The book of Judges relates the earliest history of Israel in Canaan. The death of Joshua has deprived the people of their second and last national leader so that the administration of the affairs of the theocracy now rest solely on the judges which, according to the command of Moses (Deut. 6:18), the people were to make them in all their gates which the Lord their God should give them. This is indicated by the very name which our book bears: Shophetim, Judges, and further by its opening verse: “Now it came to pass after the death of Joshua, that the children of Israel asked the Lord. . . Compare with this the first verse of the book of Joshua, “And after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Joshua.” These judges formed under Jehovah, Israel’s invisible king, the highest civil authority, who watched over the observance of the law. The book of the Judges, accordingly, narrates the history of the times in which the governing authority in Israel was exercised by the judges.
But what is the design of our book? What is its lesson, its instruction? The book of Judges is the beginning of the fulfillment of a prophecy first uttered by Moses and repeated by Joshua in his parting discourses, the prophecy to the effect that denying and forsaking the Lord their God and serving the devil gods of the heathen, the people, by the curse of their God, will fall into discord, want, bondage and oppression. The first two chapters are an introduction to the history of the book as a whole. They explain why the events about to be related take place. It was in what the tribes did after the death of Joshua that the foundation of their troubles was laid.
The book has still another design. It teaches that, by reason of the inability of the government of the judges to cope with the evils just referred to, the hereditary kingship had to be set up. In the book of Deuteronomy provision is made for this immediately after the institution of the judges in all the gates of Israel: “When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are about me, then shalt thou set him king over thee whom the Lord thy God shall choose.” The need of the kingship arose from the sinfulness of the people, from their inability to be one in a common faith in Jehovah their God. What was therefore needed is a visible and central authority to curb the licentiousness of the people, constrain it to obey God’s voice and to abide in the spirit of His law and thus to serve as a compelling center of unity for the whole nation. Without a king, the people of Israel were like a flock without a shepherd. They went astray. They turned everyone to his own way. The author of our book calls attention to this over and over in this language: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did what was right in his own eyes.” A family of which the word of each member is as authoritative as that of the other is a house divided against itself and cannot endure.
The institution of judges could not meet the necessity with which we here deal. For they were but local magistrates, whose authority was restricted to their respective gates. As to the heroes whom the Lord raised up to regain the lost liberty of the people, they bore no other title than that of judge. Their authority was the authority of a common judge. It extended throughout limited territories. It was not recognized throughout all Israel. Whatever unity may have resulted from the effort of these judges, was not permanent. Their accomplishments dissolved themselves at their death. What was needed to gather the stray sheep of Israel is the hereditary kingship. But the best of the kings that God eventually chose or His people were not equal to the task that had to be performed, if the people of Israel were to be truly one. For they, these kings, were but men, and sinful men at that. The unity which king David effected through his efforts had no substance to it. It could not have. For at the bottom of all the troubles of the nation lay sin, which had to be atoned and removed, if God’s people were to be truly one. For true unity springs from a pure love of God. What was needed therefore is “one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is very God.” Such a king is the Mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ: who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. The condition of the people of Israel, in their kingless state, is certainly a vivid type of what the condition of God’s people would be, if there were no Christ to gather His church. So, too, is the condition of the people of Israel under the rule of king Solomon a type of what the people of God actually are under the rule of Christ. With Christ in them and His Father in Him, they are made perfect in one. For through His atonement every evil to which His people are subject, has been dissolved.
Let us now take up the first deflection on the part of the people as narrated in the first chapter of the book of Judges. The Canaanites had been subdued, i.e., their military might had been so crippled by Joshua’s victories over them on the battlefield, that they had neither the courage nor the man-power to initiate another war with Israel. They were a conquered people; who kept themselves to their strongholds, ready to do battle with the Israelites, if attacked, and prepared to defend their cities, within whose walls they had entrenched themselves. Thus the task that remained to the nine and a half tribes east of the Jordan was to prosecute the conquest by freeing their respective allotments from the remnants of these heathen tribes. The tribe of Judah did so. The other tribes (west of the Jordan) made the attempt. Something was also accomplished, but not nearly enough. The following statement tells the whole story: “And it came to pass when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute and (but) did not utterly drive them out.” This applies to every one of the nine and a half tribes with the exception of Judah. That they put the Canaanites to tribute indicates that they gained the complete mastery over them, so that these heathen, to which the statement applies, were entirely at their mercy and could have been expelled or destroyed. But this these recalcitrant tribes failed to do. In violation of the command of God (Deut. 7:1ff; Deut. 12:2ff) they concluded a covenant with these heathen and, according to the articles of this covenant, spared their lives, and allowed them to continue in the possession of their cities, on the condition that they pay them tribute. What is even much worse, they condoned their pagan religion, permitted them to continue in the public worship of their idols instead of destroying them. We learn all this from the complaint of the angel of the Lord contained in the second chapter. This complaint reads: “I made you go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you. And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars; but ye have not obeyed my voice: why have ye done this?” Israel, at this juncture, has progressed far in the way of disobedience to the command of God; but it has not as yet gone all the way. The angel did not accuse them of joining the heathen in their pagan worship and of making marriages with them. This came later. It was not until after the passing of the old generation, which had known all the works of the Lord, that He had done for His people, that Israel falls into the gross sins last mentioned. It was that other generation, that knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which He did, that denied God and served Baal, chap. 2:12. Doubtless, the men of the new generation were greatly in the majority when Joshua died, so that already then their word was law in Israel. This would account for those initial violations rebuked by the angel in chap. 2. That Israel, after concluding a covenant with the heathen, for a time refrained from adopting their pagan religion, may be ascribed to the restraining influence of the older generation, that had not yet wholly died out.
The angel added to his rebuke a sad message indeed. By reason of their disobedience, He will not drive the heathen out from before them; but they shall be as thorns in their sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto them. Israel has thus laid the foundation of all its later troubles.
It is to be observed that what the angel of the Lord holds against Israel is not that they failed to expel the Canaanites from their cities but that they made a league with the inhabitants and did not destroy their pagan worship. What God required of Israel is not that they consume the inhabitants at once. This was expressly forbidden them, as it was only “by little and little” that God would put out those nations, lest the beasts of the field increase upon them. Deut. 7:22. What was all important to the Lord is that Israel remain loyal to Him in conscious, deliberate and abiding opposition to the heathen in their midst and to their devil-gods, in a word, that they continually choose Jehovah in rejection of the idol. If they do so, the Lord through the agency of His people, will gradually expel the enemy from Canaan’s borders. Fact is that He left these pagan remnants in Canaan “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. Therefore the Lord left these nations, without driving them out hastily; neither delivered them into the hand of Joshua.” chap. 2:20, 23. The author continues: “Now these are the nations, which the Lord left, to prove Israel by them, even as many of Israel as had not known all the wars of Canaan; Only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at least such as before knew nothing thereof.” chap. 3:1ff.
“That He might prove Israel. . . .” The trial of God is made possible by reason of the presence of pagan worship and its powerful appeal to sinful flesh. The trial becomes actual through God’s demanding that Israel serve Him in denial of the Baal worship with its pleasures of sin. The spiritual seed chooses God in rejection of the idol. The carnal seed chooses the idol and the sinful pleasures connected with its worship in rejection of God. So is the purpose of the trial achieved which is to bring to manifestation both the carnal and the spiritual seed in the one nation; and to make it possible for each to serve the God of its choice antithetically. These pagan nations therefore had to be there in Canaan through the centuries—these nations: “the five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hevites, that dwelt in Mt. Lebanon, from Mt. Baal-hermon unto the entering of Hamath” (Jud. 3:3). They were left there by reason of Israel’s-sins but also to prove Israel—the generations to come, and to teach these generations war, in order that they might know it who had not yet experienced it. It was not for technical instruction in military science that He left the heathen nations in the land, but that the people of Israel—the spiritual seed—might become proficient in spiritual warfare. Israel’s wars with the Canaanites were at bottom spiritual conflicts, a choosing between Jehovah and the idol, a being pitted against the flesh and the devil and the devil-god in loyalty to Jehovah under the impulse of a saving faith. Israel had to know what it is to wage this warfare and had also to wage it in Canaan through the ages. It means that Israel in Canaan was still the church militant and had thus not yet entered the true rest. The glorified church does not fight. Its warfare is accomplished.
As was said, the heathen nations were left in Canaan by reason of Israel’s sins, in punishment of their sins but also to prove Israel and to teach them war. There is no conflict here. It simply goes to show how that God achieves His purpose through the sinfulness of men and not in spite of it and that thus also through sin He knows how to promote the ends of His kingdom.