What took so long?

Judges 4:1-3 1 After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the LORD. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.

I have the feeling verse 1 of this chapter is going to be a recurring theme in this book.  C’mon people, really?  I would understand if it said, “Israel made some mistakes, they blew it every now and then.”  But evil?  Geesh!  Now when it says that the Lord sold them into the hands of a king, essentially He sold them over to their sin.  A better way to put is they sold themselves over to their sin.  It is what happens when we sell out, we choose sin over God’s ways and we step out of His covering.  We know, of course, that God is loving and faithful and takes His people back again and again.  So I am not surprised by the first few verses of this chapter.

I am, however, a bit disappointed in the motivation and timing of verse 3.  It says that the Israelites cried to the Lord for help for the following reasons: nine hundred enemy chariots and twenty years of oppression.  Don’t you think they waited kind of a long time to ask God for some help?  Is there a reason they didn’t ask for help at 300 chariots and 5 years?  Twenty years, people.  That’s a long time!  Think of the life they could have lived if they would have just asked for help sooner.  Imagine the potential if they would have turned from their evil ways and returned to God.  This is the human syndrome, though.  We wait until things are so unbearable and we are in a place of desperation.

We should be crying out to the Lord for help regularly, not waiting until it all falls apart.  I guess we could blame sin, though.  That sin is a tricky little sucker.  It moves in on you slowly, a little at a time.  Then all of a sudden you realize you are a million miles from God and it feels like you will never make it back.  And I wonder if the Israelites knew ten years into it that they were messed up.  I wonder if they recognized it but felt it was too late to ask God for help.  Twenty years… that’s a long time to wait.  That’s a long time to be without God’s help.  I don’t know about you, but for me twenty minutes is a stretch without God.

Let’s learn from the Israelites today.  When our lives get derailed, let’s turn back to God in that very moment.  He is ready to fight for us again.  He is ready to love us and deliver us.  He is waiting for us to ask.

What we really need

Judges 3:9-10 9 But when they cried out to the LORD, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. 10 The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.

This was a unique season in the Israelite history.  They didn’t have an appointed leader or lineage and they didn’t have a king.  But it was clear that they needed leadership.  When they were without a leader, they were without direction.  They turned from God and all of His ways.  So God raised up judges that would lead the people.  These judges brought the Israelites focus and direction.  It really worked, too.  Somehow during the lives of these judges, the people followed God.  So how did it work so well?  Was it just because they had a leader?  I don’t think so.

I have always wondered how this whole “judge” thing worked so well for the nation of Israel.  But today as I was reading chapter 3, the answer jumped off the page in verse 10.  It says that the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.  It seems that Othniel didn’t have to be a gifted leader, he needed the Spirit of the Lord.  That was what made him successful.  It also happened to be exactly what Israel needed.  Leadership wasn’t what caused them to succeed, it was the Spirit of the Lord present in their midst.  When God poured His Spirit out on someone, Israel followed Him and had success.

Nothing has changed.  We need the same thing; we need the Holy Spirit.  Like the Israelites, we get stuck on the things we aren’t good at.  We get trapped in guilt for our shortcomings.  And we wonder if we are ever really going to succeed.  We wonder if we are ever going to make it.  So we chase after countless volumes of self-help books and personality profiles to figure out where we are doing wrong.  What we really need is the Spirit of the Lord to be present in our midst.  Because when we have Him – when we have the Holy Spirit – all of our shortcomings fall to the wayside.  We don’t need a judge or a king or a talent or an inside connection.  We need Him.

A generation without God

Judges 2:10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.  

What in the world happened here!?  How is this possible!?  You have a nation, loved by God and set apart for His glory, who forgot the Lord.  After reading the books of Exodus and Joshua, it seems unfathomable that anyone would forget what God had done.  He miraculously delivered them from Egypt.  He parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River.  He led them by a cloud and a pillar of fire.  He fed them supernatural food in the desert.  He knocked down the walls of Jericho.  He made the sun stand still.  It just keeps going and going and going.

So how do you forget?  How does a generation grow up not knowing about the Lord?  The answer to this lies in the hands of the parents.  God instructed the Israelites to teach their children with purpose.  He told them to pass down the history so that they would not forget the Lord.  Somewhere along the line, every parent dropped the ball. Every parent.  And I wonder how that can happen.  I wonder if they got so wrapped up in their own promise, that they neglected the promises for their children.  

This sort of thing is happening again today in our own society.  As parents, we rely heavily on someone else to teach our kids the ways of the Lord.  Did the Israelites do the same thing?  Surely they took their kids to church.  When we rely solely on others, we relegate our God-given role in our children’s lives.  Ephesians 6:4 says: Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  There are two words here that stick out to me – fathers and instead.  Men, are we leading our homes by teaching our kids the ways of God?  Are we learning those ways for ourselves?  We see that the opposite of exasperating our kids is to bring them up in the Lord.

Don’t get hung up there, though.  This isn’t all about Bible training.  You see, God told the Israelites not just to pass on the tradition; He told them to pass on the stories.  We should be sharing our life stories with our children.  They should know who they are and the heritage they came from.  Do they know that their great-grandmother came to this country when she was 21?  Do they know that their great-uncle was a pastor?  Do they know that grandpa fought in the war?  Our kids need our history, and the most important history we can give them is their spiritual legacy.  We cannot afford to have someone write about our kids someday: another generation grew up, who neither the Lord nor what He had done.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Judges 1:4-7 4 When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. 5 It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. 6 Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 Then Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

Many years ago, my dad taught me that trick that looks like you are taking your thumb off.  I’m pretty good at it too.  I can take my thumb off with the best of them.  It’s fun to freak out the kids and watch their confused faces.  Of course, they know I am not really taking my thumb off.  They are smart enough to know that there would be blood and screaming and stuff if that really happened.  But it’s fun to make them ask, “how do you do that?”

Kicking off the book of Judges is a story about a guy getting his thumb taken off, his big toes too.  But it is no magic trick, no illusion.  They actually removed his thumbs and big toes.  That’s gotta hurt!  So why would they do something like this?  Why would they choose to cut of toes and thumbs?  Well, apparently this king had done the same thing to 70 other kings he had conquered.  That being said, this apparently wasn’t so unusual of a practice after all.  It seems as though they did this to disable the king and render him useless from battle.  Without big toes he would have terrible balance and would not be able to run effectively.  Without thumbs, he would not be able to hold a sword or a shield.  His ability to attack was rendered useless.

I wonder if there are things we should be doing to render our enemy useless. Our fight is not against an earthly king, but against the rulers and principalities of this world. In other words, our struggle is against Satan and his cronies.  And I think that we ought to do some things to make his attacks against us ineffective.  We ought to be inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on him, like calling to mind the cross and victory of Jesus.  There are other things that we can do to render him useless as well.  I will name just a few:

-Stand firm in our identity in Christ

-Clothe ourselves in righteousness and holiness

-Recognize temptation and resist it

-Pray on all occasions in every season

-Be humble and recognize our need for God

This is just a handful of general things we can do.  You may have some more specific to yourself.  It could be refusing to give way to fear or trusting the Lord in the midst of your circumstance.  Whatever the case, we need to work at rendering the enemy useless.  We cannot afford to allow him to defeat us when Christ has already defeated him. Let’s get some resolve today and cut off some thumbs and big toes!

Famous last words

Joshua 24:14-15 14 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

I wonder what my last words will be when I get old.  I wonder if it will be profound, touching, or something cranky like “get out of my room!”  Here’s a list of famous last words that I don’t want to say:

“Hey, watch this.”

“Are you sure the power is off?”

“I can pass this guy.”

“What does this button do?”

“Does it bite?”

Now, who wants to have something stupid be what they are remembered for?  Not me.

Fortunately, Joshua had much better last words than any of those.  Here in chapter 24, Joshua is giving his final charge to the people of Israel.  He first reminds them of all that God has done for them.  He walks them through history recalling the greatness of God.  After all the buildup he says, “well I guess if you don’t really feel like serving God go ahead and do your own thing. But my household will be marked by serving the Lord.”  Of course the people respond that they will serve God forever and ever, which they don’t.  Joshua calls it too – he tells them they don’t have the capacity to serve a Holy God.  (Thank goodness for Jesus, huh?)

Back to these famous words of Joshua: as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Joshua was about to die.  He wasn’t talking about his household serving God for the next few weeks.  He was talking about the legacy that he intended to leave behind.  He was marking the generations to come with a seal of their inheritance in the Lord.  Leaving a legacy requires leading today and preparing tomorrow’s leaders to lead tomorrow. You see, Joshua wouldn’t be able to make such a statement unless he had already trained up his sons and daughters to live for the Lord.  It takes work, but it’s work that I am willing to do.  I, too, want to be able to say that my household will serve the Lord for generations to come.

Protect love

Joshua 23:9-11 9 “The LORD has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. 10 One of you routs a thousand, because the LORD your God fights for you, just as he promised. 11 So be very careful to love the LORD your God.

There are a million songs about love – it is the center of human expression.  Love is something we chase, something we give, and something that must be kept.  Love is like muscle: you have to maintain it to keep it strong.  When you don’t maintain it, love gets frail.  And frailty of love leads to hurt and disappointment.  Yes, broken love leads to broken hearts.  If we want love to remain, we must protect it.

In Joshua 23, Joshua told the people to love the Lord.  He went farther than just telling them to love God, he told them to be careful to love Him.  This word careful is the Hebrew word, shamar.  It means to keep, guard, and protect.  It means to save a life.  You see, he didn’t need to tell them to love the Lord – they already knew that. Instead, he told them to protect that investment of love. He told them to be on guard and to save love’s life.

So what does it mean to protect your love in the Lord?  I think it means to put some work into it.  I must be diligent in my love for the Lord.   I need to plan time to be with Him and invest in our relationship.  I should to pursue Him, not just expect Him to pursue me.  I would also be wise to be aware of the plan of the enemy to destroy our relationship.  Even if just for this reason I will be on guard, watching out for his attacks.  This is my commitment today: to be careful to love the Lord my God.

Let’s not assume

Joshua 22:10-12 10 When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. 11 And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, 12 the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.

Today in Joshua 22, Joshua sent some of the Israelites back across the Jordan river to the land that they wanted.  They had done all that Joshua had asked of them, so they were free to go.  So he sends them out with great blessing.  He also gives them one final word of advice: But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: to love the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul. (v5). It’s kind of like them moving out of mom and dad’s house to go away to college or get married.  These are some great words that I plan on speaking to my kids someday when they venture out on their own.

So the two and a half tribes head out and build an altar before crossing over the Jordan.  The word gets back to the main headquarters and mayhem ensues.  Here’s where the trouble really starts.  It starts with assumption.  You see, as we continue to read the rest of the chapter we find out that they didn’t build an imposing altar at all.  But the people of Israel assumed that they had already turned away from God.  And as I read, I made the same assumption.  I thought, “oh no they didn’t!”  I couldn’t believe that they had turned from God so quickly.  How dis-heartening.

Come to find out, they didn’t turn away from God at all.  It was quite the opposite; they were building a reminder that they DID serve God.  They wanted the generations after them to remember that Israel was one and served the one true God.  They were afraid that people would think they didn’t love God because they left the main land.  It was all just a misunderstanding.  But it didn’t have to be.

As I arrived at the end of the chapter, I was amazed at how quickly the Israelites were stirred emotionally to go to war against their brothers.  I was amazed at how deep their assumptions ran.  They thought they knew what happened and got angry.  But it is a good thing that the truth came out.  It is a good thing that Joshua had the wisdom to send some people to ask questions before declaring war.  It wouldn’t hurt us to do the same thing. Before we declare war on someone for their actions or words, we should seek clarification on the heart’s intent. We shouldn’t so quickly jump to assumptions that we make a rash decision that we will later regret.  One other thing, while it’s good to ask the person what they really intended, we have the Holy Spirit too.  He doesn’t mind if you ask Him either.