MESSAGE FOR JUNE 9, 2002 FROM JUDGES 5
This week, we pick up where we left off last week in Judges as we continue to explore the story of Deborah. You’ll recall we said last week that this account of Deborah is one of only two Old Testament events that is recounted twice back to back through the use of two literary styles. In chapter four you’ll remember the Jews had been for 20 years under the oppressive rule of the Canaanites. In response to their cries for release God raises up Deborah, a prophetess who is God’s messenger through the series of events that take place as he liberates his people from Jabin, the King of the Canaanites and Sisera the Canaanite general. God tells Deborah to summon Barak to be his deliverer and lead the Israelite army against Sisera but Barak hesitates and tells Deborah he will advance against the Canaanites and their 900 iron chariots only if she will go with him as his prophetic “walkie-talkie” connection to God. God grants the request but predicts that as discipline on Barak, the glory for the victory will go to a woman.
The story tells us that Barak summoned two tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali and battled and defeated the Canaanites, routing them by the sword with only General Sisera escaping with his life. At this point the author interjects another character into this drama, a woman named Jael who is a foreigner, a Kenite tent-dweller and the wife of a stalwart ally of the Canaanites. Jael proves herself to be a quite formidable woman as she lures Sisera into her tent, dopes him with a drink of milk and while he is sleeping, murders him by brutally affixing his head to the ground through the use of a hammer and tent peg. She thus receives the glory for the victory and the prophecy of Deborah is fulfilled. The story in chapter four is told in a narrative intended to inform and educate us about the event.
The same historical event is retold in chapter five by the use of poetry—a very different literary style with a very different goal. Whereas the narrative or prose style is very controlled and realistic, Hebrew poetry is more emotionally charged and employs the use of exaggeration and figurative language. The intention of poetic language is not primarily to educate and inform, but to celebrate and inspire. We understand this intuitively. If a man tells his wife she has blue eyes that statement has all the emotional impact on her of a brief glance at her driver’s license. He has uttered a factual statement about the color of her eyes and nothing more. But if the same man tells his wife her eyes are sapphires, that may quicken her pulse by a few beats per minute. She will intuitively understand that he was not speaking in literal terms. She won’t respond to his sapphire comment by saying, “Actually dear, I’ve always felt they were closer to Amethyst if you really want to know.”
Poetry is used when you want to move someone emotionally—if you want to evoke something deep within them that goes well beyond a simple understanding of the historical facts. In Judges chapter five, the author places this poem or song of Deborah in the text to help us FEEL the impact of these events. However in chapter five there are also additional historical details that are not in the account in chapter four, so chapter five does inform us in those areas. Dan Block, my one of my Old Testament profs in seminary and an expert on this passage to whom I owe most of my understanding of this text says this about the poem, “…as history it informs; as a ballad it entertains; as a heroic ode it inspires; as a hymn it calls for celebration.” You can hear from that description that the content of chapter five, even though it deals basically with the same events treated in chapter four, is presented with a very different goal.
Chapter five is a difficult text to understand for several reasons the most basic of which has to do with the original language. This poem is one of the oldest preserved documents included in the Old Testament and scholars tell us the Hebrew it employs is very hard to interpret. Some have estimated that “in 70 percent of the verses the most significant words are difficult to interpret”[Block. p.216]. This causes us to be quite humble in our interpretation. Beyond that, Hebrew poetry is not something many of us spend a lot of time studying so the rules and principles that govern its interpretation are not well known to us. Because discovering the meaning of these verses is a challenge, I will go through the text section by section and give something of a running commentary of the texts. Hopefully this will not be too tedious. After we go through my best understanding of the meaning of these verses, then we will derive a couple of powerful biblical principles that we can apply to our lives from the text. With that as background, let’s begin our study with verse one of Judges chapter five.
The poem is divided into seven major sections and in the first section in verses one through three, we have Deborah making an enthusiastic call to praise God. The fact that this poem begins and ends with God tells us that it was clear to Deborah that the real hero of this story is God. Beginning in verse one she says, “On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song: Notice the man Barak is listed second and that very unusual order again tells us that Barak’s lack of faith places him in a secondary role of honor to Deborah. Verse two says, 2"When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves--praise the Lord! Again we see Deborah praising God for the Israelites willingness to fight and for the Jewish leaders to take responsibility to lead. We’ll see later on this willingness among the Jews was far from universal in this fight, but at the level the people WERE emboldened to fight against Sisera and his chariots—it was GOD who made that happen and he deserves the praise. In verse three Deborah turns and addresses the rulers of Canaan who have been defeated and says, “3"Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I will sing to the Lord, I will sing; I will make music to the Lord, the God of Israel. Deborah is here poetically rubbing salt into the wounds of these rulers and pointing to the superiority of Yahweh who has won the victory for the Jews.
In verses 4-6, Deborah continues to praise God by graphically speaking of the most important event in the battle, the arrival of the Great Warrior King of the Israelites, Yahweh. Listen to the relish and pride that permeates these words as she speaks about the foreboding and terrifying arrival of the Great Warrior King on the scene. “"O Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured,
the clouds poured down water. 5The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
before the Lord, the God of Israel.” Can you see the word picture Deborah is drawing of the triumphant arrival at Yahweh to the scene of battle? The picture is of Yahweh coming up from the South to engage the enemy. That is powerful in the context because the Canaanite gods were thought to reside in the north. When God comes to earth as he passes through the clouds, they explode in a downpour in response to his mighty presence. This too is a slap in the face of Baal because the pagans believed it was Baal who controlled the storms and here Deborah says that these clouds that the Canaanites think are controlled by Baal—when they are confronted by even the presence of Yahweh, they hemorrhage water. Verse five says that when God passes over the mountains--these mountains that can be seen for miles and miles-- whose majesty is breathtaking—those glorious mountains quake at the presence of Yahweh. Clearly, none of this happened literally—Deborah is using poetic language to communicate what an utterly terrifying thing it is to have the Warrior King Yahweh emerging from his heavenly dwelling to meet you in battle. If his presence in the clouds issues in torrential rains and the lofty mountains quaking when he simply passes by them—if the forces of nature quiver in fear before him, then what chance do 900 chariots have against his awesome power?
Beginning with verse six, Deborah describes the Jews’ plight BEFORE the battle. Life was not pleasant under the boot of their Canaanite oppressors and she gives this painful context in verses six through eight, 6"In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the roads were abandoned; travelers took to winding paths. 7Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel. 8When they chose new gods,
war came to the city gates, and not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel.
Deborah decries the dismal quality of life under the Canaanites by saying that the roads were abandoned and those who were FORCED to travel wouldn’t dare use the main roads, but would instead be forced to take the back roads. The oppression was so heavy that it simply wasn’t safe to travel. Village life, once permeated by typical village activities was shut down because of the fear of the pagans. In verse seven she says this was the way it was until she, Deborah “a mother in Israel” arose. Notice she does not refer to herself as a deliverer or even a prophetess and we know she was a prophetess from chapter four. Instead she refers to herself as a mother in Israel. She does this to bring out the irony of a woman, a mother being used by God in this typically male leadership role. As we’ve said before, this also points to the poor spiritual health of the Jewish men when God has to enlist a mother as a leader in Israel.
Verse eight is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in this text. The NIV makes it sound like the Jew had chosen new gods, which points to their idolatry. The subject of the verb might just as easily be God in which the translation would be “God chose new leaders for Israel.” That would make more sense in the context because this poem nowhere else mentions Israel’s apostasy. The war that “came to the city gates” in verse eight points to the fact that the Canaanites would regularly attack the Israelite cities and the Jews had been so depleted of supplies that Deborah records here there was “not a shield or spear to be seen” in an entire armed unit of 40,000. The point is again, this is a people who were thoroughly downtrodden by the Canaanites—prisoners in their own land and without any military power to free themselves. Do you hear how the power of Yahweh in the preceding section is contrasted with the helplessness of his people in this one? Again, Deborah labors to show us that this victory over the Canaanites was miraculous in nature and totally of God.
In verses nine through 11 Deborah moves ahead in time to after the victory and she calls for various people to praise the Lord for his deliverance. Verse nine begins,9My heart is with Israel's princes, with the willing volunteers among the people. Praise the Lord! 10"You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road, consider 11the voice of the singers at the watering places. They recite the righteous acts of the Lord, the righteous acts of his warriors in Israel. In verse nine, Deborah herself praises God for those who willingly followed God into battle. In verse ten she addresses the Canaanite nobles and wealthy merchants. We know this because the white donkey she mentions was rare and would not have been ridden by people of average means. Also, the saddle blankets on these donkeys were luxurious and were used by people of wealth to flaunt their financial standing. Verse ten also indicates that unlike the Jews, the Canaanites were free to “walk along the road.” Verse 11 is another very difficult verse but Deborah appears to be telling these merchants to listen to the voices of the Jews at the watering hole—an ancient version of the office water fountain. She bitingly calls on them to listen to the reports of the glorious victory of Yahweh over the Canaanites.
In the last stanza of verse 11 through verse 18, recounts the Jews’ preparations for the battle. In this section God summons all the necessary parties to war. This is a fascinating section because there is new information in this section that is not part of the narrative in chapter four. The section begins with the last part of verse 11, which essentially gives an overview of the entire section. Deborah begins here with, “Then the people of the Lord went down to the city gates. 12'Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song! Arise, O Barak! Take captive your captives, O son of Abinoam.' 13"Then the men who were left came down to the nobles; the people of the Lord came to me with the mighty. 14Some came from Ephraim, whose roots were in Amalek; Benjamin was with the people who followed you. From Makir captains came down, from Zebulun those who bear a commander's staff. 15The princes of Issachar were with Deborah; yes, Issachar was with Barak, rushing after him into the valley. In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of heart. 16Why did you stay among the campfires to hear the whistling for the flocks? In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of heart. 17Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan. And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves. 18The people of Zebulun risked their very lives; so did Naphtali on the heights of the field.
First, God gives Deborah a wake up call to arms and to break out in song. Then Barak is summoned to battle. Then in 14-18 Deborah recounts how 10 of the tribes respond to God’s call to arms. Judah and Simeon are not mentioned for some reason but the other ten tribes respond to God’s call in one of three ways. Some willingly volunteer, some refuse the call to battle and two respond with special gallantry. In verse 14 we see that Ephraim and Benjamin (whose battle prowess we have seen in Ehud) as well as Zebulun willingly go to the battle. Also, “Makir” agrees to go and Makir was another name for Manasseh. In verse 15, we read that Issachar also positively responds to the call. Five tribes willingly report for duty. But in verse 16, we see that Reuben stayed among their campfires and their flocks. There was evidently some anguish in this decision not to join the battle because twice Deborah uses the phrase “there was much searching of heart” but in the end they arrogantly refuse the command to go up against the Canaanites. In verse 17 we see that Gilead, which is another name for the tribe of Chad, also stays beyond the Jordan and the tribe of Dan on the coast rather than enter the fray instead chooses to “linger by the ships.” Asher too “remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.” So here are four of the tribes that refuse to go to fight the battle. We don’t hear of that in chapter four—here is a significant new detail in chapter five. A third of the tribes balked at God’s command to take up arms against the Canaanites. That shows us something of the tremendous apostasy of this time. Two tribes Zebulun and Naphtali who are the only tribes mention in the battle narrative in chapter four and who happened to be located in the area where the battle occurred are cited for their unique valor in the battle. She says that they both “risked their lives” in the battle.
As we move to verses 19-23, the pace quickens as Deborah describes the battle. The account begins, 19"Kings came, they fought; the kings of Canaan fought at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo, but they carried off no silver, no plunder. 20From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. 21The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong! 22Then thundered the horses' hoofs--galloping, galloping go his mighty steeds. 23'Curse Meroz,' said the angel of the Lord. 'Curse its people bitterly, because they did not come to help the Lord, to help the Lord against the mighty.' Deborah notes that although the Canaanite kings fought by the waters of Megiddo, they did not carry off any plunder, which is a way of saying, they lost. Yahweh’s role in the victory is center stage as Deborah graphically describes God’s overwhelming power. The cosmic nature of the battle is brought out in Deborah’s reference to the stars fighting against Sisera.
In verse 21, we see what actually happened in the battle because it says that the Kishon River swept the Canaanite army away. This is all the more remarkable because the Kishon river is normally no more than a brook, but God here evidently causes a torrential rain and the resulting flood swept the chariots, the horses and the Canaanite warriors away. When you think about it, it would have to have been a miraculous victory given the fact that the Jews had very few weapons. So God employs the forces of nature, which we have already seen, he has complete control over to win the victory. The horses get bogged down and these awesome chariots are swept away like some much driftwood. Again, think about what affect this would have had on the Canaanites who believed Baal, their God controlled the storms. The way God chose to defeat the pagan would have screamed to them that it is not Baal who controls nature, Yahweh does. This would have certainly petrified the Canaanites who are brought to the stark and horrifying realization that the God of the Hebrews was much stronger than their god. Verse 23, with its reference to “cursing Meroz” is difficult because we simply don’t have a good idea of what Meroz is referring to. Probably, God is calling on one of his angels to curse those Jews who rebelled against Him and did not join the battle.
As we move into the next section, Deborah takes up the other heroine of the poem, Jael. Even though we saw last week that Jael was not the most moral person in the world, we must remember this poem is a victory song and therefore the focus is on her undeniable courage and strength as a woman. The text begins in verse 24 with, “24"Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. 25He asked for water, and she gave him milk; in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk. 26Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman's hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple.
27At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell--dead.
You can tell the relish with which Deborah tells the story because three times she uses this vivid word we translate “sank” in reference to Sisera. Sisera sunk and Deborah wants everyone to know of his ignominy—lying dead with a mortal wound at the feet of the woman who had inflicted it. Jael is described as “most blessed of tent-dwelling women.” That means that of all the non-Jews (Jews lived in houses not tents) Jael is to be praised because she acted with such valor on behalf of Yahweh.
In verse 28 there is an absolutely stunning shift to a radically different scene. We have just left the violence of Jael’s tent and now moves to the intense poignancy of a worried mother’s living room. Now the spotlight is on another woman and another mother, the mother of Sisera. Verse 28 says, “28"Through the window peered Sisera's mother; behind the lattice she cried out, 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?' 29The wisest of her ladies answer her; indeed, she keeps saying to herself, 30'Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a girl or two for each man, colorful garments as plunder for Sisera, colorful garments embroidered, highly embroidered garments for my neck--all this as plunder?' This is a gut-wrenching scene because we know the fateful truth about Sisera that she his mother does not yet know. We know that at this point her son is delayed because he lies dead on the ground in Jael’s tent. This is a great example of what poetry does to us. On the one hand we feel grief at the loss of this mother. On the other hand we feel triumphant about the fact that in Sisera’s death, Yahweh’s victory is complete and Deborah’s prophecy to Barak about a woman getting the glory is fulfilled. Its that intense feeling as the poet brings us into this soon-to-be-agonizing woman’s world that the poet wants to bring us to. The poem closes with this declaration in praise of Yahweh, “31"So may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But may they who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength." That declaration at this point is very powerful because we have just seen described in graphic poetic terms what does indeed happen to enemies of God. Finally, Deborah reports, Then the land had peace forty years. This victory gave one generation of Israelites peace until God once again chastened them for their apostasy.
As we close let me give two brief points of application to this poem. First, All people should fear our awesome and majestic God. This song reminds us that no matter how much intimacy we have with God, he is not like us and we must always fear Him. This is a God for whom mountains, the most immovable of objects quake like Jell-O on a jackhammer. This God turns peaceful brooks into raging rivers that sweep horses and chariots and powerful armies away the way you and I would sweep a fly away from our foreheads. Forces of nature that send us scurrying to our basements for cover—flood, fire and earthquakes he manipulates the way we would control a finger puppet. This God mocks the rich and powerful—he is not impressed with our silver or gold. This God has no equal and has never and will never experience defeat at the hands of anything or anyone. He strikes terror into the hearts of sinners. In Revelation 6:15-17, hear the response of the powerful and wicked men of the earth in response to God’s judgment. “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?"
We should take great comfort in God’s power to protect us and accomplish his will in us, but we must also be sobered by the fact that God is no respecter of persons and verse 31 says, “So may all your enemies perish O Lord.” Those are sobering words in light of James 4:4, “…Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes and enemy of God.” One of the motivations for us not loving the world—not lusting after its treasures should be a dreadful fear of placing ourselves in the position of an all-too-perishable enemy of God. If Judges fives tells us anything it is that God’s enemies do not fare well. When Jesus returns with his mighty army let us be among those who welcome his appearing rather than those who hide in caves in terror before the Lamb. Revelation chapter six graphically tells us that the thing to be feared most about the Lamb is not his power over nature—these rulers were begging for a natural disaster to do them in. What is to be feared most about the Lamb is His power to look into your face at the judgment and consign you to the everlasting fire. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
A second application for us from this text is simply we must be among those who are faithful to obey God. The poem tells us that while some of the tribes were faithful, others were not and while that did not stop God from accomplishing his purpose, it’s clear they were rebuked for their indifference to God. So many of us can meet ourselves in Reuben who, when confronted with the call to obey experienced “much searching of heart.” Reuben heard the call and went through some degree of real anguish—the phrase “much searching of heart” is repeated to emphasize the intensity of heart searching that took place. But in the final analysis, they were no better than the other disobedient tribes. Their searching of heart—their struggle to do the right thing didn’t make them any more faithful than the others. Sometimes we think that if we go through a struggle and in the end disobey that in some way imparts virtue to us in God’s sight. The struggle is only important to God if it issues in obedience. There is no virtue in the struggle to obey, only in obeying. Several years ago, I heard Elizabeth Elliot say words to the effect that, “When someone tells me `I am struggling with doing such and such for the Lord’ I often understand that to mean they are in disobedience to the Lord.” Her point was that we sometimes find ourselves in the place of knowing what they are to do, not wanting to do it, struggling with the pain of it and in the end disobeying. When the cross comes into our lives there is a struggle every time. But we must never be deceived into thinking that God is pleased with our struggle to obey if in the end, we do not obey. The Reubenites did that and the result for them was the same as the other tribes--when God issued his roll call, they were absent without leave. They did not share in God’s victory. The question for us this morning is, do we want to share in God’s victory? May God give us the grace to hear and willingly obey out of love for God and fear of God.
Page last modified on 6/16/2002
(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.