Judges graphically presents the results of succeeding generations turning their backs on God. The repeated cycle includes judgement by invasion from neighbouring nations, Israel crying out to God, God raising up a charismatic leader to unite Israel against the enemy, victory at God’s hand, peace, and then falling away from God again. The period is summed up in 17:6, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as they saw fit.”
What is portrayed here, then, is not just judgement by warfare but the moral degeneracy that comes to a nation without God. There are repeated acts of extreme violence. The acts of Samson (for example) and the land-grab by the Danites (note 18:6 where the priest states that the venture has God’s approval but this is implicitly countered by 18:27ff, which elicits sympathy for a people who had lived in defenceless peace and goes on to state that the Danites immediately set up an idol in their new land). Next follows the taudry tale of the Levite and his concubine with echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah, where no-one comes out looking well. Civil war is the result with great losses on both sides, after which the keeping of a vow is seen by the Israelites as more important than the seizing of the virgins from a neighbouring city state while putting everyone else to the sword.
With this sad account Judges ends with a repeat of 17:6, “Everyone did as they saw fit.”
Judges presents an era crying out for some law and order. At one level it seems to be justifying the appointment of a king. But we know that that was no guarantee of peace and good morality, for many of the future kings led the people astray into all sorts of vile practices. No, Judges clearly shows us what happens when people abandon God and do whatever they want.
A warning for today?
As we look around the world we see many western nations still living off their Christian heritage and values (which is not to claim that they have always been lived out those values well). Today those nations are gradually becoming more secular and increasingly Christianity is being openly ignored, rejected or even vilified. When God’s law is rejected and people cease to seek God, then laws will change to accommodate popular opinion (often governed by those with the loudest voice in the media) and people will generally do as they see fit. In our western world individuality, my choice, self, and ‘what’s-in-it-for-me?’ are the catch-cries of a generation. Yet, as a buffer against decline, there are still many Christians regularly praying to God for their governments, children and grandchildren.
But what happens if the children turn their back on God? Who will pray for their children and grandchildren in the future? I believe that our society has not declined further simply because God, in the background, continues to respond to the prayers of Christian people (Judges 2:10ff). Unfortunately the fact of this decline will not be seen until it is too late and only by people who are able to compare their present to the way things were. (An unfortunate tendency here is for a society generally to be like the old ‘frog in the kettle’ where the heat increases so gradually that the frog doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.)
But cast your eyes beyond the western nations. See where godlessness reigns and law and order has broken down. See what happens when doing what you see fit prevails! Countries live in chaos and corruption as individuals seek what is best for themselves. And even more troubling, who can say they are wrong? Are they not merely following their inbuilt tendency towards the survival of the fittest?
After all, if the Creator is removed and the whole of life has just come about by chance, then there is no meaning to aspire to and the only guide to right and wrong is what generally works to bring about a reasonably happy community. But then again, who cares about the happiness of others (except for the people I like) if I can be strong or deceitful and get my own way?
History is strewn with the bodies of the victims of this philosophy. The book of Judges has sounded out fair warning for future generations, as had the words of Moses and Joshua before. Tragically it would seem that each generation would rather learn from its own experience.