The proverbial ‘bottom of the barrel’ is a bad place to be, but that’s where we find God’s people in the book of Judges. At an all-time low. True, they were now settled in the Promised Land. But, far from sitting under their own vines and fig trees, well-fed and at peace, they were mostly cringing in caves, poverty-stricken and frightened.

Why? Because they had disobeyed Jehovah. Having failed to get rid of all the Canaanites,[1] they had made alliances with the survivors, had intermarried with them and, worst of all, had started worshipping their gods. They were flouting God’s law right, left and centre.

Now God is a promise-keeping God, and he keeps the nasty promises as well as the nice ones. So, in line with the ‘curses’ section of his covenant with Israel, he allowed their enemies to overrun them and make them little better than slaves again—a kind of return to Egypt. Anarchy and chaos prevailed throughout the land. The closing verse of Judges sums it up: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.’

The book records a repeating cycle of events. The people would disobey God. He would allow them to be overrun by their enemies, who would oppress them. The people would then see the error of their ways and call to God for help. God would raise up a ‘judge’—a leader—to deliver them. For a while they would behave in a more godly way and live in peace. Then they would disobey God again—and the cycle restarted.

All this, of course, has something to say to you and me. ‘Everything that was written in the past,’ Paul reminds us, ‘was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.’[2] The message, I think, is that God doesn’t want you going round in circles like this; he has linear plans for you, so that you end up somewhere better than where you started. In particular, Judges warns us against slipping back into defeat through compromise with the godless world around us.

Compromise is a killer. Get rid of all  the Canaanites, as God commanded—the reformed homosexual who stays away from all his old haunts except one will be dragged back into his old ways. Don’t make covenants with Canaanites by letting them pressure you into doing what they want to do—nightclubs, for instance, may be the norm for them, but you don’t have to join them there. Don’t intermarry with Canaanites—marry only someone with whom you can progress in your Christian faith. Don’t worship Canaanite gods—the shrines of materialism and self-indulgence destroy their worshippers.

If the book of Joshua illustrates that you can be ‘more than a conqueror’, the book of Judges is a reminder that you can become a captive to sin again by your own unwise choices. Old Testament examples like Judges stand as a warning to us: ‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’[3]

There were twelve judges over a period of around 300 years. Their job description was to deal with national defence, organising military resistance to Israel’s oppressors; to encourage true faith and morality, the basis on which God would show mercy; and in some cases to play a civic role in settling disputes. Let’s take a look at one of the lesser-known ones, Ehud, whose story appears in chapter 3.

In his day it was the Moabites who had overrun Israel, led by Eglon their king, who was ‘a very fat man’. After eighteen years of Moabite oppression the Israelites cried out to God for help, and it was the left-handed Ehud whom God raised up to deliver them. He was the man chosen to lead the delegation carrying the latest batch of tribute-money to the Moabite king, and the fact that he was left-handed is vital. Since a right-handed man would wear his sword on the left, the Moabite officials would focus on the left side when frisking Israelite delegates on arrival at the king’s residence. Ehud, being left-handed, wore his sword on the right. And, for this occasion, he had made a special shortened version only half a metre long and had strapped it to his right thigh, out of sight under his clothing.

Ehud passed the frisking and got through to present the tribute-money to King Eglon. No doubt there was some polite, semi-friendly conversation between the two men, after which the delegates departed. But Ehud came back with an alleged ‘secret message’ for the king. Since he had been into the king’s presence once already, the security men probably saw him as low-risk and allowed him to be alone with him. Drawing his hidden sword, Ehud killed him in the privacy of the royal residence and made good his escape. Then, with the Moabite people disheartened at the rapidly-spreading news of their king’s death, Ehud mustered an Israelite army and beat them roundly. The tables were turned: ‘That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years.’ Another cycle completed.

So who were these Moabites? They lived east of the Dead Sea. That means that sixty years after Joshua had left their side of the Jordan by crossing the river into the Promised Land, the Moabites had done the same thing. Under Joshua the Israelites had taken the land; now the Moabites had come and taken it from them. There is surely a message here: God wants you to hold on to what you have conquered.

Have you held on? Or have you, maybe, lost some of the ground you took as part of your spiritual conquests years ago? Did you at that time overcome bad habits or personality weaknesses that have since returned? It’s best not to lose ground in the first place than to have to fight to retake it. ‘Put on the full armour of God,’ urges the apostle Paul, ‘so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.’[4]

But if you have lost ground it’s better to retake it now than to continue a life of defeat, so perhaps we can learn a thing or two from Ehud about how to do it. What kind of man was he?

He was left-handed—literally ‘bound (restricted) in his right hand’. This wasn’t a handicap but a mark of his individuality, and also, of course, a source of unique opportunity. Like him, be yourself. Don’t try to be ‘right-handed’ just because most folk are that way. Look upon your own unique features as potential strengths and marks of individuality. I once met a Christian with a huge birthmark across his face. Far from being embarrassed or held back by it, he used to say, ‘When the Lord looks down he has no problem spotting me!’

Ehud was also a responsible man, since he was the one sent by the Israelites to oversee the delivery of the tribute-money to King Eglon. His trustworthiness is what provided him with his opportunity to rescue Israel from Moabite control. Are you a responsible person? It’s a desirable quality.

He was a man of initiative. As far as we can see, he acted alone in making the short sword and planning to assassinate Eglon.[5] Certainly the Scripture record gives no hint that his companions were party to the plan. You can learn from that. Take spiritual initiatives—don’t wait to be invited, because the invitations may never come. Be like Philip the deacon who, after the early Christians were dispersed by persecution, went to Samaria and started evangelising there, without apostolic permission, and saw great success.[6] In the church we don’t fill posts; we see what a person is doing, then give recognition to it. So start doing!

We can also safely say, I think, that Ehud sometimes lacked confidence. Was the original plan, I wonder, to strike the blow when delivering the money, but he got cold feet? Certainly he got as far as Gilgal on the way home before turning back to do the deed. That’s encouraging! He joins the company of the many Bible characters who, though they achieved great things for the Lord, were by no means superheroes. Scripture portrays them ‘warts and all’. Abraham lied about his wife. David fell into adultery with Bathsheba. Peter denied his Lord. And Ehud wavered in his resolve. So don’t be surprised if you feel nervous about an initiative you feel God is calling you to make. Go for it anyway!

Ehud also proved to be a catalyst for rapid change. His action, after eighteen years of Israel’s being subject to Moab, provoked a rapid about-turn. Inspired by his initiative, the Israelites rallied to his call and defeated the Moabites roundly, and the result was eighty years of peace and freedom for God’s people. Who knows what might stem from your own obedience to the Lord!

Large sections of the church in the West today are as weak and compromising as were the Israelites in the days of the judges. Many of God’s people are ‘committed more to comfort than to character, to convenience more than to commitment, to cash more than to Christ.’[7] The Christian TV channels show that the main interest of many is being amused and entertained as they chase the latest star preacher, improving their material status, and learning how to use the ‘word of faith’ to push God around and get what they want. That’s just the kind of compromise with worldly values that invites God to send the Moabites in.

Don’t follow that trend. Show personal faith in faithless times. Walk close to the Lord; hold fast to him; imbibe his Word, listen to the Holy Spirit; live a life of integrity. Like Ehud, cast aside your fears and take bold initiatives for Christ and the kingdom.

 

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

1. Judges 1:21-36

2. Romans 15:4

JUDGES

Personal Faith In Faithless Times

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Judges

3. 1 Corinthians 10:11-12

4. Ephesians 6:13

5. There is no indication that God specifically sanctioned Ehud’s action, but he certainly used it.

6. See Acts 8. The apostles were still in Jerusalem.

7. Joseph M. Stowell of the Moody Bible Institute.

The gist of this article

The period of Israel’s judges was a time of national backsliding from the ways of the Lord. But one of those judges, Ehud, illustrates how one individual with faith and determination can buck society’s trends and turn the tide of history.