Preaching the Chapters in Judges That Have No Judges

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

When you arrive at Judges 17 you encounter a lengthy narrative that has no judge. What it contains is a mixture of spirituality and idolatry. Like oil and water, the two don’t mix. But, evidently, mixing the two is very tempting.

A recent example were the defeat speeches of both presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, and her running mate, Timothy Kaine. I was surprised that both speeches contained quotes from the Bible.

Ancient examples are found in Judges 17-18 and the personal story revolving around Micah, his mom, his idols, and their priest.

A theological, interpretative key can be found in 17:6 (also 18:1) “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s the general problem. The specific problem must be identified from the narrative. The specific problem in this case is the religious confusion, the mixture of the spiritual and the idolatrous.

How’s this for a strange mixture: “his mother said, ‘I dedicate the silver to the Lord…to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3). Those idols end up in Micah’s house. And Micah is very interested in spiritual things, like having a priest (vv. 7-13). The chapter ends with Micah stating, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.”

One way to preach the theology of these chapters is to point out the other ways in which key characters create their own brand of worship. Davis asks, “Does this not parallel the contemporary mood…that worship is…a very individual affair, a matter of sheer personal preference, and like your toothbrush–a very personal thing?”

You’ll find more of the same in chapter 18 when Micah’s priest gets kidnapped and more idols are highlighted.

These chapters provide an opportunity for us to challenge each other to make sure we check our tendency to worship God and coddle our idols. And you’ll have to spend time, of course, on the remedy found in 17:6 and 18:1, our need for a King and what it is about King Jesus that creates a people who do what’s right in God’s eyes, instead of their own.

I hope this helps you make sense of a couple of difficult chapters in Judges. Preach them well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

One Last Angle on Preaching the Samson Narrative

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In my series on Judges, The Salvation of Stubborn Hearts, I titled my final message on the Samson narrative: Samson, the Judge Who Shows Us Our Spiritual Struggles.

Webb describes Samson as “a testosterone-charged male behaving badly.” You can see that in the repetition of key phrases and also from Samson’s un-judgelike actions in these chapters.

First, look at the repetition in 14:3, 7 “right in my eyes,” a phrase that will become very important at the end of Judges. This is not good.

Second, look at the repetition of “their god…our god…their god…our god” found in the victory celebration of Israel’s enemies (cf. 16:23-24).

Then, the entire section is filled with un-judgelike actions. For a long time we see no evidence of Samson fulfilling his duties as a judge who would deliver Israel from the Philistines. Webb says, “He has wined and dined with the Philistines and tried to intermarry with them instead of ridding Israel of their rule.”

And, then, there’s all this playfulness in chapter 14 between Samson, his first wife, and the men of the city.

And what about Samson’s tryst with a “prostitute” in 16:1 or loving Delilah in 16:4.

All that tells us he forgot the fight. All that functions like a mirror so we can look at ourselves and make sure we’re not like Samson.

Thankfully, the Samson narrative also shows us our God will not allow Samson’s foolishness, stubbornness, or rebellion to thwart His plan for delivering His people (see previous post).

Samson, the Nazarite, broke his vows. Israel, of course, also a holy people, followed suit. But not our Savior, the Holy One of God (cf. Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). And, by faith in Him, we continue to experience cleansing and sanctification from our own stubbornness.

I hope these last few posts have helped you make sense of how the lengthy Samson narrative functions for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Preach well!

Randal

Preaching the Unique Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Samson

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the preaching the unique circumstances of Samson’s birth. This week I’m focusing on the end of his life. The Samson narrative in Judges is very important to the theology of the book. When I preached through the book of Judges I chose to devote two messages to his life.

If you read the first Samson narrative post, you saw the parallels between Samson’s birth and Jesus’ birth (both involving prenatal instructions about the unique children). When you come to the end of Samson’s life, more parallels exist and this is a critical observation for the Christ-centered expositor.

For instance, Webb writes,

“rejected by his own people, arrested and handed over to their enemies, tortured and made a spectacle…until at last his calling is consummated in his death. But in dying he destroys Dagon, the god of Israel’s enemies.”

Amazing isn’t it.

What I like about that quote is not just the listing of all the parallels, but the fact that everything focuses on the plot of Judges: how God rescues His people from their enemies.

Several weeks ago while teaching for a day in Lancaster Bible College/Capital Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, I selected a narrative from Judges (the infamous, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow). I asked the class to identify the subject of the narrative. Then, I pointed out the tendency to overlook the primary action of the book and individual judge narratives.

What do we learn about our salvation from the death of Samson? That’s the focus of theological interpretation. And the answer? Our salvation was secured through the death of our Judge Jesus. Judges 13:7 states, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.” And it was Samson’s and Jesus’ death that won the victory for the people of God.

Next time, I’ll list some of the ways Samson shows us our spiritual struggles. He does function as an exemplar at times, but most importantly, Samson shows us a picture of our Savior’s victory-through-death.

Preach that message so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching the Unique Circumstances Surrounding Samson’s Birth

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One of the highlights of preaching through the book of Judges is reaching the Samson narrative.

[If you haven’t seen Sight & Sound’s production of Samson, you would enjoy it thoroughly. Their imaginative exposition is always insightful.]

Two things are unique about the Samson birth narrative:

(1) God’s people are incapacitated. Judges 13:2 says, “And his wife was barren and had no children.” There was no courageous judge on the horizon. God’s plan for redeeming His world often included couples who could not conceive children. Think of these famous names: Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. In his excellent little commentary, Davis writes,

“hopelessness…where there is no human energy or ability to serve as a starter.”

Samson is going to be a miracle baby. God would miraculously place him on history’s stage and use him to deliver His people from the Philistines. Our situation is so dire that we can never achieve deliverance in our own strength and ability.

(2) God demanded a special (read, holy) judge. Verses 4-7, 12-14, and 24-25 record instructions delivered to Samson’s mother about what she was to eat and drink during her pregnancy. All because Samson would “be a Nazarite to God from the womb” (v. 5). Those instructions are restated three times in the chapter to signal their importance.

Added to the miracle is a strong dose of holiness. The savior of God’s people would be set apart to God throughout his life, “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death” (v. 7).

This is the kind of savior God sent for His people; this is the kind of Savior, of course, that He ultimately provided in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise that when the angel arrives in another nativity scene such as Luke’s gospel, we have similar circumstances.

These prenatal instructions guide our worship. We don’t encourage, “Be like Samson,” or “Don’t be like Samson” in these early scenes. Maybe later in the chapter. For now it’s simply telling God how much we love Him for rescuing us from our tendency to leave Him for other loves.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21),

Randal

Preaching the Highly-Offensive Jephthah Narrative

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Our God revealed in Scripture could very easily be credited with this quote. If you’ve read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, then you know there is plenty of God’s Word that is offensive to our modern and post-modern sensibilities. That is especially true in the Judges 10 and 11 narrative often referred to as, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow.

You probably know the gist of the story: Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him a military victory over the Ammonites, then he would give as a burnt offering whatever (whomever?) comes out of his front door to greet him upon his return from battle (cf. 11:30-31).

Horror of horrors, we discover in v. 34 that Jephthah’s only daughter is the one that comes out to greet him!

In the middle of expressing to her the great trouble that is happening he says, “…and I cannot take back my vow” (v. 35).

I remember screaming at Jeph’: “What do you mean you can’t take back your vow?!?! Of course you can and you should!!!!” And because he didn’t take back his vow, we receive one of the most offensive looks at the extreme cost of our salvation.

And that angle is very important if you are going to preach this narrative beyond the moralizing that goes something like: “Christians are careful about making rash vows to the Lord unless they cause tremendous heartache…”

Along with being careful whenever we make deals with God, this narrative is an opportunity for us all to express our gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice of God’s only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The parallels in the story are telling: Jephthah is a picture of…

  • our despised and rejected Savior (vv. 10:17–11:11)
  • our Savior who wins the victory for us (vv. 11:12-29)
  • the extreme cost of that victory (vv. 11:30-40 and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s only child).

It doesn’t solve all the problems of the offensive narrative, but maybe this angle will help you help your listeners give thanks for God’s costly free gift.

Preach well for the sake of His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching the Ugly Pictures of Human Nature in Judges

Studio portrait of mid adult woman looking into broken mirror --- Image by © Harry Vorsteher/Corbis

The picture of God’s people in the book of Judges is not pretty. For instance, in Judges 8:1, 4-6, and 8 there are three examples of insubordination. One commentator, Block, says “Even in victory Israel remains her own worst enemy.”

And often, even Israel’s best leaders, like Gideon, paint an ugly picture of our spiritual condition. Friction abounds in these stories and Gideon often flies of the handle, as they say (whoever “they” are?).

So, if and when you preach on Judges, be prepared to show your flock how difficult it is for God’s people to experience peace among themselves. Both leaders and laity have to work hard at being Spirit-controlled so the work of God can flourish among them.

In the case of the latter part of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 self-centeredness and rage are on display. It’s not a pretty sight. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gideon pulls the stunt recorded in 8:27 “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city….And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare…”

Well, you’d think God would fiercely judge them all for this. But instead, we read of His grace in 8:28 “…And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.”

I don’t understand this, but I’m sure glad God is patient with us. I am so thankful He gives us victories in the midst of our spiritual ineptness.

Anyway, be prepared to get some pretty nasty-looking looks of our condition in the Judges, but also of God’s grace. And preach it all so He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Gideon Vs. Midian As A Paradigm For Salvation

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If and when you preach through Judges, you will discover that God spent a lot of biblical real estate on the Gideon narrative. God gives tons of detail on Gideon versus Midian, probably because that contest functions as a paradigm for our salvation. Gideon is a highly unlikely military leader; his victory over the Midianites was a highly unlikely victory. That’s the point.

You’re familiar with how unsure Gideon was about God’s plan and how he asked God more than once to confirm the plan with a miracle (“the fleece”). Where’s his faith anyway?! It’s comforting to see how God did not chastise Gideon for his doubts. No lecturing; just confirming. Of course, Gideon’s example is not instruction for us to “go and do likewise.”

But the key to the narrative and its theology is God’s instruction to Gideon to whittle down his army, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” (cf. Judges 7:2). This is one of those examples of how the narrative provides a huge clue to meaning.

And be careful how you explain the Lord’s way of decreasing the size of Gideon’s army. God doesn’t tell us why the “lappers” are chosen, but not the “kneelers.” Whatever God’s reason, His intention was to take away any cause for Israel to boast in their strength. So contrary to many preachers’ explanations, the 300 who are selected are a sign of weakness, not strength. Plus, note that they take “trumpets” (v. 8, 22), not spears or bows. The soldiers were turned into fierce instrumentalists!

But God gives His people the victory over the Midianites. And it’s a great reminder of the fact that our salvation is all of God and none of us. We have a strong Savior who continually delivers us from overpowering forces that threaten to undue us. He graciously saves and sanctifies us. He does it all by Himself so we can only boast in the cross of Christ.

Preach well for sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Pay Close Attention to Beginnings and Endings (part 5 in Preaching Through Books of the Bible)

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In the first post in this series on preaching through books of the Bible, I talked about the importance of selecting a theme for the series. For my current Judges series I chose: The Salvation of Stubborn Hearts. Wenham writes, “By trying to establish the main thrust of the book, we hope we have established parameters within which individual stories should be interpreted.” (Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah, p. 43).

So, each of the narratives describing the individual exploits of the judges are interpreted within the framework of Judge’s theme (providing I’ve identified it accurately!).

Does the book provide any clues? As I’ve mentioned before in posts concerning preaching through Daniel, it’s important to note how books begin and end.

In Judges 1:1-2 we read, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” Then, near the end of the book in 20:18 we read, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?” Same question, but notice a very difficult foe at the end. And same answer both times: Judah (anyone with Christological antennas should pick up on this!).

So, in a story about God’s salvation of stubborn hearts, this will involve God raising up deliverers who will keep God’s people from being enslaved to the idols and inhabitants of the land.

Of course, everything gets worse as the story develops. Instead of fighting the enemies, God’s people end up fighting themselves. Unity gives way to civil war that threatens to destroy God’s work.

Anyway, if you ever decide to preach through an Old or New Testament narrative, pay close attention to how the book begins and ends. Often those segments provide clues to a books intention and meaning.

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Evaluate Your Critical First Hour Of Study Each Monday Morning

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Last week I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon conducting a preaching workshop at Lancaster Bible College. I am also currently teaching some keen students at LBC/Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Lancaster, PA and Greenbelt, MD. My interaction confirmed that one Bible study exercise is critical: tracing the argument or flow of thought of the author.

I explained that this is how I spend my first hour of study every Monday morning. Before I try to figure out what a preaching portion means, I want to know how it means what it means. In other words, I spend the first hour show how the author makes meaning through the argument or flow of thought. I begin by asking the Lord, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law,” (Psalms 119:18) and then I dive into the text’s structure. I consider this to be the foundation for exposition.

This involves dividing the preaching portion into its smaller thought blocks, summarizing the meaning of the blocks, and writing out the logical transitions that the author uses to move from one block to the next.

(By the way, if you try this with Luke 15, you will discover that it would be impossible to end the sermon focusing on the younger brother and those prodigals which are usually encouraged to “come home.”)

It is impossible for me to overstate the importance of this first hour for understanding how meaning is made.

Below I’ve included an example of my mornings first hour.

Calvary Bible Church

May 8, 2016 AM

Judges 10:1-16

This is God’s Word.

1.

10 After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah, son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim. 2 And he judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried at Shamir. Post-Abimelech judge #1 is Tola. In matter of fact fashion God records, “…there arose to save Israel…” It is a subtle reminder of our plight as Christians in this world.

3 After him arose Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years. 4 And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities, called Havvoth-jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead. 5 And Jair died and was buried in Kamon. PA judge #2 is Jair. We learn some nice facts about him (“…30…30…30…”).

6 The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the Lord and did not serve him. In v. 6 we learn how many false gods there are to worship! Each region had their own deity. Each deity had the ability to lure God’s people away from God. As a whole God’s people took their affections away from God and they stopped serving Him.

 7 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, 8 and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year. For eighteen years they oppressed all the people of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. 9 And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was severely distressed. In vv. 7-9 we read of the repeated experience of God’s people. Throughout the book of Judges we’ve seen this happen: God’s people commit idolatry, in anger God sells them into the hands of fierce enemies who oppress them, and “Israel was severely distressed.” It teaches us the devastating effect of worshiping false gods.

10 And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” 11 And the Lord said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? 12 The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. 13 Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” We’ve also seen God’s people yell out to their real God to save them again and again. Like before, they make a clean confession: “We have sinned against you…” Let’s make sure we understand this confession. Why do they say they have sinned against the Lord? Where does this understanding come from? Look back at the OT…

But this time our God seems to have lost His patience! Look at vv. 11-14. He sounds very irritated with them! “Did I not save you from….I saved you….I will save you no more. God and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” Wow! We have sayings like: “You made your bed, now go lie in it.” If God sticks to His guns, then His people are doomed. The false gods have enslaved them; they cannot save them.

Has the Lord’s patience run out?!

 15 And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel. In v. 15 God’s people repeat their confession: “We have sinned…” Then they add, “do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” God’s people would rather face the judgment of God than face more oppression from their enemies.

Then, in v. 16 there is an act of genuine repentance: “So they put away the foreign gods…and served the Lord…” Repentance is a critical part of the Christian life…

Then, we learn that the Lord “became impatient over the misery of Israel.” A moment ago I mentioned that it seemed the Lord was becoming impatient with His people. Now we learn that the Lord has had enough of His people suffering at the hand of their enemies. This impatience, however, strikes the Lord after genuine repentance has taken place. If the Lord acts on His impatience over Israel’s misery, that can mean only good things for Israel!

Gospel:

Response:

This helps me see how the author presents theology for the Church. Since theology is conveyed through this narrative, I do not want to break the narrative flow in creating this sermon. Consider making this action in the first hour of study your foundation for Sunday’s exposition.

Preach well.

Randal