The Global Message of Judges
Who Will Lead Israel?
The book of Judges continues the redemptive history narrated in the book of Joshua. Judges begins with, “After the death of Joshua . . . ,” just as the book of Joshua began with, “After the death of Moses . . .” (Josh. 1:1). The reader therefore might expect that God will appoint a Moses-like leader for Israel upon Joshua’s death, just as he had appointed Joshua as a second Moses (see Josh. 1:1–5, 16–18; 3:7; 4:14). While the tribe of Judah is confirmed in its role of leading the twelve tribes in battle, nevertheless no “Moses figure” emerges for Israel after Joshua (Judg. 1:1–2; 2:8–10). Still, the mention of Judah is perhaps significant, for the ancient prophecy had foretold that from Judah a messianic world-king would arise. Perhaps God was now setting the tribe in its leadership role to keep this promise in view before all Israel (Gen. 49:9–10; see Num. 2:9; Judg. 1:1–2; 20:18).
This expectation of an ultimate king from Judah, and the presentation of evidence of Israel’s acute need for such a king, quietly shapes the rest of the book of Judges.
The Need for Righteous Leadership
In Judges, the second generation passes away and a leaderless third generation, “who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel,” takes over (Judg. 2:10). This generation quickly abandons the Lord and serves other gods (2:11–15). Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel had remained faithful to the Lord (see Josh. 24:31). Likewise in Judges, after a judge delivers Israel, the people return to the Lord and remain faithful all the days of that judge’s rule. It becomes clear that Israel must have divinely chosen and righteous leadership in place in order to flourish, for such leadership restrains her inclination to idolatry and keeps her faithful to her covenant Lord.
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25; compare 18:1; 19:1). This ominous statement frames the final section of the book—noteworthy for its lack of any divinely-appointed leader—and provides the reason for Israel’s meltdown in the final chapters. There was no king in Israel. God raises the judges up in response to Israel’s cries for help, after Israel has already fallen into distress. The judges therefore are thrown into a crisis already in progress. A king would offer leadership of a more permanent nature and could prevent such crisis situations.
The original purpose of the book of Judges was therefore to demonstrate that Israel needed a divinely chosen and righteous king. The king must implement the Lord’s rule over Israel and restrain her inclination toward idolatry lest she forfeit her life in the Promised Land. Israel’s wayward heart also jeopardizes the global mission of God, for if Israel does not faithfully trust God in the Promised Land, she will not be able to fulfill her calling to be a light to the nations of the world (Gen 12:1–3; note also Isa. 49:6).
Judges shows that death poses a serious dilemma for leadership continuity. For in the gap left by the death of a leader, Israel is left without a restraint against her inclination toward idolatry. Whether it was Joshua or one of the judges who died, Israel always strayed (Judg. 2:6–19; compare Deut. 31:27). Israel’s deepest need is for a divinely chosen and righteous king from Judah who would live forever to rule over the people of God. Sensing this, a later psalmist asked the Lord for just this kind of king (Psalm 72). In Christ, this need is finally met.
Universal Themes in Judges
The true global Judge and King. Global Christians learn from the book of Judges that the Lord—and none other—is Judge and King of all the world. God’s purpose in his mission of redemption is to fulfill his original intentions for creation. The Creator-King’s goal is the restoration of righteous human rule over the world, under God as ultimate King. The book of Judges supports this goal by reaffirming two realities. First, the people of God need a divinely chosen and righteous human king if they are to flourish. This human king would not rule apart from God but would implement the rule of God over the people of God. Second and more fundamentally, however, God is the true Judge and King (Judg. 8:22–23; 11:27). While God rules through human leaders, he will always remain his people’s ultimate King. He alone is worthy of their exclusive allegiance, devotion, and worship (Ps. 96:9). The foundation of his throne is justice and righteousness, and his kingdom is everlasting (Ps. 89:14; 145:13).
Longing for the righteous ruler of all creation. When we turn to the New Testament, the global mission takes a climactic step forward in Jesus of Nazareth. The Creator-King’s mission to restore human rule over the world finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ultimate human judge, for whom Samson and the other judges provided a prophetic pattern. Barak, for example, delivered Israel from Jabin, king of Canaan, but Christ delivers the people of God from Satan (Col. 1:13–14). Gideon secured rest in the land for forty years; Christ secures the ultimate rest of a new and everlasting creation (Heb. 4:8–16). The longing for an ultimate, divinely chosen, and righteous king from Judah is fulfilled in Christ (Rev. 5:5). He embodies perfect human ruling as the crucified, resurrected, and enthroned Lord of the world, and he brings many sons and daughters to glory in order that they might share in his rule (Heb. 1:1–13; 2:5–11).
Jesus is Lord. All Christians around the world, whatever their cultural or ethnic background, bow to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, and to his Son, Jesus Christ. And one day, every tongue and every people will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11).
The Global Message of Judges for Today
Urgent need for godly leadership. A primary lesson from Judges for Christians around the world concerns the need for consistent, godly leadership. The story of the church in the twentieth century was its unprecedented growth in the non-Western world. The church is no longer merely a faith of the West but has emerged as a global reality, with some 2.2 billion people affiliated and with adherents in virtually every nation. Although this global growth is cause for celebration, it has also created new issues. One urgent concern is that the explosive growth has outstripped the global church’s ability to provide trained leadership for its churches. In Ethiopia, for example, one single pastor may be called upon to provide oversight to five or six rural churches.
Not a leadership manual. However, in its urgent quest to develop healthy leaders, the global church must not turn to the book of Judges as if it were a leadership manual. It wasn’t written merely to offer practical advice. Instead, the book of Judges—together with all the other narrative books of the Old Testament—functions primarily to tell its part of redemptive history and to document the unstoppable progress of God’s global program of new creation. In and through and despite sinful people, God’s mission advances to heal the wounds caused by rebellious humanity and their destructive “leadership” decisions. The Bible does, however, provide much wisdom and guidance concerning what church leaders should be and what they should do. The reader is encouraged to turn to the letters of the apostle Paul—especially his letters to Timothy and Titus—for help in this regard.