Judges: when society crumbles

Judges, the biblical book, is two things at once: a record of historical heroes, and a detailed, exhausting chronicle of human failure.

Reading about the heroes is fun. The entertainment never lasts, however, because the author painstakingly takes care to point out the flaws in every hero and the crumbling society in which the judges found themselves. The author of Judges, like all the other authors of the Bible, zoomed in uncompromisingly on that one most unpopular topic: sin.

It can be hard to read the Bible for exactly this reason. It doesn’t let up on sin. Many people especially shy away from books like Judges, for an understandable reason. Reading Judges is like watching an extended movie called “This Is What Sin Looks Like.” It is a brutal read.

After a chapter and a half of setting the scene with some essential background information, the rhythm of the book gets going in chapter 2:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. Judges 2:11-12

If you come to the beginning of Judges having read Genesis through Joshua, these verses will break your heart. For six books straight, God had set up every precaution, prescribed every law, held up every incentive, to keep the people of Israel faithful to him. He had given them a glorious vision of themselves as the beacon of hope for humanity, the shining city on a hill, a blessing and example to all people. To accomplish this, all God had asked of them was to “fear him, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him, and to keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

By the beginning of Judges, the potential was huge. God had freed Israel from slavery and brought them to Canaan where he had led them in a string of military victories under Joshua, giving them the land and the security they needed to flourish as a nation. The question on everyone’s mind at this point in the biblical story is, “Will Israel pull it off? Will they keep God’s law and fulfill their God-given mission as a nation?”

The author of Judges wrote his or her book (the author is unknown) for the purpose of answering this question with an unambiguous NO. Why, you may ask, write 21 chapters expounding upon this simple answer, in such painful detail? Perhaps it is because the reason for the No was sin, and sin is complex and convoluted. Apparently, although we dislike hearing or reading about sin, we must understand it if we want to be deeply joyful, deeply useful Christians.

For Judges-era Israel, the disease of sin most often expressed itself by blending in with the pagans around them by intermarrying with them (3:5-6) and adopting their religious practices (8:27, 10:6, 17:4). It was the spiritual, not ethnic, dilution that mattered. In the same breath, people said things such as, “I dedicate the silver to the LORD… to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3), as if even in the wake of Moses’ life people had not heard of the second and third commandments.

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes… Deuteronomy 12:8

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 17:6 (repeated in 21:25)

Overall, the author of Judges gives very little direct commentary about the events he recounts. At two brilliantly ironic places in his narrative, however, he pauses to say, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The author deliberately uses the same phrasing Moses had used several years earlier, before Israel entered Canaan.

“Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes”; that is how the author of Judges explained Israel’s chaos. And perhaps that is the most fundamental way to define sin: me defining my reality, what I will call good and what I will call bad; me deciding whom or what I will worship and love. Me deciding what is worth my time, my self. The god of Me, doing what is right in my own eyes, with no thought to God or the debt of love.

To list for your reading enjoyment a complete catalog of the disturbing, heart-breaking, and dreadfully ironic examples of human sin recorded in Judges would take a blog post unto itself. Suffice it to say the list is long, and diverse.

But why did Israel fail? They possessed God’s law, and every privilege. God had carefully inculcated into their culture both the motive and the opportunity for obedience. The Apostle Paul reflected on this question some eleven centuries later, and concluded, in light of Jesus’ advent and the Spirit’s outpouring:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin [or as a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

Because Jesus (1) came to the world as a man, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and (2) offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin, (a) sin is condemned and (b) the law is fulfilled in us whose hearts and lives are penetrated by the Spirit.

They had the law, but we have the Spirit. How dare we forget that for a moment. God the Creator, the King, the Judge, the Promise-Maker, the Promise-Keeper – the God of Judges – is alive, and living in us. The same Spirit of Yahweh who “rushed upon” the judges and made it possible for them to deliver Israel militarily now abides in us without leaving, making it possible for us do outlandish, “foolish,” beautiful things for the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… For all who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:11, 14-15

one year of blogging

I started this blog one year ago today, on February 16, 2011. At that time I picked two specific verses of scripture to guide and restrict my writing:
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5
Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth. Hosea 6:3
I am boring; Jesus is fascinating. I am disappointing; Jesus never fails. Therefore I did not want this to be a confessional blog. I was convinced that a blog about Jesus, a blog that proclaims Jesus as Lord, would be, in every way, more interesting, stimulating, and helpful than a blog about myself, that proclaims myself as myself.
The name “pressing on” comes from a verse in Hosea’s book which speaks of pressing on to know God, knowing that he will not withdraw from us if we seek him. He will surely come. His coming is like morning’s light and morning’s dew: certain, life-giving, and awe-inspiring.
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. James 4:8
I am convinced that scripture, every part of it, shows us the way to God. Therefore I have done my best to saturate this blog with the Bible, believing it to be the useful words of God to humanity. Undoubtedly I have written a number of posts that “flopped”; equally beyond doubt is that the inherent power of scripture, which is in every post, has saved me from total failure.
The 5 most popular posts this year have been:
Jesus once said, summing up the message of one of his parables,
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. Luke 16:10
This blog is a very little thing. I trust that if I can be faithful in this, God will show me how to be faithful in other things, as he calls me to do them. You too, be encouraged – with real courage, that changes your attitude – to know that your monotonous faithfulness in the little things is precious to God, and that in the Lord your work is never in vain.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58
Thank you for reading, and especially for commenting. No doubt many who read this blog are much wiser than me, and I really appreciate your input.
P.S. Soon, I hope to follow-up this blog’s first post with another outline of the gospel, from another vantage point. Be on the lookout for that.

“eyewitnesses of his majesty”

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. -Peter, “the Rock,” an apostle (2 Peter 1:16-18)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. -John the Beloved, an apostle (John 1:14; cf. 1 John 1:1-3)

For most of his life, people saw Jesus as everything other than glorious. He was born in disgrace to an unwed mother and raised in the midst of a genocide (Matthew 2:16) below the poverty line (Luke 2:24, cf. Leviticus 12:8) in a town known for its nobodies (John 1:46) by his step-father. He surrounded himself with the outcasts of society, damaging his reputation by doing so (Luke 7:34). He was the king no one saw coming because he came in carpenter’s clothes, riding on a donkey, on the way to his execution. Among all the gods and kings and lords and heroes worshiped by the human race, mine can’t be beat for proving the power of merciful humility to change the world.
There was a moment during his time on earth, however, when Jesus pulled back the curtain on his true identity. For one afternoon atop a local mountain, three of his closest friends caught a glimpse of who it was they were dealing with; for a moment they got an idea of who this Son of Man, as he called himself, really was. Christians have traditionally called this event the “transfiguration.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke record it and John alludes to it in the first part of his Gospel, quoted above.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light… behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. Matthew 17:2, 5-6
Peter and John, eyewitnesses of the transfiguration and contributors to the New Testament, pointed to this event as the basis of their confidence in Jesus’ divine identity. They held on to that confidence to the point of martyrdom and exile, respectively. That is part of the beauty and simplicity of the Christian faith: eyewitness testimony of historical events is what grounds the whole thing. “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ,” said John (1 John 1:3).
So then what does the transfiguration say about this Jesus, this Christ?
One part of the answer comes from a totally different part of the Bible and from an event that occurred some fifteen hundred years earlier. At that time, Moses had also spoken with God on a mountaintop and had asked, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 34:18). Then, too, God had descended in a cloud and proclaimed his name and his identity, giving Moses a glimpse of his glory. Then, too, Moses had immediately bowed his head to the ground and worshiped. Read Exodus 33:17-34:8 for the details. The similarity between the two events is amazing.
In their choices of included information, the writers of the Gospels were careful to make sure we understand the point of the similarity: this Jesus is God Incarnate. He is the God of Moses, of Sinai, of Israel, standing in a body before the eyes of a few stunned men, putting a face on God. His life demonstrates in tangible detail the Exodus 34 character of God, the “I Am.”
All three accounts of the transfiguration record that Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain for a short amount of time with Jesus and the disciples. Moses and Elijah correspond to the Law and the Prophets (biblical shorthand for the two main parts of the Old Testament), Moses being the great lawgiver and Elijah the archetypal prophet. Moses and Elijah were also the two main miracle-workers of the Old Testament, another role in which they specifically foreshadowed Jesus’ ministry. Together they represent the entire sweep of the old covenant.
Their presence corroborates and compliments God’s announcement of Jesus’ identity. Jesus is the beloved, sole Son of God. He also fulfills every aspect of the old covenant as the true Israelite, the true Mediator, and the true Spokesman for God. He is the prophet of which Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 18:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen… And the LORD said to me… “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Deuteronomy 18:15-18
“Listen to him,” the voice told the disciples, echoing this promise of Moses. Jesus himself said, “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). Jesus not only spoke God’s words, he was God’s Word (John 1:1). He is the perfect expression of his character, and the precise thing God wanted to say to humanity.
He is the “messenger of the covenant” to be preceded by Elijah of which Malachi spoke in Malachi 3 and 4:
“And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly appear in his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Malachi 3:1-2, 4:5
It was at the transfiguration that Jesus first identified John the Baptizer as the one who fulfilled this prophecy about Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah.
Jesus’ fulfillment of the old covenant is comprehensive, and worth a lifetime of study. Suffice it to say that Moses and Elijah “passing the torch” to him meant a confirmation of his ministry, a testimony to his worthiness to represent the people, and a testimony to his identity as the definitive revelation of God.
The apostle Paul had this to say about Jesus’ shining face, alluding again to the event on the mountaintop:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6
Did you catch that? “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” All in the face of Christ. Just before, Paul had said,
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18
Beholding the light in Jesus’ face, by the power of the Spirit, transforms our own “faces” into that same light and glory, in the same way that the moon reflects the light of the sun. Contemplating Christ changes hearts.
Therefore: let us come to the mountaintop, as it were; boldly, with all the confidence in the world, knowing that the Father’s announcement about the Son – “This is the one I love and with whom I am very pleased” – is true of us as faith inextricably joins us to Jesus. As amazing as that is. Let us pray with Moses, “Show me your glory.” Show me the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform me into that same image, from one degree of glory to another.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… Hebrews 1:1-3

fasting: a breath of fresh air

Fasting is like a spiritual breath of fresh, cold, mountain air. It may sting your throat for a moment, but it widens your eyes, straightens your back, and clears your head. It feels so much better than the humid stuffiness of oppressively hot, dead air.

Fasting is a biblical discipline found in both Testaments. It is an important reminder that the human person is not merely body, not merely soul, but is both intertwined, and each part affects the other. Biblical saints practiced it as a context for prayer (Daniel 9:3, Acts 14:23), repentance (Joel 2:12-13), petition (Ezra 8:23), humbling (Psalm 69:10), and devotion (Luke 2:36-37). This verse from 2 Chronicles 7, when God confirmed to Solomon his acceptance of the temple, succinctly summarizes the layers of meaning in fasting:

…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

Fasting is about humility

Humility, next to love, is probably the most fundamental Christian virtue, just as pride is the fundamental sin. There can be no faith without humility, no endurance, no self-sacrifice, no joy, no Christ-likeness. I can hardly think of a more beautiful or inspiring sight in the world than a truly humble man or woman.  How much love, peace, and joy those people have!

Fasting is useful, therefore, because it humbles us. Speaking from personal experience, fasting reminds me of how utterly dependent I am on God’s daily provision, both physical and spiritual; it reminds me of how pathetic I am on my own, and how weak my will”power” is; it reminds me of the luxury I live in everyday while so many millions in the world go hungry, prompting me to pray for them; it reminds me that just as I cannot live without food feeding my body, neither can I live in newness of life without the words of God feeding my soul. Fasting reminds me of my neediness, in every aspect, which only God satisfies.

Fasting is an outward expression of an inwardly humble heart; or, more likely, of a mostly proud heart that wishes to be humbled.

and prayer

Fasting cannot be separated from prayer. More often than not, in the Bible, the two are mentioned together. Along with a decluttered digestive tract comes a decluttered mind. With clarity of thought comes clarity in prayer.

Often in the Bible, fasting was a way to focus on praying for something really specific, such as a pressing need or a certain issue in the world. Fasting, like that breath of cold air, heightens the senses, physical and spiritual. It tunes you in to the world outside yourself; to which, in our self-absorption, we are all too often oblivious. It also tunes you in to the Holy Spirit, who speaks profoundly in scripture, and truly communes with the humbled heart in prayer.

A word of advice: do not bother fasting without setting aside a special time of prayer. In prayer, speak honestly, casting all your cares on God, confessing your sins to him, interceding for others. I often default to the Lord’s prayer or a familiar psalm for words. Remember that it is not about the number or piety of the words in a prayer, it is about the love and the honesty in the words.

and “seeking his face”

“Seeking God’s face” is a biblical expression used throughout scripture, and it means what it sounds like it means: to seek intimacy with God, longing to interact with him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11).

As the body cries out for food during fasting, so the mind and spirit cry out for the living Bread, Jesus (John 6:51). Communion/the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist vividly and regularly reminds us that Jesus himself is what satisfies the hunger in our souls. Fasting does the same thing, using the same metaphor.

Jesus said,

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast in that day. Matthew 9:19-20

Jesus is the bridegroom, we are the ones fasting while we wait for him. One day our fast will end forever, at the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” Meanwhile, we fast, seeing as through a glass darkly, anticipating the day when we will really see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).

God’s “face” – his character and personality – is painted for us in scripture. Seeking his face mostly means seeking him in the Bible. Meditation is crucial. If the words of God are food, then meditation is digestion. Christian meditation is not mindless. It means engaging with the text in a personal, slow, thoughtful way, absorbing it into your head and heart. I would recommend meditating on one paragraph over skimming one chapter every time.

Fasting is useful because it eliminates distractions, making the way to God clearer.

and turning from our wicked ways.

 I think Joel says it best:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13

There is something called “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10) which Joel describes here. It means seeing sin for the ugliness it is and mourning for one’s commission of it. It exists under the beautiful truth that God is a God who gives grace, mercy, and unending forgiveness. That is its basis and its hope.

Here in the book of Joel, the prophet was also referring to mourning for the corporate sins of the Israelite nation. That kind of repentance (such as, on behalf of America) is real too. Things in this country would change if every disciple of Jesus living here regularly set aside days and times for fasting, praying, and repenting on behalf of America. Too often we “don’t have enough time” because we are too busy buying into the lies and sins of America along with the rest of America.

 “Yet even now” – even though your sin is piled to the sky – “return to me.” To fast is to repent; to turn from the vain things of the world and our petty concerns and turn again to the living God. It is a grace-filled thing.

As always, the motivation is much more important than the method. Look elsewhere on the Internet for suggestions of method; there are plenty of resources. However you choose to do it, do it wholeheartedly and humbly, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing it is better by far to ignore the rewards of this world and to instead live Corum Deo – “before the face of God.”

And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:18

“I Asked the Lord”

Performed by Emily Deloach of Indelible Grace.

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face.

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer.
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest.

Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low.

“Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried,
“Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?”
“‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”

I Asked the Lord by John Newton

I love this song, and pray it often. “From self and pride to set thee free, that thou mayst seek thy all in me.” Do you really believe that freedom from self and pride, and satisfaction in God only, is the best thing for you? Do you really believe it is better for you to lose your life than to keep it? Only when you say “yes” can you really start to change.

meditations on exile (4): homecoming

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” Then they shall dwell in their own land. Jeremiah 23:5-8

I treasure these verses. They are poetry, and promises. They allude to the Christian idea of creation’s consummation, our homecoming to the New Heaven and Earth, the New Jerusalem, when God will dwell with humanity, and “man, who is of the earth, will terrify no more” (Psalm 10:17-18).

Jesus, the Messiah being foreshadowed here, is given two names in this passage. He is the Righteous Branch, stemming from the stock of David, God’s king, and of Abraham, God’s friend, and all the way back to Adam, God’s son. He is the one who rights all their wrongs, and all our wrongs.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

Yahweh Is Our Righteousness is his other name given here. In Jesus, God himself is our righteousness, and he alone. He is our praise (Deuteronomy 10:21). We are his people, the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3). We are who we are because we are in union with him, in Jesus. God does not change, and, therefore, neither does our righteousness, our praise, or our privileged position, provided that we endure to the end. Jesus is all we need. Don’t let go of that.

The apostle John saw a vision of creation’s consummation, and in that vision he saw Jesus’s people dressed in white robes, singing. Their robes were white in a surprising and paradoxical way: white from being washed in blood, Jesus’s blood, shed for them. John saw them as pure and clean because they were soaked in the sacrifice of Christ. To me, that’s a picture of “God is our righteousness,” vivified, fulfilled.

Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?… These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:13-14

Back in the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, God told the people of Israel: I am going to bring you home. I will be famous, a household name, for bringing you home.

God will bring us home, friends. Jesus is ours. Therefore – what a precious word – we are homeward bound. This exile is not forever.

Until then, let us do what we can to be useful and faithful with what we’ve got, with what we’ve been given.

Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to given them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Matthew 24:45-46

I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. Psalm 118:17-19