God of the Storm
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 4:1–5:31
This morning we are going to study another incredible story from the Book of Judges. It’s such a great story that it’s recorded twice from 2 very different perspectives. Judges 4 tells the story of Deborah and Barak’s victory over the Canaanites in typical narrative fashion. But then Judges 5 follows with Deborah’s song, which again recounts and celebrates what God had done. She gives the “artist’s touch” to make this story memorable, because Israel needed to remember what God had done. Let’s begin by reading the regular version in Judges 4. Like all the stories in Judges, this story begins with some dark days. Verses 1–3 tell us that…
I. God raised up an intimidating enemy (4:1–3)
Last week we studied Judges 3 and the daring, courageous leadership of Ehud. And under his godly leadership, Israel enjoyed revival and peace. But 4:1 tells us that after Ehud’s death Israel again rejected the Lord and “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
As a result “The Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan.” We are going to see that Jabin was a powerful king, but don’t miss the fact that the Lord ultimately propped him up. He did so because he loved his people too much forsake them as they wandered down a path of rebellion and destruction. Therefore he demonstrated some very tough but necessary love in the form of Jabin’s oppression.
Verse 2 tells us that Jabin reigned in Hazor, which as you can see on the map, is in northern Israel in the region of Naphtali. Joshua 11 tells us that Joshua had defeated a Jabin in Hazor once already and burned the city to the ground. But it seems that Naphtali failed to defend its land and a second Jabin arose and rebuilt it.
And he formed a coalition with Sisera (v. 2), who served as Jabin’s general but probably also as king of Harosheth Hagoyim. We don’t know for certain where this city was, but based on where the battle will eventually take place, it was probably somewhere in the region of Megiddo in the fertile plains along the Kishon River (Canaanite Nation Map). And so Jabin was probably the head of a coalition of Canaanite kings who maintained a strong foothold in the Promised Land.
And this coalition built a powerful army. Verse 3 says that Jabin had 900 iron chariots. That’s a big deal because chariots were the armored tanks of the ancient world. You can imagine what happens when a line of chariots charges into a line of foot soldiers. They are going to flatten a lot of men before they can put up any sort of fight.
And to make matters worse, the Canaanites were especially cruel and evil. Verse 3 says they “harshly oppressed the children of Israel.” That’s much stronger language than is used of Eglon or Cushan the Doubly Wicked.
And to give you an idea of how cruel they were notice 5:30. These are the imaginary words of Sisera’s mom as she anxiously waits for him to return after the battle. When he delays his own mother comforts herself in the idea that Canaanites have won the battle and every soldier is enjoying “a girl or two” from among the Israelite captives. I think we all understand what that means. The Canaanites were cruel, evil people who absolutely deserve the wrath God pours out on them later in the story.
And Israel suffered for 20 years under this cruelty (5:6–8). The Canaanites cut off Israel’s trade, stopping the necessary movement of food and goods. The villagers were afraid to go out and farm their fields, so they starved in secret. There was also spiritual famine as Israel worshipped other gods. But there was nothing they could do about it because they had hardly any shields and spears. It was a dark and difficult time, but after 20 years, they “cried out to the Lord” (v. 3), and graciously…
II. God provided a surprising deliverer (4:4–11).
This section introduces us to 3 central characters. Notice first…
Deborah’s Strength (vv. 4–5): Women are going to play a very important role in this story, and that all begins with Deborah. She was a godly woman who enjoyed the hand of God on her life. She is a prophet of the Lord, and we see her passion to teach the ways of God Deborah’s song she composes. She was also a courageous leader, who refused to shrink in the face of Canaanite intimidation.
And v. 5 states that she judged Israel from under a palm tree in the mountains of Ephraim (map). And based on the fact that she will exercise her authority far into the northern regions of Israel, we can assume she had earned a lot of authority over multiple tribes.
It’s interesting that several commentators make a big point out of how unusual it was for a woman to have such authority in a strongly male-dominant society. And they argue that her rise says more about the lack of male leadership than it does about Deborah’s ability. And it is true that the men in Israel left a leadership void. Barak for one is not courageous manly leader Israel needs, but Deborah was still an incredible woman. And God makes a statement about how he values women by how he describes her character in this story. And so Deborah was a strong, godly woman, and that contrasts with…
Barak’s Weakness (vv. 6–10): Verse 6 tells us that Deborah responds to Jabin’s cruel oppression by calling Barak to come meet her. He is from Kedesh in Naphtali (map), which is located north of Hazor in Naphtali’s inheritance. Therefore, he was from a region that was signficantly affected by Canaanite oppression. I’m sure that he had felt the pains of that oppression, and that he despised the Canaanites. Since he probably had military experience, it’s possible that he had even led a band of men in trying to defend Israel. And so in the grand scheme of things Barak is no slouch, but he doesn’t measure up to the courage and conviction of Deborah.
And yet Deborah calls Barak to her, and in vv. 6–7 she relays a pretty significant prophetic word. After 20 years of suffering, God is ready to fight for his people. He tells Barak to gather an army of 10,000 soldiers at Mt. Tabor, and God says that he will draw out Sisera, his 900 chariots, and his many foot soldiers against them. And then God promises, “I will deliver him into your hand.”
From a divine perspective, that’s a pretty exciting promise. God just said that he is going to destroy the Canaanites! That’s exactly what Barak had probably prayed for and longed for, so he jumped up and down and said, “Yippee” and ran off to do what God had said.
Not quite, because the human perspective wasn’t so grand. Barak thought, “You want me to do what? You want me to attack a massive, well-armed Canaanite army that has 900 iron chariots with ten thousand, untrained, lightly armed foot soldiers? That’s suicide.” So he gives Deborah a condition (v. 8). I will only go if you go with me.
And on the one hand, I can sympathize with Barak. God was asking him to take a huge step of faith, because without God’s help this was a suicide mission. The chariots would crush Barak and his men. But Deborah wasn’t so sympathetic. She knew that 900 chariots are nothing for God, and she states in v. 9 that because of Barak’s lack of faith, the glory for victory would go to a woman, not to Barak.
Barak should have just trusted the Lord, obeyed his will, and watched God work. But he was not sure about stepping out into a situation he could not control, and we’ve all been there haven’t we. We want to feel like we can fix our own problems, and we are very uncomfortable just resting in God’s sovereign might to do what he alone can do.
This is probably one of the greatest hindrances to people receiving the gospel. They would rather feel like they are doing something to earn God’s favor than just resting in the grace that Jesus provides. And many Christians have that same struggle. They always feel a little insecure about their standing with God because they want to do something to maintain God’s love rather than just resting in the arms of their Father. And of course, we feel this struggle all the time as we face the cares of life. We hate it when a trial arises that we can’t fix (e.g., a rebellious adult child, a broken relationship, serious illness), and we just have to wait on God.
That’s why, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5). One of the most fundamental human lessons we have to learn is this. “God is the Lord; I am not. And I must humbly trust him for salvation, for sanctifying grace, and for direction and strength through every challenge of life. I have to trust him to do what only he can do.”
But Barak still had a ways to go, so Deborah graciously agreed to his stipulation. And Barak went home, and recruited 10,000 soldiers, which (BTW) is pretty impressive. It would have taken a lot of faith for these men to follow God’s battle plan, but Barak effectively rallied the men to follow. And then v. 11 introduces us to a 3rd Notice…
Heber’s Compromise (v. 11): The narrator tells us that Heber is a Kenite, or member of the descendants of Moses’s father-in-law. Therefore, he wasn’t an Israelite, but many of the Kenites had come to the Promised Land with Israel and had settled in the south. But for whatever reason Heber “separated himself…and pitched his tent…at Zaanaim, which is beside Kedesh” (map). Therefore, he is in the far north, and v. 17 says that he had betrayed Israel by making a treaty with Jabin. And so with the characters, and God’s promise in place, vv. 11–24 record the climactic events of the story as…
III. God provided a miraculous deliverance (vv. 11–24).
God gives an incredible deliverance in 3 stages. First…
God destroyed the Canaanite army (vv. 12–16). With v. 12 the scene shifts to the battlefield. Deborah and Barak have gathered 10,000 Israelite soldiers on Mt. Tabor (map), which is in the region where Issachar, Naphtali, and Zebulun meet. And again, it’s a ragged crew. They have little if any military training and very few military weapons. But they believe in the power of God, and so they are there to fight for Israel and to see what God will do.
And as God said would happen, Sisera hears that the Jews have gathered, and he’s probably excited to finally have a battle with these weaklings. So he rounds up (v. 13) “all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people who were with him.” And they rally in the plains along the Kishon River. Imagine Israel looking down from Mt. Tabor at this incredible force. Excuse the movie reference, but there they stand like the Riders of Rohan looking down at a sea of orcs. It was an overwhelming sight.
But then God comes marching onto the scene. Notice how Deborah describes God’s hand in 5:3–5. God is pictured as marching up from Sinai. As God marches, “The earth trembled” and notice that with him comes a torrential downpour of rain causing floodwaters roll onto the scene.
And this is a very important detail, because the battle probably happened in the dry summer season. The Canaanites are waiting in in the dried out Kishon River bed with their chariots and all their heavy armor. It’s a beautiful sunny day, when suddenly black clouds come rolling in. Everything gets dark, and the clouds begin to dump massive amounts of rain.
And from their perch on Mt. Tabor, Deborah, Barak, and the Israelites see the hand of God at work. Notice Deborah’s rallying cry in 14. The Israelites charge down the mountain as the ground becomes softer and softer and as the floodwaters begin to fill the riverbed.
And suddenly, Sisera’s chariots go from being a lightning fast, unbeatable force to being sitting ducks trudging through the mud. All that iron weight sinks their wheels deep into the mud, and the horses struggle to pull them. And God continues to fight for Israel. Verse 15 says, “The Lord routed Sisera.” Notice as well the poetic description of the war in 5:19–22.
Sisera panics, and he commands his men to retreat west toward home, but the chariots are stuck in the mud and the floodwaters continue to rise, and the Israelites absolutely overwhelm them. Then we see Sisera’s true colors. Rather than fighting to the death with his men, he abandons his chariot and sneaks away on foot.
But Barak continues to chase the Canaanite army as they try to escape. But God gives a complete victory. Israel destroys the entire Canaanite force. What a stunning victory and what a mighty demonstration of God’s power! We serve a mighty God, and the nations are but a drop in the bucket compared to his glory. But of course, one soldier remains, and God has reserved him for a very unlikely hero. Notice in vv. 17–22…
God destroyed Sisera (vv. 17–22). Again, Sisera took off on foot and headed north toward Hazor. And when he got tired he stopped at Heber’s tent, because (v. 17) Heber had made a treaty with Jabin and Sisera. However, Heber is apparently not home, so his wife Yael went out to meet him, which was pretty unfortunate for Sisera because for reasons not given in the text, she was loyal to Israel, not to Sisera.
And Yael quickly hatches a daring plan to kill Sisera that is along lines of what Ehud hatched in chapter 3. Like Ehud, her heart had to be racing, because she is alone with a highly skilled military general. If he suspects her plans, she is a dead woman. But Yael acts like a cool cat and goes to work making Sisera feel safe and secure.
She invites him inside, and covers him with a blanket. When Sisera asks for some water, she goes above and beyond by bringing him a skin of milk. And notice that additional comment in 5:25. She brought him yoghurt, which would have tasted very good to an exhausted soldier, and she brought it in a fancy bowl. She presented herself as an eager servant and showed no signs of her assassination plot.
And Sisera buys it hook, line, and sinker. He feels so secure that he asks Yael to watch the door, and he falls into a deep, deep sleep. And once he is out, Yael grabs a hammer and a tent stake probably because she was very used to these tools. It was a woman’s job in nomadic families to set up the tents, so she was very used to pounding in stakes.
And then she knelt over Sisera’s head and placed the stake up to his temple. I imagine that she glanced down at Sisera’s eyes to see if there was any movement. Then she raised the hammer knowing that she needed one precise blow. And then she struck the stake with all her might and drove it into the ground (5:26–27). God had utterly humiliated Sisera as he lay helplessly dead between the legs of a woman.
And folks we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for this cruel, evil man, because notice the taunt song the follows in (5:28–30). This was an evil man who joyfully raped women and stole necessary goods. Therefore, Yael engages in a perfectly appropriate act of war against an enemy of God. God gave Sisera what he deserved. God will always be faithful in bringing justice.
But shortly thereafter Barak arrived, and Yael brought him inside to see Sisera. It had to be a moment of mixed emotion for Barak. I’m sure he rejoiced that Sisera was dead. Israel had won! But he also grieved as he remembered Deborah’s prophecy. This was supposed to be his glorious kill, but because of his lack of faith, the glory went to Yael for her courageous, daring step of faith. He probably wondered what could have been had he just trusted the Lord. And so the army is dead, Sisera is dead, and then the 3rd stage of the deliverance is that…
God destroyed Jabin (vv. 23–24). These verses pull the story together, first by reflecting on the incredible victory God gave on that fateful day. And then v. 24 adds that with the back of the Canaanite coalition unrepairably broken, the Israelites progressively overcame the Canaanites until they retook Hazor and killed Jabin. And from what we know, these Northern Canaanites never again posed a great threat. God gave his people a great victory. So in light of all this, what does God want to teach us?
IV. What’s the Point?
I’d like to conclude with 4 applications. First…
God is the sovereign Lord who deserves our praise. I’d like to reread 5:1–5. Folks, our God is mighty. Isaiah 40:15, 17 state, “Behold, the nations areas a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing…All nations before Him are as nothing,
and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless.” Folks, there is no military force, political leader, or social movement that can stand against him. And one day, he will destroy all evil. He will reconcile all of creation to himself, and he will reign in righteousness and glory. When you get frustrated and overwhelmed by the evil of our world, remember that God is on the throne.
And then praise him for his mighty deeds. Deborah wrote this song because she wanted Israel to never forget what God had done. It’s so important that we also recognize God’s mighty works in our lives, that we recount them to our kids and to each other, and that we praise him. It’s so easy to dwell on all that is wrong; let’s make sure that we instead remember all God has done.
God loves to glorify himself by using the weak (i.e., a weak Israelite army) and unexpected (Deborah and Jael). We see this everywhere in Scripture don’t we? Time and time again, God glorifies himself by using means that we would never expect, so that we clearly see his grace and glory.
Of course nowhere is this clearer than in the humble cross of Christ. God used a rugged instrument of shame and what appeared to be the humiliating death of a traitor, to save us from judgment and to crush the head of Satan. When you look at the cross, you can’t glorify us. You can only glorify the amazing wisdom, love, and grace of God.
And then God continues to glorify himself by using weak vessels like us. 1 Corinthians 1:27 says of us, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.” We are “foolish things,” but praise the Lord that we get to bring glory to God as trophies of his grace. As such, let’s resist the obsession of our culture with celebrity and show. God loves the humble, and we should too.
Believe God’s promises. We all know that trusting God always makes sense, but actually doing it is not always easy. And a big part of this story is Barak’s struggle to believe what God had said. Folks, it is so important that we intentionally live our lives with our eyes toward heaven and the glory of God. You don’t have to do any work to have an earthly perspective, but you have to discipline yourself to consistently see the greatness and faithfulness of God. And so see him, see all that he has promised in his Word. He is always faithful. He is always good. He only gives good gifts, and he will bring us to glory. Believe him, and then walk by faith.
Unite in pursing God’s purposes (5:12–18). I find it fascinating that right in the middle of her song Deborah praises the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali for banding with each other to fight. She also calls out Reuben, Gilead (Gad), Dan, and Asher for not joining their brothers in battle. It seems these 4 tribes were unaffected by the Canaanites, and so they said, “It’s not our problem,” and they stayed home.
Deborah understood that God’s people need to stand for each other against their foes. And the same is true of us. Satan is too strong for us to selfishly turn a blind eye to each other. We need each other. So let’s stand together in pursuing the purposes of God and anticipate how our great God will demonstrate his power and grace.