A Spiral of Disobedience


A context of warnings from Moses and Joshua is built on the reality of and depth of human sinfulness. It takes into account also the comparative shallowness of our perceptions of sin and our tendency to rebel. Humanity in general, including many Christians, show a naivety about the pervasive and captivating power of our subjection to the world, the flesh, and the prince of the power of the air that occurred when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and pulled their posterity along with them into spiritual death under divine wrath.

A. Deuteronomy 6 and 29 give sobering warnings communicating the real danger of unmerited blessing giving way to merited wrath. All the good they had was of the Lord who brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 20:1-3; Deuteronomy 6:14ff). Their election, their subjection to slavery, their rescue, their conquest of the land, their happy settlement, their apostasy, cycles of divine abandonment and restoring mercies—all of these flow from the wisdom of a God who glorifies himself in the redemption of his people. How all the permutations contribute to the highest manifestation of that purpose is beyond the farthest reaches of our perceptive and cognitive abilities. None of it, however, ever diminishes the plain duty of the creature’s obedience to divine command. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

B. Deuteronomy 31:5-8 indicates that completing the task assigned by God to rid the land of all idols and their devotees required courage and perseverance. So the Lord told Joshua (Joshua 1:7) and so the officers of the two and one-half tribes east of the Jordan reiterated (Joshua 1:18).

C. Joshua 24:19, 20 gave the warning of their tendency to fickleness. No half-hearted devotion to the Lord and his commandments would suffice for completion of the task to which he commanded them.


I. Judges 1:27-36 — Narrative of failure to remain courageous

A. After having completely routed the inhabitants of certain key cities in each territory to be inhabited by the respective tribes, they were to continue the conquest to rid the land entirely of the remaining pockets of idolators. The promise of God’s presence and the assurance of victory continued but would operate in conjunction with the faithful courage of the Israelites to complete the task.

B. Weary of war, they did not continue and thus forfeited the presence of God accompanying them. They earned, therefore, the opposition of God as Joshua had promised. The writer narrated the failure of the people to persist and they “could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain” (1:19). They became fearful of the “chariots of iron” and so, apparently made no attempt to engage the fight with them. The people of Benjamin “did not drive out the Jebusites. Manasseh “did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean:” further, Ephraim “did not drive out the Cannaanites;” “Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron . . . so the Canaanites lived among them.” So it was with most if not all of the tribes. This stoppage at partial obedience set the stage for the cycle of apostasy, restoration, and more severe decline and suggests the need for a godly king who will unite all the tribes in faithfulness to their covenant relationship with God.

C. These events must be seen in light of the Bible’s movement toward two realities.

  1. It serves as part of the preparation for the true and perfect King, the Lord Jesus Christ. We have a vignette of Ruth in the next book that introduces us to the lineage of David and consequently to the lineage of Jesus the Christ.
  2. It may be individualized as a motivation for each Christian to recognize how quickly spiritual decline can affect his or her devotion to Christ and help us set a guard against it. In addition, in this battle for sanctification we are reminded of our absolute dependence on God, but a dependence that necessarily involves courage, discernment, and unrelenting mortification of the flesh and constant battle against all other enemies of personal holiness (Ephesians 6:10-18). God will energize every good purpose of ours toward his revealed will for our sanctification. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12, 13).


II. Chapter 2:1-11 — Their choice of present comfort over continuing battle against their deadly enemies results in a judgment from the “Angel of the Lord” and set the stage for unfaithfulness in future generations.

A. Verses1-3 – The Angel of the Lord reminded them of their covenant relation with God and that they had not done as instructed. God himself had initiated the covenant, a covenant that he would never break. This was seen to be immutably true in bringing Jesus into the world as a child of Abraham, a descendant of David, the Son of God, even the Angel of the Lord who is speaking in this very passage. “I brought you up,” he said; “I will never break my covenant;” “you have not obeyed My voice.”

B. They had not completed their obedience to the commandment. The Angel asked, “What is this that you have done?” Their willingness to settle in the land with idolators, and their taking lightly the serious commandment of the Lord, brought him to say, “I will not drive them out before you.” He would strengthen and give success to every movement and expenditure of energy in pursuit of obedience. They would have found that even iron chariots could not defeat them. When their courage waned, however, and their pursuit of thorough obedience ceased, the Lord’s accompanying their efforts with success also ceased. Now they would live with the task unfinished and the presence of pagan gods who surely “shall be a snare to you.”

C. Verses 4, 5 – As in the case of Kadesh-Barnea, the people now lamented and wept. Future generations, however, would suffer; tears of regret are not always tears of repentance.

D. Eventually Joshua died and the elders who had served with him also died. In spite of the presence of those who should have been exterminated, their knowledge of the ways of God remained fresh and their remembrance of his actions on their behalf remained sharp; their resolve not to worship those other gods was firm for their entire generation.

E. Subsequent to their death, however, the next generation fell. They had grown up in a pluralistic setting and had observed the flesh-pleasing worship of the pagans who lived in their territories. That which the Angel had said would begin to occur: “Their gods shall be a snare to you.”


III. Verses 11-13 — Summary of the effect that the perverse gods of Baal and Ashtaroth had on the people.

A. It is a grand irony that they served the Baals “in the sight of the Lord.” The Baals have no eyes to see, but the Lord sees all things. They serve blind gods who have blinded them to the glory of the one true God. This is the consummate example of the blind leading the blind (Luke 6:39).

B. Another ironical observation is this. The Baals and the Ashtaroth who could do nothing were embraced instead of the Lord who had “brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Already the Lord had defeated all the gods of the Egyptians, they could do nothing before his power, for they were indeed nothing. Had Ashtaroth and Baal done anything at all? Had the heaven and the earth come into being at their call; had a river turned to blood at their rebuke; did they ever inflict or heal leprosy? No, these gods were only extensions of human perversity and could do nothing other than cause sinners to excuse themselves in their corruption.

C. A third irony is that these gods were “from among the gods” of the people around them. It seems that they did not demand exclusive worship as did Yahweh: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” As for all others, “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind” (Isaiah 41:29).


IV. Verses 14, 15 — Summary of the various failures of Israel to remain faithful and the consequent judgments of God against them. God’s anger was demonstrated in several ways without completely destroying them.

A. Plunderers raided and took their possessions and destroyed their houses and their implements, and stole their livestock.

B. They were brought to weakness so that they could not withstand the enemies who opposed them, often whom they themselves had left in the land in violation of the command of God. Often they fought among themselves (12:1-6; 20:1-11).

C. When they did seek to defend themselves, they found that instead of giving them success as in the past, “the hand of the Lord was against them for harm.”


V. Verses 16-19 – Summary of the work of the judges with the alternating operations of mercy and wrath.

A. In times of such great distress, the Lord would preserve the nation, for his covenant with them would not fail. He was moved with pity for them in light of their great afflictions. He would not let the entire nation perish. Periodically, therefore, he would raise up judges to rescue them and restore a sense of his presence, holiness, and goodness for periods.

B. When the judge died, however, the people resumed their rebellion and declined in a downward spiral of more severe corruption. Though they were preserved externally their hearts were not rescued from stubbornness and intrinsic disaffection from the commands of God.

C. Often the judge who delivered a specific tribe from the dominance of a foe, would act in an ungodly way himself and accelerate the decline (e.g. Gideon in 8:27, 30).


VI. Connecting Judges to Biblical theology

A. The covenantal aspect of God’s working for redemption is powerful in his preserving of these unfaithful people in order to build the historical context in which the Messiah would come and his mission would be interpreted.

B. The human heart is hard and even with the clearest and most powerful external evidences of the truthfulness of the Lord’s revelation, true faith will not come apart from an effectual and irresistible work of the Holy Spirit (John 6:60-65; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-14).

C. Accomplishments of sanctification even for true believers compared to those of the New Testament were diminished in light of the partial nature of written revelation and the absence of a pure human example of righteousness (Jesus).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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