And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim:…
This passage sums up the Book of Judges, and also the history of Israel for over four hundred years. Like the overture of an oratorio, it sounds the main themes of the story which follows. That story has four chapters, repeated with dreary monotony over and over again. They are: Relapse into idolatry, retribution, respite and deliverance, and brief return to God. The last of these phases soon passes into fresh relapse, and then the old round is gone all over again, as regularly as the white and red lights and the darkness come round in a revolving lighthouse lantern, or the figures in a circulating decimal fraction.
1. The first is the continual tendency to relapse into idolatry. The fact itself, and the frank prominence given to it in the Old Testament, are both remarkable. As to the latter, certainly, if the Old Testament histories have the same origin as the chronicles of other nations, they present most anomalous features. Where do we find any other people whose annals contain nothing that can minister to national vanity, and have for one of their chief themes the sins of the nation? As to the fact of the continual relapses into idolatry, nothing could be more natural than that the recently received and but imperfectly assimilated revelation of the one God, with its stringent requirements of purity and its severe prohibition of idols, should easily slip off these rude and merely outward worshippers. Instead of thinking of the Israelites as monsters of ingratitude and backsliding, we come near the truth, and make a better use of the history, when we see in it a mirror which shows us our own image. The strong earthward pull is ever acting on us, and, unless God hold us up, we too shall slide downwards. Idolatry and worldliness are persistent; for they are natural. Firm adherence to God is less common, because it goes against the strong forces, within and without, which bind us to earth. Apparently the relapses into idolatry did not imply the entire abandonment of the worship of Jehovah, but the worship of Baalim and Ashtaroth along with it. Such illegitimate mixing up of deities was accordant with the very essence of polytheism, and repugnant to that of the true worship of God. These continual relapses have an important bearing on the question of the origin of the "Jewish conception of God." They are intelligible only if we take the old-fashioned explanation, that its origin was a Divine revelation, given to a rude people. They are unintelligible if we take the new-fashioned explanation that the monotheism of Israel was the product of natural evolution, or was anything but a treasure put by God into their hands, which they did not appreciate, and would willingly have thrown away.
2. Note the swift-following retribution: "The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel." That phrase is no sign of a lower conception of God than the gospel brings. Wrath is an integral part of love, when the lover is perfect righteousness and the loved are sinful. The most terrible anger is the anger of perfect gentleness, as expressed in that solemn paradox of the apostle of love, when he speaks of "the wrath of the Lamb." God was angry with Israel because He loved them, and desired their love, for their own good. The rate of Israel's conquest was determined by Israel's faithful adherence to God. That is a standing law. Victory for us in all the good fight of life depends on our cleaving to Him, and forsaking all other. The Divine motive, if we may so say, in leaving the unsubdued nations in the land, was to provide the means of proving Israel. Would it not have been better, since Israel was so weak, to secure for it an untempted period? Surely it is a strange way of helping a man who has stumbled, to make provisions that future occasions of stumbling shall lie on his path. But so the perfect wisdom which is perfect love ever ordains. There shall be no unnatural greenhouse shelter provided for weak plants. The liability to fall imposes the necessity of trial, but the trial does not impose the necessity of falling. The devil tempts, because he hopes that we shall fall. God tries, in order that we may stand, and that our feet may be strengthened by the trial.
3. Respite and deliverance are described in verses 16 and 18. The R.V. has wisely substituted a simple "and" for "nevertheless" at the beginning of verse 16. The latter word implies that the raising up of the judges was a reversal of what had gone before; "and " implies that it was a continuation. And its use here carries the lesson that God's judgment and deliverance come from the same source, and are harmonious parts of one educational process. Nor is this thought negatived by the statement in verse 18 that "it repented the Lord." That strong metaphorical ascription to Him of human emotion simply implies that His action, which of necessity is the expression of His will, was changed. The will of the moment before had been to punish; the will of the next moment was to deliver, because their "groaning" showed that the punishment had done its work. But the two wills were one in ultimate purpose, and the two sets of acts were equally and harmoniously parts of one design. The surgeon is carrying out one plan when he cuts deep into quivering flesh, and when he sews up the wounds which he himself has made. God's deliverances are linked to His chastisements by "and," not by "nevertheless."
4. A word only can be given to the last stage in the dreary round. It comes back to the first. The religion of the delivered people lasted as long as the judge's life. When he died, it died. There is intense bitterness in the remark to that effect in verse 19. Did God then die with the judge? Was it Samson, or Jehovah, that had delivered?
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim: