By Jerran Jackson
We were flying comfortably at 5,000 feet when the instructor took control. He pulled back on the yoke, raising the nose of the airplane. He also pulled back on the throttle, reducing our speed. A horn began to blare loudly; the airplane began to shake. Then we dropped. We no longer were flying—we were falling. The hand on the altimeter spun out the dreadful news: 4,800, 4,700, 4,600. We were plummeting toward the earth. Unless we did something soon, we would meet the ground in a fatal impact.
This was part of my training as a student pilot, and fortunately I knew what to do to correct course and get the plane back to safety.
In the book of Judges, Israel was plummeting too. “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors . . . . In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. . . . They were in great distress” (Judges 2:11, 12, 14, 15).
The overall message of Judges is one of spiritual, moral, and national decline. Israel was falling. Unless something happened soon, God’s people would plummet into paganism. What would stop them from continuing their free fall?
God showed his mercy. “The Lord raised up a judge for them. He was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies” (Judges 2:18). Each time God’s people cried out to him, the Lord raised up a deliverer.
The title for this book, Judges, refers to the deliverers God empowered. A judge today performs one duty; he or she determines justice. A biblical judge might have done this. But he or she also fulfilled the roles of military leader, governor, and religious leader. Othniel and Ehud are called deliverers (Judges 3:9, 15). Deborah, Gideon, and Jephthah led armies to free God’s people from their oppressors (Judges 4-8, 11-12). Gideon was also a religious leader (Judges 6:25-32). Jair and Jephthah served as civil leaders (Judges 10:3-5; 11:11-28). Shamgar and Samson became military heroes (Judges 3:31; 14–16). Just as a captain guides a ship, serves as commander over the crew, and can perform marriages or burials at sea, biblical judges fulfilled multiple leadership roles.
The book of Judges tells the story of God’s deliverers. But Judges is more than an anthology of hero stories or leadership lessons. Notice the outline of the book:
Chapters 1, 2: The recurring pattern of spiritual decline: sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance.
Chapters 3–16: The pattern played out in Israel’s history despite God’s deliverers: God sends Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson to rescue his people.
Chapters 17–21: Further evidence of spiritual decline: the stories of two Levites and Israel’s civil war.
Judges is filled with stories of faith. But Abimelech (Judges 9), the stories in Judges 17–21, and the lack of information about several judges demonstrate that this book is about more than spiritual heroes.
Messages of Mercy
The book of Judges is filled with messages for us. One message is that God offers mercy amidst our sinfulness. Despite Israel’s recurring rebellion, God empowered saviors. He sent men and women to rescue his people. Judges is my story. It recounts my life. Like those ancient Israelites, I do what is right in my own eyes and suffer the consequences. Then, due to the pain, I repent. I promise God I will do better, and for a while I do. Then I fall back into the same old sins or I invent new ones. Yet God does not give up on me. He sends his Word and his Spirit to convict me. God sends friends who speak his truth. God sends examples and encouragers to draw me forward. These are my deliverers.
Another message shows up in the character of God’s deliverers. Gideon made a golden ephod, which he allowed God’s people to worship (Judges 8). Jephthah made a rash vow before the Lord (Judges 11). Samson defiled himself in multiple ways, despite his consecration as a Nazarite (Judges 13–16). Nevertheless Hebrews 11:32-34 declared that God worked through these judges to bless his people. This is a reminder that God can work through you and me, even though we are far from upright.
My friend Cleo is a recovering alcoholic. Another friend Larry went through a long period far away from the Lord. Cleo and Larry know their many sins. But both men now actively encourage those around them to follow Jesus. Just like Cleo and Larry, you can do good for God’s kingdom. You can lift people up even though you also need to be lifted.
One more message of Judges is the value and importance of spiritual leadership. God is our ultimate judge (Judges 11:27). He is our deliverer. But God works through people. And when spiritual leadership is absent, people fall deeper into sin. Your leadership can make a difference. Like these judges, you don’t have to hold an official position to lead God’s people. Bill and Deb befriended a neighbor, and they serve as his spiritual lifeline. They are saving his life. Several years ago, George urged a coworker to come back to church. She did, and through her influence her whole extended family is coming to the Lord. You can call your fellow sinners to turn back to the Lord. And you can lead the way for people into spiritual renewal.
Finishing the Symphony
In the fall of 1822, Franz Peter Schubert wrote the first two movements of a Symphony in B Minor. Variations on the opening lines filled these two movements, but the symphony never came to resolution. The third, concluding movement was missing. The book of Judges is like Schubert’s famous “unfinished symphony.” Judges weaves together several variations of the same theme: sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance. The book shows Israel’s deepening depravity and concludes with the words: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). Israel wanted a king. They needed God to be king over their lives. They needed to do as he saw fit. But Judges concludes without a resolution.
Scholars believe that Franz Schubert wrote the third movement of his Symphony in B Minor, but he had to sell it separately to fulfill a contract he had made. His song was finished in another work. This is exactly what we find with the book of the Judges—the story is completed in another work. The book of Revelation foretells, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. . . . His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. . . . On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:11, 12, 16). Here is the end of the story, the resolution to the song. When Jesus is King, then the longing that began back in Judges finally will be fulfilled.
Jerran Jackson plays a small part in God’s symphony in Clarksburg, Indiana.