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 hand of those that spoiled them . . . .
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, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their doings, nor from their stubborn way.
It was a strong and faithful generation which had come with Joshua into the land of Canaan. It had tasted of the greatness of Jehovah God and remained true to the worship of Him all of its days. Still in one respect this generation also failed; it did not drive out all that remained of the Canaanitish nations as God had commanded to be done. The children of Israel were content to let these nations dwell among them in the promised land. Only after this generation had passed away and a new generation arose that had not tasted the chastisement of the wilderness did the danger of this become apparent. This generation did not feel so strongly the seriousness of sin and unfaithfulness to Jehovah. Not only did they dwell among the Canaanitish people, they began to associate with them. Soon they were joining those heathen peoples in the sensual pleasures of their idol worship. Israel was started on its way to losing its identity as the distinct and peculiar people of the living God. Only the interference of Jehovah Himself prevented it.
From the time that Israel first forsook the covenant of God to bow before the idols of the heathen, the anger of God was kindled in righteous indignation. The time had come once again for Israel to be shown the seriousness of forsaking the commandments of its God. Thus God spoke, “Because that this people hath transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers, and have not hearkened unto my voice; I also will not henceforth drive out any from before them of the nations which Joshua left when he died: that through them I may prove Israel, whether they will keep the way of the LORD to walk therein, as their fathers did keep it, or not.” The pattern of Israel’s future history was set. God had blessed them as a nation with the richest conceivable blessings. Against their enemies He strengthened them so that none could withstand their power; in the land into which He led them He gave them prosperity beyond compare; He dwelt with them in covenant love as a God in the midst of His people. But the people of Israel, rather than growing in gratitude for all this, became complacent and even discontent. They went searching about among the heathen for pleasures beyond those given them by God. They forsook their God for the service of idols. It was then that God expressed this verdict. Henceforth the life of Israel would be under constant trial. The nations after whose sins they lusted, God would strengthen again that Israel might be constantly tested by them. Whenever Israel sinned God would send these heathen nations to descend upon them and punish them for their sins.
But still it was not that God in His righteous anger had forgotten His covenant love for His people. Surely it was not that this sin of Israel had caught Him unawares as though He had not expected it. He was God and He knew the sinfulness that was always there among His people. Through those early years in Canaan God’s undiluted blessings rested upon Israel until it became evident that this was not sufficient to keep them grateful and true. Israel needed chastisement also to remind it constantly of the seriousness of sin. Henceforth God would give also this. The heathen nations which brought out Israel’s sin would also be used to punish it. But neither would the nation be left to die. Whenever Israel repented and cried to its God for forgiveness, He would return to deliver them in accord with His undying love.
The history of the judges was a constant, vivid illustration of this unfailing love of God. The sinfulness of the people of Israel was always and again becoming evident as they followed the heathen nations in idolatry and sin. Each time God would punish them by sending invading hordes of heathen peoples to overrun their land until they cried in anguished repentance for deliverance from their God. In mercy He would hear them and raise up judges and deliverers to save them from the wicked.
The judges were a remarkable group of people. They were called judges because they represented the righteousness of God in judging the people and their sins. In some cases they sat in formal judgment of individual people with their troubles and transgressions, as Deborah did under the palm tree in Ephraim and Samuel in his circuits among the people. But in every case the judges were those who spoke the righteousness of God in judgment over the nation and the tribes when they departed in the way of error and sin. These were faithful and believing members of the nation who were aroused and appointed by the Spirit of God to speak out against the wickedness of the people. Even more they stood courageously against the overwhelming power of Israel’s enemies, the heathen nations with their idolatry and sin, condemning them and striving against their influence and power. Calling the people to repentance, they led them in pleading for mercy from God until His mercy returned to deliver them and restore them to the full joy of covenant life.
Each judge in his work was actually a wonder of grace. They were more than just national heroes as they might appear to be if one would consider only the fact that they delivered the people from invading foreign powers. The inspiration which moved them was not just a spirit of daring and of loyalty to their nation. They were moved by spiritual faith which held fast to the truth and righteousness of Almighty God. Through this faith they stood against all of the power of an evil world. For this faith they were ready to give their all even unto death. In this they typified the miraculous power of grace which God works within His people and for His cause.
First of the invading forces to be sent by God for the chastisement of Israel was the army of Chushanrishathaim, king of Mesopotamia. Actually, it was not so very long after the children of Israel first came into the land of Canaan. The generation which came with Joshua across the Jordan remained faithful to its calling as long as it endured. As long as its restraining hand guided the nation they remained distinct and separate from the heathen, worshipping God alone. They had tasted too deeply of those painful years in the wilderness to think lightly of arousing the anger of Jehovah again. But no sooner had that generation passed away than the life of the nation began to change. The younger generation had been long enough in the land to feel secure in their inheritance, even to the point of thinking that it was perhaps because of their own excellency that they prospered. Confident of themselves, they began to look about for new and different pleasures, beyond those which they already possessed. Soon they were mingled in with the heathen while giving very little regard to what God had said. The years were not many before the idolatry of the heathen had been taken by them as their own. Then it was that God sent Chushanrishathaim to punish them.
Very little is known about Chushanrishathaim other than that he came with his armies from the land of Mesopotamia. This in itself, however, was highly unusual and worthy of special note. It was far from customary for kings in that day to make forays so far from their home land. Many centuries had yet to pass before that would become an expected thing. This was undoubtedly the working of the hand of God. As yet the nations of Egypt and Canaan had not sufficiently recovered from their battles with Israel to be able to form an oppressing force. Neither did they have the courage to take Israel on after all that had happened in the past. Thus God brought this great army from a distant eastern land which had never engaged with Israel in battle. Against it the resistance of Israel was completely without effect. God was not with them as He had been in the past. Suddenly Israel found itself at the mercy of an oppressor. It was powerless to interfere. For eight years the army of the invader sallied back and forth, plundering the land at will.
Finally a new spirit began to stir among the people. So suddenly removed from the prosperity to which they had become accustomed, and oppressed by a heathen king and his army, they began to think again about the God of their fathers who had given them the land through victory over all of their enemies. Remembering this, they turned from their iniquity in repentance and cried to Jehovah once again.
In answer to this cry God sent Othniel the son of Kenaz to be the first judge in the nation of Israel. He was a God-fearing man of remarkable background. Of the tribe of Judah, he was both nephew and son-in-law of Caleb, the other faithful spy with Joshua. Already when Caleb was clearing his inheritance in Judah of the heathen inhabitants, Othniel had demonstrated his courage for the cause of God by driving out the inhabitants of Kirjathsepher. It was in recognition of this that Caleb had given to Othniel Achsah his daughter to wife. Through the years Othniel had continued as a spiritual leader in Judah, the tribe which more than any other remained faithful in the service of Jehovah God. Now it was he who was appointed by God to deliver repentant Israel from the first of its invading enemies.
Upon him the Spirit of the Lord descended. It was the Spirit that moved all those who were appointed to spiritual offices in the old dispensation. Basically, it was the Spirit of God which was preparing the people of God for the Gospel and the coming of Christ. Moved by this, Othniel went out to lead the people of Israel in the way of repentance. Outwardly his work was to gather the forces of Israel together and to rally them against the armies of Mesopotamia. But his real work was much more basic than this. No matter hour large an army might be gathered, it would have no strength at all except it stood in the faith of God. This was Othniel’s chief work. He had to express and instruct the people in the way of spiritual truth. This no mere man could ever do. The Spirit of God was necessary. He came upon Othniel and he went forth in spiritual strength. As a judge he reproved Israel for its sin and instructed it in the way of righteousness. He led the people in the way of faith. God returned in mercy and made them strong before the enemy. Going forth against Chushanrishathaim, the hand of Othniel and his people prevailed in battle. The armies of Mesopotamia were driven out. And peace returned unto Israel.