Grace in the End. RBT Notes – Judges 21, 26th April

The chapter starts with a necessary flashback to a decision made before the tribes declared war on Benjamin: however bad the slaughter would be, there was no way they were going to help the Benjamites by supplying them with wives for a new generation after they had taken their revenge (v.1). Now that that vengeance has taken place, they are broken for the devastation that has came with it (v.2). They frame their anguish into a question for God, but there is no answer (v.3).

What follows is their attempt to keep their vow to God of not helping the Benjamites, whilst in fact trying to help them. It’s a convenient plan: punish the people of Jabesh Gilead for not turning up to share the nation’s grief, then take a sufficient number of their women to provide the Benjamites with wives (vv.6-14). It works. We barely have time to pause to ask ourselves whether the reprisals on the people of Jabesh Gilead were in any way fair, or proportionate. I suspect the answer is neither in each case, but this is only the sort of hot-headedness we’ve seen before from these men. Violence leads to more violence, after all.

The chapter, and the book, close on another plan, to get some more wives in order to secure the future of the Benjamites, and this works again (vv.15-23). With that their future is assured, the nation of Israel can start to get back to normal, and everyone’s consciences can feel a little less guilty for a season. Everything was alright, then.

Not really. The book of Judges does not end in hope. The darkness of so much of the book hasn’t lifted; rather, it’s settled even more over the whole nation. There is no king (v.25), so leadership is up for grabs, and morality is, too. What an unhappy land. Where is the covenant grace which Israel was promised?

That is the question we are meant to ask at the close of this uncomfortable, stormy, gloomy book. We see the heart of man, that it is proud and so often destructive. But we also see the grace of God. God does indeed give men over to their sinful lusts. Equally, He is continually giving men over to His mercy and grace. The Book ends with God’s people in a mess. But this is by no means the end of God’s dealings with His people. A King is coming, Who calls proud and destructive people to repent of their sins and who promises forgiving grace. More than that, this King gives us grace not to do what is right in our own eyes, but what is right in His eyes. This is Jesus, His grace comes to us at the infinite price of Calvary, and His blood cleanses the guiltiest hands and hearts, and gives us power to live for God.

 

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…where Angels fear to tread. RBT Notes – Judges 20, 25th April

Of all the illnesses men are prone to, sudden rush of blood to the head is one of the most deadly. It can be more dangerous than a heart-attack. The Levite in ch.19 has summoned his countrymen through his hideous sending-out of his murdered partner’s body parts. After he explains what happened to his shocked audience, he asks them for their reaction (vv.1-7). If they can think carefully, they can find a way to handle this terrible crime wisely. If they have a rush of blood to the head, and rush to a plan of action which feels right to their outraged sense of decency, then all hell could be let loose on the nation. They do, and it is.

 

Rush to Judgment

The first thing they do is plan for battle. It’s an open and shut case. They don’t need an investigation, witnesses, questions to be put to the Levites. It’s all so black and white, so it demands Infinite Justice. They draft ten percent of the fighting men of Israel into a army which goes down to Gibeah and demands the criminals (vv.8-13). Funnily enough, the Gibeahites don’t want to know. It’s highly likely that there were witnesses to that hideous gang rape, and that people in the city know what has taken place,and just who did it. But people under pressure respond foolishly. People who feel threatened by outsiders close ranks amongst themselves. Of course, the Israelites should have gone to Gibeah to deal with this crime. Equally, they should have thought out a plan which would have got to the truth, and those guilty.

 

Rush to Arms

From this point, everything spirals out of control. The men of Gibeah put the word out to their fellow Benjamites, and though they’re outnumbered ten to one, the Benjamites are fighting for their wounded pride, which makes them a very dangerous enemy (vv.14-17).

Finally, God shows up. That’s wrong, of course, as He’s never been anywhere else. But at last the Israelites speak to Him. They’re not seeking His will for the crime, and but are asking Him for battle strategy (v.18). The only time God speaks is when it’s all too late. They didn’t ask what He thought, and they didn’t seek His guidance. Don’t be quick to hear God’s Word as an endorsement of their plans. They haven’t asked for His guidance so far, and they’re already in too deep. Why believe that His Word to them now will bring blessing?

Of course, God wanted this evil purged from the land. Of course, He wanted judgment. But judgment which honours God comes from justice. And justice comes from wise, careful and patient inquiry and then decision-making.

 

Rush to Ruin

We don’t need to trace the details of the slaughter. Men are brave on both sides. Men fight and die for their convictions. All the while, a nation is being cut of pieces. God’s covenant people are hacking each other to death. The chapter ends with the whole land belonging belonging to the Benjamites being put to the sword. Justice? Wisdom? Or ruin, and a cause of lasting misery to the nation?

May God give us the grace as His people to live in the wisdom of His Spirit, to the praise of His Son. Anything less might well lead to disaster.

 

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The Evil that men do. RBT Notes – Judges 19, 24th April

You read this chapter and you feel – or you should feel – very angry. It begins as a normal story of relationships that go badly wrong, as a woman leaves her partner, and they then manage to work at a reconciliation. By the end of the chapter she’s been brutally attacked, raped and left for dead by a gang, within a few feet of the man who should have loved and therefore protected her.

The unnamed Levite makes food and drink his priority. After he finds his partner again in Ephraim, we learn that he spends almost a week doing nothing else but eating and drinking with her father (vv.4-9). And there’s no mention of the woman as he and her father stuff themselves. She is a silent witness to their self-centred greed. Soon, her partner will be a silent witness to her death.

So they travel back to their home, and stop in Gibeah to find lodgings for the night.The basic code of hospitality is broken, though, as no one invites this couple to stay (vv.12-15). It becomes a place of rape and murder. If the gang is desperately wicked, they can only carry out their intentions because of the disgusting behaviour of the house owner and the Levite. Rather than protect their household, they offer them up to the gang. Don’t think for a moment that this behaviour is defensible by any ancient code, let alone a biblical one: this was a cowardly, wicked abuse of their role to protect the women (vv.20-23). They are guilty.

The woman is raped and left to bleed to death while the men cower inside (vv.25-26). We assume that they cowered, terrified about what was going on outside. But thimageat might be a generous reading of the text. They might not have cared at all. The clue that this could be the case is v.27. For the first time here the text calls the Levite ‘her master’. And she was like a piece of property. It dawns on us that this man had actually just gone to bed after the woman was effectively thrown to the dogs. Evidently, he goes outside in the morning when he’s ready, and not for any other reason. There is no concern, no compassion. He barks a word of command to the crumpled woman, and then loads her on his donkey like she is a dead animal. Maybe to him, that is all that she is.

The only emotion he shows in the chapter is rage. I don’t read this as a great wrenching sense of loss, but a fury that he’s been robbed of his property. The butchery of her body and the parceling out to the corners of Israel is his strategy for gaining maximum impact on the nation. He wants war. And war is what he will get. Brave though this sounds, in fact is all stems from his selfishness and cowardice.

This chapter has chilling echoes of our own violent, greedy world where sexual violence is all too common. Men serve their own lusts, and women are made to serve them, too. This is where the church lives, in places where porn, exploitation, rape, food and drink and brutal self-centredness are all legitimate lifestyle choices. We protest. Jesus Christ calls us from this slavery. He calls us to be free by His power, free to serve Him: “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (‭Colossians‬ ‭3‬:‭5‬). Fight yourself, and you find yourself in a war only for the brave. Fight this war, and you discover the strength of the Spirit of God.

The Misery of Idolatry. RBT Notes – Judges 18, 23rd April

Some texts in the bible make our lives just a little uncomfortable, don’t they? Try Deuteronomy 27.15: ‘“Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”’ God clearly shows us what is dangerous and wrong. When He does, one of our human strategies is to respond by saying ‘that doesn’t apply to me’; or worse still, ‘that verse was for people long ago, it’s not relevant today.’ The modern church has done an excellent job with that line when it comes to issues of greed, poverty, sexuality, gender and workplace holiness, to name a few. The human heart can always find a way of relativising, and then trivialising, the Word of God.

imageMicah has done a great job of doing the exact opposite of Deuteronomy 27.15, and seemingly all the people said the “amen” of approval at his idolatry. Maybe he thought that it didn’t apply to him, and perhaps he thought that God would enjoy his sincere heart, so these idols weren’t a problem. Who knows? Let’s remember that when God’s Word is broken, whatever we manage to reason, or feel, counts for nothing. God has spoken: we must listen, and obey. The church today has her King, and He is enthroned for our obedience (cf v.1).

So we meet the five spies of the tribe of Dan, passing through Ephraim looking for a land to inherit. And of all coincidences, they recognise Micah’s priest, and catchup on old times, before asking his blessing (vv.1-5). Fortified by the belief that God is with them (is He; who knows?), they go and find that the land of the people of Laish will be easy for them to capture, so they take that news back to the tribe (vv.6-9).

Next, the Danite army is en route to battle, but they want to have the comforts of religion with them, so they remember Micah’s house and its idol chapel, and go to get the items there. The priest is shocked at their plunder, but they offer him a wonderful career break, the chance to swap being a private chaplain for the elevation of a Danite Bishopric. He’s not going to refuse, so he joins them, taking his kit with him (vv.10-21).

Of course, Micah’s pretty unhappy about this, but he’s one against six hundred, so he sees his chaplain and his spiritual silverware disappear into the distance (vv.22-26). Then it’s a case of military might and religious talismans advancing against the unsuspecting men of Laish. This was no fair fight, so they destroy the people and their city, and make its replacement city their own, appropriately named Dan (vv.27-29).

And thus was creative worship born. They take a pagan land for themselves, and set up their HQ with pagan idols. Note the final statement, and here’s the real punch – the real house of God was in Shiloh (v.31). It had gone nowhere. And God had gone nowhere. The covenant hadn’t changed, and grace was still available. The misery of the chapter is the misery of these people’s hearts, cherishing their idols, glorying in butchering the vulnerable, boasting in setting up a new society with false gods at the heart of it, and all the while rejecting the Living God. If this chapter feels familiar, it’s because it’s our world, too. People want anything, anything at all, except the life God offers in His Son. Let’s make sure that we never run from that.

House of Horrors, and the Real Refuge. RBT Notes – Judges 17, 22nd April

This is one of the passages in the Bible where you can’t go any lower. Every line of this short chapter is a hammer-blow against decency, truth, hope and real faith. Actually, things are going to get a whole load more horrible in the next three chapters, but our historian here is giving us a pen-picture of life in Israel as he sketches one family. And it’s wretched.

 

Rip off your parents

This man called Micah has a secret which has been nagging at his conscience: he’s stolen a huge amount of silver from his mother. We don’t know if there’s a father around, or if she’s a widow. This doesn’t appear to be the rash stupidity of a teenager – a couple of verses later we learn that he has a son who’s old enough to be a priest. Whatever prompted him to steal this vast sum, something else prompted him to confess it. Surely there would a lot of raised voices that day?

 

Spoil your children

But no. His mother’s response is really strange. She almost rewards him for his confession of guilt, and promptly gives it all back to him! ‘Bless you, my son’ (v.2) doesn’t sound like a word of forgiveness for the crime, but a word of admiration that the boy’s owned up to it. Did the son have a hunch that, having owned up to the theft, he would get the money back, along with his mother’s admiration for his honesty? So many questions in just a couple of verses!

Remember, the rule of the writers of these Old Testament narratives is ‘less is more’; they don’t give us all of the details, and they rarely tell us outright what they think. But they write in such a way as to get us thinking ourselves, and following their subtle hints. What’s the hint here? That this women is spoiling her son, just as surely as she’s already ruined her relationship with Israel’s God.

 

Mock your God

You have to read v. 3 two or three times before the full extent of her vow really sinks in. Her worship to Yahweh is actually the breaking of the second commandment. Making an image and an idol to honour Yahweh! And her son has the privilege of using this idolatrous fancy work.

How sincere she must have been. But sincerity is not enough, when it comes to honouring Israel’s God. She says she wants to serve Yahweh. Well, let her serve Him, then, as He commands, not as she likes. And there’s a lesson for us there, too.

 

Poison your soul

Like mother, like son. He’s happy to have the paraphernalia of idolatry at home, and he adds a shrine, ephod and some more idols. The only thing lacking is a priest to run the show. No, he even has that covered – one of his sons can be Master of Ceremonies (v.5). What a disaster. Now we might appreciate why the historian inserts his comment in v.6; and it tells us exactly what he thinks of this set-up. And do you think of Ps. 115, as it speaks of idols and idolaters? “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (‭Psalm‬ ‭115‬:‭5-8‬). Idolatry is poison.

 

Feel-good religion

The closing scene introduces us to an unnamed Levite. We don’t know what happened to Micah’s son, but the moment this Levite arrives looking for work, Micah can’t believe his luck. He’s an actual Levite, and from Judah (v.9)! That’s like religious royalty showing up, so Micah can’t wait to offer him terms of employment, which the man is happy to take (vv.10-12).

And Micah’s feeling on top of the world! He’s got a great priest, and so he’s sure to get God’s blessing. What can possibly go wrong?

 

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Well, if you want the answer, read on. But pause first. None of us believes this is a happily-ever-after story. Micah may feel great. But he’s grown used to feeling fine about things which are deeply wrong. His conscience is no guide, far less is his religion. He’s a mess. And if we think that we can break God’s laws and cook up a stew of religion to tempt Him with, we’ll land in the same mess, regardless of what we might think or feel.

How wonderful that Jesus is our Prophet, Priest and King. Unlike Micah, He always honoured God with the truth, even when it meant the cost of His own life. He speaks the truth to us today, through His Word, in the power of His Holy Spirit. He is our Priest. He is the Priest who lived sinlessly before God, and offered our sacrifice for sin in His body at the Cross. And He is our King, the real Judge, who rules over our lives, and who calls us, not to do what seems fitting in our own eyes, but what is right in God’s sight. And He gives us generously of his Holy Spirit so that, even in dark days, we can do just that.

Growth, Grace and a Greater Glory. RBT Notes – Judges 16.23-31, 21st April

‘His hair began to grow again’ (v.22). There’s grace in those follicles. Samson might have broken the vow made at his birth to keep his hair uncut, but God was faithful, and with his hair his strength iss returning.

Not that the Philistines realise this. They’re elated that they have their man, blinded, degraded, and now made into a circus performer. This chained strongman is at the centre of their celebrations as they praise Dagon in his temple. Three thousand men and women were there, even on the temple roof. Let the games begin (v.25).

Samson is led to his stage, and with help gropes for the pillars. He prays, God hears, there is a crack, a shudder, and the tonnes of stone, and worshippers, come crashing down. He dies, and so do they all. In death, he kills (vv.26-30).

Here endeth the lesson. Samson was strong, in his loves and his hates. He was vain, impetuous, and absurdly brave. He was a driven man, we might say, but it seems that he was driven for his own glory. The glory that he gained was perhaps fitting for a man of such extremes, a glory won at the cost of his own life, and at the cost of his enemies’ lives, too. This might have been a successful strategy for Samson to adopt in crushing his enemies; but it’s not the great victory we remember, but the sad outcome of humiliated man, who sought so little of the grace of God. Whilst God restored that strength Samson so delighted in, how much more would God’s grace have done with a man who sought wisdom and humility as he used his strength.

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As ever, when we look closely at one of the Judges in this Book, we cannot fail to think about, and even to see, Jesus Christ. Samson slays idolaters, but Jesus saves idolaters. Samson kills with a prayer for vindication and revenge, but Jesus dies to bring life, with a prayer for forgiveness and mercy. Samson was buried, first in the carnage, then in a king’s tomb, but Jesus left his tomb, to be the Living Head of all who call on Him by faith. Samson sought his glory, but Jesus sought the glory of Another (cf John 7.18). Samson’s triumph was death, but Jesus’ triumph is life, for us. We could well say, ‘thus He saved many more when He died than while He lived’ (v.30). Heaven’s worship is the song of a ‘great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’ (Revelation 7.9). And, because of His glorious grace, we worship with them.