In Judges 9, Abimelech plummeted Israel into the depths of depravity and civil war. From here on in the book of Judges, Israel will be plagued by more depravity and tribal disunity than ever before. In chapter one, the author of this book made a big deal about the unity of the twelve tribes. Throughout the book, this unity becomes ever more tenuous, until the climactic and horribly depressing finale in the last chapters. Chapter ten tells us the story of Israel after Abimelech; verses 1–5 telling us about two minor judges, verses 6–16 reminding us how far Israel has fallen, and verses 17–18 setting up the story for the next deliverer, Jephthah.
Tola and Jair are often called “minor judges,” along with Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon in chapter 12, and Shamgar back in chapter 3. They are called minor judges because the author spent so little time describing their exploits or their administrations. They are each given only one or two verses with the bare minimum of information. It is as if the author just wants you to know that they existed and then moves on to the more interesting or important stuff.
We might be filled with curiosity over these mysterious men (especially, for instance, Shamgar, who killed a gaggle of Philistines with only an oxgoad). But, the author deemed it necessary for us to know only a few things about them, and we must be content, for that is all that God in His infinite wisdom wanted us to know. He wanted us to know that He cares for His people sometimes with notoriously interesting people, like Samson, Gideon, and Deborah, and sometimes with unknowns like Tola and Jair. We do not need to know everything about them; what we can learn from them is that God cared and provided for His people, as He does today. However, do not let the name “minor judges” mislead you. These men were still important. This classification is similar to the term “minor prophets” as opposed to “major prophets.” It only refers to the length of time the Bible spends on them, not the importance of their ministry.
What can we say about these men? Not too much. All we know about Tola from verses 1–2 is his family lineage (he was the son of Puah, the son of Dodo), his tribe (Issachar), where he lived (Shamir, which is in the hill country of Ephraim), how long he judged (twenty-three years), and where he died and was buried (in Shamir). But in this passage, we have an implied hint of the LORD’s goodness. Tola’s work came “after Abimelech,” the destroyer of Israel. Perhaps Tola’s administration, either by good policies or military victory, provided a stable time for Israel to recuperate from Abimelech’s pervasive destruction. The LORD did not allow His people to be forever stuck in the cycle of chaos and disintegration started by Abimelech.
The description of Tola, especially since it comes right after the horrors of the reign of Abimelech, leads us to hope for a return to the “good old days” of Joshua, Othniel, and Deborah, where the judges were more trustworthy, courageous, and pious. The Hebrew word translated “save” in verse 1 is the same word specifically used earlier in the book to describe the work of Othniel, Shamgar, and Deborah.
However, the next judge, Jair, seems to return to the pattern of self-centered judges that we have (sadly) gotten used to. Where Tola showed us the goodness of God, Jair showed us the pride of man. The text tells us that Jair had thirty sons. Now that in and of itself is not a problem. Psalm 127 tells us that many sons are a gift from God. However, Jair’s many sons (and who knows how many daughters he had in addition to them) implies that he had more than one wife. The last time someone (Gideon) in Judges had more than one wife, the Abimelech fiasco took place. And, recall that polygamy was frowned on in the Mosaic law, especially for kings and those in authority (Deuteronomy 17:17).
Jair had very political aspirations. He had much wealth. Verse 4 tells us that each of his sons had a donkey. If Jair lived in modern times, it would read “Jair had thirty sons, and each son drove a BMW.” Most people in the time of the judges walked; donkeys were expensive. He also had thirty cities. Dr. K. Lawson Younger says that it seems that Jair and his sons were more concerned with building a power for themselves than with saving Israel. Dr. Dale Ralph Davis sums up Jair’s judgeship this way: “We need not begrudge Jair his success, his influence, his evidently peaceful administration. Yet surely we understand him. In all our ways there is this subtle urge to secure our position, to display our status, to extend our influence, to guarantee our recognition. Christ’s servants seldom care to be servants as they are called to be.”
When we seek to serve God and His kingdom, we often fall into the same temptation as Jair. We want recognition, we want power, we want security. We are not happy with serving; we want people to recognize how good we are at serving. We want a title; we want our name listed on the back of the bulletin, or a little plaque on the church office door, or a special listing in the church directory. How different this is from Christ, who downplayed His miracles and warned those He healed not to tell anyone. How different this is from Christ’s teaching to “not let your right hand know what your left is doing.”
Judges 10:6–16 serves as the typical introduction to a major judge. The people did evil in the sight of the LORD and He sent them trouble. But this is a much more detailed introduction than usual. The previous accounts usually just stated that they committed apostasy by worshipping this or that god. Here, Israel really commits apostasy. Instead of serving the Baals or the Asheroth as they did before, the people of Israel decided to worship buffet style, sampling a smorgasbord of the gods of everyone around them. Verse 6 has a whole list of idols, every possible god that Israel could find. They forsook the LORD, worshipping everything but Him. The Israelites were out of control when it came to idol worship. And so are we. Often, we try anything but the LORD. We save Him to be our last resort. We would rather rely on ourselves, our money, our charisma, our good looks, good grades, or good friends. We look to things like sex, drugs, worldly entertaininment, and alcohol to give us pleasure. It is not so much that every person has his own particular idol, but that every person has a whole host of idols. John Calvin was right when he said that the human heart is an idol factory, churning out god after god to take the place of the one true God.
The LORD answered this intense apostasy with intense punishment. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, a double oppression. The narrator uses vivid language, saying that these two nations “crushed and oppressed” the Israelites (other translations say “shattered” or “afflicted” and the Message says “bullied and battered”). For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites who lived beyond the Jordan (the tribal lands of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh), as well as crossing the Jordan to assault Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. Notice the irony here—Israel insisted on worshipping these other gods, and the nations who worshipped those gods came and oppressed them. So, Israel cried out to the LORD in their distress.
Instead of deliverance, the LORD came to them in verse 11 and told them to live consistently. If Israel insisted on worshipping other gods, then they should have cried out to them to deliver them when they got into binds like this. If they insisted on crying out to God every time they got into trouble, then they should worship Him in times of prosperity and peace. They should have served Him in the good times as well as in the bad. But the other gods were just too tempting. The worship of the LORD was just so boring and restrictive for the Israelites. All those rules and sacrifices really restricted the average Israelite from having a little fun. Baal and those other gods—they knew how to give their worshippers a good time. Their temples were filled with prostitutes; they let you do what you wanted to do and live as you wanted to live. There was none of that “do not commit adultery,” “do not covet” stuff with Baal and the other gods. So, when times were easy, Israel wanted to worship the fun gods. But in worshipping those gods, they missed out on the true blessings that come from the true God. God promised them true blessings, true peace. Not just temporal, earthly pleasures, but lasting spiritual blessings. After all, the Promised Land itself was only a picture of the true Promised Land in heaven.
But we, like the Israelites, find this way too easy to forget. Sure, we know that it is much better to look forward to heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy or thieves do not break in and steal, but it is so hard to live that way. We like the things of this world, the little pleasures. We are not content with what we have (I Timothy 6:6–10) and so often we go after other gods. When times are easy, we would much rather be found worshipping at the shrine of plenty, the temple of fame, or the synagogue of sex. It is only when the going gets rough that we remember to pray, read our Bibles, and act like Christians. Like the Israelites, we only live out our faith when we need help.
The Israelites seemed to respond to their affliction with true repentance, but it was too little too late. They were only sorry that they had gotten caught, not really repentant over their behavior. They know how to talk the talk; they can confess their sins like pros, but they were not really sorry for their sins. The LORD had become impatient with their behavior. God is not naïve nor is He soft. God is not Santa Claus, mercifully winking at sin. God is not a vending machine where you can insert repentance and automatically out comes a perfect solution to every problem. Israel assumed that every time things got bad, they could go to the LORD and He would instantly save them. This does not mean that God is not merciful. He is abundant in mercy, but also in justice. This is not true repentance. Dr. Davis puts it this way: “there is a difference between a prodigal son who comes to his senses and returns home and a prostitute who pleads for her husband’s security only until she finds someone else to take her on.” Given their track record, the people of Israel are a lot more similar to the prostitute than the prodigal son. We may be able to hide our motives from other humans, but God always sees the heart. He sees the wickedness and improper motives that exist in our hearts. We may be capable of going through the motions and worshipping God in insincere and superficial repentance, but God will not be manipulated.
So God let them go in their sin. He said “I will save you no more” in verse 13. Too often, we think that this response from God is just an Old Testament phenomenon. However, remember the story of Simon the magician in Acts 8. He thought that he could use the LORD for his own purposes (namely, to make a few bucks with the Holy Spirit). And what was God’s reaction? He did not send the Holy Spirit to Simon. If we insist on making God “safe” and emphasize His forgiveness to the point of forgetting His justice and hatred of sin, we run the risk of becoming like Israel or Simon, even though we are “New Testament Christians.” God is still the same God. To make Him something He is not is to worship someone other than the LORD.
Verses 15 and 16 are very interesting. Israel cried out to God, saying “We have sinned! Do to us whatever seems good to you, only please deliver us this time.” Verse 15 tells us that “they put away put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD, and He became impatient over the misery of Israel.” It is tempting to read this as a cause and effect. Israel finally came to their senses, repented, and then God relented. Their repentance changed the LORD’s mind and He decided to have compassion on them. However, Davis proposes two good reasons why this might not be the best interpretation of these verses. First, Israel’s previous repentances probably had also involved putting away the other gods for a time. The LORD’s complaint in verse 11–14 was not that Israel had failed to put away other gods, but that each time that He had saved them in the past, Israel had abandoned Him for the other gods, over and over again. So, the LORD’s compassion would not have been a result of their putting away of their gods. Secondly, the verse does not tie God’s compassion to Israel’s repentance but to her misery or suffering.
So what is the meaning of these two verses? “The LORD became impatient over the misery of Israel.” He could bear Israel’s suffering no longer; He became impatient with the misery of Israel. Israel’s hope did not rest in the sincerity of their repentance. Rather, the basis of Israel’s hope (and of ours) was in the mercy and love of the LORD. Even though they were sinful, He could not stand to see His people being bullied, bruised, and crushed. Of course, true repentance is important. I am not saying that you do not need to confess your sins and repent for them. But our hope must be in divine grace rather than in our own human repentance, no matter how sorrowful and true it is. God’s holiness demanded that He judge His people; yet at the same time, His heart moved Him to spare His people. Ultimately this conflict between grace and justice was solved on the cross. God poured out His full wrath against sin on Christ on the cross, effectively removing the penalty of our sin by placing it on Christ. In this magnificent event, God showed the full extent of His wrath against sin and the full measure of His love for His people.
So often, we think that God was severe and just in the Old Testament, and full of mercy and grace in the New. But here, in Judges 10 (which is in the Old Testament), we see a beautiful act of grace; God gave salvation to His people when they least deserved it.
In verse 17, the Ammonites came to trouble Israel again. So, the leaders of Gilead decided to go find themselves a savior, rather than crying out to the LORD. They made a deal, offering a kingship to whoever came and saved them from the Ammonites. You would think that they would have learned their lesson with Gideon and Abimelech—man-appointed kings just do not work. They decided, however, to take matters into their own hands and find their own deliverer. Dr. K. Lawson Younger calls them “irreligious opportunists.” They did not care about the true worship of the LORD. In fact, they usurp God’s role by seeking to raise up a deliverer for themselves.
Of course, God was sovereign over all of this. As mentioned above, He was gracious; He would send a judge to deliver them out of their misery. But the judge He sent them in chapter 11 is exactly the type of judge they deserved. A judge who was like them in every way, sin included.
Lesson 11: Points to Ponder
1. We so often focus on big names and famous people. Have there been any “minor” characters that God has used in your life to help you grow spiritually?
2. The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
Is it wrong to be successful? Do church leaders necessarily have to be paupers?
3. How can we become guilty of a smorgasbord of worship of false gods and worship styles?
4. Do we often assume God will forgive us? What does true repentance require of us? Is our hope for salvation in our repentance?
5. Discuss the justice of God and the grace of God. How did these come together at the cross of Calvary?
6. Why did the Israelites seem so reluctant to call upon the Lord, seeking deliverance through a king instead? How are we guilty of seeking deliverance in means other than the true God, such as through the government, personal wealth, etc.?
7. Why is it that mankind seeks deliverance by anyone or anything except God? What will be the result?