The book of Judges opens with the recounting of Israel’s campaign to conquer the territories allotted them by the LORD, capturing the cities and dispossessing the inhabitants of the land. However, despite initial success in the united victories of Judah and Simeon, and from the house of Joseph, Israel failed to complete what they had begun. Instead of utterly driving out the people and tearing down their altars, they began to grow weary in the battle. Rather than maintain their position of strength until they thoroughly displaced their enemies, they subjected them instead to forced labor, content to live among them by concession rather than endure the ongoing conflict and delayed settlement. This premature cessation of warfare and the permitting of idols and altars provoked the angel of the LORD to come up from Gilgal, declaring that Israel’s compromise essentially amounted to their establishing a covenant with the people of the land, and effectively breaking their covenant with Him.
The LORD would now no longer drive out the people from before them; instead they would become as thorns in their sides, and their gods as snares to them. When the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, they lifted up their voices and wept, naming the place Bochim as a testament to their tears. Had the angel also announced where he had come up from, then the extent of their disobedience would have been driven home more fully: Gilgal, where the reproach of Egypt had finally been rolled away from them, the wilderness-born. Here Israelites were circumcised the second time, after the previous generation and ‘men of war’ had died in the desert for refusing to listen to and obey the voice of the LORD. Now they too had failed to heed and wholly follow the call of God! T. Austin-Sparks called Judges ‘the Book of the tragedy of the unfinished task,’ offering prophetic insight in his reasoning of why Israel’s initial response to the heavenly vision presented to them failed to result in a completion of the call: weariness and discouragement in the battle, the loss of heavenly vision, and the subtle seduction of the spirit of the world finding place among them.
These reasons remain relevant today, and are worth expounding upon while considering our own beginnings and ongoing fidelity to the call of God.
It was a long, drawn-out warfare that Israel was engaged in, often discouraging because of the continual, seemingly unending, conflict. They began well, but the faith and initiative required for consecutive battles exhausted their resolve, and depleted the warring spirit in their midst. This tendency was not new to the tribes. The sons of Gad and Reuben had formerly been rebuked by Moses for asking permission to prematurely settle down with their possessions in the land of Gilead, reasoning that it was “..a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” (Numbers 32:4) ‘Must we continue further? This will suffice as an inheritance for us. All we require is right here!” Moses’ response? “Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here? Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them?” Going on to call them a ‘brood of sinful men,’ he compared them to the spies sent into Canaan, whose rejection of their inheritance and rebellion against the LORD had provoked His anger and sentenced them to the wilderness-wanderings from which they would only emerge forty years later – and even then to reveal the same reluctance to arm themselves before the LORD for war, ‘..until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, and the land is subdued before the LORD…” (Numbers 34:20,21).
As the people of God, we must be careful that the desire for personal or familial respite from the warfare does not result in our premature withdrawal and permanently distancing ourselves from the ongoing battles of our brethren or the eternal purposes of our God. Often at such times we display a disproportionate concern for our own welfare and security over the encouragement of and commitment towards His inheritance in a fully-established people. Like Esau, we can despise our eternal birthright by sacrificing it on the altar of immediate need; returning exhausted from our labors in the field, we impatiently demand temporary fullness, consuming the bread that perishes dipped in the bowl of betrayal.
In ceasing to contend then for the LORD’s sake, their vision was reduced from a heavenly compulsion to an earthly compromise. The pressures of sustaining faith and family life amidst constant resistance and opposition, and the compelling argument of the undeniable progress that had been made, both in their lives and in the nation ‘for the LORD,’ made subjugation an appealing alternative . Though outwardly the warfare ceased, the battle continued for the heart and its occupancy. If the people of God would not wholly assert their influence upon the land, then the unholy practices of its inhabitants would do so upon Israel’s latent affections. Dwelling in relative peace with the people meant that their customs and idolatry went unchallenged, practiced daily without opposition from Israel.
Soon the people of God began to make comparisons and draw conclusions about the worthiness of serving their God versus the benefits of the gods of the surrounding nations. Like the psalmist (Ps.73), they envied the apparent ease and prosperity of the lives of the surrounding nations they were called to displace; lives unrestricted by the governance of covenant and commandments, without the burden of prolonged periods of testing and the constant proving of their faith in order to secure the pleasure of their God. Wearied tolerance begat interest and dialogue, which produced acclimation and finally integration. Having yielded their fighting spirit and surrendered the exclusivity of their inheritance by attempting to accelerate the promised rest, Israel forfeited their eternal purpose. From casual observers of Canaanite culture, they became conversant, even intimate, acquaintances. Preparing a table for their enemies in the presence of their God, the unguarded hosts entertained the spirit of the world, their lives increasingly comparable, and indistinct, from that of their neighbors.’ Spiritual fruit akin to that originally discovered in the valley of Eschol was intended to come to maturity and remain on prominent display in the land. Instead, Israel were choked by the the decision to remove themselves from the heavenly ground of the sojourner, whose soil is enriched by obedience and seeded by faith, and chose, like Lot, to position themselves according to earthly appearances and the more obvious security of the ‘greener pastures.’
Like Israel, perhaps some of us have made a similarly-inspired beginning, only to become discouraged in the passage of time between our initial response and the fulfillment of the promise. Have we surrendered the fighting spirit before his purposes have been fully accomplished in and through our lives? Have we become increasingly wearied by the warfare waged in the workplace and in our homes, in raising children and contending for our marriages amidst the influence and opposition of the principalities and powers in the land? Somewhere in the midst of this Kingdom campaign, we reconsidered our place in the eternal purposes of God, and lost sight of the heavenly vision. The varied yet daily demands upon our faith and endurance resulted in our questioning the validity of the call and the assurance of victory. Perhaps the exhaustion from an extended trial, a hope deferred or disillusionment with a leader, ministry or community prompted a discussion with your spouse that began the exploration of the possibilities of an alternative way to reside in the land, proposing a change of city perhaps, or establishing a new identity in the marketplace? Did we consider the lot of those around us: our neighbors, former friends, family members, whose lives, and homes, in comparison to ours, were void of similar conflict, uncomplicated, even carefree? Did we come to the conclusion that we had, in fact, kept our hands clean and hearts pure in vain, since the rewards of doing so were not as apparent as we expected?
However, the fruit of such decisions to withdraw from the ground of battle and remove ourselves from the garrison of the Body has left the hearts and lives of many individuals, marriages, and children increasingly compromised with the world, captivated by its idols, compliant with its culture and complacent in their witness and pursuit of God. In the Emmaus Road fellowship to which some now belong, they discuss all the things that have taken place, reminiscing about the movement, ministry and meetings that gave them identity, and laid the foundation for a bright, revolutionary future. Only now they struggle with the dichotomy of the days that have followed, and the seeming demise of the prophetic movement began by Him who was “..mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people..?”
Disappointment blinds us to the reality of His presence with us, and weakens our war-resolve, so that in the battle that yet remains – regardless of our desires or declaration of independence – we are prevented from seeing and knowing Him in the power of His resurrection. We stand wondering at those around us who question our sadness, unaware of all that we have seen and heard, not understanding all that we had hoped…
Yet there is hope still. Men, husbands, and fathers: you may have remained behind at a crucial time when brothers, as well as kings, are to be found at war. You discovered upon your rooftop of discontent that you were still engaged in battle, though now to contend alone. But listen: the voice of those brothers you once fought alongside to victory, who remained engaged in the fight, is calling back from the field with the invitation to gather yourselves together, recover the warring spirit, and claim a crown (See 2 Sam.12:26ff)! Consider your ways, and take courage! Whether discouragement or disengagement, intimidation or impatience, caused the building and establishing of His testimony in our lives and in the land to be delayed, His Spirit and promises remain. Let us consider our ways and realize that, dwelling in our rebuilt, historic houses with restored hardwood floors, we have become as desolate as His house lies in many places, without investors and unrestored by a historic revival. Instead of laboring with God for eternal riches and holy purposes, we have instead worked independently for earthly wages placed in holey purses.
Once more, in a little while, he is going to shake the heavens and the earth, and all nations. We know His judgments have already begun in His house. We cannot afford to dwell on the memories of former glory, delaying obedience to building His house now because of our lament for the legacy of a monument – or movement – that was. It is not about a place but a people, built together as a spiritual house, offering in themselves the revolution, protesting by their very lives the spirit of the age, and provoking Jew and Gentile to jealousy and inquiry because of the love they have for one another. Perhaps we have been subjected, and not willingly, to a season of futility, left wondering at the glory promised to be revealed to us, transforming us, supposedly incomparable to our suffering? Could it be that He permitted such frustration in the hope that our longing would produce a patience that was allowed her perfect work, making us complete as children of God and knowing the glorious freedom from enslaving self-interest and the deeply-entrenched interests and affinity for the things of this world?
Let us take courage again, encourage and build up the hearts of our brothers by emerging from the comfort of our ’spiritual conversation’ with the people of the land and affiliation with their brands, and wield again the sword of the Spirit, clothed with Christ and the full armour of God! Let us return to holiness and the fear of the Lord, speaking to one another in such a way that captures His attention and delights him with every hearing, filling a book of rememberance from those who love His name. If we mourn, let it not be because we are ‘comparers of the glory,’ but like Nehemiah, sharers of the grief over the remnant whose walls are broken down and whose gates are burned with fire. Let us fast and pray in identification with our brethren and their sins, repenting and reminding the LORD of His covenant, seeking the favor and provision necessary for restoration and rebuilding together a people and place of His pleasure and glory. Ridicule and opposition from the people of the land, or even their attempts at inclusion (see Nehem.2:19ff; Ezra 4), will always be present and seeking to frighten, frustrate – or participate in – the completion of God’s testimony.
We must refuse to cease from this good work, overcome discouragement with prayer, and not withold provision by closing our hearts and hiding ourselves from our – and His – own flesh: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren..’ (1 John 3:16). Temptation to compare our lives with the world around us will inevitably rear itself, but when we enter the sanctuary of God we will remember their end, and desire nothing on earth besides Him who is the strength of our hearts and our portion forever. When we were younger, we girded ourselves and walked wherever we wished. Now older, we find ourselves bound and directed toward a place we had hoped to avoid, or like Jonah, fled. If so, now is not the time to slumber unconcerned in the hold of the ship while the storm rages, or demand, ‘What about him?’ in response to Jesus’ call to follow. Let our concern be to support one another wherever we are in the ongoing work and warfare, to rally together at the sound of the trumpet, and, remembering the LORD who is great and awesome, fight for our brothers, our sons, our daughters, our wives, our house – and His. Our ways are not hidden from the LORD, and the justice due us does not escape His attention, remembering the end intended even for Job. He gives strength to the weary, to those who have grown tired, and to the once-vigorous young men who have stumbled badly.
“Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up toward Him again with wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”
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