While the book of Joshua highlights the possession of the Promised Land, the book of Judges illuminates the stains on this accomplishment. Judges contains the history of Israel during the transition from centralized leadership in the desert under Moses and Joshua to the centralization of leadership in Jerusalem under David and Solomon.[1] The statement that “there was no king in Israel in those days; each man did what was right in his own eyes” summarizes this period of time.[2] So, “although the Israelites dwell physically in the Promised Land their disobedience prevents their enjoyment of the promised blessings.”[3]

The Structure and Cycle in Judges

The book of Judges has a structure that breaks quite nicely into three parts[4]:

  1. An overview story of the failure to complete the conquest (1:1-2:5)
  2. The stories of judges, which collectively portray a downward spiral of repeated cycles of sin, judgment, distress, and deliverance (2:6-16)
  3. Two final stories of religious and moral depravity (17-21)

There is also a ‘cycle’ that flows through the narrative of Judges. The ‘cycle’ is introduced in 2:11-19 and repeated in 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1. Heath Thomas describes the cycle as follows:

  1. Israelites rebel against God
  2. God raises up an oppressor
  3. The Israelites cry out to God
  4. God raises up a deliverer (Judge)

Thomas argues that this cycle teaches us the propensity for Israel (and us) to sin, the power of prayers and confession, and the mercy of God, both for Israel (and for sinners today).

Theology of Judges

Drawing from the theology learned in Deuteronomy, Israel’s leaders were to be constantly reminding Israel of God’s covenant faithfulness to them using past events as well as point to His ongoing and continued faithfulness. Israel was to fear the Lord and keep the covenant.[5] In the threat of apostasy and opposition from foreign nations God raises up judges to lead the people in battle and renewal. The judges are mostly “fighters and adventurers”[6] who play a role in discerning and deciding in a lawless time. Goldsworthy notes that the “…giving of the Spirit to the judges indicates that what the Israelites could not do for themselves, God does for them through a chosen, Spirit-powered  human being.”[7] But the judges were temporary means of grace to the people.

Alec Motyer notes that the judges ultimately failed because “they came, they delivered, they went, they achieved no permanent blessing or security, and they interrupted but did not change the deadly sequence of apostasy and captivity.”[8] So while the judges’ help achieved limited relief, they failed to bring a permanent solution. Therefore, one of the purposes of the book is to address the difficulty that Israel’s leadership faced in leading the people of God to fear the Lord and keep covenant. Judges demonstrates the failure of Israel’s leadership to pass on the knowledge of God to the next generation or to lead them in covenant keeping.

Daniel Block writes that “…the book of Judges is not so much a written memorial to Israel’s heroes in the Early Iron Age as a witness to Yahweh’s gracious determination to preserve his people by answering their pleas and providing deliverance.”[9] If not for God’s mercy and grace, Israel would go the way of death. But, Judges testifies to the grace of God. As sinful as Israel is, God’s grace still abounds.[10] It is important to note that ultimately the hero in the book was never one of the judges. As already stated, the judges failed and the people long for a greater judge. Therefore, the hero of Judges is God. The temporary role of a judge pointed people towards an ideal covenant keeping leader. “For the writer, the right kind of leader – exemplified by King David – was essential for transforming the people of God.”[11] This type of leader came into fruition with Jesus Christ. To outline a theology of Judges simply:

  1. Judges reveals God’s plan, purpose, and character: His faithfulness to his covenant. His patience and compassion in delaying judgment upon his people.
  2. Judges reveals the human heart: Our inability to serve God faithfully and our need to be reminded of God’s covenant faithfulness.
  3. Judges also points to Christ, the perfect leader who alone can truly redeem, change hearts, and reveal God.

The Judges and Jesus Christ[12]

Point by point the book of Judges traces the religious, political, moral, and social collapse of Israel. “The book of Judges called its original audience to follow a leader who would lead them in knowing and fearing the Lord. In its place in the Christian cannon, it issues the same call, except that the king is Jesus.”[13] The following points are taken from J. Alan Groves:

  1. The unfaithfulness of the judges and kings ultimately cost Israel the Promised Land. Jesus’ perfect faithfulness secures heaven itself for his people.
  2. The judges were unable to bring about permanent peace. Jesus, from the line of David (Tribe of Judah), brought about an enduring kingdom and eternal peace.
  3. Judges urged the need for a king, from Judah, who would fear God, live in covenant faithfulness, and lead the people in doing the same. Jesus, who was from the tribe of Judah, feared God and lived in perfect obedience to the Father, giving his people a perfect example. Yet, even more so, Jesus sends His Spirit and do what the judges and kings could not accomplish, break the cycle of sin and deliver the people of God by changing their hearts and empowering them to be faithful to God.

  1. [1] C.E. Armerding, Judges, NDBT, 172.
  2. [2] 17:6, 21:25. Cf. 18:1, 19:1.
  3. [3] Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 160.
  4. [4] This division is given by J. Alan Groves, Judges, DTIB, 410.
  5. [5] 2:6-10, 20-23, 3:1-6, 6:13.
  6. [6] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Judges, 15.
  7. [7] Goldsworthy, 160.
  8. [8] Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock, 24.
  9. [9] Daniel Block, Judges and Ruth, NAC, 40.
  10. [10] Heath Thomas, Seminar on Joshua, Judges, Ruth, May 19, 2012.
  11. [11] Groves, 410.
  12. [12] Groves, 414.
  13. [13] Groves, 415.

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