Judges 2:7-23.
 
Paddling Upstream in a Downstream World

American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright © 2012, J.W.  Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Have you ever felt like the whole world seems to become more evil every day?  Those of us who are old enough to remember the mid 20th-century and its "Father Knows Best" culture have little difficulty describing the contrast between western culture of fifty years ago and that of today.  Most would say that they have witnessed a world that is slipping deeper and deeper into a culture of godlessness, a culture that is becoming more and more desensitized to and accepting of evil.  When we witness the violence and hatred that characterizes the world, we may think that matters cannot get worse.  However, when we take a cursory look at human history, we find that we humans seem to be stuck in a cycle that takes us from the bottom of the pit back to somewhat conservative culture, only to slide back into the pit again.  One only needs to spend a few minutes studying 13th and 14th century European history to learn of a time that was dramatically worse than that of today. 

Where has the church been during these times of cultural degradation and apostasy?  Actually, any accurate study of western history reveals that the church has led its cultures into bigotry, violence and hatred with many of the greatest atrocities against mankind perpetrated by those who do so in the "name of God," ranging from the European, Asian, and African cultural genocides of the 4th to 15th centuries, to the harassment and murder of black Americans in the 17th to 20th centuries.  Vestiges of that bigotry remain in some churches today.  

The force and direction of world culture is like the current of a rushing river, a force that carries with it everything in its path that it overcomes.  Social decline is like a raging, uncontrollable river that is flowing on a long and winding pathway as it falls through continually lower and lower altitudes by the constant pull of the dark abyss of death.  Shallow decline is characterized by periods of relative calm when change is subtle and goes unnoticed.  Rapid decline is like the rush of the water’s rapids as it breaks over rocks and tears up anything in its path.  However, the rushing water of cultural change is not a moving mass of water.  It is the moving mass of people.   It is people who are swept up in the social current and make choices as to how they will respond to it.   

Most people are unaware of the current and simply flow along together, immersed in it, even reveling in it, accepting whatever comes their way.  Some may choose to reject society's plummet and make an effort to get out of the river entirely, living the life of a recluse.  Neither of these is the appropriate response of one who claims the name of Christ. 

Christians are to live above the evil of this world, and rather than follow the world in its ever-declining downward spiral, Christians are to set an example of integrity in attitude, in word, and in deed.  Yet, taking a stand for the faith seems to become more difficult with every passing year as it seems to take more effort to work against society’s downward flowing current.  The world places pressure on the church to conform to its humanist and relativistic agenda.  For the most part, the church has surrendered much of its integrity in an attempt to be like and be accepted by the world.  It is these Christians who are swept downstream by the current.  Taking a stand for Christian integrity necessitates repentance:  turning around and making the effort to travel upstream, against the current, accepting all of the consequences of such a decision. 

It is easier to just go with the flow, and the consequences of doing so are dramatic.  When we choose to live like the world we compromise our witness and fail to fully experience the benefits of God's purpose in our lives.  This godless and pagan world answers to no ultimate standard, and to follow the world is to surrender the one ultimate standard of God's purpose.  It is easy for the people of God to be swept up in the current of culture.  We see an example of this in the history of ancient Israel following the death of Joshua when the nation found itself immersed in a pagan world that is quite similar in moral and spiritual character to that of today’s world. 

One might think that it takes many generations for a society to degrade to the point of secular paganism.  However, it did not take long for this to happen in Joshua’s Israel.

Living an Inheritance of Faith

Judges 2:7-9.  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. 8Now Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died when he was one hundred and ten years old. 9And they buried him within the border of his inheritance at Timnath Heres, in the mountains of Ephraim, on the north side of Mount Gaash.

Joshua has been leading the Israelite nation, the twelve combined tribes of Israel, in Canaan for about 25 years following the nation’s crossing of the Jordan River and the taking of the city of Jericho, leading them to follow the LORD in their worship and in their adherence to the Law of Moses with mixed success.  Israel demonstrated times of both obedience and disobedience, experiencing the blessings and consequences of those decisions.  Unfortunately, there did not appear to be many leaders in the nation who truly shared Joshua's love for the LORD.  From the time that Joshua died to the point that Saul was anointed King, a period of about 300 years,[1] the Hebrews entered what might be reasonably referred to as the early dark ages of the Jewish faith.  Lacking a firm commitment to the LORD, the people who God had called out to Himself fell in to repeating cycles of apostasy, consequence, and repentance, repeatedly taking two steps back and one step forward as they allowed themselves to be swept up by the current of popular culture.

This period can be summarized in a single verse, repeated twice in the Book of Judges. 

Judges 17:6.  In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Judges 21:25.  In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Israel fell into a cyclical pattern that is not unlike what we may deal with today as we struggle against the power of the current that is developed by the secular and pagan majority of modern society.  We will occasionally allow ourselves to “go with the flow” and then find ourselves facing the consequences of our unwise choices.  We then turn to the LORD in true and sincere repentance, seeking forgiveness and finding restoration only to find ourselves compromising our commitment again soon afterward.  The cycle continues.

Turning Away from God

Judges 2:10-13.  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.  11Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; 12and 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. 13They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.

What happened to the people following the death of Joshua?  The people did not have enough commitment to the LORD to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of that faith.  Unlike Joshua, who loved the LORD and demonstrated that faith in his life and leadership, there were few others who shared that faith.  At this time in Jewish history, there was no other leader of the people who, like Joshua, was a spirit-led believer.  What would happen to a nation if the Spirit of God was not in the hearts of its people?  Ignoring the still-small voice of the LORD that is present and audible in all of creation,[2] any such nation would have no purpose or direction other than to go with the much louder and sensual flow of this pagan world with its pantheon of secular and pagan authorities.  Without the gospel there would be no reason for the people to go against the flow of world culture, a culture that rests fully within the domain of the prince of this world.  This would be a world with no hope at all.

It is a given that God has created us in His image, as spiritual beings, separated by that spiritual nature from the rest of created life as we know it.  As such, all mankind has always sought the answers to spiritual questions, and in doing so placed himself in subjection to some authority.  This is what happened when the Hebrews no longer followed God:  they turned to other authorities.

First, without a central government, the Hebrew tribes started to develop fierce rivalries that often bred jealousy and hatred.  They decentralized themselves, often fighting violently with each other.  One such conflict nearly destroyed the tribe of Benjamin, necessitating its repopulation from other tribes in order to sustain it.[3] 

Second, they failed to be obedient to God's command to act as His instrument in carrying out the destruction or removal of all of the people of Canaan as a judgment on their wickedness and the destruction that they would bring upon the Israelites.  Leaving the Canaanite culture intact, they quickly began to intermarry and accept their pagan religious practices.

The Hebrews forgot the LORD and turned to the pagan mythical gods, the Baalim and Ashtoreth (among many other fictional gods).  The Canaanites, like most ancients, were polytheistic: attributing everything they could not define or understand to one mythical god or another.  The most pervasively destructive to society were the practices that developed around the “worship” of Baalim and Ashtoreth.  These were the fertility gods and goddesses of ancient Canaan.  Baal was masculine; Ashtoreth was feminine.  Ashtoreth is a plural form, as is Baalim, thus they represented numerous gods.

"Ashtoreth was worshipped under the names of Ishtar and Anath in ancient Babylon, Astarte in Phoenicia.  According to ancient mythology, Baal was slain by a bitter foe, Mot, the LORD of Death.  Anath searched for and found Baal's body.  She offered numerous sacrifices and succeeded in restoring Baal to life.  Baal then arose from the dead and reigned over Mot.  Anath was both Baal's sister and his lover.  These became Baal and Ashtoreth who were worshipped as nature gods.

The worship of Baal and Ashtoreth had a strong appeal to the Israelites.  They viewed the riotous worship of these gods as assuring the productivity of their flocks, herds, and fields, and the birth of a large number of children in their families.  Riotous drinking and sexual immorality accompanied the festival days of worship.  The idea was that sexual involvement with a temple prostitute would prompt Baal and Ashtoreth to copy their behavior, ensuring fertility in every realm.  Worship of Baal and Ashtoreth also involved human sacrifice, particularly that of babies and children.  They believed that such an act expressed the worshiper's devotion and elicited their god's favor."[4]  

The choice to turn their hearts away from the One True and Living God and join in the pagan worship of Canaan’s pantheon of fictional gods was not without dramatic consequences.

God's Judgment

Judges 2:14-15.  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. 15Wherever 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.

What happens when a child of God turns away from Him to follow the ways of this world?  This is not unlike a young child who chooses to disobey a wise and loving father, rejecting his guidance, and following the ways of the other children who are receiving no such guidance or instruction.  The wise and loving father must respond to this behavior in a way that will bring the child to an understanding of the consequences of their disobedience.

God's righteous and holy nature demands that He judge the unrepentant.  How did God exact that judgment?  God had promised His hand of protection over the people of Israel as long as they were obedient to Him.  When they disobeyed, they stepped away from that hand of protection and exposed themselves to the consequences of their own foolishness.  God allowed them to be robbed, sold into slavery, and they were unable to defeat their enemies in battle when they fought without God's purpose, direction or help.  The phrase "Whenever Israel went out to fight," could also be accurately rendered, "wherever Israel went."  Whenever Israel stood for the Baals, the Asherahs, and other pagan deities God stood against them in all that they did.  What would you think about having God working against everything that you do?  That is a bit of a scary concept.

When we consider what God did with Sodom and Gomorrah, and the judgment that God brought upon the Canaanites to be carried out by Israel, we might think that Israel should be doomed to a similar, utter destruction, receiving the just reward for their wickedness.  However, God still has a plan for Israel, a plan that involved His promise to Abraham, and His eternal knowledge of how His plan would unfold.  Israel was still  the loved child of the LORD.  Yet, even a loving father knows the purpose and limitations of discipline.  When we find ourselves in disobedience to the LORD, we will experience the consequences of that apostasy.  However, God's plan is not that we be destroyed by our sins, but that He would provide a means by which we could be delivered from them, turning back to the LORD in faith.  Even when we give up on the LORD and start drifting in this downstream world, God's hand is always there to help us repent and turn back upstream.

God's Provision

Judges 2:16.  Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them.

Though the KJV renders the word "Nevertheless," actually in the Hebrew it is a simple conjunction, similar to "and."  The idea is that God's grace was demonstrated that even while the Hebrews were steeped in sin, God's love reached through their sin and provided them with a way out.  This has been God's method of redemption from the beginning of creation.  Consider the apostle Paul's statement in Romans concerning the LORD’s unconditional and prevenient grace:

Romans 5:8.  But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us

When people are in distress, God may seem indifferent or distant.  Indifference is not one of God's attributes.  God always cares, and always provides the opportunity for redemption for all people.  There is simply no person alive who is beyond God’s ability to redeem.  It was not until Jesus' resurrection from death on the Cross of Calvary was God's redemptive plan so graphically illustrated.  Jesus was and is, by the nature of His work, the ultimate and eternal judge of all.  As the judges of the Israelites saved the nation out of the hands of worldly raiders, Jesus as God's supreme Judge, saves people out of the hands of the ultimate raiders: sin and death who are personified in the person of satan, the Lord of Death.

Most of the ancient Israelite judges were men, though women were also raised up, Deborah being a notable example.  Samson is probably the most well known of the judges.  A judge was not one who sat on a bench wearing a robe, as we would define the term today.  An Old Testament judge was a spiritual and military leader who had the LORD's blessing and, usually, His Spirit.  However, it was often the case that the judge would also turn from God bringing the consequences of that choice upon himself and upon the nation.  We cannot place our trust in human leadership, but in the LORD alone.

Judges 2:17.  Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them.  Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the LORD's commands.

What was the people's response to the judges that the LORD raised up?  Though they would initially follow them in order to be saved from their immediate stress, they would not listen with the intent of obedience.  When the stressor was removed, they would forget the commitments and promises they had made to the LORD, and go back to their pagan ways. 

What is the downstream world's response to the Gospel of Christ, the One Judge that has come to free them from the bondage of sin?  The general worldly response is to reject God, His plan and His purpose, and follow after other gods, having no intent of obeying the One True LORD.  Some might cry out “Oh God” when in the throes of tumultuous conflict, only to quickly forget God when the conflict ends. 

What is the response of the Jewish nation today to the Gospel message?  Today’s Israel has also rejected it, deliberately choosing to deny that YAHWEH, the Messiah, came to earth in Bethlehem to forever redeem them from their apostasy.  Today’s modern Jews still place their identity in the ancient Law of Moses that none have any real intent to fully obey.  The surrender of the faith after the death of Joshua has had a consequence beyond measure as millions of the LORD’s chosen people have rejected Him.

How can this happen?  The Hebrews are accused here of prostituting themselves.  This should be a supreme insult to them.  This description refers to the acts of both prostitution and adultery.  This attitude and behavior was graphically followed in the manner of worship of the mythical Baalim and Ashtoreth, when their worship practices took place "under the trees" or "under the Ashtoreth pole," each statement representing both a physical location and a metaphor for the most ungodly of practices.  To worship "under the trees" was to be completely swept up by the downward current of this evil world.  The people, attracted by the things of the world, quickly turned away from the LORD as soon as their perceived need for Him ebbed.

Judges 2:18.  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.

The place of the judge is repeated here.  Note also how the task of the judge was simply a type of the supreme judge, Christ.  As long as a judge lived, God intervened through that judge on the behalf of his children, saving them out the hands of their enemies.  As the supreme and eternal judge, Jesus also saves us from the hands of the enemy.  What would have happened if Jesus died on the Cross, never to be raised again?  The apostles and disciples would have gone back to their apostasy, and God's purpose of redemption would have never been fully known.  Instead, Jesus was raised from the dead, demonstrating to all people the eternal nature of life.  What does this mean in the context of what we can learn from the Judges?  Jesus delivers us from sin, and will continue to do so until the "end of the age" when He returns and the apocalypse unfolds.  Unlike the Israelite judges who died, taking their Spirit-led leadership with them, Jesus is the Eternal LORD, and His spiritual leadership through the power of the Holy Spirit will never end.

Still, those who reject God through the Judges, and those who reject God through the Christ are judged by God.  What is the LORD’s judgment for them?

Repeated Apostacy

Judges 2:19-22.  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.  20Then 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, 21I 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.”

The LORD's command to Joshua was to drive out all of the nations in the Promised Land, but we find in the book of Joshua and in the first few chapters of this book that Joshua and the twelve tribes of Israel failed to do this.  They drove out only those who lived in the few cities that met their immediate needs, and in many of these they did not drive out the people but instead made slaves of them.  This disobedience created a situation where Israel was immersed in the pagan cultures of these nations and never actually took sovereign control of the land.  This lack of sovereignty in the world is much like Christianity today, as the people of faith are immersed in this secular, pagan, and wicked world today and have no sovereignty over it.  The temptation to go with the flow of popular culture is as real today as it was in ancient Israel. 

What function did the Canaanite nations serve in the hands of God during these "dark ages"?  They were used of God to test Israel and to turn them to the LORD when the consequences of their sin would cause them to cry out.  What similar function does satan serve in the hands of God during our current age?  He is also used of God to test people and turn them to the LORD.

Judges 2:23.  Therefore the LORD left those nations, without driving them out immediately; nor did He deliver them into the hand of Joshua.

We may criticize Joshua, Caleb, and the twelve tribes of Israel for failing in their task of driving out all of the Canaanites, particularly in light of the long-term consequences of apostasy and violence that continues even until today.  However, we must never forget that God is the Sovereign LORD, and He is free from the limitations of time, and both sees and interacts with all that takes place for all ages.  He knew that Joshua and Caleb would not be able to complete the task.  God had never intended them to do so.  Had God wanted to completely annihilate the Canaanites He could have done so easily in a "Sodom and Gomorrah" type incident.  God has a purpose in placing His children in a downstream world.

Instead of pointing fingers at Joshua and Caleb, we can instead, take a good look at what took place during the dark ages of the judges and we will see that we are living in a very similar age today.  God still saves people who place their faith in Him.  Because the eternal Christ came, lived and died, and arose, God's commitment, or covenant with us is sealed.  Since Christ will never die we will never be turned back to the hands of the spoiler once we have been saved.  We are sealed by His Holy Spirit.

However, those who follow God in true faith are a tiny minority of this world.  The world is still in a dark age.  The world is still like that river that is flowing to ever lower altitudes, dragging with it all that get swept up by its violent and deadly current.  Christians are called to faith, and faith is characterized by action: action that is focused in an upstream direction, focused on a higher call.  We may be reminded of Paul's testimony when he wrote:

Philippians 3:13-14.  Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. 

Summary

Jesus said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."[5]  Turning away from the direction of this pagan, downstream world does not have to be a difficult task.  It is difficult only when we hold tight to the things of this world.  Let go of those things that are dragging you downstream and hold fast to the LORD as He empowers us to live above this world as we are focused on the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.


[1] 1380 – 1050 B.C.

[2] Romans 1:20.

[3] Judges, Chapter 20.

[4] 1Lee, J.W.  (1994), The Adult Teacher 41(1), Nashville TN: Sunday School Board.

[5] Matthew 11:30.