So good to see you all. It’s good to be back. Thank you, for those of you who prayed for our trip to Israel! We definitely felt very carried along, we had an extremely enjoyable time, and I would say, extremely fruitful time. Many of you have asked if we’re going to have a presentation, and most likely not, at least in the main services, but I will be weaving some, hopefully, some stories/insights into the messages starting today. Also, we are planning our next trip. So, stay tuned.
This Friday, Dr. Andy Naselli will be teaching a Lead Seminar on Conscience: What Is It, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ. You can register online. It’s $15, but that includes a copy of his book Conscience … and great snacks!
One of the big themes in Judges 4 and 5 is “unfulfilled potential” or “the people of God living as underachievers.” God has miraculously delivered them from Egypt and given them the land of promise, but they’re living in social and spiritual servility. They’re like the man Jesus told the parable about who received a talent, and because he had a warped view of his master and a paralyzing fear of failure, he buried his talent and was unfruitful. That’s a good summary of Judges 4 and 5.
These two chapters communicate this message in two different ways. Chapter 4 tells the story, and that’s what we’ll do today, look at the telling of the story. Chapter 5 sings the story, and that’s what we’ll look at next week. There’s a lot of get-off-the-couch language. “Arise! Go!” A lot of “Awake!” and “Lead!” And those calls are contrasted with warnings against sitting, staying, or sitting still. So, the point of the passages, I believe, will come out clearly. You won’t see the full impact or application today. It’s really a two-part message. You’ll see it more fully next week, but we’re going to lay the foundation and begin the application today. So, let’s pray for God’s help.
Father, thank you for the time to sit under your Word, to hear your voice for us at this time. Speak, Lord. Your servants hear. Take away distractions, Lord. Give our hearts a tenderness. And even as we listen, we remember again our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and pray, Father, that many of them have stayed in danger in order to minister. And we pray for strength and protection and peace, and we do pray that you would mobilize international opposition beyond empty words. It seems like we are in a massive leadership vacuum, in our country and in the world, and so we pray, Father, for your name’s sake, that your glory would be all over the earth here, in Ukraine, and everywhere.
We pray that you would awaken us today with your Word. Some of us, many of us, have slid into underachievement because of fear or depression or past hurts or past failures, because of opposition, or maybe even because we have such a gift to be able to schmooze our way to fake success. We don’t know what real success is. Whatever the source, we’re asking, Father, that you would speak to us through your Word now in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In his recent book, Lament for a Father, Marvin Olasky, the editor of World Magazine, tells the story of his father’s unfulfilled potential. He begins in 1956 in a four-room apartment on the third floor of a triple decker in Malden, Massachusetts. He and his brother are playing chess. His father is reading a science fiction novel or a book in another language. No one is talking. They don’t have a television. Olasky writes,
“Three introverted males reading or playing chess, in silence befitting a Trappist monastery. Into the room lopes my thin and dark-haired mother, who wants to see the world but is now stuck in an apartment half a mile from where she grew up. At age six, I miss subtle signs of marital discord, but it’s hard to mistake misery when she periodically screams, ‘Harvard, man! Lazy! No ambition! Why don’t we have a house? Why don’t we go anywhere?’ My father walks into their bedroom and closes the door. Sometimes my mother goes after him.”
Without any bitterness or blame shifting and with a deep love of his parents, Dr. Olasky tries to figure out what happened. What happened to his father? His father had so much drive early on. He applied twice to Harvard before he was accepted. He enlisted voluntarily in World War II. But decades later, he lost job after job, had very little relationship with his wife or his sons. He escaped into his science fiction books. What happened? Well, throughout the book, Dr. Olasky drops hints that could be summarized by possibly three answers.
Number 1 is his father sold his soul. Now those are my words, but he paints that picture. He sold his soul to get into Harvard and succeed in Harvard, and then the school stabbed him in the back. That is blow number 1. In order to flourish in the legendary anthropology department under Dr. Hooton, he had to jettison his Jewish convictions in the Old Testament, the God of the Old Testament. Dr. Hooton was a fanatical Darwinian and a strong proponent of eugenics, the very philosophy that would help fuel the Holocaust. After succeeding in the department, graduating, and being accepted in the master’s program, near the end of his master’s, he was asked not to return — blow number 1.
Blow number 2 is, even though his father Eli did not see frontline combat in World War II … He packed parachutes for D-Day … After the war ended, because he was Jewish and spoke German, he stayed in Europe for six months after the war ended and was sent to various locations to help relocate displaced people. Now can you imagine what that meant? It meant he most likely was sent … the specific records have burned … but he most likely was sent to help Holocaust victims in concentration camps find a new home. So, he, as a Jewish-American soldier, would have seen piles of bodies, people barely alive. Can you imagine how traumatic that would be?! And he never once would talk about it with his wife, with his kids, with anyone.
Third blow: Marvin had a cousin who described Marvin’s mom as “the angriest woman I ever met.” When Ida married Eli, she thought she was getting the man of her dreams — a Harvard grad. He was going to write books, make money. They were going to travel and see the world. She would — for the first time — she would own her own home. She was running from an abusive home, but she soon realized that her husband was running, as well. And the angrier she got, the more he escaped into his books. A classmate of Marvin’s dad, whom some of you may have heard of, John F. Kennedy, said,
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”
So, what are the obvious signs in Judges 4 that Israel is not fulfilling their potential? That they are paralyzed in inaction, underachievement? Here are a couple: number 1 — they are imitating their neighbors. They are imitating their neighbors. Chapter 3:5, 6 as we saw last week, God said he was testing Israel. Would they live distinctively, or would they simply ape the immorality and idolatry of their neighbors? And Chapter 4:1 answers this question quite plainly:
“The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died.”
They are no different, no different than the Canaanites. They want to fit in. And so, God gives them what they wanted. You want to be like them? “He,” verse 2, “sold them into their hands.” And they, number 2, are living in fear. Verses 2 and 3,
“Jabin was king of Caanan, and he reigned in a place called Hazor.”
“Huzor” in Hebrew, but “Hazer” in English. We were not able to visit that city when we were there a couple of weeks ago. We were right near there, but there are so many sites to see. But excavations have revealed twenty-one layers of debris in Hazor, dating back over 5,000 years ago. When Joshua conquered and burned the city in Joshua 11, it was described as “head of all those kingdoms.” So, it was a ruling city in that region. Archeologists have discovered a layer of ash dating to the time of Joshua. But once again, in Judges, the upper city — the lower part of the city (it was a huge city) the lower part was never rebuilt — the upper part is rebuilt, and Jabin is using it as the center of his rule. Today you can actually see the remains of a signature gate that King Solomon would build (this is later) in three cities, those three cities on the Via Maris. 1 Kings 9:15 says he fortified, rebuilt Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor. And what is distinctive about all three, in all three they have uncovered these parallel guard chambers as signature Solomon construction. It’s fascinating archeology.
But that would not be built for a couple hundred more years. At this time, Jabin is currently ruling over the Israelites, controlling them through his commander, Sisera, and his 900 tanks, iron chariots. Jabin’s domination is so intimidating that Israel can’t travel without fear of being harassed or assaulted. We see this in the song of Deborah in the next chapter. Look at verse 6:
“In the days of Jael, the highways [And he uses the same Hebrew word three times: chadal] the highways were abandoned, the travelers kept to the byways, the villagers [chadal] ceased in Israel; they ceased to be until I arose; I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.”
So, same word communicating the fact that village life, travel, social interactions — frozen. There’s a social paralysis over Israel at this time because of the domination of Jabin. They’re living in fear.
Third, they are experiencing a leadership vacuum. The nation is in spiritual and moral crisis, but the priesthood, notice, is nowhere mentioned. Verse 4,
“Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.”
Now, this sounds like she’s “Judge Judy,” adjudicating petty disputes, and that could be true, but the context is communicating something much bigger. Deborah, as a prophetess, is sitting in judgment of Israel. Her prophetic presence is exposing the vacuum of leadership in the country. Where are the priests? Where is the Urim and Thummin? (Isn’t that fun to say?) That’s the thing on the priest’s garment that was supposed to help direct the nation to know God’s direction for them as a people. No mention of that. Why is the voice of God not being heard from the Ark of the Covenant in Shiloh? Why is Deborah under a tree with her name on it? She represents John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness. She is away from the worship centers, the pillars of society. What are of the pillars of society? Educational, political, business, religious centers. She’s out in between cities to communicate. There’s a massive leadership vacuum.
Why is she not mentioned in Hebrews 11? I’ve wondered that. Barak is the guy who couldn’t do anything without holding her hand. Why is she not mentioned? And I know … misogyny, women haters. No, but other women are mentioned in Hebrews 11. Perhaps it’s because of the role she’s playing here. She is a prophetic spark plug, a catalyst, a kick in the pants, fire under the britches. Her job is to judge Israel and say, “What are you doing? Get up! Arise!” You’ll hear a lot of that language when you get into her song. Look at verse 6:
“She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, ‘Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, “Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with your chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand”?’”
So, she’s speaking for God.
“Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ But she said, ‘I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’”
We’re meant to think it’s Deborah, but it’s not.
“Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.”
So, how is this cycle of decline broken, this unfulfilled potential, broken? Well, before the narrator answers this question, he introduces us to a seemingly random character. Look at verse 11.
“Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak of Zaazannim, which is near Kedesh.”
Heber is a maverick Kenite, related to the Midianites, a descendant of Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, also known as Hobab. It’s so confusing when people have multiple names. So, why mention this? Who cares about a guy named Heber, who loaded up his U-Haul and moved from west of the Dead Sea down south, up near the Sea of Galilee? Why do we care? The narrator just throws that out there, as if to plant a seed: What if God is sovereign over the relocation plans of a maverick Kenite? We’ll get an answer to that question in a few minutes. Back to the breaking of the cycle.
In verses 12 and 13, Sisera calls out his chariots. Barak then, in verses 14-16, prompted by Deborah, leads out his men.
“Up! For this day, the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand.”
The men are all on Mount Tabor. Now, two weeks ago, we were standing on Megiddo, overlooking the valley of Jezreel, Armageddon. And off under the clouds, on my little phone camera, which is pretty pitiful, I took this picture because that bump is Mount Tabor. It’s about 1800 feet high — think Paris Mountain is about 19 [hundred feet high]. So, it’s about the same height. In that day there were a lot of trees on the mountain, ideal for gathering 10,000 troops. Why wouldn’t he gather in the valley? The 900 chariots can easily move in the valley. So, Barak gathers his troops on the mountain and prepares to attack. Then, verse 15, something extremely unlikely happens.
“The Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.”
Now this raises huge questions. First of all, how did Barak’s army of 10,000 defeat a massive army accompanied by iron chariots. Second question from here is, why would Sisera get off his chariot and flee by foot? Who does that? Have you ever done that? No, a tank driver doesn’t just abandon his tank. Why is he running by foot? Well, the telling of this story doesn’t answer that question, but if we jump into next week, chapter 5, look at verse 4. It answers both those questions.
“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, even Sinai before the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Now, the narrator has just already informed us that the battle is right near the river Kishon. This is a region of the world famous for its flash floods. So, what happened? Yeah, God sent a storm. The water comes flying off all the mountains surrounding the valley, flooding the river. The chariots stuck in the mud. A chariot, an iron chariot, is called a “casket” when it’s stuck in the mud. So, the people of Israel, accompanied by God’s handy storm, win the battle. Verse 17 … Now the camera moves really close toward one individual.
“Sisera fled away on foot 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.”
Oh, so this is why we met! The trusted transplant, who was not an Israelite, but was loyal to the Israelites, but was trusted by Sisera so much so that he allowed Jael to take him out. Now, how does he do that? Well, Jael takes him in, lulls him to sleep, drives a tent peg through his skull. The Israelites persist until their cycle of underachievement was broken. You see it in verse 24.
“And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin the king of Canaan.”
I love that verse because the victory didn’t come just because of a storm or just because of a battle. That was huge. But little by little, as God had promised, they persisted, they got off their couch, they fought the battle until they won victory and freedom.
So, how do we apply a story like this? And I want us to back up a bit and talk about applying Old Testament narratives in general, and then we will begin applying Judges 4. As we talk about applying, let’s think about a cake, a multi-layered cake. When we read these stories, it’s very easy to jump to … If you think of application like layers of a cake, it’s very easy to want to jump to the top of the cake, right? To come away with a pithy, practical to-do or summary statement like “Better Together.” And then I can just, tattoo that and go live that. And that’s not always bad. Many of these stories lend themselves to extremely practical, motivating applications. That’s beautiful.
But here are the dangers, two dangers to jumping to the top of the cake first. One, we can easily misread the point of the story, right? You could read this story, and if I’m a young man who’s struggling with not reaching my potential, I can think “Aha! Judges 4. I need to marry a woman who can handle a hammer. That’s my ticket to success!” And Bryan is so creative, I’m sure he could have invitational songs like “If I Had a Hammer.” You know, it would be powerful! Thousands saved! But we might miss the point of the story.
The second danger is we can easily walk away with a responsibility without a relationship. If I read through Judges 4 and 5, and all I come away with is “I need to get off the couch. This week, no couch! I’m going to keep moving. I’m going to do more! I’m going to try harder!” And that’s beautiful, except it never helps. It often leads to greater discouragement because when it doesn’t produce what we hope it will produce, we have no real energy source to keep going because it’s the top of the cake without the bottom, and they invariably tip over. So, do you see the danger of jumping? And some of you may be still saying, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about with the bottom of the cake.”
Let me tell you, we heard it so clearly last week when Ryan said, “I want you all to think about Jesus coming on a white horse in every chapter of the book of Judges.” What is he talking about? He’s talking about the bottom of the cake. He’s talking about the fact that there is this huge story that the book of Judges is just a little part of, that is pointing us toward what Jesus describes in Luke 23, when he’s walking on the road to Emmaus and he stops and he explains to these guys, beginning with Moses and all the prophets. Luke 24:27,
“He interpreted to them all the Scriptures, the things concerning himself.”
What is he doing? He’s tying in all these seemingly random stories to a massive, redemptive story that is bigger than any of us and is the key to us experiencing more than just a temporary bump in energy.
It’s life transforming when we understand what God is really up to throughout the whole Bible. Does that make sense? The bottom of the cake is … This story is all about … Our deepest need is all about more than just trying harder or giving it a little more effort and spending a little less time on the couch. It’s more than that. We need a Savior who can truly save. Deborah’s amazing, but she doesn’t pick up a sword. Barak seems like a great commander, but he can’t do anything without holding Deborah’s hand. Jesus is the only one, the Lion who is the Lamb, the Lamb who gave himself for us, the Lion who comes on a white horse and wins the battle. He not only provides the promise, but the provision to get to the promise! Does that make sense? That’s why we have to have … The base of our application is we need Jesus. And I know this is going to frustrate some of you because … and me too! I want to get to the top of the cake. I want to know, OK, what do I do to reach my potential? And we’re going to get there next week with some more practical application. But I want to plead with you to run to Jesus. If you don’t have a relationship with him, you can keep trying harder. But churches are littered with Christians who keep trying and are so discouraged they become bitter and bury their talents. Unfruitful!
But look at the way Paul describes this in Colossians 1. I’ll put it up on screen. This is just a sample. Colossians 1:9,
“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with all the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord [Listen to this! This is filling-up your-potential language.] fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power.”
That’s Paul’s prayer for you, for me, for the believers at Colossae. Well, how do I get there? Well, he goes on to say, “according to his glorious might.” And then it’s like he goes on this huge diversion to say you need to understand who the “his” is. And he describes who the “his” is. Listen to this. Verse 15,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. [Think Romans 11:36, two weeks ago.] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together … And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
That’s who he is! Drop down to verse 28.
“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ [filling up their potential in Christ]. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
So, Paul, in that last statement is illustrating what he’s praying for us. Paul experiences intense opposition, abuse, deep disappointment. People fail him. How does he keep going? “Struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Paul, why are you not just on the couch? Why have you not given up? If anybody has a good reason to be bitter and passive, it’s you. Other Christians have opposed you. Your Jewish brothers and sisters have opposed you. People have tried to kill you. No. “His energy he powerfully works within me.”
Now, yes, there are practical steps to seeing God fulfill his promises in us. But I hope you see why we need to start here, humbling our hearts, crying out to Jesus. Lord, I need to see a clearer vision of you. It’s not just “roll up my sleeves and try harder.” My eyes have turned off you, and they’ve turned to other people, and I’ve become bitter or skeptical.
I want to share how God did this work in Marvin Olasky’s life. As I described, he was raised in a broken … he was happy his parents stayed together, but it was a very broken home with an angry mom and a passive dad. Marvin bar mitzvah-ed at age thirteen, became an atheist at age fourteen, went to Yale, joined the Communist Party, finished his Ph.D., became a professor, married an amazing woman. They had four sons. So, in many ways, he became the success in his mother’s eyes that she had longed for in her husband. She diverted all her attention from her husband to her son, who “made it.” But even in that success — writing, teaching, traveling, Ph.D., all the esteem — Marvin began to see how empty that was, how hollow that was and how sinful he was.
Through a series of eye-opening, awakening events, he began to see his own sin and his need of a Savior, the true Jewish Messiah. He writes this: “At first glance, an iron chain bonds together generation after generation.”
Just like in Judges. Here’s the big change.
“And I’m part of that chain. I’ve realized in the course of this research how self-centered I was. Not only as a child but as an adult. Why did I have so little interest in seeing my parents not primarily as people to meet my needs (or not), but as individuals with their own struggles? I never really cared to find out about that. Yet sometimes, with God’s grace and mercy, that iron chain becomes a readily-breakable daisy chain. Those who see the miraculous transition cry out joyfully, as the Apostle Paul did, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ When we have faith in God, we can look squarely at our own sin because nothing is a surprise to God. We learn that we’re worse than we have imagined, but more loved than we could have hoped for.” God broke the chain. Marvin parented his sons very differently. God is breaking chains today, too. Let’s pray.
Father, many of us are stuck in cycles of underachievement. We fear failure. At times, we even fear success. We are easily discouraged. We struggle to commit ourselves, and our relationships suffer. We tend to see the failures of others so clearly, and we become very negative and critical. As you open our eyes, as you change our hearts, Lord, please, your love enables us to face our fears. Your forgiveness fuels us to be able to forgive others. You wash away the bitterness that crusts over us and hinders us from arising. Jesus, you were misrepresented, mistreated, rejected, yet nothing deterred you from doing your Father’s will. You gave yourself for us. Right now, you’re giving yourself to us. And so may every one of us, as we just begin to understand, what does it mean to reach our potential, we have to start with you. We run to you, Jesus. We fix our eyes on you, the author, the finisher of our faith.
I pray for some who may not know you, that today would be the day. In their own broken way, they just cry out right now, Lord, forgive me. I have to stop blaming everyone around me, people in my past. I run to you for your forgiveness. Through your death, burial, and resurrection, you set me free. God, break chains today in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s stand and continue to ask the Lord to search our hearts, to cry out in praise, to fix our eyes on Jesus. As we pray to him, as we sing to him, this is — don’t check out! — this is the most important part — responding to what he speaks to us with humble hearts, eyes fixed on Jesus.