Charles Dickens, the novelist, began his classic 'Tale of Two Cities' in these words: 'It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times'. As we turn to Israelite history, we find that in the epochs and different ages of their existence, this period of the Judges was certainly the worst of times for them. Indeed, you could say that both the books of Joshua and Judges are a tale of two very distinct and contrasting generations. The generation of Joshua, one that conquered the land in great triumph in the conquest; and the generation of the Judges being that which polluted the land that God had given them, by their compromise and sin. Joshua's generation fought her enemies, but by the time we get to the end of the book of Judges, the next generation has made friends with God's enemies and are now turning within to fight each other. The book of Joshua begins with the rule of God among the people, theologians call it 'theocracy'; but by the end of the book of Judges there is no rule of anyone, we have anarchy - every man does that which is right in his own eye, because there was no king in Israel.
Whereas Joshua rings with a shout of victory as God's people enter the promised land and cross the Jordan, and all the pieces of land are allocated to each particular tribe because they are children of the promise; Judges is a book that echoes with the sobs, the cries, the weeping and wailing of God's people under bondage, chastised by the hand of God because of their sin against Him. Some of you will be familiar with the proverb in Proverbs 14:34: 'Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people'. Essentially what we have here in the book of Judges is an historical record of the demise of a nation, a nation who fell from the heights of great spiritual heritage and covenant blessing from God to the depths of unparalleled depravity. It is evidenced in their flagrant idolatry and their unashamed apostasy. One Christian writer has commentated and called this particular period of Israel's history 'the dark ages' of the Old Testament.
Now as such, would you not agree with me in saying that this book has a great deal to teach us in our particular day and in our modern age? The similarities of the Israelite generation and ours today is uncanny, as we will consider through this series. If ever there was a verse that had the ring of the 21st post-modern century age in which we live, it is the last verse of this book: 'There is no king in Israel, and every man does that which is right in his own eyes'. It could be the model of every archetypal permissive age that has ever lived, every generation that has no standards because they've rejected God's truth. That verse, as I said, is not only the key in understanding this particular book, but I believe it's the key in understanding our society today - why things are going wrong, why there is a moral and spiritual chaos in our day and generation. It's also the key to understanding human nature and human depravity; because there is not Christ's Lordship and the rule of God's sovereignty and providence in individual lives, that is the reason why there is anarchy - because man cannot guide his way, man cannot pilot his own vessel.
So the application of this book, as we will go through it, is painfully obvious when we consider the most rebellious characteristics of this ancient society and compare it to our post-modern one. Let me draw your attention first of all to the fact that the book of the Judges is found among the historical books in the Old Testament. Let me just say on that vein that all history is important, because we, through the study of history, learn the mistakes that our forefathers have made - and hopefully learn how to avoid those mistakes, or at least be aware of making them again. How much more then should the spiritual history of God's people be important to us as the church today? Whatever distinctions you make between the Church and Israel, Israel were the people of God in the Old Testament, and we are the people of God in the New. We ought to learn from their mistakes and make sure, in whatever shape or form, that we do not make them in our own day.
The philosopher George Santiana said: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'. Sadly God's people are uniquely guilty of repeating historical mistakes of their past, simply because they will not study biblical history and the history of God's people. I fear that we are in danger of being like those in Hosea's generation, where God said to them: 'My people are destroyed through lack of knowledge'. So let us, as we introduce this book of Judges today under the title 'Men For The Hour', and particularly under this study this morning 'The Worst of Times', let us learn from these mistakes of God's ancient people and make sure that we don't make them today.
I want to consider our study this morning under three headings, and the first in introduction is: the causes of the chaos that there were among this particular generation. Ultimately we find that the cause, the prime cause for the predicament that the Israelites find themselves in here, is that of compromise. They had begun to compromise with their enemies and the enemies of God. Isn't it true, when we consider this for a moment in this context, that in every occasion - right back to Genesis and Adam and Eve's disobedience of God - that disobedience is the reason for chaos universally, wherever we find it. Disobeying God's commands is the reason why God must chastise us, discipline us, and why ultimately we suffer from time to time. Disobedience, not doing what God says, not having God's reign and rule and Lordship in our lives, but rather doing things our own way.
But I think sometimes, more subtle than simple disobedience, a partial obedience is our problem and is equally fatal. What do I mean? Well, perhaps it's too obvious a tactic of the devil when he comes to tempt us, rather than tempting us with a blatant sin - to commit adultery, or murder, or something like that - he will tolerate us just disobeying in a minute thing. In other words, keeping God's whole law and walking before God in a pleasing manner, and perhaps falling down and being unfaithful or disobedient in a small area that seems insignificant to us - but he knows, perhaps more than we do, as Paul taught us, that 'a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump'. Or as Solomon put it: 'A little fox can spoil the vine'. So there were small seeds of compromise that began in the nation, and those small seeds of compromise produced the fruit of failure in Israel that would eventually mean that God allowed their enemies to overcome them in discipline.
Now let's look a bit more specifically at some of the acts that caused the chaos in the nation. Here's the first act: a partial obedience and a deficient view of their sin. Now note that down if you have a pen and paper, it's important that we remember these things: a partial obedience among the people and a deficient view of their sin. When we turn to chapter 1 we find that nine and a half of the tribes of Israel that settled in Cana land didn't drive out the Canaanites as God had commanded them. In chapter 1 there's a list of eight incomplete conquests by Judah, Benjamin, Manasseh, Ephriam, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali and Dan, and the other two tribes that aren't mentioned, Issachar and Simeon, it is presumed that they did the same - that they did not drive out the peoples that God told them to.
Here's the lesson right away for us, even in our Christian lives today many centuries later: a partial obedience to God, obeying God in many things but leaving something undone that we feel is of little significance to God or anyone else, is not only showing a deficient view of sin in our eyes, but will be the seed that will eventually lead to failure in that particular area of our lives. In other words, practically speaking, anything but a root and branch severing of sin in our lives preserves the problem for a future day. If we do not amputate sin in our lives in any shape or form that we find it, we are storing up trouble for ourselves in the future.
Now a question that often comes out of this particular era of Israelite history within people's minds and hearts, and even amongst sceptics and doubters concerning the biblical history and the goodness of our God is: how could a God of love and a God of grace command the killing of these Canaanite people? How could God do it? I'm not going to in the problems that are involved in this, and I don't have time to expound that question in one iota this morning, but simply to say that Campbell Morgan answered the question very well when he said: 'God is perpetually at war with sin, that is the whole explanation of the extermination of the Canaanites'.
You see, sometimes we need to attain God's view of sin afresh, because we lose it, if we ever had it. What was it the Lord Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount? If your hand offends you, cut it off; if your eye offends you, pluck it out - a root and branch treatment, amputation of sin. Do not flirt with it! Do not allow it to take root! You see, if you do not obey God completely, only in a partial obedience, you will be conquered. If you do not conquer that sin, that sin will conquer you! Do you have a partial obedience, and a conscious partial obedience to God? That could be a sign that you have a deficient view of your sin. I happen to believe in the total depravity of human nature, and I think we have lost the Biblical doctrine that we are sinful, we are undone, we are without God, without hope. Whenever you start doubting total depravity, you need to read the book of the Judges.
Here's the second act that caused the chaos in the land: compromise and a cooperation with the world. Not only partial obedience and a deficient view of sin, but compromise and cooperation with the world. We read, as we read through this history in chapter 2, that the Israelites went into league with the Canaanite people, verse 2 of chapter 2 God prohibited them from marrying with them, intermarriage, and in chapter 3 and verse 6 we see that they disobeyed God in that regard. In that same verse, chapter 3 and verse 6, we find that that intermarrying led to idolatry, the Israelite men or women adopted the gods of their spouse. The end result was disobedience and eventually complete apostasy from God, a falling away, a standing apart from the truth.
Here is the act that started the chaos, the embryo seed: compromise and cooperation with the world. This is teaching us very clearly that failure comes with compromise, not only partial obedience and a deficient view of sin, but a compromise with the things of this world. That's why Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians and chapter 6 verses 17 and 18, in our particular context in this New Testament age: 'Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you'. We underestimate the impact upon our spiritual lives of compromising with the world. Are you compromising with worldliness? What is worldliness? That is a very hard word to define, and in our modern age it's getting more difficult!
Let me give you an inkling, I'm not going to mention specifics, but the first step to worldliness, James 4:4 tells us, is friendship with the world. Are you friendly with the world and the things of the world? Friendship with the world, James tells us in chapter 1 and verse 27, means that you will become spotted by the world, you will be contaminated - whether consciously or unconsciously, it matters not. The next step after that spotting with the world is to love the world and the things of the world, 1 John 2:15. Gradually having a relationship and affection towards those things in the world, you will become, Romans 12:2 says, conformed to the world - the world will have a control over you, and the likeness of the world will be in your character rather than that of Christ. Then that can eventually lead, as 1 Corinthians 11 tells us, to be, even as a believer, condemned with the world. That's the kind of judgment that came to Lot, we will see it coming to Samson, one of the Judges, and it came to Israel's King Saul because they compromised with the world, they cooperated with worldliness.
Dale Ralph Davies, who has a commentary on the book of Judges, says - and I think is tremendous - 'The principle remains', in other words whether it's Old or New Testament it matters not, 'we must retain a distinct separation from our culture, while mounting an active opposition to it, else we will blend with it'. This is lost today in modern Christianity, the opposite is what is being taught: that we must blend with the culture. He goes on to say: 'We are still called to this separation from and combat with our own godless culture'. Moffat translated Romans 12:2 like this: 'Instead of being moulded to this world, have your mind renewed, and so be transformed in nature; able to make out what the will of God is, namely what is good and acceptable to Him and perfect'.
A partial obedience and deficient view of sin caused the chaos; a compromise and cooperation with the world; and thirdly, they lacked personal experimental knowledge of God. They lacked a personal experimental knowledge of God. Now we must dig deeper to find this one, another cause of their compromise. You see, in the history we learn that Joshua's generation did the fighting, Joshua's people conquered the land. It was through their conquering and conquest that the later generation, the Judges generation, entered into rest and comfort if you like. Here's a subtle lesson and danger for all of us: when another generation fights the fight of faith and wins the victory for us, and we enter into their blessings and enjoy that comfort of their struggles, we can lose sight of the fight! Because they chose in the Judges generation not to wrestle against the enemy within, they became comfortable, they got used to the status quo. Their comfort led to complacency or indifference, and then that led to their compromise. The simple lesson is this: when you relax in your spiritual life and stop to wrestle, eventually it will end in rebellion. You may not believe that, but you just try it! Let your guard down, allow the devil in, and he will overcome you!
Some writers have called this 'the second-generation syndrome'. If you look at chapter 2 and verse 10: 'And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers', the first generation of Joshua, 'and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done'. They had no personal, experimental knowledge of God in their lives. In other words, the Judges generation answered 'Yes' to the question:
'Shall I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fight to win the prize,
And sail through bloody seas?'
You might be here as a second or a third-generation Christian, and you don't know why all chaos has been let loose in your life, why you're overcome with sin and temptation you fall at at every turn. It could be that you've come into the heritage of your forefathers, but you yourself do not have an experiential knowledge of God in your life. Sidlow Baxter put it like this: 'The God of their fathers was simply a convenient resort in time of extremity, when things were tolerably comfortable bare-faced betrayal of Jehovah was the order of the day'. Oh, when we're in trouble we call upon God, but when others fight and wrestle for our victory and we enter into the rest, and we live mostly, generally speaking in a free country where we have so many luxuries that others do not have, how complacent we can be! 'Who needs a personal knowledge of God?'.
Well, we must move on, because those are the causes of the chaos, but secondly I want to share with you the signs of their decline. The signs of their decline were manifest in a downward spiral of sin that affected every facet of Israelite life. They became socially degraded, morally perverted, and the result was spiritually bankrupt for approximately 400 years of this history. Socially, through the intermarriage; morally, the last verse of the book says it well 'Every man did that which was right in his own eyes' - and I want you to note that it says that they did 'what they thought was right', that's the essence of the problem. They didn't choose to do things that were wrong, or that they thought were wrong, but the problem is - one of the recurrent expressions in this book is 'the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord', so what they thought was right was wrong, and what God thought was wrong they thought was right! That is what's called relativism, that is the spirit of the age today. There are no absolutes, no black-and-white wrong and right. So this society is such a mirror image of ours: there is murder in chapter 9, there is rape, abuse sexually and emotionally, there is violence in chapter 19, there is homosexuality in chapter 19 - this is the archetypal permissive society without standards, without attributes, without laws, because they have forsaken God!
Morally, and then spiritually, boy, I couldn't even begin to go into this one. Yahweh, Jehovah is the Holy God of heaven, He is high above creation, He is not assimilated in it - although it gives glory to Him. The Canaanite god was different, the Canaanite god was Baal who was the god of storm and fertility, and it was important to worship this god if you wanted crops every year, if you wanted to produce children and livestock and have blessing upon your family. Baal's female consort was Ashteroth. Now bear with me, and I don't want to go into this in too much detail, but in Canaanite theology and indeed in their agricultural system, the fertility of the land depended on the fertility of the relationship between these two gods - Baal and Ashteroth.
Now, this leads us into how they worshipped that God. They practised what is called 'ritualistic prostitution', 'sacred prostitution'. Every man who worshipped Baal would go to their temple, or under a grove, and they would copulate with a temple prostitute. The thinking in theology was this: that by that act of sexual intercourse there would be a stimulation of Baal and Ashteroth in heaven, who in turn would copulate, and from it the reign would come and the sun would shine, and the blessing of natural reproduction in the earth would come to pass. So when you read in the Scriptures the words 'to go a-whoring', it is not just a turn of phrase, it is more than a figure of speech. This is how these Canaanites worship their god, this is how Israel was starting to turn away from God and worship this god. There was a sexual explosion in this particular generation.
Now I say to you today, and whilst you might think I'm touching on things that shouldn't be touched on from the pulpit, whether you like it or not these things are in scripture. Whilst we have to be guarded and careful in how we speak while we're in the midst of younger people, the fact of the matter is: if you don't hear it here, you're going to hear it in the world, and you'll hear it according to the world's standards and interpretation. Can I say something very directly this morning? There is a pornographic explosion in our world today. Now some of you folk who are very sensitive, and of an older generation who don't know how to turn the computer on, let alone work on the Internet, bear with me here - because what I am saying, I hope that you will trust my judgment. The Internet is filled with pornographic filth, filled with it. The danger of it is simply the anonymity of how you can sin on the Internet, no one knows, no one has to know, you can do it for free. In spirit, effectively what this is is falling into such a pagan worship of sex. Archaeologists have actually dug up carvings and pictures of this Canaanite age and how they worshipped, and there's nothing to touch it today even in our pornographic world. We live, and they lived in a generation of degeneration!
Now I'm asking you, whoever you are, are you showing these same signs of decline in your life? Socially, morally, spiritually: these are the diagnostic symptoms of compromise with the world, and in Judges about six or seven times there's this merry-go-round - only it's not merry, it's a go-round of vice and vileness. They rebel against God, God brings divine retribution against them and judges them, then they seem to repent in tears. Then God restores them, but then they sin again when the Judge dies, even more than they did in the first instance! Why is this? Because they don't realise the extremity of their sin, they have a deficient view of their sin. In verse 5 of chapter 2 we read that they wept, and they wept in a place called Bochim, and 'Bochim' means 'weeping', 'weepers'. These people, when God started to judge them for their rebellion, started to cry out for mercy. They were crying, it seemed, in repentance. It even says in chapter 2 and verse 5 that they made sacrifices to the Lord, but it was all superficial - because in verses 18 and 19 we read that once that particular Judge died, they went back to their old ways. This was superficial repentance. So not only had they a deficient view of the sinfulness of sin, they had a deficient view of the depths of true repentance.
I hit, I believe, another sore point in evangelicalism today. Repentance is hardly mentioned, and when it is mentioned in Gospel sermons the preacher - and this has happened to me - can be accused of adding something to the grace of God and not preaching a salvation that is faith alone. We do believe that it is by grace through faith, but it is not a salvation by grace through faith without repentance. The fact of the matter is, Saul fell into the trap that these Judges' generations did. Remember he spared the King of the Amalekites, and he spared some of the livestock to sacrifice to God, and what did the prophet Samuel say to him? It was the word of God to his heart: 'To obey is better than sacrifice'. As Matthew Henry in his commentary said: 'Many are melted under the word, maybe even melted to tears, then harden again before they are cast into a new mould'. Is that any of us today? You're melted before God's word, but before you can allow God to cast you into a new creation you've hardened again into your old ways. Weeping, there's very seldom any weeping in our meetings today, and I find that my eyes are too dry as well - but even if people weep for their sins, it doesn't mean that it's true repentance. These people wept, that's further on than we are today, but it meant nothing!
Martin Lloyd-Jones was accused on one occasion of encouraging emotionalism when he ministered in a congregation in Wales. His retort was: 'It is very easy to make a Welshman cry, but it needs an earthquake to make him change his mind'. That is repentance, a change of mind, and a change of mind that is evidenced in a change of life. They needed to understand true repentance, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7:10, 'Godly sorrow worketh repentance not to be repented of' - repentance unto salvation.
Thirdly and finally let me leave with you, in summary of this book and in introduction, the answer for this age. The answer for this age is the answer for every age, and it is simply the grace of God. There's an astonishing story of salvation in this book, if you look at chapter 2 and verse 14 for a moment, the first part, it says: 'The anger of the LORD was hot against Israel'. Now take that statement and then bring it to verse 16, the beginning: 'Nevertheless the LORD raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them'. If you were writing that, you would never have put those two statements together - but verse 18 says that God, like those in bondage in Egypt, God heard their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them. It was God that sent them to vex them, to make them thorns in their side, but God was doing it out of love - because He loved them, He chastened them.
Fossett has said, and I think it's wonderful: 'It was not their repentance of sin, but God's repentance because of their cry and distress that brought Him to their help'. Isn't our God a wonderful gracious God? It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed! God sent to this generation, in all their degradation, Judges, 'Deliverers' is the word, 'Saviours' - and what a motley crew they were! Othniel, a young brother, the eldest was not sent; Ehud, was a left-handed man which was seen as weakness, perhaps, in those days; Barak was urged to be a man by Deborah, who was the Judge herself, he wouldn't go and do the job, she had to try and push him on. Gideon went to war with only a lamp and a pitcher; Shamgar had an ox goad; Jephthah was an outlaw; Samson used the jawbone of an ass - and you know the sexual weaknesses that Samson had. But God is communicating to these people that He doesn't use the mighty, He doesn't use the noble, He uses the weak things of this world that God can take, and who will allow Him to take and use.
The wonderful message of this book, I believe in the light of the New Testament, is that these people - yes, they were in bondage; and yes, God sends them a deliverer - but as we have seen from chapter 2, they were mere human deliverers, they were fallible, they were full of faults. They may have been men with hearts of iron, as one has said, but they had feet of clay. Whilst the deliverer lived the people were free, but once the deliverer died they came under oppression again. What they needed was a deliverer who would never die. Thank God we have one! Hebrews says: 'This man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them'.
You need to understand God's view of sin. You need to understand God's view of repentance. But we all need to understand that Christ is the answer for this age, and He is the answer for every need. We trust that we will see more of our blessed Lord Jesus as we go through this series together.
Isn't it great to have a God who gives us more than we deserve, isn't it? Can I ask you: have you true repentance in your life? I'm not asking you do you believe Jesus is the Son of God, do you believe He died for your sin - could the reason that you're going around in circles regarding sin, never having victory over it, be because there was never true repentance in your life at the beginning. I pose the question to you, to make sure that your faith is sure. But believers, let us never lose sight of the awful sinfulness of our hearts. Repentance is necessary every day, but let us never forget what God has done for us in saving us in His Son. I heard a testimony the other evening of Mary Peckham who was converted during the Lewis Revival, she talks about her testimony leading after conversion - but this is what I want to leave you with: when she came to the point of realising her own sinfulness in a meeting just like this, she prayed a prayer. But it's not the prayer that a lot of people pray, here's what she said - and it's shocking: 'Lord, I'm a sinner, send me to hell'. How many of us could pray like that? When she said those words from her heart, she heard the preacher say: 'He was wounded for your transgressions, He was bruised for your iniquities', and she says her heart melted as the grace of God was applied to it.
Father, we thank You for a wonderful Saviour. We know that He is the answer for this dark age, let us never lose the thrill of our salvation, and the depth of the repentance that needs to be there day by day if we are to be useful to Him. We thank You for the Saviour, our eternal Saviour, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the first recording in his 'Men For The Hour' series, entitled "The Worst Of Times" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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