Deborah: Encouraging Faith

| Judges 4:1-9; 5:1-5 | June 2, 2019

Week of June 9, 2019

The Point:  Use your influence for God’s kingdom and for His honor.

Deborah and Barak:  Judges 4:1-9.

[1] And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died. [2] And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. [3] Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years. [4] Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. [5] She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. [6] She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. [7] And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” [8] Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” [9] And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. [ESV]

“The Teaching of the Story. The Need for Salvation. Judges 4 is also a story of salvation, and verses 1-3 underscore the need for salvation: the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. So Yahweh sold them to another master, Jabin, and Jabin assigned them to his taskmaster, Sisera, who, with his force of 900 iron-plated chariots, oppressed or controlled Israel very efficiently.  Israel is, again, in need of both physical deliverance (from Jabin and Sisera) and spiritual deliverance (the bondage-to-sin theme). Note this cycle of sinning: again did what was evil. It tells us something about sin. It is difficult to be creative in sin; there’s a certain monotony about it; most all of it has been done before; it is simply that we do the same thing again. Sin is a boring routine, not a fresh excitement. The fast lane becomes an old rut. Evil never lends itself to originality. Hence there are two problems: the slavery and staleness of sin. These verses allude to the pressurized piety of Israel. After Ehud died – it was then Israel again did what was evil. This is a sample of what 2:19 was talking about. Take away the external restraint and Israel displays her true character. There is something wrong with religion when its degree of fidelity depends solely on outside pressures, influences, and leadership. Then we are ‘Christian’ only because of our surroundings, or because of the expectations of Christian people around us, and lack a genuine, internal work of God. Take away whatever influence Ehud must have exerted, and Israel shows her real colors again. That’s why genuine salvation consists not of giving glowing testimonies but in departing from evil [2 Tim. 2:19], not in relating glorious experiences with God but in living a consistent life [1 John 2:3-5; 3:9]. The Source of Salvation. Throughout the story one finds great emphasis on the source of salvation. Deborah clearly states this in her call to Barak in verses 6-7: Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men … I will draw out Sisera … I will give him into your hand. When Deborah orders the attack, she assures Barak that this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you? [14]. The writer himself ascribes the decisive action to Yahweh, both in verse 15 (the Lord routed Sisera) and in verse 23 (So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan). This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes [Ps. 118:23]. We would do well to look at verse 14 again, in order to see how the saving God is described. Deborah’s words in verse 14a may well be the hinge of the chapter. Note she assures Barak with a rhetorical question: Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you. She is depicting Yahweh as the warrior who fights for His people. Though Yahweh is clearly the source of salvation, He frequently uses means to bring it about. Do we have any light on how Yahweh defeated Sisera? Why did Sisera abandon his chariot and hoof it from the battle [15]? We have a clue when verse 15 says, the Lord routed Sisera, for the verb translated routed sometimes describes situations in which God brings a thunderstorm [Joshua 10:10-11; 1 Sam. 7:10; Pss. 18:14; 144:6]. That’s why the Wadi Kishon [7,13] is so significant. We can see the matter more clearly if we cheat and run to chapter 5 for a moment, for it indicates that there was a rainstorm [5:4,20] and that the Kishon swelled, overflowed, and flooded the area [5:21], so that Sisera’s chariots became mired in the muck and mud. Hence all Sisera’s tactical advantage went down the drain as Barak’s infantry charged down from Mount Tabor. Knowing how the Lord delivered His people does not diminish in the least the fact that it was the Lord who delivered them. If anything, we marvel all the more as we ponder the precise timing of God in making the clouds His chariot [Ps. 104:3]. Again, though Yahweh is the source of salvation, He frequently uses human instruments to bring His saving help – but in such a way that the instrument reveals rather than obscures Yahweh as the giver of salvation. Deborah teaches this in verse 9 when she discloses to Barak that the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. This prophecy of verse 9 is given beforehand. Hence no one could say, ‘It just happened to turn out that way.’ No, before the event, Yahweh through Deborah clearly declares that Sisera will meet his end by means of a most unusual agent. So then, when it occurs, there can be no doubt that it is God’s doing. Moreover, the normal expectation would be that Barak (or perhaps some other outstanding warrior) would bag Sisera as his prize. That Sisera will fall by a woman’s hand shatters our human conventions and breaks all the commandments about the way things should happen. By this unexpected and strange twist, Yahweh leaves His mark upon the occasion and testifies that what we have here is not any run-of-the-mill (human) situation. As He displays His glory in delivering His people, God takes pains to keep anyone from obscuring that glory. No warrior in Israel must place the Warrior of Israel in the shadows. It is Yahweh who brings victory and we should not care which human instrument seems to shine the most therein. Let us look at the minutiae of salvation in verse 11. Who on earth cares about these details? So some unknown metalworker pulls up stakes and moves north. So what? Here is a mere puny detail, a dry insertion into an otherwise interesting story. Yet verse 11, dry as it seems, points to the providence of God. According to 1:16, the Kenites settled in the south of Judah’s southern territory. Heber separated from this group and moved north to Kedesh. Certainly, it appears to be nothing but a piece of geographical trivia to have Heber’s change of address inserted into the story. Nevertheless, we will soon discover that Jael, the woman who nailed Sisera, was Heber’s wife and that she was precisely where she needed to be when Israel’s oppressor ditched his chariot and ran for his life. The God of the Bible still injects those marvelous bits of providential minutiae into the lives of His people. In what a wonderful manner God prepares for our deliverance! Many Christians can see this as they look back and reflect on God’s ways with them. There has been some little piece of divine trivia, something that seemed at the time wholly unrelated to anything, something that even escaped human notice because it was so miniscule – yet it turned out to be the vehicle of God’s saving help. The Problem of Salvation. Lastly, let us consider the problem of salvation in verses 17-22. Salvation a problem? Yes, for some people who read this narrative. Some folks are bothered that the saving of Israel comes through the treachery of Jael [18-19]. Sisera came into Heber’s camp because a treaty bound Jabin and Heber. Therefore Sisera expected asylum here, and Jael’s demeanor – invitation, solicitude, provision [18-19] – confirmed his expectations. He never knew otherwise, for, while his exhaustion plunged him into deep sleep, Jael drove a peg into his temple. Literally, a smashing salvation! But some are loath to own it. Sometimes these dilemmas can be solved by remembering that we must distinguish between what the Bible reports and what it recommends, between what the Bible says and what the Bible supports. For example, the Bible may report that David had multiple wives [2 Sam. 3:2-5], but it does not thereby recommend or authorize you to do likewise. Hence, in Jael’s case, it could be that the Bible does not specifically approve of Jael’s act. The problem is that the Bible does seem to approve Jael’s act. If we castigate Jael’s blow we shall have to censor Deborah’s song as well, for Deborah commends Jael [5:24-27] and condemns the town of Meroz [5:23] for doing nothing. This estimate does not seem to be merely Deborah’s private opinion, for Meroz is cursed by the authority of angel of the Lord. So it seems that the Bible itself is pro-Jael. Frankly, that does not bother me at all. Sisera, who severely oppressed Israel and probably enjoyed raping captive Israelite girls [5:30], was not exactly Mr. Clean. Nor should this narrative bother you. But if it does, put the problem on the back burner for a while, for the story does not intend to raise a moral problem but to rehearse Yahweh’s salvation. Perhaps we can’t eliminate all the problems, but that shouldn’t keep us from rejoicing in a God who lifts us out of the mud and mire, sets our feet on a rock, and puts a new song in our mouths. Let God worry about the mud and the mire; let us sing the new song!” [Davis, pp. 69-79].

“Teaching the Text. The most important thing to recognize in this passage is the hierarchy of characters. God rules alone at the top with His own plan and its execution. All the other human characters are on the same terrestrial level, far below the Lord. Each of them participates in some small way – Deborah with commissioning and prophesying, Barak with pursuing the enemy army, and Jael with dispatching Sisera – but none actually causes the outcome. This principle is always true in life. God’s people each have unique positions to play in God’s game plan, and the goal is not to win as individuals but to give glory to God. God, of course, does not “need” our participation, but He desires to meet our deepest needs through our participation. Our participation in God’s program, however, requires faith. Barak’s faith is certainly present [Heb. 11:32], but it seems feeble. Apparently, God’s command and promise are not sufficient grounds to proceed, and Barak needs more assurances for whatever reason. So he makes a “deal” with Deborah, and contrary to expectation [4:9], she agrees to accompany him. After his own terms are met, Barak agrees to obey God. The tragedy of this scenario is that God apparently has blessings in store for Barak but distributes them elsewhere (to Jael) because Barak seemingly lacks faith. So also, the extent to which Christians can enjoy God’s unlimited gifts may be related to their measure of trust [see James 1:6-8]. Jael, on the other hand, displays no inhibitions. She is providentially presented with an opportunity, and she decisively acts. She seemingly has much to lose and little to gain by killing Jabin’s general. Her marginalized social status (by ethnicity and gender) and her husband’s friendly relationship with Jabin, as well as the prospect of reward for protecting this fugitive, are all strong deterrents, yet she opts – for whatever reason – to risk everything by grasping the mallet. Thus, in contrast to Barak, Jael is honored as the most blessed of women [5:24]. Now, before one presumes that the point is to “be like Jael and not like Barak,” it must be noted that Jael’s faith in God is never explicitly mentioned in the text. She is blessed and Barak is bereft to the extent that each is receptive to God’s agenda. The point is that God’s work and word must come first in our lives. We must seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you [Matt. 6:33].” [Way, loc. 1481-1493].

Song of Deborah and Barak:  Judges 5:1-5.

[1] Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day: [2] “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the LORD! [3] “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the LORD I will sing; I will make melody to the LORD, the God of Israel. [4] “LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water. [5] The mountains quaked before the LORD, even Sinai before the LORD, the God of Israel.  [ESV]

“The New Song [Judges 5]. Judges 5 is a victory celebration. Deborah sings a new song to celebrate a fresh deliverance; here Israel revels in Yahweh’s triumph over Sisera and his hordes. The Coming of Yahweh. First, Deborah gives us a lively view of the coming of Yahweh [4-5]. It is difficult to know whether Yahweh’s going forth from Seir and marching from Edom refer to His contemporary coming to the conflict with Sisera or whether the reference is to His ancient coming to His people in Egypt and His meeting with them at Sinai. In any case, there is a clear hint of Yahweh’s delivering Israel from Egypt and preserving them in the desert when Deborah refers to Sinai. There, at Sinai, Yahweh had taken Israel as His own [Ex. 19]; there He came and met with them; there He had placed them under His law at liberty. But Yahweh – and this is Deborah’s point – is not stuck at Sinai. Rather, the God who decisively came to Israel at Sinai comes again and again to the aid of His people in their present troubles. The God who delivered them at the Sea of Reeds [Ex. 14] can rescue at the waters of Megiddo [5:19]; the God who came to Mount Sinai [Ex. 19-24] comes to Mount Tabor as well [4:14-15]. Yahweh is not set in historical concrete at Sinai; rather the God at Sinai is mobile, marching forth again and again to rescue His flock. And when He does, creation comes unglued! Earth trembles, clouds pour rain, mountains shake. See Psalm 18:7-19 in context for another sample of this explosive God. Our poem sets the hopeless plight of Israel beside this lively view of Yahweh [6-8]. Israel was totally defenseless, having neither warriors nor weapons. Sometimes it is only when God’s people see how hopeless they are that they can appreciate how mighty Yahweh is. Desperate people and sufficient God are placed side by side that the former might rest in the latter. Surely God’s afflicted people should derive great comfort from knowing that the God who came to Sinai is the God who comes repeatedly to His people in distress. Omnipotence delights in encores. The People of Yahweh. In verses 11d-23 the whole focus is on the people of Yahweh. As the structure shows, the primary contrast appears in verses 14-18, with glimpses of those tribes who gambled their lives surrounding the scorn directed at tribes who played it safe. Hence we hear high commendation [14-15a,18]. With such grateful admiration, however, we meet perplexed disappointment [15b-17]. It wasn’t that Reuben didn’t think about coming to Tabor. No, the Reubenites discussed the matter thoroughly; they talked a lot about it. But it wasn’t a good time to leave the sheep. Perhaps the Jordan was more of a barrier than east Manasseh (Gilead) even realized; in any case, they didn’t cross it. Dan and Asher evidently were preoccupied with profitable maritime trade. Then there was Meroz [23]. Israel heaped a bitter curse rather then mere scorn on Meroz, because they did not come to the help of the Lord. The Angel of Yahweh Himself authorized the curse. No one knows where Meroz was located, though it must have been so near the battle scene that Israel had every right to expect aid from them. Note the theology of the text. Though Israel’s deliverance is Yahweh’s sovereign and mighty work, His people are not to sit passively by: they are to participate actively in His mighty work, to come to the help of Yahweh against the mighty ones. It speaks ill of us when we are satisfied to rest secure while our brothers and sisters are struggling and suffering. It reveals a heart unbound by the bonds of brotherly love. The Servant of Yahweh. Thirdly, we hear Deborah lauding the servant of Yahweh in verses 24-27 and mocking the mother of Sisera in verses 28-30. The whole section is a tale of two women, a study in contrast. The picture of Sisera’s mother is simply dripping with holy sarcasm. Here she is, peering anxiously through the upstairs window, squinting into the distance, demanding in suppressed fear the reason for Sisera’s delay. Why hadn’t she heard the clatter of his chariot horses yet? Where is her boy? The suave princesses who attend Sisera’s mother reassure her: You know it takes time to divide up all the spoil; and they’ll likely rape some girls; and think of how many lovely additions to your wardrobe Sisera will be collecting! The primary attention, however, goes not to the mother of the oppressor but to the servant of the Lord, Jael [24-27]. Meroz is cursed but Jael is blessed, because she did come to the help of Yahweh. Most of this section is a detailed, slow-motion, blow-by-blow rehearsal of Sisera’s Waterloo. Note how Deborah itemizes every particular of Sisera’s demise, heaps up vicious verbs in relating Jael’s blows, and replays the last scene between her feet [27]. Remember, this is a song to Yahweh celebrating His saving help. Here Israel is delighting in and relishing that salvation, the overthrow of the tyrant Sisera. Yahweh’s deliverance is meant to be enjoyed, savored, cherished; item by item, detail by detail, blow by blow. The Kingdom of Yahweh. The final note of Deborah’s song speaks of the kingdom of Yahweh [31]. Here we have both a prayer and a call. The first line is a prayer. Deborah and Israel saw Yahweh’s overthrowing Sisera and his army as a foretaste, a preview, a scale model of what Yahweh will do when He finally conquers all His enemies. As Yahweh has caused Sisera and the Canaanites to perish, so may He cause all His enemies to perish. Yet this kingdom word is a call, a call to fickle Israel to love Yahweh and find strength in Him. To love Yahweh was Israel’s first covenant responsibility. The first commandment for Israel was ‘no other gods.’ So when Deborah sings of those who are friends of Yahweh, Israel should be pricked to the heart and ask herself, Have I loved Yahweh? Will I love Yahweh? Must I not love Yahweh? For, if I do not, will I not then belong among His enemies and stand outside His kingdom?” [Davis, pp. 81-89].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why did Israel again do what was evil in the Lord’s sight? How does Sisera being killed by a woman display God’s salvation? How does God, in His providence, provide for Israel’s deliverance and Sisera’s death? Why did God take away His blessing from Barak and give it to Jael? What do we learn from this?
  2. How is Yahweh described as coming to the aid of His people? How are the people of Israel described in dealing with the foreign problem? How is Jael described in her victory? Why does Deborah go into such detail in her victory song? How are Deborah’s last words in this hymn both a prayer to Yahweh and a call to Israel?
  3. Davis emphasizes the “providential minutiae” in his description of the events of this story. Think about God’s providential minutiae in your life, especially in the events surrounding your salvation. Thank God for His “attention to detail” in all the seemingly inconsequential events in your life.

References:

Judges, Daniel Block, NAC, B & H Publishers.

Judges, Dale Ralph Davis, Christian Focus.

Judges and Ruth, Kenneth Way, Baker (ebook).