Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

5. Deborah’s Song (ch. 5)

There is another approach to the Song of Deborah that is not to be lightly discarded. Since “all scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness”, one is bound to ask where such profit is to be sought in this ancient record.

True, there is the evidence of the Providence of God over His Chosen People, and there is the example of faith, in Barak and those who so manfully supported him. But what of the chapter as a whole?

New Testament resemblances

A hint meets the reverent student in the words: “Arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive.” Is it just accident that identical words are quoted in Ephesians 4:18 and Psalm 68:18 with direct reference to the Lord Jesus Christ? His captivity was his New Israel in bondage to sin until he came and led it forth to liberty, and a glorious inheritance, even as Moses did Israel.

Again, is it just accident that Deborah’s song concludes with words which anticipate very remarkably the expression Jesus himself used to describe the final emancipation of the righteous from sin?: “Let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might” (5:31). With these words compare: “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43).

Since the beginning and end of this Son have close associations with the New Covenant, it is hardly likely that the rest of it is devoid of similar significance.

Spiritual application

So, it would seem that the wild spiritual poetry of this Son may be read also as a searching prophecy of the varying degrees of response to Christ’s appeal and of the different types of individuals who today, according as their various characters, help or hinder the divine work in their midst.

Consider first the important lessons underlined in the first two verses: “Then sang Deborah and Barak....on that day..” When success in the Lord’s work accrues, there must be no time lost in thanking Him. And it is He, and not His instruments, who are to be thanked: “Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel.”

The helpers

Next, consider those through whom victory was won.

Ephraim had serious problems to cope with at home: “Out of Ephraim came down they whose root is in Amalek.” It needed faith to consign to the care of God the otherwise crippling anxiety for the well-being of those left behind near aggressive Amalekite neighbours. How easily might these Ephraimites have fobbed off the pressing appeal with the unanswerable argument: “Wait until we have coped satisfactorily with our own problems, and then our help will be given without stint.”

How often does such a limited, parochial, faithless attitude betray the spiritual immaturity both of ecclesias and of individuals in these days in the work of preaching. “We have more than we can cope with in our own area” is the querulous cry; “why then should we go far afield to help others?”

Those who today maintain that a man’s duty is in his own ecclesia and his own locality only, might take note of the example of Ephraim who had the best reason of all for staying at home; his root was in Amalek. There is no room for parochialism in the Truth; the world is Christ’s parish.

The bulk of support for the leaders came from the tribes of Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar; these felt, more than any others, the oppression of the godless. Consequently in these tribes support was nearly a hundred per cent.

The parallel today is the solitary brother or sister and the ecclesia remote from its fellows. These lack the easy comforts of a fulness of fraternal intercourse and the sense of solidity which mere numbers can give. These too have to face the wearing problems of worldliness in a more acute form, and for them the distinction between black and white, between light and darkness, is much more acute.

For these very reasons it is in such that unquenchable zeal and earnestness in preaching is most readily found. These may take courage from the words: “Up, for this is the not the Lord gone out before thee?”

The alternative (if indeed it is an alternative) is acquiescence in Canaanite domination, mockery and oppression. That way lies easy seduction from faith in the covenants of promise. That way lies absorption into the unspiritual masses against whom divine wrath is foretold.

Manasseh supplied leaders in the struggle: “Out of Machir came down governors (lawgivers).” By this is emphasised the need for men of godliness and sound principle who can equip with divine wisdom based on faithful instruction the rank and file going forth in the hosts of the Lord. Paul wrote to Timothy: “The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ” (2 Tim. 2:2,3).

Note should be taken of the special characteristic of Issachar: “As was Issachar, so was Barak; into the valley they rushed forth at his feet” (RV). This was the secret of their successful action — they kept close to their divinely-appointed leader, and never swerved from loyalty to him.

This also is the secret of successful evangelization in this day of increasing indifference to and contempt for the Word of God. He who goes forth with the message of salvation must be one who is habitually at the feet of Jesus Christ his Lord.

Then there was Benjamin, “little Benjamin”, least expected of all! For Benjamin was a much depleted tribe at this time (the episode of Judges 20 almost certainly belongs to the generation immediately after Joshua). And further, Benjamin was comparatively remote from the centre of conflict and might well feel that it was none of his business.

As in the wars of the Lord then, so also in the work of preaching today, every little helps; and oftentimes it is the little that help the most. What would be the psychological effect on the mustering army near Megiddo when over the brow of the hill came marching the dauntless little squad from Benjamin? Would there be a loud groan go up to heaven at the smallness of this detachment? Or, rather, since help from Benjamin was hardly expected at all, would there not be an almighty cheer of friendly welcome and a perceptible lifting of the spirits of them all, as good-natured jokes were passed and warm greetings exchanged?

Today in the uphill work of preaching the same principle still operates. Every little does help, and that, too, out of all proportion to its magnitude. But alas! It is the man with the one talent who usually prefers to hide it away wrapped in a sweat-rag, thus putting both out of use.

In the campaign against the Canaanites, the battle of Jezreel was only the first blow: “The hand of the children of Israel prevailed more and more against Jabin, king of Canaan” (4:24RV).

A great deal of encouragement to continue the struggle to the bitter end would unquestionably come from Jael’s destruction of Sisera. The mightiest blow of all had ben struck by one who, though not of Israel, was as true a child of Abraham as any of them. What a surge of emotion and thankfulness — and also of astonishment — would pass through the army of Barak as the news spread. “Blessed shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be!”

Let those who have but lately been brought to Christ from among “the stranger” (as we say) take notice of the exceptional opportunity that is theirs in strengthening the hands of their new brethren and sisters. If they will but give themselves to the work of the Lord with the fierce resolve which animated Jael in her struggle against evil, their enthusiasm will have a mighty tonic effect on all who wage the same warfare against the-world-and-the-flesh, which is the devil. IN all the experiences of Christian discipleship there is nothing finer than the warming reassurance to be derived from the knowledge of a new convert throwing himself heart and soul into the work of the Truth. “Gold, silver, precious stones!”

The faint-hearted

But whilst there was much zeal and high resolve amidst the tribes of Israel, discouragements also abounded.

First, and greatest: “By the divisions of Reuben there were great resolves of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds?....By the divisions of Reuben were great searchings of heart.” Reuben was the firstborn. From him a lead could surely be expected. But no! “Unstable as water, he did not excel.” From the first Reuben had shown himself too much in love with flocks and herds. Too little he had appreciated his responsibility as an integral part of the people of God. And now there is hesitation as, too carefully, he weights the pros and cons.

“By the divisions of Reuben” — the word possibly signifies “water courses” (as in the RV), but it may equally well mean “dissensions”. Here is the picture of a tribe out of harmony with itself, an ecclesia of divided counsels. And in either case, the net result is the same — nothing, save the discouragement of others who struggle against the “iron chariots” of the enemy.

Weighty, doubtless, were the arguments advanced at Reuben’s council of war (business meeting) against doing anything.

“It’s no good; somebody else tried the same thing five years ago and failed hopelessly.”

“Besides, we have to think of the danger to our own folk from the Moabites whilst we are away.”

“After all, haven’t we responsibilities nearer home than this? What about helping Gad against the Ammonites?”

“Judah’s stronger than we are, and they are doing nothing.” So it went on and one; and Reuben’s irresolution is written for ever in the Word of Truth.

The arguments were doubtless all of them sound, but every one of them would have been invalidated by faith as a grain of mustard seed. And for lack of this, the lesson of Reuben’s vacillation has today still to be learned in many another tribe of Israel.

“Gilead abode beyond Jordan.” The reference might be either to Gad or to eastern Manasseh. In either case there was little of excuse. The Gadites had a great reputation in war; they were “men of might, and men of war fit for the battle, that could handle shield and buckler, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were as swift as the roes upon the mountains” (1 Chron. 12:8). They should have been in the very forefront of the battle. And eastern Manasseh must have lost all feeling of true fellowship with their own kith and kin if they could thus allow them to face peril unaided.

The inspired comment is damning in its brevity: “Gilead abode beyond Jordan” — as if implying: “To be sure! What else could be expected from people as self-centred as they?”

“And Dan, why did he remain in ships?” The migration northwards to isolation and idolatry had not yet taken place. The rhetorical question is powerful here. Why did he not help? Because of six cubits and a span of Philistine muscle and armour? The reproach suggests a different reason: Dan remained in ships. He had the port of Joppa, and with it the key to commercial prosperity. Dan remained in ships because they filled his money-bags. So Dan forged fetters for himself and robbed his brethren of aid that was their due in a struggle for freedom. Little wonder that ere long Dan should lead his brethren in the worst idolatry of all. He was already worshipping one false god.

How much greater is the tragedy today when a faithful ecclesia still striving to maintain the cause of God has to do so in face of the discouragements of many who have succumbed to the worship of materialism, the god of this world and especially of this age.

The reproach against Asher seems to have been easy readiness to be daunted by difficulties: “Asher sat still at the haven of the sea, and abode by his creeks.” The main territory of Jabin’s dominion cut Asher off from his brethren, and Asher was content to have it so — a good enough excuse for doing nothing. Yet what might not Asher have achieved in the common cause, with such brilliant opportunities for hit-and-run raiding, interference with trade caravans and other indirect methods of warfare? But instead Asher “sat still”. Perhaps too Asher was living on his past. He had achieved the partial conquest of this remote territory in earlier days, and felt that therefore nothing more in the way of effort should be required of him.

Whichever way his problem be viewed, Asher stands out as an example to be avoided in the work of the Lord. And the lesson has still to be learned. “There is a lion in the way” becomes, many a time over, the counsel of false prudence and camouflaged laziness. And in the ecclesias of Christ today the number of retired veterans who talk of former days with happy self-satisfaction instead of wistful regret or forward-looking resolution is depressingly large.

Nor is Heber the Kenite dead — the man who has known the surpassing favour of God in being brought into covenant and fellowship with the people of God, but who treats such privilege oh so lightly. Instead — as though in self-justification for his own inertia — he proceeds to work actively and nefariously for the enemy, a secret traitor in the cause. One Heber the Kenite can do much to weaken the hands of the men of war. But those who tend to be unjustly discouraged by knowledge of such handicaps must remember that the work in the Lord’s, and “the Lord is gone out before thee”, so ultimate failure is impossible for the man of faith.

Last of all comes the repeated unmitigated curse of God on Meroz: “Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord.” These were people on the spot where the activity for the Lord was at its height. To them came the ripest of all opportunities and they coolly let it pass by.

Perhaps they said: “The battle may yet turn in favour of the Canaanites, and then we can expect savage retaliation if we take action against Sisera. On the other hand if we let well alone, it may be remembered for our good.” Or perhaps they said: “Sisera is well armed and a desperate man. It would be folly to attempt anything against him.” Or, maybe, “If it is the Lord’s will that Sisera should be slain, he will be slain; so there is no need for us to raise a hand against him.”

Today the same thing is not unknown — the mentality that will not preach the Truth for fear of giving offence to some worldling, the mentality that will happily talk sport or politics from the corner seat when the turn of conversation shouts for salvation as the topic, the mentality that will make the foreknowledge of the Almighty a devastating excuse for inertia. “If it is the will of God that this or that man be called, he will be.”

Such, because “they came not to the help of the Lord” (!), are cursed — cursed right out of existence, for they are dead even whilst they live and will assuredly never see the day when “the sun goeth forth in his might”.

Current discouragements notwithstanding, there is much to hearten the Lord’s faithful remnant in their war of attrition against the powers of darkness, “for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” Whatever the words meant when Paul wrote them, they mean a lot more now.

“Up; for this is the day....has not the Lord gone out before thee?”


Chapter 5

Sang. The verb is singular. Therefore Deborah alone was the singer; v. 3,7. Did Barak compose it?
The people willingly offered themselves. Quoted in Psa. 110:3.
The earth trembled. Joshua 3:16 suggests this.
An organised uprising.
RVm: In the places of drawing water, there let them rehearse the righteous acts of the Lord. Stiffening courage by recalling what God has done is times past.
Awake, awake. Secret planning is followed by open rebellion.

Lead thy captivity captive. An interesting question arises here as to whether David in Psalm 68 is quoting from this Song of Deborah or whether in fact an older psalm of Moses (which was later incorporated by David in Psalm 68) is not being used here. Compare also v. 4,5 with Psalm 68:7,8.
RVm: The people of the Lord came down for me against the mighty.
Ephraim....Amalek; v. 12,15. After thee (Ephraim) came Benjamin.

Machir is Manasseh.

Zebulun always has honourable mention. Cp. 1 Chron. 12:33; John 1:47.

They that handle the pen of the writer. Fuller (17th century) puts it this way: “Gown-men turned sword-men, clerks became captains, changing their pen-knives into swords.” Compare what happened to the apostles, most of them from Zebulun’s area.
Great searchings of heart. Was one of the results of this hesitance that in later times Reuben was overrun by Moab, and no help came from the other tribes?
17. ships. Does this imply a date before Jud. 18?
The high places of the field. Mt. Tabor; 4:6. But most of the fighting took place in the valley of Jezreel.
Kings of Canaan. Jabin’s allies. So also in Josh. 11:2,5.
The stars in their courses. Each of the twelve tribes had as its sign one of the constellations of the Zodiac. The four cherubim faces come evenly spaced round the twelve:

Serpent (next to Aquila, Eagle)
Dan (Gen. 49:17)
Reuben (v. 16 RV: watercourses).

Thus, this verse is a poetic way of saying: the power of Israel against the oppressor.
At his feet. AV margin gives the right idea, as also Deut. 28:57. Taverner’s Bible (1540): Between her feet he sprawled and laye dede, like a wretche.”
Needlework. Women are always interested in clothes.

On both sides. So in those days they had the secret of embroidery to give a true pattern on both sides! Without this secret the 20th Century has at last found how to do this with a very complicated machine.
So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord. Here is divine approval of Jael.

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