Israel’s Failed Victory


Sermon Text: Judges 1:1-36
Sermon Series: Judges (#1)
Watch Sermon Video: Click the link below

Main Points:
I. In God we’re victorious!
II. Man’s prudence and victory
III. Failed victory

From today, we hear God’s voice through the OT book, Judges, and listen to His message for us through its chapters. Judges is especially relevant to us who live in an era of uncertainty and confusion where there’s no such thing as the absolute truth in the minds of people. As was the time of Judges, nowadays, everyone is a king or queen of one’s own world; everyone worships oneself. Reading Judges is, therefore, like reading today’s newspaper or watching a TV news report. This book portrays the life of Israel on the land of Canaan many thousand years ago, but through it, we have a vivid portrait of us and our generation. In this regard, I could say that Judges is a Bible’s commentary on today’s world. It gives us, first of all, an insight of what’s going on around us, second, an analysis of the nature of the current affairs, and third, a directional guidance for God’s children to follow and live in peace.

If anyone isn’t sure of this, I invite that person alongside all of St Columba’s to open and read this book of Judges and hear the Spirit’s message for all in His Church, and we begin today from the very first chapter of Judges which is an introduction to the rest of this book. It gives us a summary of what was happening with Israel after Joshua’s leadership. With this summary, Jdg. 1 connects Joshua to Judges, reminding us of the continuing works of Israel’s God-ordained conquest of Canaan.

In the meantime, this chapter conveys an important message to us, that is, ‘we must listen to God and live by His Word alone.’ This is the key to living a victorious life in God, especially in a troubled time, in a sinful generation. So, let us hear the Spirit’s message through these words of Jdg. 1.

The first thing that grabs our attention in this chapter is the victory Israel achieved. They seem to have a victory after another. The tribe of Judah formed an allied force with the tribe of Simeon, and they went and crushed the combined army of the Canaanites and the Perizzites. They defeated an army of 10,000 men and captured their king who used to be the mighty ruler of the region. Later, Judah attacked Jerusalem and captured it. They also expanded their land toward west, northwest as well as south and southeast. They rejoiced victory wherever they stretched out their arms. This must’ve been sweet to them.

The sole reason for these victories was God’s presence with Israel and His fighting for His own people against their enemies. God was on Israel’s side – that was the reason for their victories.

With this series of victories, I want you to know an interesting point recorded in our text passage. That is, this blessing of God for Israel began with their worship to God and inquiry of His will for Israel, as recorded in v. 1 – “After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the LORD.” Israel asked God for a guidance; they sought the Lord’s will. It might sound insignificant to some people’s ears, but this is, in fact, the crucial and key prerequisite of God’s presence with anyone, let alone a nation like Israel in the midst of a conquest war. Seeking God’s will is putting God first; inquiring of God is acknowledging God as the King and Lord and Saviour. Putting God first, Israel listened to His word and, listening to Him, they followed His guidance.

So, Israel captured cities and burned one, following God’s command, like the case of Jerusalem as recorded in v. 8, and devoted another, like Zephath, a former Canaanite city, to destruction as in v. 17. God had commanded Israel to utterly destroy the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, leaving none whatsoever – including their animals – and every form of Canaanite’s religious construction such as altars and high places must be destroyed. The tribes of Judah and Simeon followed it well – at least, in the beginning – and they witnessed God’s favour in battles and rejoiced in the victory God brought to them.

An important rule of faith is evident here. One must inquire of the Lord; you and I must seek the Lord’s will first, acknowledging Him as our Lord and King, remembering that He alone is the living and mighty God! This attitude and act of seeking God first is, in another word, ‘repentance and faith.’ We turn to the Lord – namely, ‘repentance’ – and seek His will – namely, ‘faith’ or trust in Him. Turning away from sin daily and trusting the Lord God Almighty always is the key to enjoying the Lord’s presence with the penitent individuals and churches and nations. Israel inquired of the Lord, and He answered to His own penitent people, and fought for them, and brought them victory after victory! In God, we’re victorious daily as individuals, as a corporate body of Christ!

However, had Israel only continued in this – I mean, had they sought God and followed His will continually in their move, they would’ve rejoiced, never experiencing any bitterness in their way of conquest. Sadly, that was not the case. They failed and their joy of victory soon disappeared; they won battles, but they did not win the war, and soon they lost not only the memory of victory, but also the reason for their war.

The beginning of this loss was not something outrageously big; rather it was a tiny, insignificant happening. That is, the tribe of Judah altered God’s word. Let me direct your attention to vs. 2-3 to see that tiny disparity. In v. 1, Israel inquired of the Lord, saying, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” God’s answer was this in v. 2: “Judah shall go up.” And we read v. 3 that says this: “Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted to me.’” Do you see this almost invisible crack, variance, from the Lord’s direction? This is the beginning of their loss of not only the sense and joy of victory, but also the reason for the war itself!

Someone might wonder whether I’m hypersensitive with this difference. He might think that Judah didn’t disobey God after all, and using whatever source he could utilise to achieve the task was commendable rather than condemnable. Another one might say, ‘Whether Judah or Simeon, that’s not the point; a tribe of Israel took the land and that would meet God’s expectation, wouldn’t it?’

Well, my dear brothers and sisters, although any thoughts like theirs may make sense to our ears, that’s not the point. The point is that God gave that task and land to the tribe of Judah, not to a tribal ally of Judah and Simeon. The real point is that God plans to go before Judah and fight for him, and give the land to Judah. The real point is that God plans to go before Judah and fight for him and give the land to Judah, and for Simeon, He would do the same for another part of Canaan. The real point is that God plans this to let Judah know, let Simeon and all other tribes of Israel know that God fights for them, thus, trust not any man, nor horses, but their Saviour God. He will fight for them; God will be their Protector and Deliverer; God alone is their eternal hope. God plans to let them know this well and live by it. Depending on man’s own hand and their number and prudence is what the unbelievers, sinners, do. So, God said to Israel, “Judah shall go up.” What He meant with it was, ‘I’ll go before you and you follow Me, trusting!’

But Judah refused God’s plan and turned his eyes to Simeon, his brother. Judah rejected God’s will and sought to render glory and honour of victory to himself and to his brother, the Simeonites. Judah sought man’s prudence, man’s idea, man’s might, instead of God!

The result of this faithlessness comes rather quickly, and we read v. 19 and hear this: “Judah … took possession of the hill country, but he COULD NOT drive out the inhabitants of the plain.” Why could he not drive them out? V. 19 continues, “because they [the inhabitants of the plain] had chariots of iron.” ‘Chariots of iron’ were like today’s tanks or highly sophisticated war machines like stealth jet fighters or missiles. Weapons like these cannot be overcome by numbers of soldiers or their swords or spears or arrows. ‘Chariots of iron’ are, in the spiritual sense, various ‘evil schemes’ of Satan who is the prince of the power of the air. Without the Lord who fights for His people, without His protection, flaming darts of the evil one will always dominate and defeat man’s prudence. Things like these cannot be overcome without prayers, without inquiring of the Lord!

Christians and churches who partially dependent on God might win a battle or two, but soon their joy of victory will be crushed by the enemy. Judah who refused God’s fighting hand could not drive out their enemy! They forgot what their fathers had witnessed at the Red Sea. That is, the mighty God who fought for Israel and drowned Pharaoh’s world’s best army of iron chariots in the Red Sea in a blink of an eye!

Individuals and churches of our time often repeat this sin of Judah, and alter God’s word. God has given to us His word which is full of admonition, advice, challenge, encouragement as well as guidelines for various aspects of Christian life. But many believers and churches add their own prudence to the word, claiming them as practical applications that suit this particular generation and culture. For example, churches stop teaching about sin and repentance, claiming that teaching such things would offend people and shun them farther away from God and church. What a blasphemous idea of man that is! Those who alter God’s word in this way seem to win a battle or two, and they seem to draw the attention of many people from the world and, in some cases, successfully have them in the pews of their churches, but they have already lost their war against the evil one of the world.

This problem of Judah happened to all other tribes of Israel as recorded in Jdg. 1. In vs. 21-26, you read that the tribe of Benjamin failed to drive out the Jebusites. They thought, allowing the Jebusites to live in their midst was a better idea than following God’s command. The descendants of Joseph took a city called Luz which later became the famous town of Israel, Bethel. But, in the process of overtaking Luz, the Josephites did not kill all inhabitants of Luz, but left a man and his family alive. They released this man and his family. Then, they went away and built at another place a new city and called it Luz. The Josephites won the battle and overtook the geographical spot of Luz, but the city of Luz was not overcome. It revived at another place by an idea of Josephites, that is, to let go of only one man and his family. It seems insignificant as a grain of a seashore – that’s what the descendants of Joseph thought – but it wasn’t at all insignificant in the spiritual sense! It was the beginning of their loss in their spiritual war against the evil one!

Unfortunately, there are many Josephites in our days, and I confess that I used to be one of them and often act like one still. A typical mindset of them is like this: ‘I’m a Christian; I’m saved. And that’s all I need to know, and it’s OK to not be a perfect Christian. After all, I’m a human being, imperfect and sinful. I can’t help myself sometimes but have to do some things I really like to do, though I know doing them is a sin.’ But God’s word for us all is weighty, as in Phil. 2:12, saying, “work our your own salvation with fear and trembling” because Jesus gave His life to save us from sin and death; He shed His blood on the cross to wash us clean from all stains of sin; He tore His flesh to heal us and remain clean in our fight against sinful fleshly desires.

Altering God’s word by adding or subtracting is to consider man’s prudence, man’s idea, weightier than God’s wisdom, claiming that man is wiser than God. But God says in 1 Cor. 12:25, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” ‘Faith’ is to believe what this verse testifies.

So, the victory of Israel portrayed in Jdg. 1 is ‘failed victory.’ It might sound strange, like ‘oxymoron,’ because victory cannot be ‘failed’ victory. But in the case of the tribes of Israel, it was.

All tribes of Israel could not drive out the inhabitants of the land; they chose to live together with them, like the way many Christians of our time choose to live in Christ, yet, keep a foot in the world. But the problem of this cohabitation with the Canaanites and the Perizzites, cohabitation with sin, is that God’s people would soon forget the joy of their victory in God through the name of Jesus Christ. Forgetting their joy of victory, they soon forget the purpose of their life on earth, that is, to shine the light of Christ to all others in order that they too could see the light of life and come to Christ, then, shine the same light of Christ together with us to brighten this world further until the time of Jesus’ return.

After all, Israel’s ultimate goal of taking possession of the land of Canaan was to stand on that hill country and shine the light of God’s free grace of salvation to all nations. But they failed to achieve it. They took cities and towns and hills and valleys; they grabbed hold of vineyards and orchards as well as castles and strongholds, but they failed – the light of life never shone through them to the peoples in the darkness of sin.

Having marched into a blessed land with such a noble task, Israel failed. Soon, they struggled greatly with keeping their own land. What you read from vs. 27 and following is important as it tells us a dreadful spiritual truth. The Canaanites lived among the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim and Zebulun, as vs. 27-30 say. But vs. 31-33 tell us that that was not the case for the tribes of Asher and Naphtali. It was the opposite, that is, the tribes of Asher and Naphtali lived among the Canaanites, not the Canaanites lived in their midst. The Bible says what God’s people should know, and these verses say that the owners of the land were the Canaanites and Asher and Naphtali were guests on their land. It’s a dreadful message for anyone who sits on the fence, altering God’s word and considering man’s idea weightier than God’s word.

This is not the end of their trouble – a worse thing follows. In v. 34 and following, we read about the people of Dan. They were pushed back into the hill country by the Amorites and unable to take possession of the land that had been allocated to them by God through their leader, Moses! These tribes of Israel won battles, but lost their war against the enemy.

The rest of Judges is, simply speaking, a repetition of Israel’s failed victory in the land of Canaan. They had entered their Promised Land; they were so excited when they crossed the Jordan River, seeing the water standing like a wall, and walking on the dry riverbed. Likewise, Christians are excited as they are baptised and become members of Christ’s church. They taste victory in the name of Jesus. Then, soon, their joy of victory fades away. Some go farther, having spiritual numbness in their hearts. They live in this world as guests, like those tribes of Israel who dwelled in the midst of the Canaanites. Often, they’re pushed back by the enemy.

God’s message for the Israel of the time of Judges as well as for Christians of today is a simple message. We should know from where our failure began. Our failure began when we heard God’s word, but added to it our own ideas or subtracted from it to meet our tastes.

Having realised the source of failure, God wants us to change our attitude and life to receive and regard God’s word as the word of life. This simple message has been the message of the Lord since the beginning of human history. It began from the Garden of Eden and continues up to this very day, and His message is this, “Listen to Me”! (cf. Isa. 41:1; 46:3, 12; 48:12)

The rest of Judges is simply a repetition of this message of God to Israel – and through them, to us all – to go back to the beginning of failure and fix it, that is, to hear God’s voice and trust Him wholly! By trusting God, He will recover us from any failure and start adorning us with the victory His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord won for us! ***

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