During seminary my wife and I were members of a small local church near our home. I volunteered as much as time and permission from church leadership allowed. A few times a year our pastor let me preach. One fateful year I managed to land the opportunity to preach during Advent. Even sweeter, he let me pick the passage. I chose the book of Judges, specifically Judges 19.
Looking out from the pulpit upon a sanctuary decorated with golden stars and red velvet bows and families dressed in their Sunday Christmas best, I told the story of a concubine raped all night to her death, sliced into twelve pieces, then packaged and sent throughout the tribes of Israel. “Such a thing has never happened or been seen,” says the narrator (19:30). That’s sort of how I felt too as I preached the passage during Advent.
I titled the message “Unexplainable Misery and the Wonder of Advent,” and I intended to mean the misery of everyone in the book of Judges (especially those in chapter 19), as well as the misery of all us who live east of Eden. But as I preached, it sure seemed awfully hot in the sanctuary for the middle of December. My misery, however, did not seem so unexplainable.
It has been fifteen years since I preached that sermon, and different ministry roles have taken me to churches in other parts of the country. But just the other week I ran into my former pastor. Although we had not seen each other in years, do you know what came up? “Ahhh, yes, that sermon,” he said. I guess neither of us can forget it.
Although my seminary preaching ambition may have been greater than my preaching ability, the gospel punchline from that sermon still preaches: There was no king in Israel—until there was. The King of Kings came in a manger, and he will come again on a white horse. Both Advents bring good news to all who see Jesus as the only Savior from the sinful world around them and the world of sin within them.
As you preach through the book of Judges, your people may stare back at you with blank faces; indeed, you may sit in your study on more than a few Wednesdays pouring over a passage with your own blank stare. Yet, if you “pray until the sermon’s hot,” as I’ve heard one pastor say, the glory of the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ will sparkle against the grizzly backdrop of the book of Judges—and against the backdrop of our lives. And after you preach each week, and the music team takes the stage for one more song, with every head bowed and every eye closed, your people will be able to rest in this one truth: although scarcely will one man die for a good man, they will know that while we were still sinners—sinners like the sinners in the book of Judges—God demonstrated his love for us in the death of his Son. Soon and very soon, the Son who now sits will yet stand to split the sky.
Sound the trumpet, Preacher. There was no king in Israel until there was. And is. And will be again.
College Church in Wheaton, Illinois
Preached by Josh Moody and several others in the summer of 2009 as part of their evening services. The sermons were apparently not individually titled, but the series had the title “If You Want God, You Have to Get Over Your Self.”
- Judges 1:1–2:5 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 2:6–3:6 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 3:7–31 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 4:1–5:31 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 6:1–32 (Jay Thomas)
- Judges 6:33–7:8 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 7:9–25 (Todd Augustine)
- Judges 8:1–35 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 9:1–57 (Brandon Levering)
- Judges 10:6–11:40 (Todd Augustine)
- Judges 12:1–15 (Jay Thomas)
- Judges 13:1–25 (Chris Castaldo)
- Judges 14:1–20 (Josh Moody)
- Judges 16:1–22 (Jonathan Cummings)
- Judges 16:23–31 (Eric McKiddie)
- Judges 17:1–13 (Jeff Hershberger)
- Judges 18:1–31 (Collin Hansen)
- Judges 19:1–30 (Chuck King)
- Judges 20:1–48 (Brandon Levering)
- Judges 21:1–25 (Ryan Skinner)
Bent Oak Church in Springfield, Missouri
Preached by Chase Replogle in the summer of 2016
- “Introduction to the Judges”
- “Othniel, Ehud, and Eglon”
- “Barak, Deborah, Jael”
- “Gideon Encounters God”
- “Gideon’s Pride”
- “Abimelech, Son of a King”
- “Samson’s Parents”
- “Samson’s Riddle”
- “Samson and the Escalating Violence”
- “Samson and Delilah”
- “Sin Makes Us Boring”
Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek and Jason Abbott in the summer of 2016
- “Courage then Compromise then Consequence then Christ,” Judges 1:1–2:5 (Jason Abbott)
- “Upon Further Review,” Judges 2:6–3:6 (Benjamin Vrbicek)
- “The Good, the Bad, and the Oxgoad,” Judges 3:7–31 (Jason Abbott)
- “God Wins,” Judges 4:1–5:31 (Benjamin Vrbicek)
- “Wooing a Warrior,” Judges 6 (Jason Abbott)
- “Finish Strong,” Judges 7:1–10:5 (Benjamin Vrbicek)
- “No Negotiation,” Judges 10:6–12:15 (Jason Abbott)
- “The Purpose of Privilege,” Judges 13:24–16:31 (Benjamin Vrbicek)
- “Born to Save,” Judges 13 (Jason Abbott)
- “Feasting in Freedom,” Judges 17–18 (Benjamin Vrbicek)
- “And They Gave the Sense,” Judges 19–21 (Jason Abbott)
The cycle of sin, suffering, supplication, and salvation. Students of the book of Judges describe the cycles in Judges with various monikers. Here is my best attempt, a patchwork from several sources (the ESV Study Bible, various commentaries, and my seminary classes): Savior . . . (then) service . . . (then) sin . . . (then) subjugation . . . (then) supplication. The cycle begins with God as Savior, the God who saved his people from Egypt and gave them the Land of Promise. Throughout the book, God remains the only Savior, but he uses individual human judges to do his saving. Under the leadership of said judge, God’s people often initially served the Lord with vigor but would later fall into sin. And their sin would grow. And grow. And grow. God would then give his people over to foreign nations to chasten them. Consider Judges 6:1, for example, to see both sin and the subsequent subjugation: “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.” In their distress, God’s people would then cry out to the Lord (supplication), and God would again send them a judge to save them. This is the cycle in Judges. Another good verse to illustrate this cycle is Judges 2:18, which says, “Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.”
We think we are right in our own eyes. Likely you are familiar with the refrain the narrator sings several times near the end of the book, including the final few musical bars: “In those days there was no king in Israel” (21:25; cf. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). Some commentators take this to mean that the book of Judges served as a justification for kingship in Israel. Perhaps it did. Look here, people, when we didn’t have a king, life was this bad. We better get us a king who looks like the kings of other nations. But there is more to the final verse in the book. The full verse reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25 and 17:6). The theme of doing what is right in one’s own eyes, a euphemism for following the sinful desires of our hearts, develops slowly over the course of the book. At first, when the people sin, the narrator tells us, “the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (2:11). This description—doing “evil in the sight of the LORD”—is the typical repetition: 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1. Then, with Samson and his eyes, the wording shifts. Samson tells his father to get him a wife from the Philistines, saying, “Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes” (14:3). And consider 16:1, which says, “Samson went to Gaza, and there he saw a prostitute, and he went in to her.” Thus, Samson serves as a bridge to the final refrain: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And isn’t this exactly how sin grows? First, we rightly measure ourselves by God’s standard and how far short we fall. Then, well, we just sort of stop talking about God—he’s such a nuisance, you know, always telling us what we can and can’t do. We’re probably better off without him, calling our own shots. But does the ending to the book show that we are better or worse without God?
Generational faithfulness is simultaneously really important and really difficult. In the New Testament, James famously speaks of our lives as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (4:14). The prophet Hosea says something similar of a certain tribe of Israel. Because of sin, Ephraim had become as ephemeral as a vapor and as easily blown as chaff (Hosea 13:3). These two aspects of our humanity, our finitude and our depravity, combine to make faithfulness from one generation to the next just as wispy and vanishing. It certainly was in the book of Judges. At times, under the reign of one judge or another, obedience to the Lord abounded. At other times, under the reign of a different judge, or in the gap between two judges, the people of God floundered. The second chapter of Judges offers a key passage to show the simultaneous importance and difficulty of generational faithfulness. “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD,” we’re told (2:10). How could this happen? Did the older generation not teach the younger generation? Or did the younger generation not want to learn? We don’t know. Maybe both. This tragedy of the miscarriage of generational faithfulness cycles on repeat throughout the book. The ideal among the people of God—an ideal to which we often fall short—is that “One generation shall commend [God’s] works to another [generation]” and that the future generation “shall speak of the glory of [God’s] kingdom and tell of [his] power” (Ps. 145:4, 10).
General Issue #1: What was a “judge”? The judges were not judges in the sense that we commonly understand the role of judges in the American judicial system; the judges in the book of Judges did not adjudicate between disputing parties while wearing black robes and holding a gavel. “All rise, all rise, for the honorable Judge Shamgar.” No, the judges settled conflict while holding weapons of war and spilling blood. Interestingly, only Deborah is said to judge Israel in the way familiar to us. “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (4:5). It is better to think of the judges as military leaders or generals who ruled for a season over a region of Israel, either by self or outside appointment.
General Issue #2: Deeply flawed leaders. You might appreciate a leader who saves you from your enemy, and you might even be thankful to God for that leader, but, generally speaking, we shouldn’t necessarily pattern our ethical and spiritual devotion after the judges. Please forgive my use of an anachronism, but no judge says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), nor should we listen too closely if he did. Once, Gideon did say, “Look at me, and do likewise” (7:17). Still, that instruction was for a specific military stratagem for a specific battle, the lighting of a torch, the blowing of a trumpet, and the shouting of a battle cry. Speaking of Gideon’s battle cry, it went like this: “For the LORD and for Gideon” (7:18). And here we see the thread already starting to pull away from the knitted sweater. Gideon—as was the case with many of the judges—was deeply flawed. In fact, the more material we have on a particular judge, especially with Samson, the more we might be tempted to wonder about the sincerity of his salvation were it not for the fact that Hebrews 11:32ff considers the judges men of faith. Still, Gideon began by pulling down idols of Baal and Asherah only to later erect idols to his own honor that “all Israel whored after” (6:28 and 8:27). “I will not rule over you as a king,” Gideon tells God’s people. “But come over here and meet my son—his name is ‘My Father Is King’” (paraphrasing 8:22–23, 31). If not for the seriousness of sin, Judges almost reads comically, as though it were a parody of leadership. And yet, without too much mental effort, we could name the scores of celebrity pastors who have failed out or deconstructed out of ministry as dramatically as they seemed to flourish in ministry. Today, Christian apologists must craft apologies to explain the failure of our leading Christian apologist. We do not, however, need new arguments to describe our present predicament. We need the ancient ones, the arguments as old as Ur. We live after Genesis 3, and God has always drawn his straight lines with crooked sticks. As you preach the book of Judges, though, do not keep the flaws of the leaders at arm’s length. Bring them close and apply them near, not far. Remember that the flaws of Jephthah and Samson and the like do not merely explain the flaws in contemporary leaders but the flaws in our common humanity. When you and I look honestly in the mirror, sometimes we see judges.
The “double introduction” (1:1–2:5 and 2:6–3:6). The first four words of the book say, “After the death of Joshua . . .” Short as they are, the biblically informed reader should feel sufficiently situated for the context of the story that follows. Additionally, this line gives readers the appearance of chronology, which is to say one event will follow the next. Despite this general, chronological flow of the book, the second chapter takes a step backward. We read in 2:6, “When Joshua dismissed the people . . .” But how did Joshua, the leader who had recently died, dismiss people? It seems that Judges 2:6–3:6 provides a second introduction to the book, an introduction that chronologically precedes the first introduction. The second introduction explains, with more depth, an issue that seems to have been intentionally glossed over in the first introduction. In 1:19–36 we read that most of the tribes of Israel did not fully drive out the inhabitants of the Promised Land, but we are not told why. The closest we get to an explanation for their failure is in v. 19, which says, “because they [the foreign nation] had chariots of iron”—the idea being that Israel had an inferior military, and that is why they failed. The real reason for their failure, however, was their spiritual infidelity. It is for this reason that the second introduction highlights in sobering detail: when the people of God “abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (2:13), they floundered. Noting this in a sermon or two allows preachers to pull up sin by the root, not merely the leafy green parts.
Deborah, Barak, and women in leadership (4:1–5:31). Much more is happening in the important story of Deborah and Barak and God’s victory over Sisera than we typically discuss in the egalitarian and complementarian debate. In other words, if you only focus your sermon here, you will miss the bigger issues. This is not to say that a discussion of men’s and women’s roles is irrelevant to the passage. The fact that Deborah chides Barak that her going with him to the battle “will not lead to [his] glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9) indicates that a woman in such an authoritative military role is at least unusual, and at most, shall we say, unnatural. Preachers will need to reckon with whether this unusual circumstance is the result of a transgression of cultural norms or of God’s transcendent design. I tend to think both. And, as with all narrative passages of Scripture, hermeneutic decisions must be made about whether an event is more prescriptive (this should happen) or more descriptive (this did happen). Once a preacher comes to conclusions on these questions—and a host of others—then comes the leap to the discussion of ways this passage relates to, and does not relate to, the local church in the New Testament era. Even when all the exegetical and theological questions have been considered, then comes the question of how much can be addressed on Sunday. It seems to me that preachers will serve their congregations best as they preach this passage by only making passing comments in the direction of men’s and women’s roles in the home and church, so that the thrust of the sermon can be pointed in the same direction as the passage: God—not Deborah or Barak or even Jael—gets the glory.
Jephthah’s vow (11:29–40). I will be brief here because, as you study this, you’ll realize the possibilities abound for what Jephthah intended when he made the vow and what he actually did. Did Jephthah assume an animal would come out of his house or a servant or something else? And what actually happened to Jephthah’s daughter—was she conscripted into the service of the Lord and not allowed to marry, or was she offered as a human sacrifice? It is difficult to know with certainty the answer to these questions and other aspects of the passage, although I’m persuaded her father, quite tragically, made her a human sacrifice. Whatever you conclude exegetically, it’s helpful from a preaching standpoint to remember that all the options are bad. There is no way to read this passage and view Jephthah as an embodiment of godly leadership. Even if he intended to sacrifice an animal, and even if he didn’t actually sacrifice his daughter, behind his vow was the attempt to barter with God. If you do this, Lord, then I’ll do this. Perhaps Jephthah’s view of God is more pagan than Hebrew, which is to say, perhaps Jephthah’s god is more like the gods of the nations who worshipers must placate to avoid bad karma. Perhaps Jephthah’s god has no concept of grace and mercy for the penitent. Perhaps Jephthah’s god is not much like the real one, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7).
Block, Daniel I., Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary, (Holman Reference, 1999)
Davis, Dale Ralph, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, Focus on the Bible, (Christian Focus, 2015) [This is a must-have if you’re preaching through Judges. Reading a Dale Ralph Davis OT commentary is an experience like reading no other commentary, one full of both wisdom and wit.]
Keller, Timothy, Judges For You, God’s Word For You, (The Good Book Company, 2013)
McCann, J. Clinton, Judges: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pressley, Emily (Author) and Watson, Stephen (Illustrator), Powerful Kindness: The Story of Judges and Ruth, Kaleidoscope Kids Bibles Reimagined (Rocky Heights Print & Binding, 2020) [This is a wonderfully helpful chapter-by-chapter illustrated resource for children to follow along with the storyline of Judges.]
Schwab, George M., Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges, The Gospel According to the Old Testament (P&R Publishing, 2011)
Webb, Barry G., The Book of Judges, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2012)
I wouldn’t necessarily liken the book of Judges to a cut diamond that sparkles anyway you turn it. The book is more of a coal mine; the gospel diamonds are in there, you just might have to dig to find them. Here are some of the places I’d suggest you dig.
The anti-examples point to Christ. The Old Testament frequently promises and prefigures the person and work of Christ through glimmers of hope, those times when God empowers sinners to look more like saints as they serve him. Often in the book of Judges, however, sinful people and sinful leaders stoke our longings for the Messiah by way of contrast, by sinners acting like sinners. Thus, the judges often serve more as anti-examples than examples in the traditional sense. C. S. Lewis notes how our longings that cannot be met in this world indicate that we were made for another world. In a similar way, our longings for a faithful judge indicate that we need more than a judge from this world—and certainly more than a judge from the book of Judges. Timothy Keller has said of Jesus that he is “the true and greater David.” Indeed he is. And in even starker contrast, Jesus is the true and greater judge.
When all seems very dark, with God there is always light we cannot (yet) see. Do not forget the opening line in the book of Ruth: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1). A book that begins with a crippling famine in the house of bread (i.e., Bethlehem) and the loss of husbands and fathers, soon becomes a story about the obscure but fierce faithfulness of one man and one woman who join in holy matrimony and give birth to the grandfather of the future king of Israel (Ruth 4:21–22). Remember this as you preach the book of Judges. Remember to tell your people that in the days when the judges ruled the land, even though most people could not see the light, God was on the throne and not everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
The violence of our sin anticipates the violence of our salvation. Swords stuffed to the hilt in entrails, tent pegs tapped through temples, and animal jawbones cracking human skulls. These are the ways of the judges the Lord raised up to save Israel out of the hand of those who plundered them (cf. 2:16). Blood-soaked and grotesque, redemption came through judges, and so it comes through Christ, the “one from whom men hide their faces” (Isa. 53:3). This is not to excuse the sins of the judges or to impugn Christ with corruption. May it never be! But it is to say that when God pulls us from the mire, it means he must wade into the swamp. When Jesus said the bronze serpent that Moses lifted in the wilderness would look like the Son of Man lifted up on a cross (John 3:14), he meant that our salvation, in one sense, looks as venomous as our sin. And by staring with our eyes unblinking, fully absorbed by the horror of the cross, God means to burn away our lust and pride. It’s hard to boast when you know how ugly is your sin and how costly is your redemption.
Except for the prayer of Jesus, God has only ever answered the prayers of those who do not deserve his grace. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” James writes in the New Testament, “let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (1:5). Note the connection between our lack and our asking and the God who gives generously without finding fault. So it was in the book of Judges. In other words, no prayer for salvation is ever prayed by those with clean hands. “Wash me, savior, or I die,” goes the hymn. The people of God in the book of Judges are dirty and need washing because they rolled around in the muck—time after time after time. We know this, but knowledge of our sin often keeps us from going boldly to the throne of grace in our time of need. And it should not be. If while we were enemies, Christ died for us, how much more will he not answer us when we cry to him for help?
The Advent of the King. I hinted at this in the introduction. There was no king in Israel until there was.
Those who live in the Rocky Mountains or on the Hawaiian shores can behold beautiful scenery as easily as they can walk to their back porch. For most of us, however, tracking down mountain vistas or ocean sunrises takes a lot of work. From a preaching standpoint, the vistas seen from Ephesians 2 or Romans 8 tend to be more accessible and thus more often traveled by preachers and beheld by congregations. Yet for those willing to break a sweat and endure some soreness, the vistas that open in the book of Judges are just as fearfully and wonderfully made—you just might have to wade through a swamp or hack through a jungle before you can see them. In short, you should preach Judges because the book offers modern readers scenery that we didn’t know we needed until someone has shown us. These “views” include but are not limited to those I have listed below. Knowing these breathtaking views exist and hiking with your people to see them is reason enough to start the journey through Judges. And as you go, you will discover other sights both terrifying and awesome, sights you didn’t know you needed until God showed you that you did.
The book of Judges shows us the purpose of divine rumble strips. Rumble strips are annoying. They shake your car and rattle your teeth. If you have young boys in the back of your car, someone might yell, “Who farted?” In other words, rumble strips get your attention. So do smelling salts. So do defibrillators. God often goes to great lengths to get our attention when we, his people, are tempted to sin. “When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates” (5:8). For his glory and our good, thankfully the invasive love God displays in Judges, he still displays now. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The book of Judges shows us that sin is fundamentally illogical and only partially explainable. To read Judges slowly and carefully is to also become confused. He did what? But why? And she said what? But why? Often, you can deduce probable answers to many of these questions, and yet even when the questions are answered, you still might not know the deeper reason for why people do what they do. For example, consider some of the unanswerable questions from chapter 19. Why wouldn’t anyone take the travelers into their house? How could it be that an angry mob demanded violent, homosexual acts in an Israelite city? Why would a man offer his virgin daughter to the mob to be devoured? Why would the Levite allow his concubine to be handed over? What was a Levite doing with a concubine, anyway? And who could cut up a woman and send her out in twelve little pieces? When you stand back and let the totality of the depravity of this passage land on you, one recognizes almost immediately that we must settle for partial explanations. This is because, in the order of the universe, sin is only partially explainable. Why would Adam take and eat the fruit? Why would sin ever have looked pleasing to his eyes? Why would anyone crucify the son of God? Why would the drunk driver get behind the wheel? Why would I ever use that tone of voice with the wife of my youth? Because sin is only partially explainable and fundamentally illogical. We really do need a savior.
The book of Judges stokes our longings for permanence. Peace and prosperity ebb and flow like the ocean tide, and all our progress seems as permanent as castles in the sand. The cycles in the book of Judges show us this. And they show it to us again. And again. And again. We need a savior who sits on the throne he will never vacate, which is what we have in Christ.
Finally, the book of Judges shows us the greatest enemy of the church is not external but internal. The book of Judges both shouts and whispers this indictment. Consider, again, the last sentence in the book. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25; see also 17:6). Positioned intentionally at the end, this statement is the ancient equivalent of bold, italics, underline, and all caps—an example of the book shouting that our greatest enemy is internal. We hear another shout in Judges 2:10 where God lays the blame for all their trouble on the fact that “there arose another generation . . . who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” Again, the foe is internal, not external. The book also whispers this message. For example, consider the judge Tola (10:1–2). He, like another judge named Shamgar in Judges 3:31, was a deliverer only mentioned in a verse or two. But unlike Shamgar, who delivers from an external enemy (the Philistines), no enemy is listed that Tola fought. When Tola comes to save, he saves Israel from Israel. And that is why the book, as a whole, concludes with an appendix of sordid stories likely from an earlier time in the book, stories of a greedy priest, a Levite who dismembered his concubine, and a civil war that nearly annihilated one of the tribes. It is easy to point the finger at those outside the church. The greatest threat to the church, however, is not ISIS or Planned Parenthood. It is not Hollywood. It is not atheist professors who ruin the faith of our sweet college freshmen. The greatest enemies are not secular politicians and Supreme Court judges. If we want to know the worst enemy of the church—the one that, apart from the sustaining grace of God, could eternally destroy us—then we must look in the mirror. Doing so will not be easy; it will be uncomfortable. But a long look into our own souls and our indwelling sin might catch our melanoma while it’s early. And if it does, praise God we have the gospel for our healing.