Judges: God’s Tests, Our Failures
How we Grow in Faith and Trust Through Failure.
Text: Judges 2:6-23
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
"Last week we began a series of sermons on the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, and we looked together at the first 'Introduction' to the Book of Judges which is in chapter 1.
But the Book of Judges actually has two introductions, and today we’re going to look at the second one, which is found in chapter 2 beginning in verse 6.
If you remember last week, the first introduction began by telling us that Joshua had just died and the Israelites asked the Lord for instructions as to who should lead them now. Well, when we get to the second introduction, Joshua is initially still alive and is giving the Israelites his last pep talk, and then we are told how he dies at the age of 110, and was buried in the hill country of Ephraim.
This way of telling a story may seem odd to us, because we are used to having stories told chronologically. -But ancient Hebrews didn’t tell stories that way. They had different organizing principles, and different ways of framing stories than we have. We’ll talk more about this in the weeks to come, but for today, I just don’t want you to be surprised that today’s reading begins with Joshua still alive. You’re just getting more detail today on how that all came about.
After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. 7 The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten. 9 And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. 10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever 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. 16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. 20 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant I ordained for their ancestors and has not listened to me, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. 22 I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.” 23 The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.
Alright. So Joshua is now really dead, and in this second introduction we are given a second overview of how this period of the Judges unfolded after his death.
Last week we saw that the Israelites started out on a good foot. They asked the Lord for leadership and guidance. And then they worked together to do what the Lord told them to do.
And we didn’t read the whole of the first chapter, because there are whole host of towns and place names that are difficult to pronounce and I didn’t want Mark Parisi who was reading to have a coronary. But in those verses we are told that the Israelites worked their way into the land of Canaan from south to north. And there were many victories as the Lord was with them, but there were also many places where the Israelites were unable to dislodge the Canaanites.
For instance, in 1:27, we read 'But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan, or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land.' So you need to know that all through the period of the Judges the Land of Promise is populated by a complicated mixture of Israelites and Canaanites all living in close proximity to one another.
And I say 'complicated,' because the Canaanites were not just one people group. There were Jebusites in Jerusalem, and Philistines along the coast of the Mediterranean, Sidonians and Hivites living in the mountains on the border of Syria, and Hittites and Perizzites and other tribes and clans of peoples scattered in cities and villages all over Canaan.
And you might wonder why God would let this be? I mean, if God was with his people and he had given them the Promised Land to be their own, shouldn’t the Israelites have been able to drive out the Canaanites and cleanse the whole land and be done with it?
Well, you might think so, but think about our own lives for a minute. Don’t we often ask ourselves why, 'if we are God’s people and His Holy Spirit is living in us, why do we still find life to be such a constant battle with the enemy? Why does the world around us, and our own sin and selfishness still remain so difficult to conquer?' If God is on our side, shouldn’t we be able to be a little more victorious than we are?
These are questions the stories in the Book of Judges actually addresses. And the answers we find there might surprise you.
1. First, I want you to listen what God had said to Moses all the way back in the Book of Exodus, when God was telling Moses in advance what would happen when His people got to the Promised Land.
In Exodus 23:27, God is speaking to Moses in advance about the conquest of Canaan, and he says, 'I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.'
So here’s the first surprising answer that comes from God Himself about why the Promised Land isn’t going to instantly be handed to God’s people on a silver platter.
It was because there weren’t enough Israelites to fully populate the land. There were not enough of them to actually occupy all the cities and villages of Canaan. They couldn’t farm all of the farms. They couldn’t harvest all the crops. They couldn’t maintain all the houses and towns and fortified cities. Without Canaanites, buildings and towns would fall into disrepair, fields would be infested with weeds, wild animals would run rampant.
You see, there were ways in which having Canaanites continue living in the land of Promise was a blessing to God’s people. They could actually help keep the economy running.
And that’s what we see here in chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Judges. In Judges 1:28-30, we read, 'When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely. And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor.'
You see, the Israelites did defeat these Canaanites, but kept them around to help them do the work that needed to be done. And God had said in advance that this needed to happen, and that it was a good thing for the Israelites.
2. Now secondly, though it is not stated specifically in Judges, God had always called his people to be a light to the other people groups among whom they would live.
When God first called Abraham and Sarah, and told them that he would make of them a great nation to be His people, God said that God would bless Abraham and his descendants and that they would be a blessing to all the nations of the world.
From the very beginning this was the purpose of God in calling the Israelites to himself. And so even in this period of the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites were still meant to be a light shining in the darkness. They were meant to live out a life of faith in the midst of these Canaanites such that Canaanites might be drawn to faith and repentance themselves, and join the family. Like Rahab had done in Jericho.
This was second reason why God allowed and encouraged the Israelites to live among the Canaanites year after year. There were Canaanites whom God was drawing into His Kingdom, and God’s people were meant to give witness to their faith and be the means God used to communicate the faith.
And this is true for us as well. One of the reasons God has kept you and me living in the midst of a broken and pagan world is to be witness to the goodness and grace of God who saves broken pagans like us. We are called to be a light in a dark world, just like the Israelites were.
Now of course, the danger in every generation is that the exact opposite could also happen: that the Israelites would become Canaanites. The world can often have a greater effect on God’s people than God’s people have on the world.
We see this in our own lives and in our own generation just like we will see it here in the Book of Judges.
And this is what we are told here in the second introduction in Judges 2. V. 2:10 says that after Joshua died, and his whole generation went home to the Lord, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.
Verses 12-20 tell us that: the Israelites forsook the Lord their God and worshipped and followed the various idols of Canaan. They then began to behave and practice the evils the Canaanites. It says this is what then provoked the Lord to anger with them just as God had been angry with the Canaanites. God then handed his people over to the will of their enemies who began to defeat them in battle and put them to hard labor. This in turn caused God’s people to cry out to God for help and repent of their sin. And God would then have compassion on them and would raise up a judge to lead His people, and to rescue them from the hand of their enemies.
This is the paradigm for the whole Book of Judges. And after a period of peace, the cycle would begin all over again.
3. And so this brings us to the third reason that the Lord allows the Canaanites to remain in the Land of Promise for so long.
God uses the Canaanites as a test of faith for His people.
At the end of Judges 2 in verse 21, God says: 'I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their forefather’s did.'
My friends, living among Canaanites was where the rubber met the road for God’s people in the Old Testament. Living out a life of faith in the midst of worldly, idolatrous Canaanites was a test of faith every day.
And the question on the test was always: will the Israelites woo the Canaanites to repentance and faith in God, or will the Canaanites woo the Israelites to apostasy and idolatry.
And the Book of Judges shows us quite clearly that the Israelites routinely failed that test.
But here’s the thing: the Book of Judges also shows us quite clearly that it was in their failing, and in their experiences of falling flat on their faces, that the Israelites learned to cry out to God for help, and learned that God was faithful again and again and again to rescue them and help them.
This was how they learned to trust God and rely on His strength in the midst of their weakness. This was the process of growing and maturing in faith.
And my friends, the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10 that these Old Testament stories 'are examples to us and were written down as warnings to us on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.' Their trials and tests are meant to teach us, you see.
And what we see is that the test God set for them: to live out their life of faith in the midst of a Canaanite world, was designed to help them learn what trusting God was all about. The test was designed to teach them not to rely on themselves, not to rely on idols of their own making, not to rely on their own strength and ingenuity. The test was designed to teach them to give up on all of that, and rely on God. And they only really learned the lesson by failing so many times.
My friends, what I want us to see today, is that this is still the way God uses the trials and tests that we face in our lives. Why do sins still remain in our lives? Because God wants us to learn to trust in His righteousness alone, and not in our own righteousness. How do we learn to do that? By sinning and discovering anew just how unrighteous we are and just how much we need a righteousness that is not our own. Why must we live out this life of faith in a faithless world surrounded by modern day idolatrous Canaanites? Because that is still where the rubber meets the road. Every day your faith will be tested and tried by the world, and by the flesh, and by the devil. And that’s where you will learn to cry out to God for help. That’s where you’ll to exercise the faith you do have. And that’s where you’ll discover that in fact, by God’s grace and the power of His Spirit in you, your faith is actually growing and deepening and maturing.
You see, the Book of Judges teaches us that life is a battle. God may have given us the Promised Land as a gift, but we still have to take it, and it’s in the complicated process of slowly taking it that we learn what faith and trust and reliance on God are all about.
You and I tend to think that having God in our life is supposed to make our lives easier, more enjoyable, more satisfying. We think that having God on our side ought to make our problems go away. We are shocked when we discover that life is a battle instead. A battle with the sin 'in here,' and a battle with the world 'out there.'
But the Book of Judges says, 'No, it’s a battle alright.' On both fronts, and it isn’t going to stop being a battle anytime soon. Because as soon as this cycle of sin and struggle and rescue and redemption is over, another one is bound to begin.
So don’t think God is going to instantly get rid of the enemies 'out there' or the sin and idolatry 'in here.' Because it is right the midst of the battles with the enemy out there and the sin in here that God tests us to strengthen and mature us. He tests us to see how far we’ve come. He tests us to help us learn to trust. He tests us to help us come to a deeper awareness of who He is, and a deeper awareness of who we are.
And somehow in the process, we grow in faith and trust. We learn that in our weaknesses is the very way in which God shows Himself to be strong, and teaches us rely on Him, and not on ourselves."