The Oppressor Destroyed
Israel was to be a peculiar people, a holy nation, set aside by God to manifest his righteousness through obedience to his law and through an exuberant hope in his promises (Deuteronomy 7:6). As children of Abraham and heir to the promises and covenants established through him, their heritage was to “believe God” and it would be credited to them as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Deuteronomy 7:7-9). Jesus said “Abraham saw my day and was glad” (John 8:56). The generation, however, following the death of Joshua and the elders who served with him had not seen his day or placed their hope on the coming Redeemer. Nor did they embrace divinely revealed law as constituting true life (Deuteronomy 30:18-20). Their settling in the land had made them also settle for the culture of the people around them who had not been driven out. Their zeal for their national mission must be developed; their zeal for national purity must be developed by war against those who would oppress and pollute them.
I. The testing of an untried nation. Chapter 3
A. The reality of Opposition – 3:1-4. They had not known war and must know it in order to learn that their national identity and mission were distinct from the nations that continued to dwell in their borders. The five nations (3) were “for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord” (4).
B. The Weakness of the Flesh: They took pagan wives. Their lack of resolution and sanctified perspective is seen in their taking wives from these nations and giving their daughters to be wives to the men of those nations. This had been strictly forbidden in Exodus 34:16 and reiterated in Deuteronomy 7:3. The reason was that these marriages would result in sympathy for the religious tradition of their spouses and pervert the pure worship of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 7:4). Disobedience to this instruction led to the fall of Solomon and the eventual division of the kingdom (1 Kings 11:1-8; 30-34). It was a practice reprimanded by Ezra upon restoration after the exile (Ezra 9:11, 12) and a major issue of the covenantal renewal under Nehemiah (10:28-30).
C. The First Three Judges
- Othniel (3:7-11) – The people were repressed by the king of Mesopotamia for eight years because they “served the Baals and the Asheroth.” Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, delivered Israel from this oppression for “the spirit of the Lord was upon him” and they had peace for forty years.
- Ehud (3:12-30) – By cunning and stealth, Ehud killed Eglon the king of Moab with a short sword, completely burying it in the fat belly of the pagan king. He then led a force of Israelites against the Moabite army, killing 10,000 “strong able-bodied men.” Again the text makes the Moabite ascendancy the work of God as he “strengthened Eglon, the king of Moab against Israel,” and then he “raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera the Benjaminite, a left-handed man.”
- Shamgar – This Judge delivered Israel from the Philistines, killing 600 of them with an oxgoad; his entire work is summarized in one verse (31).
- God works his purposes in sovereign wisdom with alternating manifestations of justice and mercy. He sanctifies his people through various degrees of tribulation, using the unbelieving pagans filled with arrogance and rebellion as his instruments (Habakkuk 1:5-11) and the puts down those nations for their idolatry (Habakkuk 2:6-20; Isaiah 10:5-18).
II. Deliverance through a Woman prophetess
A. Jabin, King of Canaan, with 900 chariots of iron oppressed them for twenty years. Their evil actions again brought judgment, and “the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan.”
B. Deborah gave judgment to Israel –The prophetic insight that the Lord had granted Deborah qualified her also for trying the civil cases in which people needed some work of judgment. Apparently, Deborah regularly held court in an open space in the hill country of Ephraim. While doing this, she experienced a divine impulse to send for Barak and give him a summons from the Lord.
C. Deborah acted as a prophetess in calling out Barak to fight the army of Sisera. She delivered a detailed message to Barak about the Lord’s call to him to gather an army of 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and Zebulun. God would then draw out the commander of the Canaanite army in order to destroy them under the hand of Barak.
D. The bargain of Barak – In spite of such specific instructions and assurances of victory, Barak hesitated and would not commit to the assignment unless Deborah would also go.
- Humanly speaking, this would a judicious request on Barak’s part, for Deborah had gained the confidence of the people by her fair and divinely inspired judgments. She had a history of trust with the people and, in his opinion they would follow and fight if she were present.
- She consented but said that the victory in its final and climactic stage would come from the hand of a woman, not from Barak.
- If we have a call from God we should not make our obedience to it dependent on the cooperation of another. Conditional obedience, particularly with the assertion of “I will not go” apart from the meeting of the condition, is tantamount to disobedience.
- Given the manner is which God dealt with other such situations, Barak could have been removed immediately, but God was merciful to him and to Israel.
- Verse 11 – An interlude of providence. Heber the Kenite moved to be in a place to which Sisera would come as he fled from Barak. Though Heber was at peace with Jabin, he was, nevertheless, a descendant of the father-in-law of Moses. It appears that his wife Jael had a more keen sense of kinship with the people of God than did Heber. She lived, not merely for peace and prosperity, but for promoting the righteous reign of the God of Israel.
III. Sisera responded to the challenge of Barak
A. The Gathering of the army of Sisera – The commander of Jabin’s army heard of Barak’s gathering of 10,000 fighting men and responded by gathering together his army with the formidable array of 900 chariots of iron. Previously, the Israelites had refused to confront this combination (1:19) and they now find themselves under their domination with the necessity of defeating this force that they could have annihilated a generation earlier.
B. Deborah gave the charge with the Lord’s assurance – Deborah, under the full influence of divine assurance, told Barak to attack, for the Lord would “go out before you.” Upon that call, Barak, emboldened by her confidence, went quickly with his army close at his heels moving down mount Tabor to confront the army of Sisera.
C. The routing of the Army with the iron chariots (15)
- Note the language of the verse: “And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army.” As promised, The Lord went before Barak and through means that went far beyond the downhill charge, the gleaming swords, and the determination of the 10,000 to win or die, the Lord broke down the strategy, the strength, and the will of Sisera’s army.
- Note also that the rout was in the context of the attack of Barak. “Before Barak by the edge of the sword.” Barak’s army pursued the chariots and the army and defeated them so soundly and with full effect that “not a man was left.” It is a battle that the people of God must fight, but it is a battle that the Lord himself will win.
- God has an elect people; he alone will call them effectually and he alone will save them with the interposition of no human power. But he will call them, transform them, and give them union with Christ by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and the witness of Christians. “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14).
- God alone has the power to bring to full sanctification his own people though he does it in light of their serious attention to holiness of life: “Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:22-24).
D. Sisera’s Escape – Sisera had to leave his chariot, the mighty machine of war, and flee from the battle on foot. Though all others had been killed, Sisera was left and the final blow of victory would not be given to Barak, but to a woman whom God had placed in a strategic location, a place in which Sisera would believe safety, sympathy, and refuge would be present. The heathen have no place to put their trust; they do not know God and do not, therefore, have any place for confidence or security that is true and sound. They are deluded about their alliances, for they are not alliances in truth, and will be often betrayed when convenience dictates a change of loyalty, or when they confront one whose loyalty is to an unchanging and glorious purpose.
IV. The Inglorious Death of Sisera. (17-22)
A. Sisera struck a bargain of protection with Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She had no loyalty to Jabin and his army and thus no reason to protect this general of the army that oppressed Israel for twenty years. Milk and a warm blanket, a request that she deter anyone that might come looking for him, gave him a deep sleep from which he never awoke in this life. A well-placed tent peg and a well-delivered blow brought an end to the life of Sisera.
B. Deborah’s prophecy had come true. Deborah and Barak then memorialized the victory in a song filled with pathos, celebration and the emotions of several of the key personalities involved in the drama that had just been completed (Chapter 5).
- After a celebration of the Lord as the effectual power in all good that happens to Israel (2-5) Deborah sang of individuals used in conquest (6-12). Then she sang of the tribes of Israel, some who did not participate in the battle and of those that did (e.g. “Zebulun is a people who risked their lives to the death; Naphtali, too, on the heights of the field” (18).
- The work of Jael is celebrated in verse 24-27 (“He asked water and she gave him milk . . . she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.”)
- Then the poem/song closed with an intriguing glance at how Sisera’s mother may have been thinking when he did not come back home as she expected (28-30). At first fearful (28), she then tries to gain confidence by contemplating that the victory of Sisera was so overwhelming that his delay is only because of the amount of booty he and his army are gathering—“A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed material for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered.”
- On the contrary, however, he has been utterly defeated, and has himself fallen at the hands of a woman while in his sleep. “So may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might” (31)
- Not with the sword of steel, but on wings of truth, perfect justice, and infinite condescension, the final enemy has been destroyed and the rebellious people redeemed: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14, 15).