III. The Judges Judges (3:7–16:31)
III. The Judges (3:7–16:31)
A. Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar (3:7-31)
3:7-11 Because God’s covenant people, the Israelites, did what was evil and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs (3:7), God let their enemies rule them. When did God start to help them? When the Israelites cried out to the Lord (3:9). “Crying out” speaks of a prayer of desperation. It means that the people had come to the end of themselves and knew they needed divine intervention. That’s why God let things get so bad in the first place—so that they would take him seriously and call on him. Unfortunately, it took them eight years to come to their senses (3:8). How long does it take you to cry out to the Lord when you experience difficulties?
That God raised up a deliverer to save them (3:9) means that he appointed them a judge or savior. A judge was basically a civil ruler whom God selected to deliver his people and take vengeance against his enemies. The Spirit of the Lord came on a man named Othniel in order to supernaturally enable him to fulfill the task (3:10). He was so successful that the land had peace for forty years (3:11). Don’t miss that it was the Israelites’ desperate cry to God that turned eight years of slavery into forty years of victory.
If you find yourself experiencing year after year of defeat, it’s time to cry out to God. Disconnect from serving any idols in your life—including the idol of self—and throw yourself completely on God’s mercy. Don’t merely pray for help. Recommit yourself to God’s agenda and to fully following him, asking him to bring you to a place of victory.
3:12-14 By the time Othniel died (3:11), Israel had gotten used to God’s goodness and again forgot about him. So after forty years of God-given peace, they again did what was evil (3:12). This time God handed the Israelites to King Eglon of Moab, and he possessed the City of Palms, which was Jericho (3:13). They served Eglon for eighteen years (3:14). So not only were the Israelites being plagued from the Canaanites within their borders, surrounding nations were picking on them too.
3:15 Once again, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. Why wait eighteen years to do so? Sometimes we can stray so far from God that we’re not conscious of how far we’ve gone or how long we’ve been gone. We can get so used to being a slave that we don’t even look to the divine deliverer. Yet when they finally called to him, God raised up another judge, a human deliverer.
3:16 Ehud made himself a double-edged sword—that is, one that was sharp on both sides. Such a weapon can make significant work of an enemy. The author of Hebrews describes the living Word of God as being “effective and sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). It will pierce the conscience and the heart, exposing motives and sin, laying its hearers bare to the penetrating gaze of an omniscient God.
3:17-26 Ehud delivered the tribute to King Eglon . . . who was an extremely fat man, and he told him, I have a secret message for you (3:17, 19). Since Ehud had lavished him with a gift, Eglon was interested to hear whatever message from God Ehud had to share (3:20). He was completely caught off guard when Ehud took his sword and plunged it into Eglon’s belly (3:21). The message from God was thus delivered: the Lord did not appreciate the king oppressing his people. By the time Eglon’s servants discovered their dead ruler, Ehud had escaped (3:24-26).
3:27-30 Ehud led the tribe of Ephraim into battle against the Moabites, and God used him to turn eighteen years of slavery into a respite of eighty years of peace (3:27-30). In this story we see not only that God providentially directed the course of history but was also involved in the small details. For instance, it was significant that Ehud was left-handed. It kept the sword on “his right thigh” safe from detection because no one would’ve expected a sword to be hidden there (3:16, 21). We tend to look for evidence of God at work in the major events and fail to notice how the little things fit together to make major events possible. So keep your eyes open for how God orders minor details before he provides deliverance.
3:31 After Ehud, Shamgar son of Anath became judge. He also delivered Israel, striking down six hundred Philistines with a cattle prod. There’s only one further mention of Shamgar later in Judges. It says, “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the main roads were deserted because travelers kept to the side roads” (5:6). That means that insecurity and volatility were so great in this man’s day that people had deserted the streets and kept to the back roads to avoid attack. Philistine thugs made life rough.
We can conclude that Shamgar was a farmer because his only weapon was a cattle prod, a pole with a sharp point on the end used to goad livestock into moving. How do you kill six hundred Philistines with one cattle prod? Probably gradually and consistently over time, rather than all at once. If so, Shamgar was an ordinary man who was dissatisfied with the Philistine oppression and used what he had to do something about it. With God’s help, he turned his ordinary cattle prod into something extraordinary.
You don’t need extraordinary resources or gifts to be used of the Lord, to make a difference in the culture. You just need to be faithful with what the Lord has given you. Think about the gifts God has provided you. Consider where God has placed you. You may have more than you think—when you open yourself to obeying his prompting and to embracing opportunities.
B. Deborah and Barak (4:1–5:31)
4:1-3 Again Israel began the cycle of walking away from God. So the Lord handed them over to King Jabin of Canaan (4:2). After Israel had been harshly oppressed for twenty years, they finally cried out to the Lord for help (4:3).
4:4-5 Here we’re introduced to Deborah, a prophetess and female judge (4:4). She was a leader in the civil arena. A prophet or prophetess is a person who communicates God’s will about a specific scenario. He or she tells others how they ought to respond in accordance with God’s Word. Interestingly, God would speak through Deborah to call a man to lead the coming military battle.
4:6-7 Deborah summoned Barak, who was from Kedesh in Naphtali, to lead Israelite men against Jabin’s army (4:6-7). Kedesh was a Levitical city (see Josh 21:1-3, 32), which suggests that Barak was a Levite. Deborah understood that Israel needed spiritual deliverance from their social reality, and it would come in the form of a literal battle.
Through Deborah, God told Barak what he was going to do and what he wanted Barak to do. This brings to mind Paul’s insight, which says that we are “working together with [God]” (2 Cor 6:1). God sovereignly works to accomplish his purposes, but he expects our participation in the spiritual battles we face. Too often believers are waiting for God to act, when he is actually waiting for us to step up.
4:8-9 Notice Barak’s hesitance. He replied to Deborah, If you will not go with me, I will not go (4:8). Though Deborah agreed to his request, she informed him that a woman would receive the honor for the victory ahead (4:9). In other words, Barak was going to miss out on blessing because he balked at obeying God’s command to assume leadership. Make no mistake: if God can’t find the right man to take care of a task, he will find a good woman. Many women have had to act because the men who should have been leading the way chose passivity.
4:10-16 Sisera, King Jabin’s commander, had his nine hundred iron chariots (4:13) lined up against Barak and his ten thousand men (4:10). Deborah told Barak, Go! This is the day the Lord has handed Sis-era over to you (4:14). In other words, she was saying, “The victory is in your reach, Barak, but it’s just not yet in your hand. You must act to obtain it.” And when he did, the world got to see what can happen when the human and the divine work together: the Lord threw Sisera . . . into a panic before Barak’s assault. God guaranteed the victory, but Barak had to respond in obedience.
4:17-21 Sisera ran to the tent of Heber the Kenite, because Sisera’s king, Jabin, was at peace with Heber (4:17). Unknown to Sisera, however, Heber’s wife Jael had decided to align herself with the Lord and his people. She gave Sisera some warm milk and a blanket, welcoming him as if he were a guest who could find safe refuge with her and allowed him to fall asleep (4:18-20). Once he was cozy, Jael took a tent peg and hammered [it] into his temple (4:21). Jael knew that Sisera and Jabin were wicked enemies of God’s people, and she recognized that a wife is not to follow her husband into rebellion against the Lord. So when given the opportunity to fight back against the enemies of Israel, Jael took action on behalf of God.
4:22-24 When Barak arrived, Sisera was already dead (4:22). As Deborah had prophesied in 4:9, a woman, Jael—“most blessed of women” (5:24) was given credit for his demise. From that day forward, as God and Israel worked together, the power of the Israelites continued to increase . . . until they destroyed Jabin altogether (4:24). God and man working in partnership against their common enemy is the principle behind spiritual warfare.
5:1-11 Deborah and Barak . . . sang a song of victory and praise. Clearly, even though Israel fought valiantly, the Lord is the hero of the song. The leaders led, the people volunteered to fight, and the warriors performed righteous deeds (5:2, 9, 11). But the Lord deserved the praise and blessings because of his righteous acts (5:2-3, 9, 11). He made Israel victorious.
Deborah is significant because she was a mother in Israel (5:7). Paul says that a woman “will be saved through childbearing” (see commentary on 1 Tim 2:15). He’s saying that mothers experience spiritual victory in their unique role of raising children to submit to God’s kingdom and battle the forces of darkness in his name. Mothers, don’t take your role lightly, because motherhood is a noble role through which God works to undermine Satan’s work. And on this day motherhood saved Israel.
5:12-31 After recounting the battle (5:12-23), the song praises Jael as the most blessed of women (5:24). Though her husband was at peace with Jabin and Sisera (4:17), Jael knew Sisera was the enemy of God’s people (5:25-27). Thus, when she killed Sisera, she saved her husband, because he had thought it no big deal to be in league with someone aligned against God’s people. As a result, the land had peace for forty years (5:31).
C. Gideon and Abimelech (6:1–9:57)
6:1-6 Sadly, over time Israel again did what was evil, so the Lord handed them over to Midian (6:1). The oppression grew so bad that they had to hide in caves (6:2). Their enemies destroyed their crops and wasted the land until the people of Israel were poverty-stricken (6:3-6). This happened because God was no longer covering them since they had departed from his covenant. It’s a reminder that when we stray from the Lord, he will sometimes allow a crisis in our lives to compel our return.
6:7-10 The Israelites cried out to the Lord again in a desperate appeal for divine intervention (6:7). But before God delivered them this time, he wanted to make some things clear. God reminded them through a prophet of all he had done for them by delivering them from slavery in Egypt, providing them with a land to live in, and conquering the people and gods who opposed them (6:8-10). Yet, in spite of all the Lord’s kindness to them, they continued to do “what was evil” in his sight (6:1). They did not obey him (6:10), and it had cost them as he had warned (see Deut 28:15-25).
6:11-12 Normally wheat is threshed in a place that catches a breeze so that the chaff is blown away. But Gideon was threshing wheat in the winepress in order to hide it from the Midianites (6:11). Thus, things were bleak, and Gideon was hiding. That’s why it’s so surprising that the heavenly visitor said to him, The Lord is with you, valiant warrior (6:12). Indeed, Gideon’s success as a warrior would be dependent on whether or not the Lord was with him.
6:13 Gideon was perplexed. If God was with Israel, why [had] all this happened? Though Gideon had heard about the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, he felt that they had since been abandoned. Gideon could only see his own circumstances and not the big picture. Yes, God had saved Israel from Egypt, but he had saved them for a covenant relationship with him. They “did not obey” him (6:10) and were now suffering the cov-enant consequences.
6:14-16 Gideon had been minding his own business. (Always leave room for divine interruptions, because God does not always tell you up front when he wants to take you in a direction you didn’t plan to go.) Then God told him to deliver Israel from the grasp of Midian (6:14). Hiding in a winepress threshing wheat, Gideon certainly wasn’t expecting a call to war. After all, he was young and came from an inadequate family (6:15). He couldn’t understand why God had chosen him. But God responded to Gideon just as he had responded to Moses’s concerns of inadequacy years prior: I will be with you (6:16; see Exod 3:11-12). The key to accomplishing an impossible task is always walking in the presence of God.
6:17-21 Gideon must have thought he was dreaming when the Lord tapped him to defend Israel. Perhaps that’s why he wanted some proof, a sign, that God was speaking (6:17). So he prepared an offering, and the visitor told him to put the meat, bread, and broth on a stone (6:19-20). Then the angel of the Lord caused the offering to be consumed by fire, and he vanished from Gideon’s sight (6:21). Gideon wanted a sign that God was really speaking to him; miraculous proof doesn’t get much better than that.
6:22-24 When Gideon realized whom he had been chatting with, he said, Oh no, Lord God! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face! (6:22). Likely he had in mind the Lord’s words to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for humans cannot see me and live” (Exod 33:20). But in response to Gideon’s fear, the Lord assured him that he would live (6:23). It’s clear, then, that Gideon did not see the full, unshielded expression of God’s glory. As a result of the encounter, Gideon built an altar, and called it The Lord Is Peace (6:24).
6:25-27 Gideon’s first task as judge was to tear down the altar of Baal that belonged to his father and cut down the Asherah pole beside it (6:25). It took two bulls and ten of his male servants to tear down the altar, so it was obviously a major presence on his father’s property. There’s a principle at work here: Don’t expect God to do something outside of your home if you’re not willing to get things right inside your home. In spite of Gideon’s courageous action, he was afraid (6:27), but his fear didn’t lead to disobedience.
6:28-32 In the morning, the men of the city observed what had happened and discovered that Gideon was responsible (6:28-29). So they told Joash, Gideon’s father, to give him up for execution (6:30). That provides a clear picture of just how bad idolatry had become in Israel—these people wanted to kill a man who had torn down an idol and erected in its place an altar for the God who had rescued them from Egypt. Perhaps Gideon’s father saw the irony in that when he argued that Baal, if he was real, didn’t need them to fight his battles (6:31). Surely, he said in effect, a god can defend himself! Thus, by God’s grace Gideon earned a reputation as Jerubbaal, “Baal Fighter” (6:32).
6:33-35 When the three nations who had been victimizing Israel (6:33) gathered to descend on her again, the Spirit of the Lord enveloped Gideon (6:33-34). So he blew the ram’s horn and four Israelite tribes rallied behind him (6:34-35). Things happened quickly after that, bringing to mind the truth that when God is ready to move in your circumstance, change can happen in a moment.
6:36-38 Gideon had heard God’s promise of deliverance (6:14-16), but he was afraid. He wanted further assurance. So he said, I will put a wool fleece here on the threshing floor. If dew is only on the fleece, and all the ground is dry, I will know that you will deliver Israel by my strength (6:37). Now, we would expect the dew to cover not just an object resting on the ground, but the ground itself. So Gideon was asking God to interrupt the natural order of things with a deviation from the usual, which is the definition of a miracle. God compassionately responded to his request: in the morning, Gideon wrung dew out of the fleece though the surrounding earth was dry (6:38).
6:39-40 Gideon was like the man who told Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Though he’d had a divine visit and God did as Gideon requested (6:38), that wasn’t enough for Gideon. This time, he asked for the reverse as a sign: dry fleece and wet ground (6:39). God responded mercifully (6:40).
7:1-3 The time to fight had arrived. And while Gideon could certainly have used some encouraging words from the Lord, God had a surprise for him. He said, You have too many troops (7:2). Now, we just read in 6:5 that the Midianites were “without number” and “like a great swarm of locusts.” So if anything, Gideon probably was hoping for more warriors to join his army. But God was thinking of his own glory and the good of his people. God knew that if Israel fought with superior numbers, they might elevate themselves over him and say, My own strength saved me (7:2). So, to keep them from proudly trusting in themselves, God reduced their number by more than half (7:3). Though his ways may puzzle you at times, God wants you to live life his way so that he gets all the glory.
7:4-8 Yet again God said there were too many (7:4). So Gideon led them to water, and God said, Separate everyone who laps water with his tongue like a dog. Do the same with everyone who kneels to drink (7:4-5). Through this, God chose the three hundred men who took water in their hands, stood, and lapped it from their hands (7:6-7). They were alert to what was happening around them. And since what was to follow was a holy war, they needed to be standing alert, fully committed even when eating or drinking. Gideon kept only three hundred troops (7:8).
7:9-15 God promised that he had handed the Midianites over to Gideon (7:9), but he also offered him some “insider information.” He told him to go near the enemy’s camp and listen. What he heard would encourage him to attack (7:10-11). Sure enough, Gideon overheard a conversation about a dream in which a loaf of barley bread rolled down into the Midianite camp and destroyed it (7:13). A Midianite soldier interpreted the dream to mean that God [had] handed the entire Midianite camp over to Gideon (7:14). That was all Gideon needed to hear (7:15).
7:15-25 When Gideon got the boost of encouragement needed, he first bowed in worship, no doubt thanking God for it (7:15). Gideon then divided the three hundred men into three groups, and they circled the camp in the middle of the night (7:16; see 7:12). Then each man shattered a clay pitcher, uncovered a torch, blew a trumpet, and shouted, A sword for the Lord and for Gideon! (7:20). The noise startled the Midianites from sleep. They assumed they were being overrun by a superior force. In fact, God created such confusion among the enemy that they began fighting one another (7:22). As a result, they were completely defeated, and their leaders were executed (7:23-25).
God calls us to follow his agenda, even when it doesn’t make sense. He wants you to watch and see what he can do in response to your obedience and faith. When God is ready to move, it doesn’t matter how big your “enemy” is. The Midianites were shattered by the power of God working through the people of God in the midst of dark circumstances. Let the church take notice. Even when we don’t understand things and think the odds are against us, God calls us to do what he says—individually and collectively—and then watch him work.
8:1-3 The men of Ephraim were upset that they were called at the end of the battle, rather than at the beginning (8:1). But Gideon told them the mopping-up operations were also important, and they were assuaged for the moment (8:2-3).
8:4-9 Gideon and his little army soon grew weary from chasing the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. So they asked the men of the city of Succoth, Please give some loaves of bread to the troops (8:5). Yet while Gideon was a brother to the men of Succoth, they weren’t willing to risk siding with him against God’s enemies—whom Gideon hadn’t actually caught yet (8:6). Frustrated by this lack of support, Gideon promised that when he had dealt with God’s enemies, I will tear your flesh with thorns and briers (8:7). When the men of Penuel proved similarly disinclined to help, Gideon promised to tear down their tower (8:8-9).
8:10-21 With the Lord’s help, Gideon routed what was left of Midian’s army and captured the two kings (8:10-12). On the way home, he whipped the leaders of Succoth and tore down the tower and killed the men of Penuel—as promised (8:13-17).
8:22-23 In response to Gideon’s victory, the Israelites said, Rule over us, you as well as your sons and your grandsons, for you delivered us from the power of Midian. Gideon was already the deliverer God provided, but the Israelites wanted more: they wanted a king. But God didn’t intend them to be like other nations. He did not want them to have a monarchy until they had learned to live under him: the Lord will rule over you (8:23). When men do not know how to be ruled properly under God, they are willing to be ruled improperly by man because man will seek to become a god.
8:24-27 Gideon rejected their request to be their king, and that’s good (8:23). Yet he asked each of them to give him an earring of gold (8:24). With these he made an ephod, and it became a spiritual trap for Israel, for Gideon, and for his family (8:27). An ephod was a priestly article that fit like a vest. There was only one official ephod; it was to be used only by a Levitical priest in the tabernacle (see Exod 28:6-14). Thus Gideon chose to make something that he shouldn’t have to use in a place where such a thing didn’t belong. In doing so, he assumed an illegitimate position of religious authority that had not been assigned to him. And as the Israelites looked to him and his ephod to be a spiritual guide, they were unfaithful to God’s program.
8:28-31 Israel had peace for forty years (8:28). But, unfortunately, Gideon had seventy sons . . . since he had many wives (8:28, 30). Things didn’t go as smoothly under Gideon’s leadership as they might have. Whenever you see polygamy in the Bible, you’ve got a messy situation that contrasts with God’s stated his design for marriage (see Gen 2:23-24). As if Gideon’s “many wives” aren’t alarming enough, he also had a concubine (that’s a mistress), and he named their son Abimelech, which means—get ready for this—“My Father Is King” (8:31). It seems that the power Gideon got from acting like a priest had gone to his head, and he was setting the stage for a dynasty. That’s just the kind of overreach that can happen when someone is given unlimited power without accountability. Every leader needs limits and advisors to hold him in check.
8:32-35 Eventually Gideon died, and immediately the Israelites turned and prostituted themselves by worshiping false gods (8:32). Not only did the Israelites fail to remember that ultimately it was God who had delivered them from their enemies, but they didn’t even respect Gideon’s family for all he had done for them (8:34-35).
As a result, they’d started worshiping Baal-berith, “Baal of the covenant” (8:33). In other words, they were practicing religious syncretism: they were mixing faiths, worshiping Baal and mixing it with God’s covenant with them. This is much like what happened when a previous generation made a golden-calf idol and called it the one who brought Israel up from Egypt (see Exod 32:4-5). Such compromises can only lead to death.
9:1-6 Gideon’s polygamous ways led to a series of complicated events. His son Abim-elech, having aspirations to rule, decided to get rid of Gideon’s other seventy sons—the competition (9:2). He hired worthless men to kill all of them—though one escaped (9:4-5). Don’t miss that this deed was carried out on top of a large stone (9:5). Since such stones were used as altars, we are to understand that this was human sacrifice. The man literally sacrificed his family for political power. And the local citizens proceeded to make him their king (9:6)!
These horrible events were set in motion when the people departed from God with their syncretistic religious practices. It’s a chilling reminder that when we compromise with idolatry—even just a little—it is fatal. Satan often tempts people to consume his spiritual poison by camouflaging it with truth. Without godly discernment, rooted in God’s Word, you won’t know what you’re believing and following until you’re spiritually sick.
9:7-21 Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham, who had escaped the slaughter, stood on Mount Gerizim, the place of blessing (see Deut 11:29), when he received the news that Abim-elech had been named king (9:7). He told the people a parable about how the trees were looking for a leader to rule over them. Each tree they asked said, “No,” because the work they were already doing was honoring God and benefitting people. But finally, in their desperation to be ruled, the trees asked the bramble—a thornbush to lead them. Importantly, the bramble is unproductive and is a symbol of the curse (see Gen 3:18). To be called a bramble was no compliment; to have put one in leadership was stupid.
The bramble effectively said, “If you don’t let me rule over you like I want to rule over you, I will destroy you.” That was Jotham’s warning that Abimelech planned to rule the people with totalitarian authority, which is an illegitimate use of rule, biblically speaking. He wouldn’t share power with God; he’d simply destroy anyone who opposed him. Having given his warning, Jotham fled for his life (9:21).
9:22-24 God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem (9:22-23). Notice who did the action in that sentence. God and the devil do not battle as equals. God is sovereign; Satan is not. God can use the devil to mess up a situation that is offensive to his will.
9:25-41 God created chaos and conflict in Israel. The citizens of Shechem used to be Gideon’s friends, but now they cursed his son Abimelech, their chosen monarch (9:27). A man named Gaal seized power and taunted Abimelech, but Zebul, the ruler of the city, secretly sent messengers to Abimelech and told him to set an ambush for Gaal (9:31-32). Unresolvable madness was taking over Israel, and people were taking sides. This is precisely what happens when God uses the devil like a tool to deal with evil.
9:42-49 Abimelech caught most of the people of Shechem outside the gate and slaughtered them (9:42-45). Meanwhile, their local leaders holed up in the temple of El-berith, meaning “God of the Covenant,” because they thought their god would protect them. When Abimelech set fire to the temple and everyone died, there could be no doubt that this so-called deity was powerless (9:46-49). Thus, Jotham’s curse: “May fire come from Abimelech and consume the citizens of Shechem” (9:20) was fulfilled. But this was only the first half of the curse. The fulfillment of the second half would see that Abimelech was destroyed, too.
9:50-55 What goes around comes around—maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but one day. Abimelech, continuing his rampage, went to destroy Thebez (9:50). As the people of that town huddled on the roof of their tower for protection against the invasion, Abimelech approached. Then, a woman above threw the upper portion of a millstone on Abimelech’s head and fractured his skull (9:53). As Abimelech realized the severity of his injuries, he called on his right hand man to kill him so that the people could not say that he had been killed by a woman (9:54). Nevertheless, though his armor bearer obeyed his request, Scripture reports the truth of his embarrassing end. Once again in the book of Judges, a woman brings an end to a godless man (see 4:17-22; 5:24-27).
9:56-57 Why did this all happen? Because God brought back Abimelech’s evil on his own head (9:56). God did not forget that the man had slain his seventy brothers. God also brought back to the men of Shechem all their evil in helping him to do it and naming that wicked man king. Thus, the curse of Jotham son of Jerubbaal came upon them (9:57). That righteous man, Jotham, had gone to the place of blessing and called on God to show justice, and—in his perfect timing—God dealt justly with the situation.
D. Tola, Jair, and Jephthah (10:1–12:7)
10:1-5 Judge Tola’s name means “worm.” We know little about him other than that he was from Issachar and judged Israel twenty-three years (10:1-2). Tola was followed by Jair, who had had thirty sons (10:4). That high number suggests that he, like Gideon, was a polygamist trying to build a dynasty.
After sharing how long each of these judges judged, the author notes their deaths (10:2, 5). This signals to the reader that no human judge could serve as the people’s permanent source of deliverance. While God works through people, we have only one ongoing source—the living and true God.
10:6-7 With Tola and Jair gone, the Israelites repeated the cycle that is so central to the book of Judges. They worshiped . . . the gods of the surrounding peoples. They abandoned the Lord (10:6). And, right on cue, God sold them to the Philistines and the Ammonites (10:7). At work here is a sobering spiritual principle. If you demand to worship false gods, God will eventually let you be ruled by your preferences.
10:8-14 After they had suffered terribly for eighteen years (10:8), the Israelites finally cried out to the Lord and confessed their sin (10:10). When their enemies had oppressed them in the past, God had delivered them every time. Yet clearly, they had not learned or grown. This time he said, I will not deliver you again. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them deliver you (10:11-14). If God is finished with you, then where will you appeal in an oppressive situation? To whom will you go for deliverance? If the people were honest with themselves, they had to realize that there was no one else to whom they could go for deliverance.
10:15-16 Desperate for help, the Israelites said, We have sinned. Deal with us as you see fit; only rescue us today! And to try to show repentance, they got rid of the foreign gods among them and worshiped the Lord (10:15-16). Now, here we have an interesting switch. Previously, when they said, “We have sinned,” the people kept the gods in their back pockets. They’d been all talk and no action. But when they said, “We’ve sinned, please deliver us,” and they got rid of their gods, God was willing to act on their behalf (10:16).
What happened here? In verse 14 God said, “I will not deliver you again.” Yet when they repented, God did something he had said he wasn’t going to do. When our actions realign us with God’s will, doors of blessing can open to us that were previously closed. Confessing our sins through repentance and getting back on track through action is key. Confession is acknowledging sin, but repentance is turning away from it. And it’s the combination that God desires.
The Bible says that God does not change his mind (see Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). So why does it seem that he did so here? Though God’s being and moral character do not change, he can change in his relationship with humans based on how they relate to him. And when he does this, he is still being consistent with himself because he has promised to show mercy, grace, and forgiveness to those who truly repent and believe.
This passage also says something else about God: he expresses emotions. The Bible speaks of his anger, sadness, grief, and joy. While we express similar emotions because we are made in God’s image, sin has distorted our feelings. Yet God is perfect, and his emotions are too. He couldn’t bear to see Israel hurting anymore. So he chose to prepare a new deliverer.
11:1-11 Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute (11:1). Why did the author tell us that detail about his parentage? Because as the man’s story unfolds, we’ll see that your background doesn’t determine your usefulness to God. Rahab the harlot, for instance, cast herself on the mercy of the Lord and ended up being in the lineage of Jesus Christ (see Josh 1:21; 6:22-23; Matt 1:5). So although Jephthah’s family drove him out and he lived in another country for a while, he was still of worth to God’s kingdom plan. When his kinsmen wanted to draft him to lead them militarily (11:4-6), Jephthah agreed. He also made them vow to God to make him their leader if he agreed to defeat the Ammonites (11:9-10). His days of living as an outcast were over.
11:12-28 First Jephthah tried to work things out with the Ammonites through negotiation. The king of the Ammonites said, When Israel came from Egypt, they seized my land (11:13). But Jephthah explained what had really happened. When Israel asked to pass through the same general area when they came out of Egypt, Sihon king of the Amorites wouldn’t let them and attacked Israel instead (11:19-20). So the Lord helped Israel defeat Sihon’s people and gave them their land (11:21-23). But the king of the Ammonites would not listen to Jephthah’s message (11:28).
11:29-31 The Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah (11:29). This was a supernatural endowment to fulfill a particular task. Jephthah was so intent on defeating Israel’s enemy that he wanted to let God know that he was serious about following through on the job. He vowed that if God handed over the Ammonites to him, he would offer the first thing that walked out of his home as a burnt offering to the Lord (11:30-31).
11:32-40 God gave Jephthah victory (11:32-33), and when he came home, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with tambourines and dancing! (11:34). Who knows what he was expecting to walk out when he made the vow, but it was his only child, his daughter. If it had been an animal, he would have sacrificed it on the altar, but since it was a person, she would be dedicated to the Lord’s service for the rest of her life (Ps 68:25)—like a nun or a priest. She submitted to her fate, but she wept over her virginity (11:36-37). She would not be able to marry and have a family.
Jephthah’s condition for leading this army was to be made the leader of Gilead (11:9). Clearly he had aspirations to be king, to build a family dynasty. But until the Israelites were willing to look to God as their King, he didn’t want them to have a human king, because unless a government is accountable to God, men in power will act like gods. Consider Gideon, Abimelech, Jephthah (and, later, Saul): God blocked any dynasty that would be man-centered and not God-centered. So when Jephthah’s daughter, his only offspring, came out of his house to meet him, his dynasty plans were thwarted. Though God calls us to obey governing authorities (see Rom 13:1), we are to give our ultimate allegiance to him because he is sovereign (see Acts 5:29).
12:1-6 Just as in the days of Gideon, the men of Ephraim were upset because they hadn’t been called into the battle right away (12:1; see 8:1). This time the dispute resulted in Israel’s tribes fighting each other. And ultimately, forty-two thousand Israelites were killed because of wounded pride (12:6). The Bible highlights pride as one of the chief sins. Pride means thinking more of yourself than you ought, and it’s the very thing that led to Satan’s fall. He wanted to be like God—that is, he wanted to be more than he was created to be (see Ezek 28:14-17). All of us fight pride on different levels, but to battle against it successfully, you must remember that (1) God hates pride and (2) you’re not him.
12:7 Jephthah judged Israel six years, and then he died. Thus, another flawed Israelite judge delivered the people and then passed from the scene.
E. Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson (12:8–16:31)
12:8-15 After Jephthah, Ibzan judged Israel seven years, then he died (12:9-10). Elon judged Israel ten years, then he died (12:11-12). Abdon judged Israel eight years, then he died (12:14-15). This brings us to a sobering reality: unless Christ comes first, we’re all going to die. And how we will be remembered will come down to the choices we make: will we, like these judges, serve God or something else?
If you want to be a doctor, but you don’t want to go to medical school, then you don’t really want to be a doctor, because you’re not doing what is necessary to achieve what you want. Similarly, if you want to reign with Christ, you have to trust and follow Christ in the here and now.
13:1-3 Again the Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord handed them over to the Philistines forty years (13:1). At this point the author introduces us to a man named Manoah, whose wife was unable to conceive (13:2). Her barrenness was outside of her control, but it was fully under the control of the sovereign God of heaven. He was getting ready to do something remarkable in her life. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, You will . . . give birth to a son (13:3). And that son, that miracle, would be Israel’s next deliverer.
When you are discouraged and can’t seem to see your way past a difficult time, seek God and ask him what he’s up to behind the scenes. He won’t necessarily remove the source of your discouragement. But he never does anything without a reason. Your trying circumstances may be an opportunity for God to work remarkably in your life and conform you to the likeness of Christ.
13:4-5 This promised boy would grow up and begin to save Israel from the Philistines’ power (13:5). And with this role came a job requirement not made of the other judges: the angel instructed Manoah’s wife to rear the child under the Nazirite vow. As explained in Numbers 6:1-21, this meant that he was not to drink wine or beer or cut his hair (13:5). But remarkably, the angel told the woman not to drink wine or beer, or to eat anything unclean while she was pregnant (13:4). That meant that her son was to be consecrated to God as a Nazirite even in the womb. This is wonderful evidence that personhood begins at conception.
Every moral issue we face in our culture has a spiritual component to it. Abortion, for instance, is a spiritual matter because it’s the destruction of a person created in the image of God. Throughout his Word, God condemns those who shed innocent blood (see Prov 6:16-17), and no blood is more innocent than a child in the womb.
13:6-14 Even though the heavenly visitor was talking directly to her, the woman showed her respect for her husband when she went and told [him] what happened (13:6). At the news, Manoah prayed that the angel would come again (13:8). He wanted confirmation that the marvelous report he’d heard was true, and God graciously granted it. The angel came again, confirmed what he had said, and provided further details (13:13-14).
13:15-18 Presumably, Manoah thought he was talking to a mere man sent from the Lord, so he said, Please stay here, and we will prepare a young goat for you (13:15). The visitor agreed to stay, but said he wouldn’t eat anything. It would be more appropriate for the couple to offer a burnt offering (13:16). At this, Manoah asked for the man’s name, and he replied, It is beyond understanding (13:18).
This cryptic statement is a reminder that while we often think we understand what he is going to do in our lives, the Lord likes to shock us with his marvelous ways. So don’t put God in a box. He can unpredictably bust right past all your preconceived ideas.
13:19-23 When Manoah put the burnt offering on a rock as requested, the visitor did something miraculous: he ascended in the flame and went up to the sky. Manoah and his wife fell facedown on the ground at the sight (13:19-20). Suddenly, Manoah was terrified and said, We’re certainly going to die . . . because we have seen God! (13:22). He rightly equated the angel of the Lord with God.
This is another Old Testament Christophany—a pre-incarnate but visible manifestation of Christ (see 2:1-2). Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, is the manifestation of God in history. The eternal Father, who existed before time and who initiated it, routes his activity in time through Jesus. Just as the sun is the center of our solar system, the Son is the center of God’s working in history. He has “first place in everything” (Col 1:18).
13:24-25 Manoah’s wife named her child Samson. God blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him, readying Samson for the work prepared for him.
14:1-4 For a man set apart for God’s service since birth, Samson made some questionable life decisions—ultimately proving that God can use a person in spite of himself. Samson went down to Timnah and saw a young Philistine woman there (14:1). He told his parents to arrange a marriage with her. His parents tried to speak wisdom into his life by telling him he should not marry someone who was not a part of God’s people. But they didn’t know that his interest in this particular woman was from the Lord, who wanted the Philistines to provide an opportunity for a confrontation (14:4). God threw a curve ball. He would use Samson’s fascination with this woman to create an opportunity to deliver his people. God was providentially working uniquely in Samson’s circumstances to accomplish his purposes.
Importantly, though, a believer is not to use this passage to justify marrying an unbeliever. Samson’s parents were right. The Lord had warned his people not to intermarry with the surrounding nations because they didn’t worship the One True God (see Deut 7:1-3). And similarly, believers should not be partners with unbelievers (see 2 Cor 6:14). Christians should marry only Christians. A couple that is unequally yoked is likely to run into trouble.
14:5-9 On the way to Timnah where his bride-to-be lived, Samson was attacked by a young lion, and the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on him, and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands (14:6). This was a clear sign that indeed he had been elected and empowered by God for a supernatural purpose. But later, when he discovered that bees had made a hive in the carcass, Samson blatantly ignored the law of Moses regarding unclean foods and took some of the honey (14:8-9).
14:10-14 At a feast probably intended to serve as his engagement party, Samson decided to pose a riddle to the Philistines (14:10-12). The prize for answering the riddle within a week would be thirty changes of clothes (14:12). (In biblical days, an additional set of clothing was a sign of honor and dignity.) Samson, his recent kill and the accompanying honey on his mind, said, Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet (14:14). When the Philistines couldn’t figure out the meaning, they became furious.
14:15-20 The men threatened to kill Samson’s bride (who, remember, was one of their own) and her family unless she got Samson to tell her the answer and share it with them (14:15). Frightened, she wept in front of Samson for seven days, and finally he couldn’t take it anymore because she had nagged him so much (14:17). So he told her the answer. Later, when the Philistine men parroted the answer (14:18), Samson knew how they had obtained it. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on him, and he killed thirty Philistine men in another town, giving their clothes to these men to keep the deal he’d struck (14:19). After that, he returned home—without his wife (14:19-20).
15:1-8 Some time later, Samson brought about further destruction on the Philistines. He wanted to visit his wife, but her father would not let him enter her room. He had given her to another man because he assumed Samson was not happy with her (15:1-2). Samson was enraged by this news. Since the Philistines had interfered with his family “harvest”—his plan to start a family with this woman—he decided to interfere with their harvest. He destroyed their crops by catching three hundred foxes, tying their tails together with rope and torches, setting them on fire, and releasing them into their fields (15:3-5). In response, the Philistines killed Samson’s wife and her father (15:6). And Samson, in turn, avenged the murders with his bare hands (15:8).
15:9-13 While Samson hid in a cave, the Philistines attacked a town in Judah to pay Samson back. To pacify the Philistines, three thousand men of Judah went to arrest Samson, saying that he had brought trouble on them by riling up the Philistine oppressors (15:11). (Don’t miss the irony here. They chose to hand over the man God had sent to save them from the Philistines to the Philistines.) Samson went along with them, but only after they promised that they would not kill him themselves (15:12-13).
15:14-17 When the Philistines saw the bound Samson approaching, they shouted. But in that moment, the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on Samson (15:14). This was bad news for the Philistines: If you’re fighting against someone, you don’t want the Spirit of the Lord to come powerfully on him! Since Samson was empowered by God’s Spirit, his enemies were outnumbered. The ropes used to tie him up were nothing, given his strength (15:14). He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey . . . and killed a thousand men with it (15:15). The empowerment of the Lord allowed him to do what would’ve otherwise been impossible.
15:18-20 When Samson finished executing judgment on the Philistines, he became very thirsty and called out to the Lord (15:18). The Lord graciously responded by making a spring there to restore his strength. So Samson called it, “Spring of the One Who Cried Out” (15:19). And he judged Israel twenty years (15:20).
Whenever the Spirit of the Lord came on Samson, supernatural activity followed. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of the Lord came on people specifically related to certain events. Since New Testament times, however, the Spirit of the Lord comes to indwell every believer (see Eph 1:13-14; Rom 8:9). In other words, on this side of the cross the supernatural presence of God is not related to the Spirit coming on believers, but to the fullness of the Spirit at work within us. The Spirit “came powerfully on” Samson for supernatural purposes. And this same Spirit is in us today.
One reason that we don’t see more of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural activity in our time is that we often fail to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16). That is, we are so busy doing life the world’s way that we fail to honor his presence in our lives. By contrast, we should “be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18), which essentially means living under his control.
16:1 Samson’s personal choices become even more concerning at this point in the narrative. Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went to bed with her. Now, for years the people of Israel had “prostituted themselves with other gods” (2:17; 8:27, 33). They had blatantly compromised with the surrounding culture and betrayed the Lord. And by this season of his life, Samson the leader was openly living in a way that reflected what Israel had been doing. This trend would be his downfall.
16:2-3 The Philistines in Gaza discovered Samson was with the prostitute and thought they had him trapped. They guarded the town’s exit. But when Samson was ready to leave, he simply took hold of the doors of the city gate along with the two gateposts, and pulled them out, bar and all. He put them on his shoulders and took them to the top of the mountain overlooking Hebron (16:3). You or I couldn’t carry these massive doors a block’s distance on level ground! This scene serves as proof that though Samson was outside of the will of God in what he was doing, God had not left him—yet.
16:4-5 Samson was in a downward spiral when Delilah entered his life, and he fell in love with her (16:4). It is not clear whether Delilah was a Philistine woman, but her loyalties lay with them and their silver. The Philistine leaders asked her to persuade Samson to confide in her about where his great strength [came] from, so that they could overpower him, tie him up, and make him helpless. They promised her a great deal of money for her aid (16:5).
16:6-17 Three times Delilah tried to learn his secret, while the Philistines lay waiting to ambush him (16:6-14). Each time Samson gave her a false story about the source of his strength. But she steadily wore him down. In the end, Delilah used the very trick Samson’s bride had once employed when she betrayed him to the Philistines. She pleaded, How can you say, “I love you” . . . when your heart is not with me? (See 14:15-20). And she accused him of mocking her (16:15). Of course, if she really loved him, she wouldn’t set him up like this. In the end, because she nagged him day after day . . . until she wore him out, he finally told her the whole truth (16:16-17). If his hair were cut, he would lose his strength and become like any other man (16:17).
16:18-20 Delilah didn’t waste time. She had Samson’s head shaved while he slept on her lap (16:19). And since the Philistine leaders were waiting in the shadows and had brought the silver with them (16:18), she was free to count her dirty money while the deed was done.
Once Samson had been made helpless, we read these sad, pitiful words: When he awoke from his sleep, he said, “I will escape as I did before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him (16:20).
Samson let his relationship with Delilah take priority over his commitments to God, and it cost him dearly. This is evidence that no human relationship, no matter how close, is to trump your relationship with the Lord.
16:21 Samson’s sin cost him tremendously. The Philistines gouged out Samson’s eyes, put him in shackles, and set him to work in prison. In other words, the enemies of God were suddenly in control of his every move. This is a reminder that when God is no longer in a life’s equation, Satan controls the situation.
16:22 Here we get a hint that God wasn’t done with Samson yet. Why else would we need to be told that his hair, which was the secret to his strength, had begun to grow back? His hair’s return was an outward symbol that he was inwardly repentant and turning back to God. His repentance would become apparent in his upcoming prayer to the Lord (16:28).
Sometimes God has to take you as low as you can possibly go to get your undivided attention. Samson was at the bottom. But his hair was growing back.
16:23-24 As Samson ground grain in the prison, the Philistine leaders gathered together to offer a great sacrifice to their god Dagon (16:23). They were ready to celebrate that their god had handed over their enemy to them (16:24). But there was a problem with their reasoning: Dagon hadn’t handed Samson over to them at all; God had. Thus, the battle between Samson and his tormentors was not merely personal or political but theological.
When we are in a conflict, we should retreat as quickly as we can to the spiritual nature of the battle, as young David would do years later when facing off against this same people group and their champion, Goliath (see 1 Sam 17:45-47). David heard the challenge the man made in defiance of God and quickly realized that the battle to be fought was spiritual in nature, even though it would be played out in the physical arena. He saw it as a conflict between the god of the Philistines and the true God. We must do the same, recognizing that our conflicts are spiritual and theological, not merely physical or emotional.
16:25-31 The Philistines were in good spirits at their party. They called for Samson to amuse them, and they had him stand between the pillars of the temple (16:25). In doing so, they set themselves up for destruction. The temple was full of men and women . . . and about three thousand [people] were on the roof (16:27). Samson, aware of this, prayed that God would strengthen him one last time, so that he might bring down the roof on the Philistines (16:28). He pushed with all his might, and the temple fell on the leaders and all the people in it. Thus, Samson killed more of Israel’s oppressors that day than he had killed all the rest of his days (16:30).
Unfortunately, Samson had yielded to the idolatrous culture around him and made sinful choices. Nevertheless, in Hebrews 11:32-33 Samson is included in the “Hall of Faith,” alongside upright Old Testament people like Daniel. And that inclusion ought to birth hope in every heart. While Samson was not even close to being a perfect man, he got this right: he believed God could use him to accomplish his will. Therefore, let us trust God, submit to his agenda for our lives, and give him everything we have.