As we continue in our journey through the book of Judges, things are getting ugly. God keeps raising up leaders to help the people when they are in trouble, but the stock of people from which He can draw is getting pretty poor. As a result, rather than leading the people, these men are merely reflecting them. There’s a lesson here for us: Our leaders are ultimately going to look like us. What kind of leaders are we meaningfully going to be able to produce? Let’s talk about it.
The Leaders We Deserve
Have you ever seen a movie in which a great leader calls a people to rise above themselves and do great things? That’s a pretty broad category of mostly good movies if you think about it. There is one, though, that stands atop the rest: Braveheart. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what scene I’m talking about. The Scottish clans are all lined up on the hill waiting to run into battle against their English oppressors. They are hopelessly outnumbered by the British regulars. And then William Wallace rides up and down their ranks and speaks courage and confidence into their very souls. The most famous passage of the speech ended like this: “And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
Now, I’m no William Wallace, and I’m certainly no Mel Gibson, but doesn’t that just make you want to get up and ride into battle with him? I mean, I may not have stirred that up in you, but if you’ve seen the movie, he probably did. The Scottish were a clannish people who were more concerned about their individual tribal affairs than the fact that the English were holding them under a boot heel of unjust oppression. It took a great leader like William Wallace to unite the clans and call the people forward to embrace a higher ideal than their little tribal tiffs. This idea was, of course, freedom, and Wallace would have seen his quest to free Scotland from the tyranny of British rule succeed in his lifetime had he not been betrayed by some of his own countrymen who put their interests ahead of those of their people. Still, he remained committed to this ideal all the way to his martyr’s death at the hands of the English. Yet while the Scottish people may not have risen to such a high calling on their own without a great leader to call them to it in the first place, the heavy emphasis on freedom that Gibson places in the story would not have made any sense without a moral, spiritual, and intellectual context that supported it.
Many years later, in our own rebellion from British rule, the thing that drove a ragtag bunch of colonists to stand against the greatest fighting force the world had ever seen in much the same way that Wallace led the Scots in doing was a vision of freedom from tyranny and self-government that inspired men and women to rise above themselves and their own interests in pursuit of something much greater. But, this greater thing did not come out of nowhere. Yes, it took a special group of leaders to call the people forward to embrace it, but without the proper moral and spiritual and intellectual climate, the call would not have even made sense in the first place. In other words, moral, spiritual, and political revolutions only work in a cultural context in which such reforms are possible and make sense in the first place. But what happens when that context isn’t in place?
This morning we are in the first part of our series, Going It Alone. The whole idea for this series is that the book of Judges offers us a picture that is incredibly revealing about what it looks like when we try and do life apart from God. The verdict so far isn’t pretty. In our initial introduction to and overview of the book, we saw that disobedience always has consequences. Whenever we decide to live apart from the ways of God, there will be a price to pay for this. It may not be immediate—and in fact usually isn’t—but it will come. It will come because, as we saw in part two, when we establish bad habits of unrighteousness, we can’t do anything else. We get stuck in those ruts and no matter how much we may want to break out of them, unless we do the hard work of changing our patterns, of establishing patterns of righteousness, change will remain impossible.
Then, three weeks ago, as we waded more into the thick of the stories of the judges themselves, we learned from the call of Barak by the prophetess Deborah, that if we refuse to answer God’s call to get involved in setting new habits in place, He’ll call someone else. God calls us and gives us opportunities to change our habits, but we don’t have to answer. And if we don’t, He’ll still get His plans accomplished by other means, but we will miss out on the real fruits of what He had planned to give us. Finally, last week we saw in the story of Gideon that when we refuse to answer God’s call or otherwise resist His efforts instead of going along with them, we can unintentionally establish a pattern of faithlessness in our lives. And a legacy of faithlessness can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness.
This morning, I want to step back with you just a bit and look at things from somewhat of a wider angle. We’ve been through a couple of stories over the past three weeks in which the people have been led by pretty terrible leaders. Along the way I hinted at an idea, but I didn’t tease it out very far. This morning I want to do that with you. I want to explore this idea in more detail and reflect together on what exactly it means for us. Let me set up the idea like this: Barak and Gideon were not good leaders. They both resisted God’s call on their lives in spite of His assurances of victory. They were cowardly in the face of challenges. They didn’t lead the people very well once they had made it through the primary task to which they’d been called by God. At the end of their lives the people, spiritually and morally speaking, were in a worse state than they had been before their involvement. But, what if the quality of these leaders wasn’t so much a reflection on them as it was on the people themselves? In the next couple of stories of judges that we are going to take a look at together this morning, we are going to see more of the same thing, but I want to draw your attention to the fact that these leaders, rather than leading the people, merely represent them. There’s a difference there. It’s a difference that’s important in how we understand our culture and the leadership situation we have facing us today. More on that in just a bit. For now, let me tell you these two stories and then we’ll talk about them.
This set of stories picks up in Judges 10. We are first treated to a couple of quick takes on two judges about whom we know basically nothing—Tola and Jair. And then, kind of like we did before the story of Gideon, we get this summary statement on how far Israel had fallen. Basically, if it moved and people worshiped it, Israel joined in the parade. From Judges 10:6: “Then the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They worshiped the Baals and the Ashtoreths, the gods of Aram, Sidon, and Moab, and the gods of the Ammonites and the Philistines. They abandoned the Lord and did not worship him.” They wanted to go it alone and so God once again let them.
But this time, when they finally came crawling back to Him, He did not relent as before. Verse 10: “…so [the people of Israel] cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against you. We have abandoned our God and worshiped the Baals.’ The Lord said to the Israelites, ‘When the Egyptians, Amorites, Ammonites, Philistines, Sidonians, Amalekites, and Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, did I not deliver you from them? But you have abandoned me and worshiped other gods. Therefore, I will not deliver you again. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them deliver you whenever you are oppressed.’” In other words: Tough luck. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three, four, five, and six times, and now we’ve just got a problem on our hands.
The people go ahead and do some spiritual housecleaning anyway because who knows what the Lord might do when we start moving in His direction. They put away their idols and recommit themselves to the Lord, and from the text we can see that this did at least get his attention. The author writes that He “became weary of Israel’s misery.” But, if you think about it, that’s not the same thing as saying He decided to save them. It could be that He was just tired of listening to them complain. Well, the Ammonites come and attack Israel again. But this time the story to which we’ve become accustomed changes. The next verse doesn’t say anything about God somehow calling or raising up a leader for them. Instead, look at what it does say now in 10:18: “The rulers of Gilead said to one another, ‘Which man will begin the fight against the Ammonites? He will be the leader of all the inhabitants of Gilead.’” In other words: We’ll find our own leader. And so they do.
Enter Jephthah. Jephthah was a scoundrel with a troubled past. He was the son of a prostitute who was kicked out of his clan by the leaders and became the leader of a gang in the wilderness. He was a Robinhood-type, but without the nobleness. But the leaders of Gilead needed a strong military leader and there were none who compared with Jephthah so they went to strike a deal. Both sides stood to benefit from the partnership. He would not only be received back into his clan, but named their leader if he came on board, and the leaders would gain the goodwill of successfully freeing their people from the oppression of the Ammonites. Everybody wins. Except they didn’t. Notice anything…or rather anyone…missing from all of this? God.
Sure, they mention “the Lord’s” name a time or two in their conversation, but this is more cultural perfunctoriness than anything resembling real devotion to Him. And yes, as you read Jephthah’s bold attempt at diplomacy with the Ammonite leaders, he offers what seems to be a pretty good summary of Israel’s recent history, including what God had done on their behalf. But his loose grip on some of the facts (including getting the name of the Ammonites god wrong!) suggests that this was more of a result of hasty study than of drawing from his own deep well of faithfulness.
And then Jephthah makes his infamous vow. Borrowing a practice that would have been common among the enemies he was to lead Israel in defeating, before he headed out for battle, “Jephthah made this vow to the Lord: ‘If you in fact hand over the Ammonites to me [notice the doubt laden in this phrasing], whoever comes out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return safely from the Ammonites will belong to the Lord, and I will offer that person as a burnt offering.’” Remember: The Scriptures often present stories without condoning what’s in them. There may not be explicit condemnation, but that’s only because the author didn’t think it was necessary because everyone understood the behavior was wrong.
Well, guess who was waiting for him when he got home? In the tragic irony that only life can ever fully bring to bear on us, it was his little girl, his only daughter. Now, he didn’t have to make this vow. God was going to give him victory anyway. He was impatient over the misery of Israel. And besides, that’s not how God operates. In fact, in the Law, He explicitly denounced practices like this one. This was magical thinking at its worst. It was an attempt on the part of Jephthah to exercise some control over God. In his mind, because of this vow, God was now beholden to give him victory. What nonsense! God is never beholden to us in any way. Ever. What Jephthah did here was despicable. But, let us not think he was behaving like this in a vacuum. The fact that his daughter agreed with him and let him fulfill his vow at her expense and that nobody else in the surrounding community condemned or otherwise tried to stop him suggests that he was behaving in a manner that was consistent with how everybody else around him behaved…and thus believed. Morally and spiritually speaking, Jephthah was a terrible leader. But he was terrible in a way that merely reflected where the rest of the people already were. Don’t forget: God didn’t raise him up; the people chose Jephthah all by themselves.
But then, almost as if to make the point of how far they had fallen from Him, God gives them one more judge: Samson. Starting in Judges 13, there’s no doubt that Samson was raised up by God to be a leader of the people. The Angel of the Lord comes, not to Samson himself, but to his parents, mother first, to foretell his birth and to give them a very specific set of instructions about how he was to be raised as someone who was to be dedicated to the Lord from day one. Many people see echoes of the announcement of the birth of Christ here, but a little closer a look reveals this not to be the case at all. His parents are skeptical and suspicious and cynical. Samson’s dad, Manoah, tries, like Jephthah did, to gain some power over this mysterious figure, but his efforts are rebuffed. Like Gideon, they don’t figure out who the angel really is until it would have been too late but for God’s graciousness. At least they followed through on the angel’s instructions.
But then we actually meet Samson himself. He’s a wreck. He’s prideful and pigheaded and thinks less with his head than with other parts of his body. He’s driven by lust and when he sets his mind on something (usually something he should not even want, much less have) he demands it at the expense of everything else. Worse, his parents go along with him. This leads to his getting relationally tied up with a couple of different Philistine women. Both end in tragedy for him, but a tragedy he bears out on the Philistine people. God uses this to bring the Israelites some physical relief from the Philistines, but again, this should not in any way be seen as an endorsement of Samson and his behavior. Indeed, of all the judges we have seen in this journey, when it comes to character, Samson is the worst by far. This fact is rather painfully borne out when you read the story of what happens next to the people of Israel and which we’ll talk about next week. It’s perhaps the grisliest, most disturbing story in all of the Scriptures. More to the point, though, it’s where the people are by the time Samson finishes with them.
You see, all of these stories in Judges are about the leaders, but in another way, they are really about the people. The people were in such a state that they could not have produced leaders of any higher caliber than this. God doesn’t magically make us more moral than we are. He never has. Now, that’s not to say that groups of people don’t get off course and are successfully called back to the straight and narrow path by a really effective leader. Leaders can call us to ethical, moral, spiritual, and even cultural improvement. When William Wilberforce set out on his quest to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, the nation as a whole was not bothered by slavery. But they had as a part of their intellectual and spiritual foundations some beliefs to which Wilberforce could appeal that gradually turned the hearts and minds of the people against it. His total success came after his death, but the foundation for it had been laid using the moral building blocks that were already in place.
The same thing applies to Martin Luther King, Jr. When he began his national ministry our nation, when it came to the issue of Civil Rights and the equality of all people, was in a terrible place. There were some beliefs about black people that were culturally entrenched in the South (though no less held in the North) that were not right. King called us as a people to move beyond those not by making things up out of whole cloth, but by referring us back to what we claimed were our foundational beliefs. He pointed to the Declaration of Independence and the Scriptures and essentially argued that if we really believed those things, then we needed to behave like we believed them and make some legal, structural, and moral changes to our national culture. His ministry succeeded as widely as it did—although the scourge of racism is not fully purged from our midst as recent events in Georgia tragically demonstrated—because he built on a foundation that already existed.
The reason Jephthah failed, and the reason Samson failed was because there was no moral foundation for them to build on. The people had lost it. And they couldn’t have built one from scratch because, as products of their cultural environment, they didn’t have the wherewithal to do so. Instead of calling the people forward to somewhere greater, these leaders merely reflected where they currently were. And again: God doesn’t magically make us more moral than we are. Instead, He offers us the chance to walk on a long and often difficult path that leads us to Christlikeness. If as a whole people we aren’t willing to do that, then we can’t fairly expect our leaders to be willing to do any different. What we end up with in this kind of situation are leaders who, rather than serving God and the people, are really only interested in serving themselves. But again, this is only a reflection of the people they are leading. When we don’t follow God, our leaders don’t either. It was the case for Jephthah. It was the case for Samson. And it is still the case for us today.
Let me do something I don’t normally do in the context of a sermon: get just a bit political. I am, however, going to be pretty nonpartisan in how I do this. But as I’ve been sitting with these texts recently, I haven’t been able to help but draw some parallels to where we are today. Think for a minute about where we are as a culture, about the trajectory we are following. Let me state this as plainly as I can: We are not in good shape morally or relationally or intellectually speaking as a people.
Morally speaking, we are approaching a place where if the Scriptures proclaim something as good, right, and true, we reject it, while where the Scriptures proclaim something to be sinful, that we embrace with gusto. Relationally, while our divorce rate is falling, a big part of the reason for that is that more people are just not getting married in the first place. It was recently announced that marriage rates in our country are at an all time low. The result of this is something that pretty much every sociologist recognizes, but about which not nearly as many grandstand: We are populated by a bunch of relational wrecks who, with the aid of social media, don’t really know how to talk to each other anymore.
What’s more, the perceived anonymity of social media has often served to bring out the worst in us. Think of how many times an offensive or mocking meme has made the rounds with no thought by the folks sharing it of the feelings of the one being mocked in some way. We have a media that highlights to the point of obsession the inane and the silly in order to make their chosen villains look as bad as possible, while overlooking entirely either stories that put their preferred heroes in a similarly negative light or else are genuinely serious issues worth public knowledge. On the other hand, we have a President whose lack of self-control over the content produced by his thumbs has been a running joke and at times national embarrassment for nearly four years. We have a Congress that has a persistently terrible approval rating now matter who is running it because it is filled with people who have made scores of promises they haven’t kept because they never intended to keep them. Simply put: No one in America trusts them any longer.
Then, intellectually, our colleges and universities are rapidly becoming centers, not of great learning, but of hardline indoctrination into the worldview of the faculty and administration that only serves to hasten all these other declines. With recent changes to the structure of education generally foisted upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, not a few folks are beginning to wonder with more and more volume whether or not an education that costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars is really preferable to one whose cost can be measured on a much smaller scale.
Only a bit of observation reveals the extent to which we are coarsening as a culture. The rising popularity of MMA fighting has huge crowds live and even larger crowds on television cheering as two men—or two women—beat each other senseless. The only difference between such “games” and the barbaric gladiatorial contests of the Roman Empire is that both participants wind up alive at the conclusion. That and PETA would have a fit if we started pitting people versus animals. But that’s hardly the limit of it. Regular fare from primetime television today would have uniformly been rated X a generation ago. Scenes which would have had my grandparents blushing—or vomiting in disgust—hardly prompt a reaction from most folks any longer. The vulgarity is even regularly dressed in animated packages that make it easily accessible for young kids so that their worldviews can be shaped from as early on as possible.
And then there’s the spiritual decline. Twenty year ago, being a member of a local church was a badge of honor and respect—especially if it was large and highly visible…like a First Baptist Church. Yet while members may still feel as much, that’s not the case any longer. Ten years ago, Christian values were honored in most places even if they weren’t always practiced. Just a couple of years ago a pharmacy in Washington state—even though it is surrounded by dozens that offer the same service—was told it must under penalty of law dispense drugs known to cause chemical abortions to its patients even though the owners believe such drugs to be morally impermissible to both take and distribute. The owners’ objections were noted and ignored.
A generation ago, the thought of the government telling a church what it can and cannot teach was absolutely unthinkable. Just a few years ago, the city of Houston subpoenaed the sermons of five local pastors to determine if they were sufficiently partisan regarding a local legal issue as to be able to revoke their tax-exempt status. Today, governors across the country have singled out churches time and again to be shut down as unnecessary services while yet granting pandemic exemptions to recreational marijuana shops, liquor stores, and abortion clinics.
Think now with me for a minute: In light of all of this, what kind of political candidates could a culture such as this reasonably be expected to produce? I know COVID-19 is absorbing all our cultural oxygen right now, but we have a national election in six months. How are we looking there? When we don’t follow God, our leaders don’t either. The most honorable entries will quickly recognize that there is no place for them and so we are left with Donald Trump and Joe Biden. You may very well prefer one candidate over the other, and I know many of you do, but let us not bandy about with the idea that one has a character that’s preferable to the other. Trump has made his character—or lack thereof—glaringly apparent throughout his first term. He is rude, crude, narcissistic, ill-tempered, petty, and has no meaningful measure of self-control or impulse-control. He trades stock in vulgar and illogical insults and seems to put his personal image ahead of just about every other concern. You may celebrate some of the policies his administration has pursued or the worldview commitments of the justices his presidency has allowed to be confirmed, but his character is impossible to ignore.
Biden, on the other hand, is a known entity as well. He is a verbal loose cannon, prone to say whatever comes to mind without thinking through whether or not it is true. He has a long history of uncomfortable contact with women and a recent, prominent accusation of more severe misconduct in such matters. He’s shown a willingness to put power and party above any personal principles he might have and has aligned himself politically with the extreme left wing of the modern Democrat Party which unfortunately includes many who are radically pro-abortion and who have shown a determined willingness to take away the rights of religious believers when those rights are inconvenient to the advance of more modern notions of right and wrong.
Now, people on both sides of the political divide have vigorously made the argument that we need to support one candidate or the other in spite of their myriad of issues because of the Supreme Court and other federal justices they might appoint. These are the same kinds of arguments that were made four years ago. But it still only takes a little bit of thought to realize that placing our hopes for cultural salvation—or proper progressive advancement—in the potential hands of nine entirely unaccountable individuals who are not even remotely representative of our nation as a whole suggests rather insistently that we have drifted far from the vision our Founders set in place 244 years ago.
Here’s the truth: The problems of our nation, whatever you happen to think they are, are not going to be solved with the election of a President. As the late, great Chuck Colson used to say, “Salvation is not coming on Air Force One.” The electing of a President only reveals character (and in this case, as it did four years ago, it does not matter who gets elected, it is going to reveal a problem with our national culture), it does not shape it. Politics operates downstream of culture. That is, culture trends tend to affect what happens there, not the other way around. Let us not look to an economic system as our savior either. The record of socialism—even democratic socialism—is not good. It always eventually ends badly for the people. Always. This is because it rests on assumptions about human nature that are wrong. But, capitalism only works in the context of a culture that prizes virtue. Absent that, it becomes hard, deeply inequitable, and hopelessly mired in corruption—in other words, it justifies all the complaints of its critics. It creates a climate in which someone coming along with the promise that a gentler, kind, and much larger government is going to make things fair and meet all our needs seems much more appealing than they should. Especially in a season of crisis. No, friends, our only hope is in the kingdom of God. If we don’t follow Him as a people, our leaders won’t either. If we don’t follow God, our leaders won’t either.
Yet let us not forget the big picture here. It is frighteningly easy to get bogged down in the problems we are facing and give into despair. Despair has no place in the life of a follower of Jesus. As dark as the book of Judges is—and it’s about to get a whole lot darker next week—it is ultimately a story that fits squarely in the larger context of Scripture which is supremely about God’s dogged intention to reveal Himself to us and get us into a relationship with Himself. It reveals just how far He’s willing to go to see that happen and how great is His love for us. If we won’t receive it, though, He can’t give it nearly as effectively as He’d like. If we don’t follow God, our leaders won’t either. God loves us now, though, just as He did then—too much to leave us in such a state. And as we are going to see in a couple of weeks, God never fully left the people even when they were mired so deep in muck that all hope seemed lost. Today, He has given the world a beacon of hope as well. It’s called the church. Our job as the church is to work to create a cultural climate that can produce the kind of leaders we want to see leading us; the kind of leaders who are really worth following. In other words: Your faith acted out with boldness and grace in front of a watching world is the solution to the problem. Let’s get to it.