Punishment, Preservation and a Promise

I recently finished reading through the book of Judges. It is really a cool book. Full of fascinating accounts of superman-like warriors who could slay a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone (Samson), and slick assassinations of morbidly obese tyrants (Ehud & Eglon). Judges, of course, refers to the men, and woman, that God raised up to lead the nation out of apostasy and the resulting oppression from their neighbors, whose sinful practices the Israelites loved to adopt. These judges would bring temporary peace and relief until Israel again would again turn unfaithful and fall back into sin, and the process would be repeated. It’s easy to look at this book as kind of biblical broken record, where Israel sins, and God whacks them for it, again and again, with the moral of the story being something like ‘don’t be like those stupid people’.  We know, though, that while Judges was written about ancient Israel, it was written, like the rest of the Bible, for all peoples. I also believe that the Israelites were more similar to us than we would like to admit.

When I was younger, I used to shake my head at the long list of Israel’s sordid stories. What foolish people. What were they thinking?? Why would they make these choices, especially given what they already knew about God, his character, his commands, and his promises? Good question.

Take a look at Romans chapter 1, where Paul describes people turning their backs on God and creating their own idols, trading truth for lies, dumping God’s design for sexual purity for anything and everything else, and inventing “every kind of wickedness.” Now, compare that with what we see described in Judges. Then compare it with human history. Then compare it with our own culture right now. Then compare it with our own personal lives.  Paul isn’t just describing ancient Israel, he’s talking about people in general, every nation and culture.  So instead of just being shocked by what we see in Judges, we should consider a few things.

One is that human culture and society, apart from God’s direct intervention, is actually self-destructive. And that destructive behavior or tradition is almost always disguised as something positive. Take, for example, the former practice of foot binding in China, or the current practice of force-feeding in parts of West Africa, crippling girls for life in the name of beauty. The ancient Canaanites, Mayans, Aztecs, and countless other civilizations practiced child sacrifice to appease their false gods, while today, in the United States, we still practice child sacrifice to appease a different set of false gods. We just pretend it’s all good as long as they’re not entirely born yet. Anyone who even less than celebrates a sexual free-for-all is now an enemy of progress and personal freedom. We have a justice system that dispenses different versions of justice, based on skin color and economic status. We call good evil and evil good, just as described in Romans 1, just like the Israelites in Judges.

Another thing we should consider is that Judges relates to us all not just on a societal level, but on a personal level as well. The most repeated line in the book seems to be “and again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD.” What if someone were to write a history of our lives? Of my own life? That same line would probably be an accurate description. We might have not murdered anybody or made dinner out of our neighbors, but sin is sin, and we are all guilty of it. Think about Israel’s place in the ancient Near East. Here they were, a people called apart to live lives radically different from the anything goes culture they were surrounded by. It’s easy to imagine the young Israelite men and women, and maybe the older ones as well, turning their gaze towards the Canaanite cities and the highly sexualized lifestyles found within. Canaanite culture promised excitement and freedom from restraint. Maybe the Israelites became worn down from having to be so different, or became blinded by the deception around them, exchanging real freedom for a false version of bondage and disobedience. It actually doesn’t sound foreign or far away at all. We see the same thing all around us here and now.

So then, what is the good news? The good news is the other side of the Judges story. The story of God’s faithfulness and the preservation of his people. Although the Israelites suffered brutal consequences for their disobedience, God never let them go, his love was never exhausted, and his promises of preservation were never broken. God was under no obligation to raise up the judges and deliver his people time and time again. He did, though, because his love for his chosen people was so great.

Each judge, of course, is a temporary imperfect model of the final judge who would come and be a permanent and perfect savior, not just for the Israelites, but for the whole world. That would be Jesus. Thanks to him, God’s promise of faithfulness applies to us too, as believers in Jesus Christ, and our preservation and salvation are assured. We do still sin, and our sins carry consequences in this life, sometimes very serious ones. When we stumble and find ourselves frustrated by our own disobedient tendencies, we can consider the promise found in Philippians 1:6, which tells us to “be confident in this. That he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  As for our culture as a whole, the Bible makes no promises. Nations rise and fall, the United States and Western culture included. What the Bible does promise is that the Church, as the body of Christ, is here to stay, and we can look forward to that last day knowing that the eternal punishment we deserve has been already paid and removed forever. And that is good news indeed.

by Ian Bridgman





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