Our story today is the only story in the book of Judges with a narrative and a poem. Chapter 4 tells the story in prose. Chapter 5 tells it again in poetry. That makes the story special and it pleads for our attention. Let’s give our attention, but first let’s pray for God’s help.
1 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died.
I’m going to spend a few minutes just on this verse. There’s nothing original about our sin, except that we all have it. “again” Israel did evil.
Teachers – imagine if you only taught your subject when you knew the principal was outside listening from the hallway, like Jack Black in School of Rock.
This is the pattern of Israel. They only seem capable of doing right when they are being watched.
“There is something wrong with religion when its degree of fidelity depends solely on outside pressures, influences, and leadership. Then we are ‘Christian’ only because of our surroundings, or because of the expectations of Christian people around us, and a lack of genuine, internal work of God.” – Ralph Davis
This is why faith is more than the mountain-top experiences. Israel had some great testimonies to give. They had plenty of stories of God’s power in their life. But they didn’t seem to hate their sin all that much. I wonder, if we are honest, how much of our Christianity is a product of our surroundings – that we are being watched – that we are feeling pressure. How much of it is genuine love for God?
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” 1 John 2:3-5
This should at least humble us as we consider the rest of the narrative.
2 And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. 3 Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.
Israel would have had no Jabin or Sisera or chariots of iron to deal with if they had obeyed God in the first place. They compromised, they cohabitated, they brought false gods into their homes, and now they are suffering.
And the suffering is not just a consequence of their failures. It is the judgment of God. The Lord raised up both the oppressors and the rescuers. God “sold” them into the hand of a pagan king and only God had the power to buy them back again.
Every story in Judges has the same basic message – salvation belongs to God alone. And again the people cry out for help. How will God save them this time?
4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5 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. 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. 7 And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” 8 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.” 9 And 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.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.
Already, we can see that this is going to be a very different kind of story. The leader of Israel is clearly a woman – a married woman! She’s not only the mouthpiece of God – she’s their leader. Barak doesn’t want to go into battle without her presence.
In fact, Deborah is the most “judge-like” of all the judges. She’s not a mighty warrior, but she is a wise counselor. And this raises an important issue that we need to pause and consider. This is not our main point today, but I think it needs to be considered.
Some Christians view Deborah as an example of egalitarianism, the idea that men and women can and should share the same roles in society. And in terms of civil leadership, I completely agree. There are female prophets and other female leaders in the Bible. God sees women and men as equals in value, dignity, and ability – free to use the gifts He has given us all. But I would draw our attention to two things.
First, Deborah does not fight. She watches the battle, but she’s not swinging a sword. She’s the only judge who doesn’t. She works together with Barak and their gifts seem to complement one another. Second, there are no examples of female priests in the Old Testament or elders in the New Testament. And that’s because God explicitly reserved those roles for men. Only men could be priests and only men can be elders. In fact, Judges 4 specifically notes that Deborah held court between Ramah and Bethel, in other words, not where the priests were but outside those locations. She seemed to understand that was not her role. Prophetess, leader… but not a priest.
And yet, I don’t want to take anything away from Deborah at all. I think it is actually vital to the story that she is a woman. Unusual in the historical context, but important. Did you notice in verse 9 she says that Barak, the man, will not get the glory for this battle. God will grant the victory to a woman!
That would have been incredibly confusing to Barak, because he’s leading an army of 10,000 men. How was that even possible? Women did not fight. And the idea of a woman securing victory would have been a bruise to the ego. But to Barak’s credit, he obeys the Lord anyway.
And these are crazy odds. Sisera has 900 chariots in addition to an army of foot soldiers. Chariots would normally cut through infantry like a hot knife through butter. But Barak obeys and prepares for battle.
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 in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.
We are expecting details of a battle, but the writer does something strange. He tells us about a random nomad, miles away from the battle, moving his tent to a different location. Remember this, but let’s keep reading.
12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. 15 And 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. 16 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.
We know from the poem in chapter 5 that God used a rainstorm to stop the chariots. Imagine charging into an impossible battle – knowing that unless God does something miraculous, you’re probably about to die a violent death. And then it starts to rain. Not a little rain, but a downpour. And the chariots come to a halt. The tactical advantage of the enemy is erased, and the battle is won.
“He makes the clouds his chariot; He rides on the wings of the wind;” – Psalm 104:3
There was no question in the minds of the Israelites – God won this battle.
17 But 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.
Remember the random nomad who moved his tent back in verse 11? It was not a coincidence. It was God’s way of setting a trap.
18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
Deborah’s prophesy came true – not on the battlefield, but miles away in a tent where Sisera assumed he was safe. And it was a fulfillment of prophesy, so no one later could call it a coincidence. Jael was the instrument of God’s judgment.
But why did God do it this way? This was a strange and unexpected way for a warrior to die. It was a dishonorable death – to die by a woman’s hand. It was also strange because Jael broke all sorts of cultural rules about hospitality, not to mention a few commandments. This is a dark story. But Jael is celebrated in the poem of chapter 5. She’s called the “most blessed of women”.
I think there are two important observations to make:
1) God can and does use whatever means He wants to secure His salvation. The glory of victory does not belong to Barak, or Deborah, or even Jael. It belongs only to God. This story, perhaps more than any other in the book of Judges, makes that abundantly clear. God can bring down armies with the rain and generals in their sleep. Don’t miss the important lesson about the sovereignty of God. There are no coincidences.
2) This is poetic justice.
Pay close attention to this section of the poem from chapter 5:
28 “Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice:
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’
29 Her wisest princesses answer,
indeed, she answers herself,
30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?—
A womb or two for every man;
spoil of dyed materials for Sisera…”
What we have here is a description of Sisera’s sin. This is a man with a Jeffrey Epstein kind of reputation. He was known for bringing home women as slaves – “a womb or two for each man”.
Do you see why I’m calling this poetic justice? It is fitting that God used a woman to deal with him. A man who used women as objects is killed by a woman with a common object.
God isn’t messing around. And the next time you hear someone accusing the Bible of being archaic or patriarchal, please refer them to Judges 4 and 5.
Finally, I cannot picture the mallet and the spike without thinking of two things.
First, the promise of God in Genesis 3 that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. And second, the nails being hammered into the hands and feet of our Savior. I don’t know for sure if we are meant to make those connections, but I couldn’t help but think of them.
Before we judge God for the way He executes justice, for the way He deals with sin – let us remember the cross. That’s what every story is building towards. The justice we deserve, because we keep doing evil in the sight of the Lord, is the justice God poured out on His only Son at the cross. Jesus willingly dealt with our sin in an act of violent atonement.
For those in Christ, God’s justice fell on Him. For those outside of Christ, God’s justice will fall on you. Do we believe this, church? If we do, then our primary concern – by FAR – should be the souls of the men and women around us. We should be far less concerned about the 900 chariots or the wicked generals of this world. God will deal with them in His time and in His way. He may or may not involve us in the process. Not our concern.
Make disciples. That’s our concern. Repentance and faith. Trust and obey. Crucify sin. Worship the Savior. Love our neighbor.