God’s Way Is the Best Way
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 2:20–3:11
When I was a youth pastor we took several groups to a camp in West Virginia. And on a couple of those trips, I had the privilege of going caving in 2 local and lightly used, but very extensive caves on a farmer’s private property.
I thought it was the coolest thing, but some people hated it. The cave was wet and muddy, and at certain points you had no choice but to crawl through the mud because the cave got very tight, and you had to crawl on your belly. The caves also scarred some people because there was no natural light, and the caves had all sorts of twists and turns. Without a guide, it would be really hard to find your way out.
Therefore, if you spent your time worrying about getting lost, or the cave collapsing, or some man-eating spider coming out of nowhere to eat you, it was terrifying. But if you trust your guide that he knows where he’s going and that you are completely safe, something terrifying becomes something fun and exciting.
And the same principle often applies to life in general. If you spend your life frustrated by the mud on your clothes and anticipating everything bad that could potentially happen, life is miserable. But if you trust the Lord to get you safely home, then suddenly life becomes an exciting adventure. I am so thankful that my life is in the hands of a wise, sovereign, and loving Father. I know that his will is always good and that he will accomplish it. Therefore, all I have to do is trust him and follow him.
But as simple as that is, we struggle to rest in God and obey his will. And this struggle is at the center of our text for today. On the one hand it demonstrates the great wisdom and love that stands behind God’s will, and on the other hand it illustrates our struggle to trust and obey. In the process it reminds us that God’s way is the best way, and we need to see that and strive to walk by faith (read).
There are 2 distinct sections to the passage. 2:20–3:6 concludes the theological introduction we started last week but didn’t have time to finish, and 3:7–11 tell the story of Israel’s first judge, Othniel. But both sections are united in declaring that God’s way is the best way. With that in mind, let’s dive into the first unit, which declares that…
I. God knows what he is doing (2:20–3:6).
Notice first that…
God purposely left enemies in the land (2:23–3:3). Verse 23 again takes us back to the time of Joshua. And in a surprising turn it says that God purposely chose not to allow Joshua to drive the Canaanites out of the land, even though God could have driven them out quickly had he wanted to.
Rather, v. 3 mentions several nations that God left in the land, and you can see on the map that they were distributed throughout the entire region, so all the tribes had to respond to this challenge. And if you know your Bible, you know that these nations will be an awful thorn in Israel’s side.
And from our limited perspective, we might think that it would be so much better if Joshua had eliminated them. Israel could have just settled in and prospered. And if these nations hadn’t been there to tempt them with idolatry, just maybe Israel would have remained faithful to him.
Don’t we think this way all the time? If I had a different job, I would be so much happier and godlier. Or if God would just remove this trial, I could do so much more for him. And we just have to remember that God knows far better than we do what is best. He may know that that trial is actually doing us more good than harm. In this context God knew (v. 1) that leaving the Canaanites was best because Israel needed to be tested in 2 ways. First…
God taught warfare to coming generations (v. 2). God’s original reason for leaving the Canaanites was that the next generations needed some resistance to learn warfare. God knew that they wouldn’t be tough enough to stand against foreign powers if they weren’t pushed.
Isn’t that typical? We tend to think that the best thing is always the most convenient thing for what I want right now. But God knows that the only way we can be ready for the really difficult trials is to first endure the small ones. Therefore, what is best is not always what is convenient. Praise the Lord that he always knows what is truly best and that he loves us enough to give us what we really need, not what we think we need. And then v. 4 mentions a 2nd way that God used the foreign nations to test Israel.
God tested Israel’s allegiance to himself (3:4, cf. 2:22). Specifically, v. 4 says God used them to test Israel’s allegiance to God and their obedience to his will. You might recall that God gave Abraham a similar test when he asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac. In both cases God wanted to reveal the hearts of his people. This was not because God needed to learn something he didn’t already know, because God already knows every detail of our hearts. Rather, God left the Canaanites so that Israel could see their own wickedness and their desperate need for change.
As a result, God could drive them to the light. And BTW, this is an important purpose of the entire OT. God gave Israel the Law, but he said very clearly through Moses and Joshua that Israel would fail to keep it, and we see time and time again that Israel always struggled to obey. Therefore, one of the main purposes of the Law and one of the central messages of Judges and of all the OT is that sinners always fall short of God’s standard.
Therefore, we need grace if we are ever going to enjoy a right standing with God, and we need grace if we are ever going to truly obey God’s will. Specifically, we need Christ, because He is the only one who perfectly kept the Law. And his death and resurrection is our only hope of being right with God and of living a truly godly live.
So if you have never come to Christ for salvation, understand that you are a sinner, and you can never do enough to earn salvation. You will always fail the test just like Israel did. But there is forgiveness and righteousness in Christ, and I would love to talk with you afterwards about how you can receive the new life that only Jesus provides.
And for those of us who are saved, we also need to understand that testing plays an important role in our lives. When life is cruising along, I can begin to think I am so spiritual and that I have this Christian thing all figured out. But when life gets difficult, it brings my sin to the surface, and it should drive me to the grace of God as my only hope of change. It’s a grace of God when he shows us these things, even if the process is painful.
Maybe God is testing you even now, and you just want it to go away. It’s hard, but know that God knows what he is doing, and he has a good purpose. So trust him and embrace his will, because God’s way is always the best way. So God left the Canaanites to test Israel, and notice in vv. 5–6 that…
Israel failed the test (vv. 5–6). Specifically Israel in 3 ways. First, they settled among the Canaanites. Rather than driving them out like God had said, Israel was content to settle among them. I’ve always found that interesting because you would think they would be eager to possess more But instead they were lazy and content to live among pagans.
Second, they intermarried with the Canaanites. This is another problem that God clearly anticipated. God said regarding the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7:3–4, “Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly.”
But Israel didn’t listen. They gave their daughters to pagan men, and they brought pagan women into their bedrooms. And since marriage is an intimate relationship, pagan marriages drastically affected Israel.
As is almost always the case, intermarriage didn’t lead to the salvation of many pagans; instead, it led Israel further from the Lord. Specifically v. 6 says that a 3rd way Israel failed the test is that they worshipped pagan gods. All those pagan marriages brought pagan gods into Israelite homes. And sinners did what sinners do. They ran toward the darkness rather than the light.
I said two weeks ago that one of the major themes of Judges is the danger of compromise. And we see that so clearly here. God says that a major factor in Israel’s downfall was mixed marriages with unbelievers. And so it needs to be said to all of our single adults and teens that one of Satan’s best tactics to destroy your faith is a romantic relationship with an unbeliever.
I’ve seen it too many times. I was a youth pastor for 9 years, and by the grace of God almost all of the teens we served are living for Christ, but a handful have walked away from the Lord, and for most them it began by dating an unbeliever. They craved that relationship, and they were influenced far more than they were an influence. And when they realized that they had to make a choice between this person and faithfulness to the Lord, the roots of that relationship had so penetrated their hearts that they wouldn’t walk away and instead they walked away from Christ.
To be fair, I know of people that got saved through “evangelistic dating,” but I know of a lot more tragedies. And the NT is clear that a believer must not marry an unbeliever, so don’t even start down that road, because once you give your heart to someone, it’s really hard to pull it back.
And for the rest of us we need to see that there are many other dangerous of ungodly influences. And certainly God doesn’t want us to hide from the world. We have to reach our world with the gospel. But we also need to recognize the powerful influence ungodly relationships can have on our own hearts, which are themselves prone to wander.
Therefore your head is buried in the sand if you think you can spend all of your time around ungodly influences and hardly any time with your church family and it won’t affect you. We need to guard our relationships very carefully, and we need to cling to each other. But Israel missed this, and they failed the test. As a result, vv. 20–22 say that…
God stopped driving out the Canaanites (2:20–22). The text doesn’t say specifically when God made this decree, but it clearly happened in response to the sin of the generations following Joshua’s death. They so rebelled against the Lord that he removed his hand of blessing.
And so God didn’t make things easier for them; he made them harder in order to drive them to see the wickedness of their rebellion and the emptiness of life without God. The Canaanite life looked so attractive to Israel, but it left them empty and broken.
As has been said many times, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” How we need to remember that when temptation stares us in the face. The world can look so enticing, but the pleasures of sin only last for a season.
And so these verses are very ominous and dark as they describe the removal of God’s hand of blessing. And yet, even in the darkness God hasn’t stopped working because v. 22 says God was working to bring his people back to himself. God is faithful even when we are not, and God always knows what he is doing. And we see that clearly in the story of Israel’s first judge Othniel. I’d like to summarize the message of this story as being…
II. God’s way is better than our way (vv. 7–11).
It’s helpful to recognize that v. 7 picks up the historical record that was left off in Judges 2:10, which said that after the death of Joshua’s generation, Israel quickly rebelled against the Lord. So now after the theological introduction with we are back at the very beginning of this period.
It’s also worth noting that the narrator gives us a pretty stripped down version of Othniel’s story. He covers ca. 50 years in only 5 verses. It seems that the narrator only gives us the basics because he wants to highlight the 4-step cycle that’s going to repeat itself over and over in Judges, which you can see on the screen. Therefore, it seems that the narrator is using this story to provide a paradigm of what is to follow multiple times in this book. With this in mind, let’s walk through each step of the cycle in this story beginning with…
Rebellion (v. 7): After Joshua’s death, Israel “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and, “They forgot the Lord their God.” I talked a lot last week about Israel’s covenant relationship with God, and you can see that God wants to emphasize this idea here. He emphasizes that they violated God’s will, not just some law, and they forgot “their God,” not just a God.
And folks, this covenant relationship is so important for understanding Judges and all of the OT and as well for understanding our relationship to God. Judges is clear that when Israel rebelled, it wasn’t just that they broke the law; they committed “harlotry” (2:17) against their covenant God. And as a Christian, it’s the same for me. When I sin, I’m not just breaking a law; I am being unfaithful to my Savior. We need to remember that as we study Judges and as we think about our own faith. Sin is serious.
And yet Israel committed harlotry and served “the Baals and Asherahs,” which I said last week were the popular gods of the Canaanites. Therefore, God responds in v. 8 with the 2nd phase of the cycle.
Retribution (v. 8): Notice that “the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel.” Again, that’s not the response of an indifferent judge; it’s the response of a faithful husband to the harlotry of his covenant wife. Though it should be said, that God is not throwing a temper tantrum; he is expressing righteous anger against wickedness.
As a result, he “sold” Israel “into the hand of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia.” Mesopotamia (map) is significant because it’s the homeland of Abraham, the father of Israel.” It’s also significant because Mesopotamia is far away, so this king is not a local enemy, like all the other oppressors in Judges. Rather, the fact that this king extended his reach from so far away means that he must have been very powerful. He probably ruled a region that extended toward Israel’s northeast border, so we can assume that he probably infiltrated the northeast region of Israel’s territory.
And this king’s name probably gives us a window into what kind of oppressor he would have been. His name literally means “Cushan the Doubly Wicked.” It makes you wonder what kind of mother he had to give him that name. Actually, it was probably a nickname that he earned through his evil behavior. This was not the guy you wanted oppressing you.
And yet because Israel served the Baals (v. 7), God know caused them to serve “Cushan the Doubly Wicked.” Again, end of sin wasn’t so great, and God was firmly but graciously driving this home to Israel so that they would see how much better it is to live under God’s blessing. And so Israel suffered, and this led to the 3rd stage of the cycle, which is…
Regret (v. 9a): Oftentimes when people talk about the cycle in Judges, they will call the 3rd stage repentance, but I chose “regret” intentionally, because it better represents what actually happened here and throughout Judges.
Notice that v. 9 simply says that Israel “cried out to the Lord.” This verb only describes a cry of pain. Anywhere in the OT that it describes actual repentance, the writer always adds additional language that specifies repentance. And so it pictures Israel as suffering under the evil oppression of Cushan the Doubly Wicked, and responding by crying “Help!” to the Lord. You could say that they weren’t sorry for their sin; they were only sorry they got caught.
To be fair, there was always a godly remnant that loved the Lord and would have expressed genuine repentance. And the fact that Israel would enjoy 40 years of rest after Othniel’s deliverance indicates that God brought some level of revival through Othniel. But this verse is not saying that the nation as a whole expressed true repentance; rather, it simply says that Israel cried out for help in their suffering. And being the gracious Father that he is, God responded with the 4th stage in the cycle, which I am going to call is…
Rescue (vv. 9b–11): Notice again God-centered perspective of the text. Ultimately it wasn’t Othniel who delivered Israel; no, “the Lord raised up a deliverer” or you could also say a savior.
And within the broader context of Judges, it’s important to recognize that Othniel is the ideal judge, because many of the judges to follow are not. God doesn’t say anything negative about him; instead, he has a lot of positive qualities. For one, he’s identified as Caleb’s younger brother, and that’s clearly a compliment, since Caleb had a long testimony of faithfulness to the Lord.
As well Judges 1:12–15 has already told us that Othniel is an able and motivated soldier. Othniel had proven himself in battle, and it’s also noteworthy that he married an Israelite. He had a pure home unlike so many of his peers who had married pagans.
As well, he was from the tribe of Judah, and God had said in chapter 1 that Judah was to lead Israel in battle. And most importantly, v. 10 says, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him.” God’s hand was on Othniel to give him a divine power to lead the nation.
As a result, he came from the south (map) (Debir) to fight in the northeast, which probably indicates a unity among the tribes that won’t exist later in the book. And God gave Othniel and Israel a resounding victory (v. 10).
Of course we’d like more details about the battle, but God doesn’t want us to get distracted from the main point. God gave victory. He graciously came to the aid of his people. Again, God’s way is better than our way.
And not only that, under Othniel’s godly leadership the land enjoyed 40 years of rest. God kept Israel’s enemies away, and they prospered. Life was good, because God is good, and God’s way is the best way. But then v. 11 ends with an ominous note. “Othniel, the son of Kenaz died.” And we can guess what will happen next. Despite the wonderful blessings Israel enjoyed under the hand of God, Israel will crave the world and stray from God.
And so our text for today has presented the way of God as often very difficult, but it is always good and wise, and so we are dumbfounded at how Israel falls time and time again into wickedness and sin. But as we are amazed at Israel’s foolishness, let’s not miss our own stupidity, because our sin is just as foolish and dumbfounding. It makes no sense.
Therefore, let’s be renewed in our focus on our good God. Let’s remember that God’s way is the best way even when it’s not easy. And let’s commit to live lives of faith and obedience.