Last week we began looking at some of the unlikely heroes in the book of Judges. The book of Judges is full of some very colorful characters and provides some of the most fascinating and bizarre stories in the Bible. If you’re ever read through the book of Judges, you know what I’m talking about. It is one of the most graphic, violent books that you’ll probably ever read. So why in the world are we talking about it in church! Why is it even in the Bible?
Well, the book of Judges is an important historical record for us that shows us exactly what happens when people abandon the Lord. The moral depravity and chaos that comes when each man does what’s right in his own eyes is a shocking and sobering reminder to us all. But at the same time, the book of Judges gives us hope. It show us a God who merciful and kind. It shows us a God who takes pity on the very people who have abandoned and rejected Him. It shows us that we have a God who is mighty to save. So I’d say that’s certainly worth looking at!
We looked last week at the story of Ehud and how, after the Israelites abandoned God and were worshiping idols, God allowed the Moabites to oppress them. Well, that went on for about 18 years until the Israelites finally repented and called out to God. God answered by sending them Ehud. And the Bible describes Ehud as being a ‘left-handed’ man – which could have meant he had an actual physical disability in his right hand or at the very least, being left-handed in that culture was perceived as a weakness. There was something wrong with you. And yet, it was because of this ‘weakness’, that God was able to use Ehud to free His people from the oppression of the fat Moabite King Eglon. And I won’t recap the whole story, but if you missed it, you can find it in Judges chapter 3.
Now you’ll remember that we talked about the cycle of sin in the book of Judges. Israel would sin, God would send an enemy to oppress them, the people would cry out to God, and God would have mercy send them a rescuer (aka a judge) and he would rescue them. However, as soon as that judge died, the people of Israel would go right back to sinning and the cycle would begin again.
And as we can see in Judges chapter 4 – that is exactly what happened after Ehud died. The cycle began all over again. So that’s where we start today – Judges 4, Verse 1.
After Ehud’s death, the Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight. 2 So the Lord turned them over to King Jabin of Hazor, a Canaanite king. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-haggoyim. 3 Sisera, who had 900 iron chariots, ruthlessly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help.
There’s that pattern. Ehud dies and Israel again does evil. So God turns them over to King Jabin and his army commander, Sisera, who oppress Israel for 20 years and then finally, the Israelites cry out to God for help and He again sends them a rescuer. We continue in verse 4:
Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. 5She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment.
Now this is interesting. First of all, do you remember how we defined what a ‘judge’ was in the first place? In the Bible project video that we watched, it said that the judges in the book of Judges were not so much court room judges, but rather regional military leaders. And we certainly saw that with Ehud, but what about Deborah? From these verses, here, it actually seems like she really was a court room judge. She sat under the Palm of Deborah and the Israelites would go to her for judgement. So in fact, she was a judge in both senses of the word. She was a court room judge and, as we’re going to see in a few minutes, she would also become to some degree, a regional military leader.
The other interesting thing here is that Deborah was also a prophet. Now a prophet is like God’s ambassador. In the Old Testament, God would deliver his messages for people through these prophets. That’s why there are so many passages in the Old Testament that begin with “This is what the Lord says…” and then the prophet goes on to give God’s message. In fact, I did a quick search for that phrase “This is what the Lord says” and I found it 153 times in the Old Testament. So these prophets were one of the primary ways that God communicated to his people. And Deborah was one of those prophets.
And then the final thing to note here is that Deborah was a woman. Here we have a female judge – who also happens to be a female prophet. Now female prophets are not completely unheard of – though they are pretty rare. There are only a handful of them mentioned in the Bible. But being a female judge – that was unusual. Of the 14 judges mentioned in the Bible, Deborah was the one and only female judge.
So with all those little tid-bits of information in mind, let’s go on to verse 6:
One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. 7 And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.”
8 Barak told her, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”
Hold on here a second. I want to re-read that last verse in the NIV because it kinda expands Barak’s response a little bit.
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” Judges 4:8 NIV
Barak has just received a direct command from the Lord. Verse six said “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you.” This wasn’t just Deborah talking – remember she was God’s prophet. This message was from God Himself – Deborah was simply relaying the message. But how does Barak respond? Does He say, “Yes, Lord, whatever you say – I will do…”? No, He doesn’t. He says to Deborah, the one who is simply delivering the message for God, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Now do you suppose that’s the kind of response God is looking for? Not hardly. God is looking for people who will say, “Yes, Lord, I will go.” No conditions. No strings attached. Just plain and simple obedience.
But that’s not how Barak responds. Barak lays out the conditions for his obedience. “I will go only if you go with me.” Not exactly the response that you’d expect from the hero… But hang on a second. Before we condemn Barak for his conditional obedience, perhaps we’d better look at our own lives.
How many times have you and I bartered with God? How many times have we said “Ok God, if you’ll just do THIS for me, then I’ll do this for you? Maybe God lays it on your heart to financially support a certain missionary, so you say, “Well, God if you make my boss give me a raise, THEN I’ll start supporting that missionary.” Or maybe you know that God wants you to share the Gospel with your neighbor so you say “Ok, God, if you get my neighbor bring up the topic of religion, THEN I’ll share my testimony with him. Or maybe you know that God wants you to volunteer in some organization and so you say “Ok God, if they specifically ask me, then I’ll volunteer.”
And we put all these conditions on our obedience to God. That’s not the kind of obedience that God is looking for.
When I was a kid, if my parents asked me to do something, they expected me to do it right now. I remember a phrase that they used – they said “Delayed obedience is disobedience.” That little phrase has stuck with me all these years – “Delayed obedience is disobedience”. And I think the same thing applies for conditional obedience. Conditional obedience is disobedience. When we start putting conditions on whether or not we’re going to obey God – that’s really no different then outright disobedience. We need to be careful to obey God on His terms – not ours.
Because when we don’t, as we’ll see in the case of Barak – we miss out on God’s best for our lives. Have a look at verse 9: Here’s what Deborah says to Barak in response.
“Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.”
And you can hear the rebuke in Deborah’s response. Barak’s conditional obedience cost him the honor of victory. God would still ensure a victory, but the honor of that victory would not go to Barak – but to a woman – which in those days, would be quite humbling for Barak. So instead of being the hero – as He could have been – Barak is going to end up missing out on God’s best.
I can’t help but think of King Saul as we read through this story. King Saul is another guy who completely missed out on God’s best for him because of his disobedience. You can read that whole story for yourself in 1 Samuel 15, but we get the summary in 1 Samuel 15 – verse 22. Samuel says this to King Saul…
“What is more pleasing to the Lord:
your burnt offerings and sacrifices
or your obedience to his voice?
Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice,
and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.
23 Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft,
and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.
So because you have rejected the command of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.”
1 Samuel 15:22-23
It’s a pretty stark reminder for us for how important it is to obey God on his terms. He doesn’t want half-obedience. He doesn’t want delayed obedience. He doesn’t want conditional obedience. He wants a willing obedience.
Because willing obedience is really the evidence of trust. When you really trust somebody, you have no problem willingly obeying them, do you? If Barak had really trusted that God was going to bring him the victory – what reason would he have not to immediately, willing obey God? It’s like the song we sang in the kids feature.
Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.
Doing exactly what the Lord commands – and doing happily.
Action is the key – do it immediately – and joy you will receive.
Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.
Isn’t that so true?! It really is. We obey God because we believe Hm – We trust him. And when we don’t obey God, it’s because we don’t believe Him – we don’t trust Him. It’s a pretty strong lesson from a kids song… So the next time you find yourself disobeying, delaying in obeying, or putting conditions on obeying – ask yourself: Why am I not trusting God in this? What it is that I don’t believe He will do?
And once you’ve figured that out, you can go to the Scriptures and see for yourself that God really is trustworthy.
Barak is about to find that out. So let’s join him and see how it all pans out for him… We continue in verse 9:
So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 At Kedesh, Barak called together the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, and 10,000 warriors went up with him. Deborah also went with him.
11 Now Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Moses’ brother-in-law Hobab, had moved away from the other members of his tribe and pitched his tent by the oak of Zaanannim near Kedesh.
Just to clarify who this Heber the Kenite is, He is not actually an Israelite. You might remember Moses’ Father-in-law, Jethro who was a Midianite. And we’ll hear more about the Midianites a little later on in this series when we look at the story of Gideon. But for now, Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Jethro the Midianite, is a neutral party. He is on friendly terms with the Israelites and, as we’ll see in a moment, he’s also on friendly terms with Sisera & King Jabin. That will all come into play in just a bit. Hang onto that thought for now. Verse 12:
12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 he called for all 900 of his iron chariots and all of his warriors, and they marched from Harosheth-haggoyim to the Kishon River.
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Get ready! This is the day the Lord will give you victory over Sisera, for the Lord is marching ahead of you.” So Barak led his 10,000 warriors down the slopes of Mount Tabor into battle. Judges 4:12-14
Now this really doesn’t make very good military sense. Sisera’s iron chariots are his strength. They gave Sisera a very significant military advantage over the Israelites – especially on the flat, level ground. Those chariots would just mow down anyone who was trying to run away. But they would be much less effective in the mountains. It would make sense for Barak to draw Sisera up to attack on the hillsides where the chariots wouldn’t be such a threat – but instead, God had him lead the troops down the hillside, unto the plain by the Kishon River.
Why would God do that? It doesn’t seem to make sense. And by the way, God often does that. A lot of times when God asks us to do something, what He asks us to do, doesn’t make sense to us. And I’d emphasis those last two words. It doesn’t make sense…. TO US. We can’t see the whole picture. We don’t know what God is doing. But God does. He knows exactly what He’s doing. It all comes back to whether or not we trust Him.
In this case, fighting Sisera and his iron chariots on the open plains by the river made no sense to Barak. But to his credit, this time, Barak trusted God and obeyed. And look what happened…
15 When Barak attacked, the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and warriors into a panic. Sisera leaped down from his chariot and escaped on foot. 16 Then Barak chased the chariots and the enemy army all the way to Harosheth-haggoyim, killing all of Sisera’s warriors. Not a single one was left alive.
Now just to fill in the story a little bit, I want to jump ahead to chapter 5. Judges chapter 5 is known as the Song of Deborah. This is a victory song that they sang after defeating Sisera. And I won’t go through the whole thing, but I just want to point out a couple bits that help us understand what happened on the plains by the river. First of all, look at verse 4&5.
“Lord, when you set out from Seir
and marched across the fields of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the cloudy skies poured down rain.
5 The mountains quaked in the presence of the Lord,
the God of Mount Sinai—
in the presence of the Lord,
the God of Israel.
We here we have the earth trembling, mountains quaking, skies pouring down rain….And then jump down to verse 19.
19 “The kings of Canaan came and fought,
at Taanach near Megiddo’s springs,
but they carried off no silver treasures.
20 The stars fought from heaven.
The stars in their orbits fought against Sisera.
21 The Kishon River swept them away—
that ancient torrent, the Kishon.
March on with courage, my soul!
22 Then the horses’ hooves hammered the ground,
the galloping, galloping of Sisera’s mighty steeds.
Now this is a song, so it’s all pretty poetic language. But you can kinda piece together what probably happened. As Barak and his army swept down from the hills, It sounds like God hammered Sisera with a pretty severe storm – verse 4 talks about how the cloudy skies poured forth rain and the earth trembled and the mountains quaked. Maybe that was a thunderstorm – maybe there was even an earthquake – or maybe a landslide even. It’s hard to say exactly, but in all that, the Kishon River suddenly overflowed its banks.
I think most of us have seen the impact of overflowing rivers… Some of us have been out at camp when the Little Red overflowed and flooded the whole area. We’ve seen what happened in Calgary and southern Alberta in 2013. Now imagine trying to fight a battle in that. Imagine trying to drive your iron chariots in that!
A flash flood would certainly fit with the panic that chapter 4 describes and why Sisera jumps out of his chariot and tries to get away on foot.
With that in mind, in hind-sight, we can see exactly why God told Barak go down and fight Sisera on the plains by the river. That strategy that made no sense at the time, makes perfect sense now, doesn’t it?
And that’s often the case when God tells us to do things that we don’t understand. We may not see how that’s going work out. It might even seem like a foolish idea at the time. But if God’s asking us to do something, we’ve got trust Him and believe that He knows what He’s doing. We may not always be able to look back and see the wisdom of what God’s doing – (sometime that’s something only God sees) – but quite often we can. So many times in my life, God has led us to do things that didn’t really make sense at the time. I couldn’t see how this was going to work out – but time and time again, when I look back, I just marvel at God’s wisdom and his goodness to have led me the way He did.
I don’t know what sort of crazy things God’s asking you to do, but if God’s asking you to do them, you can be absolutely sure that He knows exactly what He’s doing.
And that leads us into the last part of our story. On the battle field, God brings about this great victory. All of the enemy chariots and all the enemy warriors were wiped out. Not a single one was left alive. But what about their commander? What happened to Sisera? Well, here is where we meet yet another unlikely hero of the story. verse 17.
17 Meanwhile, Sisera ran to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because Heber’s family was on friendly terms with King Jabin of Hazor. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come into my tent, sir. Come in. Don’t be afraid.” So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
19 “Please give me some water,” he said. “I’m thirsty.” So she gave him some milk from a leather bag and covered him again.
20 “Stand at the door of the tent,” he told her. “If anybody comes and asks you if there is anyone here, say no.”
21 But when Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion, Jael quietly crept up to him with a hammer and tent peg in her hand. Then she drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and so he died.
22 When Barak came looking for Sisera, Jael went out to meet him. She said, “Come, and I will show you the man you are looking for.” So he followed her into the tent and found Sisera lying there dead, with the tent peg through his temple.
23 So on that day Israel saw God defeat Jabin, the Canaanite king. 24 And from that time on Israel became stronger and stronger against King Jabin until they finally destroyed him. Judges 4:17-23
And thus ends another slightly bizzare story from the book of Judges. Just as God predicted through Deborah – the honour of the victory in this story goes, not to Barak, but to a woman – Jael.
And at this point, I think there are several different lessons that we could draw from this story. Now quite often, because of the unusual prominence of the women in this story, the discussion goes to the role of women in leadership. And I think there are some good lessons in this story regarding that.
However, when you look at this story as a whole and you see how it fits in the book of Judges – and even how it fits in the greater story of the whole Bible, you come to realize that this is not necessarily a story about the role of women. It’s not a story about Deborah. It’s not a story about Jael. And it’s not even a story about Barak or Sisera.
This is a story about God. Absolutely there are lessons that we can learn from each of these characters, but the bottom line here – what I think God wants us to see more than anything – is that this is a story about God.
- It was God who heard the Isrealites cries for help as they suffered under King Jabin & Sisera.
- It was God who commanded Barak to raise up that army and go to Mount Tabor.
- It was God who declared that He was going to give Barak victory over Sisera at the Kishon River.
- It was God who told all this to Deborah and instructed her to tell Barak.
- It was God who marched ahead of Barak as he marched against Sisera and his army of iron chariots.
- It was God who sent the rain that caused the Kishon river to overflow.
- It was God who threw Sisera’s army into panic and confusion.
- It was God who providentially delivered Sisera into the hands of Jael.
From start to finish, this story is all about God. In fact, the second last verse of this chapter I think sums it up best.
23 So on that day Israel saw God defeat Jabin, the Canaanite king. Judges 4:23
Not Deborah. Not Jael. Not Barak. But God. Isreal saw God defeat Jabin! God is the unlikely hero.
In fact, God is the unlikely Hero in every story. In the story of David & Goliath – who’s the real hero? God. How about in Daniel in the lion’s den – God again. Every story in the Bible is a story about God. Every story in history is a story about God. That’s why it’s history – it’s HIS Story. God’s Story.
From the beginning of time to the end of time, everything that has happened, every person who has lived on the earth, have all played a part in the story of God.
And the basic plot of God’s story goes like this: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and the pinnacle of his creation was mankind. But mankind rebelled against God and in doing so, brought death and destruction upon themselves. But God loved mankind and sent us a deliverer – an unlikely hero. God sent his Son Jesus – to deliver us from the consequences of own sin. To do that, Jesus died on the cross, rose again from the grave three days later, and He is now in the process of drawing sinful people to Himself, transforming them into new Creations, so that they can live abundant, joyful lives with Him forever.
That’s kinda how the story goes, and each of us have a part in that story.
Usually we think that our life is all about us – if our life was a movie – we’d be the star. We’d be the hero. But we’re not. Even your story is a story about God. We’re the supporting actors in God’s story.
Now that’s not to say that we’re unimportant or insignificant. On the contrary, God has made us to be very important and he’s invited us to be a significant part of his unfolding story.
We just need to be willing to trust him and obey and to play the part that He’s given us. I wonder, what part will you play?
Maybe your part is to be like Deborah – maybe you need to be the one to share God’s message with the people around you. Maybe your job is just to walk alongside them, to spur them on and encourage them to follow God and be that support as they discover who God is and what He’s called them to do. Maybe that just looks like being a mom or a Sunday school teacher, or maybe a good neighbor. Don’t think that’s insignificant. Your encouragement and influence can make a major impact.
Maybe your part is to be like Barak. Maybe God’s calling you to obey Him in some particular way. Maybe God has a specific job in mind for you to accomplish. Maybe what He’s asking you to do doesn’t even make sense right now. But I wonder what God might do through you if you trust Him. Like we saw last week, it doesn’t matter what your weaknesses are, God’s strength can easily make up for that. We just need to be willing to trust Him and to obey.
Or maybe your part is to be like Jael. Maybe most of your days are pretty mundane. Maybe you’re just keeping the house clean or doing the laundry or going to work each day. Don’t be discouraged in that. Not only does God work through you in the little stuff, perhaps God is just waiting to have you in the right place at the right time, and then one day – in one conversation or one chance meeting, God will use you to make a significant eternal impact.
We just never know how God might use us in His Story. He can use our successes. He can use our failures. He can use our weakness. He can use our strength. Because it’s not about us – its about Him.
It’s about the God who created us, who loves like crazy, who was willing to die for us, who forgives us, who heals us, and who invites us to be part of an abundant, eternal life with Him forever.