Thesis: What kind of person does God use? The person who believes that following God is worth the risk
Note: This is a script from my CT teaching on this subject, so there are no discussion questions in here yet.
OK. Tonight we’re back in the book of Judges, ready for another exciting study.
As we learned last week, the book of Judges takes place during the time of the Judges, which lasted from around 1350 B.C. until around 1050 B.C. These were the dark ages in the history of Israel, a time when the people were particularly far from God, which is really saying something considering how unfaithful they were throughout the rest of their history.
A common refrain in the book of judges is that there was no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. God was the one who had rescued them from slavery and had given them this land, he was supposed to be the leader they followed. But they threw off his leadership and decided to do whatever seemed right to them.
And so they plunged into the cycle of sin we saw last week. They would forget about God, so God would take away his protection and allow some foreign power to come in and oppress his people. They would eventually cry out under the brutal hand of slavery, at which point God would raise up a judge to deliver the people. Unfortunately, once they were safe they would promptly forget about God and plunge even deeper into moral anarchy, at which point the cycle would repeat itself.
In Judges chapter 3 we see the first iterations of this cycle, and it’s a little surprising at first to see the kind of people God is using to deliver his people. It’s not who you’d expect. The first judge is a guy named Othniel who was probably in his late eighties by the time God called him to deliver the people. It’s almost comical to imagine this, especially when you consider this was a day before modern inventions such as dentures and the hearing aid. [Old man voice:] “Here I come!” I’m sure he was a tough old man but not one of the usual suspects.
We also see him deliver the nation through a guy named Ehud, who was left-handed… and his name was Ehud. And back then there was a negative stigma attached to left-handed people. But as it turned out his left-handedness turned out to be crucial in his success. And we see God raise up a man named Shamgar who was not even Jewish, but was a gentile from one of the surrounding tribes.
So God has delivered his people through a foreigner, a lefty, and a really old guy. And that’s what our passage is about tonight. What kind of people does God use? People who believe that following God is worth the risk—enough to take the opportunities God sets before them.
Let’s start reading our passage:
4:1-2 – After Ehud’s death, the Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight. 2 So the Lord turned them over to King Jabin of Hazor, a Canaanite king. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-haggoyim.
Here we see the all too familiar cycle rear its ugly head again. Soon after the previous judge died God turned them over to the Canaanites. And starting in 1281 BC the Israelites were oppressed for 20 years.
You see that the commander of the army lived in Harosheth-haggoyim. That literally means “blacksmith of the nations.” The Canaanites had a monopoly on the iron industry. This was just before the beginning of the iron age, and at this time they were the only ones who had access to that technology. If the Israelites wanted iron tools they had to go to their enemies to get them. They could charge whatever they wanted and obviously refused to make any weapons – just tools for farming.
This created a significant military advantage and allowed them to dominate their opponents. Fighting an iron chariot with sticks and stones would have been like fighting a tank with swords and muskets. In Judges 5 the Israelites sing a song commemorating their victory and the beginning describes how bleak their situation was:
…people avoided the main roads, and travelers stayed on winding pathways. There were few people left in the villages of Israel… not a shield or spear could be seen among forty thousand warriors in Israel!
They had a decent-sized potential army. But no weapons. “Hey Ezekiel the iron chariots are coming. Go get your Garden Weasel. Maybe we can weed them to death.”
3 Sisera, who had 900 iron chariots, ruthlessly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help.
So the people finally cried out for help. After 20 years of oppression. Personally I think I would have started whining much sooner. I’m usually lucky if I make it 20 minutes under ruthless oppression.
4 Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time.
5 She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment.
So we meet our next judge. Deborah. A woman. This would have been unheard of in a male-dominated society. And yet she was obviously God’s leader. She was a prophetess – which means she had the ability to hear directly from God and speak on his behalf, and she would help them settle their disputes, so she had wisdom and discernment. It seems that Deborah is the only one providing any leadership at this time for the people of Israel.
6 One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor.
7 And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.”
So even though Deborah was the judge, God has selected Barak to lead the people in this military victory. And that makes sense. War was really a guy thing. They were usually stronger, faster, more durable. You never saw women going off to war.
God tells him exactly what to do, who to pick for his army, where to go and what the enemy is going to do. Most importantly God promises that he will give Barak victory over Sisera and his mighty chariots.
Seems like a great opportunity right? Well, not to Barak. Check out his response.
8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
To Barak this sounded like a terrible idea. He has the nerve to disobey God’s command, to turn down his offer. Even though God has commanded him to go and has promised him the victory he says, “Actually I’ve got a better idea. How about you send Deborah, the real leader of Israel and I’ll just be her helper?” Barak will only lead the army to victory if mommy can come along.
This raises the question: Why did he refuse to go without Deborah?
Probably not because she was physically stronger than him. I mean, maybe Deborah was like one of those Amazon women from American Gladiators, but I think the text would have mentioned an important detail like super-human strength.
Probably not because he was too busy to go. He ends up going once she agrees to come along.
One thing is clear. This was a huge risk God was asking Barak to take. It would have been much easier to keep hiding in the back alleys and trying to avoid getting killed by their oppressors. Sure it would be nice if somebody stood up to the Canaanites, but why does that somebody have to be me?
And you know, following God is all about taking risks. Sitting here tonight there may be something God is calling you to do, a risk he is asking you to take. And of course God wouldn’t call us to do anything exactly like this, but some of the risks he asks us to take are almost as scary
- Leadership opportunity
- Building a relationship
- Dialoguing with someone about Christianity
- Having a difficult conversation with a friend
- Work of service
- Getting serious about spiritual growth
- Qualify: this isn’t risk-taking for the sake of risk-taking. God commanded Barak to do this
And whether we realize it or not, we all have developed our own, sophisticated risk-avoidance strategies. And that seems to be what Barak was doing here – trying to wriggle off the hook.
Maybe he was trying to call her bluff
Maybe he thought: well, she’s the leader and she just doesn’t want to have to deal with this problem. So she’ll send me to get hacked to pieces and then she’ll reap all the benefit.
Much to his surprise, she does agree to go with him. Because Deborah realizes that spiritual leadership is not an opportunity to get other people to do her dirty work. It’s not a license to sit home and be comfortable while those below you are out getting their hands dirty and sweaty and bloody. The rest of the world might view leadership that way, and maybe Barak even viewed it that way, but that’s not how God sees it. (quote from Jesus?) Hopefully that’s not how we view leadership either.
Maybe he realized that a victory like this was beyond his capabilities.
God explicitly mentioned that Sisera and his chariots would be there, and he knew they had been getting beat down for 20 years at this point. Maybe he thought, “If God is actually going to save Israel he certainly shouldn’t put something like that in my hands.”
The problem with that line of thinking is that Barak is grossly overestimating his own role in the matter and ignoring the power of God.
Sure, he had an important part to play. We don’t want to get super-spiritual and imply that God doesn’t need humans at all. He has chosen to work through humans – to lead through humans – throughout the entire Bible and right up until this present day.
However, to think God would ever expect Barak to defeat the Canaanites without divine intervention is absolutely ridiculous. That’s really the whole point. You can’t save yourself. God says, “I will give you victory over them.”
There are a few common forms to this one.
There’s the comparison approach. That says: “I’m not as _____ as him/ her.” You can fill in the blank: Smart, Well-spoken, Wealthy, Privileged, Confident, Outgoing, Reflective, Stable, Fun, etc
There’s the false humility approach. That says: “I’ve got far too many problems. I mean look at me. I’m _______.”
Allow me to translate: Hi, creator God of the universe. I’d like to declare that I know myself better than you know me, and I understand the task you want me to attempt far better than you understand it. And after much thought I’ve decided that it’s simply not going to work, even if this is your will and you’ve promised to put all of your power at my disposal.
On your own you’re pretty weak. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” But You + God is a different story. That would be far greater than any task God could ask you to attempt.
Maybe he saw that Deborah was the more experienced leader
The people knew her and respected her. She’s the prophet who hears directly from God. It was her idea anyway.
Sometimes we try to protect ourselves from failure by making someone else take ultimate responsibility.
And I think we can relate to this one. There’s a certain safety in hiding behind someone else’s authority. Especially when that person has always been there watching out for you, praying for you, correcting you, taking over when you falter. The advantage to that arrangement is that when good things happen you’re right there to experience it. But when things don’t go so smoothly… well, she’s the leader. That’s her responsibility.
I can remember as a young leader when I needed to confront someone I would just say: “I think this might be a problem in your life. And this other guy agrees with me.” Or when a big decision needed to be made I would immediately pick up the phone to find someone else to make the decision for me. I think on some level I was viewing myself as a manager of this other person’s responsibility and not as someone who was truly leading what God had called me to lead.
This parent-child relationship can be a good arrangement for a time. I mean when you’re just a kid you need to have your parents right there beside you. But there comes a point where you need to move out, to grow up, to try life without mommy and daddy right there and to become a spiritual adult. Until you do this you will always remain a kid in some sense. And God doesn’t need spiritual infants. He needs spiritual adults. Leaders who aren’t sitting around saying, “I wonder what dad is going to do about this when he gets home,” but who take responsibility to raise others in the faith.
I’m not advocating for autonomy here. But what I am saying is that God doesn’t want you to hide in the shadow of your leaders forever. When he says, “Go” he wants you to go out on your own into new steps of faith.
Another one I often see is when people adopt a victim mentality. Events beyond their control are preventing them from stepping out and taking that risk God wants them to take
- My job sucks
- My advisor said I have no other choice
- My parents have really been coming down on me lately
- I’m just really busy
- No one has mentored me
The “when-then” game 
- “When I feel confident, then… I’ll try using this gift”
- “When I get some of my own problems taken care of, then I …”
- “When I’m married, then it will be easier to trust God”
- “When I’m out of school, then I …”
- “When I’m established in my career, then I …”
- And we wait our whole lives for a “when” that never comes
Let’s read on to see Deborah’s response.
9 “Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.
So, what really happened here? Barak missed out on an opportunity. You see, God is going to accomplish his plan. The question he has for you is: do you want a part in this or not? I think we naturally view risk as something to be avoided at all costs. Instead we should view godly risk as an opportunity for something great.
First of all, it’s an opportunity to see God do something great through you.
Personal sharing about how great it is to be used by God?
It’s an opportunity for you to grow in your faith.
Contrast with Barak’s faith, which in the end probably did grow, but not like it could have. There’s something about being exposed and terrified that drives you to God in a new way.
It’s an opportunity for rewards and honor.
Contrast with Barak’s loss of honor.
You know, the Bible says that as Christians, God will reward us for the service we offer to him in this life…
There’s the satisfaction of knowing you did what God told you to do
Contrast with Barak’s embarrassment. All of Israel knew he passed up on this opportunity. Imagine Deborah’s husband kissing her goodbye as he stands there at the village gate with their kids and all the rest of the women and children. I can see him giving Barak the look. You know – the one that says, “Dude. Seriously?”
For my job I get to see little windows into lots of different home churches. And there are instances where you can clearly see that God has marked off a certain task for a particular person and they are just being too cowardly and spineless to step up and do it. Spiritual people see these things and realize that they’ll just need to wait until you step up and do it or until God raises up somebody else.
It’s an opportunity to grow in your intimacy with God.
Contrast with Jdg 4:14, where Deborah needs to tell Barak to go. If Deb hadn’t been there God would have just told Barak. You see, when God says “go” you can be sure that he will go with you. In fact, sometimes he says, “I’ll meet you down at the battlefield.” That’s where your next encounter with God is at.
Passing up opportunities and avoid risk is going to get you nowhere. John Ortberg summarizes this dead end powerfully. He says that risk avoidance leads…
To sinful patterns of behavior that never get confronted and changed,
Abilities and gifts that never get cultivated and deployed—
Until weeks become months
And months turn into years,
And one day you’re looking back on a life of
Deep intimate gut-wrenchingly honest conversations you never had;
Great bold prayers you never prayed,
Exhilarating risks you never took,
Sacrificial gifts you never offered
Lives you never touched,
And you’re sitting in a recliner with a shriveled soul,
And forgotten dreams,
And you realize there was a world of desperate need,
And a great God calling you to be part of something bigger than yourself—
You see the person you could have become but did not;
You never followed your calling.
You never got out of the boat.
Are you content to stand by and watch other people do significant things for God? Or do you want in on the thrill of the battle, the authentic relationships, the transformed lives and the realized dreams? The price, my friends, is to step out and take the risk of following God into the fray and seeing him perform the supernatural right before your very eyes.
Read and explain 4:10-14
We read the poetic account in chapter 5:
Judges 5:20-22 – The stars fought from heaven. The stars in their orbits fought against Sisera. The Kishon River swept them away—that ancient torrent, the Kishon… Then the horses’ hooves hammered the ground, the galloping, galloping of Sisera’s mighty steeds.
As Barak’s army rushed down the mountain and across the plain to meet the enemy head on God sprang into action. Apparently God sent a rain storm during the dry season which flooded the river bed in the valley where all 900 of the chariots were arrayed. You can imagine the terror and confusion they must have felt when they saw the Israelites begin to charge down the mountain and then looked off to their right to see a flash flood headed their way. This rendered most of the chariots useless and threw the entire army into confusion. The war horses seem to have been especially spooked and began to trample their own soldiers. At that point it was every man for himself.
“You know, after a long hot day in the dry summer desert there’s nothing more refreshing than hot curdled milk from a goat’s bladder.”
So now Jael has an opportunity to be used by God. What would you do in this situation? You’ve got Hitler, who has just been routed by the Allies, hiding out in your tent, fast asleep. Will she play it safe and let someone else take responsibility for this? Or will she violate her family’s peace treaty, risking their rejection and put her own life on the line to take a risk for God? Let’s see what Jael does.
21a But when Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion, Jael quietly crept up to him with a hammer and tent peg in her hand
You can see where this is going. The women in these nomadic tribes were responsible for setting up the tents, so she’d been pounding wooden nails into the ground for her entire life. So she quietly creeps up to Sisera, her heart pounding, thinking to herself, “OK. I get one shot at this. Better make it good.” And, “Boom!”
Then she drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and so he died.
Nice shot Jael!
22 When Barak came looking for Sisera, Jael went out to meet him. She said, “Come, and I will show you the man you are looking for.” So he followed her into the tent and found Sisera lying there dead, with the tent peg through his temple.
There you go Barak! That’s how it’s done!
And so God delivers His people just like he promised. And he gives the great leader into the hands of a woman, just like he promised.
You know, the outcome of this never should have been in doubt. The question was not, “Will God come through?” but instead, “How will God come through?”
I’d like to conclude by taking one final look at these two characters: Barak and Jael
|Qualified to deliver Israel – impressive resume
||Possessed none of the qualifications to deliver Israel
|Had direct instructions and promises from God||No instructions or promises from God. (Sisera just stumbled into camp one afternoon)|
|Put conditions on God to avoid risk||Acted boldly and without hesitation|
|Tried to minimize responsibility||Took full responsibility (didn’t run and get her daddy)|
|Should have been the hero||Was the unexpected deliverer of Israel|
This is the way God works. He chooses the unlikely, the unqualified, those who seem least deserving of his favor and grace and love. You can experience God’s love, His grace, His salvation right here tonight. If you are willing to admit how little you deserve it, how desperately you need it and turn and ask him for it.
The apostle Paul says it like this:
1 Cor 1:26-30
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,
29 so that no one may boast before him.
30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
 Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat
 Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat