‘And all of the Israelites lived happily ever after. Sort of.’ Judges 11 – RBT Notes, 14th April

Jephthah was a gunslinger in what might have been known in his day as the ‘Wild East’. Gilead was east of the Jordan, and so at a distance from neighbouring Israelite tribes, and vulnerable to the takeover of the pagan nations who lived in the vicinity. Frontier life was always colourful, and rarely safe. Jephthah’s family wasn’t straightforward, either, and you can imagine the tensions which existed between him, a prostitute’s son, and his half-brothers, until they finally kicked him out (v.2). Little wonder that this man was a strong personality and a strong fighter, who led a bunch of renegades (vv.1, 3).

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Jephthah might not have been the sort of man you could easily trust, but I bet he was the sort of man you would want beside you in a fight. The Gilead elders recognise that when the Ammonites attacked them, and they go to him and asked him to lead their forces (vv.4-6). Well, wouldn’t you? Jephthah hasn’t got over his rough treatment at their hands, though (v.7). Maybe these were actually his step-brothers. If that’s so, how glad would Jephthah have felt, that they came cap-in-hand back to him? A bargain is struck, and Jephthah is recognised as leader. Let battle commence.

But it doesn’t. Jephthah sends messengers to the Ammonite king, asking why he has a quarrel with the Gileadites. Is Jephthah being a bit obtuse? His people have, afterall, taken Ammonite land in the Conquest. The Ammonite king tells him as much (vv.12-13), and then Jephthah gives him his own history lesson in return: ok, he may have to go back 300 years into the historical records, but Jephthah’s contention is that Jehovah gave His People the land (vv.21-22). The Ammonites have enough for themselves. If they continue to flex their muscles, then the Lord Himself will judge (vv.24-27).

The Amonite king doesn’t climb down, so the Lord comes down, in the power of His Spirit on Jephthah. He gathers his army, and the victory is swift and decisive. The Lord gave it to them, and ‘Israel subdued Ammon’ (vv.32-33). And all of the Israelites lived happily ever after.

Sort of. All, that is, except Jephthah’s daughter. And her family, and her friends. Jephthah had vowed to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, of whatever or whoever should meet him when he returned victorious from battle (vv.30-31). What was he thinking, in making the vow, and in insisting that the vow could not be broken, when it was his daughter who ran to him with a victory song (vv.34-36)?

The attempts to justify (or, at least, to excuse) Jephthah’s behaviour are as many as the tears of his daughter. Some say that he knew he would meet a person (citing that the verb ‘to meet’ always implies a person, not an animal), so he definitely never intended this to be a human sacrifice, as such a thought and vow would be unthinkable. Others point out that there is no record of the weeping daughter being sacrificed, so this never took place. Others defend Jephthah’s integrity, that having made this vow, he has the integrity to keep it (oh, please). And some crown their efforts to defend our hero by pointing out that, as he was led by the Lord’s Spirit, he couldn’t have made a foolish vow.

He did. There is no way around seeing this whole episode as one foolish promise, made all the more wretched by Jephthah’s commitment to seeing it through. No, we don’t hear of the sacrifice, but it is clear in the mind of our historian that this girl was mourning for more than a lost marriage (v.37). And what else might ‘he did to her as he had vowed’ mean (v.39)?

I think that the wretched truth of the matter is that this leader Jephthah, for all of the work of the Spirit on him, is another hero with feet very much of clay. An abusive childhood, a probably violent career, a sudden rise to power, and it was all too much for him. He was desperate for success, so desperate, that he made a desperate vow. Zeal for himself consumed his house. How unlike Another, about whom it was said that zeal for God’s house consumed Him. Like Jephthah, He was rejected by his own, and a leader of people who were on the margins, and a servant of God led by the Spirit of God. Unlike Jephthah, He was a man of wisdom who vowed to give His own life as an offering. And all who discover His victory over oppression sing a victory song which will never be silenced.

 

Or we die. Judges 10 – RBT Notes, 13th April

This far into Judges, and we’re maybe reminded of the Book of Ecclesiastes. People don’t change, the world doesn’t change, and God’s people don’t change. Chapter 10 is about new Judges (Tola and Jair), old enemies and the age-old battle of stubborn hearts against the Lordship of God. God’s people never learn. All that grace, all that deliverance, all the freedom of knowing God, and they are still lusting after the no-gods of sex, money and power. In fact, they’re indulging in a form of spiritual spread-betting, buying up the affection and help of all sorts of gods to help them with life’s problems (v.6). ‘This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes’ (‭Ecclesiastes‬ ‭7‬:‭29‬).

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The wonderful thing about God is His wrath. We need God to be angry about our wickedness. If God were not angry at our rebellion, then sin means nothing, murder and theft are legitimate options, and life has no meaning, and definitely no justice. The Good News of God’s wrath is the Good News of God’s justice and care. God cares enough to hate and condemn our sin. See it here:

The Israelites desert God, and God gives them over to their enemies. The very people whose gods they look to for help are the ones who invade and make their lives miserable (vv.7-9). The bigger picture is, of course, that the very God they ignore is the one who is inflicting on them this misery, to bring about their repentance. And all the evidence is that they took a very long time – 18 years – to come to their senses (v.8). Finally, they confess their sin (v.10). And God does not bring them delivering grace, He says ‘tough’ (v.14). God speaks like the once-forgiving lover, who has returned and sorted out the mess before, but who now says that He won’t have them back (vv.11-13). He has all the grace, but they have all the cheek, to treat him as a last resort when life gets messy.

Don’t think that God is having a pout here. He is handling these increasingly desperate, and honest, Israelites so that they will truly repent. Our God answers 999 calls, but what pleasure – and honour – does God have when people suddenly rush to Him when rejecting Him hasn’t worked for them? This rescue is indeed saving and wonderful grace; but those who receive it often learn very little. God works to get His people finally where He needs them: desperate, and desperate to cast themselves on God’s mercy. That is where grace operates, where people finally learn, and where God gets the glory. The prodigal had to go to the pigs and the pods before he came to his senses (Luke 15). The Israelites go the false gods and enemy invasion, and then to their knees, before they can find grace again.

 

Grace is not a safety-net to be there when our tightrope walk with sin goes wrong. Grace does not make God a last resort when we’ve got tired of the fun of sin. Grace is who God is, in Jesus Christ. Outside Jesus Christ, God is wrath. ‘Foul we to the fountain fly, wash us, Saviour, or we die.’ Next time you use the word ‘grace’, use it with awe, and thanks. It will sound, and taste, all the sweeter.

Whose side is God on? Judges 9 – RBT Notes, 12th April

We are living in dark days. Men love power, exploit faith, and rule for their own selfish gain. Or at least, that’s how it is in Judges 9.

This is a gruesome history, and a story told in several scenes.

First, Gideon’s son Abimelech comes to the throne. Abimelech decides that he’ll be king, so he does the two things which always mark naked ambition: get supporters, and eliminate rivals (vv.1-6). It’s very brutal, but surprisingly straightforward.

Next, we discover there’s been a survivor. Jotham confronts the Shechemites, giving them a parable to warn them of the misery they’ll experience under Abimelech, and pouncing a curse, before escaping for his life (vv.7-21).

What does God think? Who’s side is He on? As ever, He’s on His own side, and is committed to His own Lordship, so He has His own plan to bring down unrighteous Abimelech (vv.21-24). In Judges God is frequently (and conveniently) ignored, but He can never be written out of the picture. Here’s a lesson for Abimelech, and a lesson for us to learn, too.

So the Shechemites start to fall out of love with Abimelech, and they happily fall under the spell of the new guy in town, Gaal. They party at the end of the grape harvest, one drink leads to another, and some drunken boasts and threats are made. Word gets out, and, for Abimelech, this means war (vv.26-35). Gaal has no time to shake off his hangover before he realises that he’s fighting for his life (vv.37-38).

The remainder of the action follows Abimelech’s fury on the people he once ruled. Furious at his spurned authority, his revenge is total. He burns the city, immolates the refugees in the temple stronghold, and sets neighbouring Thebez on fire (vv. 42-51). Remember how Jotham said that fire would come of out the thorn bush if they submitted to Abimelech (v.15)? He was right.
Just as it seems that Abimelech’s revenge is total, God’s justice falls – quite literally. Not for the first time, an enemy of God’s people takes a fatal head-wound at the hands of a woman (vv.52-55). Lucky hit? You could say so. But God has a habit of using luck, and He has an aim that never misses His intended target. Our historian is convinced – this is the judgment of God upon murderous Abimelech, as well as on the Shechemites (vv.56-57).

The desperate throw of an unknown, terrified woman, and the trembling words of the frightened young man Jotham. And the hand and the Word of God. God knows what He’s doing. He is the Judge, as surely as He’s the Saviour. And He is always, always at work. Trust Him.

 

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Your worst life now! Judges 8.22-35 – RBT Notes, 11th April

Legacy

At the end of their careers people start thinking about what they’ve achieved, and what they’re leaving for those who come after them. They also think about how they will be remembered. This is dangerous territory. How many good careers have been ruined at the end by pride and insecurity? How many poor judgments tarnish the closing years of work? Gideon was a blessing for forty years (v.28). He was loved by the people he led. God blessed his leadership. And yet he left a disastrous legacy.

 

Lunacy

The people want a dynasty (v.22). They see a gifted leader, and feel that they’ll get more of the same if Gideon and his offspring become the royal family. This seems wise enough. As does Gideon’s request for a bit of taxation (vv.23-27). They didn’t know what he had in mind, but gave really generously. Perhaps they thought that they were giving to Gideon’s retirement gift. Maybe they thought he might be collecting money for a building-project, or to get weapons made for his people. They probably didn’t mind: they trusted him.

And I think that they were pleased with how their money was spent. Gideon makes an ephod (v.27). This gold-covered garment was intended to be worn by the priest at the tabernacle. And, come to think of it, we’ve not heard of the Tabernacle at all in Judges. Who knows, maybe it was all put away in someone’s barn, all but forgotten there? If so, Gideon wants to revive the memory of old-time religion. Wasn’t making this Ephod a good thing for Gideon to do, then, as it was a powerful reminder of happier days of worship? No. It became an object of worship itself, not just to his town, but to his family, and to the whole nation (v.27). What an appalling legacy. And what lunacy.  image

 

Apostasy

Gideon has many wives, and so a huge legacy of offspring. It may have secured power for his family, but it’s an act of defiance to God (vv.29-30). Gideon’s faithlessness is then dwarfed by the godlessness of his nation. Our historian levels charges against them: they prostitute themselves to Baal. Note that Baal-Berith means Covenant-Baal, which sounds like they’re hedging their bets between Israel’s and Canaan’s deities. Whatever they’re doing, Israel is condemned for it – ‘they did not remember the Lord their God’ (v.34). They forget the real covenant God. And when you abandon God you always end up abandoning people, which is what they did with Gideon’s family (v.35). The man who fought Baal (see how we’re reminded that as the writer calls Gideon by his other name, ‘Baal-fighter’) is the one’s whose family is neglected. Here we see apostasy for what it is, treason against God’s covenant Lordship and faithfulness.

 

What a sad passage. Failure, faithlessness, vanity projects, selfishness. Just like my life, perhaps a little like yours, too. We really do have folly bound up in our hearts. May God give us grace to have a lot more fear of our own natural stupidity, as well as a lot more faith in Jesus, our covenant-making and keeping Saviour.

Dare not to be a Gideon. Judges 8.1-21 – RBT notes, 10th April

imageSuffering is often a powerful test of who we really are. Suffering exposes our values, our faith and our hearts. When we first meet Gideon he is suffering, facing powerful enemies, hardship and poverty. This suffering exposes the bitterness and unbelief of his heart. Back in 6.13 we learn that Gideon understands what God is doing (judging His disobedient people), but angrily resents it. Sounds like you and me often when we suffer: we do know that God is in charge, but we really don’t trust how He uses His sovereignty when our lives our tough. Suffering often exposes our resentments.

There is another test, which is arguably more effective for exposing who we really are: and that is success. It’s as we experience success that we discover if we really are humble, thankful, and trusting. Success tests us to see if we are proud, and if we will grow proud with our successes. We see how success brings this exposure again and again in the world as well as in the Bible. In the world, we’ve lost count of honourable politicians who’ve worked so hard to enter public office, but who then fail once they’ve achieved the position they’ve sacrificed to win. In the Bible, it’s when the people enter the Promised Land and have initial successes in their conquest, that they soon give into complacency and false religion.

So it is in Judges 8. God has done the impossible, and destroyed an unconquerable force through a little squad of soldiers. Israel is on top of the world! And Gideon’s currency has rocketed, too, as the leader of the nation. So they’ll live godly and happy lives ever after, won’t they? Will they heck!

Success so often brings squabbles, pride and unhappiness. First it’s the Ephraimites (8.1). They’re cross at other people’s success, and bitter that they didn’t have a slice of it for themselves. Wise Gideon turns aside their accusing and angry question with a gentle answer (vv.2-3, cf Prov.15.1), and the situation is diffused. That’s just the beginning, though: next up it’s the men of Succoth, followed by the men of Peniel (vv.6-9). They all give the same sour-feared reaction and refusal to help Gideon and his men in this mop-up operation against the fleeing Midianites. Are they reasonable? No, they’re envious. They envy Gideon’s success, and probably resent what will be Gideon’s increasing power in the nation which will threaten theirs.

After another astonishing success (vv.10-13) Gideon catches up with the men of Succoth, and then of Peniel, and does exactly what he threatened he would; there’s humiliation, and bloodshed (vv.13-17). After putting some of God’s covenant people to the sword, Gideon does the same to God’s enemies (vv.18-21). And this is Gideon’s career. From frightened farmer, he’s shaped into being a man of action, and then with success comes this bloody chapter. What do we make of it?

Firstly, remember that those Israelites who opposed Gideon were wrong. Gideon was God’s leader, so they needed to swallow their pride, and envy, and follow him. But what about Gideon? Was the sword God’s instrument against these albeit stubborn people, or only Gideon’s? Maybe the writer is giving us a clue that he at least doesn’t approve of this judgement: we see Gideon acting alone. No one stands with him as he crushes the disobedient. We find him here at the end where we met him at the beginning, all on his own.

It seems then, that he is another victim of success. Success has many casualties. Success can bring out pride, and selfishness. Success rarely brings us to our knees, at least, not until we’re broken by it. Jesus never trusted success in His earthly life, and never sought it according to the world’s standards. His success was His faith, and His humble service to God in order to redeem lost people.

Success is overrated. Seek God, not success. And if success ever comes your way, never let it capture your heart. Dare not to be a Gideon.

‘A Sword for the Lord’ Judges 7 – RBT notes, 9th April

 

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The dreaded day has now come for Gideon and his countrymen. Gideon has faced his unbelief, he’s faced his fears, and he’s stood face to face with God. He’s stood up to false gods and their worshippers. Now he must stand in battle against the Midianites. If ever he needs to know that the Lord is with him, it is now. Here’s a simple analysis of a famous and treasured story:

 

A Stripped-down Army

Too many soldiers will mean too little confidence in God. I’m sure that no one in this army believed that they were anywhere near large enough to face the locust-like Midianite hordes. God did, though, and stripped them down, so that the remaining 300 were less than 1% of the original army. But 300 (v.7)! What was God thinking?! Don’t get distracted by the strange selection process (possibly, the men with cupped hands raised to their mouths were more battle-able, as they were perhaps more alert to danger by not drinking with their faces down to the water). The fact is that God was pleased to send a ridiculously understrength army to win His victory.

 

A Strange Dream

While the Israelites are having nightmares, a Midianite is having a very strange dream. Remember how the Angel of the Lord met Gideon when he was threshing wheat? Well, now the Midianites will face a rolling barley loaf, smashing their camp into bits. One man has grown to be a warrior, the leader of an army whose real Head is the Lord God of Armies. And do you know what? It was a dream from heaven (vv.13-14).

 

Psychological Warfare

If the army selection process is strange, and the dream is also strange, then the details of jars and lights and trumpets are not. If you can’t win by brute strength (and 300 brave souls couldn’t), then you must win by stealth and strategy. And by psychology. So Gideon’s strategy is clever, and devastating. In the early hours, with the Midianites in the deepest sleep, Gideon’s army blasts their senses, with sudden light, shouting and the blast of 300 trumpets. The Midianites are confused, terrified, and in sudden flight. It’s a genius strategy, and its deadly (vv.21-25).

 

So?

This was some victory. It was an amazing triumph by a tiny squadron of soldiers against the local super-power. God took on a mighty army with a weak army and a frightened leader, and made sure of victory. ‘But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1‬:‭27-29‬). He chose the Cross for His Son, the ultimate place of weakness, and transformed it into a victory for all who trust in Him. Today He chooses weak believers to be victors in His strength. Hallelujah! ‘A sword for the Lord, and (if you believe Him) for you!’