“And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, and abode in his breaches” (Judges 5:15-17).
Israel was commanded to rid the land of or destroy the Canaanite population, but unfortunately they did not carry out what the Lord required. Maybe they thought a humanitarian approach was a better solution than what God ordered. Whatever their reasoning they had the notion that they could control the Canaanites. “And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute, and did not utterly drive them out” (Judges 1:28). This refusal to follow God’s commands would come back to bite them in the future. “And an angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you. And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars: but ye have not obeyed my voice: why have ye done this? Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you” (Judges 2:1-3). So instead of dominating the Canaanites, as Israel thought they could do through their own strength, it was the heathen who poisoned the land with idolatry and lorded it over them.
The book of Judges is full of the accounts of Israel’s several rises and falls. They would repent and be revived only to relent and reverse their decision to follow the Lord. It is the history of a backsliding people determined to do things their own way. We read that God chastised Israel by allowing their enemies, the Canaanites, Midianites, Ammonites and Philistines to oppress and enslave them. As soon as they cried out to Him with repentance in their hearts, He raised up a judge, a saviour who would deliver them from bondage. This revival brought with it national peace, prosperity and security. How sad it is that God’s people would so quickly turn away from Him only to practice the abominations of the nations around about them. They wanted to mingle with the heathen and paid the price for it. Though God received them as soon as they called out to Him, each time they rebelled it weakened the strength of the covenant nation further.
Though we might find fault with Israel as we study their history, for certainly they were a stubborn and stiffnecked people, we cannot fail to see ourselves in them. “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Our nature is not too dissimilar from theirs, for do we not promise to serve and obey God only to go back on our word at the first instance? We repent of our sin, but so easily take it back when it suits us.
Israel was blessed with a Promised Land in which to serve God. There were enemies all around them, but God promised to defend and give His people the victory. All they were required to do was to obey and follow Him. Though we do not have a piece of land, the promises God has made to us are no less real. The Kingdom the Lord has planted us in is spiritual and the enemy longs to rob us of its glory. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). We are not fighting people or trying to gain an earthly kingdom, yet the believer must stand guard and not allow the enemy of our souls to destroy us. The history of ancient Israel is there to show us what not to do and avoid their mistakes.
In Judges chapter four we read that Israel once again rebelled against the Lord and so they were brought under the dominion of the Canaanite king, Jabin, and for “twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel” (Judges 4:3). When they could tolerate this no longer, they cried out to God and He raised up Deborah and Barak to deliver them.
Through Deborah and Barak Israel won a great victory over the enemy, and so in Judges chapter five we read Deborah’s song of triumph. she rejoiced and gave glory to the Lord. She blesses the tribes that joined in the battle, but calls for disgrace upon those who did not. The tribes of Reuben, Dan and Asher refused to fight against Sisera. It is said of Reuben that “they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty” (Judges 5:23). It seems that this tribe had “great searchings of heart” but still could not bring themselves to help their neighbours. Maybe this infers that initially they patriotically gathered together to assist their brethren, but for selfish reasons they changed their mind.
Every tribe rallied for the defence of Israel in the days of Joshua, but after several prolonged times of rebellion only half of them bothered to gather at Barak’s call to arms. This sad state is remarkably similar to what the modern church is like. When the Christians are called to service there is a great scattering and many excuses made. Thank God for those who do commit themselves to the Lord and are serious about the faith. Unfortunately many believers are like Reuben who abode “among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks” (Judges 5:16). Dan and Asher also had their excuses for not rallying around the other tribes, but basically they loved the easy life. All those who refused to assist their brethren received no glory when the victory was won. We must avoid doing the same. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). It is on these things we too must have “great searchings of heart”, faithfully follow the Lord and serve Him whatever He calls us to.
Those tribes which refused the call to service put themselves under a curse. “Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the LORD, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty” (Judges 5:23). Those who heeded the call received the blessing. We are not called to lock ourselves indoors because the battle with the world is so difficult, instead we are commanded to go and engage them. The Lord Jesus Christ did not tell us to stay but rather to go. If we have heard His battle cry, then we must do exactly what He requires of us. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19-20). Maybe we too are having “great searchings of heart”, but unlike the rebellious tribes of Israel, let us choose to obey the voice of our Mighty Judge.