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TGP: The Judges Cycle

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In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual weather prediction made by the most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. But soon he finds that he is not only stuck in this town, he is also stuck in the same day—Groundhog Day—reliving it over and over again.
As the story goes, Bill Murray’s character learns how to turn this misfortune into his benefit. In constantly experiencing the same day, he learns from his mistakes as he pursues the woman he loves. Through trial and error, he learns the way to her heart and is able to win her affections. What’s more, he is changed in the process.
As Christians, sometimes we feel like we are stuck in a “groundhog day” type of experience with God. We keep falling into the same patterns of sin. Our walk with Christ doesn’t feel like progress but more like going two steps forward and then two steps back. It’s like being on a spiritual roller coaster with God, with ups and downs that make us wonder what lies ahead.
What are some areas in your life (family, work, church, school, etc.) where you’ve tried to bring about change, only to be disappointed in your lack of progress?
How do you handle the discouragement?
The Book of Judges presents a cycle of sin and salvation that becomes a pattern for God’s people. In the previous sessions, we saw the incredible influence that Joshua had on the Israelites. As Moses’ successor, Joshua led Israel to great victories. The wall of Jericho came down. Joshua and the other elders were a positive spiritual influence on the people, counseling them to walk in the ways of the Lord.
But when Joshua died and his generation passed off the scene, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (). This is where our story picks up, with the Book of Judges, a section of Scripture that introduces us to the leaders that God gave Israel to govern them and rescue them from their enemies.
In this session, we will look at —a summary statement for the whole book. We will see how the Israelites did what was right in their own eyes, leading to an ongoing cycle of sin, judgment, and deliverance. God raised up deliverers who brought temporary peace but ultimately demonstrated their own need for salvation. The Book of Judges shows us the idolatry that results from rejecting God’s authority. Today, as those who follow King Jesus, we are freed from this pattern of sin and empowered to do what is right in God’s eyes.
The spiritual state of Israel, after the death of Joshua, is sad to see. Abandoning God led to embracing idols. Let’s read
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.” (, ESV)
What led to such a quick descent from the faithfulness of God to the faithlessness of the next generation? The young people did not “know the Lord” or what God had done for them. They failed to remember God and His glorious rescue of their ancestors. Amnesia produces apostasy!
In the Old Testament, we see God regularly reminding His people of His faithfulness to save, usually beginning with this phrase: “I am the Lord your God, who…” Most of our struggles with sin originate from a sinful, spiritual amnesia that forgets who the Lord is and what He has done for us.
But how did this descent into idolatry take place? The previous generations saw God deliver His people from Egypt, sustain His people in the wilderness, go before His people in battle, and scatter His people’s enemies. Yet within a generation, the young people didn’t know God or His works.
Perhaps this serves as a warning to us—faithfulness to God does not pass from generation to generation through genes. We don’t inherit our parents’ salvation, and we can’t expect our children to inherit ours. For this reason, we must be diligent to pass on the knowledge of God to the next generation. We must tell our children and grandchildren about who God is and what He has done for us.
It’s also important to recognize that we are called not merely to pass on information to our children but the faith. The problem with this generation of Israelites was not that they did not “know” cognitively what the Lord had done. The problem was that they did not know God personally. “Know” here refers to intimate knowledge. Their relationship to God was not precious to them. It’s not enough to pass on information; we must pass on what we cherish.
Remember how Moses instructed the Israelites in Deuteronomy? When he summarized the law, he said:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” ().
Notice that the Israelites were called first to love God and then to teach their children. You pass on what you love most, not just what you know.
What are some ways we can fight against “spiritual amnesia” in our own life?
Forgetting the promises of the Lord leads to making decisions apart from the Lord. They did what was “evil in the sight of the Lord” (). God determines what is right and good and what is sin and evil—not us. This is the calling card of sin: we think we know better than God.
This supposed independence leads to abandoning God in order to serve idols, and this abandonment leads to conformity. The temptation to worship false gods came from the temptation to conform to the world around them. They forgot that they were called out of the world to be a people holy (or set apart, consecrated) to the Lord .
The problem wasn’t that the people of Israel stopped worshiping. It’s that they worshiped idols instead of God. Sin is not the ceasing of worship but the sinful redirection of worship away from God and toward idols. Sin, at its root, is a worship problem.
What did Israel turn to in worship? “They…served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (2:13). Canaanite worship was centered on the worship of a fertility god named Baal and his consort Ashtaroth. The Canaanites believed that when these false gods had sexual relations, the Canaanites would be fruitful in their agriculture and in their families.
It is stunning to watch the people of God fall into this kind of idolatry. How did it happen? It started with the failure of the people to fully distinguish themselves from the pagan worship of the land. God had commanded them to occupy the land and drive out the Canaanites. But because they failed to fully obey God’s command, the people became ensnared by the pagan idols
We may shake our heads at the disobedience of the Israelites and chide them for their idolatry, but what if we are more like them than we would care to admit? What if our lives resemble the unconquered promised land of Canaan? What if there are places in our lives where we fail to root out rebellion and chase away our sin?
What are some ways we are tempted to do what is right in our own eyes?
What are the dangers of deciding for ourselves what is right for me or right for you?
We’ve seen how God’s people turned away from God and decided to worship the idols of the pagan nations around them. So what would God do in response? Well, we know that God keeps His promises, and one of the promises He made was to discipline them if they persisted in disobedience . Let’s read ...
So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.” (, ESV)
God’s anger over idolatry should not surprise us. It is the natural outworking of His exclusive love for His people. As we’ve studied the storyline of Scripture, we’ve seen how God describes Himself as “jealous” ()—not in the possessive and selfish way that humans often experience jealousy but jealous for us and for our good. God is angered by our sin because of the harm our sin does to us and because of the offense our sin is to Him.
Imagine a husband who says, “I love my wife so much I’m happy for her to go out with other men.” “Ludicrous!” we’d say. If he truly loved her, he would flare with jealousy. Love and exclusivity go together. Anger at betrayal is being faithful, not unjust. In a similar way, God’s anger at Israel is rooted in His deep and lasting commitment to His people’s good.
God’s anger toward sin is expressed in two ways: the first is passive, and the second is active.
This is when God allows us to experience the consequences of our sin in order to show us how foolish we were to walk away from Him. In this passage, we see how God “gave them over” to the marauders (). This language is reminiscent of Paul’s words in , which describes God’s giving idolaters over to their sinful desires.
Examples of this kind of punishment abound in Scripture. We’ll see it later in the Old Testament when Israel rejects God as King and demands a king like the other nations. God lets them have a king—and all the problems that come from frail and fallen human authorities. We’ll also see it in the story of the prodigal son, when the father allows his son to go his way, face the consequences, and then return.
Sometimes the consequences of sin are passive—they are inherent in the sins themselves. But other times God’s punishment is more active. This is when God disciplines us and calls us back to Himself. A good example of this kind of discipline is in the story of Jonah. Jonah was rebelling against God and running away from Him, and God appointed a storm, a big fish, the sun and a scorching wind, a plant, and then a worm to drive him back to God.
In this passage, we see elements of both the passive and active sides of God’s anger toward sin. We see the passive: “he gave them over” (v. 14). We also see the active: “[He]…was against them for harm” (v. 15).
As we’ve come to expect from previous stories about an incredibly gracious God, judgment isn’t God’s last word to His people. As the author of Judges continued to summarize this tumultuous time in the history of Israel, he showed that after God’s discipline came God’s salvation. Let’s read ...
Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.” (, ESV)
When you put verse 14 and verse 16 together side by side, you may find yourself scratching your head. God handed His people over to the enemy, and then He saved them from the enemy? How does that work?
The answer, of course, is that God is both just and gracious at the same time. He “will by no means clear the guilty,” He told Moses, and He is also “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (). God saved His people from their enemies because He was moved by their misery and groaning. These groans weren’t necessarily cries of repentance. The word translated “groaning” is used two other times in the Old Testament of the Israelites, and in both cases, the word refers to Israel groaning under Egyptian slavery (; ). Groaning, in this case, is what God hears and prompts Him to deliver His people, in light of His covenant promises to Abraham.
God delivered His people from their enemies, not because His people fully turned their hearts away from idols and back to Him and not because they were truly repentant. He delivered them because of His great love. He was compassionate toward them in their misery, and so He showed them undeserved kindness through the judges He raised up to save them.
The cycle of the judges continued after each moment of deliverance. As you see at the end of this passage, whenever the judges died, Israel returned to their sin and their downward spiral of corruption.
It’s often said that the way you can discover a person’s true nature is to take away external constraints: no rules, no filter, no teacher, or no chance of being caught. In the case of the Israelites, once the judges disappeared from the scene, the people slipped headlong into sin again. Even God’s kindness in delivering them didn’t always lead them to faithfulness. “The people served Yahweh,” according to , but by , the people “served their gods.”
What Israel needed wasn’t a temporary deliverer but a Savior who would change their hearts. The good news for us is that in the person of Jesus Christ, God is both our great Judge and our great Savior. In Christ, we are set free from these continuing patterns of sin and destruction and set loose for God’s mission in the world.
The Book of Judges recounts a dark time in Israel’s history. The cycle gets worse and worse because the rise of the judges was like putting an adhesive bandage on a serious wound. The external circumstances may be better for a while, but the root problem continues on.
As believers, we know that Christ has redeemed us from this endless cycle of sin and despair. So when we struggle with remaining sin, we are to confess quickly () in light of God’s patience (). His kindness toward us is what shows us His loving heart—even in the times He disciplines us and calls us back to Himself. God is our faithful Judge, and thankfully, He is also our everlasting Savior.
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