Keys to Teaching Christ in Judges
Preachers approach Judges in a number of different ways. Some take a moralistic approach gleaning lessons from the lives of the judges. Others take the descriptive nature of the book and characterize the judges as either all-bad or all-good (though the latter is rarer).
However, Judges clearly tells stories that are not meant as moral lessons. They are ambivalent at best, and because of the vivid nature of the stories, it’s easy to miss the point of the book – what Dale Ralph Davis calls “The Big E on the Eye Chart” – that God continually saves his people despite their idolatry.
God graciously raises up little saviors called judges to rescue his people despite their downward spiral into chaos and apostasy. Interestingly, the book mentions exactly 12 judges representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the need for total salvation. In fact, by the end of the book, Israel has become Sodom and Gomorrah. The repeated refrain near the conclusion tells the reader exactly what Israel needs, a rescuing king, because everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
Judges 2:11-23 is the crucial text for interpreting the book. It tells us exactly what the book is about. Because Israel did not completely conquer the land, they are enticed into idolatry and God gives them over to plundering nations. Despite their unfaithfulness, God kindly and continually raises up “saviors” for Israel who rescue them from the foreign enemy, but when the judge dies, the cycle starts all over again!
The entire book is a bunch of mini-Exoduses: bondage to foreign nation, cry to the Lord, he’s moved to pity and raises up a savior, the people are freed, and then, when the savior dies, the cycle starts again and grows worse. Here is the cycle (and when the cycle is departed from, it’s key for interpretation):
Judgment: Bondage to foreign army
Call: Cry to the Lord
Salvation: God raises up a judge
Repeat: after judge dies
This recurring pattern of judgment at the hand of a foreign enemy (while in the land) and salvation through a Spirit-anointed rescuer points us to Jesus’ work of salvation on our behalf. Here are some key places where we see types of Jesus’ saving work:
Othniel (3:7-11)- He is the paradigm of the cycle. He is a savior whose name means lion of God and is from the tribe of Judah.
Ehud (3:12-30)- He is a savior who defeats Israel’s enemy with a double-edged blade that he calls a “Word of God.”
Jael (4:21-24)- She is a woman who crushes the head of Israel’s enemy with a tent peg, and it leads to their rescue from Canaan (cf. Gen 3:15).
Gideon (6:36-40; 7:24-25)-The dew-filled fleece presents Gideon as the lamb of God indwelt by the Spirit who crushes the heads of Midian and saves Israel.
Abimelech (9:50-57)- A woman crushes evil Abimelech’s head with a millstone and rescues Israel from his tyranny (story also shows that not all “Israel is Israel”).
Samson (Judges 13:1-16:31)-Samson shows us that God can save his people through one man anointed by the Spirit. His miraculous birth was foretold by an angel, he was betrayed by someone close to him for silver, arrested, blinded (whereas Jesus was blindfolded), mocked, humiliated, and in his death, he gained his greatest victory rescuing his people. But Samson’s story also shows us the spiral down is getting worse. There is something missing from the cycle. Israel doesn’t even cry out to the Lord for rescue this time. They even hand Samson over to the Philistines. And to make matters worse, Samson, the savior, is just like the nation. He wants to intermarry with the Philistines because a woman is “right in my eyes” (14:3).
Idolatry- God wants the exclusive devotion of his covenant people that he had saved from slavery in Egypt and brought into the Promised Land. However, the people worship the false gods of the surrounding peoples.
Judgment- God uses pagan nations to judge and subdue Israel because of their idolatry.
Salvation- God uses judges to graciously rescue his people from judgment at the hands of their enemies.
Peter Leithart’s A House for my Name and Ed Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery are great resources for how to interpret OT narrative in a Christ-centered way and deal at an entry level with some of the stories in Judges.
James B. Jordan’s Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary is the most thought-provoking commentary on Judges in my opinion. It is probably the only commentary on Judges written from a completely Christ-centered perspective. Jordan does see the Judges as almost all-good in character, which is not tenable in some places, but it is a very helpful work.
Dale Ralph Davis Judges: Such a Great Salvation in the Focus on the Bible series is one of the very best commentaries for studying Judges. It is short, accessible for preachers, and is filled with information that is useful for sermon crafting. I cannot speak too highly of this work.
Dan Block’s Commentary in the NAC is helpful, though Block sees the Judges as almost all-bad, which is not tenable in places, especially given Judges commentary on itself in chapter 2.
Knowing of my passion for Christ-centered preaching, a pastor friend once texted me, as he was preaching through Judges, “Where is Jesus in the Gideon story?” My response was, “He’s not hidden like Waldo. The whole point of Judges is that God raises up unlikely saviors to rescue his wayward people.” From a left-handed man with a hidden dagger, to a farmer with an ox-goad, to a woman with a tent-peg, to a coward hiding in the winepress, God uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. This points us to our savior Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of what Judges says we need, a king who can not only rescue his people but will also lead them to do what is right in God’s eyes. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
What is also super-encouraging about Judges when you link it with Hebrews 11 is that God commends very questionable characters for their faith, and we see how God still used them despite their flaws. If God in his grace can use a Gideon, or a Jephthah, or a Samson, then in Christ by the power of the Spirit, he can certainly still use you!