Judges: Our Weakness, God’s Strength
Recognizing God as Leader.
Text: Judges 1:1-21
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
"We are beginning today a series of sermons on the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. And I am entitling the series, Our Weakness, God’s Strength, because that is a major theme of the Book of Judges. It’ s also a primary lesson and point of application that you and I can take from the Book of Judges for our own lives: discovering God’s strength in the midst of our weaknesses.
Now I want to say at the outset, that the Book of Judges is a book of the Bible that is largely ignored or avoided in preaching, and probably because it is a book that is full of war and fighting and conquest and sex and guts and gore. If you’re a Sunday School teacher it’s a book you pass over because it’s just not a nice book for kids to read. It’s at least 'R-rated', and it’s not for the faint of heart.
So why are we going to be reading it together on nice Spring and Summer Sunday mornings? Well, first because it is a book of the Bible, and we ought to read it. And second, because it actually has a ton to teach us about what it means to trust God in the midst of the real battles and real difficulties of real life. And third, because I actually love this book of the Bible.
Call me crazy, but I love all of the crazy, messed up people you will be meeting in the Book of Judges, with all of the crazy messes they get themselves into. And I love the way God continually makes Himself known to these people and shows His strength in their weaknesses. So today, let’s jump into chapter 1, verses 1-21.
I have asked Mark Parisi if he would read the passage for us.
1 After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?” 2 The Lord answered, “Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands.” 3 The men of Judah then said to the Simeonites their fellow Israelites, “Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.” So the Simeonites went with them. 4 When Judah attacked, the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands, and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. 5 It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. 6 Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 Then Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there. 8 The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire. 9 After that, Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites living in the hill country, the Negev and the western foothills. 10 They advanced against the Canaanites living in Hebron (formerly called Kiriath Arba) and defeated Sheshai, Ahiman and Talmai. 11 From there they advanced against the people living in Debir (formerly called Kiriath Sepher). 12 And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” 13 Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage. 14 One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?” 15 She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs. 16 The descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, the Kenite, went up from the City of Palms with the people of Judah to live among the inhabitants of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad. 17 Then the men of Judah went with the Simeonites their fellow Israelites and attacked the Canaanites living in Zephath, and they totally destroyed the city. Therefore it was called Hormah. 18 Judah also took Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron—each city with its territory. 19 The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron. 20 As Moses had promised, Hebron was given to Caleb, who drove from it the three sons of Anak. 21 The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.
So my friends, leadership is also major theme of the Book of Judges. And the story begins with the words, 'After the death of Joshua.'
Those opening words tell us we are entering into the history of God’s people at a time of major leadership transition. Joshua had been the great leader who took God’s people into the Promised Land of Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. He had been the apprentice to Moses all through the Exodus.
And God had developed Joshua along the way and then called him to be the one to bring the people into the land of Promise.
And in Moses and Joshua, the Bible gives us a model of godly leadership, which is characterized first and foremost as 'being under the primary leadership of God.' God was the real leader of His people. Moses and Joshua both learned that their job was to submit themselves to God, and listen to him, and follow his lead. Their leadership was to be an expression of God’s leadership.
But as we come in on the Book of Judges, Moses and Joshua are now both gone. And the Israelites have conquered enough of the land of Canaan, so that they are now spread out all over and are settling down into their own allotted regions, tribe by tribe.
And the question is, who is going to lead them now? That is the question with which the Book of Judges begins. 'After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, "Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?" And the Lord answered, "Judah is to go; I have given the land into their hands."'
Now there are two things I want you to pay attention to in this opening question, and the answer which God gives.
First, the Israelites begin the Book of Judges on the right foot. They inquire of the Lord. Joshua has died, there’s a necessary transition in leadership, and the Israelites go to God to ask Him who shall lead them now. That is exactly what they should have done, and they did it. The Book of Judges starts on a good note.
And secondly, I want you to notice the answer God gives: God says Judah is to now take the lead. And here’s the thing: Judah is the name of a Tribe of Israel, not an individual. There had been a person named Judah about 500 years before. He was the one this tribe in Israel was named after. Judah was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, and those 12 sons of Jacob would each become patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel.
But now, 500 years later, it is the descendants of Judah whom God names to take the lead in the on-going battles with the Canaanites. God doesn’t immediately replace Joshua with a person to be the new Commanding Officer, but with a tribe. And the specific tribe that God calls upon for this role of leadership is the tribe that would one day produce Israel’s kings. King David, and the line of kings descended from him all the way down to Jesus, would be from the tribe of Judah.
So even here at this point, before Israel ever has a king, God calls the tribe of Judah to take the lead in the on-going battles to conquer the land.
And the point here again is that God is their leader. God is the One in charge. The people of God do not need strong, charismatic, person to whom to give their allegiance, and to lead them in battle. All they need is God...and each other!
You see, in calling a tribe to take leadership, God is teaching them that they are a people. And they are called to be a people, who will continue to take the land of Promise God had given them together.
And look what the tribe of Judah does with this calling: Verse 3 says, 'Then the men of Judah said to the Simeonites their brothers "Come up with us into the territory allotted to us to fight the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours." And so the Simeonites went with them.'
You see, that’s how it was supposed to be done. Tribes helping one another out with the continuing conquest of the land. No tribe independent of the others, and none of them dependent on any particular leader. All of them dependent on God and working together to follow God’s lead.
It’s a very good beginning to the book, and a very good model for us of what church life is meant to look like, too. Because even all these years later, we are still called to be a people, whose primary allegiance is to God, and not to any individual pastor or teacher. And we are called as a people to live out this life of faith, and all the battles of life that we will inevitably encounter, together. We are not called to be independent, lone ranger Christians. But interdependent brothers and sisters in Christ. We need each other, and we live out this life in community with each other and with God as our true leader.
This is the model with which the Book of Judges begins. And let’s look at what happens!
In verse 4 the men of Judah and Simeon go together and attack the Canaanites and Perizzites, and God gives these enemies into their hands. It says they struck down 10,000 men in the region of Bezek, and the Adoni Bezek, the Lord of Bezek fled when his troops were routed. But the Israelites chased him down and captured him. And then they cut off his thumbs and big toes.
Now why do they do this? And what does it teach us about the conquest of Canaan and what this Book of Judges is really all about? Well, it is the King of Bezek himself who tells us why they did this to him. He says in verse 7, 'Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up the scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them. Then the Israelites brought Adoni-Bezek to Jerusalem and he died there.'
My friends, this first little gory story of the King of Bezek and the chopping off of his thumbs and toes, actually gives us a major clue to what the Book of Judges and the conquest of Canaan is all about.
It’s about God in His judgment righting wrongs. And Adoni-Bezek, right here at the beginning of Judges, gets it. He knows that His defeat at the hands of the Israelites is God’s judgment upon him for the evils he has perpetrated. He says it himself. He knows he is getting what he deserves.
He had been the one who had cut off the thumbs and big toes of the enemy kings he had defeated. I am sure it was his way of making sure those kings who had fought against him would never wield a sword or be able to run in battle again.
But it was an evil thing to do. It was a mutilation of their bodies and was meant to shame and humiliate them. And my friends, it was just one of a myriad of horrible practices which these warlike Canaanites inflicted on one another in those days. Canaanite tribes would routinely attack one another, brutally raping, pillaging, mutilating, smashing the heads of babies.
And Adoni Bezek says himself he knows it was evil and wrong to do this kind of stuff. He says that the Israelites doing to him what he did to others is a just punishment from God.
And that, my friends, is what the Book of Judges and the conquest of Canaan is really about.
God in his judgment is righting the wrongs that have been perpetrated in Canaan. He is holding the Canaanites accountable for their evils and injustices. God is acting justly, and showing His truth and righteousness by turning the tables on the Adoni-Bezek’s of the land, and exposing their evil practices as evil, and judging them.
You see, the Book of Judges is NOT the story of God casting out the indigenous people of Canaan because He liked the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob better. It’s not the imperialistic story of Israel brutally conquering the land for themselves, by acting just like the Canaanites.
No. Right from the start here we see that the conquering of Canaan was about God’s judgment on evil, and the righting of wrongs. God calls His people to be the instruments of His justice on the Canaanites because the sin of the Canaanites had reached its full measure.
And in this specific case with Adoni Bezek, God asks His people to do unto the King of Bezek as he had done to others, and it’s an act of God’s judgment. And Adoni Bezek doesn’t dispute the rightness of God’s judgment upon him.
And then the men of Judah and the men of Simeon do another odd thing. The text says they took him to Jerusalem and he died there. But my friends, it’s not that they dropped him off in Jerusalem and a few years later he died of natural causes.
No. They brought him to Jerusalem and made his death an offering to God, acknowledging that this battle and this judgment on Adoni Bezek was God’s battle and God’s judgment, not theirs.
And the odd thing is, Jerusalem at this time was still a Jebusite City. The Israelites had not taken it yet.
But Jerusalem had always been a kind of 'holy city' in the minds of God’s people. All the way back in Abraham’s day, 800 years before, the City had been called simply Salem, or Shalom, which means peace, and it was ruled by a King named Melchizedek, which means King of Righteousness. And when Abraham had gone to rescue his nephew Lot who had been captured by other warlike kings in Canaan, he had been victorious with God’s help, and he had brought Lot and all the others with him back home again. But on his way home, Abraham went first to Jerusalem and offered a thanksgiving offering to God by giving it to Melchizedek. And Melchizedek blessed Abraham.
The Israelites had always had a special place in their heart for this city, because for some reason God had always had a special place in his plan and purposes for this city.
And here in Judges, the men of Judah and Simeon take Adoni Bezek as a captive to Jerusalem, and offer him to God outside Jerusalem. And you know what, a few hundred years later, David would do the same things with the head of Goliath. After his famous battle with the giant Goliath, young David cuts off Goliath’s head, and takes it to Jerusalem, and offers it to God in thanksgiving for the victory.
You see, the point of these offerings for the Israelites was to acknowledge that these were not their own battles they were fighting, but God’s battles. And the victories they were winning were not their own victories accomplished by their own strength, but God’s victories, accomplished through His own strength. That’s what Abraham was proclaiming in his day, and the men of Judah and Simeon in this text, and what David would later be proclaiming after his battle with Goliath.
So these battles in the Book of Judges are not just the Israelites conquering Canaanites and taking their land. They are God’s acts of judgment on sin and evil.
The sins of the Canaanites had reached their full measure and God was righting wrongs. And God was calling His people to be instruments of His justice and judgment, and to do so for His Name’s sake, not for their own sake.
And by the way, those Canaanites had also had plenty of opportunity to repent of their sin and put their faith in God. They had had hundreds of years to repent of their evil ways. Like Rahab from Jericho, the Canaanites could have actually welcomed the coming of God and His people to their land. They could have bowed before the Lord, and repented of their sin, and they would have been forgiven, and they could have become part of the family of God and lived peaceably with their new neighbors.
But most of the Canaanites, like Adoni Bezek, did not take that option. Instead, they fought against God and his people. They wanted to keep the promised land for themselves. They fought tooth and nail to oppose God and His purposes, even when like Adoni Bezek they knew God’s ways were right and just.
So how about you today? Do you feel like you are at a place in your life where you are fighting against God and opposing His purposes in your life? You kind of know what God would actually like you to do, or to stop doing, but you’re hanging onto your own will and your own way? You see, it’s a spiritual battle that we are caught up in fighting each day in our lives. The enemy is not Canaanites out there in the world, so much as it is the Canaanite who lives right in here.
But the battle is real, and the Book of Judges teaches us right off the bat to go to God and ask for His leadership and guidance for the battle we face. It teaches us to listen to God and do what He says. It teaches us do what He says in community with others who He has given to be in this with us together as a people. It teaches us not to wait until our sin reaches deeper and worse levels in our lives, but to repent now and turn to God and welcome his word and his truth and his light in our lives.
That is just the beginning of the story of the Book of Judges we will be exploring over the next few weeks and months. It’s a powerful story with a ton of lessons for us about what it means to actually trust God, and walk with God, and learn what God loves and what God hates. And it’s a powerful story about learning to discover God’s strength right in the midst of our human weaknesses.
Let us pray.
Father, our church is preparing for our Annual Congregational meeting in another week or so. At that meeting we will be calling new leaders to lead us in the ministry you have called us to here at this time and in this place. So here in advance, we ask like the people of Israel did at the beginning of the Book of Judges, 'Lord, who do you want to lead us now?'
We recognize that leadership of your people is an awesome responsibility, but the nature of that responsibility is first and foremost to listen to you and to follow you. We confess that leadership is not about us, but about serving you and serving the people you have entrusted to us here at Forestdale. We bow before You now, Lord, and ask for your guidance in this time of transition. We ask for wisdom in our choice of leaders. We ask for a sense of calling for those who are being asked to serve in the various leadership roles. We ask for your anointing on all of us who will be leading, because what we all need more than anything else is the presence of your Holy Spirit with us, and the power of your Spirit working in and through us.
And like the men of Judah and Simeon, may we know that you have called us to be a people, and that we are in this life and faith together as a community of people. We are not lone rangers, and we are not meant to live this life or fight the battles of life on our own. We are meant to help each other, and encourage each other, and all along the way to learn to love one another as you have loved us.
We make an offering of ourselves anew to you today, Lord. Even as we come in a few minutes to take Communion together, may we reaffirm the covenant you have made with us in Jesus Christ, and respond to all you have done by proclaiming anew that we are your people, and you are our God. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen."