A Time of Trouble
23 Sep 2006, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
A TIME OF TROUBLE
Throughout history there have been periods of disruption and disorder in the world often referred to as 'Times of Trouble' -Times when people have been in complete distress - Times when they have been in absolute despair, in hardship and in affliction.
From our own understanding of history I am sure we could recall such periods commencing with the ancient world and bringing us right down to modern times. It would seem that our world since the beginning of time has been seen as a place of constant conflict.
Throughout the Scriptures we also find mention of many of these difficult periods but no more turbulent and distressing than during the time when Israel came to settle in the land that God had promised to them.
The book of Judges sets out to record this dark period of history and provides a most disturbing record that makes for very sad reading. It describes a time when the Israelite people forsook God (Judges 2: 13) and, as such, God was not always able to help them (Judges 2: 23). At this particular point in their history, they were ruled by Judges whom God had specifically raised up to deliver them from oppression. Judges 17: 6 tells us that 'In those days there was no king in Israel.' Governance was described as a Theocracy where God ruled but was not necessarily obeyed. This terrible situation can be seen in the many violent, lawless and barbaric stories found throughout the pages of this book. The narratives found therein were to record a true picture of the various exploits of the Jewish people of that period.
This unsettled era became a new hour in the history of Israel and was to commence with the death of a great leader.
Joshua, who had led the conquest of this new land, had now become an old man. He knew he could not live much longer and so he saw it as essential that the people be given some last words of admonition.
Calling them all together, he urged them to remember the power and faithfulness of God, and, in return he encouraged them to be faithful to Him. His last words are to be found in Joshua 24: 14,15 where he says, 'Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve Him. After warning them not to rebel, he said, 'Choose you this day whom ye will serve…' and then he added, 'As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. In response to this heartfelt plea, the people publicly and openly committed themselves to that end.
Let me tell you this morning that it is important for all of us, and particularly when we are young, to publicly accept and confess Jesus Christ because it gives us something to live up to.
The people in Joshua 24: 21 replied positively in unison that day, 'Nay, but we will serve the Lord'.
At 110 years of age this grand old man died and his tribute can be found in Joshua 24: 31 that says, 'And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua.' (Repeat)
Such was the power of his leadership and his relationship with God.
The book, now bearing his name, closes with his death and then goes on to record the burial of two other important men who lived many years apart. The bones of Joseph that had been carried with them since leaving Egypt were now to be interred in this land of promise along with that of Eleazer, the high priest who had faithfully served the Israelite people during the time of Moses and of Joshua.
The burial of these three men was now to end the first stage of a successful campaign that gave Israel its entry into the Promised Land.
This was a land that was only 180 miles or 300km long and approximately 40 miles or 68 km wide. The boundaries were formed by the wilderness to the south, the Lebanon ranges to the north, the Euphrates to the east and the Mediterranean to the west. At the time, this small strip of land was also to be found in the centre of a number of mighty civilizations that were to form a significant part of our ancient history - Egypt, Nineveh and Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.
With the death of Joshua, the dark days for Israel lay just before them. This turbulent period was to cover 350 years from about 1400-1050 BC and was to finish with the appointment of Samuel as a judge of Israel. It is then we see the rise of king Saul to the throne.
We need to remember that prior to establishing themselves in this land, the Israelites had been nomads. They had been wanderers. They had just completed a long era of slavery in Egypt and for the last 40 years they had been living in tents and ranging across those wilderness areas between these two southern and northern geographic points. The march was now over, but settling in as a new nation and developing a sense of nationhood was not as easy as they expected it to be.
In some ways their entry into this land under Joshua was not so much a total conquest as it was an occupation. There was still much to be done and while the land was largely settled by the warlike Canaanites, Amorites and the Philistine people who lived along the coastal plains, it was also to include many other small warlike groups (Deut 7: 1).
What do we know about these nations and why did God make it clear that these people were to be totally removed from their midst?
It is understood that the Canaanites and the Amorites descended from Noah's grandson Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, and they settled in this area approximately 2000 BC. While the Sumerian Records describe them as barbarians, we know they had their own form of writing. We know that art and music flourished, and the land was dotted with strong walled cities some of which served as city-states with their own King and army. This would have been the scene that fronted Joshua when he crossed the Jordan River to conquer the land and the people in it. At this time Canaanite culture, which we are told had reached a relatively high level, had been well established for about 600-800 years (Lockyer, 1986: 42, 204).
The position of Canaan as a land bridge between Asia and Egypt opened the inhabitants to all sorts of cultural influences and this effect was seen in the lifestyle and religious practices of the people.
In some ways their religion followed the Hebrew pattern with animal sacrifices and a high priest, but that is where the similarity ends. It was a far cry from the love of God and His moral laws. It was basically a fertility cult that saw worshippers participating in immoral acts with so-called, 'sacred prostitutes'. Unfortunately, this sensual approach to worship had a strong appeal and was to lead many into sin and idolatry. It is interesting to note that even many of the Greek and Roman writers, who recorded their history, were absolutely shocked by the things the Canaanites did in the name of religion (Alexander, 1978: 16, 152).
Hence, everything to do with the Canaanite faith, which was to feature many Gods including that of Baal and Asherah, was to be destroyed. God wanted a Holy People and this was to require a separation from the influence of these pagan worship practices.
The other group that were to be a constant threat to the new fledgling nation were the Philistines who had settled on Palestine's coastal plain around 1200 BC, remaining there until about 600 BC (Lockyer, 1986: 835).
They were a maritime people much like the Danish invaders and the Vikings who raided and pillaged Saxon England. They were sea rovers and pirates, ready for any conflict that promised them land and material gain (Mears.1983: 103). They also presented a distinct contrast to the Israelites in that they already occupied five very strong cities that formed a unified political unit. Inside these cites were imposing temples to their Gods - Dagon, the fish God - protector of the seas, Baal and Ashtoreth.
Because of their metal working skills, originally learned from the Hittites, they possessed superior weapons of iron, which they used when they first began their attacks on Israel. It was this equipment that gave them great advantages in war and was seen in the impressive armour belonging to Goliath of Gath during the time of David and King Saul.
The only time Israel had anything to with this warlike group of people was when they were in conflict. They only met in war.
These were the people and cultures that now confronted the new Israelite nation as they moved into this land that God had promised to them.
How well were they to follow God's instructions?
Joshua had no successor and so, after his death, each tribe tended to act independently. While it was this loose form of tribal organization that intensified their problem, they were, after consulting with God, able to have some early successes, By joining forces with God and each other they could have continued to rout the enemy as the tribe of Judah so successfully proved they could do at the beginning of this dramatic period (Judges Ch. 1).
Unfortunately, Judges Chapter 1 shows a continuous failure to drive out the enemy as God had instructed. Six times in succession we read 'Neither did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites…Neither did Zebulun drive out the inhabitants…Neither did Ashur drive out the inhabitant…' and so it continues.
As already noted, God wanted the Israelites to realise they were a holy people - a people set apart. They were not to mix with the wicked nations about them but must be separate if they were to survive.
God knew that a false toleration towards a people so utterly corrupt would result in their undoing.
When the land was initially divided up between the twelve tribes it became the responsibility of each group to completely remove the evil influence of these nations from their midst. It was their disobedience to God in this area that was to cause so much of the struggle and disasters of their first 350 years in this beautiful land.
We are told many times in the last five chapters of the book of Judges that 'Every man did that which was right in his own eyes' (Judges 17: 6).
We read of the many times that the people had fallen away from God and worshiped the Gods of those pagan nations surrounding them (Judges 2: 13).
They had forgotten that God had chosen them for a purpose and that was to tell the world the truth about the one and only God.
As a consequence the Israelites found themselves delivered into the hands of their enemies and while under this oppression, and in their absolute despair, they would cry out to God. Each time God would hear them and raise up a Judge to deliver them. This book is full of the monotonous round of rebellion, punishment, misery and then deliverance.
During this time there were recorded seven apostasies or rebellions, seven servitudes or slavery to seven pagan nations, and seven deliverances.
This not only shows man's constant failure, but it also shows God's constant mercy.
When they cried, God answered. It seems He was always near. Like a mother hen with her chicks God is always brooding over His disobedient children. While we see defeat on man's part, we see deliverance on God's part. Romans 5: 20 makes it very clear that 'Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.'
After reading the book of Judges it is easy to gain the impression that the whole 350 years was spent in rebellion and sin, but when analysed it would seem that only 100 years out of all that time was spent in disloyalty to God.
But it was 100 too many.
This book begins with compromise and, as such, ends with confusion.
This is what can happen in every unsurrendered life. We need to learn those very important lessons today.
What ever begins with compromise in our lives will always end with confusion.
We also need to learn that those who spend their time in disobedience to God will make little progress during their lifetime.
Well who were these Judges that God appointed? What was their role and how did God use them?
While we are told there were twelve that God appointed, six of those mentioned are described in some detail: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah & Barak, Gideon, Jephthah and Sampson.
These Judges were not simply legal advisors. They were responsible for delivering the people from their enemies and most of this was in active service.
We read that Deborah and Barak defeated a northern Canaanite coalition
Gideon repelled a strong Midianite invasion.
Jepthah defeated the Ammonites.
And Sampson had various adventures with the Philisitines.
As a consequence, all these Judges became national heroes.
It is also interesting to note that in Hebrews chapter 11, four of these were listed as 'all time great examples of faith. After listing the names from Abel to the prostitute Rahab, the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 11: 32:
'And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah…'
However, if we look closely at some of these names it would seem that God uses some of the most unpromising and unlikely individuals to achieve his goals, but He sees through their many flaws and weaknesses. It was only to be their shared faith that kept the tribes together (Alexander, 1999: 238).
Lets look at some of the stories that the author of this book has been willing to share with us
Our first story centres on a young woman by the name of Deborah. We are told in Judges 4: 4, 5 that she is a Prophetess as well as a Judge in the Judicial sense. She was a woman of authority in a man's world and this fact tells us that God is no respecter of persons. He will use whom He wills (Ibid).
In fact, this powerful story tends to be dominated by two extraordinary women - Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth and a woman called Jael (Ya-ale), the wife of Heber a tent-dwelling Kenite tribesman.
Lets read the introduction to this incredible story in Judges Chap 4: 1-7. NIV
'After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.
Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak, son of Abinoam from Kedish in Naphtali and said to him, 'The Lord the God of Israel, commands you, 'Go, take ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun, and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.'
Not only does Deborah send for the military leader Barak to give him God's instruction, but also she is ready to make the 80km or 50 mile journey north to go with him into battle (Ibid). This outstanding courage was based upon an absolute trust in God.
How did God bring about this victory?
The battle of Megiddo that began on the 400m high round hill of Mount Tabor, found Sisera's troops encamped in the valley along the dry bed of the River Kishon. This arid situation was normal for the Summer in this area, but according to the Battle Hymn or Song of Deborah found in Judges 5: 21, the dry river was to be turned into a raging torrent by a sudden cloudburst causing many of the heavy chariots to be swept away leaving the remainder bogged in the mud (Ibid, Bowker, 1998; 106). This first hand historical account dates from 1125 BC (Ibid).
While Barak slaughters the beleaguered Canaanites, Sisera attempts to escape by taking refuge in the tent of the woman called Jael (Ya-ale), from the Kenite tribe, whom he had considered to be an ally. Unfortunately for him, she was acting for Deborah. When he was asleep this resourceful and courageous woman slays the Canaanite commander piercing his temple with a tent peg and mallet. This effectively ended the Israelite oppression (Ibid). After this victory that saw the turning of nine hundred chariots into ploughshares and the bringing of peace for the next forty years, we would have expected the people to change. Unfortunately, the true reformer had not yet come and the people had turned to the worship of Baal.
Israel was to be tested again when they were invaded and terrorised for seven long years by the Midianites, who were Bedouin tribesman from the East. These fierce camel riding descendants of Abraham by his second wife Ketura (Gen 25: 1-4) swept through southern Israel as far as the Philistine city of Gaza. This reign of terror was so terrible that we are told in Judges 6: 2 that many of the people hid themselves in caves and dens and were hunted throughout the mountains.
A humble farmer by the name of Gideon, forced to secretly thresh his meagre grain harvest in the confines of his farm's wine press to escape the Midianite terror, was now called by God to be the people's deliverer.
We learn it is often those who have the most potential for God's service that are the least aware of it, because of their humble estimate of themselves.
We know the story so well as found in Judges 7: 7-24.
The faith, courage and integrity of this young man, regardless of his initial caution in accepting the call, is seen in his readiness to face the Midianite hordes of 135,000 with a force of only 300 men. Starting with 32,000 men from the various tribes, God has Gideon reduce the army to less than one hundredth of its original size. This amazing process was to reveal those in his troops whose faith, zeal and obedience were to be uncompromising.
From a human point of view the whole venture looked suicidal. However, we are reminded that nothing is impossible with God. 1 Cor 1: 25 tells us that 'God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness stronger than human strength.'
We need to remember that God's way of working is often radically different from our own.
It was not the first time that God was to use a small number of dedicated people to win a great victory (See Gen 14: 14-16).
Gideon's surprise attack was split into three divisions and was to involve the blowing of trumpets and the breaking of pottery jars. While holding torches in their hands the 300 men called out 'A sword of the Lord and of Gideon'. The noise and lights so panicked the Midianite forces, that in their confusion of the night they ended up killing each other (Judges 7: 22).
This was God's victory and Gideon was the instrument used to achieve it.
Gideon was not perfect, as we find in the record of his life, but his faith in God saw his name being placed in the Hall of Faith outlined in Hebrews 11.
God was fine in a crisis, but when prosperity returns we again find the Israelite people being drawn in with their Canaanite neighbours to worship their God's.
Southern Israel now finds itself being caught in a vice-like grip between the warlike Philistines on the West and the Ammonites on the East. The new champion for Israel is a brigand chief by the name of Jepthah. We are told he was an illegitimate child of a prostitute, forced to flee from his family after being disinherited (Judges 11:1).
However, it is important to note that this disadvantaged social status had proved to be to his advantage, in the sense that he had become more self-reliant and resourceful. We need to recognise that it is through God's grace that we can all turn adverse circumstances to good advantage. God delights to call people from a life of disgrace to one of honour and noble service (2 Tim 1: 9, Rev 1: 5,6).
Man can shape circumstances, but circumstances should not be allowed to shape the man. We can master them, but we should not let them master us.
Jepthah's experience as a military leader with his motley band of social outcasts was now to see him being needed to battle against Israel's enemies.
In exchange for victory Jepthah makes a foolish vow to sacrifice a burnt offering to God of whatever or whoever should meet him when he returned home. His zeal for God's honour was commendable, but his rash vow reflected more fear than faith. He didn't need to court God's honour. He already had it.
Let's read Judges 11: 34 NIV
'When Jepthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter.'
Heroically, we are told that his daughter did not protest, but she asked to live for two more months. Then in Verse 39 it says he '…did with her according to the vow he had made.'
The Scripture make plain that if a vow is foolish; we are not under obligation to keep it (1 Sam 14: 39-45). We should not fulfil vows that violate God's word. 'We must obey God rather than any human authority' (Acts 5: 29). If we have made a promise contrary to the Scriptures we are retract it without delay (White Vol 5, 1944: 365).
Unfortunately, Jepthah was seen as a product of the times in which he lived and his vow is an indication of how little the Israelites really understood about God at this time. After his great victory, Jepthah judged Israel for a short period of six years.
The seventh and final apostasy referred to in the book of Judges was to lead to forty years of terrible oppression by the Philistines. In despair the people again cried out to God.
This time, God's choice of a deliverer for Israel was made before his birth. Samson was a miracle child. The Angel of the Lord announced this extraordinary event as this baby boy was to be born to the barren wife of Manoah of the tribe of Dan. Samson's entire life, even before his birth, was one that was to be holy, dedicated to God.
He was endowed with every talent needed to accomplish his mission. So much so, that God directed his parents to rear him as a Nazarite. In other words, he became a person dedicated or separated to God. As a sign of this dedication he was never to cut his hair. Unfortunately, throughout most of his life, he was to treat God's special favour with a casualness bordering on contempt and therefore, was to fall short of the mark God intended for him.
In spite of his great physical strength, Samson was a foolish man dictated by his weakness for pagan women. While his parents showed evidence of a faith in God, Samson was also found to be a product of the lawless age in which he lived.
Unlike the other Judges who led successful campaigns against the enemy, Samson was a one-man war. However, as a result of some of his exploits, he was still responsible for the death of thousands of the Philistine people (Alexander, 1999: 246).
His unholy alliance with Delilah was the sign of the moral weakness that he carried with him throughout his life and this was to eventually rob him of his spiritual and physical power.
His final fall takes place at Gaza after being captured by the Philistines. It was here that he was blinded and forced to work grinding corn in a mill doing the work of a slave.
Coming to his senses and realising again that God had given him his great strength to serve the Lord and His people, he is able to use it in one great final display of power. He was brought to the temple of Dagon to be put on public display in front of thousands of Philistine worshipers who were celebrating one of their annual festivals. Knowing the structure of the temple, Samson prayed to God for strength, and taking hold of the two main pillars, brought the roof down killing more in death than he had in life.
In spite of his many failures, this one last great act of faith, which cost him his life, won for him a place among the heroes of faith as given in Hebrews Chapter 11.
However, his life is a clear warning to us all against the dangers of self-indulgence and lack of discipline.
Well, what lessons do we learn from this turbulent period of history?
This period speaks of man's need for an eternal deliverer or a saviour, as different from the human judges who were always temporary, partial and imperfect. It points forward to Jesus Christ, the great judge who is king and saviour of his people.
We see here in this book the persistence and patience of God's love to break the tragic cycle of despair and decline. The period of the Judges was a time of such religious and political chaos that we see even the best of God's servants being seriously flawed. However, while His people abandoned him time after time, he was always ready to receive them back.
The struggles of God's people during these times of trouble are typical of the struggles in every era and particularly in our own as we now find ourselves in similar lawless and distressing times.
The history of the Church through the ages has always been like this with Reformers like Martin Luther, John Knox and John Wesley being seen by many as deliverers of the people.
The biography of many a Christian in common life follows a similar pattern. God opens doors and gives us grace for great tasks. Then we forget Him and allow our interests in the world to take over. Compromise brings confusion and this eventually brings loss and defeat.
But God hears our cry of repentance and delivers us out of these times of trouble restoring us to favour again.
What a wonderful and merciful God we serve.
However, the Scriptures also make it very clear that we are yet to enter a 'Time of Trouble' such as never been seen since the world began and our survival depends on our strong relationship with God.
My prayer this morning is that we will take the many opportunities that God provides for us each day to come to know Him better and that we remain faithful, obedient, and true until He comes to take us home where we can be with him for eternity.
Alexander, P & D (Eds) (1999) The New Lion Handbook to the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing PLC
Alexander, P. (Ed) (1978) The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing
Bowker, J. (1988) The Complete Bible Handbook-An Illustrated Companion. London, Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley
Lockyer Sr. H. (Ed) (1986) Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Mears, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is All About. Ventura, California, USA: Regal Books
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