MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 4, 2002 FROM JUDGES 10:6-16

 

            This week we begin a new section of the book of Judges. Last week we closed the Gideon cycle as we focused on the sad legacy he left behind chiefly in the person of his thoroughly paganized son, Abimelech.  After the Gideon cycle, chapter ten of Judges begins with five verses that discuss two deliverers who followed Abimelech, Tola of Ephraim and Jair of the region of Gilead who in some unnamed way delivered Israel.  There is so little said about these two.  We don’t know how they arose, what role if any Yahweh played in raising them up to deliver Israel and we don’t even know who the enemies were these two deliverers delivered Israel from.  What we do know is that after the lengthy, detailed and disgusting account of Gideon, the short, non-sensational accounts of Tola and Jair help clear our heads before we move into the next major section in Judges involving the person of Jepthah. 

            This morning we will not even get to Jepthah, but will spend our time working through the first ten introductory verses of his account.  These verses show us the spiritual condition of the Jews and the attitude Yahweh has toward them at this point.  As we’ve seen so far their idolatry caused them to be blinded to who God was and because they were blinded by their own lusts to the glory of Yahweh they simply felt no need to maintain their covenant relationship with Him.  They were a self-centered people who had learned to settle for and be satisfied with the sensual thrill of the pagan religions.

            They were like Gideon--quite able to give an accurate profession of faith.  They knew in their heads who God was and what he required in the covenant, but their hearts were a million miles away.  They were characterized very much by the indictment of Isaiah 29:13.  The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”  The terms of their covenant relationship with God had become for them what God’s word always becomes to rebellious hearts—little more than a list of rules that have no connection to our hearts.  They were intensely superficial—their service to Yahweh was a religion of mental and verbal assent only—they had given their hearts to the Baals who could, through the immorality of their occult rituals bring them intense, but fleeting pleasure. 

            In this introductory text of the Jepthah account, we see three major truths about idolatry--the destructive and enslaving power of idolatry, God’s response to idolatry and finally, a way out of the bondage of idolatry.  If you are wondering if you have idolatry in your heart, ask yourself if your relationship with God remains sweet and intensely satisfying or has it become more superficial, degenerating more and more into a list of do’s and don’ts.  Is the fire still there—is it burning bright and hot?  If not, you may very well have thrown the wet blanket of idolatry on your heart and the truths in this text may just be what God wants to use to rekindle the fire in your heart.

Let’s begin by reading Judges 10:6-16  Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him, 7he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, 8who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. 9The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and the house of Ephraim; and Israel was in great distress. 10Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, "We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals."  11The Lord replied, "When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, 12the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? 13But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. 14Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!"  15But the Israelites said to the Lord, "We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now." 16Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And he could bear Israel's misery no longer.”

This text is the most extended treatment in the book of Judges on the idolatry of Israel and God’s response to it. First, notice from this text the destructive and enslaving power of idolatry.  We see this in three ways.  First idolatry produces an insatiable appetite for more idolatry.  Up to this point, the author the Judges has not gone into detail about the specific forms of idolatry the Jews had engaged in.  Here in verse six we see that by this point in their spiritual decline, the Jews had completely and comprehensively abandoned Yahweh for all the other gods worshipped by their pagan neighbors.  Verse six says they served, “the Baals and the Ashtoreths.”  This is probably a general reference to the gods of the Canaanites who served this pagan, demonic deities.  It says they served the gods of Aram.  Aram was located just to the northeast of the 12 tribes.  Next, the gods of Sidon—Sidon bordered Israel on the northwest and they served these gods as well.  The also served the gods of Moab on the southeast of Israel.  The main pagan deity there was a god named Chemosh.  Also the gods of Ammon.  Ammon was bordered Israel on the east and their main god was Molech. Serving him meant ritually offering your children for child sacrifice by burning them in a fire. Then there were the gods of the Philistines who were west of Israel along the shore of the Mediterranean and they served primarily a god named Dagon.

The author wants us to see that by this point Israel was surrounded by pagan influences and pagan gods and they had gone after ALL of them.  Whatever the alternative to Yahweh was in a specific location, they repeatedly chose whatever god was there over Yahweh.  And there was no pocket of people who hadn’t sold out—wherever there were pagan gods to be worshipped, Yahweh’s people threw their lot in with them.  Their national appetite for idolatry was insatiable.  God portrays this spiritual dynamic through the prophet Ezekiel where he calls his nation a prostitute, who is not content to simply have men visit her, but instead actually pursues men and pays them for the chance to sin with them.  There is an obsessive insatiability here that comes with idolatry.

Today, we call this kind of devotion to something fanaticism.  Don’t misunderstand—idolatry is not limited to fanaticism—it can be and often is much more subtle than that, but fanaticism is idolatry.  We aren’t idolaters, we are fanatics, we’re a little compulsive or obsessive about this or that—that sounds so much more respectable.  A person who HAS to watch or play baseball, who HAS to work or work out, who HAS to go shopping, who HAS to play golf or visit friends or go to all their kids activities or watch television or read books or HAS to eat ice cream or have a cup of coffee or HAS to do ANYTHING.  These people are fanatics—they can’t get enough of whatever particular pleasure or pursuit they engage in.  Many of these folks are very nice people who wouldn’t think of missing church on Sunday, but they are idolaters.  Paul says in First Corinthians 6:12 “…Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything.”  To be mastered by something is to be in bondage to an idol.  Ask yourself, “Is there anything I HAVE to do that doesn’t involve meeting a survival need?  We all have to eat and sleep and drink enough to stay alive—that’s not what Paul is talking about.  Is there anything we have to do because we feel we can’t regularly say “no” to it without creating inner tension?  That’s idolatry and it never satisfies—we never get enough—we must have more and more—we must do it again and again. That’s what idolatry does and we see that on display here in Israel—they didn’t care which god they worshipped as long as it wasn’t Yahweh.

A second truth about idolatry is idolatry produces an irrational blindness to what should be basic, spiritual truths.  Notice in verse eight it says that in his anger God disciplined the Jews for 18 years as he sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammorites, “who shattered and crushed them.”  Those words are very powerful in the original.  This was not simply an 18-year period marked by inconvenience and some low- level stress.  These people ground the Jews into power—they shattered them and then they crushed them.  They subjected the Jews to a horrendous pummeling.  The author doesn’t give the specific nature of this discipline, but we know it was intensely severe.  Eighteen years they suffered this way.  It wasn’t until even more oppression came from the Ammonites that they finally called to Yahweh.  It seems unthinkable that it took 18 years of this kind of punishment before they finally came to the conclusion that it was time to turn back to the God who had always delivered them from their bondage in the past!

Why did the Jews wait so long?  How could they have been so incredibly stupid?  Its because that is what idolatry does—it blinds us to the obvious.  Why do you think alcoholics sometimes have to lose everything before they sober up?  There is obviously a chemical element to alcoholism, but that doesn’t change the spiritual truth.  Why do gamblers have to sometimes lose every penny before they see there is a problem?  Why did the prodigal son need to end up on the hog pen before he came to himself?  Because idolatry makes us stupid.  Romans 1:21 says of idolaters, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  

As we’ve said before, sin is not rational—it’s the most foolish thing we can ever do but some pretty smart people have some pretty huge idols in their heart?  Other people see it, but we don’t. We rationalize and justify and explain away sin.  That’s why we need others in the body around us who we trust to point out those areas where we have allowed our idols to take over our rational thought process. If we see a brother or sister who trusts us and who is out of control, worshipping an idol, we have an obligation to step into their life and tell them because they may very well be blinded by their idolatrous sin.  It took 18 years for Israel to wake up to what should have been apparent in a few days.  Idolatry does that.

A third truth about idolatry seen in this text is related to the second and is idolatry causes us to respond superficially to sin and God. When the people finally do approach God in verse 10, their response is breathtakingly shallow.  After 18 years of complete and comprehensive apostasy—turning their back on the God who had entered into covenant with them and liberated them from Egypt and protected them in the wilderness and conquered their enemies and given them the Promised Land—after shamelessly committing spiritual adultery against THAT God for 18 years, here is their response, “ We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals.”  That’s it—one sentence—for 18 years of apostasy!  They manage to choke out this paper-thin admission of their sin in the broadest possible terms.  How clinical this sounds—how judicial—how devoid of true heart grief.  There’s no appeal for forgiveness—just a citation of their sin.  Verse 15 is no better.  After God had rejected this ridiculous prayer of confession and gives them a good verbal spanking for their incredible arrogance in turning away from him the Israelites say in verse 15, “We have sinned, do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.”  Again there is not appeal for forgiveness—there is no language here that in any way communicates that they want to have their covenant relationship with God restored.  They make this contradictory statement riddled with false humility—“do whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.” In other words, “Do what you think best but we know what is best and that is—rescue us NOW.”  Their agenda couldn’t be more clear—they don’t want Yahweh, they want only what Yahweh could do for them which is get them out of the mess they are in.

Do you hear how superficial that is?  It’s not about their long and disastrous 18-year period of grievous sin against God.  It’s not about restoring the fractured covenant; it’s not about repenting or even being sorry for their sin.  This is all about somebody taking the heat off of them.  They had doubtless spent year after year crying out to their other pagan gods for deliverance—God even sarcastically calls on them to invite these other gods to deliver them.    After they had tried 1000 other things, they finally go back to their covenant God, Yahweh to ask Him to bail them out.  The author says the Israelites do get rid of their idols but as we will see, that’s only a temporary arrangement until they get the pagans off their backs.  This is a house cleaning of convenience, not conviction.

There is no sense of relationship here.  God is just a cosmic fire extinguisher the Jews are hoping will take the heat off their backs.  Idolatry does that.  An evangelical workaholic of 20 years finds himself in the hospital with a heart attack.  He prays that God will heal him and get him back in shape.  God is faithful to heal him and he goes right back into working 70 hour weeks.  A baseball addict discovers his wife won’t be intimate with him because he spends all his spare time in front of the tube memorizing batting averages.  So he temporarily backs off and the warmth comes back into the relationship—then he goes right back watching as many games as ever.  There are 1000’s of illustrations from our lives that illustrate the fact that our idols make us superficial to sin and to God.  They cause us to believe that our life is all about being safe or comfortable or entertained instead of walking faithfully with God.  Idols make our lives all about things that really don’t matter and because they also blind us, it’s easy to think as long as I am going to church and singing the choruses—God must surely be satisfied with my life.

Next, let’s take a very brief look at God’s response to the idolatry.  We have spoken of this several times before so we will only touch on it now.  His response in verse seven is two fold.  He became angry with them.  He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and Ammonites.”  First, God is angered by our idolatry.  God’s nature hasn’t changed since this time.  He is still “Jehovah Qanna”—the impassioned or Jealous God.  He created us, he redeemed us, and he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus.  He is worthy of our worship, He deserves our worship and he expects our exclusive worship.  We must never forget that when we give worship or devotion to anything other than Himself, he is angered by that.  Second, we also see that he sold his children into the slavery of the Philistines and Ammonites.  Its fascinating that God forbids the Jews from selling each other into slavery, but here He Himself does it to discipline these rebels. As we’ve said before, he allows them and us to taste the negative consequences of their sin.  We must never think God is passive toward our idolatry.  He is impassioned about it and He acts in response to it—allowing us to fall deeper and deeper into bondage as he did the Jews until he finally brought the Ammonites from one side and the Philistines from the other to create this crushing pincers movement against his people.  God will out of his love for us put the squeeze on us if we persist in idolatry.

The final truth implicit in the text speaks to the way out of idolatry.  The way out of idolatry is to simply to repent of it and this text gives us some ways to prepare our hearts for repentance.  We know that God alone gives repentance, but there are some things we can do to facilitate his work in our hearts, which are found in this text.  We see this in verses 11-12 when God rejects the Jews first shameless attempt at restoration.  God says in response, “When the Egyptians, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands?”  The reason this verse can help us in this process of repentance is because in these verses God is saying in effect, “Here is why you should have never committed idolatry in the first place.”  In these two verses God shows two truths about Him that will help us to repent of idolatry and, if we are not currently bowing down to any idols, will help us make our hearts more idol-resistant.

First God reminds them of his covenant commitment and faithfulness to them.  He brings to mind seven separate times he had delivered them from those who had oppressed them.  When God entered into covenant with the Jews he placed upon himself the responsibility to protect them and deliver them and he is saying to the Jews, “I have been faithful to do what I bound myself to within the covenant.  I have done all that is needed for you to be free from oppression-again and again I delivered you from your enemies.”  One of the necessary ingredients for us to be freed from the bondage of our idols is by God’s grace to regularly call to mind God’s faithfulness within the New Covenant we have with Him through Christ.  He has done so much for us—he has bailed us out of so many messes, blessed us with such riches and most of all…He sent his only Son to die for us—to redeem us out of the bondage of sin—to forgive the penalty of sin and free us from its enslaving power.  We must regularly go back to the cross.  John Stott has said, “The cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough to it for its sparks to fall on us.”

Our love and devotion for God flow out of hearts that have been humbled by the awesome act of love God has done for us in Christ on Calvary.  But, as Stott points out, the blazing fire of the cross will not ignite our hearts unless we regularly ponder the wonders of the cross--unless we keep the gospel at the forefront of our thinking.  Healthy saints always, even after decades of hearing the gospel message over and over again, are more than ever amazed by and sensitive to the message of the cross.  The fire of love the cross ignites in our hearts will enable us to cast our idols at the feet of Jesus.  God has been faithful to us and as we come to know that truth better and better that will be for us a powerful wall of protection from idols.

Second, God reminds them of the supremacy of his worth over their idols.  You must understand that when Yahweh tells his people he delivered them from these oppressors he is saying something very powerful about his supremacy over these pagan idols they had been worshipping.  You see, when a nation conquered another nation it was taken for granted that the only way that could have happened is if the god of the conquering nation had conquered the god of the defeated nation.  In Isaiah 36 the army of Assyria is about to make war against Jerusalem and they try to get Hezekiah and the people to give up before the battle.  They taunt the Jews telling them in verse 18, “Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says,The LORD will deliver us.” Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria?  Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad?  Where are the gods of Sepharvalim?  Have they rescued Samaria from my hand?  Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save this land from me?  How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”  It’s clear that the strength of the people is related to the strength of their god.

So when God says to the Jews he has liberated them from the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Sidonians, the Philistines, the Amalekites and the Maonites what he is implicitly saying is, “Why are you worshipping these gods when I have whooped all of them?  Why are you serving these losers when they pale in comparison to me?  He is above all gods and he has proven that repeatedly.  God is not only undefeated, he is undefeatable.  When God convicts us of an area of idolatry in our hearts, we should spend time thinking about the comparative worth and value of the idol with the worth and value of God.  Read Isaiah 40 and compare the fleeting pleasures of sin with the deep, satisfying pleasures of rightly walking with the God of the universe.  There is no comparison.  In those moments in our lives when we have faithfully walked with God—when there was a genuine spiritual hunger, when we weren’t burdened by a heavy load of shame and guilt, when could look in the mirror and actually respect the person looking back at us—when we have felt the peace and joy of knowing and walking with God.  In those moments would we trade that for anything else?  NO!  It’s like being hopelessly, deliriously in love—it’s the best thing in the world.  If you’ve never had that, you need to get straight with God.

There’s nothing that compares with that.  And there is no idol on this planet that compares with the immortal, invisible, only wise God.  Where are we today?  Are we relishing God and delighting in Him?  Is he taking FIRST place in our lives?  Is there a strong sense of intimacy and relationship with him or does our faith seem more and more like a list of rules?  If that’s true—ask God to show you your idols.  Some of them you may know already—others you are blind to.  Ask and he will show you.  God’s anger is but for a moment—there is mercy at the cross.  Come to the cross and allow the fire of God’s love displayed there to ignite your hears so you can release your idols and watch them burn for his glory—leave them at the foot of the cross.  May God grant us grace to hear and respond to His word.

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