The events in the book of Judges occur between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel and kingship of Saul. In the book, God’s children long for good leadership. “Since the conquest of the land is not complete, the book begins with the question of who will lead in battle (Judg. 1: 1) and ends with the statement, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (21: 25).’ The need for a king who will lead God’s people into their full inheritance is an important theme.”1
However, God’s children in Judges are not longing for good leaders from a heart of steadfast devotion to God. A cycle emerges – they abandon the one true God for pagan idols, are oppressed by other nations, and then cry out to God for help. God brings them help, only for them to return to their idolatry each time.
Judges 2 16 Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.
The Quick Guide to Identifying Gospel Themes in the Old Testament gives a category for seeing the gospel in Old Testamenet books, Stories that reinforce our inability to save ourselves and our need for salvation through Christ. This theme well fits the stories in Judges of a faithless people in relationship with a faithful God. These are not prescriptive stories. They do not present character traits that we are to emulate or moral lessons we are to obey. Instead the stories are descriptive – they describe what happened between faithless children and their faithful Father who took both sides of the covenant with Abraham and will not deny Himself.
Consider Judges 19’s troubling account of a Levite cutting up his concubine after she is raped and abused by strangers in the city. This is a horrible story, and at first it seems to have no redemptive value. But the redemptive value of the story is not found within the story itself. Instead, this story (and many others in Judges) feed a larger narrative. Judges 19 opens with the words we have heard before, “In those days, Israel had no king.” That’s the essence of the issue in Judges. They had no king, and the very last words of the book of Judges is that this lack of a king resulted in everyone doing what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25), including the brutality against the Levite’s concubine. Judges describes over and over again the weaknesses of both the system of judges and the law previously given to Moses. It points again and again to Israel’s need for a king. However, in later books of the Old Testament, we see that the earthly kings were no better, and with few exceptions, everyone, including those kings, continued to do what was right in their own eyes. They all needed a perfect King who would give the perfect standard of righteousness. They needed King Jesus. The story of Judges is that God’s people need redemption, and only One King can accomplish it.
The terror of the story of Judges 19 is rooted in a people deciding, apart from God’s standard of righteousness, what was right in their own eyes. John Newton wrote in his hymn, Amazing Grace, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” God’s grace to us through Judges is the sobering reminder that when we are left with no standard of righteousness, we have very warped views of what is right and wrong. It is His grace that shows us our need for God’s perfect standard of righteousness, Jesus Christ, to make the crooked straight. Apart from Him, humanity as a whole is not so different than the people of Judges.
The failures of both people and judges are so significant that they urge us to long for the hero who will never fail. Cut off from God’s kingship, the people of God are left with only private religion and personal ambition. God is the king, however, and will not long tolerate seeing his people destroy themselves. The people of God are never beyond the reach of his grace. Israel in Judges is in bad shape, but a new day is dawning when God will provide, from the line of David, King Jesus, the king of his choosing.2
1 ESV Bibles by Crossway (2013-09-30). ESV Gospel Transformation Bible (Kindle Locations 44938-44941). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
2 ESV Bibles by Crossway (2013-09-30). ESV Gospel Transformation Bible (Kindle Locations 44972-44976). Crossway. Kindle Edition.