As the book of Judges opens, the faith that marked the Israelites under Joshua was soon lost, and the nation fell into apostasy. Israel's sad experience teaches us the importance of consistently walking with the Lord and diligently communicating our faith to the next generation
We now begin our Wisdom Journey through the book of Judges. Both Jewish and Christian tradition credit Samuel the prophet with recording this history to pave the way for David’s reign as king. This Old Testament book covers more than three hundred years in the life of the nation of Israel. Frankly, it’s a nation given to sin and rebellion against God’s word—and it sounds a lot like our world today.
The key verse in the book appears two times: in chapter 17 verse 6 and then again as the last verse of the book. It says it all: Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. The people all did their own thing. And that’s God’s diagnosis of this entire period of history.
The book of Judges is so named because God raises up one judge after another to serve as national leaders during this time.
But two major problems surface here almost immediately. The first is this: Israel only partially obeyed God.
The conquest under Joshua years earlier had subdued the unrepentant nations in the land, but now it’s up to each tribe to complete the victory and settle their own land inheritance from God. The book of Judges records their halfhearted obedience in this.
Let me tell you, beloved, here is a principle that still works to this day: partial obedience can lead you to total defeat.
Now at first, everything here seems successful, especially for the tribes of Judah and Simeon. Verse 4 of chapter 1 tells us:
Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek.
But after Judah defeats them, we’re told in verse 6 that they catch the Canaanite king and cut off his thumbs and his big toes. This is the traditional way of making sure an enemy can’t hold a sword or stand on his feet with any balance.
This kind of mutilation was typical among the pagans, but God had commanded His people to put these kings to death, not torture them.
Throughout chapter 1 we see troubling descriptions of partial obedience. For instance, in verse 19 we read:
[Judah] took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.
Judah doesn’t have iron chariots, which was state-of-the-art military firepower. But the real problem here isn’t Judah’s lack of firepower; it’s Judah’s lack of faith!
And Judah isn’t alone; in chapter 1 we read seven different references to Israel’s partial obedience. Here are some examples.
Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages . . . the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. (verse 27)
When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely. (verse 28)
And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived . . . among them. (verse 29)
God has something to say about this in chapter 2, when the Angel of the Lord shows up to speak to the people. This is the Lord Himself in some physical manifestation, and He announces in verses 1-3:
“I brought you . . . into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. . . . But you have not obeyed my voice. . . . I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”
And let me tell you, the rest of the book of Judges is the fulfillment of this warning. These wicked nations indeed become “thorns” in the side of Israel.
After all the victories recorded in the book of Joshua, we are now entering a merry-go-round of defeat in the book of Judges. Why? First of all, it’s because the Israelites did not completely obey God.
The second major problem we see here at the outset of Judges is that Israel did not personally know God. Notice verse 2:10:
And all of [Joshua’s] generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.
They knew something about the Lord, but they didn’t personally know the Lord.
Part of the challenge here is that this younger generation had not seen what God did in the days of Joshua. They had not seen the parting of the Jordan River or the collapsing of the walls of Jericho. In fact, they had never personally entrusted their lives to God. And the end result of that is revealed in verse 12: “And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers.”
There’s the problem—they abandoned the God of their fathers. He was their fathers’ God, but He isn’t their God. They can sing about the faith of their fathers, but it isn’t their faith. Every generation has to make their own decision to follow God, and this generation isn’t interested. And so, it’s not long before they trade God in for Baal, the chief god of the Canaanites.
Now, as you encounter references to Baal here in this book, you might wonder why Baal worship was so appealing. Why were the Israelites always running back to Baal?
Well, for starters, Baal was considered the god of fertility and life; he supposedly had a mistress named Ashtareth—sometimes called Astarte. The Canaanites believed the fertility of their crops and cattle and even people depended on the sexual union of Baal and Ashtareth.
So, Baal was worshiped, so to speak, by people going to these pagan temples and having sexual relations with temple prostitutes. They believed every act of fornication would encourage Baal and Ashtareth in their union and therefore produce fertility for them and their land. The religion of Baal justified immorality, so it’s no wonder everybody was standing in line to get involved.
And how do you think God is going to respond to Israel? Verses 14-15 tell us: “The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel . . . and they were in terrible distress.”
They have made a mess of their lives. And who is going to remind them of what it means to follow the true and living God? God will graciously send them judges to fulfill this role. But let me ask you a personal question: Are you telling the next generation about the holiness and faithfulness of God?
I read the results of a survey that said the average father talks to his children less than five minutes a week, and “Do your homework” and “Pass the butter” didn’t count. Imagine, less than five minutes in meaningful conversation per week.
Listen, it’s going to take much more than five minutes a week to communicate the truth about God and what it means to live for Christ.
Tell your children and grandchildren what it’s like for you to stand for Christ. You will be surprised at how interested they are. Tell them about the last office party you had to attend, when you refused to drink and carry on with the others, and you felt like you didn’t fit in. That’s going to matter so much to them as they are facing peer pressure at school or in their careers.
Frankly, we are always in danger of losing the next generation. Somebody has to tell them why God is worth following and what it looks like and feels like to walk with God.
That’s exactly what God will do here for Israel. He’s going to give them judges to lead the way. Verse 16 gives us a preview: “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.”
How gracious God is! Though the first verses of chapter 3 tell us He will leave in the land the pagan people Israel failed to expel, He, too, is still present and working on behalf of His people.