Deborah - a mother in Israel (4)
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
For eighty years the land enjoyed a measure of rest after the exploits of Ehud. A whole generation grew up during the longest period of peace recorded in the times of the Judges. Yet, as we have seen before, and will see again, absence of conflict led to complacency and it was then but a matter of time before ‘the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord’, Judg. 4. 1.
It is interesting to notice that the adversary in the days of Othniel, the first of the judges, came from far off Mesopotamia. The next enemy, Moab, was much nearer home, in fact just outside the border of the land. Now, however, the scourge used by God to bring His people to repentance was occupying part of their own land, Jabin king of Canaan, one of those nations which God left in the land that by them He ‘may prove Israel, whether they will keep the way of the Lord . . . or not’, Judg. 2. 22.
Sowing and reaping
As each adversary came nearer, the time of oppression became longer. First, it was eight years, then eighteen years, now for a further twenty years the nation was ground beneath the iron wheels of Jabin’s nine hundred chariots. When we read Israel’s history, and see how often they turned their back and spurned God’s benevolent kindness, we feel a sense of frustration and amazement. Why did they not just obey His voice? Why did they not just willingly accept His bountiful blessings? Then we stop, and consider our own ingratitude, our persistent waywardness and our wasted years of sowing to the flesh! We then begin to realize that ‘these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted’, 1 Cor. 10. 6. Sadly, we are no better at learning the lessons than Israel was. How grateful we should be that we have a Father who ‘knows our frame’, who ‘remembers that we are dust’ and yet still bestows grace and mercy upon us in abundant measure.
The twenty years of ‘mighty oppression’ began to take their toll. We learn something of the conditions which prevailed from Deborah’s song in Judges chapter 5. The highways were empty of travellers; they took to the byways for fear of robbers. The country villages were abandoned as their occupants sought the comparative safety of walled cities. Yet, even there, they found no peace; there was ‘war in the gates’ and Israel was left without shield or spear to withstand the oppressor. Sin always leads to poverty; sometimes material, always spiritual. For the Israelites, sin resulted in a change in the way they walked. It disrupted their home life and left them defenceless against the attacks of the adversary! The application to our hearts is easy to see.
Salvation made ready
Once again the cry of the people reached the ear of a longsuffering God, and once again He had a deliverer prepared. Now, however, it is not an Othniel or a Shamgar, but a woman who rises above the condition of the nation, ‘I Deborah arose . . . a mother in Israel’, Judg. 5. 7, one of only two women in scripture to whom is given this lovely tribute. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who asked the question of the French aristocrat Madame Campon, ‘What is this nation most in need of?’ She replied, ‘Mothers’. That could well be said of our own society with its tragic increase of broken homes, dysfunctional families and feral children. Deborah had a heart for the nation; a concern, a care and compassion. She looked on them with a mother’s love and what she saw spurred her to action.
We are introduced to Deborah, dwelling with her husband, seated beneath her palm tree between Ramah, the high place, and Bethel, the house of God, hearing the petitions of those who came to her for judgement. For some time before this, Deborah had been ‘recognized’ by those in Israel who still had a desire for righteous judgement and justice. Not all the nation had forsaken their God-given heritage, and many would rally to her standard when the call came. It was very evident that the mind of the Lord was with Deborah, and, as one deemed a prophetess, her words carried weight. It is worth noting that on the occasions in scripture when the word of God is made known through a woman, it is at times of national crisis and spiritual bankruptcy. This is not only an evidence of failure on the part of the men of Israel, but a compliment to those women who would rise above the morass of impiety that gripped the nation so frequently.
Sharing the responsibilities
There was, however, a man to whom she could turn to lead the armies of Israel against Jabin and his captain Sisera, and the man who Deborah called was Barak. Over the years Barak has received a mixed reception from Bible expositors. Some see him as weak and hesitant, content only to act in the shadow of Deborah. Remember, however, it is Barak who takes his place alongside the great heroes of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. Here was a man prepared to respond to the word of Deborah. His words, ‘If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go’, Judg. 4. 8, simply bear out his desire for confirmation that Jehovah had spoken. Having received that assurance Barak is prepared to face Jabin, his chariots and his host with just 10,000 men, knowing also that the ultimate honour of victory would not be his alone; Barak was a brave man.
Battle was joined and a great victory for Israel was gained by the river of Kishon, which means ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’, for doubtless it was. Had not God intervened and ‘the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’ Judg. 5. 20, the day may have been lost. Yet, time and again, when His people showed some desire and resolve in opposing their adversaries, Jehovah endorsed their efforts with His aid.
Sisera, defeated, escaped from the battlefield and sought sanctuary in the tent of Jael. Again in this chapter the Lord uses the hand of a woman to overcome the enemy of His people. Jael was a woman of greater moral worth than her husband Heber the Kenite. In spite of an ancestry that linked him with Moses, he had found it expedient to make peace with Jabin the Canaanite, but not so Jael. Under the guise of providing rest and refreshment for the fugitive she took a tent peg and a hammer and made absolutely certain that Sisera would never again oppress the people of God! Deborah’s song provides the appropriate accolade, ‘Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be’, Judg. 5. 24.
Song of rejoicing
Chapter 5 is taken up with Deborah’s song of victory. The songs of scripture are very instructive and will reward careful study. It is not without significance that the first time we hear voices raised in song is on the redemption side of the Red Sea. It is really only the redeemed of the Lord who have a real reason to sing; even angels, though they speak often in scripture are never heard singing! We read of ‘the song of the drunkards’, Ps. 69. 12, and of ‘the song of fools’, Eccles. 7. 5; the world knows these tunes very well. But, we are thankful that the Lord has ‘put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God’, Ps. 40. 3.
The song is in essence an assessment of response to the ‘call to arms’. In the opening stanzas recognition is given to those who ‘willingly offered themselves’. Those who are prepared to do this can always be assured of the Lord’s help, vv. 3-5. The song then describes the dire circumstances into which Israel had fallen as a result of their sin, and the cause of their difficulties is given in verse 8, ‘they chose new gods’! After a word of commendation for some of the leaders among the people, Deborah turns her attention to the individual tribes and their response to her awakening call.
Verses 14-18 provide just a small cameo in type of the coming day of assessment for all believers, which the apostle Paul refers to as ‘the judgment seat of Christ’, Rom. 14. 10. As for the tribes of Israel, mention is made in verse 14 of some who showed willing, then Issachar, Zebulon and Naphtali are singled out for particular mention in view of their selfless bravery. On the other hand, Dan and Asher made excuses for their absence and Reuben, unstable and unreliable as ever, failed to help; choosing rather to look after his flocks. The call to service is still sounding out, what is our response?
At the end of the song, the ‘mother in Israel’ anticipates the mother of Sisera watching for the return of her son, hoping that he has been delayed by overseeing the division of the victor’s spoil; she will wait in vain.
Following the victory given through Deborah and Barak peace was restored and ‘the land had rest forty years’.
To be continued