CHAPTER 13. —THE JUDGES
The ways of providence are instructively illustrated in the history of Israel’s procedure subsequently to Joshua’s conquest of the Amorite kings of Canaan. It will be remembered that the subjugation was not completed with the finishing of the military operations. There was still much to be done even when Joshua’s end was come. It was said to Joshua, when war had ceased, and the land had rested a number of years,
“Thou art old and stricken in years, and there remaineth much land to be possessed” (Joshua 13:1).
We can easily understand how this would come to be the state of things. The military operations were advanced: organised resistance was no more offered to Israel in the field; but in outlying districts, in nooks and corners, the original inhabitants were still in possession. The work of conquering these in detail had not been accomplished when Joshua died. The work had evidently been in contemplation, for when Joshua was dead, the question arose,
“Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites to fight?”
When the answer had been obtained, “Judah shall go up,” Judah took Simeon to his assistance, and went to work to clear his inheritance of the remaining inhabitants. In this work Judah and Simeon realised a large measure of success. The success, however, was not complete. We are informed that Judah “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron.” Here is something for inquiry and reflection. How came “chariots of iron” to be any obstruction to a people of whom it is testified, “the Lord was with them?”
To perceive the answer clearly, we have to look at the behaviour of the other tribes. Concerning Benjamin, we are told that—
“The children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem, but the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem, until this day. . . .Neither did Manasseh drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean, . . Dor, . . . Ibleam, . . . Megiddo and their towns. Neither did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites that dwelt in Gezer.”
Neither did Zebulun, Asher, or Naphtali drive out the inhabitants of their respective portions. What is the meaning of this? How came the tribes to fail to do the work allotted to them? The fact was primarily due to the difficulties of the case, without doubt, as in the case of Judah with the chariots of iron (Judges 1:19), and Dan with the robust opposition of the Amorites who “forced Dan into the mountains and would not suffer them to come down into the valley” (Judges 1:34).
But there is a question which goes behind these difficulties. How came these difficulties to prevail against a people who had overcome far greater obstacles in the original conquest of the land? It was not altogether a question of difficulty: for we read that—
“When Israel was strong, they put the Canaanites under tribute and did not drive them out” (verse 28).
This suggests that they had the power to drive them out and did not use it. That this was the case, and that for this reason their attempts against certain difficulties were failures, is made certain by the message they received from the Lord shortly afterwards:
“I made you to go up out of Egypt, and I have brought you into the land which I sware unto your fathers, and I said I will never break My covenant with you: 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? Wherefore I also said, I WILL NOT DRIVE THEM OUT FROM BEFORE YOU: they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods a snare unto you” (Judges 2:1-3).
Here is the explanation of Israel’s difficulties. God was with Israel in the overcoming of all obstacles while Israel was with Him, but when they forsook Him, then iron chariots baffled Judah’s valour; and the stout opposition of the Amorites in their various districts proved too much for the other tribes.
“The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served Baalim, and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods—the gods of the people round about them and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger. . . And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel and He delivered them into the hands of spoilers to spoil them, and sold them into the hands of their enemies, so that they could not any longer stand before their enemies; whithersoever they went, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had said and had sworn unto them, and they were greatly distressed.” (Judges 2:11-15)
The thing to think about in the picture thus placed before us is, that in the divine thwarting of Israel’s success, there was nothing apparently divine in the circumstances. They were all obviously natural in their form. If we could have followed the different bands of Israel on their several expeditions, we should have found a uniform want of success, apparently due to natural causes. They did the right thing at the wrong time, or the wrong measure was adopted, or somebody’s heart failed in the critical operation that would have ensured success, or the enemy came upon them at an unexpected moment, or they were too late in starting, or the weather was unfavourable, etc. We should have always been able to account for the failure on natural principles. Clever war correspondents of the Archibald Forbes type can always explain a disaster when it happens. They can always put their finger upon the circumstances or measure that has led to defeat. But this deals only with the surface of things. It does not touch the invisible causes of measures and circumstances. Why was such a measure thought the right thing to adopt? How came the defeat-causing circumstance to exist? Here correspondents shake their heads. They admit that this touches the inscrutable and the insoluble to human intellect. Yet here lies the root of all events which, while on the surface perfectly natural and spontaneous, may be the evolution of a secret will. Doubtless, there are myriads of events among men that have no such root, but are the mere outcome of the action and reaction of established conditions in themselves and around them. The ways of providence have no more to do with such events than in the determining which cow in a herd shall be foremost, or which dog shall succeed in the scramble for a bone. Concerning nations at large, it is testified by Paul that God who had made heaven, and earth, and sea, and all things therein “in times past, suffered all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). There is a large mass of human action with which God has nothing to do, including much that is written about by newspaper correspondents. But then, there are cases of another sort, in which results are due to divine initiation and guidance brought to bear angelically in the shape of interference with the causes of things.
In the case before us we have an instance: Israel was unprosperous because God worked against them in the manipulation of natural circumstances. The value of the instance is manifest to all who have become incorporate with Israel through the adoption of which obedient believers become subject in the obedience of the truth. Such are helped to recognise that evil, though perfectly natural, may be “of the Lord” for the punishment of sin (1 Corinthians 11:30, 32; Lamentations 3:39), or for that due chastisement which is necessary to make us partakers of His holiness (Hebrews 12: 6-10). They realise the conviction that—
“All things—absolutely all, evil (as it appears to us) as well as good—work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The application of the same principle in political affairs is obvious. God “ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whom He will” (Daniel 4:17). So it is testified, “that He putteth down one and sitteth up another.” In view of this, we are enabled to recognise a special providence in these political and military events that lead to changes in the governments of men. The movements of those governments stand related to the purpose He is working out in the earth. Therefore they are held in the lines and channels of His plan. The programme of their movements has been sketched in a rough and general way in the Apocalypse, for the information of His servants (see Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse). The execution of the programme has been entrusted to angelic hands. Consequently the events of European politics are not the haphazard operations of human whim, nor the chance achievements of human prowess. They are the results of carefully manipulated natural causes. These causes are invisibly affected in their inception, and guided to the working out of intended effects. The results that come, in so far as they bear upon the divine purpose, are due to an invisible divine control. A recognition of this fact makes all the difference between the enlightenment imparted by the truth, and the scientific paganism of the natural men of modern civilisation who are by no means so keen sighted or profound as they appear to the public eye.
God’s expressed disapprobation of Israel’s leniency to the Amorites and of their imitation of Amorite ways, had a great effect on the people.
“When the angel of the Lord spake all these words unto all the children of Israel, the people lifted up their voice and wept.”
The spectacle was moving to divine pity. It is a divine maxim that if “the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous men their thoughts and turn to the Lord He will have mercy upon them and abundantly pardon.” Israel experienced the truth of this.
“It repented the Lord because of their groanings, by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them” (Judges 2:18).
Notice may be taken here, in passing, of the comfort and encouragement there is for all who humble themselves in true repentance before God. Under Moses, sacrifice was the appointed token and the accepted form of reconciliation and approach on the part of offenders. In our day the name of Christ taken upon us in baptism and invoked in prayer, will secure the divine attention and regard.
“When the children of Israel cried unto the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel who delivered them, even Othniel, the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother; and the spirit of the Lord came upon him and he judged Israel and went out to war, and the Lord delivered Chushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, into his hand, and his hand prevailed against Chushan-rishathaim, and the land had rest forty years” (Judges 3:9).
At the end of these forty years, the enlightened views and resolutions produced by the preceding afflictions had all evaporated, so far as the multitude of Israel were concerned:
“The children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord strengthened Eglon king of Moab, against Israel; and he gathered unto him the children of Ammon and Amalek and he went and smote Israel” (Judges 3:12).
Here is a divine strengthening of an idolatrous king, as an agent of punishment against Israel. Whether we take the strengthening as physical or political, it will strike the reflecting reader that Eglon would not be aware that his strength was of divine bestowal. He would feel himself to be strong and his surroundings to be efficient and prosperous: and pagan as he was, he would, like the civilised pagans of our own day, rejoice in his strength and make it the ground of arrogance and pride. He was an instrument in the hand of the Creator, and had no more right to glory in his strength than a hippopotamus or an elephant. It may be said there is this difference, that a hippopotamus or an elephant is strong because it cannot be anything else; whereas a man’s strength in whatever sense we may take it, is the result of conditions which he controls—such as good habits, wise measures, etc. Ought not a man, it may be asked, to have credit for the results of the pains and precautions he takes? Within certain limits, God himself recognises the affirmative answer here: but, in the bearing in which we are looking at the matter, the question does not go deep enough. If a man have wisdom enough to adopt wise measures, who is to have the credit of the wisdom—the man who has received or God who has given? The answer of Eternal Wisdom is of a force that cannot be evaded.
“Who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
There is one legitimate and rational subject of “glorying.” We have special permission from the Creator himself to indulge it. The permission is conveyed in words which may seem childish to the smart superficialism of modern civilisation, but which nevertheless embody profoundest wisdom.
“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom: let not the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches; let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving kindness and judgment and righteousness in the earth: for in these things do I delight” (Jeremiah 9:23).
God strengthened Eglon by moving him, unconsciously to himself, to the adoption of these measures necessary to develop the strength, whether political or physical. So in our day, when men prosper or are strong, if it be a divine result because it can be traced to the natural measures adopted in the case, but all the more so because the person prospered has been visibly moved to those measures that have led to the prosperity, and of which, perhaps, he himself takes the credit.
Concerning the tragedy of Abimelech, we read (Judges 9:56),
“Thus God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren: and all the evil of the men of Shechem did God render upon their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham, the son of Jerubbaal.”
The point deserving attention here, as bearing on the object of these chapters, is the mode in which retribution came which is here said to have been the act of God. If it had been by supernatural cleaving of the earth, as in the case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram: or if Abimelech had been struck dead like Ananias and Sapphira, the case would not have been suitable to the present purpose. The event in that case would have belonged to the past age of open visible divine work, shortly to be resumed in a more effective form at the return of Christ, but for the moment a matter of history only. As such, it would not have been so useful to us in our interpretations of the work of God in our own day and surroundings. Standing midway (yet not really midway because we are at the end of the gap) between the past and the coming age of divine interposition, we naturally seek for guidance in those doings of God in the past which have a counterpart in our own experience. In this light, the case of Abimelech is valuable.
In what way did God render unto him according to his wickedness? The answer is to be obtained on a careful reading of the narrative contained in the lengthy ninth chapter of Judges. We recommend the earnest reader to give it an attentive perusal. We cannot do more than touch off the leading features.
Abimelech, the son of Gideon, exalted himself after his father’s death, and with the assistance of the inhabitants of Shechem, laid violent hands on his seventy brothers, and with one exception, put them all to death that he himself might reign. The exception was that of Jotham, who uttered an imprecation that proved a prophecy:
“Let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem and the house of Millo: and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and from the house of Millo and devour Abimelech.”
For three years Abimelech enjoyed the fruits of his unrighteousness in peace.
“Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem.”
Here was the beginning of a retribution which afterwards destroyed both Abimelech and his friends in guilt—the stirring-up of discord between them. Had we been witnesses of what went on between them, we should not have discerned any visible intervention of God. We should have noticed, perhaps, an irritability and proneness to take offence, which, if we had been asked the cause, we might have attributed to disordered liver. In this, perhaps, we should not have been wrong: but it might not have occurred to us that the disordered livers were due to a cause set in motion further back, for the purpose of making mischief between Abimelech and his friends. Such was the fact nevertheless.
“God sent a spirit of evil.”
He impelled the men in question into the channel of bad temper and mutual animosity. “What!” some one exclaims: “God do evil?” Yes.
“Shall there be evil in a city (in cases where God judicially interferes as in the cities of Israel referred to) and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6).
“I make peace and create evil: I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).
A barbarised theology has thrown a mist over this point. It has assigned all evil to an imaginary demon, and attributed good only to God, in the face of the revealed and natural truth that evil is God’s work in punishment of sin. Death and disease are in the world not by diabolical machination, but by the divine act and deed because of the disregard of His authority in the earth.
The evil spirit enkindled between Abimelech and his friends worked itself out in acts of mutual hostility, until they came to fighting, and in the fighting, Abimelech was slain and the men of *Abimelech burnt to ashes in their stronghold. It all came about in a perfectly natural manner, yet it was all of God, whence arises the obvious reflection that, as god has not deserted the earth, He works out retribution now in special cases in a perfectly natural way. The unenlightened natural man sees only natural mischance in the case; enlightenment discerns the hand of God.
* Bro Roberts probably intended this to be Shechem—See Judges 9:49
An illustration in a different direction is to be found in the case of Samson. When Samson was born, Israel were subject to the Philistines, who held them in a galling bondage. Samson’s birth was for Israel’s deliverance, as was explained by the angel to Samson’s mother (Judges 13). When Samson grew up, he fell in love with a Philistine woman whom he met at Timnath. He declared his love to his father and mother, and asked them to get the woman for him. This displeased them, contrary as it was to the law.
“Is there never a woman,” they said, “among the daughters of thy brethren or among all my people that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?”
It was a reasonable demur, but Samson was a special man, and this incident of his love was a link in a plan of providence for the overthrow of the Philistine dominion over Israel. This Samson’s father and mother did not know. We are told—
“His father and mother knew not that it was of the Lord that he sought occasion against the Philistines.”
The point in the case lies in the statement, “It was of the Lord.” We look at Samson subject to the fascination of this woman, and we see a picture entirely according to nature, and learn that a perfectly natural influence may be “of the Lord.” It all depends upon whether the Lord has anything to do with the matter that may be in question, and whether He has any purpose to serve. With some matters he has to do: with a thousand matters he has nothing to do.
“The Lord looked down from heaven, to see if any did seek after God.”
He hath “set apart him that is godly for Himself,” and the affairs of such are subject to His manipulation by the hands of the angels. Such are not perplexed by the apparent impossibility of knowing when the Lord is at work, and when He is not. They concern themselves not to know this in detail. Their concern begins and ends with the desire and the aim to do the Lord’s will in all things, committing their way to Him, in the determination to accept all things as from His hand, with the knowledge that the naturalness of a matter is no evidence it is not divine, but may be the mere outward form in which His providence is brought to bear in preparation for the unspeakable destiny that awaits the children of His education and choice at the coming of Christ.
Berean Home Page