STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 15
October 31, 2004
We have now completed the Jephthah material. We noticed, at the outset, that it was framed by accounts of minor “judges,” two men before and three after. We said then that these minor figures, about whom little is known, serve as a kind of foil to Jephthah and seem to represent better, more peaceful and prosperous times during the historical period covered by the book of Judges.
We might have passed over them quickly, as we did Tola and Jair before the Jephthah cycle began, but our service tonight was crowded with other things and it seemed opportune for me to take, therefore, a smaller text. That gives us the opportunity to look at this short paragraph and ask what the Lord has for us here.
v.10 This information about Ibzan is clearly intended to form a contrast with Jephthah’s loneliness. Jephthah had one daughter and, in his folly, he murdered her. Ibzan had more women in his family than he could shake a stick at. He not only had thirty daughters, but thirty more daughters-in-law. Remember, before the Jephthah episode we heard of Jair, who also had thirty sons. There were two Bethlehems in Israel, the more famous one south of Jerusalem and another in Zebulon. We expect it is this northern Bethlehem that is meant, as the focus has been on the area inhabited by the northern tribes in what has gone before and, Elon, who follows him, was from Zebulon.
Bringing in daughters from other clans and giving one’s daughters to the sons of other clans expanded Ibzan’s influence and that of his clan.
v.14 Once again, in comparison with Jephthah’s lonely plight, this is a surfeit of family. Abdon’s is even a more ideal family, for his sons and grandsons number 70 (the total number of Israelites who went down to Egypt with Jacob – Gen. 46:27). And his family enjoyed prosperity and peace, each able to ride on a donkey – that is, they had donkeys to ride and were free to ride them where they pleased without fear of marauders.
We are reminded by this material that the more detailed accounts of the judges are not the entire story of that time. The accounts that have been given in greater detail serve to develop the author’s primary theme. But, as we might have expected anyway, the periods of oppression were punctuated by times of tranquility and greater prosperity. At times Israelites got along with one another passably well and enjoyed the bounty of the Promised Land. But the short tenures of each of these three men reminds us that the main problems have not been resolved and the calm is illusory. [Block, 390-391] We know enough about Israel and her spiritual situation and about the Lord and his expectations of his people to know that this comparative peace and harmony will not last. And the Samson episode that follows completely satisfies that expectation.
What is more, and more important for our consideration this evening, these men were minor figures. There was nothing of any real note about their rule in Israel that justified its being reported. We have here, as one scholar rather dismissively puts it, a “chronicle of trivialities.” [Webb, 162]
Now, what are we to do with these three minor judges who, with their families and, apparently, Israel as a whole, enjoyed a time of peace and at least some measure of prosperity during the otherwise tumultuous times of the Judges? Well, the fact is, there are a great many people like this whose names are recorded for us in the Bible, far too many to name. While the Bible is, in a very real sense, a history of great men, both good and bad, and of their exploits, Scripture teaches us in many ways that the grace of salvation and the pursuit of holiness and the blessing of God marked the lives of many, many more people of no particular stature or importance. It was always the case that the living church of God was inhabited mostly by common folk who lived their lives, loved and served the Lord and their neighbors, and died in the faith in which they had lived, but whose lives did not merit any permanent record of their achievements.
You have, for example, Jabez, whose prayer – I’m sure this came as a great surprise to him – made him famous and some others wealthy some 3000 years after he died. He is mentioned in two verses in 1 Chronicles 4 and a prayer he once prayed is recorded there. That is all. But he stands for many faithful people who lived, believed, loved, served the Lord, and died in the centuries covered by the writing of the Bible.
We can think of any number of other such people. There is Abraham’s servant (whose name was perhaps Eliezar of Damascus), whom Abraham sent to get a wife for Isaac, and who so faithfully served his master, keeping the same spiritual interests in his heart that Abraham had in his.
Or we could think of such a woman as Hannah who dealt with her personal sorrows with faithful prayer and who received a great blessing from the Lord. In a similar way there was Abigail, married, as so many believing women through the ages have been, to a man not worthy of her, but who knew what to do in a crisis and saved her family and found another husband from the Lord. We know very little of this woman after she married David, nothing really of her life, but we are given to believe she led a faithful life and raised her children as a godly mother should.
Or what of Uriah, who was more faithful than his wife, and who proved his faithfulness, unknowingly, when a far more powerful man tried to tempt him to sin. Or think of Baruch, Jeremiah’s faithful secretary to whom, it seems, we owe a great deal for one of the great books of the Bible. Or Ebed-Melech, the Cushite, Jeremiah’s friend, whose advocacy rescued the prophet from almost certain death (38:7). Ebed-Melech was like the unnamed nobleman who stuck out his hand at that fateful meeting of the Council of Constance, the meeting at which Huss had been condemned to be burnt, stuck out his hand in full view of that vengeful court to take Huss’ hand as he walked away to his death. Or what of the Recabites, whose names we don’t even know who proved faithful to their calling and to the Lord in a very unfaithful time in Israel’s life, so faithful that Jeremiah could count on them doing the right thing in public and providing thereby an illustration of what was wrong with the rest of Israel.
Hebrews 11, the hall of faith’s heroes, begins with famous names, but it ends with unnamed “women,” “others” and “some.” In that way we are reminded that for every Gideon, or Jephthah, or Samson, there were many Ibzans, Elons and Abdons.
And so it continued in the new epoch. We begin the Gospels with a cast of characters – Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary, Simeon and Anna – who are representative of the holiness which, in times of spiritual deadness, survived then and has often survived among the common people of Israel and later the Gentile church. [Cf. Plummer, Luke, ICC, 65]
And on we go. The women who served the Lord during his ministry, Mary and Martha, ordinary women of no reputation, and Lazarus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea – who offered his tomb for the Lord’s burial. He risked his reputation, his station among the people to honor and serve the Lord.
And then the people of the churches of Acts and the epistles: there is, for example, Simon the tanner, who lived by the sea in the town of Joppa, and in whose home Peter was staying at the time that the apostle was given his vision of the sheet being let down from heaven. It was at Simon’s door that the messenger from Cornelius knocked and, by knocking, opened up the Gentile world to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Time does not permit me to speak of Lydia and the jailer in Philippi; Philemon and Onesimus in Colosse; Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi, women who had some difficulty getting along with one another but who were committed to the Lord’s work. Such are the Ibzans, the Elons, and the Abdons of the Bible and there are a great many of them. Indeed, it is obvious that there have always been a great many more of them than of the great men whose exploits take up the greater share of the Bible’s narrative.
And so it has continued ever since. Throughout the course of church history the largest part of the church has always consisted in the multitudes of believing men and women, faceless and nameless in the record of the church, who have filled the sanctuaries of Christian churches of a Lord’s Day, raised their children to love and serve the Lord, born witness of Christ and his gospel to their friends and neighbors, supported the expansion of the kingdom of God with their money and their prayers, and, in general, lived lives of which the world was not worthy. Most Christians have been such people and most have become Christians through the influence of such people, whether as children raised in a godly home – no doubt the vast majority of Christians in the history of the church – or as converts brought to faith in Christ through evangelism.
Think of that nameless older man who happened to bump into Justin on the seashore as he was taking his walk and fell into conversation with him about Christ and salvation and was the instrument by which Justin, the second century Christian apologist, later immortalized as Justin Martyr, came to be a follower of Christ. Or think of those Christian women, so scornfully dismissed by Celsus, the third century pagan critic of Christianity, who spread the gospel he said by “gossiping Christ at the laundry.”
Or think of Sandy Gordon. I thought of him when I read of all these sons and daughters that Jair had and Ibzan and Abdon. Alexander Gordon, nicknamed “Strong Sandy” because of his great size and strength, lived in Scotland before the Reformation. On a business trip to the English border country he had purchased one of John Wyclif’s contraband New Testaments. And he read that book to himself and to his family his entire life. As the influence of Reformation thought began to penetrate Scotland, in the days after Luther and Patrick Hamilton, but before there had been a full Reformation in that church and that land, certain typical Catholic practices began to fall into disuse. Many of the saints’ days of the calendar began to fall into open neglect. And so the Roman hierarchy struck back. Laws were enacted requiring the observance of various fasts and festivals of the Roman calendar. One law forbade a plough to be yoked on Christmas day on pain of the forfeiture and public sale of the animals that drew the plough. Strong Sandy Gordon, too much the Reformation and Wyclif-kind of Christian to submit to such a law, and too canny a Scot to risk his oxen, simply hitched up ten of his sons to the plough and, after plowing the entire Christmas day, defied the priest and bishop to seize and sell his team. Sandy Gordon lived to more than a hundred years old and we are told that he led his family in worship, using Wyclif’s NT, until the day of his death. [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 86-87]
Now you and I have known many Christians like these. I remember meeting some of them in Aberdeen during those three years we lived there in the mid-1970s. I remember the kind young couple that invited us home from church our first Sunday there. Their children are now grown and he has been the clerk of session for some years. There was the spinster woman who was the minister’s secretary for most of his fifty years in that pulpit at Gilcomston South Church. A kindly woman, generous, always interested in the lives of others. We named our dog, Murray, after her, because when she came down with Parkinson’s disease, and had to leave her home on Murray Terrace in Aberdeen for a care center, she disposed of her personal possessions by sending them to her friends. We received a gift from her just as we were bringing our puppy home from the pound. Or the two women who have lived together for most of their adult lives. Delightful women. We were surprised to learn that they had hardly been anywhere. They had lived their entire lives virtually within the environs of Aberdeen itself. But they had an interest in the progress of the kingdom of God everywhere in the world. They eagerly followed the ministry of people whom they had come to know in Aberdeen and were now serving the Lord in all manner of places around the world. They were wonderfully hospitable, cheerful in spirit, devout and gracious.
Then there was the man who worked for the Aberdeen newspaper who, with his wife hosted us several times in his home. It was at his home, I remember, that we packed up our crate for shipping to the United States when our time in Scotland was over. He was the fellow who loved formula one auto racing and followed it avidly, even traveling to European cities to see some of the races in person, until the sport moved its races from Saturday to Sunday. Then, realizing that he would never be able to see the races run live – he would never have thought to do that on the Lord’s Day – he gave up his passion and devoted himself to other things instead. He sold everything for the pearl of great price.
All over the world there are such people, the very best people in the world: kind, sympathetic, devout, humble, faithful, eager to serve the Lord, interested in anything and everything having to do with the kingdom of God. There are such people here in this congregation, the kind of people who will be the illustrations in some other preacher’s sermon. When, spiritually speaking, times have been at low ebb there have always been such people. When the gospel has prospered it has always produced many more of such people. “Not many wise…by human standards; not many influential; not many of noble birth,” but people who loved and served the Lord.
Church history will not know their names; only eternity will tell how much they have meant to the world and to the salvation of the world. We trace the course of events in the history of the kingdom of God in this world by the lives of the noteworthy – the Baraks, Gideons, and Samsons of the world; the Luthers and Calvins; the David Livingtones and the Charles Spurgeons; the Lloyd Joneses and the Billy Grahams, but the broad mass of that kingdom, moving forward through time, is composed of the Ibzans, the Elons, and the Abdons of the Lord.
What makes that important is, of course, that we, you and I, are of that common, ordinary ilk. And here is God, in his holy Word, taking note, as he so often does, of your life and mine, of us as his people and us as the objects of his love and interest. What is more, he is here, in these few verses in Judges, reminding us that, no matter the moral, spiritual condition of the world, even the church around us, nothing prevents us from living a holy, fruitful life and from enjoying his blessing, if only we will heed his word and trust his grace. We do not need a great name nor do we need to act on a great stage to live a noble and worthy life pleasing to God. Most of his children have lived very simple lives and quiet ones. They are remembered by no one except the One whose remembering matters most of all.
William Cowper once wrote an epitaph for one Mary Higgins, a Christian woman of no particular consequence, but a woman whom he knew and admired.
Laurels may flourish round the conqu’ror’s tomb,
But happiest they, who win the world to come:
Believers have a silent field to fight,
And their exploits are veil’d from human sight.
They in some nook, where little known they dwell,
Kneel, pray in faith, and rout the hosts of hell;
Eternal triumphs crown their toils divine,
And all those triumphs, Mary, now are thine.
The same could be said for most Christians in the world and it will be enough if the same can be said for us as well.