THE DAYS OF THE JUDGES: THE BOOKS OF JUDGES AND RUTH
A) The Plight of ISRAEL: Many of us have gone through times in our life that we're not proud of as we look back on them. We may not have realized just how bad those dark seasons were at the time, but we blush as we think of them now. That's sort of what the time of the judges was like for Israel. They may not have realized it at the time, but this 350 year span1 was a dark period in their history. After Joshua dies, things start to get bad, and they only continue to get worse.2 The spiritual decline of these days followed a specific pattern: 1) The sons of Israel would do evil in the sight of the Lord (2:11ff); 2) The Lord gave them into the hands of their enemies (vv14-15); 3) The sons of Israel cried out to the Lord to save them (v18; cf. 3:9,15; 4:3); and 4) The Lord would raise up a leader to deliver them.3 These leaders were the judges (2:16); but don't let that name confuse you, because their job wasn't to preside over courtrooms, but to lead God's people in battle against their enemies. And the Lord powerfully used many of these judges to bring deliverance to His people. Sadly though, Israel's sin wasn't just a pattern but a cycle. After the Lord had raised up the judge and rescued His people, they quickly forgot Him, and returned to doing evil in His sight (back to step one). In attempting to explain these dark days in Israel's past, the author of Judges seems at a loss for words, except to say: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (17:6).4
Samson is probably the most well-known of the judges. And he's also one of the most baffling and controversial figures in all of Scripture. We don't know what to make of him: “Why should so much attention be given to a judge who squandered his endowment and ignored his calling? Is the history of Samson given for its entertainment value? Is Samson an Israeli Rambo, a Superman for a biblical comic strip?”5 What do we do with Samson? Why is he in Scripture and what is his life meant to teach us? Believe it or not, the first reason he's in Scripture is that his life sets forth for us a beautiful prefiguring of the life of Jesus. Think about it: He was born to deliver God's people, but they didn't understand. So much so that he was bound by his own people and handed over to the Gentiles, who in turn mocked and ridiculed him as he suffered. But in the end he was vindicated; and though he had delivered God's people many times over the course of his life, it was actually his death that would accomplish for them the greatest deliverance of all (cf. 16:30). Gideon had delivered God's people with 300 men; but with Samson, God was showing He didn't even need that many—He could deliver His people with One.6 And so, in Samson's life, we see Jesus. But his life is also a warning to us. His character is so marred by sin and vice that if his name hadn't been listed among the faithful in Hebrews 11:32, we would have serious doubts that he really knew the Lord.7 In this, Samson shows us just how far we as believers can fall into sin, if we're not careful. In Samson we're also confronted with the truth that we can be extremely gifted and yet far from God. Samson was incredibly gifted. I think that's how we can view his great strength. Yet he's a man driven by lust and revenge. How can this be? Here's the scary truth: We can do amazing things for Jesus while being distant from Him. We can be far from God and preach powerful sermons. A lot of us wish for the gifts that Samson had. Careful what you wish for. It was Samson's great strength that led to his downfall in the end.8
The time of the judges started off bad. And it only got worse. So that as the author of Judges dipped his pen into the ink for the last time, to etch out the final sentence of his volume, he's forced to write what he had already written many times before. The last verse of Judges reads: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (21:25). But even in these words there's hope. If the author is writing about “those days”, he must be living in days that were different. Newer days. Days when there was a king in Israel. Days when God's people refused to do what was right in their own eyes and sought to do what was right in His. Yes, the time of the judges was a total train-wreck. We cringe and blush and weep as we read of this dark season in our past. But we can talk about it now as being in our past. And we can do that because God didn't turn on His people when they turned on Him. You'd think at this point God would have thrown in the towel. But that's not what He did. The bride of Christ had torn up her marriage certificate and stormed out the door. What did God do? He bent down, picked up the pieces, and began putting them back together. He would renew His vows with her. He would renew His covenant. There had been no king in Israel, and His people were a mess. He would fix it. He would make it better. He would give them a king in Israel. The time of the judges was about to come to a close. God was ushering in the monarchy.
B) The Story of NAOMI: And so, even as the days of the judges continued, God started putting into motion His plan to raise up a king in Israel. It's in the days of the judges that the book of Ruth takes place (Ruth 1:1); and it's the book of Ruth that records the very first preparations the Lord makes for establishing the monarchy. But don't let the title fool you, because the book of Ruth is really about Naomi. In Hebrew, Naomi means “pleasant”, and that was a great way to describe her life. She lived in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” And her husband's name was Elimelech, which means “My God is king.” She had two boys; and her friends loved her dearly. But when a famine struck the land, Naomi and her family were compelled to sojourn in the land of Moab in search of food. While they were living there, Naomi's husband died; and she was left with her two boys. They later married Moabite women; one of them was Ruth. Life went on for ten years. But while Naomi was anxiously awaiting word of grandchildren in the sunset years of her life, she was forced to hear news of a very different kind: Her two boys had been taken away from her just as her husband had. Naomi was a broken woman. She had left Bethlehem with her husband and her sons. When she came back (Ruth 1:6), the only one with her was her daughter-in-law, Ruth. She had lost everything. When the women in town see her, she responds: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara [Hebrew: “bitter”], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since. . .the Almighty has afflicted me?” (1:20-21).9
Much of the book focuses on the courtship between Boaz and Ruth, but in and through and behind their story, we see the Lord re-entering into another kind of courtship with Naomi.10 The Hebrew draws this out beautifully. Naomi had said the Lord brought her back “empty” (1:21); but later Boaz uses the same word when he gives Ruth heaps of barley, telling her not to go back to Naomi “empty-handed” (3:17). Naomi had said the Lord had “brought her back” empty (1:21), but her story wasn't over yet. Boaz would marry Ruth. And not only that, he would fulfill his duty to a law that God had required back in Deuteronomy 25. When a husband died without having children, his brother (or a close relative) was to marry his widow; and the first-born child of that union was actually reckoned as belonging to the deceased. Naomi's sons had both died without having any children. But when Ruth gave birth to her first-born son, that child was then legally reckoned Naomi's grandson. The women say to Naomi: “May he also be to you a restorer of life. . .” (4:15). We could translate it: “May he be to you one who brings back life”; because the Hebrew word they use is the same word Naomi had used back in 1:21. God was bringing back life. Turns out she got to embrace a grandson after-all.11
Sometimes the Lord has to empty us of everything we have. But the reason He does it is to fill our empty cups with blessings far beyond our wildest dreams. Naomi had been emptied. She had lost her husband; and she had lost her sons. But in her grandson, the Lord was beginning to restore life (4:15). The language is quite intentional: Naomi had been made to walk through a season of death. But her story wouldn't end there. No, it would end with resurrection. Naomi got just a tiny glimpse of God's faithfulness to her in the birth of her grandson: In and through this child, the Lord would preserve her covenant line after all.12 Ruth 4:16-17 says: “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse. The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, 'A son has been born to Naomi!' So they named him Obed. . .” But what Naomi saw was just the beginning. Those were just the first drops of blessing in her cup. Verse 17 goes on to tell us something more about Obed that Naomi would never have known at the time: “. . .He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.” That's right: “Little Obed, the gurgling baby on Naomi's knee, was the grandfather of David, the most famous king of Israel. . .Naomi doesn't have a clue about the full value of her story. She has no idea as she feeds Obed mashed up carrots [as he] sat on her knee that one day—one day—he would go on to be the grandfather of David, David the great king of Israel.” See, Naomi had thought herself forsaken of God; barren and desolate. But all the while, God was planning to make her more fruitful than she could ever imagine. And that wasn't even the best part. In and through this baby on Naomi's lap, one day a King even greater than David would come. Obed's name comes up again in Matthew 1, where we learn that the Savior himself would be traced back to Naomi's line. Truth is, if she could have seen the end of her story, she would have fallen on her face in worship. But she had to wait till glory. And friends, so do you. You may not understand what the Lord's doing when He brings you through seasons of deep pain and loss. But maybe when He shows you, you'll be the one falling to the ground in tearful praise. He is faithful—and Naomi's story beckons us to trust in Him.13
1 “The events narrated in the book span the approximately 350-year period from the conquest of Canaan (1400 B.C.) until just prior to the time of Samuel, who anointed Israel's first king (1050 B.C.).” (Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible).
2 The ESV Study Bible describes the spiritual declension in this way: “The theme of Judges is the downward spiral of Israel's national and spiritual life into chaos and apostasy. . .[Israel's] disobedience continued and grew more serious—and more debased—throughout the period of the judges. Time and again Israel turned its back on God and embraced the gods and the ways of the Canaanites. . .By the end of the book, Israel had violated its covenant with God in almost every way imaginable.”
3 The enemies that came against Israel included both the remaining peoples living within the land of Canaan that Israel had failed to conquer (cf. the Philistines in 3:1-3; chapters 13-16; Jabin in chapter 4) as well as enemies who attacked from outside the land of Canaan (cf. Mesopotamia in 3:9-11; Moab/Midian in 3:12-14 and again in chapters 6-8; Ammon in chapter 11).
4 This is the theme of Judges (cf. 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). It wasn't all bad. Often with the deliverance of the judge came spiritual renewal as well. But the judges themselves, though at times commended, are often also overcome with their own flaws; and in the end the spiritual renewal doesn't last, and Israel falls back into doing evil. So that overall, whereas the book of Joshua is marked by conquering, the book of Judges is marked by failure and defeat. The Reformation Heritage Study Bible leaves us with this assessment: “There is a remarkable yet pathetic pattern of rebellion, retribution, repentance, and restoration. . .With each cycle of apostasy the nation plummeted to greater depths. . .” The lesson? “The message of Judges is clear. When sin is not thoroughly slain it will rise up to trouble us, but when sin is confessed and mercy is sought God will rise up to save us.”
5 Edmund Clowney asks this question for all of us in The Unfolding Mystery, p142.
6 Clowney writes again: “Can the tragic life of Samson point us forward to Jesus Christ? If we catch the force of the narrative, we will see that it must. . .Like Samson, Jesus was bound by the leaders of His own people and handed over to the Gentile oppressors. Like Samson, too, Jesus was mocked as helpless; not blinded, to be sure, but blind-folded, he was made the sport of His captors. Jesus willingly gave up His life. In His death He wrought a deliverance that exceeded the deliverances of his life [cf. Judges 16:30]. . .Threatened by a Philistine army, his own people gladly tied him up and handed him over to the enemy. . .Gideon's tiny force had startled and routed a great invading army of Midianites. But when the Spirit of God came upon Samson, the Lord showed that He had no need for even three hundred. He could deliver by one.” (pp146-47; 142-43).
7 The ESV Study Bible summarizes his faults in this way: “Samson violated all of the main provisions of his Nazirite vow (13:7; cf. Numbers 6:1-21): he drank wine at his wedding feast (Judges 14:10: 'feast' here [Heb. mishteh] is specifically a 'drinking feast'); he had contact with the dead (e.g.14:8-9,19;15:15); and he allowed his hair to be cut (16:17-19). Furthermore, he married an unbelieving Philistine (14:1-20), and he had intimate relations with at least two other Philistine women (16:1,4).” And interacting with Hebrews 11:32-33, it concludes: “Hebrews lists. . .Samson, and Jephthah. . .as examples of those 'who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions' (Hebrews 11:32-33). However, to say that these heroes had some measure of faith is not to say that they were consistent models of faith and virtue.”
8 A thousand men couldn't bring Samson down, but one woman could. There's another warning. But why did this happen? Samson was so strong that it seems he began to forget he was a man who needed God. So in some ways, his story is also given in Scripture to explain why it is that the Lord sees fit to keep us dependent on Him—and what it would look like for us if He didn't. As Paul concluded: “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). At the end of Samson's life, we're left with two conclusions: 1) Sin carries real consequences. We know from Hebrews 11:32 that Samson was a true believer; but that didn't protect him from losing his eyes, his freedom, and ultimately his life. Grace never nullified consequences. But at the same time: 2) God's grace is so much bigger than you (and I) think it is. Samson's hair grew back (16:22) because God let it grow back. And when Samson cried out to the Lord at the end, He was pleased to answer. And God didn't just forgive Samson. Even after all he did—God was meaning to use him once again for His glory. Friends: It's never too late to cry out to God. If God can forgive Samson? He can forgive you. And if God meant to use Samson again? He'll do the same with you.
9 We might contrast Naomi's experience with Jacob, who went out as one man and returned as two companies (Gen. 32:10). Some believe that Naomi and her family should never have left Canaan, even though there was a famine. It's hard to say if this is true or not. Genesis records a few different famines during the time of the patriarchs. When Abraham faces a famine, he leaves (12:10); no commentary is given, but it doesn't turn out well. When there's a famine in Isaac's time (26:1), the Lord tells him not to leave, so he stays in Gerar (which is part of Canaan). But in the famine at the end of Genesis, the Lord explicitly tells Jacob to go down to Joseph in Egypt. It does seem, though, that this was a unique instance. At the end of the day, I don't think we can say with certainty that Naomi shouldn't have left the land; but that's probably the case. And if it's true she shouldn't have left, it just serves to highlight God's grace to her all the more. It seems there was a lot in these first four verses that this family shouldn't have done—but God pursues them in grace (see the last footnote in this section on Naomi for more).
10 The story of Boaz and Ruth is a beautiful study that we unfortunately don't have the time to study here. One item of note is that according to Matthew 1:5, the mother of Boaz was actually Rahab, the former Gentile from Jericho. Which explains a lot about Boaz and his courtship of Ruth. His own mother had been a Gentile outsider too, who had left her people and gods in order to join the people of God and worship the Lord. Boaz could empathize with a Ruth in a way few Israelite men could (cf. 2:11). Also, Boaz and Ruth are set forth as a beautiful picture of Christ and the church: Boaz is set before us as a picture of Christ: 1) in his name: which means, “in him is strength” (Ex.15:2; Ps.18:1; 28:7; 31:4); 2) in his position: he was a kinsmen able and willing to redeem his people (Lev.25:23ff; Num.3:40ff; Deut.25:5-10); 3) in his sympathy: he could sympathize with Ruth because of his own history (2:11; Matt.1:5; cf. Heb.4:15); and 4) in his dealings: his gracious dealings towards Ruth (the foreigner) are wholly unmerited. And Ruth is set before us as a picture of the Church: 1) in her place of origin: starting out as a foreigner, excluded from God and His people; 2) in her surrender of all: leaving her people and their gods to join herself to the Lord and His people; and 3) in her poverty of spirit: characterized by poverty of Spirit, amazed at the kindness of Boaz.
11 See the second part of the last footnote in the Lesson on the Abrahamic Cov