The Difficult Message of Judges

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We are studying Judges on Sunday morning and it has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. My initial interest in teaching Judges was its relevance to Western Christianity. You have God’s people living among a pagan culture. Most assimilate and worship the gods of the land. Finally they cry out for deliverance and God raises up a leader to liberate them from their oppressors and bring them back to God. Each time that cycle repeats things get worse. The cries for deliverance get fewer and longer between. God’s response gets slower. The judge/deliverer gets more sinful and less trusting of the Lord. The whole book is pretty much one big downward spiral for God’s people with little glimmers of hope along the way that ends with the line “everyone did what was right in their eyes.” (21:25). A few parallels in there with Western Christianity that we need to be reminded of.

There are two things that when brought together make the book extremely hard to teach well, at least for me. Throughout the book the righteousness of God and the sovereignty of God seem to collide. The seeming collision happens most in the work of God’s Spirit. This is particularly true in the case of Samson. Repeatedly in the Samson story you have the Spirit of God oppressing Samson. The word in Hebrew for how the Spirit interacts with Samson is a different word than all the other judges. With all the others it “came upon” them but with Samson the Hebrew is more like the Spirit is pressing down upon him, stirring him up in order to have conflict with the Philistines (Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19 & 15:14).

In all of these instances, God incited Samson to do things that might be thought to be out of line with God’s moral will. Why would God incite a man to marry someone God had already let us know he wouldn’t be pleased with His people marrying? My guess is that the tension between God’s righteousness and God’s sovereignty is resolved by God’s holiness. God is stirring these events up precisely because His people had not respected His holiness. For instance, God’s people were commanded by God to not leave any Philistines left in the land. They didn’t obey God on that one and they bore the consequences of that disobedience. God’s holiness is contrasted with Samson’s own personal sinfulness. Samson doesn’t respect his own status as a Nazarite before the Lord (a word that comes from the Hebrew word for separation, devotion or consecration). Yet Samson acts just like the Philistines and does things his way, not the Lord’s. In Judges 14:3 Samson wants to marry the Philistine woman because “she seemed right in his eyes” not because he cared about God’s commands.

So here is what is crazy, once Samson goes down that path, the Lord uses those very things for the furtherance of God’s plan. God says don’t marry them. Samson does anyway. God says to kill the Philistines. They don’t. God then uses those very events to further His kingdom, not because God thrives on using unrighteousness for righteous goals but because God is patient, graceful and sovereign. One might expect Samson’s powers to be taken away the moment he touched the corpse of the lion but they weren’t. God still had a plan in mind and God was going to use Samson, in spite of Samson, to get accomplish His purposes.

Two lessons from all of this: God will allow you to choose unrighteousness and take that path as far as it will take you, even provoking your stubborn soul into more unrighteousness (Romans 1:24 – “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their heart”). Second, God is more graceful than we know. God doesn’t force us to sin to further His purposes but God can even use our messed up lives, brokenness and mistakes to bring about His purposes. As hard as that is to understand, I am so appreciative of that because I know God can still use me in spite of my sin, imperfections and lack of obedience. That doesn’t mean I make those things “the plan” but God can work through that to bring about some amazing things very much in spite of my own actions.

How have you seen God work through less than ideal, even sinful situations, to bring about greater purposes?

7 Responses

  1. It may have been hard getting there, but I think you nailed it. Of course, the hardest part of this is accepting it because it demands that we let God out of the box we Americans like to keep Him in!

  2. One of the most merciful things God does is use us in spite of our weaknesses. We deserve death, and even bring it about through our actions, but God is gracious and faithful, and he will bring life, even through death.

  3. “Repeatedly in the Samson story you have the Spirit of God oppressing Samson”.

    Respectfully, I wouldn’t say he oppressed Samson but infused him with overwhelming strength and righteous indignation over the unjust actions of the Philistines. I believe he was struck at times with powerful feelings of retribution as in Judges 13:25.

    1. RJ,
      The reason I said the Spirit of God was “oppressing Samson” is because that is pretty much what it says in Hebrew. The word for the Spirit coming down on Samson is different from the word used for all the other judges. The root word is from the word for foot and ִנ ִתס תרַנסִתִוֶ טֹרמ הֶרֶ it means to stamp down on, oppress or agitate.

      Here is the entry from HALOT,

      פעם pi. to push, disturb, nif. to be disturbed; Sam. (Ben-H. Lit. Or. 2:559).
      qal or pi.: inf. sf. פַעֲמוֹ: to stir, trouble (sbj. רוּחַ יהוה) Ju 1325.

      Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1999). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed.) (952). Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.

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