The following sermon was preached on Wednesday night, March 31, 2010 at FBC Benbrook
In salvation history, there is no period more difficult to wrestle with than the period of the Judges. The four hundred years, or so, that the people of God spent in the land of promise between the leadership of Joshua and Samuel was truly a dark period. The law seems to be absent from community, and as result, everyone did what was right in their own eyes (see Judges 21.25), and the results were not pretty.
The first chapter of the book of Judges deals with the transition of leadership from Joshua and the elders who served with him to the next generation, a generation that neither knew the Lord or what He had done for Israel (Judges 2.10). Last week, we explored the reasons behind why it might have been possible for an entire generation to rise up who did not know the Lord. We explored the failure of Joshua’s generation to pass the faith on to their children and the resistance of the second generation to accept the faith of their fathers, so we won’t rehash that ground again.
In chapter two, we get a blueprint of what will be lived out in the stories that follow. It will be the same story over and over again. The people will be faithful for a period, but then they will turn away from the Lord and worship other gods. Then the Lord will hand them over to their enemies who will plunder them. In distress, the people will cry out for deliverance, and the Lord will raise up a judge who will deliver them. While the judge is alive, the people will remain faithful to the Lord. But, when the judge dies, the people return to their old ways and begin to worship other gods. Then the cycle repeats, over and over again.
I would like for us to take a deeper look at the first two stages of this never ending cycle. The writer of the book of Judges describes it in Judges 2.10-15 when he wrote,
10After 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. 11Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. 12They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the LORD to anger 13because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. (Judges 2.10-15 NIV)
Two Evils of the People
The people committed two fatal errors. First, they turned away from the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt and into the land of promise. This God was the very same God who had delivered them from slavery through miracle after miracle and then led them through the desert, providing for their needs with manna and fresh water. Not only did this God get them out of Egypt and across the wilderness, but He handed the land of promise over to them, fighting their battles from them in dramatic fashion. Everything they now possessed was given to them directly from the hand of the Lord. And now that they were enjoying all of the gifts that God had given to them, they turned away from the Lord and forgot all about Him.
To forget the Giver was offensive enough, but the people of God were guilty of two evils. Not only did they turn away from the Lord, but they embraced other gods. They did not just cease to be religious, but they worshipped and served other gods, giving them the credit for the gifts the One True God had given to them. They followed and worshipped “various gods of the people around them,” Baal, and the Ashtoreths. Gary Inrig, in Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay, helps us to understand these strange gods:
The Canaanites did not believe in just one god, but they embraced different local gods. The chief god was called “El,” (the basic Hebrew word for god), but one of his seventy offspring, a younger god named Baal had risen up to take his place. Baal was the god of storm and rains, whose blessing was needed for the fertility of the land. In an agricultural society, such a god has tremendous power. Ashtoreth was a female deity, the goddess of sensual love, fertility, and war. In her, violence and sexual depravity mingled together, and she became the patron of sex and war.
The Canaanite religion was based on the concept of imitating worship. That is, you worship your god by behaving as he or she would. The result was that Baalism was perhaps the most degraded and degrading form of worship ever practiced on earth. The Canaanites engaged in temple prostitution, fertility rites, drunken sexual orgies of the most debased variety, idolatry, snake worship, homosexuality, and even human sacrifice. Baal worship was bad wherever it existed, but in Canaan, it existed in its rawest form. Everything about it, its view of god, moral standards, ethics and values, and rituals, stood in absolute and total contradiction to everything God had revealed about Himself to his people. And yet its appeal to some of our most human drives and urges is obvious. (Gary Inrig, Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay, 42).
Baal worship allowed the people to be religious, to seek the help of a “higher being,” and all the while to continue to gratify the cravings of their sin nature.
You can imagine how offensive the worship of Baal was to the Most High God, the God who had poured out special grace to these chosen people. The prophet Jeremiah would say it like this, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2.13). Not only did the people of God forsake the Lord, they pursued a god who had no power to deliver or to satisfy.
In His Anger
It should hardly be a shock to us that the actions of His chosen people provoked the Lord to anger. Imagine how you might feel if your daughter married a young man who was going to be a doctor. She worked two jobs putting him through medical school. She raised their children almost entirely on her own because of the crazy schedule of his residency. And then, when he finally graduated and got a job as a doctor, he leaves her for another woman. Take all of the anger you might feel, multiply that by several million, and we might begin to taste the righteous indignation of the Lord.
What did the Lord do in his anger? Did He just wipe his hands of these wicked people, and search the world for another group of people who might appreciate his redemption? Did He just overlook their transgressions and continue to bless them? No, in His anger, He
…handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them. (Judges 2.14-15 NIV)
The Lord did not just walk away, and He did not just turn and look the other way. He actually gave them over to their enemies and put His hand to work against them. Listen to how other translations translate the phrase of verse 15: “The Lord was against them for harm” (ESV), “The Lord was against the for evil” (NASB), and “The Lord was against them to bring misfortune” (NRSV). This was not a situation where God simply removed His blessing. No, the Lord was actively at work to bring harm to His people who were living in rebellion.
In this time period, misfortune came in the form of other people groups who were enemies of Israel. Most often, it was the Philistines, a group of people who lived on the coast of the Mediterranean. These people would either run raiding parties into the territory controlled by the tribes of Israel, or they would actually conquer these territories and take over ruler power. The Philistines, and others, would plunder the tribes of Israel, stealing from them their wealth, which most likely took the forms of land, cattle, and people. Any wealth that God had given to them was taken by the enemies of Israel. And God did not just turn a blind eye to it all; He was guiding the process.
When the Israelites would go out to fight against the Philistines, the hand of the Lord was against in battle. Israel could not defeat the Philistines because God would not let them. As a result, they had no power to resist these raiding forces. All of their wealth was plundered by their enemies.
Does God Do This Today?
Which brings us to the obvious question, “Does God still do this today?” When God’s chosen people who have been blessed by Him beyond compare, turn their back on God and follow the gods of this world, does God hand them over to those who will plunder their wealth? Does the hand of God actively work against His people when they worship other gods so that they cannot find freedom?
I would answer that the New Testament evidence is a resounding “Yes.” Even today, in the year 2010, when people rebel against the Lordship of the Most High God and follow and worship the gods of the people around them, the consequence is that the Most High God hands them over to their enemies who plunder their wealth. To be clear, the biblical evidence is that God both hands the ones bent on sin over to the natural consequences of their sin and actively works against them to bring them harm.
The natural consequence of living in sin are clearly described in the New Testament. In Romans, Paul writes of God giving over a lost mankind to the sinful desires of their hearts. As a result, they “received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (Romans 1.27). But the clearest statement of this principle is found in Galatians: “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature, will reap destruction” (Galatians 6.8). In Romans, Paul asked the question, “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (Romans 6.20-21). When a person plants the seed of sin, the fruit of destruction will naturally grow.
No one really has a problem with this spiritual principle, but the second principle is very troubling to some. Is it true that God actively works to bring harm to those who forsake Him and worship other gods? I would say “Yes,” and I would point to Hebrews 12 as the primary text where we find this principle. The apostle wrote,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” 7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12.5-11, with initial quote from Proverbs 3.11-12).
Here, we see the biblical principle that the Lord disciplines His children by using pain to bring about the harvest of righteousness. In other words, the hand of the Lord is against us to bring harm so that we might share in His holiness.
The words of Hebrews 12 were written to a group of believers who might not have been living in mortal sin. In fact, the writer wants them to embrace hardship as discipline. He does not accuse them of reaping the wrath of God because of their sin but to see the hardship of their life as an instrument in the hand of the Lord to bring about their righteousness. But the principle is still there: God disciplines the child that He loves, using pain to bring about His holiness.
I think that we go out of our way to deny this basic truth. We are so very quick to say that just because something bad is happening to you it doesn’t mean that God is punishing you for some sin, and that is very true. Bad things happen to good people for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is the result of the sinful choices of someone else. Sometimes it is the enemy who prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Sometimes it is because we live in world that is held in bondage to decay. Sometimes it is because God is preparing us for the next stage of His calling.
But we must careful not to dismiss that sometimes bad things happen to us because we have turned our back on the Lord and are following other gods. It is a very real spiritual possibility that the reason we are not able to get freedom from our enemies, or the reason that our “wealth” is being plundered is because the hand of the Lord is against us to bring harm into our lives. To deny this truth is to shut ourselves off from any real hope of deliverance. If we continue to hope in our own ability to free ourselves, we will live in frustration because the hand of the Lord is keeping us from being victorious. We will never be able to defeat our enemies when the Lord is fighting on their side. The only hope for freedom and deliverance is through confession and repentance, a process that is both time consuming and soul wrenching.
And it does bring up the question, “How does God work against us today? What enemies does He hand us over to?” In the book of Judges, the harm was in the form of war and international conflict. Are there other forms of plundering that take place today? How much of our financial problems can be attributed to God’s punishment on our lives? How much can our health problems can be connected to our sin (and before you dismiss this, consider 1 Corinthians 11.30)? How much of our depression or relational issues are the hand of the Lord bringing us harm? If we dismiss the question without prayerful consideration, we may never find freedom.
We can read the story of the Judges and know that freedom for them required a returning to the Lord and a forsaking of false gods. Should we not be open to the same principle at work in our lives?