged them to drive out the Canaanites, a race that had become so loathsome in God’s sight that he decreed their destruction, and appointed the tribes of Israel to be their executioners. It was for the good of the universal world that this pest-house should be broken up, and that the filthy races should be destroyed; and God gave his people that charge to carry out. Those who quarrel with this arrangement should remember that this is not the only instance of aboriginal tribes being driven out by a superior race. Our Anglo-Saxon nation drove out the original inhabitants of this island, who survived only in the mountains of Wales and Cornwall, and in the highlands of Scotland. It certainly will not be wise on our part as Anglo-Saxons to condemn Israel for doing under divine command what our forefathers did for their own aggrandizement. Alas, in more modern times lands have been seized and nations extirpated by the white man without divine warrant or reasonable excuse. We do not justify all this; but if any complain of Israel for obeying the sentence of God, let them first raise their voices against the driving out of ancient races by colonists of our own race.
The order to slay the Canaanites had a second object, namely, that Israel might dwell alone in the land, and might keep themselves to themselves— the great nonconformists of the universe— separated from all the rest of mankind both by residence and by manners, not following the customs of the nations round about them, or falling into their sins. That they might be sanctified they were to be separated. “The people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” Now, mark and note right well that it is an evil thing, under any pretext whatever, to depart in any degree from the commandment of the Most High God. Whatsoever may be the law which God gives, either to the whole race or to his chosen, they will find their safety in keeping close to it. But Israel forgot this. Soldiering was hard work— storming cities and warring with men who attacked them with chariots of iron was heroic service. All this required strong faith and untiring perseverance, and in these virtues the Israelites were greatly deficient; and so, in certain places, they said to the Canaanites, “Let us be neighbours: let us dwell together.” They thought, perhaps, that they had abundant reason for this easy mode of ending the dispute; for those who would correct infallible wisdom have usually a great deal to say for themselves. Certain persons thought in those days that the religious notion of God’s requirements was too severe, that he was, after all, a mass of mercy, and that the best thing that they could do was to be kindly tolerant of these Canaanites and make the best terms they could with them. They said that perhaps, after all, it was a pity to be so old-fashioned and so rigid in carrying out the divine order, and it would be better to learn something of the civilization of the Canaanites, something of their arts and sciences, something of their theory of religion; for men ought to have liberal views, and believe that there is latent truth in all forms of worship. At any rate, it could do no harm to study their archeology, and go to their temples, and see the gods they worshipped, and get a general acquaintance with the advanced thought of the period; for the Canaanites were a greatly advanced people, they were the advanced thinkers of the period. They had thought out lie-gods and she-gods, Baal and Ashtaroth, and their lesser deities were many: they were, in fact, a highly cultured people, always thinking out something fresh. So Israel said, “It were a pity to carry out the divine denunciation quite to the letter. Let us tone it down. There are many things to be learnt from these people. No doubt they have their fine points, and we must not be too hard upon their imperfections. Therefore let us enter into treaties with them and live with them.” They did live with them, and fell into their ways. Tolerance led to imitation, and Israel became as vile as the heathen whom the Lord had condemned, and the Israelites became a mixed race, in whose veins there flowed a measure of Canaanite blood. Yes; if you depart from God’s word by a hair’s breadth you know not where you will end. It needs but a little to degrade the Christian into a Ritualist, and still less to turn the Ritualist into a Romanist. We shall go far if we once start on the downhill road. I would to God that in these degenerate times we had back again somewhat of the stern spirit of the Cameronians and the Covenanters; for now men play fast and loose with God, and think that anything they please to do will satisfy the Most High. The offal and the refuse will suffice for sacrifice for him; but as to strict obedience to his word, they can by no means abide it. Mischief will surely come of this lax state of things to the churches of this day as surely as affliction came abundantly to Israel of old.
Note, next, that whenever one sin is allowed we may say of it, “Gad, a troop cometh.” It seemed a pardonable sort of sin to be gentle to these people and not to obey God’s severer word; but then, what came next? Why, soon they, the children of Jehovah, were found worshipping before the horrible Baal. Soon they had gone farther, and the unclean goddess Ashtaroth became their delight; and anon they forgot Jehovah altogether amid their deities and demons. With these errors in religion there had come in all sorts of errors in morals, for every fashion of immorality and lewdness defiled the worshippers of Baal-Peer, Baal-Berith, and Baal-Zebub; and the chosen people of God could scarcely be distinguished from the heathen nations among which they dwelt, or if distinguished at all, it was by their greater sin, inasmuch as they were transgressing against superior light, and holding down their consciences which God had rendered by his teaching much more tender than the consciences of those about them. I said before that if you turn aside from God’s words by a hair's breadth you know not where it will end. The rail diverges but a little where the switches are turned, but before long the branch line is miles away from the main track. Backslide a little and you are on the way to utter apostasy. The mother of mischief is small as a midge’s egg: hatch it, and you shall see an evil bird larger than an ostrich. The least wrong has in it an all but infinity of evil. You cannot say to sin, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.” Like the sea when the dyke is broken, it stretches forth its hand to grasp all the surrounding country. The beginning of sin is like the beginning of strife, and that is said to be as the letting out of water: no man knows what a flood may come when once the banks are burst. So Israel went aside farther and farther from God because they regarded not their way, and did not in all things obey the Lord.
But then comes in a truth which, though it may seem black in the telling, is bright in the essence of it. God did not leave his people without chastisement. Had he let them alone, to be given up to their idols, their case would have been hopeless. For mercy’s sake they must be punished for their transgression; but this was a gracious punishment, that they might not lie and wallow in their transgression and become altogether like the swinish nations that surrounded them. God began to punish them by their own sin. He suffered the Canaanitish nations to grow strong, so that they grievously oppressed Israel. He put the Israelites under the yoke of those nations which they ought to have utterly destroyed. If they would not be conquerors they should be conquered. If they would not lead captivity captive they should be led captives themselves. The Lord laid his blows upon them thick and heavy. But, before he did this, he sent a messenger to rebuke them. It is ever the Lord’s way to give space for repentance ere he executes vengeance. The axes which were carried before the Roman magistrates by the lictors were bound up in bundles of rods. It is said that when a prisoner was before the magistrate the lictor began to untie the rods, and with these the culprit was beaten: meanwhile the judge looked in the prisoner’s face and heard his defence, and if he saw reason for averting the capital sentence, because of the repentance which the offender expressed, then he only smote him with the rod, but the axe remained unused. But if, when every rod was taken off, the culprit was still hardened, and the crime was a capital one and clearly proven, then the axe was used; and used all the more sternly because space had been given for penitence, and the rods had been used in vain. When the rod is despised the axe is ready. It is certainly so with God: he waiteth to be gracious, but when patience cannot hope for penitence then justice takes her turn, and her stroke is terrible.
The Lord on this occasion commissioned a special messenger to rebuke these people, for he sent an angel. I leave it to your own judgments to discover who this angel was, if it be discoverable. It may have been an ordinary angel, but I think it must have been the angel of the Lord. He is so styled in the fourth verse, and, besides, he uses language which an ordinary angel could not have used. He begins, “I made you to go up out of Egypt.” Note, he does not say that the Lord said this or that, but the angel himself says it,— “I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers.” Who could this have been, then, but that covenant angel who, on other occasions, appeared to holy men, and who on this occasion preached a sermon to the assembled multitude at Shiloh? My brethren, you know that our Lord was here among men many a time before he came in mortal flesh to suffer and to die; he was here “rejoicing in the habitable parts of the earth, and his delights were with the sons of men.” He was with Abraham under the tree, with Jacob at Jabbok, with Joshua by the walls of Jericho, with Gideon at the threshing-floor, and with the three holy children in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Not in such a body as God had prepared for him when he took upon himself the form of a servant, but in such a form and fashion as seemed most congruous to his divine majesty, and to the circumstances of those he visited, this angel of the divine covenant whom we delight in came and spoke unto this people. Such is the judgment of many who have thought most upon it; but I leave it to yon to decide. At any rate, it must have been grand hearing to hear an angel preach, and grander hearing still to hear the angel of the covenant plead with the covenanted ones. Oh, what a sermon! What a sermon it must have been! Scarcely ever was such a preacher seen on earth. And yet that sermon did not do as much good as when the seafaring man, Peter, preached at Pentecost. The sermon at Bochim, if I were to sum up its results, ended in disappointment. When our adorable Christ himself preached to the men of Nazareth, they would have cast him headlong from the brow of the hill, so that all his eloquent words had fallen upon dead ears, and no good result had come even from his instruction. Be not disappointed, servant of God, if sometimes you seem to fail. Do not say, “I will give it up.” Your bread has been cast upon the waters. Wait a while, for after many days you may find it. If Israel be not gathered, God will reward you for your toil. It is yours to labour; it is God’s to give the results; and he does not always grant pleasing results to us at once. He did not allot great triumphs to this angel of the Lord, as we shall have to show you. It was a great congregation; it was a great preacher; and it was a great sermon, and yet there was not a great ingathering. Bead the sermon through; and note that though it is a short one it is all the greater for its brevity. Sermons may grow little by being long, and a sermon may be great through being short, if it be big with thought as this angelic sermon was. He began first by telling them what mercies they had received. Read the chapter. “I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers.” Brethren, this subject should most readily lead us to repentance,— that God should have dealt so well with us should make us grieve that we have behaved so ill to him. Do I address a backsliding child of God? I do not think that any exercise is more likely to benefit your heart than to remember what God did for you in years gone by. He took you up out of the horrible pit and out of the miry clay and set your feet upon a rock. He brought you out from the iron bondage of your despair and gave you liberty. He brake the yoke of sinful habits, and the chains of furious passions; and now are you wandering away from him? Are you making something else to be the god of your spirit? If so, be ashamed of your ingratitude, and let this first head of the angel’s discourse have power upon your mind. “You use no other friend so ill”; and yet you have not a friend who can be compared with your God. “I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice” unto your God, and sin no longer against him.
Then the angel passed on to mention the mercies guaranteed to them: “I said, I will never break my covenant with you.” Oh, that is a blessed theme. If indeed you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord has pledged himself to make you perfect and to bring you home to himself with exceeding great joy. You shall not perish. Christ has said, “I give unto my sheep eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” You see the two hands— one inside the other, and you inside the middle one, enclosed within the palm of omnipotent faithfulness. Jehovah says, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” He will never break his covenant with you. Will you wander away from him who passes by your iniquity, transgression, and sin, and does not let his anger smoke against you for ever— he to whom you are joined in an everlasting wedlock which shall never know a divorce? Oh, cruel heart! cruel heart! Canst thou offend against such love as this? Canst thou break with God when he declares that he will never break with you? The angel pleads this longsuffering, eternally-enduring love, and pleads it well. I know of no two greater arguments than mercy received and mercy promised. Let us not sin against these. May the Holy Spirit hold us fast with these cords of love.
And then the angel came to close grips with them, and he said, “Ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars; but ye have not obeyed my voice: why have ye done this?” He came to their sin, he put his finger on their failure, their omission and their commission. He did not flinch from stating to them exactly what their transgression was, nor from demanding, “Why have ye done this?” And oh! surely, this shall help to lead us to repentance when God “sets our iniquities before him; our secret sins in the light of his countenance.” When we see our sin, we ought to be distressed by it and to flee from it, “hot foot,” as men say, and be clean rid of it once for all. Oh, may the Spirit of God convince any wandering one here of sin, and may he then turn to God with a penitent heart. The angel expostulated in most chosen words, saying, “Why have ye done this?” Why have ye turned away from God? Why have ye let your own enemies multiply upon you? Why have ye been disobedient to the command which was given to you so positively? Know ye not that cursed is he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully? Ye have acted disobediently, and ye have brought upon yourselves a terrible retribution; but why have ye done this? Backslider, are you here to-night? Have you gone aside from church fellowship and left the profession of religion? Why have you done this? Can you mention a reason which will bear the light? We know you cannot. There is no sense in sin, no justification for iniquity. Ungodliness is madness. Irreligion is irrational. Disobedience to God is a breach of every law of common sense and logic. In God’s creation it is unreasonable, unnatural, monstrous for the creature to rebel against the Creator. Why have ye done this? “Turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
Then the angel completed his discourse by declaring to them that further chastisements would surely follow. He was not sent to preach the gospel, and therefore mercy is not his theme. He was sent to preach the law, and he did preach it. Listen to the judgment which he denounces:— “Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be your ruin,”— so some read the passage. It was a just but terrible threatening that lie thus thundered in their ears. Notice it. They were to be punished by their own sin. The Lord as good as said,— “You would not drive them out, and now I will not drive them out. Your negligence and time-serving shall come home to you, and place thorns in your suffering flesh. Your omission shall sting you where you will feel it. You have sowed thistles, and thorns shall stuff your pillows.”
Then, next, he tells them how sharp and keen this sin should be to them. “They shall be as thorns in your sides;” pricking you in one of the tenderest parts— in the very region of life itself. Wherever you turn, these sins of yours— these enemies that you spared— shall prick you in the side, and their gods shall be your ruin. You dote upon their false deities, and think them your glory, but they shall be your dishonour. The heathen may trust in them, but you shall not be able to do so. They shall be a snare and a mischief to you.
What a sermon that was! As I have said, there was a great occasion,, a great congregation, a great preacher, a great sermon, and, as far as one could see on the spot, a great movement produced.
Now I want you to notice what looks like a great result, and we shall talk of it under two heads. The people, when they heard this solemn discourse, lifted up their voice and wept, yet they continued as they were. How hopeful! How disappointing!
I. First, HOW HOPEFUL. One could not desire anything better apparently than this. They were all attentive hearers. There was not one that looked about him, or that forgat the pointed words that were spoken. They all seemed to open wide their ears, and take in the divine admonition. There they stood before the Lord, all of them amazed and confounded, while the angel delivered his solemn message, and then returned to him that sent him. It is a great thing to win people’s attention, and it is not everyone that can do it; for there are congregations that act as if the word had nought to do with them, leaving the poor preacher to prophesy to dead walls. These Israelites took the warning and drank in the truth. They were attentive hearers, and anybody would have said, “Blessed be God, that sermon has done a great work. Blessed be God for such an attentive congregation: the nails are fastened in a sure place.”
Moreover, they were very feeling people, for they felt what they heard. What would you think to-night if the congregation should suddenly cry out? “They lifted up their voice and wept”— wept aloud. Orientals, you know, are generally louder in their demonstrations than are we of a chillier clime, but still it must have been a solemn sight to notice men and women together loudly lamenting their transgressions. I have no doubt that many who were there at that time were right with God and said, “What a wonderful opportunity! Glory be to God for such a revival! That one sermon has stirred the people through and through. Thank God that he has sent such a messenger with so fitting a message, and blessed it so, for certainly these people are all converted, otherwise they would not cry out and weep.”
They were all sorrowful hearers as well as attentive and feeling hearers. Out of the whole company there was not one that laughed, not one that was indifferent, not one who scorned and disregarded the message; but, as far as the text goes, the statement is that all unanimously lifted up their voice and wept. Heaviness was upon them. Their souls were exceedingly sorrowful; they expressed their sorrow in a great and bitter cry, and meanwhile their tears flowed abundantly, even as when the rock was smitten in the desert and the waters gushed forth. They were all turned into weepers, and they called the name of that place Bochim, or the place of weepers. You would think, “Surely this is full of promise,— every eye is filled with tears as they stand before God.” Alas! that such drops did not precede a shower of grace, but passed away as the morning cloud.
Ay, and they all became professing hearers; for as soon as ever that service was over they held another, and “They sacrificed unto Jehovah.” They avowed themselves to be Jehovah’s servants, and they took the sacrifice which he had appointed and offered it for their sin, and outwardly they all of them became ardent worshippers of the Most High, and true penitents.
Well, dear friends, all this looks very hopeful, because it is what we may expect when God presses home the law upon the consciences of men. When sin is laid before a man, should he not weep? Hope glitters in every tear. Oh that men were sane enough to weep for their transgressions! I wonder that some of you can read your Bibles with dry eyes. Unsaved, and rejecting the Saviour, can you read the four evangelists without weeping? That Saviour whom the Jews crucified you reject, and so, in fact, you crucify him too: can you read the ten commandments without an aching heart? You know that these are ten great pieces of artillery, all aimed at you for your destruction, since you have offended God by the breach of his law. Why, surely, you ought scarce to sleep at night, lest God’s mighty judgment should fall upon your guilty heads while you are asleep. It is not wonderful at all that people should cry out and weep; the wonder is that every sanctuary where the law is preached, and where the gospel is preached, should not become a Bochim, or a place of weepers.
Oftentimes this deep emotion does come with true conversion— often, though not always, as I shall have to show you. Men convinced of sin may well weep. I have seen a strong man weep under a sense of his guilt— weep as though the fountains of his eyes would be exhausted, and the eyes themselves would turn to coals of fire. Frequently people are unable to restrain themselves, and wish to breakout even in the midst of the congregation, and cry to God for mercy. It is not wonderful. It is what we should expect. It is not undesirable, for it is an effect which frequently accompanies real conversion to God. It may well go with sorrow for sin, and sorrow for sin is essential to eternal life. Repentance is an old fashioned doctrine, which in these days has been despised; but, if I stand alone, I will bear testimony for it. They say that repentance is nothing at all,— that it is merely, according to the Greek, a change of mind. That shows what a little Greek they know. A little of such knowledge is a dangerous thing. A pity that they do not learn more. Repentance is a change of mind; but do you say that it is only a change of mind? That is a pretty big “only.” A change of mind, a radical change of mind, from the love of sin to the love of holiness, is that a small affair? It is always attended with sorrow and regret for past sin: and, if there is a man here who thinks that he will get to heaven by a dry-eyed faith, he will be mistaken. He that never mourned for sin has never rejoiced in the Lord. If I can look back upon my past life of sin and say, “I have no grief over it,” why, then I should do the same again if I had the opportunity: and this shows that my heart is as perverse as ever it was, and I am still unregenerate. Dear Mr. Rowland Hill used to say that faith and repentance were his daily companions as long as he lived, and that, if he had any thought of regret at entering heaven, it would be to think that he might have to part with his dear friend Repentance as he went through the gate. Godly sorrow is a blessed grief. Let no man speak evil of it. “Repent, and be converted” is as much the gospel as “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ;” and it is not to be omitted in our preaching at the hazard of doing damage to men’s souls. He who has experienced holy sorrow for sin will continue to feel it. I should wonder if he did not often pull up the sluices and let his soul flow in a flood of loving regret.
“If tears of sorrow would suffice
To pay the debt I owe,
Tears should from both my weeping eyes
In ceaseless torrents flow.”
A weeper in that sense, ever repenting, is also ever growing in grace. So this place Bochim looks extremely hopeful, does it not?
II. Now let me turn to the other side, and show you that there was nothing permanently good in Bochim’s sudden water-floods. These people were made weepers through hearing the angel’s sermon, but their weeping was VERY DISAPPOINTING; I half suspect that their tears and lamentations were produced as much by the preacher’s person as by anything else. It was the angel of the Lord, and who would not be moved at his presence? God gifts certain speakers with the power of moving the natural feelings, and that gift abundantly rested upon the covenant messenger. Some men so preach that it were almost impossible to remain unsoftened. There is a pathos about them, or there is an earnestness so intense, so manifest, that for the heart of the hearer to be touched is a natural consequence. Now, I dread lest any of you should be so moved by myself when I preach that your feeling should arise from my tone or mannerism, or because you have an affection or esteem for me; for be sure of this, that which comes to you from a man will come to an end before long. A temporary cause cannot produce an everlasting change. “Ye must be born again,” not of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but by the Spirit of God. Everything about the preacher’s choice words, or musical tone, though proper enough as an accessory, if it becomes the principle and the power that moves you, will end in failure. That which begins with wind will end with whirlwind: that which comes of words will evaporate in words by-and-by. It may be a great blessing to you to hear a very useful preacher, but if yon depend upon him in the least it will be mischievous to you. Go and hear the gospel from any of my Master’s servants, and never depend in the least upon any one man, whoever he may be. Seek that your repentance may be a repentance which is wrought by the Spirit of God in your heart and conscience; for if it be not so, it will one day curdle into greater depravity. Sham religion is an injury rather than a benefit. I suggest to you that you ask your heart many a question, and catechize it after the manner of Beddome’s hymn:—
“Why, O my soul! why weepest thou?
Tell me from whence arise
Those briny tears that often flow,
Those groans that pierce the skies.
“Is sin the cause of thy complaint,
Or the chastising rod?
Dost thou an evil heart lament,
And mourn an absent God?
“Lord, let me weep for nought but sin,
And after none but thee.
And then I would— oh, that I might—
A constant weeper be.”
Again, I am afraid that the repentance of these people had a great deal to do with their natural softness. They were tender and excitable because there was little grit in their nature, their manliness was of a degenerate type. They feared to go to battle for God; they dreaded the noise and the slaughter. They were moreover easily moved by their fellow men, and took shape from those who lived near them; they went to worship Baal because their neighbours said “Come and worship Baal.” And they worshipped Ashtaroth because their friends said, “Come, let us reverence the goddess.” They were malleable, pliable, ductile. We have numbers around us of that kind. What shall I call them— men of wax? creatures of india-rubber? They go to be shaped even by your finger, like clay upon the potter’s wheel, not yet hardened in the fire. No one knows what their shape will be when they leave the wheel. Some have been here for many years, and have often been moved and moulded by the preacher, and yet they are not saved, while stout-hearted rebels have stood in the aisles with half a sneer, and God has brought the hammer down upon their flinty hearts, and broken them to pieces, and now they are saved by mighty grace, and rejoice in the Lord. Some have a natural tenderness which hinders the attainment of spiritual softness. Now, mark you, that which is natural may be used of God towards that which is spiritual, but still it is not in itself spiritual. All that readiness to cry, all that readiness to receive the word with joy, and to leap at once into faith may be just nothing but mental weakness. Some men weep profusely because they have been drunkards, and that gives them a drop in their eye: this is a miserable business. I like the strong man who cries within, and is chary of the visible rain-shower. I know really tender-hearted men who could not shed a tear for their lives, but feel a far deeper anguish than those whose griefs are shallow and watery. It is very beautiful to talk of the tears streaming down their faces, but many converts have never shed a tear, and perhaps never will; but this does not prove that they are not converted; far from it, the tear is but a natural drop of moisture, and soon evaporates; the better thing is the inward torrent of grief within the soul, which leaves an indelible mark within. You know how we sang just now—
“Tears, though flowing like a river,
Never can one sin efface;
Jesus’ tears would not avail thee,—
Blood alone can meet thy case;
Fly to Jesus!
Life is found in his embrace.”
One grain of faith is better than a gallon of tears. A drop of genuine repentance is more precious than a torrent of weeping.
There is another thing about the weeping of these people, and that is, that it was caused a great deal by threatenings of punishment. I am afraid that they did not weep because they sinned, but that they wept because God said that he would not drive out any more Canaanites. They wished to conquer more of them— more of the most disreputable sort— but they did not wish to drive them all out; yet they mourned because those whom they had spared would now get the upper hand of them. The more comfortable sort of Canaanites they were willing to save alive; and when they found that they were to have them for thorns in their sides, then they brought out their handkerchiefs, for there was reason for selfish grief. Ay, and you may preach the fires of hell till men are willing to abandon darling lusts of the more glaring sort. To such we would put searching questions. Is there any holy salt in your tears? Is it sin that you weep for? Is it sin that you repent of? Every murderer repents at the gallows, they say: that is, he repents of being hanged, but he does not repent of having killed others. He might do the same thing again if he had the opportunity. We ought clearly to discern between the natural terrors that come of vivid descriptions of the wrath to come and that real spiritual touch of God the Holy Ghost which breaks and melts the heart and then casts it into another mould. These people were deceived as to the depth and sincerity of their own feelings. Doubtless they reckoned themselves choice penitents when they were only cowardly tremblers, labouring under impressions which were as useless as they were transient. Their feeling was but as a meteor’s blaze, shedding strong but momentary day.
“What sadder scenes can angels view
Than self-deceiving tears?
They give you hope, a hope untrue,
Then deepen all your fears.”
We are quite sure that these people, though they wept, were none the better for that, because, if they had been, they would have cried “Come, brethren, get your swords. Let us go and fight these Hivites and Hittites, and cast down their altars, and sweep away their images and groves.” No, they kept their idle swords in their scabbards, and made treaties with the condemned races. They used not their axes to cut down the false gods; but they said, “Let us have respect to the religion of others. There is no doubt that their idolatry is wrong: in fact, their practices are questionable, and we are very sorry for it, but we need not interfere, nor execute Jehovah’s sentence with a bare literalness.” In addition, they very likely confessed and deplored their own laxity, and went the length of saying “It is very grievous that we should be so obstinate. It is really a dreadful thing.” I heard one say, “It is an awful thing to be a slave to the winecup; I wish that I had never tasted it. The first opportunity I get I will turn over a new leaf.” He did not say what the new leaf would be, but he was going to do any quantity of reforming work. Alas! he never did anything at all, for he was drunk again the next day. A beautiful penitent to look upon; but a wretched hypocrite in due time, for he returned like the dog to his vomit, and the sow which was washed to her wallowing in the mire. If you repent of sin, down with sin! In God’s name, down with sin! When repentance is hearty it is practical. When a man truly turns to God, he turns away from sin. If Satan be effectually driven out of a man, the emancipated one sweeps his house out, and purges himself of the filth which he formerly harboured; he plucks out right-eye lusts and cuts off right-arm sins, for he feels that he cannot longer transgress against his God.
Next, these people had not repented, for they did not bring their children up rightly. The next generation, it is said, knew not the Lord, neither the mighty works of the Lord. That was because their parents did not teach them. Not that parents can teach children so that they know the Lord in their hearts; but God has so put it,— “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” That is the great general rule of God’s moral government. If parents make known the things of God to their children it cannot be said that the children do not know the works of God. If parents teach with affectionate earnestness, their children learn at least the letter of the truth. I do not believe in your repentance for sin if you tolerate your child’s living in it. I cannot believe that you know the Lord unless you long for your offspring to know him. A man says, “Oh, it is an evil thing, but, you know, young people will have their own way, and we must not be too strict.” Sorrowfully do we foresee what will become of young people who have parents that do not love them enough to restrain them from doing evil. Well may you weep, for you are murdering the souls of your own flesh and blood. Woe unto you, with all your tears, if you have no regard for your household, and no care to bring up your children in the fear of God.
I know that these people did not repent aright, because they went from bad to worse. They went from weeping before God to worshipping Baal, like some I have heard of who are found crying in the house of God on Sunday night, and are laughing at the theatre on Monday night. O base hypocrites! Penitents— at a dance! Broken-hearted sinners on Sunday, crying “Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable sinners,” and whole-hearted drunkards before the week is up, yelling “We won’t go home till morning.” Look at the miserable sinners, see what they arc at. Are these your weepers? These your men of tender conscience? Their Bochim is all a lie— a mere pretence. The more tender you are, if afterwards you harden yourselves, so much the greater will be your guilt; and, if you humble yourselves before God in mere appearance, so much the more terrible will be your doom if that humbleness departs, and you go back to the sin from which you professed to turn.
I know that these people were not penitents, because God did not take away the chastisement. The punishment which he threatened he brought upon them: he gave them over to the spoilers and sold them to their enemies. But where there is a hearty repentance of sin, God will never lay punishment on a man. He will forgive him and receive him to his bosom and restore him. To sum up in a word all that I have said, salvation lies not in feeling, but in believing; salvation lies not in weeping, but in trusting in Christ. Repentance is not to be measured by outward manifestations of sorrow. The prophet saith, “Rend your heart, and not your garments.” Let your hearts be rent away from sin, and from everything that leads to sin; and then shall you weep acceptably before God. The Lord bless this word to those it is meant for. I do not know who they are, but he does; and may he send his blessing by his Holy Spirit. Amen.
Summary of Judges by Ray Stedman
Summary of The Message of History
God's judgment of the Canaanite peoples, by Glenn Miller
Canaanite Culture and Religion, Robert A. Guisepi , ed.
In Canaan Land
Deborah the Prophetess
THE Angel of the Lord
God and His Angels
No King in the Land (2007)
New Body Life
A Glorious Church
Mankind's Downward Spiral
The Times of the Gentiles
The Management of the Universe
The Great God Self
The Root Cause of Violence in the World
Caution: History Repeats Itself
Your God is Way Too Small
New Body Life