The era of the judges saw repeated episodes of apostasy and the drastic consequences of it. But God was not absent, and neither had faith completely disappeared. Deborah, Barak, and the people who followed them are a bright light in a very dark world.
Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, gave a humorous piece of advice to parents back in the 1800s. He suggested that when children turn thirteen, you put them in a barrel and feed them through a hole; then when they turn sixteen, you plug up the hole! Well, I’m not recommending that, by the way.
But at this point in the book of Judges, you might expect God to go looking for a barrel for the children of Israel.
Judges chapter 4 begins with the Israelites rebelling against God again; and this time, the Lord allows Jabin, the king of Hazor, to defeat them and trouble them for some twenty years. He has an army equipped with nine hundred iron chariots under the command of his general, Sisera.
Humanly speaking, Israel is powerless. But remember, Israel’s problem is never military weakness but spiritual waywardness. So, when Israel finally cries out in repentance to the Lord, God responds. Only this time, God doesn’t raise up a warrior judge; He chooses a woman in Israel named Deborah.
We don’t know a lot about Deborah, but we are told in verse 4 that she is a prophetess as well as a wife. She is what we would call today a housewife. That’s not a demeaning term at all; it happens to be the hardest job on the planet. On top of that, Deborah is serving as a judge in Israel; she’s sitting under a palm tree rendering verdicts as the people of Israel bring cases to her (verse 5).
God leads her to recruit a general named Barak to lead Israel into battle against General Sisera and his iron chariots. But even though Deborah gives Barak God’s guarantee of victory, his response is a little embarrassing. He says to Deborah in verse 8, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
He sounds more like a weakling than a warrior. And Deborah thinks so too. I can imagine her patting him on the helmet in verse 9 as she says:
“I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will [give] Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Even though Barak lacks courage, the people of Israel step up with courage and faith. In fact, let me take you through this chapter and give you some qualities we see in the people that are worth imitating today.
First of all, the people volunteered without any hesitation. Verse 10 says: “And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.” Ten thousand men immediately volunteered.
Deborah’s song in chapter 5 reveals that men from the tribes of Ephraim and Benjamin also signed up, and verse 15 says men from Issachar “rushed at his heels.” That means they couldn’t wait to join the army. There was no ad campaign telling them how wonderful life would be in the army; it was more like, “If you want to risk your life against iron chariots, God will help you.”
Now there were some tribes, unfortunately, who refused to get involved. After the battle, Deborah asks the tribe of Reuben in chapter 5 and verse 16, “Why did you sit still among the sheepfolds?” In other words, why did you just sit there and do nothing?
In verse 17 she says, “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan.” That means the tribes of Gad and Manasseh did not keep their promise to cross the Jordan and help the other tribes when they went into battle (Numbers 32:31). Deborah says here also, “And why did [Dan] stay with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea.”
This is a roll call of shame. And by the way, in days to come, the tribe of Asher will have no significant impact on the history of Israel, the tribe of Dan will nosedive into apostasy, and the tribes of Gad and Manasseh will be overrun.
Listen beloved, when you refuse to serve others, you will shrivel up spiritually. You might not be put in a barrel and fed through a hole, but you will be living in a closed-up little world where everything revolves around you. You don’t want to live like that. You want to live like these Israelites who volunteered without any hesitation.
Secondly, they trusted God without any explanation. The Israelites who signed up didn’t have all the answers; they just followed God.
And here’s what happened next—back to Judges chapter 4 and verse 15:
The LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot.
The Lord did this! And we are given a clue how He did it in Deborah’s song of victory over in chapter 5 and verse 21: “The torrent Kishon swept [the enemy army] away.”
God evidently used a flood to mire down the wheels of these iron chariots in the mud, and then they were swept away in the rushing water. Oh, and by the way, their god, Baal, was supposed to be in control of storms.
Well, General Sisera jumps out of his chariot and runs for his life. He stumbles into the tent of another housewife by the name of Jael. Here in verses 18-21 of chapter 4, she pretends to welcome him. She even feeds him and gives him a glass of milk to drink. He falls asleep, and she takes his life while he’s sleeping.
God uses two housewives and an army of volunteers to bring about a great victory. They volunteered without any hesitation and trusted God without any explanation. Thirdly, they gave God the credit without any reservation. Deborah’s song of victory in chapter 5 begins and ends with the glory and power of God.
Now you might wonder why God put these volunteers through all this trouble. Why did they have to rush down a mountainside into the face of iron chariots, only to have God rescue them at the last moment by a flood?
Beloved, following God doesn’t erase the challenges. God is not just interested in delivering you; He is interested in developing you. We are called to strap on the armor of God every day and stand for Christ; and that means when you get knocked down from time to time, you get back up, you get back in the battle, and you walk with Christ with even greater humility and trust.
A zookeeper named Gary Richmond wrote a book about his experiences that offered some spiritual analogies. On one occasion he had the privilege of watching a giraffe give birth at the zoo. Mother giraffes deliver their offspring while standing up. As Richmond watched, the baby dropped to the ground and lay there a while; then the mother kicked it. And with that, the newborn giraffe struggled to stand up on its wobbly legs. No sooner had it gained some balance and the mother kicked it again, sending it sprawling to the ground. Gary asked, “Why’d she do that?” The nearby veteran zookeeper explained that in the wild, a newborn giraffe is easy prey to wild animals. The mother knows her baby needs to immediately join the herd. It needs to remember how to stand up.
And beloved, that’s my prayer for you as God continues to develop you, rather than immediately deliver you from the storms of life.