Not Enough Judgment

The book of Judges is ironically titled.

Judging and Judgment (3)

In those days 
there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 21.25

An ironic title
That last verse of the book of Judges comes as an apology for the whole book, especially the final chapters. How can we explain Israel’s persistent lapses into sin? The tendency of the people to turn to idols, to become subject to foreign powers they were supposed to destroy? To follow leaders who were fallible in obvious and important ways? And finally, to turn against their own kindred in vicious warfare and strife?

Was it because there was no king in Israel in those days? That was part of it. However, God provided judges for the people, though they mostly acted as military deliverers. We see them exercising little of the kind of judgment Moses spelled out, helping the people learn to live by the holy and righteous and good standards of God’s Law. Instead, the judges featured in this sad book were merely temporary deliverers, who rescued the people of Israel, or portions of them, from the oppression of neighboring peoples.

The problem in the book of Judges was not so much that there was no king in Israel; it was rather that the people were doing what was right in their own eyes rather than in the eyes of the Lord. The book of Judges shows us what happens when the people of God fail to exercise just judgment in the ways God prescribed through Moses. Absent sound judgment at every level of society, the shalom of God is elusive, if not non-existent.

Thus “Judges” is an ironic title for a book which highlights the failure of judgment at every level of Israelite society. Its purpose is to set the stage for Ruth and 1 Samuel by suggesting Israel’s need for a king who will establish justice and judgment in the nation. The message of the book of Judges is that, the practice of just judgment failing, no human judges can keep God’s people from descending to the sinful ways of the surrounding nations. God’s people need a king, who exercises righteous judgment so that his people can judge righteously and realize the promised blessings of God.

The book we might, by its title, have expected would celebrate the importance of sound judgment, shows us instead what happens when insufficient and inadequate judging and judgment are exercised by the people of God.

Downhill disaster
The book of Judges begins hopefully. Joshua is dead, and the nation is without a leader, with still much work to do in subduing the Canaanites. So the people wisely consult the Lord for guidance and gain a significant victory over the Canaanites and Perizzites (Jdgs. 1.1-7). From there, under the leadership of the tribe of Judah, the people scored important victories in other parts of the land.

But things went downhill from there. Not every tribe took up the baton. Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan dropped the ball, some of them coming under tribute to the nations they failed to dispossess. Rather than be strong and courageous to carry out their appointed task, these tribes were content to settle into one or another arrangement of accommodation with the Canaanite peoples.

From there it was less than a generation before “the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers…and they followed other gods” (Jdgs. 2.11, 12).

Consequently, instead of resting in God’s shalom, the people of Israel came under the hot anger of the Lord: “Wherever 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” (Jdgs. 2.15).

Poor decisions, misguided choices, and bad judgments landed the people of Israel smack dab in the crosshairs of God’s wrath. And even though He graciously raised up judges to deliver them, “they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do so” (Jdgs. 2.17).

No king in Israel
The books of Judges and Ruth appear to have one primary purpose: to emphasize Israel’s need for a king, and specifically, to point to David as the Lord’s anointed. Moses had given the people hope that, when they finally did anoint a king, he would be a man of God’s Law and would rule the people according to that Law (cf. Deut. 17.14-20). The king would write for himself a copy of the Law of God and “read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes” (Deut. 17.19). As a result, the Lord would “prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel” (Deut. 17.20). Under the king’s just oversight, local judges and heads of households would follow suit, and the shalom of God would obtain throughout the land.

In other words, the faithful king, ruling according to the Law of God, would lead the people and their judges to judge righteously in all areas of life, thus ensuring the blessings of God on every facet of life in the land of promise (Deut. 28.1-14). Under David and Solomon, this vision would be realized, albeit only in part (cf. 1 Kgs. 10). 

Yet the full realization of God’s program would await the coming of a King greater than either of these (Is. 9.6, 7).

For reflection
1.  Why were the people of the book of Judges unable to exercise just judgment?

2.  What kinds of distractions kept the people of the book of Judges from judging and making judgments in line with God’s Law?

3.  How does the book of Judges counsel us concerning the importance of exercising sound judgment?

Next steps – Transformation: Meditate on Psalm 1. What does the righteous person do? Does this describe your practice?

T. M. Moore

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This week’s study is part 1of a 4-part series, To Judge the World. Each part consists of seven lessons and is available as a free PDF download at the end of the study. In the tag for part 7, we’ll give you a link to download part 1, Judging and Judgment. Why not line up some friends to study through all three parts of this series?

An excellent companion to this series is our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics. Here you’ll discover the basis on which Christians learn to judge with righteous judgment. You can order a copy by 
clicking here.And when you order, we’ll send you a free copy of Bricks and Rungs: Poems on Calling.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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