Living in the Time of the Judges

Scott Harris

Man’s basic nature is that he wants to get his own way – he’s born with a sinful, selfish bent. How people get along with one another in any society will be dependent on the social mores that are established among them. There must be some structure of what’s right and wrong. But what happens when each man decides for himself and does what is right in his own eyes? Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” We see the truth of that proverb in the book of Judges. It’s a truth that should give pause to every government and social institution as they wrestle with the extent and limits of personal freedoms of those within them.

America has historically functioned with a comparatively high level of personal freedom because the moral virtues of a society so influenced by Christianity resulted in a people who tended to be more adaptable to self-government – because of their fear of God. The result has been God’s blessing, much like what was experienced by the generation that conquered the promised land under Joshua.

However, as an increasing percentage of our population has rejected the true God, and there has been a corresponding decline in self-control. Our society no longer functions with the freedoms it once had. Even as government entities expand their powers to become more personally intrusive, there’s an increasing percentage of the population that pursues what is right in their own eyes with abominable behavior and blatant immorality. We resemble Israel during the time of the judges.

Judges is written thematically in a selective chronology. There is variation in the time sequences and the areas of the nation in view. It covers a 350-year period between 1406 BC when Joshua concluded his conquest of the land and 1055 BC when Samson died. Judges was written after the establishment of Saul’s monarchy, but prior to David’s capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:5-9). Its purpose was to give a defense of the establishment of the monarchy by showing the utter failure to obey God through the period of the judges. The main reason for the failure was that in the succeeding generations “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25), which resulted in disobedience to God’s law.

Incomplete Obedience (Judges 1:1-2:5)

The first reason for the failure of the theocracy and the need for judges was the incomplete obedience of the people in driving out/destroying the people that had been in the land. God had specifically stated that the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite people were to be utterly destroyed because of their iniquity and abominations (Genesis 15:16; Exodus 23:23f; Leviticus 18:24-27 Deuteronomy 20:17-18). God reveals in both Exodus 23:30 and Deuteronomy 7:22, “Yahweh your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly, for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you.” Before his death, Joshua promised them that God would drive out the pagan nations as promised if they would cling to and obey Him. If they did not, then He would not drive out those same nations and instead, they would become a “snare and a trap to you, and a whip on your sides and thorns in our eyes” (Joshua 23). That’s exactly what happened.

Failure to Teach the Next Generation (Judges 2:6-10)

After Joshua and all that generation that followed him died, “there arose another generation after them that did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.” It may seem incredible that a nation can so quickly turn from its own cultural heritage, but history records it happening repeatedly. When an earlier generation does not teach about the mighty deeds of God to their children, a people become separated from their past and lose the historical perspective of God’s hand at work in their own heritage. This makes them susceptible to being led astray by the lies of those with evil motives, or by their own selfish desires. To this is added the more serious failure to follow Moses’ command in Deuteronomy 6 to love God with all heart, soul, and strength and diligently teach the children to know Him, His ways, and His commands. By the time of the judges, the current generation didn’t have even a memory of their godly ancestors.

For a modern parallel, how many of us know much of anything about our great-grandparents?

Idolatry (Judges 2:11-3:4)

Without a memory of what God had done or His commands, they instead served Baal and Asherah. When this happened, God turned against them, fulfilling the warnings they had been given, and they were plundered and sold into the hands of their enemies. Yet whenever they turned back and cried out to Him, God was true to His promise. He would be moved to pity by their groaning, and He would deliver them by raising up a judge.

This cycle would then repeat itself because even while the judge was alive the people didn’t always listen, and when the judge died, the next generation immediately turned back to the practices of the surrounding nations (vs. 17, 19-20). God would allow those surrounding nations to suppress them again as the means of chastisement.

Mixing with Pagans (Judges 3:5-6)

A major factor in the pagan nations influencing Israel was their intermarriage. This was in direct violation of God’s command in Deuteronomy 7:3 that they were not to mix with the nations of Canaan. The results were what they had been warned of. The cycles of judges began with their failure to fully obey God to drive out the pagan nations and instead being influenced to worship their false gods. Confession of sin and repentance would bring them back to God, who would deliver them and restore their blessings.

Consequences of Disobedience (Judges 17-21)

The book of Judges ends with the horrific events that lead to the Benjaminite civil war (Judges 19-21). These stories serve as examples of the depths of depravity that come about when people do what is “right in their own eyes.” 

Jesus said in Matthew 15:19“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” Because all humans are by nature sinners, it’s not surprising that pursue they’ll pursue evil to the boundaries of whatever restraint is placed upon them. Christians are restrained from evil by their changed nature and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Other religious people are restrained by the fear of retribution from whatever god they serve and/or whatever governmental authority is over them.

Governments and societies that fulfill their God-given purpose by giving praise to those that do good and bringing wrath on those that do evil place a restraint on all within that society (Romans 13:2-3). Governments do the opposite of this by removing the restraints of the law on evil or using the law to encourage evil can expect to see God’s judgment and an increase of wickedness in their society.

The book of Judges was written for the specific purpose of showing that the Israelites were continually doing what was right in their own eyes – and a king was needed to restrain them. It also serves as a warning to all nations of what can be expected when any society does the same thing, and that includes ours. Don’t be surprised at either the evil that’s risen around us, the new depths of depravity that are being invented, or God’s chastening. Remember from Romans 1 that a primary way in which God displays His wrath is to remove His hand of mercy away so that the full consequences of sin are felt – sin begets sin, and the result is descending into increasing depravity and a disconnect from reality.

The period of the judges was in many ways, an extremely dark time in Israel’s history. But it was also during that period that the book of Ruth takes place. God always has his remnant of people that are faithful to him and that live godly lives. No matter what circumstances you may find yourself in, commit yourself to being a blessing to others. Diligently teach your children so they will be like the generation under Joshua that knew God and followed Him – not the succeeding generations that forgot Him and did what was right in their own eyes.

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