STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 4
July 4, 2004
The beginning of the book of Judges, up to 3:5, is a prologue in two parts: an historical summary of the failure of Israel, in her various tribes, to destroy the Canaanite inhabitants of the Promised Land and, as a result, Israel’s coming to live among those pagan peoples and a theological analysis of that failure, based in large part on the commandments and the warnings that God had published to Israel regarding the Canaanites in Deuteronomy. Now, with that introduction behind us, we begin the narrative of the judges itself with the first judge, Othniel. After giving us a summary of all the history, the narrator now goes back to the beginning and begins his account in detail.
v.7 Now the Othniel material illustrates the literary pattern that this narrator will use throughout. Each of these separate narratives presupposes the longer explanation that we were given in the prologue in 2:6-3:6 and each uses the same language in longer or shorter form. For example, compare 2:11 – “Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals” – with 3:7 – “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.” You’ll see the same statement or one similar to it at the beginning of the next section in 3:12 and the section after that in 4:1 and so on.
And what is true of the first element in this formula is true of each succeeding one: it presupposes the longer statement in the prologue and is found repeated in most every section that follows. So there is reference to the Lord’s anger in the prologue, in 2:12-14, in 3:8 in the Othniel material, in the Jephthah material in 10:7, etc. And, when the Lord’s anger against Israel is not specifically mentioned, as in 3:12 (re Ehud) or 4:2 (re Deborah) it is clearly assumed that it was the Lord’s anger that prompted him to give them into the hands of some oppressor.
In the same way, we read of Israel crying out to the Lord and his raising up a deliverer for her in the prologue, here in v. 9, in 3:15, and so on. And so also the peace that Israel enjoyed until such and such judge died. The cyclical pattern of Israel’s history during this time is emphasized by the repetition of these formulas in the narrative of one judge after another and, as well, the fact that Israel never seemed to learn her lesson. The cycles of rebellion, punishment, and deliverance were spinning downward.
Asherah was a prominent figure in Canaanite mythology, the wife of the high God, El, and the mother of seventy gods. The seductive power of Asherah worship in Israel is attested by several archeological finds, Hebrew language inscriptions from the time of the Israelite monarchy that refer to Yahweh and his Asherah, who apparently was viewed as the consort of the Lord. [Block, 151]
v.8 The identity of this king or the location of his kingdom is not known for certain. “Naharaim” means “of the two or between the two rivers” and would suggest that he ruled the Armaeans who lived in what is today north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq. In that case he would be a more distant oppressor than any other mentioned in Judges and, in that, a mightier king, whose reach extended far from his home.
v.9 Israel cried for help. We know enough already to realize that this was not necessarily a penitential cry. It was simply a cry of pain. [Block, 153]
God raised Othniel up to deliver Israel. And as we read in v. 10, he constrained him by his Spirit to lead Israel into battle. This was God’s doing, not Othniel’s. It was God himself who transformed a minor Israelite officer into a ruler of the nation. “Not by might, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord!
Othniel is unusual among the Judges in that he has been introduced already, first in Joshua and then in Judges 1:13-14. We know he was an alien by extraction, a nephew of Caleb, one of the twelve spies, and belonged now to the tribe of Judah, the last of all the judges to come from Judah.
v.10 In Othniel’s case we are given only a skeletal account, a kind of paradigm for the accounts that will follow. No description is given of the oppression of Israel, nothing is said about the war in which Othniel delivered Israel. It is a skeletal account lacking all detail. What is more, the author says nothing negative about Othniel and, of course, Othniel represents the first generation of Israelites after that of the conquest itself. So the account of the Judges begins well. The stage is thus set for the spiral downwards that will follow and that we have already been told will follow.
v.11 Eight years of oppression are followed by forty years of calm, so long as Othniel lived.
Now, one important detail is worth noting. As we just said, the formula drawn from the prologue and repeated in the case of each succeeding judge is not repeated word for word in every case. There are a number of variations in wording. There is such a variation here. In this case we find that “forsook” in 2:12 is changed to “forgot” in 3:7. Instead of Israel “forsaking” the Lord, as in the prologue, we have Israel “forgetting” the Lord. But embedded in the formulaic presentation that is repeated over and again in Judges, we are given to understand that “forsake” and “forget” are two ways of saying the same thing, or, at least, “forsaking God” and “forgetting God” are two things very closely related to one another. In other words, there is a spiritual lesson to be learned in that slight change of wording. We often forsake the Lord precisely by forgetting him. I mentioned last time, in connection with the statement in 2:10, that the matter of remembering the Lord’s works is an important foundation of faith. When Israel forgot what God had done she stopped believing in what he was doing and what he would do. She forgot him, but he did not forget his word, or his covenant, or its warnings of judgment for his people when they prove unfaithful to him.
Memory as a spiritual issue is an important theme in the Bible. I have my Bible commonplaced on the subject of remembering and forgetting as spiritual conditions at Psalm 78:11 where the psalmist explains that previous generations of Israel betrayed the Lord and his covenant because
“They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them.”
The 78th psalm begins, if you remember, with the expression of a determination to teach the rising generation “the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.” And the result of that, we are assured, is that these children, as they grow up, will “put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands. They would not be like their forefathers – a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.”
In other words, forgetting both contributes to unbelief, leads to it, and becomes a form of unbelief. In a similar way, remembering feeds faith and becomes part of the very nature and character of faith. The Bible makes this point many times.
In Deuteronomy 32:18, the Lord makes this judgment about the faithless generation of Israel whom he had delivered from bondage in Egypt and so miraculously provided for in the wilderness:
“You deserted the Rock who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you
The prophets often make the same point. Here is Hosea 13:5-6:
“I cared for you in the desert, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied they became proud; then they forgot me.”
We could multiply statements of that kind throughout the Bible. And the same is true about the spiritual discipline of remembering, both as a means of strengthening faith and as an expression of faith itself.
Over and again the Lord commands his people to remember. Here is Micah 6:5:
“My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam
son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that
you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
Here people are to remember, as their own history, what God had done for generations of his people long ago. As Americans remember Valley Forge or Gettysburg and so come to understand what it means to be an American, Christians remember the Biblical history as their own history and come to understand what it means to be a Christian. Or this from Psalm 77:7-12:
“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his
unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember you miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.”
Taking these and many other texts like them together, we are taught that faith in God feeds on the recollection of what he has done: done in the ancient past and done in our own individual past. It’s not very good poetry, but John Newton’s point is excellent and biblical spiritual theology:
His love in time past
Forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer
I have in review
Confirms his good pleasure
To help me quite through.
“Ebenezer,” of course, reminds us of how practical the ancients were about the need to remember and to do what could be done to aid remembering. “Ebenezer” means, as you know, “stone of help,” and was the name of the cairn, the memorial that Samuel set up in at Mizpah to commemorate the great victory that the Lord gave Israel there over the Philistines. The stone formation would be a constant reminder to the Israelites of what God had done for them, a constant spur to them to put their hope in God. And they aided memory in many such ways.
You remember that Joseph had two sons in Egypt. He named his first boy, Manasseh, which sounds like the word “forget” because the Lord had caused him to forget all of his troubles, the troubles he suffered when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. He named his second boy Ephraim, which means, or at least sounds like the Hebrew for “twice fruitful,” because, Joseph said, God had made him twice as fruitful in the land of his exile than he was or could have been in his homeland.
In other words, every day Joseph reminded himself of what God had done for him, the remarkable grace that God had lavished on him. Every time he leaned out the kitchen door and yelled, “Manasseh, get in here and make your bed and clean up your room,” he would remember. Every time Joseph and Asenath, his wife, had guests for dinner, he would introduce his boys. “I would like you to meet my sons, “Causing to Forget” and “Twice Fruitful.” The guests would no doubt say, “My, those are unusual names.” And Joseph would lead them into the living room and say, “Yes they are; let me tell you how they came to have them.”
We have at home a new photo album that contains pictures that Florence took on the recent Covenant High School trip to Great Britain. One of them features Mr. Bond standing beside a framed text hung on the wall of John Newton’s study in Olney, England. It hangs in the very room in which Newton composed his sermons and wrote his hymns and by the window through which he could see the parish church and his parishioners coming and going.
The text is really two texts. It reads:
“Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou has been honourable…”
which is from Isa. 43:4. And right below that is Deuteronomy 15:15:
“And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land
of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee…”
You may remember something of John Newton’s life. Raised by a pious mother, he forgot his early training, went to sea and for some years lived the life of a dissolute and profane man. His swearing was so bad it offended the Captain of the ship he was serving on who was a profane man himself! Many times the Lord spared his life and finally the early training of his mother was brought home to his heart by the Spirit of God and his life was transformed by the grace of God.
All through Newton’s spiritual autobiography we read of him forgetting what he had been taught by his mother, forgetting what the Lord had done for him. “I forgot…” “I soon forgot…” “This, too, I totally forgot!” Such words occur repeatedly. So it is no wonder that after he became a Christian and a Christian minister, he should fix to the wall of his study that text from Deuteronomy: “thou shalt remember that thou was a bondsman…and the Lord thy God redeemed thee…” In other words, he was saying that he had foundered in precisely the same way the Israelites did; he forgot God and what God had said and done. He lived as he lived because he had no memory of God and his works. And, once a Christian, he was determined that he would not make that same mistake again.
Some of us may have very fine memories, others rather poor. Abraham Lincoln is said to have had an absolutely phenomenal memory. He would delight friends with his ability to recite long passages of Burns, Byron, or Shakespeare and had an uncanny ability to remember names and faces. A friend said that Lincoln, “had the best memory of any man I ever knew, he never forgot anything he read.” [Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln, 84] Charles Spurgeon could tell you, years after he read a book, on what page and where on the page to find a particular citation. I on the other hand, am introduced to a person after the service, realize at the time that I must remember this person’s name, and can’t tell you what it is ten minutes later. I’m always sending people to meet people whose names I should remember so that they can tell me what their names are before they get to me.
But we are not speaking now of your ability to remember trivia or people’s names, or directions, or school material for a test. We are not speaking of memory in a natural sense. The memory we are talking about is the kind that a person with a steel-trap memory for other things might not have and the kind a person with a poor memory for other things might nevertheless have and wonderfully. The Puritan Thomas Brooks reminds us that a spiritual memory is something that most people do not have, no matter how good their memory may be in other things.
“Most men’s memories, especially in the great concernments of their souls, are like a sieve, where the good corn and fine flour goes through, but the light chaff or coarse bran remain behind; or like a strainer, where the sweet liquor is strained out, but the dregs left behind; or like a grate that lets the pure water run away, but if there be any straws, sticks, mud, or filth, that it holds, as it were, with iron hands.” [Works, i, 288]
We know how true that is of us. That in matters of the soul and our relationship with Christ and our walking with him, the natural power of our memory is not the issue. There is something else involved. Our sinful hearts are disinclined to remember certain things and strongly disposed to remember other things. We can remember a slight forever, and recall it every time we see the person; but forget almost altogether some great kindness the Lord has shown us, or some lesson from his Word that he taught us in some powerful way at some point in our lives. Our memory is always feeding our lusts, our fears, our worries, our envy, our pride and often utterly forsaking our faith, hope, love, and obedience.
Well, we are told at the outset of the narrative of Judges that Israel fell in some substantial part because she forgot God and what he had done. She forsook God by forgetting him. She forgot, as she had been commanded not to forget in Deuteronomy, that she had been a bondslave in Egypt and that God had redeemed her from there.
And we are to learn from this narrative not to forget the Lord ourselves; not to make this same fatal mistake. Christians can make this mistake too and hurt their Christian lives, their witness, their fruitfulness, and their happiness. They too can forget the Lord, for days on end; forget what he has done for them in Christ, forget what he has done for them in the course of their Christian lives.
We don’t learn this in the first part of Pilgrim’s Progress but Bunyan tells us that it was so in the second part. That great battle that Christian fought with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation took place just beyond a place called “Forgetful Green.” And Bunyan has Great-Heart go on to say,
“…indeed that place is the most dangerous place in all these parts. For if at any time the Pilgrims meet with any brunt, it is when they forget what favours they have received, and how unworthy they are of them.”
We know this is true, don’t we. We are our sturdiest as Christians when we are mindful of what the Lord has done for us and we are at our weakest when we forget all about what he has done for us. We are most humble and careful when we remember our sins, and we are most proud and foolish when we forget them.
When saintly old John Fox daringly says “My sins have done me more good than my graces,” or when Rutherford says that “Christ has a use for all your corruptions” or when Bunyan says that the “guilt of sin did help me much” they are admitting that remembering his sins and his sinfulness does a Christian much good. It humbles him, it makes him keep watch over his soul, it teaches him to make war against his own flesh as well as against the temptation of the Devil, it makes him appreciate God’s wholly undeserved grace to him. But, of course, our sins only have this salutary effect if we remember them and do not immediately consign them to oblivion in the far recesses of our mind.
So, what are we to make of this lesson about the great importance of a spiritual memory? Well, surely we are to feed and nurture that memory. If there are things we must remember, then we must set about remembering them and fixing them in mind, as the ancient saints did. It is an act of the will to remember in this way. “I will remember the deeds of the Lord,” the Psalmist said and then he went about remembering them.
Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan preacher and theologian of 17th century England, once wrote in a letter to his son,
“When I was threatening to become cold in my ministry, and when I felt Sabbath morning coming and my heart not filled with amazement at the grace of God, or when I was making ready to dispense the Lord’s Supper, do you know what I used to do? I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past life, and I always came down again with a broken and contrite heart, ready to preach, as it was preached in the beginning, the forgiveness of sins.
I do not think I ever went up the pulpit stair that I did not stop for a moment at the foot of it and take a turn up and down among the sins of my past years. I do not think that I ever planned a sermon that I did not take a turn around my study-table and look back at the sins of my youth and of all my life down to the present; and many a Sabbath morning, when my soul had been cold and dry for the lack of prayer during the week, a turn up and down in my past life before I went into the pulpit always broke my hard heart and made me close with the gospel for my own soul before I began to preach.”
The right kind of remembering is a large part of the life of faith and a large part of what keeps faith living, active, and strong. The hard fact is that the Devil would in fact be an angel of light if he had no more sins than you or I but only was constantly remembering those sins and facing the fact of them and the guilt of them. But he does not remember; he never remembers. And that is too often true of you and me as well.
So take note of Israel’s failure to remember God and promise the Lord that you, on the contrary, will remember the Lord and the deeds he has done. You will fix them in your mind by the constant reading of his Word – much of the reading of the Bible we do is valuable precisely because it reminds us of what we would otherwise forget – by the recollection of his goodness to you, of your sins, of his forgiveness, of his promises when you at prayer. Keep a journal and return to read it from time to time or write notes in your Bible of things in your life that you must remember; notes you will see again and again as you read the Word of God. You don’t need to write very much, just enough to remember your sins and God’s grace to you. If only Israel had done that, what spiritual death and tragedy could have been avoided. But she forgot and, forgetting, she forsook the Lord.
I would venture to say that virtually every sin you commit, every act of infidelity to God, can be understood in some significant way as a failure to remember God and what he has said and done. So take pains to remember. It is work very, very well spent. I have a Bible that belonged to my grandfather, thoroughly marked and annotated. I have a similar Bible that belonged to my father. Those Bibles remind me of how they, before me, read and pondered and studied and preached God’s Word. Just to see and then to remember what the Word of God meant to them is a great help to me. I remember that and I am absolutely sure in a new and living way that I must remain faithful to that Word myself. And so it is with my own Bible and the notes that through the years have begun to fill up the margins of its pages. Those notes are the record of God’s speaking to me and when I remember what he has said, I hear his voice again and feel the power of the truth in my own soul and my own life. There is so much to remember; so much that if we remember we cannot help but live more faithful lives. Israel forgot. No so we here tonight. We will remember the Lord and his deeds. We will muse upon them over and over again.
So mused I silently, as o’er and o’er
I turned the wrinkled pages lying round,
The well-worn relics of long-buried years,
Which rise to life again in every page;
Brief memories of love, and grief, and peace,
With glimpses of still unforgotten scenes; –
Faces and names of former days are here.
And the Lord’s face and the Lord’s days chief among them!