No King in the Land
The book of Judges--which follows the five books of Moses, plus Joshua, in our Old Testament-- presents a dismal 400-year record of Israel's failures after the death of Joshua. The entire time period is characterized by a single verse of Scripture, (repeated six times)
"In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25)
Joshua was certainly a powerful, influential, and godly leader for the preceding period of the conquests of the land. He sensed what would follow his demise, (Joshua 24). In response to his warnings, given as his life was drawing to a close, the people responded by saying essentially the same thing they had promised Moses at least twice before,
"So the people answered [Joshua] and said: "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; "for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. "And the LORD drove out from before us all the people, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God."
But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. "If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good."
And the people said to Joshua, "No, but we will serve the LORD!" So Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD for yourselves, to serve Him." And they said, "We are witnesses!" "Now therefore," he said, "put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD God of Israel." And the people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!" (Joshua 24:16-24)
The incomplete disobedience of Israel after Joshua's death is laid out in grim detail in Judges Chapter 2.
Then the Angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: "I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, 'I will never break My covenant with you. 'And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.' But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? "Therefore I also said, 'I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.'" So it was, when the Angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voices and wept. Then they called the name of that place Bochim; and they sacrificed there to the LORD...So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel...
When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel. So He delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went out, the hand of the LORD was against them for calamity, as the LORD had said, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were greatly distressed.
Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do so. And when the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them out of 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 oppressed them and harassed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way. Then the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel; and He said, "Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not heeded My voice, "I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, "so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the LORD, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not." Therefore the LORD left those nations, without driving them out immediately; nor did He deliver them into the hand of Joshua.
One might suppose that the problem could be rectified by God calling forth a king to rule over His people. Reading ahead into First Samuel (Chapter 8), that actually is what happened later on, but without solving the root problem. Israel eventually had nearly 40 kings, yet most of them did not take the Lord seriously. Even earlier (during the time of the Judges) the people had asked Gideon to be their king (Judges 8,9). Gideon wisely refused, but he nevertheless lived the rest of his life in kingly luxury, setting the stage for a great tragedy in his family which took place as soon as he died.
In the chaotic days of the Judges there could be no effective central authority because there was no recognized authority in the lives of the individual citizens of the land. Basically, people do not want God ruling over them in the first place. To this day, we all seem to want to live as independently as possible, pursuing our own goals, our personal dreams and ambitions assuming that we are doing things right all the while. We may actually be living far, far out of tune with God's standards and not even know it!
When the people of Israel entered the promised land they found it lush and green, fertile and productive. Ignoring God's revelation about the inhabitants, and reasoning for themselves, they decided that the land's bounty was probably caused by the gods of the Canaanites. Most likely these Canaanite people seemed nice enough, and even appeared to be harmless neighbors, in spite of their worship of the fertility gods of nature and their open endorsement of sexual immorality of every conceivable kind.
The times of the Judges is probably a good picture of the autonomous lifestyles many American professing Christians are living these days. "In general, the American dream can be defined as being the opportunity and freedom for all citizens to achieve their goals and become rich and famous if only they work hard enough." (Wikipedia). We are so accustomed to our own national idolatry most of us probably don't realize the "Canaanite" danger all around us is greater now than ever before. Our society offers us all manner of consumer goods, pleasure, travel and enjoyment, the good things of life--but we are asked to be "tolerant" of (and eventually to buy into) the pagan idolatry which is everywhere nowadays.
But God's people are called to be a separate people, a holy nation, in every generation living according to the standards of our High and Holy King Jesus.
"Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, "Be holy, for I am holy." And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because "All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever." Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, "Behold, I lay in Zion A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame." Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, "The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone," and "A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense." They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul..." (1 Peter 1:13-2:11)
The fascinating book Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster 2000) documents the erosion of social groups, associations, connectivity, social support groups, and close personal friendships in recent decades. We are increasingly a nation of disconnected, isolated, lonely individuals. This is especially bad news for the church of Jesus Christ which is called to bond together locally on an intimate basis--closer to one another than one finds in most ordinary family groups. For the church the old saying "united we stand, divided we fall" is especially relevant. As our culture and American society fall apart, it is most important for us Christians to take vigorous steps in the opposite direction from the trends in our culture! If we each deal with the microcosm of our individual lives we can leave the repair of the macrocosm to God.
In reading the letters of the Apostle Paul one can't help note the very large number of Christian brothers the Apostle knew, prayed for, and cared for--even though they were scattered about all over the Roman Empire. They were all "family." We see Paul frequently stopping to pray for them or send them greetings though they lived hundreds of miles apart. It was not exactly as if he had nothing else to do! Today it is not likely we have any clue about our Christians in other congregations even when neighboring churches are just down the block. And next door neighbors? Many of us have no clue about them at all.
When the collective spiritual standards of a local church slowly slip away, the flame in individual hearts dies as well. There is a cure to this situation of gradual decline in the Christian community, but it depends on individuals who will resist the status quo, begin repenting on behalf of the rest of us, and renewing our own close daily walk with God by rearranging our priorities.
God has not given us Christians a plot of land, a temple, an earthly inheritance--things He did give to Israel in perpetuity. But He has given each of us a spiritual sphere of influence--the kingdom of our individual lives. Our invisible influence amongst our families, our friends, at church, at work, thrives only when we place ourselves under the authority and rule of Jesus the King of kings. When Jesus rules in and through us, living His endless life through us, a lasting legacy is laid up for us in heaven--even though our position in the present world system may be obscure or unknown (Hebrews 11:32-40).
God helped Israel during the period of the Judges by raising up 12 judges who liberated the people for 10 or 20 or 40 years at a stretch. When the judge died, the people soon reverted to their idolatrous ways, each time settling for a notch further down the ladder than the generation before them. Are we not in a slow, spiritual decline in our nation? Can we blame others when we are part of the problem?
May I especially recommend a recent and highly relevant article, When God Comes to Church, Is it wrong to pray that God will show up? by Steve Gaines. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2007/003/20.99.html. This article seems to me to be perfectly suited for the times we're living in right now.
Summary of Judges: http://raystedman.org/adventure/0207.html
Summary of The Message of History, http://raystedman.org/adventure/book/index.html
August 27, 2007