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The book of Joshua has shown the power of Jehovah in the conquests of His people, and this too distinguished from the measure of their practical taking possession of what was conquered. For as these are not the same things, so the line drawn divides the book into its two portions: first, the actual blow that was struck at the enemy; and, secondly, the measure in which they took advantage of their successes in order to enter on the positive enjoyment of their own possessions.
The book of Judges stand in painful contrast the inevitable lesson of the first man. In it we are given to see the failure of the people of God to retain even what they had actually conquered; still more to press on in the acquisition of that which Jehovah designed for them. In both we have what clearly answers on the one hand to the blessing in which God has set Christians, and on the other to the ways in which the enemy has contrived to rob them of their just portion in the enjoyment of the Lord. This no doubt is a humbling lesson; but it is unspeakably gracious that God has given it to us in His word. It would have been overwhelming, if the New Testament had consisted of nothing but the inspired testimony of divine grace to that into which the Holy Ghost introduced the Christian in Christ. Yet not less humbling undoubtedly it is as God has given it to us. But otherwise there had also been utter depression; for it would be to leave us without divine solace: it would expose us to every kind of uncertainty, and to the utmost danger from the enemy, if God had not given us in the New Testament itself our book of Judges just as much as our book of Joshua. In short the Spirit of God has set out very clearly in the New Testament the departure from their own proper privileges of those that had been brought into blessing. It has even shown us, with the greatest fullness and care, the ways in which Satan gained the advantage over those that bore the name of Christ.
Who can fail to notice divine wisdom in the fact that the worst features that were afterwards to appear in Christendom should be then manifest before the eye not indeed of all saints but of the Spirit of God, that they should so far exist, at least in form, as to furnish the just and fitting occasion for the apostles to pronounce, more particularly in the general epistles or the later writings, whether of Paul or of Peter, of Jude or of John above all, in the book of Revelation? For this simple reason it is now only unbelief or negligence of Scripture that can be surprised. Let the shadows of coming evil be ever so filled out by developing facts, still they only verify the word of our God. Thus the confirmation of the word, being thus borne out not only in the good that God has imparted but in the havoc that the enemy has wrought among those that call on the name of the Lord, really turns when learned from God, into a very solemn warning, and the increasing vigilance of the saint, by making him feel the wisdom and the goodness of God in separating us a thing always in its own nature repulsive, and naturally so to one who loves the saints unless there were an absolute call for it and confidence in His grace, whose will it is when unity is perverted to His own dishonour.
Granted that there are those to whom separation is no trial. They are not to be envied. It ought to be a sore trial which nothing justifies but the stern and solemn sense that we owe it to Christ nay, further (as is always the case, what we owe to Christ being the best thing for the saints of God), not only a necessary course for our own souls in allegiance to the Lord, but a warning due to those ensnared by the enemy. Do we truly desire the blessing of all the children of God? Who does not that loves the Lord Jesus? Must we not pursue, if it were only for their sakes, that which is most according to Christ? That which will be most salutary for them under such circumstances will surely be to show them the danger of desiring paths which they might too lightly tread the paths of ease and yielding to the world, where Christ is unknown, forsaking what is true and holy to God's glory. "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments."
Thus it is then that the discovery of the declension of the people of God is turned to serious but real profit, yet never unless our souls are kept simple and self-judging, grave yet happy, in the grace of God. Hence you will find, taking the epistle of Jude as an instance, the care with which the Holy Ghost exhorts them to "build themselves up on their most holy faith," to "keep themselves in the love of God looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life." It is not only brotherly affection, but higher up the stream, if from the same source. It is divine charity which is pressed. Never does the love of God lead to forgetfulness of His holiness, never in any way or measure to yield to the influences of evil that are flowing with a constantly increasing tide. This too we shall find in the Old Testament as in the New. In fact, if there be the same material looking at man, there is the same substantial truth if you look at God. Not of course that there was equal development then as now; for unquestionably the time was not yet come for the fullness of that which was from God to be manifested; nor consequently for man to display his enmity, and hatred, and incurable evil. How could either be till Jesus was known? Still there was from the earliest day a new nature in the saints, and the testimony of the word and Spirit of God, who was always looking on to Jesus. But now that grace and truth are fully before us in Jesus, His invariableness revealed cannot but invigorate the affections and brace the conscience, associating all with Him who came to do God's will in exercised hearts towards God. He therefore keeps back nothing that is profitable, but tells us of our danger. He shows us how the people of God have always slipped, and what is more, that they slipped from the first that departure from His will and ways was by no means a result of centuries. Neither of old nor after Christ did it require ages to betray, though of course it always went on growing. Contrariwise the common law of the first man is immediate and invariable departure from God. It is not meant by this that there may not be fidelity exceptionally by grace; but it is unspeakably solemn to find the fact always in scripture, that God no sooner gives a blessing than man misuses it, that the departure is immediate and that this is true of individuals as well as of communities. Both have their importance. It is true, as all know, from the first. We see it in Paradise; we see it after the world was renewed; we see it now in the chosen nation. The same thing reappears in the Christian profession, as the apostle warns the Roman saints from the example of Israel. And their failure too the book of Judges shows us to have been not merely among some here and there, but alas! everywhere. There might be great differences between one tribe and another morally, as for instance relaxation was unquestionably more complete in Dan than in Judah; but the failure of Judah to rise up to the just recognition of Jehovah's glory on their part is plain from the beginning of the history in the land.
All this appears to me to be of no inconsiderable importance as meeting a difficulty that perhaps all minds have felt who have been somewhat exercised about the church of God. In the New Testament the church we see set up in fullness of blessing by redemption, as associated with Christ. Not only did the Holy Ghost act in power for the soul, but He was ever the witness of superiority over all circumstances for body and mind, and these displays of energy not confined to apostles those chief envoys of the Lord and instruments of the work of God on earth, but diffusing the victory of Christ over the church as such. B ut it is not merely that in the history that man has made of the church we find departure. There indeed it is most manifest for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. But the salutary lesson is this, that the simple child of God had got it all in the word, so that he needs no ecclesiastical history to show the solemn fact. The New Testament itself is amply sufficient; and indeed for most readers the histories that even saints of God have made of the church would but mislead. They palliate, excuse, or even justify the general departure from the word of God. Where not? Who can tell me one history that vindicates adequately the word and Spirit of God? So widespread and deep became the departure, that the very worst can hardly defend Christendom in the face of scripture. The grossest adulators of priestly power, those that sold themselves to the purposes of ecclesiastical ambition, have not been able to veil the heinous iniquity into which what was called the church of God sank before long; but it is an immense mercy that the simplest child of God has got in his Bible, not only the moral profit of all the ways of God, and the analogies of every previous dispensation of God, but what concerns himself. His own place and privileges, his own duty on the one hand, he cannot find except in the Bible; but even also the history of his failure he can find nowhere so clear, nowhere so simple, nowhere so rightly shown and proved as in that perfect word of God. And further, the familiarity with evil everywhere out of scripture tends to blunt conscience, if not to make us content with it, and therefore to settle down as if it were hopeless to find a path according to God in the midst of abounding iniquity. Whether it be the Old Testament or the New, the word of God never forms such a path, nor ever excuses it even for the weakest; and it is important to see that it is not weakness that goes astray: it is the subtlety of unbelief that can pervert even scripture itself to justify its own will. Undoubtedly there is nothing that man's will may not find a reason for, perhaps too on the surface of scripture. There is no limit to its perverse ingenuity. But when the word of God is read with conscience, this is quite another thing. There the Shepherd's voice is heard and known. Not that He fails to tell the truth in any case, for indeed He does in every case; but He makes the truth felt wherever there is a conscience open to hear.
This no doubt is the great instruction of the book of Judges. It is not the only one, thank God. The same book shows us the slipping away, or defection, of the various tribes of Israel from the purpose of God in bringing them into the land a purpose which, you must remember, will surely be carried out yet. No purpose of God ever fails in the end, whilst every purpose in man's hand fails for the time. These are two of the most prominent lessons of the word of God; and the reason is just this all His purposes stand because there is a Second man: every purpose fails when entrusted to the first man.
It is of the first man we read here; but at the same time we have the testimony of the gracious power of God, not now in conquest, but in lifting up from time to time, and in partial deliverances. Your attention is called particularly to this. According to the analogy of God, it is not to produce anything but a partial interference after the first failure until Jesus comes. Then indeed deliverance will be complete; but God will have the evil felt, and, whatever may be His gracious intervention, He does not work in such a sort or after such a measure as would tend to enfeeble the sense and the confession of sin, the humiliation, the self-judgment, which become the saint in view of the present state of things. I have no doubt therefore that, for those that really take the word of God as He has given it, so great is His grace that a time of ruin may be made a season of special blessing. It is not a day of great prosperity that brings out the truth of things most before God.
Do you forget that He gives grace to the humble now? Do you suppose that there was not ignorance in the day of Pentecost? I am persuaded that you mistake the character of that wondrous day and of this if you doubt either. In presence of their then power the reality of the condition of individuals was not felt, as at Corinth, till gross evil came in, and party spirit began to divide the saints; and those who ran well grew less vivid in their sense of Christ, and the preciousness of His grace and truth was dimmed in their souls, so that some went to law, and others to idol temples. Then the real condition of souls became manifest. How fared it with those that clave to the Lord? Did they necessarily go down in such a day? Far from it. It made the fidelity of Chloe's household, or that of Stephanas, more distinct; and more prayer, more groaning, more crying to God, would be surely the result in those that had the sense of Christ's love and glory. How sad the state of those so near and precious in His eyes as are the saints of God?
I have no doubt accordingly that it is a total mistake to suppose if we take, for instance, the apostle Paul, or even persons far inferior to him, those labourers that were his companions, and who shared his sorrows as well as his joys a great mistake to suppose that Peter or the others had juster feelings, or were more truly in communion with the Lord than he; yet, as we know, it was not given to him to be found in that wondrous scene where the Holy Ghost was first poured down from heaven. But assuredly the apostle drank more deeply into the sense of what man was in presence not merely of law but of grace, as well as of what God is as now putting honour on Christ. No doubt this is deep work; for there is a breaking to pieces of every thought and feeling of the human heart; and there results such a depth of experience, both of anguish on the one hand and on the other hand of confidence in the grace of God, as must thoroughly repay and fit the individuals concerned for such service as is according to God's own mind for a day of grief and ruin. In short, it matters little what the time is on which one may be cast if there be faith in God, who is above all circumstances; for faith finds Him out and glorifies Him, whatever the circumstances may be.
This, it may be observed, is rather a general way of applying the book of Judges; but these remarks have been made for the very reason that we may read the word of God as a whole, allowing for differences (one need not say,) and, while we may seek to enter into and understand the just application of the Old Testament, that we. may also avail ourselves of what lies everywhere before us, those great and divine and ever precious principles of divine truth which we want, and which God has given us to meet us in the circumstances where we are now.
We need not therefore dwell on the minute particulars of the first few verses. I will only make a remark on one point; namely, the blessing which confidence in grace always receives from God. We know how Caleb was blessed; but we find also that God's grace developed in his daughter the same confidence in grace. She looked for good, and failed not to get it; and we do well to cherish the same spirit. It glorifies God to expect great and good things from Him. Why should we doubt Him? Would we abridge Him to the pettiness of our own thoughts? He had brought His people into a goodly land, and His honour was pledged to bless them there. And yet not many there looked for the blessing. They thought of the difficulties, and they were discouraged. Such discouragement constantly leads to the dishonour of God. For if to complain of what God gives grieves Him on the one hand, on the other hand the enemy is most sensitive, and gathers encouragement to oppose from the want of faith that is thus soon, too soon, manifested in our gracious God.
Nothing indeed so disturbs the world as to see a man thoroughly happy in the Lord. It is not finding fault with the world that rouses its feelings, but the certainty that you have got a blessing to which they do not even pretend. And this, my brethren, is not best attested by strong expressions about it. The most effective testimony on every subject may be indirect; nor is anything of greater power than the simple unaffected expression of our heart's satisfaction in a worthy object. Even the men of the world are sensible of this. There is nothing that so forcibly proves or disproves as that which does not lie on the surface, and is not said to serve a purpose. You are in trial, or difficulty, poor, persecuted, in prison, or dying; yet you are thoroughly happy. What can the world do with a man that nothing can conquer? It may oppose, insult, punish; but he only gives God thanks, and rejoices the more, and this without in the least making light of what is done. What can the world do with such a man? "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith."
It is refreshing therefore to see that. when God must give us many a failure, it is not all failure. Nor should it be so with us. It is an unhappy spirit that always dwells upon the dark side; but at the same time it is never a truthful spirit that does not take full account of it. Has not grace brought us, beloved brethren, into such a place that we can fairly look at anything and any one in the face? We have no reason to fear, except that we should not confide in our God, and that we should not also dread the letting slip ourselves the letting in self to anything that concerns the Lord. Then I grant you there are weakness and failure at hand.
But Judges 2:1-23 shows us another thing, a strange and very striking change. "The angel of Jehovah," it is said, "came up from Gilgal to Bochim." There was a deep significance here. Why should the angel of Jehovah come up from Gilgal? We have seen already what Gilgal was. Oh that we knew it better for our own souls! But this at least we have learnt from the word of God, that it was the place where the reproach of Egypt was rolled away. It was the place where flesh came under the execution of the sentence of death. Nor was this all. For it was the place in which the host was regularly encamped; and thence it marched out to conquer at the bidding of Jehovah, and thither it returned again. Mortification of the flesh is the true place of power in the Spirit, and this is what Gilgal means. It was where Israel was reminded of the judgment of God on self, on man's nature, on that which is unclean, and only fit therefore to be cut off and cast away. There God led them back, and thence they came out in divine strength. But the angel of Jehovah now finds himself in a place as characteristic of the book of Judges as Gilgal was of Joshua. It is the place of tears. Not to know sorrow when the people of God have slighted Him and declined is not to know where His Spirit dwells. Hardness of feeling, never according to God, is most of all opposed to Him when the people have failed to meet His glory, when they have been unfaithful as a whole.
The angel comes then from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, "I have 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? Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you. And it came to pass, when the angel of Jehovah spake these words unto all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voice, and wept. And they called the name of that place Bochim: and they sacrificed there unto Jehovah"; and then in the middle of this same chapter (11-13), after the people had thus humbled themselves before God, we find that they turned away again. "They forsook Jehovah," it is said, "and served Baal and Ashtaroth." Their grief was but passing. "And the anger of Jehovah was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about, so that they could not any longer stand before their enemies." It was not merely now that there was a check. It was not that Israel had a passing humiliation. For Jehovah delivered them up expressly into the hands of their enemies; not that He did not love them, not that He would not work all for good, but that He must have the people in the truth of their state before He would prove Himself in the truth of His own grace. "Whithersoever they went out, the hand of Jehovah was against them for evil, as Jehovah had said, and as Jehovah had sworn unto them: and they were greatly distressed. Nevertheless Jehovah raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them. And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but 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 Jehovah; but they did not so. And when Jehovah raised them up judges" that is, when they were brought down to this great distress, Jehovah appeared for them in showing them suited mercy "Jehovah was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented Jehovah because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them." But they would not hearken to their judges; "and it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods."
If the children of Israel would abandon Jehovah to serve idols, they are themselves given up by Jehovah to serve idolaters. It is so with us. If we sin, this measures and defines our chastisement; and so grace works repentance when we turn and cry to the Lord in our distress.
In Judges 3:1-31. we have the details of this. The first two chapters are general. The nations come before us that were left to prove Israel according to the word of Jehovah. The earliest deliverer is brought before us in verse 9: "When the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah, Jehovah raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother." So again we are told that afterwards "the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of Jehovah: and Jehovah strengthened Eglon [not the children of Israel, but their enemy] the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of Jehovah. And he gathered unto him the children of Ammon and Amalek, and went and smote Israel, and possessed the city of palm trees. So the children of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years. But when the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah, Jehovah raised them up a deliverer Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man left-handed." Then we have details of the killing of the leader of their enemies, the king of Moab. Then again, in the end of the chapter, we are told of "Shamgar the son of Anath," who delivered Israel from the Philistines.
But there is one feature common to all these three deliverers which may be pointed out, and not, I think, without moral profit. There was in every one of them an apparent defect, and they were therefore men that no one but God would have put forward. One was a younger brother; another was a left-handed man; and the third slew the enemy with an ox-goad. Thus in each there was an element against the prospects of their success. There was awkwardness, seemingly, in the weapon employed, or in the left-handed man, or in the younger brother rather than in the eldest, the father's might and the beginning of his strength, as Jacob says. It was not the pride of the family, the first-born, but his junior, that went forth to victory. Not thus does man choose.
This feature, however, belongs characteristically to the ways of God in a broken state of things. The instrument that He employs when His people are fallen is not according to the same pattern as when all things are orderly in His sight. In short, when the people of God depart from Him, He marks it, not by withholding a deliverer, but by the kind of deliverance given them. I am persuaded that there is a fitness in His choice of instruments, and that the same men that He employed, say, to found and form the church, are not of the class which suits His thoughts when all things are fallen into confusion. When the church was brought into being, when the ecclesiastical air was clear and bright, then it was simply a question of God working by the Holy Spirit upon earth in answer to the glory of Christ in heaven; then He raised up witnesses in accordance with the glory of Christ and the reality of His victory as man over Satan, as well as of His love in caring for His body, the church. When on the contrary the Christian profession had quite failed as a witness to Him, there could not but be God's answer to the cries of distress that went up from His saints; but none the less has each instrument a marked weakness in some particular or other.
So I cannot but believe it will be found, without exception, in this respect throughout the history of Christendom. Thus, if we look three or four hundred years back, we can judge with considerably more calmness than in forming an estimate of our own day; we are free at least from much which is apt to warp. We see that in those whom God then employed there was no deficiency in a certain sort of power. There was a great energy, with a palpable, large, and speedy result; and we, of all men, ought to be the last to forget whatever form or measure of blessing God has been pleased to shower on souls. Can we not, beloved brethren, afford to recognize it where and whenever it may have been? Ought we not to give ungrudgingly the honour that is due to the work of the Spirit of God by anybody? The more you are blessed, the more free and generous should you be towards others; the more simply and fully you have received the truth, the larger should your heart be in rejoicing at the activities of divine grace. You are called on, by the very richness of God's grace, and by the comfort and certainty of the truth He has given your souls, to acknowledge whatever has been of God either in the past or in the present to His praise.
Looking back then, I say, according to the love and humility that can value whatever is from above, we can see no doubt the power that shook nations and gave them an open Bible in such a work as Luther's, or even in Calvin's; yea, in others inferior to these. But are we therefore to consecrate everything they said or did? Or are we to shut our eyes to that which manifestly showed the strange shape. of the earthen vessel? Certainly not. Far from complaining of such irregularities, I consider that they were in keeping with the state of things in God's sight, just as we see in Israel's case before us; just as the power of the Spirit which in general lifted above the manifestations of nature such as we see, for instance, in a Paul, or even in a Peter, or in a John (where it is hard to say what one could blame) suited the new-born church when the Holy Ghost was just given. It is not meant that there was nothing to judge, and that God did not see it; but still it would be hard for us to see it, judging fairly. Take the blessed apostles. It is in no way meant that they never slipped. Far from it; we know that they did; but what were slips of such as the apostles compared with the comparatively unjudged flesh of a Luther or a Calvin? In such as these, do we not come down to the left-handed men? or such as won victories with an ox-goad? That is, we see, in a day of utter weakness and declension, rather awkward witnesses, employed by God no doubt to accomplish His purpose, but with the significant mark that they were to the praise of His grace much more than to their own honour.
We have not done with the witnesses yet. There is another, perhaps more remarkable, and assuredly more singular in the form taken, in the next chapter (Judges 4:1-24); so that it seems evident that it is a principle here. I am not choosing out some particular cases; but taking all as they stand. Here then we find a deliverer unquestionably, and one much put forward by God, but who would not have been thought of in an orderly state of things. I need not tell you that I refer to Deborah now. Certainly she does not act according to natural order. But wherefore was this? It was according to grace, though a rebuke to the men of Israel. Further, it was the grace of God, who, in the form of the deliverer, contemplated the condition of His people; for He meant them to feel that things were out of course. So it was, and so only, that Deborah was employed.
Now this was a day of great trial: "And the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah: for he (Jabin) had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel." It was a long-continued and grievous affliction: "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. And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not Jehovah God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?" Here there is no doubt that God wrought sovereignly. She was a prophetess; she was the communicator of the mind of God at that time pre-eminently so. But there is more to note.
Was not this a rebuke to man for instance to Barak? Undoubtedly, but it was according to the wisdom of God, and was ordered of Him to take that shape. It was the more remarkable, because one would not think at first sight such a thing probable as that a woman should be not only called out to direct men, but to direct them in a campaign to direct the leader or general of the hosts of Jehovah. Surely therefore there was some marked and indispensable reason of God that should have so arranged it. "And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go." Can any one say that this was to the honour of Barak "If thou wilt go with me"? A woman's going down to a field of slaughter indispensable to the leader! The general could not go without Deborah to bear him company, share the danger and ensure the victory! So it was. "If thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go. And she said, I will surely go with thee." In her at least there was no want of confidence in God. But we shall see that we have God marking His sense of Barak's unbelief: "Notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for Jehovah shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Another woman! Thus evidently on all sides of it the victory was altogether to the praise of God, and, as far as the form of it was concerned, man, Israel, general and all, ought to have received it as in this respect a humiliation. We need not dwell now on the particulars of this scene. These are more familiar, it may be, than the principle I have endeavoured thus to bring out plainly.
A song follows (Judges 5:1-31), as to which one need only make a general remark. It has often been a difficulty to many souls how the Spirit of God could indite such a song a song that triumphs more than usually in the carnage and ruin of the foe. But what is it that persons who cavil at it conceive of the Spirit of God? The root of the difficulty appears to be this, that men are apt constantly to judge from their own circumstances. Now if we think indeed that God's Spirit is bound to do or say nothing but what suits a Christian that He has never written anything but what is the expression of His power in magnifying Christ to our souls I grant you we could not have the song of Deborah. But then we could not have had the Old Testament as it is. The same principle that would supplant this song and deny its inspired character would, in my opinion, decapitate and destroy the Old Testament itself. It would leave us nothing at most but a few shreds of prophecy pointing to the Lord Jesus. It would dislocate, nay, blot out, the whole texture of the old oracles of God. The Spirit of God did work, but He wrought according to the state of the people of God then; and who but an infidel can deny the wisdom and the goodness of God in such a guidance?
The truth is that the only way to understand or to enjoy the Bible is the very same that we need to magnify God where we are now, and the same unbelief that sits criticising the Old Testament loses all power according to the New. The same men that find fault with the song of Deborah do not understand much better what the Spirit of God is in the Christian and in the church of God now. I am convinced that the darkness of unbelief which is allowed thus to dishonour the Old Testament meets its just retribution. What do such detractors really know of St. Paul or St. John? Nothing as they ought. When we approach the Bible as believers, when we draw near as those who owe everything to God's grace that reveals to us according to His own wisdom, when we bend down before God as those that are willing to learn and grateful to be taught of Him, what then? The beauty, the excellence, the salutary character of every part of scripture more and more dawn upon our souls, and the very portions that were once difficult because of our (perhaps unconsciously) setting up to judge, when we ought still and always to take the place of learners, turn then into streams of blessing and light and strength for our own souls. Is it not the fact that the texts or whole books of the word of God that, even as believers, we felt our total inability once to read with profit are now what we most of all delight and rejoice in? And can we not therefore draw the simple and just conclusion from this, that if anything else be dim to us and surely there is still much that is but little and very feebly entered into by our souls all we want is to be more lowly, to be more thoroughly dependent upon God, who will reveal even this unto us?
In Judges 6:1-40 opens the preparation for another and a greater deliverance. On this we must say a few words more before we close. Here undoubtedly the Spirit of God may well prepare us for a larger work and for fuller lessons. It is not a deliverer despatched in a verse, like Shamgar. Neither is it a man that was employed overshadowed by the superior light and even courage of a woman, Barak being small indeed in comparison with Deborah. Here we have the grace of God interfering to raise up a deliverer when the Midianites had reduced the people of God to slavery for seven years. "And the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel: and because of the Midianites the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strongholds." They had never been brought so low. To be like wanderers and fugitives in the land of God, in their own land, was a burning disgrace to Israel. But there was a deeper need. They had forgotten Jehovah, and gone over to Baal more than was ever known before: hence also the necessity for awakening to this him whom God would use. What was it before God? Gideon felt this, and he felt it all the more because he knew their servitude to Midian was Jehovah's doing, who was obliged, because of the moral condition of Israel, to reduce His people to so despicable a condition. What must God have felt so to deal with those He loved!
Midian then, "and the Amalekites, and the children of the east, even they came up against them; and they encamped against them, and destroyed the increase of the earth, till thou come unto Gaza, and left no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep, nor ox, nor ass. For they came up with their cattle and their tents, and they came as grasshoppers for multitude; for both they and their camels were without number: and they entered into the land to destroy it. And Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites; and the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah."
How touching it is, my brethren, to find this so often repeated story! Any one but God would have refused to listen to such a cry, at least from such a people. For had they not over and over sinned, and been chastised, and cried? Had they not gone back, cried, and been delivered; then fallen into sin again, cried again, been delivered again always crying, always delivered, and always falling back again, into a lower depth than ever? Only God could feel patience and show tender mercy to such a people. For if they cried under the sore trouble which Jehovah brought on them for their sins, none the less did He answer, grieved for them and pitying them. "And it came to pass, when the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah because of the Midianites, that Jehovah sent a prophet unto the children of Israel, which said unto them, Thus saith Jehovah God of Israel, I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you forth out of the house of bondage; and I delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all that oppressed you, and drave them out from before you, and gave you their land; and I said unto you, I am Jehovah your God; fear not the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but ye have not obeyed my voice. And there came an angel of Jehovah, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained unto Joash the Abi-ezrite: and his son Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites."
Mark the twofold process of the Lord. He sends first a prophet, then an angel; the one to bring their sin home to their conscience, the other to raise up a deliverer. He loves to extricate His people from the wretched consequences of their failure, but He will have the evil owned first.
Clearly therefore Gideon knew by experience what the state of the people was. His condition was in miniature what that of the people was in general. He was threshing wheat behind a winepress, no doubt for fear of the Midianites. The commonest duty of a man in Israel could not be done without the dread of those mighty and numerous foes; but "the angel of Jehovah appeared unto him, and said unto him Jehovah is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." Now there is power that goes forth with the word of Jehovah. What an encouragement to its object! What! the man that was cowering behind the winepress? This to be the choice of God to break the yoke of Midian! What grace on God's part! "And Gideon said unto him, Oh my Lord, if Jehovah be with us" for on that he takes his stand "if Jehovah be with us" not merely "with me." He binds the people with the name of Jehovah, not merely with himself the invariable mark of true faith and love. "If Jehovah be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not Jehovah bring us up from Egypt? but now Jehovah hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites." They were both true. It was Jehovah that had blessed, and it was Jehovah that had delivered into the hands of the Midianites; and that very fact, overwhelming as it was, is precisely what gives confidence. Had it been merely that the Midianites had got the better of Israel, this were nothing for faith, save indeed a denial of Him and of their relation to Him. But it was not so with Gideon. He sees that their affliction was the Lord's doing because of their sin. But the same Jehovah who delivered His people into the hands of the Midianites now said to the trembling son of Manasseh, "Jehovah is with thee, thou mighty man of valour."
A difficulty presented itself to his spirit. His heart was no doubt not without its exercises how all these things could be. It was not that he doubted; but he desired to have it explained. He was realizing the position of things before God; and Jehovah looked upon him, and said, "Go in this thy might." Was not this enough, that Jehovah was with him the same Jehovah that had delivered over Israel to their foes? The God of Israel declared Himself with him to deliver them now and to bring to nought the power of the Midianites. "Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee? And he said unto him, Oh, my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house. And Jehovah said unto him, Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man." He asks a sign, it is true; and Jehovah answers. I am far from denying that there was weakness in the faith of Gideon; nor is it implied that there was not a drawback here as in all the others who have passed before us. But allowing all this, it must be allowed that, after the Lord graciously condescended to his weakness, we find the power of God at work in his heart and ways.
But it is a great lesson to which our attention may be drawn here, that the might by which God works for His glory is in no sense a consciousness of communicated power. Never before had Gideon so felt his own littleness, his family poor, himself the least. And now there is another and deeper feeling. "When Gideon perceived that he was an angel of Jehovah, Gideon said, Alas, O Lord Jehovah! for because I have seen an angel of Jehovah face to face. And Jehovah said unto him, Peace be unto thee, fear not: thou shalt not die." He was consciously withered up before the presence of God the habitual effect, as we find in the Old Testament continually, of meeting what is there called the angel of Jehovah. Gideon, strengthened by that which put the sentence of death on his nature, builds an altar in the confidence of the word given him, and calls it Jehovah-shalom. Thus he lays hold of the word of peace, and promptly acts on it; and when once he has done this alone as a question between him and God, another great moral principle is seen. There is no groundwork for any deliverance according to God, there is no proper basis for His intervention, but the removal of all barriers between God and our souls. This is the prime necessity peace, then work; but there is no service safe till the person is secured and in peace.
On the other hand, before God can according to His own mind use a servant with strangers or enemies, He will have him begin at home. This is the next thing traceable in Gideon's history. How act abroad if there is sin and dishonour of God in the family? "And it came to pass the same night, that Jehovah said unto him, Take thy father's young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it: and build an altar unto Jehovah thy God upon the top of this rock, in the ordered place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the grove which thou shalt cut down. Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as Jehovah had said unto him: and so it was, because he feared his father's household and the men of the city, that he could not do it by day, that he did it by night." Still it was done. "And when the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was cast down, and the grove was cut down that was by it, and the second bullock was offered upon the altar that was built. And they said one to another, Who hath done this thing? And when they enquired and asked, they said, Gideon the son of Joash hath done this thing. Then the men of the city said unto Joash, Bring out thy son, that he may die: because he hath cast down the altar of Baal, and because he hath cut down the grove that was by it. And Joash said unto all that stood against him, Will ye plead for Baal? will ye save him? he that will plead for him, let him be put to death whilst it is yet morning: if he be a god, let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar. Therefore on that day he called him Jerubbaal, saying, Let Baal plead against him, because he hath thrown down his altar."
Thus does God honour the uncompromisingness of faith. The will of Jehovah was explicitly declared to Gideon. He had nothing but death to expect, had it not been the will of the Lord; but, come what will, "he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever;" and Gideon was content to abide all consequences. I do not of course say that he could definitely anticipate these blessed words of John to us; but he had the instinctive sense in his soul that there is nothing like obedience; and Jehovah had made His will plain about His own dishonour at home. Indeed the inconsistency would have been enormous of a man's going forth to deal with the heathen enemies of Israel, while Baal was worshipped in his own father's house. No doubt there was the difficulty for a son so boldly to deal with his father's idolatry; and the greater too for one who did not disguise from himself how little he was, as we find when the angel appeared just before, meddling with that which would shock the prejudices of the family and of all around. For nothing wounds more than that which treats their religion as nothing
Again, whatever appearances may say, there is nothing so truly humble as obedience; nor is anything so firm as faith. There are many persons who seem to think that man's will is the only thing that is strong. It is a great mistake. Self-will the action and energy of the flesh is merely spasmodic; it soon passes away, and this in the measure of its violence. But "he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever." There is never continuance except in obeying Him. Gideon then went forth in this his might. But his might was shown in his father's house at home before it could be displayed abroad, and he wins a new name over the false god before a blow is struck at the Midianites, though they are seen now gathered together in Jezreel, for Satan was roused; and the Lord meets again his difficulties, giving him external and repeated tokens, as we see at the end of Judges 6:1-40.
The next chapter (Judges 7:1-25) shows him in public. The children of Israel gathered round him whose bold stand for Jehovah would soon be spread abroad; for they well knew how sinful it was for any, and for Israel above all, to worship Baal. "And Jehovah said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many." What a blessed thing it is to have One to guide us who is entirely independent of circumstances! "The people that are with thee are too many." Never before in going to war in this world was there heard such a plea. Though the principle might be seen perhaps in the selection from the twelve tribes under Phinehas to fight against the same Midianites before Moses was gathered to his people, they were, in God's estimate, too many to go to war with a host like grasshoppers for multitude (Numbers 31:1-54). It is good to have God to judge for us, whether in peace or war, service or suffering. "The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me. Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead." This was a distinct appeal to His own word inDeuteronomy 20:8; Deuteronomy 20:8: "And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart." How precious thus to find God recalling His word by Moses! "And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand."
But they are not few enough for the purpose of the Lord. "And Jehovah said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go." The root of the mischief, which really had brought in declension, was that the people, ceasing to value what God had given, were not willing at first to contend for it, and that, having accustomed themselves to the presence of Jehovah's enemies, they had fallen into their evil ways against Himself. The great moral lesson they had then to learn was what Jehovah is for His people. For Israel it was no question of numbers, or munitions of war; but of Jehovah, who would use and bless those only who have confidence, whose heart is to Himself. So it was brought down to a strange but searching test. "Everyone that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth" not those that took the water with ease as at ordinary times, and like men. From this very thing, from themselves and their comforts, they wanted to be delivered. It was not here only a question of faint-heartedness, but of entire devotedness to the Lord and the work before them. We may not walk as men, nor entangle ourselves with the affairs of life, to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ. The evil was in thinking that it was merely a question of man against man, whereas the faith that counts on God is willing even to be counted as a dog before Him. Those God would use must not seek their own ease or honour. They were men so hanging on the word and work of the Lord that to partake of the refreshing by the way, though it might be in the most hasty fashion, no better than a dog might, seemed intuitively good enough for them: their hearts were set on His task before them, and not on their own things.
This then at once severed those who cared not for themselves, but for what was given them by God to be done, from the men who, even upon such an occasion, could stay to consult their own habits, their own liking, their own ease. This I believe to be just the truth intended here for our instruction: with a little handful of that sort Gideon was to do his errand. "By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place."
Then comes another remarkable dealing of God with other instruction for us. "Jehovah said unto Gideon, Get thee down unto the host; for I have delivered it into thine hand." He was encouraged, though it was a service of immense danger in appearance; but what is this to the Lord? Ours is only to obey. "But if thou fear to go down, go thou with Phurah thy servant down to the host: and thou shalt hear what they say; and afterward shall thine hands be strengthened to go down unto the host. Then went he down with Phurah his servant unto the outside of the armed men that were in the host."
There is no book in the world comparable to the Bible for transparency. The writer was inspired to tell as calmly of Gideon's fear as of his courage. "If thou art afraid, go down with Phurah." Who but God could speak out so simply? He was afraid, and takes with him the servant. Where is the honour of the successful warrior? It belongs to God alone. "And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the east lay along in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seaside for multitude. And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man that told a dream unto his fellow, and said, Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along. And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the host. And it was so, when Gideon heard the telling of the dream, and the interpretation thereof, that he worshipped, and returned into the host of Israel, and said, Arise; for Jehovah hath delivered into your hand the host of Midian. And he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and he put a trumpet into every man's hand, with empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers." The cake of barley bread was no great thing in itself or in men's eyes. But so it is that God delivers, not by wit, power, or wealth, but by His Spirit working through a despised instrument. And Gideon worships as he hears. His confidence is in the Lord. He was less then ever in his own eyes: God filled them, and His people too had therefore a great place: "Jehovah hath delivered into your (not my) hand the host of Midian." Yet we know that their actual state was as low as their number within was small. All turns on Jehovah; but these were His ways. And Gideon's faith saw it all done.
The two arrive about the beginning of the middle watch. "And they had but newly set the watch: and they blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands." Strange mode of fighting this to us how full of suggestive instruction! We too have to bear testimony, not of ourselves, but of Christ, as they blew with trumpets; we too must have death working in us, if life in those we serve, and the earthen vessels breaking; and thus it is that the light can shine out brightly. For it is not only that we see the light of God's glory in Christ; our God would have it reflected more and more, as we are changed into Christ's image, beholding it, as by the Lord the Spirit. And the war-cry was heard, "The sword of Jehovah, and of Gideon." "And they stood every man in his place round about the camp: and all the host ran, and cried and fled. And the three hundred blew their trumpets." It was not their skill, nor their prowess, but their testimony, that was used, their loud testimony of Jehovah's mission, Jehovah's will, Jehovah's deliverance of the Midianites into their hands.
But if faith does not wait for numbers, nor rest on them in the battles of the Lord, others follow when the enemy has received a manifest defeat. "And the men of Israel gathered themselves together out of Naphtali, and out of Asher, and out of all Manasseh, and pursued after the Midianites. And Gideon sent messengers throughout all mount Ephraim," and accordingly victory was complete.
Many, however, who had no heart for the work when all was depression, are forward to complain of the conquerors. "And the men of Ephraim said unto him, Why hast thou served us thus, that thou calledst us not, when thou wentest to fight with the Midianites? And they did chide with him sharply. And he said unto them. What have I done now in comparison of you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abi-ezer." (Judges 8:1-35) It is admirable to find one who knows how to meet the chafed spirits, even of those who have done little to secure the victory. These men of Ephraim no doubt helped, and Gideon only said what was quite true. Everybody knows, I presume, that the main destruction of an army is far more when the battle is turned than when it rages. Those who fall during the struggle are comparatively few, while those who are cut down when it has become a flight may be very many; and therefore one can see how the mild answer of Gideon might be strictly true; but we do well to weigh the lowliness of it, and the willingness of him who bore the brunt, exposed to all danger, to take the least and give the highest place now that God had wrought for His people. Alas! it is as sweet as it is rare.
"And Gideon came to Jordan, and passed over, he, and the three hundred men that were with him, faint, yet pursuing." Here we have another lesson, bright as to the conquerors, but a painful one as to others. The Christian has a divine spring of power against weariness; but are we always thus "pursuing"? Paul was. "This one thing I do." How little it was valued in Gideon! He asked for refreshment for the three hundred; but he meets with taunt and reviling, and this Gideon remembers to their cost another hour; for it was heartless. The victory once secured, that which was needed to vindicate the outrage on Jehovah's people in the execution of His work has its grave place; for Israel was called to be the theatre for the display of God's earthly righteousness, which is the true explanation of all these things that are sometimes difficult to the Christian mind, if uninstructed in the difference of dispensations.
The chapter does not conclude without another and a serious warning. The request of Gideon becomes a snare to himself and his house. How painful this is, my brethren! How often we see that the result of the victory of faith is too great for the faith that won it! Gideon refused for himself or for his son to reign. "Jehovah," as he said simply and strikingly, "shall rule over you." But he desired the earrings of the prey, and made an ephod of the gold, etc., "and put it in his city, even in Ophrah: and all Israel went thither a whoring after it: which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house." Peace followed, and Gideon died in a good old age, leaving seventy sons, beside one born of a concubine. But "it came to pass as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went a whoring after Baalim, and made Baal-berith their god. And the children of Israel remembered not Jehovah their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies on every side: neither showed they kindness to the house of Jerubbaal, namely Gideon, according to all the goodness which he had showed unto Israel." Thus manifest and lamentable was the breakdown in the faith that had done such things. For it was an effort to preserve by a form what can only be sustained by grace from the same source. How blessed for the Christian, for the church, is the presence of the Holy Spirit with us for ever! How inexcusable for Christendom the attempt to perpetrate some apostolic ephod, a snare to all that bear the name of the Lord! Nothing can stand but the Spirit of God, nothing take its place; for He alone secures the glory of Christ in the church. This consequently is the true article of the church that stands, however momentous justification by faith is to the individual believer. And a form, however well-intentioned even, is no preservation from the grossest idolatry, but rather paves the way for any or every idol, as we see here after Gideon's death among the children of Israel, quick to forget Jehovah and the vessel of His delivering grace. Alas! the beginning of the mischief was in Gideon's house, and even in himself. One is worthy, One alone.
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Kelly, William. "Commentary on Judges 6". Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany