III. The Judges Judges (3:7–16:31)

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?

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.

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.

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.

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