MESSAGE FOR JUNE 2, 2002 FROM JUDGES CHAPTER 4
This morning we come once again to the Old Testament book of Judges. This morning, we will be in chapter four as we begin looking at the story of Deborah and Barak. Judges chapters four and five are a treasure trove of potential insight into biblical interpretation. Its one of only two examples in the entire Bible where you have one historical event told in using two different literary forms. In chapter four, you have the story of Deborah and Barak told as a narrative. The details of the events are told as a story. Then in chapter five the same events are retold as poetry. The opportunity for us to look at both chapters and see some of the differences between biblical narrative and biblical poetry is a rare and valuable one. Beyond that, this story is a valuable source of information upon which to judge the validity of so-called evangelical feminism that has made a significant impact on the evangelical church in the past few decades. The character of Deborah has been used by evangelical feminists to try to persuade the church that there should be no restriction on women who desire ordination. We have addressed that issue in some detail in the past and will touch on it as we look at this text next week and we will examine some of the differences between the narrative and poetic versions of this event. But as important as those issues are for us today , the most important truths that come from this text are, as with the rest of the bible in answer to the question, what does this text tell us about God? Our first and foremost agenda as we study the bible should be to see God in the texts and to hunt with great diligence to find God and a clearer picture of who He is. So this morning we will be asking of this text, “what does this text tell us about God?”
With that lens let’s read Judges 4:1-24. The word of God says, “After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord. 2So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help. 4Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. 6She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, "The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: 'Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. 7I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.' " 8Barak said to her, "If you go with me, I will go; but if you don't go with me, I won't go." 9"Very well," Deborah said, "I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman." So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh, 10where he summoned Zebulun and Naphtali. Ten thousand men followed him, and Deborah also went with him. 11Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses' brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh. 12When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13Sisera gathered together his nine hundred iron chariots and all the men with him, from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River. 14Then Deborah said to Barak, "Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?" So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men. 15At Barak's advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. 16But Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim. All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left.
17Sisera, however, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. 18Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, "Come, my lord, come right in. Don't be afraid." So he entered her tent, and she put a covering over him. 19"I'm thirsty," he said. "Please give me some water." She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. 20"Stand in the doorway of the tent," he told her. "If someone comes by and asks you, 'Is anyone here?' say 'No.' " 21But Jael, Heber's wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. 22Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. "Come," she said, "I will show you the man you're looking for." So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple--dead. 23On that day God subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites. 24And the hand of the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin, the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him.
Here are three truths about God this text teaches. First, God is faithful even when His people are faithless. We know this is true most explicitly from another text, Second Timothy 2:13 which says of God, “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” Paul there states the truth explicitly, but this text screams the same truth implicitly. First it shows that God is faithful to his word in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 where he lays out the curses of the covenant he will place on his people for their disobedience. The Jews in Judges chapters 4-5 have once again lapsed into apostasy, doing what was “evil in the eyes of the LORD” and God had warned them of the consequences of this. Leviticus 26:17 gives one of the consequences of turning away from God. It says, “I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.” The book of Judges is composed of a series of examples of God’s faithfulness to bring his covenant curses down on Israel when they turn away from him. In this case, it was Jabin, a king of Canaan who reigned in Hazor who was oppressively ruling over the Israelites.
When we think about the faithfulness of God we tend not to think about his faithfulness in terms of his discipline or judgment, but that is a potentially lethal omission. If our concept of the faithfulness of God includes only God’s faithfulness to provide and protect and to show his mercy to us, then that is a truncated view of God’s faithfulness. God is faithful in all those areas as we will see, but he is also faithful to carry out his promised judgment or discipline. That’s equally important for us to know because we live with so many examples of God’s grace and mercy in our lives and it’s easy for us to forget that though God is full of grace and mercy, he is also holy and just. It’s easy to just assume that because God is so merciful that his warnings to us will never be carried out. Make no mistake, in God’s mercy he does delay often his discipline--he gives us so many chances to repent before his discipline comes. But that in NO way communicates that he will not deliver on his promise to correct (and with sometimes brutal harshness) correct his children. We must never forget the warning in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. 8For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. [NASB]
Paul knows that because we enjoy so much mercy the temptation for us is to presume on that mercy and think God is not terribly serious about the judgment part. Into that mindset, Paul echoes—“Don’t be deceived, God is not mocked.” Translation: You don’t mess with God and get away with it. No one gets away with ANYTHING with God, ultimately. If you plant green beans you’re going to harvest green beans and that same kind of unbreakable axiom applies to God and our waywardness from Him. If we sow unrepentant sin, we will be judged and the reason is because he is a holy God and out of his holiness flows his faithfulness to keep his word concerning his warnings in Scripture. God shows his faithfulness here to the Jews once again by coming down on them with his heavy hand of chastisement.
God also shows his faithfulness to be merciful in verse three. After 20 years of cruel oppression the Jews cry out to the Lord and he sets his plan in motion to deliver his people. This aspect of God’s faithfulness is even more amazing than his faithfulness to punish. You expect a holy God to punish people who arrogantly worship other gods after He has delivered them from Egypt, protected them in the wilderness and allotted land for them in the Promised Land. You would expect a holy God to punish that kind of indescribable arrogance and ingratitude. But for him to respond with pity to the cries of those people who have cosmically betrayed his loving Lordship is a thing of absolute wonder. Yet God does it for the Jews time and time again just as he does it for us time and time again. Psalm 36:5 says, “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.” God is faithful and although we must never presume on his faithfulness in pardoning our sin to embolden us to sin, we must delight in his faithfulness and be assured that God will forgive our sin and restore us to fellowship with him through the blood of Christ. This story also illustrates the truth that God’s faithfulness is not limited by some of the intensely flawed people he uses in this story and that brings us to a second truth about God seen in this story. That is: God uses unlikely people and circumstances to accomplish his purposes.
Last week, when we noticed this in the way God used Ehud in the second half of chapter three and we see this once again in this story especially in the characters of Barak and Jael. First, let’s look at Barak. We know very little about him and absolutely nothing about why God chose him to deliver Israel. Barak provides the military leadership associated with a judge and we know only that he is a son of Abinoam, from a town called Kedesh in the land God gave to the tribe of Naphtali. There is nothing mentioned in the text that would help us to know what military qualifications he had for the role of deliverer. All we know is God told Deborah that Barak was the one who should lead this assault against the forces of Canaan and their general, Sisera. It’s safe to say that Barak is not immediately taken with the idea of leading an army against Sisera and his 900 chariots. God had not only given Barak the assurance through Deborah that he will give Sisera and his chariots into his hand, but he also says in verse seven he will “lure” Sisera to them. The word the NIV translates “lure” literally means “deploy.” So God promises not only to give Barak the victory, but he promises he will also be in total control of Sisera’s army so much so that he says it is HE who will deploy them. Again, we see that Yahweh is the real General of Israel’s army. He lays out the strategy, tells Barak how many men to bring with him and he promises to put Sisera and his chariots right where he wants them.
In response to these incredibly reassuring promises Barak says to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” Translation: Barak is no Sir Galahad. It’s not quite as bad as it might sound. It sounds like a petrified Barak needs a woman to hold his hand in order for him to summon the courage to battle against the Canaanites. It’s not quite that bad. Barak wants Deborah there because she is a prophetess who hears from God and her presence there would enable him to find out what God’s will is if something unexpected comes up. But it’s still horribly sinful of Barak to say this for two reasons. First, God has already given him all the information he needs and if he would have wanted to send Deborah or another prophet, he could have done that. Barak is implicitly critiquing God’s plan here. But it’s more serious than that. Second, you don’t lay down conditions for obedience to the God of the universe. Barak wasn’t simply laying down a fleece (which as we will see with Gideon is also a sign of unbelief). Barak wasn’t just saying, “”Oh God, I have never seen you work this in this way—would you please be willing to bolster my sagging faith by giving me a sign.” That’s what Gideon did, but Barak does something far more outrageous.
He says in effect, “If God meets MY conditions (to have Deborah accompany him) then I will do what he says. If God will not meet my condition, I will not obey.” He rejects God’s terms and rewrites them according to what HE wants. God has told him what to do and how to do it but that’s not enough for Barak—he wants more—he wants an insurance policy. He wants one of God’s prophets by his side and God is not pleased with this. In fact, we must not forget that God would have been justified at this point to say to Barak, “Who are you to tell me how to run my military campaigns—Don’t I know what personnel are required for this operation?” A buck private would never dare to presume to tell a five- star general how to run his army. How much more outlandish that this fallen, finite man would tell an omnipotent, infinite God what he was going to need to win his battles for him. It would have been perfectly appropriate for God to grind Barak into powder right here. Instead, he mercifully grants his condition[!] but Deborah, speaking for God tells him in verse nine, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, but the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” After a military conquest, it was typical for the conquering general to receive the accolades of an adoring and grateful public. You’ll recall the trouble between a young David and King Saul began when after a successful military campaign, adoring women along the returning parade route were dancing and singing, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.” [1 Sam. 18:7] Saul became very jealous of David because HE wanted the glory from the public.
This kind of fawning over conquering heroes was typical and God chastises Barak for his lack of faith by hitting him right smack in his ego and promising him not only that he will not get the glory but it will in fact go to a woman. In this highly patriarchal society this was a severe humiliation to a man like Barak. God disciplines Barak, but he still uses this very flawed piece of humanity to accomplish his will. Though that should not give us encouragement to live a ragged spiritual life before God like Barak did, it should help us to see, as we saw last week with Ehud that God uses flawed vessels because that’s all he has to work with and that is especially true in Israel during the time of the judges.
A second and fascinating character in this drama is Jael who assassinated Sisera in her tent in such a grisly, yet efficient manner. Jael is first mentioned in verse 17 as “the wife of Heber the Kenite.” That means that Jael is also probably a Kenite—a foreigner of the same tribe as Moses’ father-in-law. Again, God resorts to using a foreigner, not a person of his own nation to illustrate how spiritually sick the Jews were at this time. The author tells us in verse 12 that Heber was the one who informed Sisera of the movement of Barak and his army to Mount Tabor, which prompted Sisera to advance against the Israelite army. What that tells us is that Jael’s husband Heber was sympathetic toward Sisera and the Canaanites who were warring against the Jews. In fact, in verse 17 it says that there were, “friendly relations between Jabin King of Hazor [who was Sisera’s commander in chief] and the clan of Heber the Kenite.” That word translated “friendly relations” in the original conveys that a covenant had been cut between these two families and that in fact a formal alliance of some kind had been formed here.
Do you see just how unlikely it is for God to use someone like Jael to defeat Sisera? She is a woman and in this culture that would have been the only factor needed to exclude her from any significant role. But beyond that, she is a foreigner with no known loyalties to God’s people and is in fact married to a man who is formally aligned with the King of the Canaanites and to betray an alliance of her husband’s was unthinkable. Beyond that, in the Ancient Near East there were several codes of hospitality that would have absolutely prevented her from being able to kill Sisera in the manner in which as she did. First, women did NOT invite men into their tents, only men were free to do this. Second, you did NOT invite someone into you home if you intended to harm him there. The home was a place of welcome and hospitality and there were practically unbreakable social norms obliging you to invite people into your home only for blessing, not for ill and certainly not to spindle them. Finally, when she invites him into her tent, he makes one request of her in verse 19, “And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” That’s is the only request he makes but instead of showing the typical ancient near eastern hospitality and giving her guest what he asks for, a drink of water, it says in verse 19, “she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him.”
Instead of the water which this parched man requests, she gives him milk assumedly to induce him to sleep so she could (shall we say?) “drive her point” home with him. It is this action of Jael’s that has induced one scholar to say of her behavior toward Sisera, “First she duped him, then she doped him.” So what we have here in the person of Jael is someone who should in NO WAY be harming an ally of her husband but who, in the providence of God not only harms him but viciously and treacherously murders him in a way that violates every applicable social norm and all this shows that Jael is far from a virtuous woman. But…God uses her. He uses her to accomplish his plan and to fulfill Deborah’s prophecy. We need to remember this because when you follow Christ, you will at times find yourself in situations where if He doesn’t do something dramatic, all will be lost. All your money, all your effort, all your credibility. And when you think about the circumstances you face and cannot possibly conceive of just how God could possibly deliver what you need, think about Jael. You would NEVER in a million years have though that God would defeat Sisera using this inconceivably unlikely woman but that is precisely what He did.
The next time you are in a situation where God has led you to do something and you are at the end of a dead end street, allow the example to Jael to teach you that with God, there ARE no dead end streets. He can make a way through anything and if He needs to raise up the most unlikely person and the most unlikely set of circumstances needed to accomplish his purpose in your life he will do just that. What a glorious God we serve who has no limits placed upon him. Psalm 115:3 says, “our God is in the heavens; He does whatever he pleases.”[NASB] He is not limited by our lack of imagination to figure out ways for him to do the impossible for us when he wants to. God uses unlikely people and circumstances to accomplish his purposes.
A third truth about God is this: God deserves all the glory for the triumphs of his people. It’s apparent that God sometimes uses such unlikely people and circumstances so that no one will be able to take credit for something that happened in such an incredibly unlikely manner. This is stated explicitly in First Corinthians 1:28-29 where Paul says of God, “He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. God works in such a way as to preserve his exclusive glory. In the case of Judges 4-5 only God could work out this bizarre set of people and circumstances to give the victory to his people. In verse 23, the author sums up this narrative with a word that emphasizes who the real Hero of this story is. “On that day God subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites.” Credit for this victory does not go to Barak or Jael even Deborah as fine a character as she is. The credit certainly doesn’t go to the incompetence of Sisera and his army—you’ll remember in chapter one that the men of Judah were [verse 19] “unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.” When the army of Judah was trying to drive out the iron chariots on their own power they were impotent to do so. But God has no trouble trampling down the iron chariots under Barak’s army. The glory of all the triumphs of God’s people, large or small always goes to God—always. The reason why God asks us to do things that are impossible on our own is because he wants to show us that what is impossible for us is entirely possible with Him. This is extremely uncomfortable and frustrating [!] for us at times. But it’s as he allows hurdle after hurdle to stand in the way of accomplishing what he has commanded us to do and He then proceeds to knock them down one by one we come to learn the lesson that it is GOD who wins the victory and GOD is worthy of all the glory. So when you pray for God to be glorified in you life He will often answer that prayer by calling you to do things that are impossible for you to do. Are you still going to ask for God to be glorified in your life? If you love Jesus you will. There is risk involved in attempting the impossible for God, but the pay off is worth it all. God is honored and his name is exalted in the process and we have the consummate honor and joy [!] of watching the Master work as only He can. May God give us the grace to know God, trust God and live impossible lives for His glory.
Page last modified on 6/10/2002
(c) 2002 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your minstry.