Judges: The Song of Deborah
God Uses the Weak Things of the World to Shame the Strong.
Text: Judges 5:1-31
Audio: Judges: The Song of Deborah
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
"Last Sunday on Mothers’ Day I introduced you to Deborah, who was a 'mother' to her nation of Israel in a difficult time. She was an amazing woman in the period of the Judges in Israel’s history. And her story in the Book of Judges is told in two parts. The first part is the narrative story written in prose. The second part is the 'Song of Deborah' which is written in poetry. Last week we looked at the prose, today we turn to the poetry which is found in the Book of Judges, chapter 5.
It is a lengthy song in which Deborah recounts the heroic deeds of the battle, by which the oppressive regime of the Canaanite King Jabin and his brutal commanding general Sisera were overthrown, and the Israelites were liberated.
Now without last week’s narrative story from chapter 4, many of the parts of this song about the battle will be pretty obscure. So if you weren’t with us last week, let me just give you a quick recap.
Israel had sinned and done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord. God had given them over to the hand of an enemy King named Jabin, who ruled the region of Canaan oppressively for 20 years. The Israelites cried out to the Lord, and surprisingly, God raised up a woman named Deborah to lead his people. This was highly unusual in the ancient world, but Deborah was acknowledged as a prophet of God and a gifted leader of her people: A Mother to Israel. When the time was right, God spoke to Deborah and told her to summon a man named Barak to be her commanding General and to gather 10,000 Israelite soldiers at Mt. Tabor for a battle against the enemy King Jabin. God said he would lure King Jabin and his General Sisera and their powerful army with their 900 iron chariots down into the Kishon River Valley at the foot of Mt. Tabor. And God promised to give King Jabin into Israel’s hands.
Last week we saw that this is just what happened, and at the end of the day, Israel was victorious and General Sisera who led the enemy troops was slain by a woman named Jael, who drove a tent peg through his temple.
That’s the basic story, but listen now to the Song of Deborah, which she sings to celebrate that great victory. Then we will unpack together all of the details found in the song which clarify for us just what happened in the battle that day, and who the real hero of that battle was.
On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song: 2 “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves— praise the Lord! 3 “Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I, even I, will sing to the Lord; I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song. 4 “When you, Lord, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. 5 The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel. 6 “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned; travelers took to winding paths. 7 Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel. 8 God chose new leaders when war came to the city gates, but not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel. 9 My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers among the people. Praise the Lord! 10 “You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road, consider 11 the voice of the singers at the watering places. They recite the victories of the Lord, the victories of his villagers in Israel. “Then the people of the Lord went down to the city gates. 12 ‘Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song! Arise, Barak! Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam.’ 13 “The remnant of the nobles came down; the people of the Lord came down to me against the mighty. 14 Some came from Ephraim, whose roots were in Amalek; Benjamin was with the people who followed you. From Makir captains came down, from Zebulun those who bear a commander’s staff. 15 The princes of Issachar were with Deborah; yes, Issachar was with Barak, sent under his command into the valley. In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of heart. 16 Why did you stay among the sheep pens to hear the whistling for the flocks? In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of heart. 17 Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan. And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves. 18 The people of Zebulun risked their very lives; so did Naphtali on the terraced fields. 19 “Kings came, they fought, the kings of Canaan fought. At Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo, they took no plunder of silver. 20 From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. 21 The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong! 22 Then thundered the horses’ hooves— galloping, galloping go his mighty steeds. 23 ‘Curse Meroz,’ said the angel of the Lord. ‘Curse its people bitterly, because they did not come to help the Lord, to help the Lord against the mighty.’ 24 “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. 25 He asked for water, and she gave him milk; in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk. 26 Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. 27 At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell—dead. 28 “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother; behind the lattice she cried out, ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’ 29 The wisest of her ladies answer her; indeed, she keeps saying to herself, 30 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a woman or two for each man, colorful garments as plunder for Sisera, colorful garments embroidered, highly embroidered garments for my neck— all this as plunder?’ 31 “So may all your enemies perish, Lord! But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.” Then the land had peace forty years.
So Deborah’s song is a song of praise to God. She makes clear right from the start, that the real 'hero' of the battle that day was God. Not her, not Barak, not Jael. She says, 'When the princes in Israel take the lead, and when the people willingly offer themselves–that is awesome and praise the Lord! But hear this, you kings,' she says, 'Listen you rulers. I will sing to the LORD, I will sing and make music to the LORD, the God of Israel. O LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched forth from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the LORD, the One of Sinai.'
What is Deborah singing about here? She is singing about the way that God fought the battle for the Israelites that day. Over in verse 19 she continues, 'Kings came, they fought; the Kings of Canaan fought at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo, but they carried off no silver, no plunder.' Why? Because 'from the heavens the stars fought, from their courses the stars fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul, be strong. Then thundered the horses hooves–galloping, galloping go his mighty steeds.'
My friends, here’s how this battle played out. God had told Deborah to have Barak take 10,000 Israelite men and muster as an army of the Lord on Mt. Tabor. And God said he would 'lure' General Sisera and his troops with their 900 iron chariots down into the Kishon River Valley at the base of Mt. Tabor.
Mt. Tabor stands at the eastern end of the long Valley of Jezreel. Because of the desert climate in that Middle Eastern part of the world, that river valley is a dry river bed a good portion of every year. It is what they call a Wadi. The Wadi Kishon.
And Mt. Tabor is surrounded by that dry river valley. When King Jabin and his General Sisera heard that the Israelites were mustering troops on Mt. Tabor, they thought it was their lucky day. They envisioned galloping down that valley with their horse drawn iron chariots and quickly surrounding the mountain. They could trap the Israelites on the mountain where they would be under siege. No food or supplies or water could be brought in, no reinforcements could come to them. They could be starved out, or simply slaughtered.
Because here’s the other bit of information Deborah’s song gives us in verse 8. At this time under King Jabin’s regime, there was not a shield or a sword seen among 40,000 people in Israel. King Jabin, you see, controlled the metal workers. His troops had swords and spears and shields and iron chariots. But the Israelites had none of that weaponry. They were probably up on that mountain with rakes and hoes and oxgoads and sticks and rocks.
So Jabin and Sisera thought this battle was going to be easy pickings for their well-armed troops.
And these Israelites on the mountain under the command of Barak? They knew that they had been sent to Mt. Tabor as bait. When God said he would 'lure' Sisera down into that valley, they knew that they were the 'lure.' They were sitting ducks gathered there on the mountain.
And Sisera took the bait. 'Galloping, galloping' he came barreling down the valley with his chariots and horses.
But much to everyone’s surprise, Deborah says that the stars in heaven began to fight against him. The dry season suddenly came to an untimely end. A massive storm came over that valley and the heavens poured down water. A flash flood brought water barreling down the Wadi Kishon, and Deborah says, the River Kishon swept them away.
The chariots became death traps. The horses rearing and drowning and dragging the chariots over and down. The soldiers ability to move and advance curtailed. Their swords and shields more cumbersome than helpful.
And up on the mountain, Deborah commanded Barak, 'Go, this day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands.' And the 10,000 Israelites were no longer sitting ducks. They went flying down that mountain like eagles. They descended with their sticks and stones and ox goads and hoes, and started pounding on Sisera’s troops. And they probably start grabbing swords from the fallen enemy soldiers and using them against the enemy.
It was the LORD God, Deborah says, 'who marched forth that day on their behalf.' It was the LORD God who thundered from heaven, who shook the earth, who made water pour down from the heavens, who swept the enemy away by filling the river valley with a sudden flood in the Wadi Kishon.
And Deborah sings God’s blessings on all those volunteers from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun who offered themselves to be bait that day on Mt. Tabor. But she sings God’s curses on all those Israelites who chickened out and stayed home for fear of the enemy.
For those who came to the mountain saw the power of God displayed. They witnessed the way God came to the aid of the lowly, and brought down the power of the high and mighty. And those who stayed home missed out. They missed out on seeing the righteous acts of God, and missed out on being a part of it.
'And most blessed of women be Jael,' Deborah sings. The lowly woman into whose hands God lured General Sisera, and lured him to his death.
And Deborah recounts in great detail the gory part of last week’s story, of how General Sisera abandoned his chariot, and ran from the battle as his men were being routed. How he ran to the tent of Heber the Kenite thinking he would find shelter with an ally. But how Jael, the Israelite wife of Heber the Kenite was the one who was at home.
How Sisera asked her to hide him, and asked for a little water for his thirst. And how she gave him milk and hid him under a blanket. But then while he slept, she took a tent peg and mallet, and drove the peg into his temple and killed him.
Deborah recounts this action in great detail, and calls Jael the most blessed of women for doing this.
And that may seem strange to us, because what Jael did looks to us like deception and pre-meditated murder. I mean, welcoming a person into your home, giving him a nice glass of milk and putting him down for a nap, and then driving a tent peg through his head is not exactly a part of the Near Eastern form of hospitality.
But the thing we need to remember is that this was for Deborah and Jael and the Israelites part of the battle that was fought that day. They did not see Sisera as a guest in Jael’s home. He was an enemy combatant, who had fled the from the battle, but the battle was not over while he was still alive and armed and dangerous.
And Jael knew all this. She knew exactly who Sisera was when he showed up at her door, because her husband Heber was buddy-buddy with General Sisera. He had been in business with General Sisera and King Jabin forging their weapons and building their chariots for years.
And she knew all about the battle that was being fought that day, because her husband was integrally involved in what was going on.
So when Sisera comes fleeing to her door, she can tell by his very presence on her doorstep that Israel has been victorious on the field of battle.
But Jael is an Israelite whose name means 'Yahweh is God.' And she is no ally of Sisera or of King Jabin. She believed that God Himself had delivered Sisera right into her hands. And just like the rest of the Israelites that day, Jael has only an inferior weapon to use: a tent peg and mallet. But it is with an inferior weapon, and by the hand of a lowly woman, that the mighty General Sisera is brought down that day by God. God uses the lowly things of this world to shame the high and mighty again and again.
But there’s one last thing about the way Jael kills the enemy Sisera that is also revealing. There is a biblical principle you all know well that we reap what we sow.
Well, Deborah ends her song by telling us what Sisera would have done to the Israelite women if his army had been victorious that day. Deborah sings in v. 28 of Sisera’s mother who is anxiously waiting at home that day for the arrival of her victorious son and his armies. She is wondering why he is taking so long in coming home. And her lady companions her assure her that the men are probably delayed because they are reveling in their victory. They are probably finding and dividing the spoils, taking plunder, and 'a girl or two for each man.'
My friends, these women know that their men are probably late in coming because they are raping Hebrew women and pillaging Hebrew villages.
This is what Sisera and his men have probably done countless times during their 20 year reign of power as they beat up on other lesser king and peoples.
So when Sisera dies at the hands of a woman, and she kills him by plunging a phallic shaped tent peg into his head, this is a symbol that the death of Sisera is a judgment from God, and Sisera is getting his just desserts. A woman is doing the same kind of thing to him that he had done to countless women at the end of many a battle.
His violence against women has come down on his own head. It’s the hand of God bringing a judicial punishment that fits the crime. Sisera reaps what he has sown. It’s also why Deborah can sing, 'Blessed is Jael among women, the most blessed of tent-dwelling women.'
My friends, this is not only a rich biblical story of the liberation of God’s people in Deborah’s day. It is also a story that points back to the liberation of God’s people from Pharaoh in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. And a story that points us forward to the liberation of God’s people from bondage to sin and hell and death that would come in the person and work of Jesus years later.
When we hear of Sisera’s chariots galloping down the valley to entrap the Israelites at Mt. Tabor, we can’t help but remember Pharaoh’s chariots coming after Moses and the Israelites as they had their backs up against the Red Sea. And when the Wadi Kishon becomes a raging river which sweeps Sisera’s chariots away, we can’t help but remember Pharaoh’s chariots being swallowed up by the waters of the Red Sea as it closed in over them.
And afterwards, at the Exodus, it is Moses’ sister Miriam who then sings the song of God’s victory against all odds.
And here in like manner, it is Deborah who sings of the Lord’s great victory against all odds. Both songs tell of how God used the very power of nature to rout the enemy and save His people.
There are at least a dozen parallels to the Exodus in these two chapters of Judges, and most surprising of them all is that the counterpart to Moses in this story in Judges is Deborah, a woman. She is the prophet who represents God to her people just like Moses. She is the leader and the one who judges her people’s disputes just like Moses. Though she is strong in many ways, she has the same kind of humility about her that marked Moses’ ministry.
She’s a remarkable woman in the Bible. And like Moses, she points us to the Christ. She’s another example of how God uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God takes Deborah and Barak and 10,000 weaponless volunteers to a mountain to offer themselves as bait. To willingly sacrifice themselves and make themselves vulnerable to the enemy.
But God then uses their weakness and vulnerability as a lure which brings the enemy right where God wants them. And then God displays His strength and defeats the enemy and performs His great act of salvation liberating his people from bondage.
Jesus’ death on the cross was a lot like that. Jesus made himself vulnerable, and the devil thought killing him was an easy victory, and the battle was short and sweet. Little did he know that God had something else up his sleeve and that easy victory would turn into Satan’s biggest defeat. Deborah’s story points us to the cross and resurrection.
We come now to share communion together, and as we take the bread and the cup, we remember these things. And with Deborah and all God’s people through all the ages we give thanks to the God comes to the aid of those who cry out to him for help. He comes and fights our battles for us. He comes and saves us not because we are strong and righteous and deserving, but because we are weak and unrighteous and desperately needy. We sing and make music to the Lord, the God of Hosts, who in our weaknesses delights to show himself to be strong again and again and again.
Let us pray."