Let’s open our Bibles to Judges chapter 4.
We’ll cover the 4th and 5th chapters in this book today. It’s the story of another judge – another tribal leader. Remember — we’ve seen three judges so far. The first was Othniel the nephew of Caleb. He comes at the beginning of this long sequence of judges. And they get worse and worse. So it doesn’t get any better than Othniel in terms of the quality of his judging Israel. He fought the dark, doubly-wicked king from Mesopotamia. Then we had Ehud. He assassinated Eglon the rotund king of Moab and led Israel to slay many Moabite soldiers. In each case the land had rest from war for decades after they delivered Israel. Then Shamgar doesn’t have much said of him, but he too judged Israel and delivered them from the Philistines.
And why are these judges needed anyway? Let’s rehearse that. It’s because a new generation arose and did not know the Lord. They didn’t have a personal walk with him. They didn’t care about what he said. They turned from him to serve worthless idols. And because they did, the Lord was angry. He would send oppressors to oppress his people in response to their unfaithfulness. And he did that so that they would turn from their idols and turn to him. And it would work, at least temporarily. I just read this morning in 1st Samuel. And there in chapter 12 Samuel is giving a history of Isarel’s disobedience to the Lord. He says that their fathers would disobey in times past. And when they did God would send oppressors. And when that happened the people would cry out to the Lord and say, “…We have sinned, because we have forsaken the LORD, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve thee.” So, that sounds like true repentance. But chapter 2 of this book of Judges leads us to believe that this repentance was short-lived or maybe just partial – like maybe some truly repented while the rest of Israel did not. Whatever the case, Israel’s crying out to the Lord for deliverance was at the very least short-lived.
Now, even though their cry may have been completely selfish and for the most part lacking true repentance, the Lord had mercy on his sinful people and sent someone to save them. And that’s where these stories about individual judges come in. These judges are called to save or deliver the Lord’s people. And as I said the judges that we’re presented with go from pretty good… to alright… to bad… to awful. And as we begin our lesson today we transition from good/OK to… well, I’ll let you decide as we go through the text. How does our judge today fare in comparison to Othniel and Ehud?
So, let’s get acquainted with our judge for today. But first we need to get a picture of why the judge was necessary. Let’s read verses 1 through 3.
KJV Judges 4:1 ¶ And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, when Ehud was dead. 2 And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, which dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles. 3 And the children of Israel cried unto the LORD: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel.
Now, this Jabin guy might sound familiar to you if you remember our lessons in Joshua. Jabin was the king of Hazor back in Joshua 11. He led a coalition of the northern Canaanite cities who opposed Joshua. But he was defeated and killed. Further, his city Hazor was totally destroyed and burned. But Canaanites have a way of cropping back up. They’re resilient – especially when they’re being used as a chastisement from God for his disobedient people. So this Jabin is not the same person. Perhaps the name Jabin was used like name Pharaoh was in Egypt – it’s really a title rather than a personal name.
And so we’ve said a little about this Jabin fellow. But really he’s not at all a main character in this story. He’s mentioned once more in the entire book of Judges. So he’s really brought into the story to bring the main adversary into the picture. His name is Sisera. And he’s the captain of Jabin’s army. And it’s a well-equipped army. 900 chariots. What’s interesting is that this group of Canaanites is mentioned back in Joshua 11 as having many horses and chariots. So I guess chariots were something of a specialty for them. But you know, in Joshua the chariots weren’t a problem at all. God delivered Israel from these chariot-riding Canaanites. But he’s not doing that this time. The people’s disobedience calls for God to not only not deliver them from the king of Hazor and his commander. It also calls for God to actively use these Canaanites to oppress his people in order to get their attention.
So for 20 years Sisera oppresses Israel. We’ll get a better idea of what that oppression may have involved in chapter 5. It’s not pretty. And Israel is miserable and in great pain. So they cry out to the Lord. And God mercifully sends a judge to deliver them. Let’s read about him… or her in verses 4 through 7.
4 ¶ And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. 5 And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. 6 And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedeshnaphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the LORD God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? 7 And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.
Now, two times in this section “judged” or “judgment” is mentioned in relation to Deborah. So, is she the judge? But then she commissions Barak. And God wants him to do what the typical judge did in this time frame. So… who’s the real judge here? Deborah? Barak? Both of them? Hopefully it’ll become clearer as we continue.
Now, it seems that Deborah is from Ephraim. Barak hails from north of there in Naphtali. Deborah is a prophetess. As we see here she is someone to whom the Israelites go to have some sort of verdict pronounced in their disputes. And that kind of position is needed, surely. But is that how the first three judges in this book have been pictured? As settling disputes? No, we haven’t seen judges do that yet. Well then, maybe she’s not the judge in this story. But here’s another thing she does. She acts as God’s mouthpiece to call Barak to action. Action! Delivering Israel from their enemies! Now, that’s the role of a judge. Maybe Barak then is the judge in this story. Now, we don’t know how the first three judges were called by God. But here we see Barak’s calling to that position. Deborah, speaking for God, tells him that God will surely deliver Sisera into his hand. That’s really exciting. I can’t wait to see him do it!
Oh, but… as we look to the next verse we don’t see action. We see… something less encouraging from this potential judge. Let’s read verse 8.
8 And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.
What?! This man who’s called by God through Deborah, his mouthpiece, to be a judge is accepting it with conditions? When God tells you to do something you don’t put conditions on your obeying him! And his condition honestly makes Barak look pretty weak. He won’t go unless this lady Deborah goes with him. Some think he’s declaring that he refuses to go into battle without God’s guidance – which Deborah represents, since she’s God’s prophetess.
But I don’t think this request is noble. How do I know? Look at Deborah’s response in verse 9.
9 And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.
If this was your first time reading this story who would you think the woman is that Deborah refers to? Herself — right? So again you’re maybe back to thinking that she’s the judge in the story. But I’ll just cut to the chase and inform you that Deborah is not the woman who kills Sisera. But this whole back and forth between who’s the real judge in the story – combined with Barak’s apparent wimpiness — I think it all gives us an idea of what’s happening at this time in Israel’s history. I think what we see in Barak and Deborah’s story is “A Failure of Male Leadership” in Israel at the time of the judges. There’s failure on every hand during this time – but this story points out a failure of male leadership.
Barak balked at God’s promise. He didn’t immediately obey God’s clear call. This is a problem not just for Israel in the days of the judges, is it? Can I encourage us all to be careful to not doubt God’s promises – but to believe them and act accordingly? Let’s not put conditions on our obedience to what we clearly know God wants us to do.
So, I’ve raised the issue of who the judge is in this story. Is it Deborah? Is it Barak? Or both? And honestly it’s confusing. The text says Deborah was judging Israel. But she’s not involved in the delivering of God’s people that’s always associated with a judge. Barak does act to deliver God’s people, but he’s not acting with much confidence in God. So he’s somewhat suspect, too. So, here’s what I come to. I believe the narrator of this story left us intentionally in suspense to tell us about this deficiency in Israel of male leadership. Why was Deborah a judge anyway? Shouldn’t an elder — who would probably always be a man – fill that position? She’s a prophetess. Well, so was Miriam. But Miriam’s prophesying seemed to lie in her musical proclamations, rather than her plain verbal foretelling of events. Why did Deborah need to be God’s mouthpiece? Where are all the men? I think these things are intended by God to be somewhat confusing. And in the confusion we see this major problem in Israel with male leadership. So, who’s the judge? I don’t know. Maybe both. I lean toward Barak being the judge.
Well, Barak eventually did go — with Deborah by his side. And verse 10 tells us that “…Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him.”
Then we’re given another introductory element of the story in verse 11.
11 ¶ Now Heber the Kenite, which was of the children of Hobab the father in law of Moses, had severed himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent unto the plain of Zaanaim, which is by Kedesh.
So, now we have this Heber fellow introduced for us. He’s a Kenite. The Kenites were the group who came to Judah at the beginning of this book from Jericho. But for some reason Heber separated himself from the rest of his clan and moved up north to Naphtali – right next to where Barak and his army now stand. What a coincidence! We’ll hear more about Heber – or more precisely his wife – later in the story.
Alright, Barak is ready to fight. He was reluctant. But he has the prophetess with him and so he’s good now. He did exercise some faith. That’s why he’s mentioned in Hebrews 11. So, what happens next? Sisera enters the picture in verses 12 through 16.
12 ¶ And they shewed Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor. 13 And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon. 14 And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the LORD hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the LORD gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. 15 And the LORD discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet. 16 But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword; and there was not a man left.
So what we’re not seeing is an exceptional amount of courage and manliness from the men in this story thus far. Deborah commands Barak to go and fight Sisera. Then when the Lord starts routing Sisera’s army he flees. Commanders don’t flee! Or they shouldn’t.
But despite the lackluster show of manliness, did you hear what Deborah said to Barak? The Lord has delivered Sisera into his hand! Maybe God changed his mind. Maybe he’ll let Barak kill Sisera after all. But it doesn’t look like Deborah’s the one to kill Sisera. We don’t hear about her fighting. How is Sisera going to die then? Let’s read verses 17 through 20.
17 ¶ Howbeit Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite: for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle. 19 And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him. 20 Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and enquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.
So here’s another mention of Heber the Kenite. But now we discover that this man was on the wrong side of things. Heber supported Jabin – Sisera’s king. Oh no. And now it looks like Sisera’s going to get shelter and protection from Heber’s wife Jael. (Come on, pretend you’ve never heard this story before please!) She even treats him to some good Bedouin hospitality. Covering him with a mantle and giving him some curdled milk. Yes, apparently that was a sign of hospitality. If anyone gave me curdled milk I’d probably immediately detect they were a foe. But Sisera doesn’t interpret this gesture that way. He is completely at ease now in Jael’s home – or tent. I think what’s pretty funny is his statement at the end of verse 20. If anyone comes looking for a man you go ahead and tell them that there’s no man here. It’s ironic for two reasons. One, the men in this story are seeming to have some trouble acting the part. Second, well… pretty soon Sisera won’t be there in a sense. He’ll be dead.
Let’s read verses 21 and 22.
21 Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died. 22 And, behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said unto him, Come, and I will shew thee the man whom thou seekest. And when he came into her tent, behold, Sisera lay dead, and the nail was in his temples.
So God did deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman – just like Deborah prophesied. And yet God was merciful to Barak and allowed him to defeat the enemy, overall. Thus the enemy was delivered into the hand of both a woman and Barak.
And what an interesting woman this Jael is. She’s a gentile. Her husband is friendly with Israel’s enemies. And yet somehow she had the bravery to slay the enemy of Israel. Did she hear about Israel’s God and come to fear him? Is that what motivated her bold actions? I don’t know. But I have no other explanation for why she helped God’s people when she didn’t need to, and – in fact – when it was dangerous to do so.
And as a result of her action and Barak’s reluctant obedience we have the happy report of verses 23 and 24.
23 ¶ So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel. 24 And the hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.
So the destruction of Sisera was a pretty quick matter. But the destruction of Sisera’s king, Jabin, took a little longer. And yet it happened eventually. The Lord saved his people from their enemy. He used a “weaker vessel” as Peter would say to do it. But isn’t that how God works? He uses the weak to confound the strong.
Continue to Judges 5
Now, all of this calls for a celebration. We’ve heard the facts of the story. We’ve heard the timeline of things. But now we’re going to celebrate the Lord’s victory with a song in the form of Hebrew poetry in chapter 5. Chapter 4 gave us the events. Chapter 5 now gives us some of the emotion behind the events. It also fills in some details we didn’t hear about in chapter 4. Let’s begin by reading verses 1 through 8 of chapter 5.