As was pointed out, the first two chapters of the book of the Judges are introduction. Before the author begins his narrative, he explains why the Lord did not expel all the heathen nations from the promised land. The Lord left these nations in punishment of Israel’s sin. His people had entered into a forbidden fellowship with the Canaanites and had tolerated their pagan worship. Still another reason is given. The Lord left these nations to prove Israel and to teach the people war.
The author also gives a bird’s-eye view of the history that he is about to relate,. The picture is that of an ever returning cycle of unfaithfulness on the part of the people, oppression by the adversary, deliverance wrought by the Lord, and the return of the people to their idols. The history of Israel under the judges is a history of sin, repeating itself over and over, and of divine grace, constantly devising new means of deliverance.
“And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served Baalim.
“And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel and he delivered them into the hands of the spoilers that spoiled them. . .
“Nevertheless the Lord raised up Judges, which delivered them out of the hands of the spoilers that spoiled them. For it repented the Lord because of their groanings.
“And it came to pass when the judge was dead, that they returned and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them.”
Such were the round of events that recurred regularly and in the same sequence, in the time of the
Judges, in all the ages of the Old Dispensation, and in the centuries of the new. The whole history of the church is shut up in those four sentences.
But who were those servants of Baal that, as delivered, were loyal to God so long as the judge lived but that returned and corrupted themselves anew when the judge was dead? They were not the true Israel. We have God’s own word for it that His believing people did not serve Baal ever. There is this word of God to Elijah. “Yet have I left me seven thousand, all the knees of which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.” The seven thousand—there may have been more or even less than indicated by this number, for the number is symbolical—were the remnant according to the election, the true believers, always present in the nation. They were not of those that bowed their knees unto Baal. They served God in truth. Yet with the judge through whom God had wrought deliverance in his grave, and with Baal’s temple again crowded with apostate Israelites, they, too, would pollute their way before the Lord. And it is not difficult to imagine in what respect. They got along too well with their apostate brethren. In their fear of the wicked, they were too ready to accept the Baal-worship in their midst as a thing to be deplored but about which nothing much could be done; and too easily did they accustom themselves to the spectacle of Israelitish men offering God’s gifts to Baal. Yet the law was most exacting. It demanded that the worshippers of the idol be put to death. Thus it placed God’s believing people under the necessity of slaying their own kin. That they could not come to this is understandable. So the pagan worship continued to flourish with God’s people looking on, vexing their righteous souls from day to day with the unlawful deeds of wicked men, yet taking no action against them beyond an occasional feeble protest. This was their sin.
Then the anger of the Lord would wax hot against His people not to consume them in His wrath but to burn the dross out of them in His love. Whithersoever they turned, they collided with God’s hand as against them for evil through the agency of the adversaries of the nation. Then, in their extremity, they would cry unto God. And He would save them His believing people, by another wonder of His grace, save the nation for His people’s sake, so that the nation would again see His works, as had the generation to which Moses and Joshua belonged. There would again be peace in God’s country for forty years or more with God’s people, it may be assumed, once more in power and with the Baal worshippers more or less in hiding. During this time another generation would arise that knew not the Lord neither the work—the wonder of his grace—that he had wrought through the reigning judge. So when the judge died this other generation would again deny God and serve Baal. But this carnal seed would not even hearken unto their judges, the deliverers raised up by the Lord to regain the lost liberties of the nation. Even during the lifetime of these judges, “they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them: they turned quickly out of the way which their fathers walked in, obeying the commandments of the Lord; but they—this other generation—did not so.”
Before we turn to the narrative proper of our hook, just one remark. The deliverance that God wrought through the agency of the judges were very actually wonders—wonders of grace—as truly as were the ten plagues of Egypt and all the other mighty works of Moses and of Joshua his successor. It was through wonders that God brought the people of Israel as a nation into being. And it was through a series, of wonders that the existence of the nation in Canaan was continued. The history of Israel therefore is typical, which is but another way of saying that it is prophecy, special and progressive revelation of the plan of salvation, a pre-indication of the heavenly kingdom of Christ and the appearance of this kingdom in glory. Herein lies the significance of Israel’s history. Herein does this history differ from the history of all other peoples. It is not sufficient to say that the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage was a work of God. The rationalistic interpreters of the Old Testament Scripture have no quarrel with us if we say no more than this. The rising and setting of the sun are also God’s works. He does all things. So, what must be added is that the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage was a wonder of God’s grace. To rationalize the wonders of the Scriptures is an offence of the first magnitude. For the wonder is the sign of the operation of God’s grace. It is precisely through the wonder of grace that God saves His people. The incarnation of Christ was of all the wonders the greatest. And the eventual passing away of heaven and earth and the appearance of the church with Christ in glory will be the concluding wonder of history. If God performs no wonders, Christ is still in the grave and the believers are still in their sins. Assuredly, God doeth all things. He saves His people by His outstretched arm. But the token, the sign, the evidence of this is precisely the arm of God as stretched out in the redemption of His people. The outstretched arm of God is thus the wonder. It was by His wonders, as performed in the sight of Pharaoh, that God drove home to the consciousness of this tyrant, that He, the Jehovah of the Hebrews, is the Lord, the God of all the earth. For the wonder is a new work of God, wrought upon the earthy. As such it forms the compelling evidence of the Lordship of God over all the earth and of the presence of His almighty power in the fullness thereof.
Herewith has been stated the fact and truth upon which we must stand, as upon a foundation, in interpreting the history of the people of Israel.
Let us now turn to the narrative proper of our book, the commencement of which is the statement to the effect that “the children of Israel (therefore) dwelt among the Canaanites, Hittites, and Amorites, and Perizites, and Hivites, and Jebusites” (chap. 3:4). All that precedes this statement is introduction.
“The children of Israel,” of whom the author here says that they “dwelt among the Canaanites. . .” are still “that other generation” of which Joshua and his contemporaries were the immediate antecedents. This is proven by the circumstance that the first judge was Othniel, the nephew of Caleb and the conqueror of Kirjath-sepher, Jos. 15:16ff. When Joshua died, he was still in his prime. If at that time he was. thirty years of age, he would be fifty three years of age when he assumed the judicial office, if, after the death of Joshua, a period of twenty years elapsed.
The passage, “And the children of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites,” is a significant citation.contains the following: “Thou shalt utterly destroy the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites as Jehovah thy God hath commanded thee; that they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” But, says the author, the reverse took place. The children of Israel, that “other generation,” “that knew not the Lord nor all the works that He had done for Israel,” having become weary of war, accepted the Canaanites as a people fit to dwell among, and concluded a peace with these pagan peoples, with the land still studded with pagan altars and temples. This, as has already been explained was their first great offense, after the death of their god fearing elders, who had seen all the great works of the Lord. As was said, their failure to cleanse the land of the apparatus of pagan worship was indicative of a wrong attitude toward God and thus preindicative of their openly choosing the idol in rejection of God. And so they did, shortly after the death of Joshua and of all the men of the generation to which he belonged. As Moses had foretold, they were soon initiated into the sins of their pagan neighbors. In violation of the command of God, they first made marriages with the Canaanites. “And they took their daughters to be their wives and gave their daughters to their sons” ( ). The consequence of this intermarriage was that they “served their gods,” namely the Baalim and the groves. Doubtless these shameful doings were, in a measure, representative of a policy of appeasement dictated by a lack of trust in God, and in consequence thereof, by fear of the Canaanites. Dispossessed, as they were, and shut up in their strongholds, the Canaanites, it may be assumed, were in an evil mood; and the thought of revenge was always present to their minds. Since the attempt to expel them from the soil of Canaan had been but partially successful, the people of Israel were genuinely afraid of them. Unbelief reasoned that it was the part of wisdom to solicit the friendship of these pagan peoples by intermarriages and by the acknowledgement of their religion. So they married with Amorites, Hivites, Perizzites, and placed their gifts on Baal’s altars. Peace came. Comfort and prosperity came. Their position was now safe, so they thought. For the Canaanites were no longer hostile. The observance of frontiers had helped to make things smooth, and they could agree on boundary lines of territory. But they would have lost their identity as a nation, had not the Lord intervened with His judgements.
God sold them into the hand of Chushan-rishataim, king of Mesopotamia, a monarchy of Western Asia, that stretched along the Euphrates away to the highlands of Armenia. The question why this king should come from a country so far away to fall upon the people of Israel, is best answered by saying that God sent him to chastise His people. But this king, to be sure, meant it not so. Believing, as he must have, that the invading Israelites had scarcely gained a secure footing, he might venture an inroad upon Canaan just at this time and even bring it into subjection to himself for a short time—eight years according to the narrative—and thus profit by the confusion which he thought that Israel’s seizure of Canaan had produced. An additional motive would be that the nations on the nearer side of the Euphrates had not been able to withstand the advance of Israel.
Coming from the north, the invader over-ran the northern tribes and with little effort brought them under his iron heel. For the tribes had forsaken God and therefore had not the courage—the courage of faith—to resist. They were now in an evil case. For eight years they had to suffer a sore oppression. There were soldiers quartered in their cities, exacting tribute at the point of the sword, and their harvests were enjoyed by others. They learned that, having forsaken God, Canaan could be no peaceful habitation for them. Helpless in the grip of the invader-tyrant, they cried unto the Lord. And the Lord answered. Help came from the south. The deliverer was Othniel of the tribe of Judah. It is remarkable that Judah L seldom mentioned in connection with the troubles of the time. We can only conclude that, on a whole, this tribe, in obedience to the command of God, had pretty well freed its territory of the altars and temples of Baal, and was thus prosperous, strong, and united in a common faith in God. It is this tribe that, in Othniel, now came to the rescue of the hard pressed brethren in northern Canaan. Othniel was a man mindful of the law of God, a man who feared the Lord in truth. Evidently he was already in possession of a certain authority. He was one of those who, in part at least, had shared the wars with Canaan. He was the son-in-law of the famed Caleb, and hence a head of the tribe of Judah. After the death of Joshua, Judah was the first to prosecute the war with the Canaanites. The first judge whom God appointed, must appear in Judah.
As to Othniel, we read of him that ‘The Spirit of the Lord came upon him. . .” exerted an extraordinary influence over his spirit, thus raised him up in the interest of the salvation of God’s people, called him and qualified him for his task. “And he judged Israel and went out to war. . .” The judging of Israel by this man meant the inquisition into the religious state, condemnation of the idolatry of the tribes and a restoration of the service of God. In this way also the spiritual strength of God’s believing people was revived by the Spirit so that, as once more united in a common faith in God, they, too, were raised up to do battle with the adversary. The judge and the people now went out to war: “and the Lord delivered Chushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand and his hand prevailed against Chushan-rishataim.”
The sacred author, in narrating the history of the public career of this judge, is exceedingly concise. He thought it necessary to devote but one brief sentence to his military undertaking. Yet the foe overcome was doubtless, in the point of view of nature, powerful and formidable. The victory achieved must therefore be contemplated as another wonder of grace. It was so decisive that the enemy repulsed never for centuries again crossed the Euphrates; for the next following judges have quite different enemies to contend with. So did the generation—God’s believing people in this generation—that had not known all the wars of Canaan, now know war as taught by the Lord. Assuredly, it was God who taught them war. He did so by raising them up by His Spirit out of their spiritual lethargy, by restoring their soul by His promises and thus qualifying them to fight His warfare as inspired by His spirit, as impelled by a living faith that He gendered in them, and as sustained by the prospect of certain victory in the Lord. As has already been explained, Israel’s wars with the heathen nations in and around about Canaan, were at bottom, spiritual conflicts, a choosing between Jehovah and the idol, a being pitted against the flesh and the devil, and the devil-gods in loyalty to Jehovah under the impulse of faith in God. Israel’s victories over the heathen in battle were the achievements of faith. As such they were prophetic of the victory of Christ over the world through His atonement, Judges 3:1ff. Thus, they, too, had now seen the wonder, the arm of God stretched out in the deliverance of His oppressed people. And seeing they praised. And the land had rest forty years, i.e., during the rest of Othniel’s life.
Some interpreters claim that of all the judges, with perhaps the exception of Samuel, Othniel, in a sense, was the greatest. They base their claim on the following considerations. The spirit of Jehovah was upon him. The spirit of faith, of trust in God, of enthusiasm. It is the same spirit which God bestows upon the seventy also, who are to assist Moses (). It was on that occasion that Moses exclaimed, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them.” In this spirit Moses and Joshua performed their great deeds. In this spirit Joshua and Caleb knew no fear when they explored the land. In this spirit, the spirit of obedience, which in faith performs the law, becomes a spirit of power. Of these seventy we are told that when they received the spirit of God, they prophesied. The Targum therefore translates both here and there “the Spirit of Prophecy”. It does this, however, in the case of no other judge but Othniel. For although the “Spirit of Jehovah” is also spoken of in connection with Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, it merely gives “spirit of heroism”. The first ground of this distinction conferred on Othniel, is the irreproachable character of his rule. No tragic shadow lies on his life, as on the life of the other heroes. His sun rose when Joshua’s went down in death.
So runs the argument,—an argument with which we cannot agree. There is grounds for saying that, as a god-fearing man, Othniel was outstanding and that his faith in God was implicit. But this was true of all the judges, not one excepted. That Othniel received the spirit of prophecy and of heroism, of faith and trust in God and that the others received only the spirit of heroism, cannot be. What Othniel received in the way of qualifications for his office, was bestowed upon them all. They all, without exception, were heroes and judges before the Lord, who taught God’s people and fought God’s warfare under the impulse of a living faith in God. What could the character of the heroism of the others be, if it did not spring from faith? As to Gideon and Samson and Jephthah, are they not included by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews in that “cloud of witnesses,” by which we are encompassed about?
The second attack on Israel came likewise from the east, beyond the Jordan. The children of Ammon dwelt east of the Dead Sea. The hosts of Amelek roved lower down, to the southwest of Moab. With these neighbors north and south of him, Eglon, king of Moab, formed a league and warred against the Israelites west of the Jordan, after first having subjugated, it must be, either wholly or in part, the tribe of Reuben and also possibly the tribe of Dan. West of the Jordan it was Benjamin and Ephraim that suffered most under this invasion. Crossing the Jordan, the invaders possessed the city of Jericho. Here Eglon established his headquarters for the reception of the tribute under which the tribes had been put.
Eglon’s position in Canaan was truly precarious, should the courage of the nation revive. With the fords of the Jordan taken—and they were taken—Eglon and his army would face certain annihilation. The doing of the enemy was of the Lord. “(And) the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord: and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel. . . .” Eighteen long years did the children of Israel serve Eglon. Neither in the land of Benjamin nor from the neighboring tribes of Judah and Ephraim, did the adversary meet with any resistance. Finally, in response to the cry of His people, the Lord raised up a deliverer, Ehud, of the tribe of Benjamin, a man left-handed but not, as some suppose with lameness in the right. It seems to have been a habit of this tribe to use the left hand.
Some interpreters think it strange that Moab appears as a dangerous enemy, since, under Moses, the conduct of Israel toward Moab had been friendly. An immediate motive that incited the people to war against Israel is sought. It is concluded that the tribes of Israel east of the Jordan had given occasion to many disputes with their neighbors, because otherwise a people so peaceably disposed as the Ammonites were at first toward Israel, would not have taken part in the war. But Bialak, king of Moab, had viewed with alarm the people of Israel which was advancing to seek a settlement so near its territory. It was then that he sent for Balaam to curse Israel. Also there was the command that “no Moabite or Ammonite shall enter into the congregation of Israel” (). The doing of Balak and this command sufficiently marks the antagonism that existed between them. Why the invaders had resolved to attack the people of Israel just at that time, was of no moment to the sacred author. What had weight with him is that the Lord strengthened the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord.” The invaders, certainly, were moved by hatred of God’s people and were bent on conquest and plunder.
Ehud’s deed is vividly narrated. He made him a dagger which had two edges, of a cubit length; and which he concealed under his raiment upon his right thigh. And he brought the present unto the king of Moab, for to him was entrusted the office of bearing to the king the yearly tribute. The presentation of the gift was, according to ancient custom, a lengthy ceremony. Several persons bore what one could carry. Ehud was not alone therefore. With him were his companions, whom he dismissed when he had made an end of offering the present, and accompanied them back to the borders. But he himself turns back from the borders of Eglon’s territory, which he had seized from Israel. He must be alone with the Moabite, if his plan is to succeed. So his request is for a private interview, as if he had some secret message to communicate,—a message from God, which the king, when alone with him rises to receive. Then he plunges the sword into the corpulent body of the king, that even the hilt enters the flesh. Then he rushed into the gallery that ran around the roof, locked the door, escaped to the mountains, called and lead the men of Ephraim to the place, where 10,000 Moabites fell, and the land west of the Jordan was free and long remained free.