In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 17:6

red shouldered hawkWhen the book of Judges opens, Joshua is dead after leading Israel’s united force to military victory as they entered Canaan. The land has been divided among the twelve tribes and it became each tribe’s responsibility to clear any remaining enemies from their territory, which they failed to do. No longer a unified people, Israel lost its way spiritually and began to take on the pagan practices of Canaan. After the optimism in the book of Joshua, Judges is filled with immorality, political division, and spiritual decline. Angry at Israel’s apostasy, God turned His people over to their enemies and, when they went to battle, He fought against them.

Eventually, Israel’s suffering would be so great that the people would cry out and turn from their evil ways and idolatry back to the Lord. When Israel called out, God heard their cries. He would designate a judge and empower the person to deliver the people from their enemies. The book of Judges names twelve judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.

Although they occasionally settled civil disputes, the judges’ main purpose was to serve as political and military commanders who would lead an army against their enemies. Like a judge, they executed judgment, condemned, and punished but the justice they meted out was to their pagan oppressors. After their victory, a period of obedience and peace would follow during the judge’s lifetime. Sadly, it never lasted and, eventually, the nation would fall back into its sinful ways. When the people repented, God would call up another judge and another cycle of regeneration and degeneration would begin.

Following Samson’s death, the people again returned to their old sinful ways and the last chapters of Judges are filled with horrific stories of idolatry, sexual perversion, lawlessness, civil war, and senseless slaughter. That downward spiral continued in 1 Samuel where we find four others referred to as judging Israel: Eli, Samuel, and Samuel’s two sons. These judges, however, were more like civil magistrates than military leaders. Although previous judges had been called by God, Samuel erred by appointing his corrupt sons as judges. Fed up with their wickedness and wanting to be like the nations surrounding them, Israel demanded a king and God gave them what they wanted.

While Judges clearly reveals that, without a leader, people will go astray, the books of Kings and Chronicles show us that having an earthly king isn’t any better. From the time of the judges through the period of the kings, we see a cycle of rebellion, retribution, repentance, and restoration. What Israel never seemed to understand was that they didn’t need a judge or a king to deliver them from foreign oppressors—what they needed was a Messiah to deliver them from their sins!

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. [Isaiah 9:1-2 (NLT)]

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