MESSAGE FROM JUDGES 3:7-31 FOR MAY 26, 2002
A tale of two Deliverers
The Old Testament book of Judges continues to be our focus this week as we come to chapter three beginning with verse seven. In the text this morning, the author introduces us to the first two Judges who delivered Israel from the hands of their oppressive, pagan neighbors. As we meet these first two judges, we begin a sad cycle of what one scholar calls the “Canaanization of Israel.” The tragic story of the Jews was that they were placed in the Promised Land to show the nations what it was like to live under God’s rule—to live with Yahweh as their King. But instead of revealing the glory of God and bringing the influence of God to the nations by submitting to his rule, they themselves became like the nations they were sent to influence. This sad book is all too relevant to a church who is likewise sent to radiate God’s glory to the nations and bring His kingdom influence to bear on the culture but is far too often guilty of become LIKE the people we have been sent to transform for God.
Before we read this text let me give you permission to snicker if you feel so inclined at certain points. The earthiness of the story is intended to evoke laughter as God mocks the frailty and dullness of the Moabites. Also, there are some graphic details in the story, which need to be elaborated on if we are to understand what the author is saying. If, after we read the text, you feel your young children need to be dismissed, the Children’s Church teacher has assured me there is room for older children this morning and I will wait a few moments for you to dismiss them. Let’s read Judges 3:7-31 as we meet these first two (actually three) Judges. The word of God says, “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. 8The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. 9But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, who saved them. 10The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, so that he became Israel's judge and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. 11So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died.
12Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and because they did this evil the Lord gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms. 14The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.
15Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer--Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a foot and a half long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. 17He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. 18After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way the men who had carried it. 19At the idols near Gilgal he himself turned back and said, "I have a secret message for you, O king." The king said, "Quiet!" And all his attendants left him.
20Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his summer palace and said, "I have a message from God for you." As the king rose from his seat, 21Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king's belly. 22Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. 23Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them. 24After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, "He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house." 25They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.
26While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah. 27When he arrived there, he blew a trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went down with him from the hills, with him leading them. 28"Follow me," he ordered, "for the Lord has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands." So they followed him down and, taking possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab, they allowed no one to cross over. 29At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites, all vigorous and strong; not a man escaped. 30That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years. 31After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel. If there are young children who need to be dismissed please do so now.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast these first two judges. As we’ll see there are some striking differences between them that can teach us an important spiritual lesson but first, the similarities. These two are both men, they are both Jews, they are both raised up by God to deliver his people from the oppressive enslavement of the Canaanites and they are both skillful warriors. That is about where the similarities end. Now let’s notice some of the differences between these two judges. Othniel functions within this book as the model judge. Every other judges is in his shadow even though his narrative is one of the shorter ones. Though we know very little about him, what the author says and does NOT say about him speak powerfully about this little known Judge. First, we know he is a war hero. Othniel’s first mention in sacred scripture is not here, but back in chapter 1. You’ll recall the tribe of Judah is advancing against the Canaanites and they come to a town called Debir. Caleb, the leader of Judah offers his daughter to the man who will conquer this city. Othniel, Caleb’s nephew takes up the call, captures the city and gets the girl. This is a man with battle-tested leadership and military prowess.
He also comes from one of the most distinguished families in Israel, from Caleb’s line. Caleb was, as you recall one of the two original spies (Joshua being the other) who actually made it through the wilderness into the Promised Land. Othniel was from good stock. He also represents the tribe of Judah, which as we saw was the predominant tribe in Israel and the most faithful in driving out the pagans. Of all the seven judges, only Othniel comes from Judah. Othniel is a Spirit-empowered man. In verse 10 we read of him, “The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war.” There are others of whom that is said, Gideon, Jepthah and Samson, but the difference between Othniel and those other judges is that there is nothing negative written about this judge. That is especially impressive when you read the other accounts where the author is not the least bit shy to bring out the sinfulness and frailty of the other judges. In a book filled with accounts that illustrate the weakness of the Jewish leaders, Othniel has no black marks.
Finally, of all the foes that oppress the Jews in this book, the enemy that God uses Othniel to defeat is by far the most impressive. The second half of verse ten says, “The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram [or Mesopotamia] into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.” We are not given the details of this victory but we do know that Aram or Mesopotamia was far larger than the other foreign oppressors who were as one scholar puts it, “the Canaanites city states, the recently arrived Philistines, the migratory Midianites or the emerging nations of Moab and Ammon”[Block, p.152]. Aram was actually well to the North of the tribes and for them to be reaching this area indicated that this was not simply a small local bully. This was a significant military power and God uses Othniel to beat back this mighty emperor. This short account of Othniel and his tenure is the most impressive of the entire book of Judges.
By contrast, let’s look at this second judge, Ehud. Ehud was not from Judah, but Benjamin. If Judah was the healthiest of tribes, Benjamin is pictured in Judges as perhaps the least healthy. In chapters 19 through 21 we are told the tragic tales of the sins of the Benjamites. Those sins are so grievous they prompt the other Jewish tribes, with Yahweh’s help to war against the men of Benjamin and they greatly reduce the number of men from Benjamin. The other tribes also swear they will not give their daughters in marriage to the men of Benjamin. It is one of the most disgusting examples of apostasy in the Old Testament and the epicenter of disgust is Benjamin, Ehud’s tribe. These first two judges almost foreshadow King Saul who comes from Benjamin and is fleshly as contrasted with David, a man after God’s own heart and who was from Judah. We need to keep Ehud’s background in mind as we read his story because the author gives this detail here about Ehud’s origin to help us interpret Ehud’s later actions.
One thing these two men have in common is they were both skilled warriors. Ehud’s prowess is seen in verses 15-16. In verse 15 he is described as “a left-handed man.” This comment reveals far more than which hand may have been Ehud’s dominant hand. In 20:16 we read of some of the fighting men of Benjamin, “Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.” The Greek translation captures the meaning of this phrase “left handed” when they use our word for “ambidextrous.” To be left handed as that is described here meant that you were able to fight with both hands and when you are using weapons that are completely dependent on your skill with your hands, this is a great advantage. Ehud was in a very elite class as a warrior. He would have been a Marine or in the Special forces or the Navy Seals if he were alive today.
We see other qualities of this man Ehud as we follow this colorful story. As you make your way through verses 18 through 23, it reads a bit like a spy novel. This Ehud is on a mission of political assassination and he is very good at his job. He has a masterful plan involving treachery, deception, careful planning and flawless execution. First, in verse 18 he sends away his fellow Jews who had come with him so he could execute his plan alone. Notice he doesn’t include them in his get-away and that indicates he was operating alone without anyone else knowing about it. This was a one-man operation and Ehud had apparently not informed his cohorts of his plan and dispenses with them. In verse 19 he convinces the king that he has a secret message for him and the king requests to meet with him alone. This says as much about the dullness of Eglon as it does about Ehud. What king would allow himself to be alone and unprotected in the presence of an enemy soldier? Ehud however somehow pulls the deception off. Then, in a statement worth of 007 himself and loaded with irony he says in verse 20, “I have a message from God for you.” The reason that statement is so fascinating is that word we translate “message” in the Hebrew is a very ambiguous word that has many possible meanings. The word can also mean “thing,” “object” or even “experience.” [Block, 165] Because he had already told Eglon this thing was a “secret,” Eglon assumed that Ehud meant “message” which was a common usage for this word. But when Ehud uses the word again in verse 20 he doubtless means with great irony, “I have “something” from God for you” and then lets the king have this “thing” supposedly from God right in the belly.
Ehud is also portrayed as a skilled warrior by the choice and placement of his weapon. First, the weapon was double edged and was crafted by Ehud himself. This double-edge enabled the weapon to either stab or cut, thus making it much more versatile. Also, the place where weapons of this type were kept was typically on the left thigh. But Ehud carries it under his clothing on his right thigh and being ambidextrous he could use either hand. The author goes into some detail here so that we may see that Ehud was an extremely skilled assassin. Notice also that the murder was carried out with extreme force and efficiency. There was no struggle, no noise, no crying out—the assassination was just the way the CIA would have wanted it done.
Notice after the murder, Ehud in some way locks the door behind him to give him more time. Also, as a sidebar to help explain a puzzling text, notice in verse 24 the servants of the king who don’t know anything about this assume when the king has locked the doors that “he must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house.” Think about that one. Why do you assume the king is going to the bathroom when the last you saw him he was meeting alone with an enemy envoy? One reason is found in verse 22 but the NIV almost certainly translates it wrong perhaps to sanitize a very earthy verse. The last phrase of verse 22 is translated in virtually every other translation as, “and the refuse [or dung] [or “dirt”] came out.” The probable reason the guards make the normally unreasonable assumption that the king, who is alone in the presence of an enemy envoy, is going to the bathroom [!] is because their olfactory senses led them to conclude this. The king dies and like everyone who dies, his bowels relax and the contents empty out. The guards mistake that familiar odor for a royal potty break. This bit of deception was probably not intended by Ehud but the author takes pains to show us that this Ehud is a very formidable person. You would not want to meet this guy alone in a back alley.
After the murder and the successful getaway, we see Ehud’s leadership skills. He musters an army by blowing a trumpet and the men come down from the hills like locusts. He goes to a strategic location at the fords of the Jordan that lead to Moab, the place where all the enemy troops would come to from. This move cuts off the enemy forces from retreating to their home base and it drives a wedge, dividing the Moabite army. This was a brilliantly led, superbly executed political assassination and small-scale battle and the author takes pains to show us that. By way of contrast, this victory was as a whole far less impressive than Othniel’s.
Another huge difference in Othniel’s conquest is that the author makes it clear that this victory was won because [verse 10,] “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him.” It never says that about Ehud. The only mention of God in the Ehud narrative comes from the lips of Ehud and both of those are of questionable sincerity. In verse 20 he uses a reference to God in a deception to set up a murder. “I have a message [something] from God for you.” That hardly seems worthy of God. At best, this borders on using the Lord’s name in vain. At worst, it is a flat violation of the third commandment. Ehud’s other mention of God is in verse 28 where he is mustering the troops and says, “…the LORD has given Moab, your enemy, and into you hands.” Its very hard to say how sincere Ehud is here since few Ancient Near Eastern armies would make war unless they were assured by their leader that their God was on their side. This reference to God may very well have been given to add credibility to compel these men to fight against the Moabites.
Now, its clear from verse 15 that God raised up Ehud to deliver the Israelites just as much as he in verse nine says he raised up Othniel. But we mustn’t let the fact that God raised up Ehud cause us to think that therefore everything he did was authored by God. We tend to think that if God raises someone up in the Bible to do something, that somehow baptizes everything they did especially if in the story God does not rebuke them for any specific sin. We must never do that because we would in many cases be guilty of having God condone evil and Ehud clearly practiced multiple evils. We mustn’t be so impressed with his murderous skill that we minimize the evil of what he does here. He practiced deceit, treachery and makes a reference to God in a context of deception. Ehud was God’s choice, but that doesn’t mean he always did things in a God-honoring way. The same can be said of any person God uses in the Bible and this truth will become increasingly clear when we get to the other Judges, especially Samson, who although he was God’s choice, is among the least admirable leaders in the book. In the entire Samson story filled with compromise and deceit and guile and his egomania, the author of Judges never says anything like, “What Samson did displeased God.” He doesn’t write that way—he allows the reader to see that and there is much evil to see in Ehud.
Notice further, as you compare these two men in the two narratives you see in Othniel’s story the primary focus is on God. In severe contrast, in Ehud’s narrative the great detail is about Ehud and that forces us to focus mainly on the military prowess of Ehud. What are we to conclude from this mish mash of information that points in several different directions? Here are two biblical principles that come from a study of these two narratives.
First, God uses people who do things in his service that are seriously wrong. That statement gives us a headache because it creates tension in us. We want the good guys to be all good and the bad guys to be all bad but we all know life in a fallen world is much more complicated than that. We must come to grips with the fact that God is sovereign over all that confusion and somehow he uses it for his glory. Many folks in the church tend to believe the naïve and unbiblical myth that God will only use people who are of highly virtuous character. Certainly God calls his servants to be of high character but he uses many wicked people as well. This does not CONDONE this, it merely states a truth that God is bigger than a person’s character flaws and he can use very flawed vessels for his services. We see this in the caricature of King, Eglon who according to verse 12 was strengthened by God[!] to have power over Israel. God uses evil all the time for his purposes. If he couldn’t use evil for his purposes then he would be a very frustrated God indeed because there is so much evil in the world. God hates evil but he also uses evil. He is not frustrated by it.
We must never think the unbiblical, naïve thought that if we know a person has a glaring character flaw, “God would never use that person.” I went to seminary with some world-class whiners. They were always griping about the length of the papers and the difficulty of the tests and how impractical all the classes were for ministry. Ten years out of seminary, I read that many of these whiners have ministries that seem to be enjoying God’s blessing. Maybe they just grew up, but maybe not. Maybe God chooses to use these people anyway and although we may not feel comfortable with that, who of us will assume the role of God’s counselor? Othniel was a virtuous, blameless judge and God used him. Ehud’s methods were fleshly and wicked. God used him, too. That may create tension for us but what it should do for us is cause us to be amazed that God can use evil wickedness to accomplish his will. God is bigger than the evil of his servants and we should exult in that. God will not be limited or confined because he doesn’t happen to have a Jim Elliot or a Charles Spurgeon or a John Bunyan at his disposal. Although He calls his servants to walk blameless before him He is not dependent upon their virtue to do his work. We should IN NO WAY interpret this as an excuse for ungodliness but, it is a testimony to the greatness and majesty of God.
A second and final lesson we can learn from these two deliverers comes when you think about them in the context of the GREAT deliverer, Jesus Christ. Othniel was a great judge and Ehud was at best a so-so judge but neither of their acts of deliverance are worth mentioning in the same breath as the deliverance of Jesus. When Ehud delivered God’s people, they were back in bondage again in 40 years. Ehud’s deliverance lasted twice that long but once again another deliverer named Shamgar was needed to fight off another oppressor. Contrast that to Jesus Christ. This is what Ezekiel 37:23 prophesied about what the people Jesus delivered would look like and notice the marked contrast from the Jews in the book of Judges. Ezekiel says of those whom Jesus delivers, “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” This is the deliverance promised through Christ under the New Covenant.
The blood of Jesus and the deliverance he bought for us at Calvary is FAR more lasting and powerful than any of the judges because Christ delivers us NOT from any human oppressor, but from the tyranny of sin and Satan. Sin is a far more formidable enemy than Mesopotamia. When we read of the deliverers of Israel, whether they be good or not so good, we should thank God that we have been given a deliverer who Hebrews 7:25 says “…is able to save completely [forever] those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” The deliverers of Israel all died and when they died, Israel’s bondage began all over again. But our deliverer LIVES—he lives in heaven and he continues to pray for us—his blood has not lost one ounce of its power to deliver. May God give us the grace to see the greatness and power of God not only to use unfit vessels for his service, but also to deliver them eternally from sin.
Page last modified on 5/26/2002
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