And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.
And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah; between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.
“Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel,
When the people willingly offered themselves.
Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes;
I, even I will sing unto the LORD;
I will sing praises to the LORD God of Israel.
LORD when thou wentest out of Seir;
When thou marchedest out of the field of Eclom
The earth trembled, and the heavens dropped,
The clouds also dropped water.
The mountains melted from before the LORD,
Even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel.”
These are the opening words of praise unto God from the song which Deborah sang after Israel’s deliverance from the hands of Jaban, king of the Canaanites. They were divinely inspired words, for Deborah was a prophetess. She spoke as she was moved by the Holy Spirit.
The very fact that Deborah was a prophetess and a judge in Israel cast its own peculiar reflection upon the weakness into which Israel had fallen during the period of the judges. The one great duty which Joshua had left with the children of Israel was that of clearing out the land of all the remnants of heathen people that still remained in it; but this had never really been done. A few efforts were made by Judah and Simeon which were also rewarded by God; but even those did not last long. The people found it so much easier to settle down and live in peace. After all, those who were left of the heathen nations were few and lacked courage; how could they ever cause trouble for the strong and courageous people of Israel? What they forgot was that their strength was only in the Lord their God. As long as .they failed to obey Him and perform the duties which He had assigned to them, their strength would cease to exist. That was exactly what happened. Refusing to obey the command of their God, the children of Israel gradually began to lose their strength. Refusing to fight for the cause of God, they became unable to wage war any more. In the weakness of their faith even their courage was finally gone. This became ever more apparent.
First it was Chushan-rishathaim of Mesopotamia who moved in upon the northern tribes and afflicted them for eight years. Only when the people turned to cry unto the Lord in repentance did He send to them a deliverer, not one of their own tribe, but Othniel of the tribe of Judah, the. last remaining stronghold of faith in the nation. Forty years went by and again the weakness of the people became apparent as they fell into sin. This time it was the eastern tribes which were overrun by Eglon of the land of Moab. For eighteen years the people suffered under his hand before they turned again to (God in repentance. It was a testimony to their weakness and lack of courage that not until one lone man of faith, Ehud, had gone by himself to slay the king of Moab was he able to rally the people to go out to battle. Eighty years now passed by, and this time it was in the south and west that the Philistines arose to punish the children of Israel for their sins. Again the people lacked courage to stand up and defend the cause of God against the enemy. It was but one lone figure who was found faithful and strong in the fear of the Lord with courage to oppose the enemy. He was Shamgar, a mere driver of oxen; but with his ox goad in his hand he went out and slew six hundred men of the enemy. So once again Israel was delivered, not by its own strength, but by a lone figure who stood in the courage and strength of true faith.
The chastisement of God upon Israel had run a circular course. Each corner of the nation was touched by it in turn according to the progress of their sin. Now for a second time the hand of the Lord returned to lay upon the northern tribes, particularly Naphtali, Zebulun, and Issachar. This time it was not an enemy from outside which was sent into their land; it was the Canaanites who had once been soundly defeated and all but destroyed. Through the century or more in which Israel had failed to follow through with clearing their land as God had commanded them, the Canaanites had built themselves up into a formidable nation, had built again their capital city Hazer, and had raised up a king unto themselves under the title Jabin. As though to remind the children of Israel of their neglect, God had given to these Canaanites strength to overrun the land and subjugate the children of Israel under cruel bondage. Twenty years the children of Israel were persecuted by the Canaanites whom once they could have easily blotted out but had neglected to do. During this time there was not a man found with courage and faith sufficient to stand against the forces of this enemy.
It was a sign of the shame which had come upon Israel that when at last God did raise up a judge and deliverer for His people, it was not a man but a woman. The men of that mighty nation through weakness of faith and sin had become timid and afraid. They did not dare to speak out. They did not dare to fight. They were not able to give the leadership which they needed so badly. God focused attention upon this by sending Deborah to be their judge.
Deborah points out in her song the sad state into which the nation had fallen at the time when she became judge. In the second portion of her song she said:
In the days of Shumgar the son of Anath,
In the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied,
And the travelers walked through byways.
The inhabitants of the villages ceased,
They ceased in Israel
Until that I Deborah arose,
That I arose a mother, in Israel.
They chose new gods;
Then was war in the gates:
Was there a shield or spear seen
Among forty thousand in Israel?
Those were dire days for Israel. The Canaanites were a wicked and cruel people. As long as they had been weak and under subjection to the Israelites, they might have appeared harmless enough; but once they had gained the upper hand, their true hatred for the people of God became evident. These were the children of Canaan, the son of Ham who had dwelt under the curse of God since the days of Noah. Now all of their most wicked animosity broke forth. No one in Israel was really safe from it. At any time the Canaanites might descend upon a person to rob and wound and even kill. Their cruelty knew no bounds. It was not long before the highways were deserted for fear of them and those who had to travel crept secretively along the byroads. Life in the small unprotected towns almost ceased to exist as people sought the collective security of the large and walled cities. But food was scarce and life was hard wherever one went. Terror gripped the land among great and small alike.
Years passed by and the strength of the Canaanites showed no sign of weakening. Rather they used every day to make themselves stronger. Wherever they gained control, one of the first things they did was to spread out to gather together the weapons of Israel wherever they might be found. Every house was searched and nowhere was a sword or spear allowed to remain. Even more they enlisted the smiths of Israel to work for them in building weapons for their use. As time went on they worked on the building of large iron, chariots to go behind their horses of war. Finally they attained to the point where they had nine hundred of these vicious machines of war ready to use in battle. Such strength for battle no one had ever seen before. The Israelites almost despaired of ever being free again and cried to their God in fear.
It was then that a new thing began to happen in Israel. Under an oak tree between Ramah and Bethel this woman Deborah began to sit in judgment of the people. In a way it was a rather small thing, and yet it could hardly help but gain attention. It had been such a long time since anyone had dared to speak out openly in the name of Jehovah. Many years before, the elders and teachers had ceased to perform their functions, first because the people objected, and later for fear of the Canaanites. But Deborah hesitated for neither. Openly she presented herself and spoke the Word of God without fear to anyone who might be listening. Here was an example of faith that put to shame every leader and ruler in Israel. It was not long before the very presence of Deborah began to work its own transformation in the nation. The Canaanites perhaps thought it one of those small things which they could afford to ignore, but actually it was of vital importance to the nation. First there were but a few that dared, but soon there were more and more who were coming to Deborah with their burdens and problems and troubles. With sympathy she would listen, and without equivocation she would instruct them concerning their spiritual responsibilities before the law of God. And the longer she labored, the broader the scope of her instructions began. Soon she was giving to great and small alike pointed instructions concerning their responsibilities and duties over against the Canaanites who had invaded their land. All were told that their trials, stemmed from the fact that they had chosen for themselves strange gods. They were told that of this they must all repent. The men and leaders, were told that they must put their fears aside and prepare themselves in faith to fight against the enemy. Always to everyone she included the blessed promises of victory which later she recorded in her song when she sang:
My heart is toward the governors of Israel,
That offer themselves willingly among the people,
Bless ye the LORD.
Speak ye that ride on white asses,
Ye that sit in judgment,
And walk by the way.
They that are delivered from the noise of archers
In the places of drawing water,
There shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD,
Even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel:
Then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.